John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Sermon 9, If Jesus is all-powerful does he need to pray to raise Lazarus?

Sermon 9 in Chrysostom’s series On the Incomprehensible Nature of God is short in length but mighty in exposition. While Chrysostom’s exegesis in sermon 8 left something to be desired, in sermon 9 he returns to a surgical precise treatment to completely undue the argument of his opponents.

The text under discussion is John 11:1-46. Chrysostom summarizes the view of the Anomoeans: “For many of the heretics are saying that the Son is not like the Father. Why? Because, they say, Christ had need of prayer to raise Lazarus back to life; if he had not prayed, he would not have brought him back from the dead” (1).[1] It is somewhat amusing that such an objection would be raised against the divinity of Christ. After all, if all it takes is prayer to raise the dead why don’t the Anomoeans simply pray to raise the dead? That would certainly lend some credence to their argument! In any event, Chrysostom simply excoriates such argument against Christ’s deity.

The Anomoeans, joined by Jews or Judaizing Christians,[2] began their assault in this text at the place where Jesus asked where Lazarus was laid (4). How can Jesus be omniscient when he does not know where Lazarus was laid? Rather than simply reverting to the standard “incarnational” or kenotic explanation, the preacher responds with some brilliant rhetorical questions of his own.

If Jesus is ignorant, then the Father must be too (5-6). Why did God ask Adam where he was? Did God not know? Why did God ask Cain where Abel was? Did God not know? Why did God tell Abraham he had to see if what he heard about the wickedness of Sodom was true? Did God not know? There must be a higher purpose to such questions from the Lord. Furthermore, returning to the text itself, if Jesus is not omnipotent how did he know four days beforehand that Lazarus was going to die? And in fact had already died? (10)

But Chrysostom does not dispense entirely with an argument based on the condescension of Jesus. The prayer of Jesus was an act of condescension to Martha who said “I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”[3] Jesus prayed because that was the extent of Martha’s faith. But Jesus had already demonstrated that he did not need to pray to raise the dead. Jesus simply told the widow’s son[4] and the young daughter of the synagogue ruler[5] to arise and they did (11). While Christ had the power to simply command the dead to rise, he condescended to pray because that is what Martha asked for.

Chrysostom explains this marvelously:

So Martha asked for prayers, and the Savior gave her prayers. Someone else said: “I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. But only speak the word, ‘Be it done to you,’ and my boy will be cured.” And the Savior said to him: “Be it done to you according to your faith.” Another man said: “Come and cure my daughter.” And Christ said to him: “I shall follow you.” Therefore, the physician applies the cure as men wish and desire it, just as at another time a woman secretly touched the hem of his robe and secretly she was cured. And Martha said: “I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Because she asked for prayer, the Savior gives her a prayer. But it was not because he had need to pray; it was because he was accommodating himself to her weakness. He was showing her that he was not opposed to God but that whatever he does, the Father also does. (14)

Such examples could of course be multiplied many times over. We can even see the same principle working in the opposite direction. When Jesus returned to his hometown to minister, “he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”[6] Chrysostom’s reasoning is Scriptural and undeniable. And he is only getting warmed up.

The enemies of truth say the prayer of Jesus proves that he does not have the same power of the Father. Chrysostom turns his attention to the prayer and simply obliterates the argument of the heretics. The questions he asks are simple, yet forcefully persuasive. What did Jesus ask for? Nothing (17). What did Jesus pray for concerning Lazarus himself? Nothing (18). Who did Jesus pray for? The living (18-19). When did Lazarus rise? When Jesus prayed? No. Afterwards, when Jesus commanded (20). The very prayer itself serves to support the preachers argument that the prayer was a condescension to Martha and those present. Jesus did not ask the Father to raise Lazarus. Jesus did not ask for the power to raise Lazarus. Lazarus had no place in the prayer of Jesus. Jesus did not need to pray, he only needed to command. And command he did.

“Lazarus, come out here!” The dead man heard the command of his master and immediately he broke the laws of death. Let the heretics be ashamed and perish from the face to the earth! Surely, Christ’s word has proved that the prayer was not uttered to raise the dead man but because of the weakness of the unbelievers who were, at the moment, nearby. “Lazarus, come forth!” Why did he call the dead man by name? Why? If he were to have given a general command to all the dead, he would have raised all those in the tomb back to life. But he did not wish to raise them all. That is why he said: “Lazarus, come forth! I am calling you alone to come back for a time. And I am calling you before the throng here present, so that, by raising one dead man to life, I may prove my power over those who are going to die. For I, who have raised one man, will raise up the whole world. For I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Lazarus, come forth!” And the dead man came forth bound with bandages. What marvelous and unexpected things Christ did! He loosed the soul from the bonds of death. He burst open the portals of hell. He shattered to bits the gates of bronze and the bolts of iron. (21-22)

This sermon in a prime of example of how John earned the name Chrysostom—golden mouth. It is a model of biblical exegesis and exposition.

 


[1] All parenthetical paragraph references refer to Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, The Fathers of the Church A New Translation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] Chrysostom refers to “the Jews” throughout the sermon. Obviously Jews would be united with Anomoeans against the deity of Christ, but Harkins believe they may have been Judaizers since it seems they were conversant in the New Testament.

[3] John 11:22

[4] Luke 7:11-15

[5] Mark 5:40-42

[6] Matt. 13:58

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