You’d think that if people were to see with their own two eyes a real, honest-to-God miracle — something like a dead man being brought back to life — they’d want to fall down in worship. They’d want to follow and obey that God.
Other times, not so much.
What makes the difference is the presence of faith, of having the eyes to see what God is up to. There is terrible irony in the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The sign was meant to demonstrate that Jesus was the one in whom the power of life itself was present (John 1:4; 11:25), the one sent by the Father to give the gift of life to those who believe. But the effect on some was to make them afraid that Jesus would take away the life they already had.
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ words and deeds divide people. Nowhere is this more true than here, with Jesus’ greatest sign. Some believed because of it. But others ran to the Pharisees with the news. The result was an impromptu meeting of the Jewish leadership, to determine what they needed to do against their common enemy (John 11:45-47). One can imagine them wringing their hands as they spoke:
“What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (vss. 47b-48, NRSV)
The fear was legitimate. Rome allowed the Jews a certain amount of freedom to practice their ways. But the slightest whiff of insurrection would bring down the wrath of the empire. A nearby garrison would be mobilized to ruthlessly squash anything that looked like a challenge to the absolute authority of Rome.
Stories of a man raising people from the dead? Talk of a powerful Messiah-King hanging around Jerusalem?
Yeah. That would get Rome’s attention.
“What are we to do?” they whine. Or better, perhaps: “What are we doing?” It’s not like this is the first time they’ve felt threatened by Jesus’ power and popularity. But they’ve been impotent to stop him. As John so mysteriously puts it, every time they try to arrest or stone him, somehow they can’t — because his hour hasn’t come.
They’re afraid of Rome, and rightly so. Indeed, just a few decades later, Roman soldiers will lay siege to the Holy City. Jerusalem will burn. Hundreds of thousands of Jews will die.
But not because of Jesus. Again, the irony: the raising of Lazarus should clearly signal to the Jewish leadership that Jesus is the way to life, not death. Tragically, however, their fear blinds them to the meaning of even such a miracle as this.
Fears, worries, anxieties. Perhaps ours are smaller, vaguer. But it’s worth pondering: what gracious movement of God are we unable to see because of them?