His Face Bound with a Linen Cloth

I don’t like thinking about death but I’ve been doing a good lot of thinking about it lately. It’s no fun to think about death. As an American, always moving, restless, ever conquering, I resist it. Death is the enemy and I resist it on that basis. There’s much to do in this life. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to think about death. First, as a Reformed Christian I confess that there are two aspects to the Christian life and the first is “dying of the old man” (mortification—surely not the path to megachurch growth!) and the second is “the making alive of the new.” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 88). A dear friend recently went to be with the Lord, another has been diagnosed with cancer. A close relative is battling cancer and another relative had a very close call, as they say. So, death presses us on all sides but so does something else.

I’ve also been meditating on Lazarus (John 11). Jesus knew that Lazarus was ill but delayed his visit by two days (11:6). It seems evident from the narrative that Jesus intentionally allowed Lazarus to die in order to display his power (11:11-16) and he did that in order that the disciples might see who is is and believe. Lazarus really died. His heart stopped. His breathing stopped. Brain activity started. The narrative is startlingly realistic. By the time Jesus and the disciples arrived Lazarus’ body had already begun to decay (11:7, 39). His delayed arrival brought sharp rebuke from Lazarus’ family (11:21, 32). Jesus’ grief was just as real as Lazarus’ death. He wept (11:35).

They believed in the resurrection (11:23-24) but they didn’t understand that Jesus IS the resurrection (11:25-27) but he is the resurrection. The Word spoke creation into existence (John 1:1). Outside Lazarus’ tomb Jesus, the Word, spoke once again and spoke Lazarus’ new creation into existence (11:43) and, as in the beginning, Lazarus came forth (11:44). John adds a remarkable detail, however. Most of the paintings of Lazarus focus on Jesus (as the artist imagines him). I wasn’t able to find any that follow John’s narrative closely. They typically show Lazarus’ face uncovered but when he came out of the tomb, he wasn’t freshly washed and clean. He reeked of death and decay. His hands and feet were “bound with linen cloths” and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” He was the “man who had died” (11:44). At that moment he looked more like the Mummy than like Lazarus.

There was a great, marvelous change, however. Lazarus was alive. He was renewed. He walked out of the tomb and left it behind. In chapter 12 we see him reclining, at table, eating dinner with our Lord. Nevertheless, any resurrection short of the consummation of all things will necessarily be imperfect. The rags of sin and death would continue to cling to Lazarus. His resurrection was such a scandal that authorities (12:10) conspired to put him to death along with Jesus! We have no record that Lazarus was preserved from death but when he died the second time he did so with a unique knowledge of our Lord’s power. He understood that he was going to be with his Savior and that the One who had raised him would do so again and this time permanently, without the rags or stink of death.

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  1. I would think dying to the old man actually COULD be mega-church material. It’s chalk full of Law-driven goodness for those seeking a new method or technique to be better people.

    • Eddie,

      Can you explain. I’ve not seen too many mega-preachers talking about mortification.

      Nothing wrong with preaching mortification in light of the gospel, right?

    • As I recall, John Owen would call this a “legal mortification” as opposed to one based on the Gospel–see his “Mortification of Sin.” But Dr. Clark is right–I haven’t heard any mega-church guys speak on mortification as such.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I love reading your blog! I am always challenged by the things you write. You inspired me to learn Latin, and I am in my second year of it. This question is not related to the topic on your blog. I was wondering as a church historian are you familiar with the content of this book that Dr. Bradley is talking about, and do you believe that it is beneficial for Believers to talk about such things?

    Also, the comments by Peter Enns and Ligon Duncan are pretty interesting.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for pointing out those details which I never noticed or thought about. Your remarks about Lazarus’ face being still covered reminded me of this:

    “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthinans 3:18

    That, and of course, one of my favorites, Job 19:25-27 which Lazarus saw fulfilled in part.

  4. J Paterson-Smyth in “A People’s Life of Christ” writes:

    “Now Mary is hurrying to meet Him with the same
    heart-broken cry, the one thought of both sisters since the funeral day. “Lord, if thou hadst been here my brother had not died.” But something in His appearance awes and silences her, a look of strain and trouble and inward agitation. The Evangelist himself was evidently greatly impressed. “He groaned in spirit and was troubled.” At the tomb he again sees Him groaning in spirit. On the way to the tomb he sees tears on His face. We do not know the meaning. It does not seem natural to think of it as grief for a sorrow that He was just about to remove. Might it be reluctance to bring back His friend, even for an important purpose, into the miseries of this sinful world?”

    and then he speculates:

    “Then we cannot help thinking of Lazarus. Even
    in the presence of the victorious Christ at the tomb, we cannot keep our eyes off Lazarus. Often in this
    history we have wished to know the further life of
    men who have for a moment crossed the stage with
    Jesus. Above all others Lazarus. The man who
    went into the world beyond the grave and came back.
    How did he look on this world? Why did he not
    tell of that world which Jesus pictured in His story of
    Dives as a world of vivid conscious life and thought
    and memory? …………I think of Lazarus as a man dazed by the tremendous thing that had flashed on him, as it were, for a moment. Surely he went softly all his days, a quiet, silent man with a far-off look in his eyes, as one who has dreamed a wondrous dream and cannot recall it. Thus Jesus taught again that death was not an ending. Only one lesson more was needed and that was coming soon, when the Christ of God Himself arose from the dead and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.”

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