John 11:4 reveals the reason for Lazarus’ death when it says, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
The words “glory” and “honor” synonymously describe a single concept of conformity to the key values of one’s social group. When our friends and family value frugality, we receive praise for the wise use of our money. Finding a piece of designer clothing at the thrift store becomes a tale of adventure and discovery for someone who closely monitors their resources. Who, after all, would pay full price for clothes?! Well, someone in a different social group who has a different set of values. Perhaps the other group values matching the latest trends over the careful use of money. When this group shares the story of retail conquest it involves finding something new and hip without concern for the cost.
David DaSilva describes the focus on honor this way: “While the powerful and the masses, the philosophers and the Jews, the pagans and the Christians all regarded honor and dishonor as their primary axis of value, each group would fill out the picture of what constituted honorable behavior or character in terms of its own distinctive set of beliefs and values, and would evaluate people both inside and outside the group accordingly.”
First-century Jewish culture valued conformity to the Law as honorable. Anyone who scrupulously obeyed the legal requirements of Scripture received admiration, while any deviance from the Law earned shame. Those folks who exceeded the demands of Scripture were especially honored for going beyond their duty, with the Pharisees providing a key example of precise obedience. Even though the Jews agreed about obedience to the Law, there remained plenty of room for doctrinal disagreement. First-century Jews disagreed about whether there was or was not a resurrection of the dead. Many of the common people and the Pharisees believed in it, while many of the upper classes (including some priests) did not.
Lazarus’ death is an opportunity for Jesus to demonstrate his power over death and ability to resurrect his followers. In 11:24, Martha says: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Martha misunderstands Jesus’ role as “the resurrection and the life” in v. 25. She believed that her brother would live again, but she doesn’t fully grasp Jesus’ role as the source of resurrection and life. When Jesus resurrects Lazarus publicly, in broad daylight, he wins “honor” over his opponents who are trying to discredit his ministry.
And that conflict has persisted for a long time. Jesus resurrected Lazarus probably around 31-32 a.d. and then John wrote about it around 90 a.d. The story of Lazarus’ resurrection has been around for over 50 years! Lazarus, his sisters, and the Jews who witnessed his return were able to give eyewitness testimony (and thus, honor) to God and to Jesus as the source of resurrection and life. The followers of Jesus, then and now, value the resurrection as our collective hope for the future. Jesus provided an example of his power over death by the resurrection of Lazarus.
When we hear the story of Lazarus with modern ears, it sounds a little like self-promotion, but when we understand the importance of honor and shame in the ancient world, we see that Jesus receives honor because he deserves it.