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The event of Lazarus death is recorded in John chapter 11. In verse 6 we read that he stayed two days where he was, after learning of his death.

"So when He heard that he was sick, He remained where He was two more days. 7 Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again.” John 11:6 NASB

From verse 17 we discern that the journey to Bethany was two days , so Jesus arrived four days after the death of Lazarus.

17" When Jesus arrived, He found that he had been in the tomb four days already." John 1:17 NASB

So why did Jesus delay four days in going to the tomb of Lazarus?

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  • +1.I hope this question does not get voted to close because it is considered 'a matter of opinion'. I trust that there is sufficient cogent information within scripture that a non-opinionated answer is possible. – Nigel J Mar 3 '19 at 10:47
  • @Nigel: I also though likewise about it when I placed the question, however I believe that Jesus had an important reason to delay his journey to Bethany. The other two resurrection he did were done within the same day, I think that it has to do with the beliefs and culture of the day. – Ozzie Ozzie Mar 3 '19 at 16:53
  • +1 Although I think the wording of the questions could use some work. Technically Jesus did not delay going to the tomb of Lazarus. He went to the tomb shortly after He arrived. Also 4-days was the total time Lazarus had been dead, but Jesus only "delayed" in going to Bethany 2-days. So I think you are asking why did Jesus delay (for 2-days) in order to arrive at the tomb after 4-days. – Revelation Lad Mar 3 '19 at 20:16

10 Answers 10

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As you pointed out John’s account specifically gives the details that, if Jesus would have left as soon as the messengers came, Lazarus would have been dead for two days when Jesus arrived. And, John specifically points out that Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus arrived. Jesus had brought people back to life after dying (Matthew 9:25; Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:14-15), but in these cases, as with the Old Testament prophets, it was soon after they died.

Are there other details in John’s account indicating something special about four days? There is Martha’s reply after Jesus asked for he stone to be rolled away:

Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” (John 11:39, ESV)

This essentially indicated that Martha wasn’t expecting Jesus to bring Lazarus back to life after he was dead for so long. Unlike others that Jesus had raised from the dead, the Jewish leaders sought to kill Lazarus:

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus. (John 12:9–11, ESV)

The Jewish leaders didn’t seek to kill the other people Jesus raised from the dead, nor did the others appear to draw the large crowds. There was something different about Jesus raising Lazarus and what stands out is he had been dead and buried for four days.

There are references, such as:

“It is a proverb in the Talmud and the Targum, that corruption sets in the third day after death” (Tholuck after Wetstein).

Lange, J. P., & Schaff, P. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: John (p. 356). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Jewish mysticism teaches that a deceased person’s spirit remains around the body for up to three days after death before departing. It was well-known in Israel 2,000 years ago that someone deceased could come back to life during this 3-day period but not afterwards.

On the fourth day, the spirit left the body and went to Sheol or Hades, and there was no hope for life without a miracle. Also, by the fourth day in Israel’s hot climate, advanced decay would be destroying the body and the stench would have been overwhelming. When Jesus called Lazarus to life from the dead and healed his rotted corpse, the people knew that He was the true Messiah, performing genuine miracles as the prophets had foretold!

From https://inspired2think.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/miracles-that-celebrate-jesus-as-messiah-part-4/

However, you interpret this Talmud reference, there was a significant difference in Jesus raising Lazarus, who and been dead and buried for four days, from the people Jesus brought back to life near the same day that they died. Unlike the others, Lazarus was a witness to Jesus’ ability to raise the dead from the grave long after they had died.

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  • Perry Webb: Your are correct , Jewish belief that the soul hovered over the body for three days and when the soul departed resurrection of the dead was not possible. +1 – Ozzie Ozzie Mar 5 '19 at 19:42
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The proximity to His own death is most probably the clue.

"When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby." (John 11:4, KJV)

Christ told the disciples it was for the glory of God. So He waited in order to show something to His disciples that would glorify God even more than all the miracles they had already seen Him demonstrate. He had shown them His power over sickness, in curing the blind, the lame, and casting out demons. So, something more was needed for the disciples to learn.

Christ already knew that Lazarus had died when He began the walk to Bethany.

"These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep." (John 11:11, KJV)

So, Christ had deliberately waited until Lazarus had died, and when He arrived in Bethany the disciples discovered that Lazarus had already been buried for four days.

"14 Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. 15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him." (John 11:14-15, KJV)

Yeshua's statement again in vs. 15 "to the intent ye may believe". So what was He purposefully showing the disciples to strengthen their belief?

Christ knew that He was shortly to die, and He wanted His disciples to know that He held the power over death, and that He would be resurrected just as He was about to resurrect Lazarus.

"Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." (John 11:21, KJV)

Martha's belief in Yeshua's ability to heal the sick had not yet expanded to the knowledge of the soon resurrection of Her Lord and Savior. Martha was a faithful believer, and she knew much of the scriptures. But, she did not yet know, just as the disciples did not yet know how soon that belief was going to be tested.

Though Jesus (Yeshua) had raised two others from the dead, those instances had been upon their death beds, before their bodies had had any time to decay. But, Lazarus having been in the grave four days before Jesus arrived, the impact of this miracle was much greater.

"39 Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days." (John 11:39, KJV)

When the people who stood their waiting with Mary and the disciples saw Lazarus walk out of that cave their belief in God and His Son was multiplied greatly. It also prepared the disciples for Christ's resurrection which would occur in but a few days. They would remember Lazarus' resurrection and more easily believe that Christ had risen. For the glory of God.

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  • @ Gina: You are correct for greater impact, but why was it so? – Ozzie Ozzie Mar 3 '19 at 16:57
  • Ozzie, I think I explained that not only 4 days was for greater impact but that the entire reason was to show the disciples that He had power over the resurrection of the dead so that they would believe when they were told He had risen from the dead in just a few more days. – Gina Mar 3 '19 at 21:44
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#1 - To Prove Lazarus was Dead
Some speculate the timing was about belief the soul hovered around the body for 3-days after death:

A state of death beyond the third day meant, from popular Jewish point of view, an absolute dissolution of life. At this time the face cannot be recognized with certainty; the body bursts; and the soul, which waited until then hovered over the body, parts from it.1

However, if the text serves as a guide, the reason is to prove Lazarus was physically dead:

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” (John 11:39) [ESV]

There are 4 stages of human decomposition: autolysis, bloat, active decay, skeletonization. Here is a brief description of the first two:2

Autolysis (24-72 hours) - begins immediately after death. As soon as blood circulation and respiration stop, the body has no way of getting oxygen or removing wastes. Excess carbon dioxide causes an acidic environment, causing membranes in cells to rupture. The membranes release enzymes that begin eating the cells from the inside out.

Bloat (3-5 days) - Leaked enzymes from the first stage begin producing many gases. The sulfur-containing compounds that the bacteria release also cause skin discoloration. Due to the gases, the human body can double in size. In addition, insect activity can be present. The microorganisms and bacteria produce extremely unpleasant odors called putrefaction. These odors often alert others that a person has died, and can linger long after a body has been removed.

Regardless of any custom or belief, is the common knowledge of the physical state of a body which has been dead for at least 4-days. Martha states what everyone knows: Lazarus has been dead long enough for the normal decaying process to produce gases typical to a decaying body. Therefore by waiting 2-days in order to arrive at the tomb on the fourth day, Jesus has ensured no one can question Lazarus was dead and his resurrection can only be attributed as a miracle.

#2 - To Show How Days are Counted
John makes two statements of time. First, Jesus waited for 2-days. Second, Martha states Lazarus had been dead 4-days when Jesus arrives. How are these two periods to be understood? If they are separate, the entire episode covers 6-days; if they are concurrent, the minimum period is 4-days:

Separate = 6-days total            Concurrent = 4 days total
2-days waiting + 4 days dead       2-days waiting
                                   4-days dead
Implies 4-days to reach Bethany    Implies 2-days to reach Bethany

I believe the key to the day of Lazarus' death comes from a statement both Martha and Mary make:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (11:21)

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (11:32)

The simplest way to understand their reaction is to take the text literally: Lazarus died almost immediately after Martha and Mary sent their message. They knew it was impossible for Jesus to have received their message before Lazarus died. They have great faith. They know Jesus does not have to be present to heal. They know the blind man received his sight not when Jesus touched him, but later when he washed. They know He healed a child in Cana while He was in Capernaum. They know all they needed to do is to make Jesus aware of the illness and Lazarus would live. But, death came too quickly. Their message did not arrive before Lazarus died.

They are not complaining Jesus did not come sooner. They are simply stating a fact. From their perspective the only way Lazarus could have lived is if Jesus had been there (when he became ill). In this case Lazarus died and was entombed on the same day they sent their message. In fact, Lazarus was dead when it arrived:

Day 1: Lazarus is sick
Day 1: Martha and Mary send a messenger (who reaches Jesus later on this day)
Day 1: Lazarus dies and is placed in the tomb
Day 1: Jesus "heals" Lazarus (his body does not decay or become rigid)
+ 2-days - Jesus waits
+ 1-day - Jesus travels to and arrives in Bethany and frees Lazarus from the tomb
-------
4-days - Lazarus was "dead"

Because of the "delay," John is able to explain how the 2-days of waiting were counted:

So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. (11:6-9)

In order for Lazarus to have been dead for 4-days, Jesus had to wait two full days, which included two 12-hour periods of daylight.


Notes:
1. Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, Studies in the Gospels, translated by Paul P. Levertoff, Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2008, p. 220 [citing Eccl. R. 12.6; Lev. R. 18.1]
2. The Four Stages of Human Decomposition.

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It is my personal experience that God uses one event and addresses multiple issues simultaneously at different tiers.

As such there is not one single response to this four day delay. One common understanding was a superstition held by Jews

Although the soul protests its birth into the world, it also protests the body’s death. It lingers near the body for three days, hoping that it will return to life (Tanhuma, Miqetz 4; Pequdei 3). After three days, the soul returns to God to await the time of resurrection (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 90b-91a).

The other common reason Jesus delayed was because He did nothing except that which He was instructed to do. Therefore He saw no urgency to

“So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.” ‭‭John‬ ‭5:19-21‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Other reasons have been mentioned by other responders so I’ll leave it to them.

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The question here (John 11) is NOT why Jesus delayed - that is stated explicitly in at least two verses of John 11:

v4: Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it."

And again in v14, 15: So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.”

Thus, the matter here is not why Jesus delayed by what it was that He wanted them to believe so that He could be glorified. The answer is the proximity to Jesus' own death and two other statements He made earlier in John.

John 2:19-21

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” 21But He was speaking of the temple of His body.

… John 10:17, 18

“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. 18“No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.

Therefore, I believe that Jesus was giving the disciples unmistakable evidence that Jesus was Lord Messiah and that He had power over death and capable of raising the dead. More than this, He was also capable of raising Himself from the dead. (Of course, the disciples forgot this and were discouraged after Jesus' death but need not have been.)

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He waited 2 days really because it was 1.5 days from where he was to Lazarus. The message came and He waited 2 more days. He knew Lazarus was already dead in the spiritual realm. He most likely tarried in preparation for the miracle to happen. He went to wake him up to demonstrate his Father's will. So 1.5+2+1.5=5 days. Lazarus died whilst the messenger was on the way to Jesus. When he stated that Lazarus was ill and come quickly, there was no real rush at that point.

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  • All of this is obvious, if you look at John 11:11 where Jesus talks about going to walk him up. Nobody told him Lazarus was dead. – Eamonn Kenny Mar 4 '19 at 14:52
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The answer is actually very simple.

According to Jewish tradition (Talmudic/Rabbinical teachings), a person is not completely 'dead' until 3 days have passed, when their soul departs.. to quote a scene from the movie The Princess Bride: "he's only mostly dead."

As Jesus often rebuked the Pharisaical teaching as doctrine: the Traditions of Men, this deliberate delay demonstrated the Power & Glory of the Father: Authority to bring life, to these dry bones. Amen

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  • Lonestar: It is a correct answer. – Ozzie Ozzie Feb 26 '20 at 9:55
  • What evidence do you have that this is Jewish teaching? Also the Talmud comes from a time significantly later than the Gospels, so it doesn't prove that's what they thought at the time. – curiousdannii Feb 27 '20 at 2:44
  • The Talmud is a written form of an Oral Tradition, which as legend has it, goes back as far as mount Sinai , the time of the Exodus. I couldn’t find the reference I used way back when I studied this particular part of the Bible, but a quick search provided this: Tanhuma, Miqetz 4; Pequdei 3. I’m not an expert, nor am I interested in being one, but the important thing to remember is Jesus (among other things), demonstrated His authority just as God demonstrated His power and authority via the 10 plagues in Exodus. – Lonestar Apr 3 '20 at 3:17
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It was for Jewish customs of the day. The Jewish believed that the soul did not leave the body after death for 3 days. So Jesus going on the 4th day knowing of course that He would be glorifying God at the same time doing away with man-made "beliefs" or "rules" mind you. To destroy what is not true, by raising Lazarus from the dead.

After this, the time frame was very intentional. We know we serve a very intentional God, beyond our understanding. Jesus delivered perfectly when He called his name, can you imagine if He didn't how many would be coming out of tombs?

We have allowed once again so many man-made rules and lost what God and Jesus put in front of our eyes. But if it didn't happen, He wouldn't have come. I don't understand how all the things that Jesus did were dismissed as demonic possession or magic and so many that witnessed still dismissed it as fact. The one subject we have the most proof of facts on, so many worship dead men, and fake Gods. We must pray for the lost. It's getting closer and closer to His return.

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This a very late answer, but as no other response ‘fits’ this one, I will submit this outline.

This will be quite difficult for anyone using a ‘western mindset’ to ‘see’, but for anyone that understands second temple ‘thinking’ it will be obvious. Very obvious, as it was to those Jesus was addressing. Jews. They understand Jewish prophecy - in that it reflects a pattern, not a ‘one of prediction’

The following prophecy is crucial to understand your answer....

MAT 12: 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

The reason Jesus delayed raising Lazarus was to fulfil this prophecy. Actually not so much to fulfil it, more than as a ‘sign’. A clear ‘sign’ that he (Jesus) would, as he said in verse 40, be raised from the dead after 3 days.

He was confirming the prophecy of his resurrection! This is the reason for his delay. He had to delay - it was pre-ordained! It was totally ‘by design’.

But to all those viewing the Bible through a, or rather wearing a modern’ or ‘doctrinal’ lens - you won’t see this - let alone accept this answer.

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I will Answer the Question with the help of some detailed comments on John 11:1-45 and also 12:37-42.

Detailed comments

6 ff. At least on a human level, it cannot fail to disconcert us that Jesus, faced with the worried message of Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary (followed, at the moment of his arrival, by Martha’s painful reproach for his delay) failed to rush to the bedside of his friend, as though he intended to make the effect he wanted to obtain, from the already planned raising of his friend, become even more "spectacular", to make his self-affirmation even more "dramatic" and solemn:

«I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die.».

35 ff. From another POV, it cannot fail to disconcert us that Jesus is emotionally moved, even burst into tears for the death of his friend, even "intensely moved again, came to the tomb ..." when it was Jesus himself, who with his deliberate delay had made the death of his friend inevitable. It is customary to object to this obvious perplexity (which anyone who is not a hypocrite cannot fail to share) by recalling that Jesus is both - and perfectly - man and God. Ought we therefore to infer from this premise that the "God in him" imposed on the "man in him" a calculated staging act, which the man-in-Jesus found unbearable? This, and no other, is the question that those who take the Gospel text seriously cannot fail to ask. For my part, I suspend the judgment, but my perplexity - more, my bewilderment - remains.

39 ff. After his temporary (and very human – all-too-human?) display of emotion, the "God in him" seems to regain control in Jesus. What once again cannot fail to disconcert is that Jesus manifestly affirms the instrumentality of his behavior: it seems almost to hear Jesus say - first aloud, so everyone can hear him - «Father, I thank you that you have listened to me» - ... then, quietly to himself ... - «I knew that you always listen to me, but I said this for the sake of the crowd standing around here, that they may believe that you sent me».

45 ff. The raising of his friend Lazarus, that Jesus performs, in the imminence of his entry into Jerusalem, which will be followed in rapid sequence by his Passion and Death, has the power to convert even many Jews who are not afraid and do not refuse to see: "Many of the Jews who had come to Mary, seeing what he had done, believed in him." (Jn 11:45). But for those who do not want to see, no sign can suffice, either because of stubborn refusal and prejudice ("Although he had performed such great signs in front of them, they did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah would be fulfilled ..." - Jn 12:37-40), or out of cowardice ("... even among the leaders, many believed in him, but, because of the Pharisees, they did not declare it, so as not to be expelled from the synagogue" - Jn 12:42), or out of human respect ("They loved the glory of men more than the glory of God" - Jn 12:43).


So why did Jesus delay four days in going to the tomb of Lazarus?

See above detailed comments, in particular the one on 6 ff.

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  • I have just realizd that, in my Answer above, I have repeated three times that something that Jesus did or said "cannot fail to disconcert". I would like to add that I say to myself and to us all, "respect in silence what you can neither reject nor understand" ( Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or, On Education,) – Miguel de Servet May 27 at 17:40

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