Click on the image to see it full-screen.
Gospel of John 11: 21-27 (NIV)
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
What did Martha mean by “the resurrection at the last day”? What did Jesus mean by “I am the resurrection”?
In Judea in the early years of the first century there was not consensus among Jews about a doctrine of resurrection. The Sadducees claimed there was no resurrection because no evidence for it could be found in the Pentateuch. Doctors of the Law or rabbis, informed by Hebrew Scripture and books of the Apocrypha, taught of a resurrection at the end of time when those who lived in accordance with the Law would receive reward while all others would encounter punishment. Pharisees shared this understanding of the resurrection which drew in particular on a vision given to the prophet Daniel (12:2):
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
It seems that Martha (and probably Mary) believed this interpretation when Martha pleaded with Jesus to do something to overturn the death of their brother Lazarus.
Jesus’ reply gives us some certainty about a doctrine of the resurrection which, during the time of his teachings, remained controversial. His words to Martha indicate that, though physical death awaits us all, there is a life after physical death which continues indefinitely (verses 25b, 26):
He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
His teaching on the resurrection continued elsewhere (for example, Matthew 22: 23-33) when Jesus, in response to the Sadducees’ question about marriage at the resurrection, explained their error.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ claim (verse 25a): “I am the resurrection”?
We note the remarkable “I am” statement, one of seven recorded in this Gospel and a clear self-identification with YHWH – “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14).
Was Jesus, as God, telling Martha (and his disciples who were with him during this encounter) that he is to be the first to be resurrected? Was Jesus saying that he was the reason to believe that there would be a resurrection at the end of time? Was he saying that he would be the one who resurrects?
We know now that, after his crucifixion, he was resurrected on the third day, “the firstborn from among the dead” (Colossians 1: 18). We know now that, because of his resurrection, we may believe in our own resurrection. We know, as Martha and Mary and the disciples and the mourners were soon to learn, that he has the power to overcome death and the authority to restore life. The Apostle Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 15: 56-7):
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.