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The Breath of Life

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Readings: John 11:1-45, Ezekiel 37:1-14, and Romans 8:6-11.

The Resurrection of Lazarus

Jesus has very strange and intriguing encounters with women in John’s gospel. One of these encounters is in John 12. It’s evening, the oil lanterns are flickering, and there’s light chitter-chatter of men reclining together at a meal. There is a woman who serves them dinner, and her brother is one of those reclining. She also has a sister who midway through dinner enters the room. She stands there by the entrance. The conversation stops. The look on her face tells a thousand words. In her hands is half a liter of pure nard, which is an extremely expensive luxurious fragrant oil from India. It’s worth about a year’s salary for the average worker. Mary locks her gaze upon her friend and redeemer. Tiers of joy run down her cheeks. Jesus acknowledges her with a gentle nod. She opens the jar of oil and everyone in the room smells the exquisite fragrance as it fills the room’s atmosphere. She pours it on Jesus’s head, anointing him with it (Matt 26:7 and Mark 14:3). There was so much fragrant oil that she anoints his feet as well. In this culture, attending to the feet of another person was the work of a servant, but not for Mary. With extraordinary humility and devotion, she unbinds her hair which women of the time rarely did in public and wipes Jesus’s feet with it (John 2:1–3).

I am the Resurrection

If this story is not strange enough, there is an unimaginable backstory to all of this just a few verses before that reveals to us why her devotion to Jesus is so extravagant. Now, Mary lived in a small village just southeast of Jerusalem called, Bethany, with her sister and brother. The three of them were very dear friends of Jesus.

Just days before Mary anointed Jesus, her brother fell ill and she and her sister sent for their friend, Jesus. The call was urgent. They thought, “Maybe Jesus could do something and heal their brother, Lazarus.” News eventually reached Jesus, and he shrugs off the request nonchalantly, saying, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4b; NIV). Jesus seems to dawdle, paying disregard to the urgency of the call to come quickly. He stays where he was lodging for another two days. Eventually, he tells his disciples to pack up and head with him back to Judea, the very place where the Jews tried to stone him the last time he was there. Understandably, Jesus’s disciples try to discourage him from going. Finally, he breaks the news, “Our friend, Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” (v. 11).

With crystal clear logic, Jesus’s disciples said, “well if he is sleeping, he will wake up when he is better.” “No, you don’t understand. Lazarus is dead! And I am glad I was not there, because I want you to see who I truly am. Now, let us go to him.” (vv. 14–15; paraphrased). One of his disciples, Thomas, pipes up sarcastically saying to the others, “Very well, let us also go so that we too may die with him.” (v. 16; paraphrased).

So, Jesus and his company arrive in Bethany, and they hear that Lazarus was already dead and his corpse has been in a sealed tomb for four days. In biblical times it was believed that a person’s soul would hang around their dead body hoping that it could re-enter it, but after three days it would give up and depart. And so, without the medical advancements of today, if you were dead for three days, you were pronounced dead with no hope of resuscitation.

Hearing that Jesus is not far off, Martha, Mary’s sister goes out to meet Jesus as soon as she heard that he was nearby. Imagine the frustration and disappointment in her voice, “If you had come when we called you, our brother would be alive.” (John 11:21; paraphrased). It was the countenance of her Messiah, which gave her a spark of hope when she says, “But I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him, despite this situation.” (v. 22; paraphrased). And with calm confidence, Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” (v. 23b). Martha, not quite getting what Jesus had said, responds, “yes, I know, Lazarus will rise to live again on the last day.” (v. 24; paraphrased).

Expecting Jesus to agree with her theological insight, he instead makes the most powerful proclamation uttered by any man, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (v. 25b; Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ἀνάστασις καὶ ἡ ζωή). Ἐγώ εἰμι, Greek for “I am”. Where have we heard that before? God gives Moses his name, Yahweh, “I am who I am.” In the ancient Greek translation (LXX) it’s, Ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, meaning, “I am the being.” It’s not a great translation but the first part, I am (Ἐγώ εἰμι) is quite straightforward. In John’s Gospel, there are what we call the seven “I am” sayings, they are:

I am the bread of life (6:35)

I am the light of the world (8:12)

I am the door (10:7)

I am the good shepherd (10:11, 14)

I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)

I am the way the truth and the life (14:6)

I am the true vine (15:1)

It’s seven “I am” sayings because it’s the number of completeness and perfection in Jewish thought. And more than that, Jesus identifies himself as God by using “I am” (Ἐγώ εἰμι). If you were a Jew in Jesus’s audience, you would not have missed it. But Jesus does not only have the power to resurrect and give life, no it’s more than that, he is the resurrection and the life. If someone tells you, “I am the resurrection and the life” they are utterly insane unless they prove otherwise. And as if this wasn’t enough, Jesus pushes this further, “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live by believing in me will never die.” (John 1:25–26; paraphrased). He asked Martha whether she believed this. She replied, “Yes, Lord. … I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (v. 27). Immediately she left to call her sister, Mary.

Together, Mary and Martha find Jesus. Mary falls at Jesus’s feet and cries out, “If you had come earlier when we called you, Lazarus would be alive.” (John 1:32; paraphrased). She begins to weep for the loss of her brother, as do the Jews who had come along with her. Jesus feels their sorrow and is overwhelmed with emotion. He asks where Lazarus was laid, and so they take him to his tomb.

Seeing the tomb, Jesus weeps with heartfelt sorrow because his friend, Lazarus, had died and his other friends were experiencing profound grief. Jesus shows us that he shares in the sorrow and pain of others in the face of suffering and loss. In the same way, he does not feel indifferent to the reality of our own pain and sorrow.

Here, Jesus’s sadness is mixed with indignant anger at death. Yet, he also finds himself in awe of God’s power which he knows will flow through him in a moment for the ultimate messianic sign in John’s Gospel. A sign that will show his victory over death and anticipates his resurrection.

The Jews noticed how much Jesus loved his friend Lazarus through his tears. Some Jews accused him of being able to heal a blind man, but unable to restore the health of a sick man. Little did they know that he was about to do something beyond their wildest imagination.

Still, filled with emotion, Jesus approached the tomb and instructed for the stone to be rolled away. Martha reminds Jesus, “Lazarus has been dead for four days; it’s going to stink!” “Never mind that!” Jesus reminds her, “if you believe, you will see the glory of God.” (John 11:38–40; paraphrased). And then Jesus looks up to the heavens and prays to his Father. After this, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (vv. 43b)


No one moved. What now? Imagine how this would have seemed more than just a little awkward and disrespectful. Suddenly the bystanders hear scuffling from within the dark tomb. A dead man comes out still wrapped in burial linen. Jesus told them to help take his grave clothes off and let him go.

He approaches Jesus. With boundless joy, Jesus laughs, “Lazarus, my dear friend.” You can imagine the embrace. Lazarus’s sisters are overjoyed, they have their brother back. Many Jews who came to visit Mary and witnessed what Jesus had done that day, put their faith in Jesus (John 11:45). In a way, one might say that they were resurrected too, to new life as they began to believe and follow Jesus. It’s not surprising then that Mary, in profound gratitude, anoints her Lord with her most prized fragrant oil.

This wonderful miracle shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the resurrection and the life. Resurrection and eternal life are personified in the person of Jesus Christ, and in him only. And so he calls us, like Mary and Martha, to put our trust in him, to believe in him. But it goes deeper than that, he wants us to have a relationship with him and to be united in him. Even now, while we might not be bodily resurrected yet, we can experience the resurrection power of Christ. This is what the celebration of Easter is all about!

Resurrecting Dry Bones

When I think of resurrection in the Old Testament, one of the passages I think of is Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1–14. Here, God is speaking to specific people at a different time, namely the Israelites who went into Babylonian exile in 586 BC. This was a message of hope and encouragement to the exiles where God promised he would restore his people to their land and give them new life through his spirit. The vision was meant to anticipate God’s power to bring new life from death, suffering, and sorrow, and renew the hope of his people that they may once again put their faith in him as their God. After about 50 years since the exile, Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the dry bones and the restoration of God’s people was fulfilled when Cyrus, the Persian king allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. That is the meaning of this passage, and yet it also provides wonderful imagery for the resurrection. In the vision, God places Ezekiel in a valley covered with dry bones. Like a landscape long forgotten after an aftermath of a great battle, the result of the judgment mentioned in Ezekiel 6.

God asks the prophet, “Can these bones live?” To which he responds, “only you know, Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:3). And so, the Lord’s command comes forth through Ezekiel, “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” (vv. 4b­–6). Suddenly, the bones begin to rattle and move as they connect until eventually there were fully formed skeletons. Tendons and flesh begin to grow, and skin begins to cover these bodies as they lay there lifeless. Yet these corpses were dead, they had no breath in them.

The question posed to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” illustrates the utter helplessness of God’s people in exile. Yet it also anticipates the breath of God. The Hebrew word used here is רוּחַ (ruach), which also means wind or spirit. It’s translated several times in this passage as “spirit.” It’s the same Spirit we see active in God’s creative work in creation, and the creation of man, “… the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7).

And so, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy again: Proclaim, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.” (Ezekiel 37:9b). And the breath of life entered them, and they stood up as if they were a large army.

These were the people of Israel who felt cut off from the Lord and who had lost all hope. And so, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy a third time, “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (Ezekiel 37:12b–14).

Remember Jesus raising Lazarus to life. That was not a vision, it was a historic event. Jesus, the Son of God stands there before the tomb of a dead man, filled with the power and authority of God, and does not prophesy but with a thundering voice commands new life, as if he is God, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43b). It’s one thing to prophesy new life, but it’s quite another to bring someone back from the dead after four days! Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

The Breath of Life for Believers

How then might all of this apply to us today? The Apostle Paul offers us guidance in Romans 8:6–11. He explains that a person’s mind that is controlled by the flesh is hostile towards God and his goodness, it is fleshly with selfish desires and a disregard for God’s will. Such a mind is dead because it is held in bondage to the power of Sin. It’s not that it leads to death, no, that’s not what he is saying, Paul, says it is death! On the other hand, the mind that submits itself to the direction, inspiration, and governing of the Holy Spirit is life and peace. Again, think of that breath or Spirit of God, that רוּחַ (ruach) that entered those dry bones and brought about new life.

Paul reminds us that we are not of the flesh, but instead, we are “in the realm of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 8:9). However, this is only true if the Spirit of God dwells within us. This is because he has breathed his life into us. And if you do not have this Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to him. If you do not have his Spirit in you, ask him for it and you can be assured that he will breathe life into your soul—Jesus promises this to us in Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” The context is specifically about asking for the Spirit, the breath of life.

It is the Holy Spirit, Jesus’s gift to his church that gives us life, not because we deserve it, or because we are righteous, but he gives it to us because of his righteousness. And if this very same Spirit of Jesus Christ who raised him from the dead lives in us, you can be confident that he too will rise us from the dead. It is rising from spiritual death, which is true, but Paul makes it clear he is speaking about a physical resurrection, “he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” (Romans 8:11b). So often we think that Jesus has come to save our souls. That is only half of it. Jesus, rose in resurrection life to save both our souls and our bodies, to bring new life in its fullness. Think back to Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones in the valley and how they became enfleshed and received the breath of life. Although the context, as I mentioned, is about the Jews, it is a classic picture of what God does for us through the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ and his righteousness which is now ours.

Concluding Thoughts

When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he truly meant it. We saw this in the raising of Lazarus, and yet there is an even greater resurrection waiting for us, not a resuscitation, like Lazarus, but a resurrection into glorified bodies, as we will see in Jesus’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. Jesus has utterly conquered death, and he at this present moment exists in physical form. He is not some disembodied spirit. If you do not believe that Jesus was resurrected bodily and that we too will rise to new life physically, all Easter is, is but a long weekend. And so, I say to you, Jesus, the Son of God, is the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in him will live, even though you die; and if you live by believing in him you will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25–26).

*Image by Marek Piwnicki; available here:


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