Life, Death, and the Number 4

Life, Death, and the Number 4, like characters in an epic saga, represent a foundational narrative in many belief systems, cultures, and philosophies. They interweave in a harmonious yet often perplexing pattern, offering solemn reflection and profound revelation. This piece explores the convergence of these motifs through the perspective of a biblical narrative, the Gospel of John 11:1-45. It presents a message of hope and redemption in the face of despair and apparent hopeless finality.

Analyzing John 11:1-45

The story of Lazarus, as told in the Gospel of John 11, is a model saga of life, death, and resurrection. It paints a vivid portrait of human vulnerability and divine intervention, starring Jesus Christ as the bringer of life and conqueror of death. He declares: “I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).

Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, becomes gravely ill. Despite the urgency of the situation and how close Lazarus and his siblings Mary and Martha were to Jesus, Jesus delays his arrival. He shows up on the fourth day, not in the early morning but around midday or noon.

In his Sermon (LXII no. 2), Saint John Chrysostom suggests that Jesus received news of Lazarus’s illness a day after he fell sick and died, yet he stayed for an additional two days. However, it’s likely that while Jesus was coming, he attended to other matters along the way, not excluding the possibility of continuing teaching and healing others. How could he?  

Was Jesus uncaring, indifferent, and aloof? It would seem so to a heart wrapped in grief. When we’re wound up in our pains, signals that make us feel no one cares about us take center stage in our perceptions. They make us think God has abandoned us. We feel alone. There is also a chance we might not notice the compassionate and caring gestures of our loved ones. We might begin to say like Martha, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21), “this or that would not have happened.”

By the time Jesus reaches Lazarus’ tomb, the Number 4, a symbolic representation of finality, has manifested in the marked absence of life. Death is complete. A reverse seems impossible. But is it?

The Number 4

The Number 4 is symbolic in many ways. In many cultures, it represents completeness, stability, and solidity. Consider the ancient Greek philosophical view about the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, which are seen as foundational to the world and physical nature. The symbolism 4 extends to the natural world, representing the four seasons—spring, summer, autumn, and winter—and the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). This idea further emphasizes its association with completeness and the cyclical nature of life and the universe.

Image with Number 4

The Number 4 holds a significant place in the Igbo culture of West Africa. It represents the structure of our tribe’s economic cycle. The cycle is divided into four market days. They include Eke, Oye, Afor, and Nkwo. Each plays a crucial role in the rhythm of life and commerce in the Igbo community.

There is also the idea that number 4 is the base of the simplest non-trivial square (2×2), symbolizing mathematical stability and structure. In classical Christian and philosophical thoughts, the cardinal virtues are four—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.  

The Number 4 symbolism has a lot to reveal in this exchange between Jesus, his apostles, Lazarus’ family, and the people who witnessed Jesus’ power to raise the dead. Miracles are real when the door of the natural flow of things is shut. And he who has the power to open those doors is completeness itself, and his word is final, the Absolute Yes and Amen to divine promises (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Power Above All

Jesus, undiscouraged by the stench of death and the four-day threshold considered by Jews to signify the point of no return, calls out to Lazarus with the irresistible summons of resurrection. His voice carries the same power as his words. His word is spirit and life (John 6:63), and the power of his word brings existence where there is none. Just like God who creates in Genesis chapter one through the power of his word, Jesus utters his word, and life is given.

The narrative’s climax sees Lazarus emerge from the tomb, bound in grave clothes, a living testament to the power of the One who is life itself. The profound message embedded in this encounter is a penetrating light that pierces the veil of despair. It assures that life is not subject to mortal constraints and that death does not have the final word.

Hope in Desperation

Hope often eludes us when life confronts us with its insurmountable trials, and death casts its suffocating shadow. Here, in the trenches of our despair, in the despair of the pain of the symbolic Number 4, the Gospel narrative offers us solace and direction. The delay of Jesus’s arrival, his inevitable trek toward human suffering, and his willingness to weep alongside those experiencing loss unravel a narrative wrought with divine empathy and patient hope.

Only when God is dead would your hope be gone forever. Do we ever think God dies? Or don’t we realize God goes on working even when we do not feel or see it?   

In every desperate circumstance, the story of Lazarus reminds us that the divine clock ticks to a timeless rhythm. It is not bound by our mortal urgencies. Jesus declares to you, me, and all, “I am the resurrection and the life….” In me, he says, you die no more (John 11:25).

The passage echoes through the corridors of our most lonely and sad moments. It rejuvenates the contours of our despairing neural stimuli. It whispers the assurance of a savior who understands our suffering and transcends it with a promise of unending life.

Resurrection and Redemption

Resurrection, as a concept, is far more than a mere resuscitation from physical death. It signifies the restoration of life to a completeness that death cannot diminish. The cycle of life is more than birth to death; it is also death to life. Lazarus’s resurrection after the Number 4 symbolizes the redemption offered through faith in Christ—a life reanimated by the sovereign breath of the Creator. This theme resounds with the chord of hope that rings above the somber cadence of mortality.

In the face of death, the Gospel speaks of a new creation where life is inseparably tethered to its author. It offers a story of redemption that encompasses the entirety of our being. This promise echoes the divine mandate to be fruitful and multiply, overlaying the narrative of newness upon the resignation of finality.

Closing Doors and Opening Hearts

The imagery of closed doors is a poignant theme, also. Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, lament the permanence of their brother’s death. They surrender to the confinement of the sealed tomb’s finality. Jesus, however, approaches this barrier with the assurance of divine authority and a heart open to the depths of human grief. For Jesus, closed doors are a prelude to surprising visitation. He sends the heavy stone rolling in awe-struck obedience to Life’s command.

This symbolism is a powerful reminder that our human limitations and closed doors are no confinement to the One who stands at the threshold of our hearts. In moments where despair has shut the doors of our souls, the Gospel beckons with definite assurance. There is one who can open those doors. He can enter despite the closure, inviting a resurrection that transcends the very order of our natural existence.


The Gospel of John 11:1-45 speaks to one of the most fundamental events of human existence—the interplay between life and death. The story of Lazarus, infused with layers of symbolic richness, offers a compelling view of these themes from a gospel perspective. It dares to proclaim a message of hope. The message defies the logic of mortality. It assures us that in Christ, even the finality of death is but a gateway to unassailable life.

This message is a call to ponder the mysteries of existence at its core. Death is a reality we are all appointed to face. Pains and wounds are part of life. Yet the Gospel testimonies weave a story of a savior who has risen triumphantly—defeating death and embodying the promise of life forever. The inexplicable convergence of life, death, and the Number 4 ultimately points to a radical truth. In Christ, our Savior, the supposed finality of the Number 4 is a stepping stone to eternity, a numberless life. It is life lived forever in abundance.

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Fr. Maurice Emelu

The Reverend Dr. Maurice Emelu is the Chair of a number of non-profit boards and a professor of digital media and communication at John Carroll University, United States. His research and practices focus on digital storytelling and design, media aesthetics and theological aesthetics, and church communication. Dr. Emelu lives where digital media technology meets culture, communication, philosophy, theology, religion, and society. He is the founder of Gratia Vobis Ministries, Inc. To know more about his professional background, visit


  1. Mary Elizabeth Klein on March 16, 2024 at 10:38 am

    This is a thought provoking analysis and commentary and encourages us to ponder the mysteries of the faith.

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