This could easily be one of the most difficult lessons to understand. The ancient Hebrew people did not have a theology, per se. They had the Covenant of Moses which said very little about theology. Moses clearly believed in a realm above, referencing “Heaven” numerous times, and not always as a reference to the sky. We know it was common for the better educated people in the Ancient Near East to believe more or less the same. However, they were careful not to say much about it, simply because they had a strong belief that it could not be understood in the mind, only in the heart. You had to refer to it in symbols and parables.
Not every Hebrew believed in the afterlife; that much seems obvious. It appears such belief depended on their degree of faith — the faithful seemed to grasp that this life was not the end of things. What they thought about the afterlife may have varied widely. Yet certain events, such as the appearance of the deceased Samuel before Saul and the conjurer of Endor (1 Samuel 28), show that at least some souls in the Old Testament persisted after this life. But a great many characters acted and spoke as if there was no such thing.
During Jesus’ day, there was plenty of conflicting Jewish theology and mythology, some of it sheer nonsense. For example, a common myth was that souls hung around their bodies for up to three days after death. That was part of why Jesus waited until the fourth day to raise Lazarus, to ensure no one could claim that Lazarus didn’t fully die, or something bizarre like that. Martha’s comment about the smell of decaying flesh was significant for that reason.
Indeed, Jesus seemed intent on settling some of the questions about what follows death, and clobbering the nonsense that was common among Jews. He did that on a lot of other subjects, as well. This was what He meant when He talked about walking in the daylight. A critical part of His ministry was shining the light of truth. We should read the chapter with that in mind, and try to dislodge our own modern day mythology, as well. His main point here is that this life isn’t so very important, except as the time and place to manifest God’s revelation in our lives. Once that glory is complete, we don’t just cease to be. We still live on in a state of rest until the Resurrection.
Still, Jesus used symbolism to remind folks that they shouldn’t try to nail truth down in concrete terms. Death from this life is sleep; it’s not real death. We need to walk in the light of truth, so that the light shines from within. Those who embrace Jesus as their Messiah never die. Those are parables, figures of speech because the truth is beyond literal; only the heart can receive it.
Among the folks comforting Lazarus’s family were some Pharisees and scribes. They were at best skeptical of the things Jesus said, but had no explanation for some of the things He did. A few came to believe that day, but more simply went to report the event to their superiors.
There was no dramatic music and the whole event was quite low key. John describes the scene in his simple school boy Greek grammar. Since the body was prepared in typical Jewish fashion, it was bound with a heavily scented acacia gum between layers of wide strips of binding cloth. After just a couple of days the gum hardened into a fairly stiff casing. The bodies were wrapped in this winding cloth from the toes up to the armpits, then the arms pulled down and the wrapping started again at the hands and up to the neck. The head was wrapped in a single sheet about the size of a pillow case, which was then tied down around the neck.
So it’s virtually impossible for a raised Lazarus to simply walk out of the tomb. Most likely he was forced to hop, or at best shuffle with tiny steps if the cloth came unwrapped at the bottom. But at least he didn’t have far to go. He was still wearing the head cover, tied down at the corners around his neck, because he couldn’t use his hands. Jesus told those standing nearby to go help him get loose from all this stuff.
This was the last straw in Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish leadership. This was what finally moved the Sanhedrin to issue a death warrant. But the main point Jesus was making is His authority over death. Soon enough He was Himself going to rise out a grave on that same authority. And it was part of our design that we are eternal creatures, meant to live eternally in the Presence of God.