This paper will examine the two stories of Lazarus to see if perhaps they could be the same person. On the surface it seems unlikely since one was a beggar and the other was the brother of Mary and Martha who seem to be well off. However, this can be readily explained. If indeed they are the same person, the ramifications are profound.
The name Lazarus (which is a derivative of Eleazar: God has helped) is mentioned only in three places in the Bible: Luke 16:19-31, John 11:1-44 and John 12:1-19. The first is the story of the beggar and the rich man who both die and go to Sheol—the rich man to torment and the beggar to Abraham’s bosom. The second is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The third is when the chief priests wanted to put Lazarus to death.
Many think the first is a parable but as the comment in the New American Standard Translation states:
Nowhere else does Jesus use a person’s name in a parable. This story is often referred to as a parable, but is nowhere in the biblical text called one. It is therefore impossible to be sure that it was a parable and not a real happening.
If indeed it was a real happening, when would it occur and why and how can we explain the apparent differences in the two stories?
It is difficult to correlate events between the various gospels but Robert Thomas and Stanley Gundry in “A Harmony of the Gospels” have made a conscientious effort. They place the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man on page 157 of their book and the story of raising Lazarus from the dead on page 158—back to back on the same sheet of paper! In other words, the first story occurred in Perea just before Jesus traveled a one day’s journey to Bethany to raise Lazarus!
Imagine the impact this would have had on his hearers! Jesus tells them this amazing story about some poor man named Lazarus who dies and goes to Sheol. Then Mary and Martha’s servants arrive and inform him that his friend Lazarus whom he loves is sick. The listeners’ first reactions would be amazement: “How did he know about Lazarus being sick before the servants arrived?” Then when he tells them that Lazarus is dead they would wonder “How could he possibly know that?” After that, when he goes and raises Lazarus, they would be absolutely convinced that this was no ordinary man because no ordinary man could know these things nor restore life—especially after four days in the grave. What an amazing testimony! No wonder the Pharisees wanted to kill Lazarus.1
How do we explain the different status of the beggar Lazarus and the brother of Mary and Martha who had servants and who could afford expensive ointments2 and burial sites3? Remember, Jesus had been addressing the Pharisees. They were like the rich man not just in material wealth but because they had knowledge of the Scriptures and the way to God, but selfishly, they hoarded that to themselves and thought they were the only ones worthy of Heaven. They wouldn’t even share the crumbs of their knowledge with the spiritual beggars like Lazarus, Jesus’ friend4. Mary and Martha made profound statements of faith5 6 but Lazarus never did. We can assume he associated with Jesus because he was spiritually hungry but perhaps, like Jesus’ disciples until Pentecost, Lazarus didn’t connect the dots until later. He was a beggar spiritually even though he may have had material wealth. This is a very similar situation to the passage in Matt 16:12, “Then they understood that He did not say to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Jesus was using everyday events and physical things to teach and illustrate spiritual truth. So Lazarus his friend was a spiritual beggar. But I’ll bet he had a lot to say about what death is like after his resurrection! He probably confirmed word for word what Jesus had foretold in his story about Abraham’s bosom.
Also since Jesus was a fabulous story teller, He probably embellished the part about being a beggar in order to get His main point across: that the Pharisees were going to be excluded from Heaven in spite of their supposed righteousness.
Very possibly the two Lazarus’s were in fact the same person and Jesus used the stories as prophesy and fulfillment for the glory of God.7 8 In the story of the rich man in torment, the rich man (representing the Pharisees) begged Lazarus to go to his brothers and warn them because certainly they would believe if someone were to come back from the dead.9 Jesus said that even if someone (Lazarus or himself) were to come back from the dead, even that would not be enough to cause the hard-hearted Pharisees to believe.10 He proved it a few days later when Lazarus was raised from the dead but the Pharisees still refused to believe.11
Photo Attribution: Aubrey Odom – unsplash.com
- John 12:10-11, “But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.”
- John 12:3, “Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
- John 11:38
- Thanks to Dr. David Orlowski for this insight.
- John 11:27, “She [Martha] said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.’ “
- John 11:32-33, “Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’ “
- John 11:4-5, “But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.’ “
- John 11:40-41, “Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?’ “
- Luke 16:30, “But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ “
- Luke 16:31, “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’ “
- John 11:47-48, “Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, ‘What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ “