John's Gospel

The Way It Happened

John 11:39, He Stinketh

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.

//I laughed at Rob Bell’s humorous discussion of this verse in Velvet Elvis, but in truth, the phrase “he stinketh” struck me as memorable long ago, too.

Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus has died, and four days later, Jesus shows up at the tomb. But Martha, the sister of Lazarus, has lost hope. Lazarus is so far gone that he stinketh. Nevertheless, Jesus raises him back to life.

I confess, I don’t read this story literally … I find too many clues that it was meant to be read rather as a parable of new life. Think of the prodigal son, of whom it was said, “This my son was dead, and is alive again.” The poor man had squandered all that he owned, and wound up with the smelly job of feeding swine. Likewise, Lazarus has fallen so deep into sin that he stinketh.

Ever feel that way yourself? It can be a harsh awakening to discover we’re so far gone that we stinketh. Nevertheless, new life is still possible, and Jesus can help.


  1. While I don’t take the passage literally either, there is no evidence that Lazarus’ life was in such bad shape from being a bad guy that he “stinketh” (stunketh?)with sin, although that could be true. In order for your interpretation to work properly, you have to create that stinking sinner idea as an assumption.

    Otherwise, the basic lesson seems good: you can’t possibly be too far gone for Christian faith to no longer be effective.

  2. Lee Harmon

    Hi BGM! Perhaps we must first figure out who Lazarus is. Precious little is provided in scripture, so speculation runs amok. I take a stab at the question in my own book about John’s Gospel. 😉

  3. Just found your blog, Lee, really enjoying it!

    As to Lazarus,there are hints from other sources that Lazarus (via his family) was wealthy. He may have been the “rich young man” referred to in the synoptics. Luke uniquely adds the parable of poor Lazarus and an unnamed rich man; in the afterlife their roles are interestingly reversed — Lazarus has wealth/the good life in heaven as a reward.

    If The Secret Gospel of Mark is legitimate, as I believe it is (and not a modern forgery), it indicates that Lazarus is the young man in the white linen being taught the mysteries of the Kingdom of God by Jesus in the garden just before Jesus is arrested. These odd verses 14:51-52 in Mark seem to be out of place or come out of nowhere. It seems Lazarus here is symbolic of one who is initiated into the mysteries by first “dying” and then experiencing rebirth, perhaps through baptism (where baptism washes away our past/former life of sin/death). If this connection is correct, then it is also young Lazarus (reborn) who is the young man in white in the empty tomb (Mark 16:5) who announces to the women “He is risen! He is not here.”

    Lazarus then for me represents the person (wealthy or otherwise) — even so far gone “he stinketh” — who is the ideal disciple (perhaps even the beloved disciple?), who has given up all to become Jesus’ disciple and undergone the internal transformation of death and rebirth, i.e., rising above or transcending death.

    • Lee Harmon

      Hi Wendy! Sooo much speculation on who the mysterious Lazarus was! It’s a great topic. I weigh in on the topic with my own book on John’s Gospel, and I find it fun to speculate about the connection between Lazarus and the young man in Mark. Great minds, eh?? 😉

      Thanks for contributing!

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