A number of Gospel stories reveal that Jesus sometimes delayed his healing work. On two such occasions Jesus’ failure to appear resulted in death.
In one instance, following a summons from Martha and Mary to heal their sick brother, Jesus “remained two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:1-6). As expected, by the time Jesus arrives Lazarus has died, and Martha cries “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:20). Jesus must therefore miraculously exhume his friend.
In another instance, a synagogue leader named Jairus informs Jesus that his daughter is “at the point of death” (ἐσχάτως ἔχει) and begs him to come so that she might “be saved and live” (σωθῇ καὶ ζήσεται) (Mark 5:22-23). On the way there, power issues forth from Jesus, healing someone in the crowd. Jesus questions his disciples and “looks all around” in order to see who had accessed his power (5:30-32). Some time later, the woman who had been healed emerges from the crowd. After a brief exchange with her, Jesus receives news that the girl he had set out to save has died. Jesus’ help would therefore no longer be necessary (5:35). Jesus, of course, proceeds to raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead.
I don’t wanna wait
Both of these resurrection stories contain an element of delay. Jesus could have reached Lazarus and the girl sooner but he chooses to tarry.¹ Why?
According to the first story, Jesus lollygags because he believes the performance of a resurrection will bring more glory to God than would a standard healing (John 11:4). By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus perceives that his own glory (i.e. reputation in Israel as God’s envoy) will be compounded; indeed, Jesus’ fame and infamy spreads following the miracle (11:45-54).
According to the second story, Jesus stops for more obscure reasons. He becomes fixated on finding out who touched him and consequently received a cure. Matthew’s redaction of the scene might reflect a level discomfort with this scatterbrained portrait of Jesus. Matthew changes Jairus’ statement from “my daughter is at the point of death” to “my daughter has just died” (9:18). In so doing, the First Evangelist redirects blame for the child’s demise away from a tardy Jesus.
The man born blind
When we consider further the reasons for Jesus’ tendency to delay, the rather pragmatic answer he gives in response to the demise of Lazarus (“This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:14)) may reflect Jesus’ posture towards some of those he healed. Jesus’ startling and powerful deeds were, after all, intended as signs pertaining to the approaching kingdom of God. Such deeds were meant to be seen and talked about, at least in most contexts.² As such, it seems Jesus sometimes delayed a healing in order to build the dramatic tension and the cathartic relief.
Jesus’ words regarding the man born blind would seem to corroborate this theory. When asked by his disciples whose sin accounted for the man’s blindness, Jesus attributes the disorder to God rather than to sin: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). On other occasions Jesus does apply culpability to the sufferer (cf. Mark 2:5, Luke 13:1-5, John 5:14). Yet here, Jesus admits that sin is not always the cause of affliction; here Jesus claims that God has provided certain patients for the sake of his servant’s glory and reputation.
If we deem this attitude represented in John 9:3 & 11:14 to be historical, Jesus exhibited a reckless confidence in his abilities and in God’s sovereignty over his ministry. He believed God permitted, and in fact caused, Israel’s demonic infection to fester so that Jesus might prove the divine origins of his message and work—just as God also blinded and deafened the recalcitrant in Israel to Jesus’ message so that they might be judged (cf. Mark 4:11-12, John 9:39, 12:37-40).
As in the case of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter then, it seems Jesus sometimes allowed his patients to grow worse. In so doing, he increased the theatrical currency of the healing or resurrection, thus maximizing the spread of his kingdom message.
1—To these examples we can also add instances in which Jesus rebuffs petitioners, effectively delaying or preventing a cure (cf. John 4:47, Mark 7:25-26; 8:11-12, 9:21-25, Matthew 13:58).
2—Jesus taught openly concerning the coming kingdom but was probably hesitant or unwilling to identify himself as the Messiah.