In This Chapter
A Quick Dip
Praying for Those with Physical Needs
In Context (John 11)
Another Thank You
What About Me?
Therefore they took away the stone from where the dead man was laid. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me at this moment in time. Because of our intimate relationship, I know that you are always listening to me, but I have spoken these words for the benefit of the crowd who is standing here so that they may believe that you sent me.”
Having said this, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Then the man who had been dead came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of linen and a cloth wrapped around his face.
A Quick Dip1
Heard/always listening: These two verbs found in our passage are the same root word in the Greek language. Let me explain why I have translated them differently. In order to understand Jesus’ prayer in this passage, it helps to know a little something about Greek verbs. The verb that I translate as heard is known as an “aorist” verb. The aorist is used in the Greek to indicate something that has happened once. It is like a snapshot, an action frozen in time. Jesus is saying, “I thank you that you have heard me at this one moment in time.”
The word listening, however, is a “progressive action” verb. A progressive verb indicates an action in progress. It is like a video, an action that continues to move across the screen. Jesus is saying here, “I know that you are constantly listening to me.” God has heard Jesus at this one moment in time because God is always listening to Jesus. This hearing, both right now and for always, expresses the deep and abiding connection that Jesus and God enjoy with one another.
Because of our intimate relationship, I know: In this passage, knowing means possessing a knowledge that is based on one’s own observations. This is not factual knowledge learned from a third source (a computer, a newspaper, another person) but is instead personal, experienced, firsthand knowledge. Knowing something about another person, in this sense, comes only through an intimate relationship with that person.
Believe: In John’s Gospel, to believe means to receive and accept the message that Jesus is the Son of God who was sent into the world on a divine mission to bring eternal life to all those who will put their trust in him. Believing means that one is completely convinced of the absolute truth of this message. There is no doubt, no wavering, no uncertainty in those who truly believe.
Sent: This word, when applied to Jesus in John’s Gospel, means to be sent away from God on a divine mission. Jesus is the One Sent. This implies that God, the Sender, stands behind both Jesus’ words and his actions.
- What do you say when you pray for people who are sick or dying? How did Jesus pray for such people?
- What do you know about God from your own personal experience? Do your prayers reflect this knowledge?
- Do you sometimes feel as though God has not heard your prayer, or do you feel as though God is always listening to you?
- Do you believe that Jesus was sent by God on a divine mission as Savior to the world? What about the people around you? What do they believe?
Praying for Those with Physical Needs
Just the other day, my sister-in-law was telling me about a cousin who has battled cancer since high school and who had again taken a turn for the worse. “Scott is so tired,” my sister said, “He told me he’s just tired of fighting. For years I’ve prayed for God to make him better, to ease his pain, for treatments to work. I don’t think Scott wants that anymore. Now I don’t know what to pray.”
It was a disturbing conversation, a conversation that prompted me to ask: How did Jesus pray for the sick and dying? This question compelled me to take a trip through the Gospels and examine every passage where Jesus encountered persons with physical needs. I found that Jesus encountered many such people; Jesus healed many such people. However, only in one passage did Jesus pray before he performed his miraculous healing. This is the prayer that we are examining in this chapter: the prayer preceding the resurrection of Lazarus.
In Context (John 11)
In this passage from John’s Gospel, we find Jesus near the end of his earthly ministry. The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is at a fevered pitch. On his last trip to Jerusalem, Jesus had healed a man born blind. (It was the Sabbath, making the healing illegal.) Those who witnessed the healing could not decide if this miracle was a sign that Jesus was indeed the Son of God or a man possessed by the devil. They finally took up stones to kill him, but Jesus escaped across the Jordan.
It is during this dangerous time that Jesus’ friend Lazarus falls ill. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live just two miles outside of Jerusalem in the village of Bethany. The text says that Jesus loved this family very much and had often visited their home. When Jesus receives word of Lazarus’s illness, he tells his followers that this illness is part of God’s divine plan. He then intentionally delays returning to Bethany. After two days, Jesus reveals to the disciples that Lazarus has died, and the time has come for him to make the journey to see his friends. The disciples hesitate, knowing the danger of going near Jerusalem again, but they courageously follow Jesus to Bethany.
Let us back up for a moment and step into Martha’s sandals. We remember Martha — the woman who fussed and fretted over the dinner party for Jesus. Now imagine yourself as Martha: your brother suddenly falls ill and as you buzz about him with cool cloths and chicken soup, you start to worry. Lazarus is not getting better; in fact he is getting worse. You begin consulting every doctor you can find; you try every cure. Even though you minister to him night and day, nothing helps at all. Alarm quickly turns to panic; you realize that Lazarus is slipping away. This just cannot be happening!
Then your thoughts turn to Jesus. Just days ago Jesus was in Jerusalem where he restored sight to a man born blind. You have seen Jesus perform his miracles, healing complete strangers, and he loves Lazarus. You talk it over with Mary and then send a messenger to find Jesus. Yes, Jesus will come. Everything will be all right, you assure Lazarus. With renewed hope you redouble your efforts to care for your brother while you wait. And wait.
Yet Lazarus grows weaker and there is no word from Jesus. “Come, please come,” is your constant prayer. You cling to this last hope, but then Lazarus draws his last breath and the world collapses around you. In shocked numbness you go through the motions of burying your brother. And there is still no word from Jesus.
Where is Jesus?
Days of mourning follow. You keep thinking about that Jewish belief, the belief that the soul lingers close to the body for three days before it permanently departs.2 For three days you watch the road. What if Jesus comes now? However, the third day passes. Unable to sit still you bustle about, doing nothing really, like a fallen fledgling fluttering about the yard. Then the message comes: Jesus is just outside the village. You drop everything and fly to him. It is Jesus, really Jesus, the teacher, the miracle worker, your friend. A faint hope stirs in your heart, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” You know that you are being bold, but you miss Lazarus so much. Fetching Mary, she, too, falls at Jesus’ feet. You all go to the tomb; there are tears in Jesus’ eyes. He commands the stone to be moved away and Jesus lifts up his eyes in prayer.
“He’s going to do it!” you think as your heart flutters in anticipation, “Jesus is going to ask God…” You strain to hear his words.
“Father, I thank you because you heard me…”
Another Thank You
Martha anticipates, as you or I would, that Jesus will pray a prayer of intercession at Lazarus’s tomb. She wants Jesus to ask God to restore her brother to her and Mary. Yet once again, Jesus prays the unexpected. He does not pray for Lazarus. He does not pray for Martha and Mary. He does not ask God for anything — like the power to raise Lazarus from the dead. Instead of asking, Jesus prays, “Thank you.” And as we are learning, this is so typical of Jesus.
Pause for a moment and let the full meaning of this prayer sink in. Remember, I said earlier that this is the only place in any of the Gospels where Jesus prays before he heals someone. But this is not an intercessory prayer. This is a prayer of thanksgiving. This means that nowhere in the Gospels do we hear Jesus praying for the sick or dying. Jesus gives us absolutely no example of an intercessory prayer for those with physical needs.
It kind of rocks your boat, doesn’t it?
I am not saying that Jesus never prayed for the sick — I do not know what he prayed in private. And we do know that Jesus publicly interceded for others, as we will examine in later chapters. However, his public prayers for others never had anything to do with physical healing. The absence of such a prayer from all four Gospels speaks loudly. It forced me to closely examine my own prayers of intercession. Come with me for a moment down a rocky side road which I encountered at this point on my journey.
Our prayers are more than petitions, conversations, and communion with God. Our prayers are also reflections of our relationship with him. A prayer is like a mirror, and in that mirror we can examine in detail our own understanding of who God is. I found this to be especially true with my prayers of intercession. Let me give you an example. I vividly remember the prayers I prayed some years ago when my fourteen-year-old cousin Yancy lay in the hospital after an accidental shooting had sent a bullet through his brain. Like so many others, I prayed night and day for that child: “Oh, God, this is so serious. You have to help Yancy. Please God, they are getting ready to do surgery and Yancy could die on the table. Guide the surgeons’ hands. Don’t let them make a mistake. Bring Yancy through this alive…” I went on and on, but you get the gist of my prayers. Maybe in times of crisis you have prayed like this, too. Let’s take a look at what my prayers revealed about my relationship with God.
Informing God. It seems kind of funny when I stop and think about it now, but — before this study — whenever I heard of something happening to someone I knew and loved, I would rush to tell God about it. Like God didn’t already know. Like God didn’t know since before the beginning of time. Or like God had been away for a while and had just returned. “Oh God, Yancy’s been shot…” If I feel that I must rush in and use my prayers to inform God about whatever is happening, then what does that reveal about my relationship with God? Do I not believe that God is all-knowing? Do I not know from my own personal experience that God is always present? Although I am sure I would have vehemently denied it at the time, in that surgical waiting room, my prayers shockingly revealed the true answer: no. My personal knowledge of God did not include an understanding of God as an all-knowing, always-present deity. Clearly, my understanding of God needed to grow.
Giving directions. My prayers of intercession for Yancy included a lot of directions: “Don’t let Yancy die, don’t make him a vegetable, don’t leave him blind or deaf or paralyzed, don’t let his personality be changed…” One positive thing these prayers exposed was my belief in God’s ability to perform great miracles. I harbored no doubts about God’s power; I knew God had it in him. Instead, my prayers revealed my doubts about God’s wisdom and God’s goodness in choosing how to use that power. By constantly giving God directions, it sounded like I was not sure whether God knew what was best for Yancy. Or, supposing that God did know what was best, perhaps he just did not have enough compassion to actually do what was needed. So I would give God step-by-step instructions based on what I knew was the wisest, most compassionate thing for God to do.
Again in all honesty, my personal knowledge was lacking. I did not really understand that God is the wisest being in the universe who knows exactly what is the best thing to do in every situation. I did not really understand that no one is more loving or compassionate than the Creator who personally formed every one of his creatures. To spend my prayer time directing the activity of the Lord of heaven and earth — yes, my understanding of God needed to grow.
Browbeating God? As I said earlier, I prayed for Yancy night and day, constantly bombarding God with new directions. I remember at one point, I actually pushed up my sleeves when I sat down to pray. My attitude was, “Okay, let me get out my crowbar and get busy moving God.” I also asked everyone I met to join me in making specific requests throughout Yancy’s recovery. Why? So they could help me manipulate God. To tell the truth, that is how I saw intercessory prayer: as a method of persuading God to do what I wanted. I also believed that the more people I got to pray with me, the more force I would possess to twist God’s arm. I know, I was the one who was twisted, but that was where I was on my journey.
My prayers reminded me of Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18). A poor widow, who had been wronged by an opponent, appealed to an unjust judge for help. He refused, so she began a campaign of ceaselessly troubling (literally, beating into weariness3) the judge. He finally ruled in her favor so that she would stop harassing him (literally, giving him a black eye4). In this parable, Jesus encourages us to always pray, but not in this manner. We must not view God as an unjust judge who lacks compassion and refuses to assist us unless we browbeat him. And we must not view prayer as a club to be welded at God, attempting to bend God’s will to our desires. No, in this parable, Jesus instructs us to pray prayers of faith, trusting that our loving, merciful Daddy will speedily come to the aid of his precious children.
Regretfully, when I look back into my own mirror, I see that my prayers for Yancy were not prayers of trust in a loving Father. No, both my attitude and my prayers reflected doubt, fear, and uncertainty in a dubious God. My attitude, my relationship, and my personal knowledge had a long way to grow.
So now I begin to see why Jesus does not pray this type of intercessory prayer at Lazarus’ grave nor anywhere else in the Gospels. This is not how Jesus wants us to pray. This is not how Jesus wants us to relate to God. Jesus wants us to understand that God is all-knowing, always-present, and all-loving; Jesus wants us to understand that God possesses both the power and the compassion to sustain us through all of life’s difficulties. And Jesus wants our prayers to reflect this understanding of God. Indeed, we do not need to use our prayer time nor our energy to give God a constant flow of information and directions. We can use our time and energy in better ways. Just look at Jesus.
When Jesus sees someone in need, he does not retreat up a mountain or fall down on his knees to pray for them. No, Jesus does not pray; he acts. Everywhere in the Gospels, we see Jesus in action. Jesus touches people — their eyes, their ears, their withered limbs, their rotting skin. It is as though by his very example Jesus says to us, “When you see someone suffering, don’t leave to go ask God to do something for that person. Stay with your loved ones and let God use you to minister to those around you in his name.”
I know that, as God’s Son, Jesus had the power to heal, to restore, to even raise people back to life. Maybe I don’t possess the power to do those miraculous things, but I can do some things. I can take someone to a doctor, I can deliver food or medicine, I can care for the children of someone who is ill. So when I encounter someone with physical needs, rather than using my prayer time to tell God what he should do to help that person, maybe I should instead ask God what he wants me to do to care for my loved one.
At Lazarus’ grave, however, Jesus does offer a public prayer, and it is a powerful example for us to follow. Before we examine this prayer in depth, there is one important detail that we need to flag. As he is praying, Jesus declares that this prayer is spoken for the benefit of the crowd who is standing around. And just who are these people standing around Jesus? The people from Jerusalem. The same people who, only a few days earlier, were trying to decide whether Jesus was the Son of God or the Son of Satan. You know, the same people who’d had stones in their hands.
Jesus’ prayer is for the benefit of these people. It is not for the benefit of Martha or Mary or even Lazarus. Just now, when talking with Martha outside the village, Jesus heard her confess her belief in him as the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus knows that, spiritually, Martha is okay. And in a few days, Mary will anoint Jesus’ feet in preparation for his own burial (John 12: 1-8). Spiritually, Mary is okay. And Lazarus — well, Lazarus is resting in God’s hands, serving as part of God’s divine plan. Spiritually, Lazarus is fine. But the crowd standing around — they are another story. Spiritually, they are not okay because they do not know what to believe. Is Jesus the Son of God? Is Jesus possessed by a demon? The religious leaders have them very confused. So before his last and greatest miracle, Jesus stops to pray for the benefit of these people, and Jesus uses his prayer to point them straight to God. How does he do it? Let’s look at Jesus’ words.
“Father.” Abba. With one word, Jesus sets the record straight for the bystanders. “Want to know who I am? I am my Daddy’s Son.” When Jesus looks up and calls God Daddy, he reveals to the fence-sitters just how personal his relationship with God really is. He reveals the Source of his power; he reveals the identity of his Sender — and it is not Satan. Behind Jesus’ words, behind Jesus’ works, stands the authority of Jesus’ Abba, the almighty I AM.
“I thank you that you have heard me at this moment in time. Because of our intimate relationship, I know that you are always listening to me.” This thank you is deep. We really must stop for a moment and wrestle with what Jesus is saying here. You see, Jesus thanks God for listening to him, but if we are paying close attention, we realize that this is the first sentence of Jesus’ prayer. Jesus has not said anything yet. So if Jesus is thanking God for having listened, what exactly did God hear?
God heard what was in Jesus’ heart. God felt Jesus’ compassion for Martha and Mary. God understood Jesus’ wish to benefit those standing around him. God heard Jesus’ desire to fulfill God’s plan and bring Lazarus back to life. God’s ability to hear Jesus even before he speaks underlines the spiritual oneness of the Father and the Son. The intimacy and depth of that constant connection become crystal clear to all who hear and understand this thank you. There can be no doubt; the relationship between Jesus and his Daddy exemplifies a perfect unity which has never before been witnessed in humankind’s salvation history. It is a relationship that stirs our hearts to seek the same.
“So that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus wants these listeners to understand that he is the Son of God. But why? The goal is plainly stated in this purpose clause: Jesus wants his listeners to believe, to personally accept the message revealed in God’s act of sending his only Son into the world. In this brief phrase, Jesus reveals to us that the central purpose behind his prayer is to produce belief in the hearts of those standing around.
In two short sentences, Jesus points to two truths concerning his relationship with God: he is God’s Son, and he has been sent out by God on a divine mission. And just what, the bystanders are probably wondering, is this mission? What did God send Jesus into the world to do? Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” and a dead man walks out of a tomb. Jesus’ final miracle illustrates his ultimate mission: to bring life to all who will believe. Perhaps at this moment Martha understood that Jesus’ prayer and Lazarus’ resurrection were about a whole lot more than two sisters having their beloved brother restored to them.
What About Me?
What can I learn from Jesus’ prayer? How should I have prayed for Yancy? How should we pray for Scott? When we pray for those with physical needs, what should we say? Personally, I have learned two things from Jesus’ prayer: First, when I encounter someone with physical needs, I should pray out loud for the benefit of those standing around. And secondly, I must use my prayer not to give God instructions but to point those people back to God. Jesus has shown us in his last two prayers that there are times when we should not go away to pray in solitude; we should share our prayers with those around us. This is especially true when we see others in need.
My friend Kim continually teaches me the power of shared prayer. Kim is a good listener and one of my strongest spiritual supporters. Whenever I am experiencing difficulties, I call her. Every time I ask for her prayers, she always responds, “Let’s pray together right now.” Her prayers fill my heart with warmth and peace. They remind me that I am not alone, that I have my Master and a dear friend who love and care for me. Kim’s prayers always benefit the person standing around: me.
You know, if Kim went someplace and prayed those same prayers in solitude, I would not receive the same benefits that I do when I hear her prayers spoken aloud. There is a tremendous difference between knowing that someone is praying for me and actually hearing that prayer. I can best illustrate the difference in this way: I imagine finding myself out in a parched and arid desert. Knowing that someone is praying for me is like finding a cup of cool water in that desert, but hearing someone speak that same prayer aloud is like finding a cascading waterfall in that wasteland. While I would appreciate the cup of water, I would prefer the waterfall. We all have the opportunity to bring more waterfalls to those who are suffering.
Looking back to that surgical waiting room, I realize now that my prayers for Yancy should have been spoken aloud. There were so many people standing around who could have benefited from a waterfall at that time in our lives. Instead of assailing God with my foolish instructions which only raised doubts about God’s wisdom and God’s goodness, I should have used my prayers to point my family straight toward God.
How could I have done that? I could have prayed like Jesus did: I could have thanked God for listening, not just to my words, but to our hearts. I could have thanked God for his divine plan to bring eternal life to Yancy — and to the rest of us — by sending his only Son into a dark and suffering world. Who among us doesn’t need to be reminded of these two great truths: God hears and God saves? Does God hear our cries of pain and anguish? Yes, God hears us even before we speak. Can God save us from our suffering and misery? Yes, God can save us from death itself and give us new life — eternal life — through Jesus Christ.
The next time someone with a physical need asks us to pray for them, let us remember this prayer at Lazarus’s grave. Through his example, Jesus invites us to stop where we are and pray aloud a prayer of faith for those who are standing around us. We can do this in a variety of ways: in person, over the phone, or in a note card. Furthermore, Jesus invites us to use these prayers to point others to God–reminding all who hear us of God’s constant love and care. If only I had learned this lesson earlier! Then I would not have worn myself out at my cousin’s bedside. Instead of offering up a constant flow of my own selfish instructions in an attempt to direct the Director of the universe, my prayers should have been a steady stream of thanksgiving for the miracle after miracle we witnessed during Yancy’s recovery. Such prayers of thanks would have pointed others to a deeper understanding of the God who has already sacrificed everything to save us, not just in this life, but in the life to come. You can be sure that the next time I pray for someone in need, I will seek to follow Jesus’ example. I will offer up a prayer of thanks and trust.
Chapter 5 Footnotes
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.
2 Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger, eds., The New Oxford Annotated Bible With The Apocrypha (2d and exp. ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 1304.
3 This original Greek word can be found in this footnote of the free PDF download.
4 This original Greek word can be found in this footnote of the free PDF download.