John 11:3,5 – Jesus, Lazarus, and Agape Love

By Wayne Jackson

Lazarus of Bethany, a disciple of Jesus, became dangerously ill. His sisters, Martha and Mary, sent a desperate message to the Lord, who was some miles away. The message was this: “Lord, he whom you love is sick” (Jn. 11:3). The term for “love” is phileo, “affection.”

It seems perplexing, at least from the human vantage point, that Christ did not rush to the scene to care for him who was the object of his affection. Rather, he delayed two days, during which time Lazarus died. Why did the Lord refrain from going directly to Bethany?

The key to the mystery is in verses 5-6.

“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When therefore he heard that he was sick, he abode at that time two days in the place where he was.”

Here, the word for “love” is agapao, “dedication.” Verse 5 speaks of the dedication or devotion that Jesus had for this family. He was interested in the kind of faith that could be produced in them if they were allowed to wait a bit.

Of special significance in this matter is the word “therefore” in verse 6. Jesus loved … therefore he waited. The sisters wanted the Son of God to operate on the phileo level; he chose the higher ground and pursued the devotion of agapao.

Ralph Earle has this interesting comment on this passage.

“The highest motivation for love is not our feelings or affections, but rather an honest, intelligent facing of the question: ‘What is best for the one I love?’ This is how God acts” (Word Meanings in the New Testament, p. 89).

And so, circle “love” in verse 3, and marginally note: affection; see verse 5. Then, at verse 5 circle “love,” and write: devotion; an incentive to greater faith. Also call attention to the use of “therefore” as an explanation for the action.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.