June 29, 2014
How do you deal with grief? If you haven’t had to deal with it yet, you will, because, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die.” So how will you deal with it? How should you deal with it?
In her famous 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five common stages of grief. While not everyone goes through all five stages in order or in equal intensity, often grieving people encounter one or more of the stages when they face a significant loss: (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; and, (5) acceptance. Although these stages have been challenged and misapplied, most of us can identify with some of them if we have lost a loved one. But what’s missing, as we should expect from a secular source, is an eternal, God-centered perspective: How should believers in Christ deal with grief?
Some Christians think that since we’re to be filled with joy and praise, we shouldn’t grieve much, if at all. On my 36th birthday, I conducted a funeral for a 39-year-old man who had died of cancer, leaving a wife and two children. Two and a half years later, I conducted the wife’s funeral after she also died of cancer. But at his funeral, I was consoling the weeping wife when their former pastor from another community where they had lived came bouncing up with a big smile on his face and exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” He was implying that this grieving widow should stop crying and start praising God! I wanted to punch him! But many Christians think that if you have really strong faith, you won’t grieve much, if at all. Put on your happy face and praise God!
On the other extreme, some believers grieve just as unbelievers do, who have no hope. They just can’t come to terms with their loss. Paul wrote to some relatively new believers (1 Thess. 4:13), “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” He went on to tell them about the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead in Christ when He comes. His point was that while believers do grieve, their hope in Christ’s coming and the promise of the resurrection should make our grief different than the world’s grief.
Our text relates the interview between Jesus and Martha after her brother Lazarus died. In her characteristic, take-charge manner (see Luke 10:38-42), when Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went out to meet him, while her sister Mary stayed in the house. The sisters and their deceased brother must have been a prominent family, since many of the Jews had come to console them over their loss. As Martha and Jesus talk, Jesus makes a tremendous statement about being the resurrection and the life. Then He pointedly asks Martha (11:26), “Do you believe this?”
James Boice points out (The Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1-vol. ed., p. 736) that Jesus did not ask her, “Do you feel better now, Martha? Have you found these thoughts comforting? Do you feel your old optimism returning?” Then Boice observes, “According to Jesus it was not how she felt that was important, but what she believed.” Jesus wanted this grieving woman to come to a higher level of faith in who He is. He knew that faith in Him is a major component for us in dealing with our grief and with other major trials.
I’m calling this “overcoming faith,” because it enables us to overcome grief and loss. After the apostle Paul mentioned tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (Rom. 8:35), he added (8:37), “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” Implicit in that overwhelming victory is overcoming faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God wants us to face life’s overwhelming trials with overcoming faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are seven qualities of overcoming faith here that will help us work through life’s overwhelming trials and losses so that we grieve, but not as unbelievers who have no hope:
The setting for this miracle (11:17-20) presents us with an overwhelming situation: Lazarus was dead and had been in the tomb four days. His body was beginning to decompose, as Martha pointed out to the Lord when He ordered that the stone be removed (11:39). There were no human solutions for this situation. The sisters had been on track when they had sent word to the Lord that Lazarus was sick. But when He delayed coming for two days, Lazarus had died. So now things were beyond all human hope.
We all know that God is the author and giver of life and that He alone has the power to raise the dead physically. But we also know that both in the Bible and in human history, resurrections from the dead are rare. There are a few in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37; 13:21). The Gospels record that Jesus raised three people from the dead: The widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17); Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-56); and Lazarus. Notably, He did not raise John the Baptist when he was martyred at a fairly young age. The Lord didn’t raise James, the brother of John, when Herod executed him. Peter raised Dorcas and Paul raised Eutychus (Acts 9:35-41; 20:9-12). So we can’t know why God raised a few and not others, even though He has the power to raise anyone He pleases.
But the rare examples that we have are pictures of what God does spiritually every time He saves a sinner. Paul says that all of us by nature were dead in our trespasses and sins, but that God graciously made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:1-5). The salvation of a sinner is no less a miracle than the raising of a dead body. It requires the same power that God used when He raised Christ from the dead (Eph. 1:19-20). And if God can do that, then He can come to our aid and work according to His sovereign purpose when we are in overwhelming situations. So, we should follow the example of these friends of Jesus by taking our need to Him.
Martha and Mary both said the same thing to Jesus (11:21, 32), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Commentators differ over whether the sisters were complaining or expressing strong faith by their comments. They obviously had faith in Jesus’ ability to heal their brother, if only He had been there.
But mixed with that faith is some unbelief. Surely Martha and Mary had heard how Jesus had healed the royal official’s son from a distance (4:46-54). Jesus didn’t have to be physically present to heal Lazarus before he died. So the sisters’ comments reflect a failure to recognize that God was in control of where Jesus was when Lazarus got sick and how quickly or slowly Jesus responded when He got the news.
But most of us have thought just as Martha and Mary thought in this trial: If only things had been different! We replay in our minds: “If only I had not done what I did, the accident would not have happened!” “If only the timing had been different, the tragedy would not have happened!” But it’s really a contradiction to say, “Lord, if only things had been different.” If He’s the Lord, then He is in control of all our circumstances. Surely, He wasn’t asleep or distracted when our tragedy happened!
The Bible repeatedly affirms that God is in control of all things, including tragedies (Job 42:2; Ps. 103:19; 115:3; Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11). Psalm 135:6 declares, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” It goes on to talk about mist and lightning and wind all over the earth and then moves on to the plagues of Egypt and the conquering of the Canaanites. In other words, from relatively minor processes of nature to major, nation-changing events, God is in control.
I trust that most of you believe that, but there are some who claim to be evangelicals, but they deny that God is sovereign over evil or tragedies that happen. Their view is called “open theism.” (At least one Flagstaff church holds this view.) John Sanders, an open theist, has written (The God who Risks: A Theology of Providence [IVP], p. 262; cited by John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway Books], p. 24):
God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil…. When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.
In my estimation, that view not only denies what the Bible repeatedly affirms, namely, the absolute sovereignty of God. Also, it robs believers of the comfort of knowing that God is in control of all our circumstances, even when we can’t make sense out of them. As we’ve seen, Jesus was in control of Lazarus’ death. He deliberately remained two days longer where He was, resulting in Lazarus’ death, so that this miracle would display God’s and His own glory and so that His followers would grow in their faith (11:4, 15). So even though we often don’t understand the reason for our trials, we can know that the Lord wants us to trust Him and to gain a bigger view of His glory.
Martha’s opening comments to Jesus are a bit mixed up, although true to life when someone is grieving (11:21-22), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” In verse 21, she limits the Lord’s ability to heal by His physical presence and with regard to time (He could have done something, if only He had been there four days sooner); but in the next verse she affirms His ability to ask God for anything and receive it.
At first glance, verse 22 seems to indicate that Martha believed that even now Jesus could ask and God would raise Lazarus from the tomb. But 11:23-24 & 39 indicate that she was not thinking of that. Those verses may reflect the fluctuating emotions of a woman bouncing between grief and hope (William Hendriksen, John [Baker Academic], p. 148). Or verse 22 is probably a more general affirmation that in spite of her brother’s death, Martha has not lost her faith in Jesus and His intimacy with the Father (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 412).
It’s often hard to know how to pray in a trial because we don’t know God’s sovereign will. It may be His will to heal miraculously or it may be His will to be glorified as we trust Him during and after our loss. But we can and should pray (in line with Eph. 3:20), “Lord, I know that You are able to do far more abundantly beyond all that I can ask or think. If it’s Your will, I ask for healing [or, whatever the need]. But in any case, I ask that You will be glorified in this difficult situation.”
So, overcoming faith takes overwhelming situations to the Lord, realizing that He is in control. Also, it does not limit God.
After the Lord tells Martha that her brother will rise again (11:23), she replies (11:24), “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Although she missed the drift of Jesus’ promise to raise Lazarus that very day, Martha did express her faith in God’s promises regarding eternity. There are several Old Testament promises regarding the future resurrection of the dead (Ps. 16:9-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24, 26; Job 19:25-27; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). And the New Testament even more clearly affirms that the dead will be raised (1 Cor. 15). Jesus taught (John 5:28-29), “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
The Bible is clear that all wrongs will not be made right in this life, but they will be made right in eternity. Herod could execute the godly John the Baptist and go on living in luxury for a few years. But Herod died and faced judgment, whereas John went to be with the Lord. Years ago, I read about a godly family that was heavily involved in the cause of world missions. One evening, their adult daughter went to a Southern California mall to buy a gift for a friend’s upcoming wedding. She was abducted by two thugs who raped and murdered her. The only way to get through that kind of tragedy is to trust in God’s promises regarding eternity.
As we’ve seen, Martha should be commended for believing God’s promises regarding eternity. But Jesus meant for her to apply that promise to the present situation. He wanted her to believe that He could and would raise Lazarus that very day.
General faith for the future is easier than specific faith for the present trial. It’s easier to believe that someday God will work all our trials together for good than it is to believe that He is presently working this trial for good. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 30:494-495) tells about a poor older French couple who had framed on their wall a note worth 1,000 francs. A traveler saw it and asked about it. They said that they had taken in a dying French soldier and he had given them that little picture when he was dying as a memorial of him. But they didn’t realize that it was worth a small fortune if they would take it to the bank. Spurgeon applies it by exclaiming, “Oh that we had grace to turn God’s bullion of gospel into current coin, and use them as our present spending money.”
Jesus said (11:4) that this miracle would result in “the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Jesus revealed His glory both by showing His power in calling Lazarus from the tomb and also by His words to Martha (11:25-26): “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” This is the fifth of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John. It is clearly a claim to deity; no one other than God in human flesh could say what Jesus says here. He does not merely say that He can impart resurrection and life, which would be amazing enough. He says that He is the resurrection and the life. Those qualities are part and parcel of His being.
In claiming “I am the resurrection,” Jesus was referring to what He said in 5:28-29, that one day He will speak and all the dead from all times will arise, some to eternal life and others to judgment. Jesus further explains this when He adds (11:25), “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” “Live” has the sense of, “come to life” and refers to “the final resurrection of believers at the last day” (Carson, p. 413).
Jesus’ words, “I am … the life” are further explained by the clause, “everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Jesus does not mean that believers will never die physically, since He just referred to believers dying. Rather, He means that those who believe in Him will never die spiritually. They receive eternal life from Jesus. In 5:21, Jesus said, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” This eternal life begins the instant we believe in Jesus and is not interrupted by physical death. Rather, death ushers us into the presence of the Lord, where we will await the resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns.
Martha already had believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (as she goes on to affirm in 11:27). But Jesus challenges her in her time of grief to believe specifically in Him as the resurrection and life (11:26): “Do you believe this?” In other words, “Do you believe these specific truths about Me?” Faith that overcomes life’s trials must have specific doctrinal content about the person and work of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to have a vague, general faith in Christ. You need to know Him as He is revealed in all of God’s Word. That kind of faith will sustain you in a time of trial.
Overcoming faith takes overwhelming trials to the Lord. It realizes that God is in control of all your circumstances, including the present trial. It does not limit God. It trusts in His promises regarding eternity, but also it applies those promises to the present trial. It centers in the person of Jesus Christ. Finally,
Martha affirms her faith in Christ (11:27): “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” This is a tremendous confession of faith, on a par with Peter’s great confession (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Martha realized that Jesus was the promised Messiah. “He who comes into the world” clarifies or re-emphasizes His messianic role.
We can’t know for sure how much theological truth Martha, Peter, John the Baptist (John 1:34), and Nathaniel (1:49) knew when they confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. At the very least, they were connecting it to God’s promise to David, that God would be a Father to his sons and that they would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7). But as John’s Gospel shows, “Son of God” depicts “a unique relation of oneness and intimacy between Jesus and his Father” (Carson, p. 162) that is ontological, not merely messianic. Martha was believing what John wants his readers to believe, that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” so that we might have life in His name (20:31).
But while Martha’s confession was solid and deep, she probably didn’t yet understand fully that Jesus was eternal God in human flesh. Her reply does not seem to relate directly to what Jesus affirms in 11:25-26. In her grief, she probably couldn’t immediately sort out what Jesus was claiming about being the resurrection and the life. But she affirmed what she did believe and from there she probably later did grow to understand what Jesus had told her. She knew what she believed, confirmed that, and grew from there.
In a time of overwhelming trials, come back to what you know for sure: Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, He is the eternal Word in human flesh who died for your sins, and He was raised from the dead. Camp on those truths and you can overcome your present difficulties.
Alan Redpath wrote (Victorious Christian Living [Revell], p. 166):
There is nothing – no circumstance, no trouble, no testing – that can ever touch me until, first of all it has gone past God and past Christ, right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose which I may not understand at the moment. But as I refuse to become panicky – as I lift up my eyes to Him – and as I accept it as coming from the throne of God for some great purpose of blessing to my heart, no sorrow will ever disturb me, no trial will ever disarm me, no circumstance will cause me to fret – for I shall rest in the joy of what my Lord is. That is the rest of victory.
That is overcoming faith! The Lord wants each of us to look through our grief and tears to Him as the resurrection and the life and answer His question: “Do you believe this?”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation