Read John 21:20–25.
I remember the first time I saw the film The Sixth Sense. After making it to the end and finding out Bruce Willis’s character, Malcolm Crowe, was dead the whole time, I wanted to go back and rewatch the movie from the beginning, just to see if he was truly unseen and unnoticed by all the other characters (except, of course, for young Cole, played by Haley Joel Osment, who famously announced, “I can see dead people”).
Like a twist at the end of a movie, the Fourth Gospel offers its own surprise reveal: the identity of the Beloved Disciple. Of course, not everyone agrees that the author is Lazarus rather than John or some other follower of Jesus. Still, I think the case for Lazarus is compelling and only becomes more so when we go back to the beginning and review the content and structure of the book.
At the end of John 20, we’re told the purpose of the Fourth Gospel: “that you [the reader] may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (v. 31). But the author is more specific here. He says “these are written that you may” trust Jesus and have life (emphasis added). What does “these” refer to? The signs of Jesus. “Jesus performed many other signs. . . . But these are written that you may believe . . . and that by believing you may have life” (vv. 30–31, emphasis added).
If you recall, the Fourth Gospel is framed around seven miracles, or signs, of Jesus. Of course, Jesus performed many more than seven miracles. The author of the Fourth Gospel, however, has chosen to focus on seven and only seven. And their purpose is to reveal Jesus as the Son of God so that we might have life.
Lazarus knows a thing or two about life, because he knows what it is to die. So when he sets out to point us to life, we should pay attention. By way of reminder, let’s quickly walk through the seven signs in the Fourth Gospel.
- The first sign is Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast (2:1–12). Throughout Scripture, wine (though, of course, not drunkenness) is a symbol of God’s blessing and points to the life of the kingdom, which is filled with joy and celebration. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6).
- The second sign comes when Jesus heals an official’s son without ever seeing or laying hands on the boy (4:43–54). Jesus simply tells the worried father that his son will live and sends him back home. This healing is a sign the crowds don’t see with their eyes, because it’s a sign that points to the necessity of faith in the life of the kingdom. “‘Go,’ Jesus replied, ‘your son will live.’ The man took Jesus at his word and departed” (4:50).
- The third sign is the healing of the lame man at the pagan shrine of Bethesda (5:1–15). Counter to the official whose son Jesus healed, this man shows no faith. Zero. Nada. Zilch. When Jesus finds him, his hope is being spent on other gods, and afterwards, when he’s strolling through Jerusalem with his mat in tow on the Sabbath, he is all too quick to rat Jesus out to the Pharisees. This sign is a mirror being held up to the stiff-necked people of Israel and, by extension, to you and me. The life of the kingdom is only possible because Jesus came for sinners who did not (and do not) deserve Him.
- The fourth sign is the feeding of the five thousand (6:1–15). Life in the kingdom of God is lived by God’s provision. He gives us our daily bread, our manna in the wilderness. And this bread has a name: Jesus of Nazareth.
- The fifth sign is Jesus’ stroll atop the sea (6:16–21), a reminder that life in the kingdom of God is life with the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, our wild God who upholds and commands every last atom. He will not be tamed, nor will He be controlled by our whims and wants. But when we are with Him, we are secure, storm or no storm.
- The sixth sign is the healing of a blind man on the Sabbath (9:1–12). It comes just after Jesus announces that He is the light of the world (8:12) and the source of living water (7:37–38). It’s no coincidence, then, that the miracle involves bringing light to darkness and cleansing in running, or “living,” water. Life in the kingdom is life in the light, where shame and sin are exposed and destroyed. It’s life with the Spirit, where we become vessels of God’s mercy and healing to a world in need.
- Finally, there’s the seventh sign. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead after four days. It is a declaration that, in the kingdom, life conquers death and the curse comes undone. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the grand finale of the seven signs is related to Lazarus himself. It’s what we should expect if he is the author of the gospel.
Did you catch the common thread in all of these signs? They point to the identity of Jesus, to be sure, but they also describe life in the kingdom. This shouldn’t surprise us, as we’re told this was the point of the signs: “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
The same can be said for the seven “I Am” statements of Jesus:
- I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (6:35)
- I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (8:12)
- Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (10:7–10)
- I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (10:11)
- I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (11:25–26)
- I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (14:6)
- I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener…. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (15:1, 5)
Each saying points to life—either the kind of life Jesus wants us to have or the great exchange of His life for ours. All but one includes “life” in the statement or in the immediate context, and the one that does not (“I am the true vine”) is all about fruitfulness, the overflow of Jesus’ life in those who are connected to Him.
Life—true, abundant, eternal life—is writ large across the Fourth Gospel. And of course it is. There are few who have a perspective on life and death like Lazarus of Bethany.
Scripture tells us that when a believer dies, they are “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). And what is it like in the presence of God? In Psalm 16:11, David says to the Lord, “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (emphasis added). Lazarus was a partaker of this bliss. He had experienced, however briefly, what it is like to be in God’s heavenly presence. And yet, he was called away from it all, removed from eternal peace and joy when Jesus commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43).
You might think he’d be beyond heartbroken, a man who experienced the unsurpassable and untouchable beauty he was created for—and lost it. He should be like a man who discovered his once-in-a-lifetime true love only to watch her walk out of his life as quickly as she had entered it. But that’s not what we find.
Scripture gives us no indication Lazarus was upset when he was brought back into the land of the living. I think that’s because, when he pulled the grave wrappings from his face and opened his newly reanimated eyes, he saw the face of Jesus, God the Son. He still had the joy of heaven, because he still had the presence of God. Perhaps it’s why the Beloved Disciple made sure to record these words of Jesus, spoken in prayer to God the Father: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (17:3). Eternal life is not only something we step into when we die; it’s something we can grasp here and now through our union with Jesus Christ.
The Fourth Gospel, the one we know as the gospel of John, is a guide to discovering true life. Lazarus’s message for all of us is this: Take hold of Jesus Christ. Take hold of life.