There is a curious idea among modern Christians concerning the relationship of the Old and New Testaments. It is the idea that Old Testament prophets all had a crystal clear understanding of every detail of the future life of Christ as they wrote and that their prophecies were all clear forecasts by which any first century Jew could know in advance the entire biography of Christ before it happened. It is supposed people were just waiting around with a standardized Checklist of Messianic Prophecies which read “When Messiah comes He will do X, Y, and Z and will be crucified, die and rise from the dead on the third day.” Early Christians then are supposed to have followed Jesus around, checking off fulfillments as they happened and, realizing that He was scoring 100, to have settled on Him as Messiah.
This is not the case. When the New Testament says “Scripture was fulfilled” it does not mean in all cases that either the Old Testament writer nor the New Testament audience of Christ had a clear idea beforehand of what fulfillment was supposed to look like. Often it was only after the fact that a stunned disciple would realize that Jesus had fulfilled Scripture at all. This was never truer than with the Resurrection of Christ, which none of the apostles saw prophesied in Scripture until the Risen Christ “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45). As John himself would make clear, so far from having a clear forecast of the life of Christ from their Bibles, “they did not know the scripture, that He must rise from the dead” even when they stood in the mouth of the empty tomb (John 20:9).
In the same way, Ezekiel’s strange prophecy does not seem to have been taken literally by most Jews of Christ’s day. He says, “Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.” But, of course, this could just be a figure of speech referring to the repatriation of Israel from the Babylonian Captivity. And so we do not find Thomas (or any of the disciples) responding to the news of Lazarus’ death by saying, “Look at this passage in Ezekiel. I bet Jesus will raise Lazarus from the dead in order to fulfill it!” Quite the contrary, Thomas expects the raising of Lazarus with the same vibrant faith with which he expected the Resurrection of Christ: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” he sarcastically mutters, and trudges off after his Master like a cynical Sancho Panza.
“You shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!” says the prophet. And likewise, Jesus declares before the miracle to His uncomprehending disciples, “”Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” But still they do not anticipate what actually occurs. This, the sign of signs, which crowns all the ones that have led up to it, is shrouded in impenetrable darkness until the moment it happens. The disciples have a vague idea of the Resurrection as some far off future quasi-mythical event. That is why Martha says, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” But Jesus declares the Last Day is not a time but a Person; that the Resurrection is not a Event, but Himself: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” The Last Day, foretold by the Prophets, is standing in Mary of Bethany’s front yard, talking to her sister Martha. The Resurrection and the Life is groaning over the death of an obscure Palestinian villager. The Apocalypse is a few feet away, hugging a distracted and desperate peasant woman and consoling her with His own anguished tears.
The rest of the narrative proceeds with such overwhelming force that it is hard to add to it without taking something away. But we should note this: the raising of Lazarus is both the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy (a fulfillment vastly beyond expectation) and itself a prophetic sign. For as Lazarus rose to natural life and drew a few people to Jesus, our Lord himself was lifted up to Glorified and Risen Life and draws all to Himself (John 12:32). Even Thomas, who finally saw, believed, and one day willingly went to die for Him.