Background: John was in the process of being recognized as an elder of our church when he died of cancer, still in his 30s. The funeral is from John 11 and the raising of Lazarus.
John Smith died at the age of 38, leaving behind his wife and three children. I think there is a sense in which we can all agree that this is a tragedy. Perhaps you have come expecting a some kind of apology from God, or at least an explanation. If God were not a God of love we would have no need for any explanation. Russia feels no need to explain her act of shooting down a civilian aircraft, but we have learned not to expect that nation to act out of love or compassion. If God were not sovereign, we could explain John's death as something which was not God's will, but was simply beyond His ability to control. But John and Sue's faith is in a God who is both good and great. Their faith, and mine, is that it is God's will to die what would seem to be an untimely death. When John and I talked about this service, I promised him that I would share with you the truth of the Gospel, which was the basis for John's faith and hope.
The portion of Scripture which was read to you from the eleventh chapter of John's Gospel contains a message which is particularly relevant to us today. Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus, was critically ill. Mary and Martha sent an urgent message to the Savior, expecting that He would immediately come to them and heal Lazarus. John informs us, however, that Jesus responded (it would seem to the messengers who had been sent) that the illness of Lazarus was not unto death, but for the glory of God. Then, instead of hastening to Bethany, Jesus deliberately delayed for two days. The disciples were not surprised and did not seem eager to encourage Jesus to return to Judea, for opposition had become so intense that some of the Jews had attempted to stone Jesus (v. 8). To go back to Bethany, to the disciples, meant almost certain death (v. 16).
John writes in such a way as to highten our interest. He tells us what Mary and Martha did not yet know--that Jesus could have been there much sooner, but that He chose not to, so that Lazarus would die. Jesus could have been there sooner, but chose not to. Jesus could have prevented the death of Lazarus, but did not. Why? That is the question which John intends us to ask. Before we seek to find the answer from this text, let me make three observations which are crucial to our understanding.
(1) The Lord purposed for Lazarus to die.
Let us not attempt to gloss over the clear statement of verse 6 that Jesus deliberately delayed knowing that Lazarus would be dead (v. 14). The Lord could have prevented Lazarus' death and restored him to perfect health, just as Mary and Martha believed (cf. vss. 21, 32). The tragic thing about the death of Lazarus, in addition to the fact that it was untimely, was that Jesus could have prevented it. While many attempt to explain death in such a way as to absolve God of any responsibility, John clearly tells us that Lazarus died because our Lord planned it that way. I wish to be very clear this morning when I say to you that it is the firm conviction of those in this church, including Sue, that John's death was the will of God. John died because it was God's time for him. The God who is sovereign in our salvation is also sovereign in our suffering.
(2) The Lord Jesus loved Lazarus.
When Mary and Martha sent news to our Lord of Lazarus' illness, they said, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick" (v. 3). That was not just their estimation, for in verse 5 we are told that Jesus did love Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazarus, He wept (11:33, 35). Those who witnessed the response of the Lord to the grief of Mary and the others remarked, "Behold how He loved him! (11:36). What Jesus did here, he did out of love. We have no doubt that our Lord also loved John Smith and his family. While we may not fully understand how it can be, the death of Lazarus, and John Smith, and other saints, is not inconsistent with His love.
(3) The delay of Jesus and the death of Lazarus was for the glory of God.
Just as some believe that death is inconsistent with God's love, so they also contend that death is contrary to the glory of God. But our Lord told His disciples that the death of Lazarus was the reason for His delay, so that God might be glorified as He was glorified (v. 4). Do you notice that John made no attempt to apologize for our Lord's delay or for the death of Lazarus. Why should he apologize for what Jesus said was intended to glorify Him. For me, this means that I dare not attempt to apologize for John's death. It, too, is the will of God, consistent with the love of God. But how can cancer claiming the life of John Smith possibly be glorifying to God? Let us look further in John chapter 11 to learn the answer.
The key to understanding the death of Lazarus is directly related to the glory of God. What is it that glorifies God at the time of death which helps explain why our Lord purposed to let Lazarus died when he could have been healed?
First, God is glorified by the demonstration of His power.
Jesus had performed many miracles before the raising of Lazarus, but the miracle of the raising of Lazarus is far greater. After all, which is the greater miracle, to heal a sick man or to raise a dead man? Mary and Martha both believed that Jesus could have healed their brother so long as he was alive, but neither entertained hopes of his being brought forth from that tomb. The power of God was seen on that day to be not only greater than sickness, but even greater than death itself.
Our Lord's power over death was vitally important. The raising of Lazarus was to serve as proof our Lord's claim to be "the resurrection and the life," the One who would give life to all who would believe in Him, even though he were to die. Jesus claimed to have power over death itself, so that none of those who believe in Him will be subject to the power of death (v. 26). Jesus told His opponents that the last and final sign would be His resurrection from the dead (Matt. 12:38-40). It was our Lord's resurrection which proved His claim to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). The raising of Lazarus was proof of the power of the Lord Jesus over death.
Second, God is glorified by the demonstration of our faith.
I believe that our text makes it clear that the glory of God is inseparably related to faith. While in verse 4 He speaks of the His purpose for the death of Lazarus in terms of His glory, in verses 14 & 15 He speaks of the death of Lazarus in terms of their faith: "Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe. . .'"
When Jesus was met by Martha, she professed her faith in His ability to heal Lazarus, had He arrived in time. But even beyond this, she testified that she knew, even now, that God would answer His petition (11:21-22). The Lord Jesus included His ability to raise the dead in the category of faith and asked Martha if she believed this (vss. 23, 25-26), to which she responded in a beautiful confession of faith: "Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world" (v. 27).
Martha's faith in Christ as her Messiah and her Savior of necessity included faith in His power over death and the grave. To believe in Him as Savior is to trust in Him as the resurrection and the life. Mary's faith was apparently not as great at this moment, but the Lord Jesus encouraged her to believe so that she could behold the glory of God: "Did I not say to you, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?" (v. 40).
When Lazarus was raised from the grave we are told that many who beheld believe in Him (11:45).
God is glorified when men believe in His Son, Jesus Christ. God is glorified by the faith of men in Christ as their Savior, and as the One who alone has power over death and the grave. Now, when, I would ask you, is our faith greater? When we must trust Him as one who can heal sickness, or when we must trust His power to raise the dead? The answer is obvious. Our Lord purposely allowed Lazarus to die so that He might deepen the faith of those He loved, and so that He might draw to faith, those who had not yet trusted in Him as Mary and Martha had done already.
For Mary and Martha, those whom our Lord loved greatly, their faith would not grow deeper apart from the temporary loss of Lazarus. Only when Mary and Martha came to trust the Lord Jesus in the face of death did their faith grow. Those of us who knew and loved John believed that God was able to heal him of the cancer which was destroying his body. The greater act of faith will now be for us to trust our Lord to raise John from the dead. It is in the darkest hours of our lives that our Lord seeks to strengthen our faith and thus to glorify Himself.
You may object that there is a difference between what took place in John chapter 11 and what has happened here. After all, our Lord did raise Lazarus, but He has not done so with John. There are differences. Jesus raised Lazarus only a few days after he died. But I would also remind you that Lazarus eventually died. He was raised from the dead. John, along with all who trust in God will be resurrected from death, never to die again.
Let me point out that the critical time for Mary and Martha to exercise faith in the love and power of our Lord was while the body of Lazarus was still in the grave. Jesus talked with both Martha and Mary about their faith while Lazarus was still dead. That was when faith was most difficult and when it was most necessary. So it is with us. Some day, the Bible promises us, the Lord Jesus will come again for His own. At that time the dead in Christ will return with Him and we shall be joined with our Lord and our saved loved ones in the air. The resurrection of John Smith is just as certain as that of Lazarus--indeed, it is more certain, for now we have the account of the raising of Lazarus, and even better, the resurrection of our Lord. These are the times when faith is most required, and when our faith is forced to deepen. But it is in the process that God is glorified.
Lazarus was dead, and it was the sovereign will of God, consistent with the love of God. Our Lord was glorified by the death of Lazarus because it provided the opportunity for Him to demonstrate His power and it also gave those whom He loved the opportunity to exercise their faith. It was God's time for John Smith to die. It was no mistake. It was for God's glory, and the Bible tells us it is for John's good, and for the good of his family. We do not fully understand how or why this is so, any more than Mary or Martha understood what our Lord was doing until after Lazarus had been raised. But we do know that it was not enough for them to believe that God could have cured Lazarus from his illness. God was glorified by the demonstration of His power over death, and by the faith of those who place their trust in Him.
As we stand, as it were, before the grave, it is the time when we must believe if we would find comfort in these difficult times and if we would experience His presence and His power. John and Sue did not look forward to this moment, any more than Mary and Martha did the death of Lazarus, but they did in those dark hours come to a deeper and fuller trust in the Savior.
John tells us in this passage that the death of Lazarus resulted in the belief of many. It was John's request that I speak very plainly to you in this service to invite each of you to find in his death, just as Mary and Martha did at the death of Lazarus, an occasion to trust in the Lord Jesus as Savior and as Lord.
The Lord Jesus is never more worthy of our trust than He is at this moment. He not only raised Lazarus from the grave, but He Himself died for our sins and rose from the dead, triumphant and able to raise all men from the grave. The faith of John and Sue is in the Savior, who is the resurrection and the life.
Unfortunately not all who witnessed to raising of Lazarua from the grave came to faith in the Lord Jesus. We read in the text that from that point on the religious leaders of the nation planned to put Jesus to death. I am certain that in this service there are some who see death only as a dreaded enemy, totally inconsistent with the goodness and power of God. I urge you, as John may already have done, to place your trust in the Lord Jesus, so that even in the death of this loved one, we may glorify God and know that John's death is but sleep. John's desire is that when our Lord returns to raise him from the grave, you will be there too.