A couple of years ago I attended the funeral of a young woman who died of cancer. The woman who had passed way was a young mother, 32 years old, who left behind a husband and two young children. It was indeed, in human terms, a tragic death. The minister who conducted the funeral was the pastor of a very large and liberal church. I will never forget his message, for it was instrumental in my life to completely change my way of handling a funeral service. In the course of his message, he made this statement: “I am convinced that it was not the will of God for this young woman to die.”
It was hardly more than a week later that I was called upon to preach a funeral message from behind the very same pulpit that this liberal pastor had stood. My family and I had slipped away to Houston for a couple of days of retreat. We had just arrived when the call came that an acquaintance had passed away, and that, if possible, the family would like me to handle the service. I can still remember my thoughts as I was driving back to Dallas, pondering what I would say. I had been reading in the gospel of John, chapter 11, when all of a sudden the matter of a Christian view of death came into sharp focus against the backdrop of the funeral service I had attended just a few days before. It is that view of death which I would like to share with you as we come to the greatest miracle in the life and ministry of our Lord, the raising of Lazarus from the grave. An account recorded only in the gospel of John, chapter 11.166
From the last verses of John chapter 10, we would conclude that Jesus was in Perea, approximately 20 miles from the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when word reached the Master that Lazarus was gravely ill (John 11:3). As we piece together the details of the account it would seem that even at the time word reached the Savior Lazarus had already passed away.167 Mary and Martha are known to us from Luke 10:38-42. In the 12th chapter of John, we are told of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus in preparation for His death and burial. In the urgent message sent to the Master, there was evident a confidence and faith in Him as both Savior and Friend. He was simply informed of the situation. No suggestion was made as to the course of action He should take. They knew Jesus would do what was best.
What Jesus actually did was a complete surprise, for we would have expected Him to heal (or raise) Lazarus from a distance (cp. Matthew 8:5-13). At the very least, we would have expected Him to immediately go to Bethany. But instead He purposed to stay where He was for two days (verse 6). The disciples would hardly question the decision of Jesus, assuming it a matter of common sense. Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem (verse 13), and the Jews had already attempted to put Jesus to death there (John 8:59; 10:39). No sense putting your head in the lion’s mouth. But concern for personal safety was not the issue at all to Jesus, as we shall see later. The reason for our Lord’s delay was due to the divine purpose for Lazarus’ death.
“But when Jesus heard it, He said, ‘This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified in it.’” (John 11:4).
Here is where the liberal preacher whom I mentioned before was absolutely wrong. It was the will of God for that 32-year-old mother to die of cancer. Just so, it was the will of God for Lazarus to die, while the Savior Who could have healed him was 20 miles away. If God is God at all, He is God of all. It is impossible for God to be God and not to be responsible (ultimately) for all that occurs. By this I do not mean to say that God is the source of all evil, but that God is responsible for including the existence of evil, tragedy, and suffering in His plan. He does not cause sin, but He does purpose to employ its commission to further His purposes (cf. Genesis 50:20).
The immediate outcome of God’s will for Lazarus was for him to die (verse 14), but the ultimate goal was for him to live (verse 23). It is for this reason that the Master spoke of his temporary condition of death as sleep, for he would soon be awakened.
God’s purpose in the death of Lazarus was to glorify Himself, through the glorification of His Son (verse 4). Although there were other times that Jesus raised men from the dead, this was done after Lazarus had been dead for four days. While others had been raised from death in more out of the way places (cf. Matthew 9:22-26; Luke 7:11-17), this took place at the very heart of Judea, only two miles from Jerusalem. This was the high-water mark of the miracles of our Lord. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus was shown to be the ‘resurrection and the life’ (verse 25). No greater evidence of His person can be found in all of the Gospel accounts.
This was the word of comfort which Jesus sent back to Martha and Mary: Lazarus is only temporarily dead, and better yet his momentary death would be used to the glory of God through the exaltation of the Son. And this, my friends, is precisely where we must find comfort as well. Whenever the Christian comes face to face with death, whether the reality of his own, that of a relative or friend, or that of a stranger, whether saved or unsaved—we are to find comfort in the fact that this death, every death is for the glory of God.
You will understand that I am momentarily departing from our text, but we have come to a point too crucial to pass by without comment. Let me suggest several reasons why death is to the glory of God. First of all, death reveals God to be holy and just, a God Who cannot overlook sin, but Who must punish sin. He is a God Who deals decisively with sin. Centuries ago God told Adam concerning the forbidden fruit,
“But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Paul wrote, ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Contrary to popular opinion, death does not make God look bad. It shows how offensive sin is in God’s sight. It reveals God’s holiness and justice in dealing with it so severely. The fact that every man will die reveals that God is absolutely consistent and unwavering in His judgment on sin.
Second, death brings glory to God in that it is the ‘last enemy’ over which our Lord Jesus Christ will prevail, and in so doing He will manifest Himself as Lord of all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). Third, I would suggest that death is designed to bring glory to God through the victorious testimony of His saints in the face of death. The world dreads and avoids every suggestion of it. The Christian does not delight in it, for it is an ugly reminder of sin, but he does not dread it. Instead, he considers it a defeated enemy. Death to the Christian is a necessary step in entering into the presence of the living God (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; Philippians 1:19-24; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
I have lingered long on the fact that death is a part of the purpose and plan of God to bring glory to Himself. In this, we may find comfort. But in the midst of the fact that God has purposed death to glorify Himself let us not miss another clear and resounding strain which permeates the first six verses of John 11—that is the depth of the friendship and love which existed between Jesus and Lazarus and his sisters: “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
Throughout the entire account of the raising of Lazarus, the intimate friendship and love of Jesus for this family is underscored. And herein is one of the most comforting of all principles to strengthen and comfort us in the face of death: THE PURPOSE OF GOD IS NEVER SEPARATED FROM HIS LOVE FOR HIS OWN.”
So often those who stand solidly on the truth of the sovereignty of God (as I pray I do) tend to depreciate the love of God. God’s purposes never sacrifice the best interest of His own. God’s love for His own is never surrendered to His purposes. The two go hand-in-hand. What a comfort we should find in that truth!
The real concern of the disciples was not distress over the death of Lazarus (for they did not yet comprehend that he had died (verse 13), but over the possibility, better yet, the probability, of their own if they went with Jesus into Judea. After the two days had passed, Jesus announced to His disciples168 that they were going to Judea. To them, this was suicide (verse 8). At this point of fear for the future over what seemed certain death, Jesus laid down another principle for Christians of any generation concerning danger in the service of the Master:
“Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him’” (John 11:9-10).
Jesus had already been shown to be the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). If the light of the world is in us (as He surely is when we are engaged in His service), then there is no danger of harm or injury outside of God’s will. Men only stumble in the absence of the light. The disciples need not fear physical harm for the light of the world is with them. The principle then boils down to this: “THERE IS NO PERIL IN THE PERFORMANCE OF GOD-GIVEN DUTY, ONLY IN ITS NEGLECT.”
When we commit ourselves to doing God’s will, we have, so to speak, a charmed life so long as we are fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives. When we are in real danger is when we depart from divine duty to pursue our own selfish desires. Men have suffered and died in the service of the King (as did our Lord Himself), but such was the purpose and plan of God for them when they did. No matter how great the danger may appear, it is a mere illusion when we are on a divinely appointed task. So long as God has work for us to do and we are busily engaged in that work, we are indestructible.
Having laid down this principle, our Lord went on to explain to His disciples that Lazarus was physically dead, and that this death was, in part, for the strengthening of their own faith. The disciples did not fully comprehend what our Lord had said, but as Thomas169 expressed as their spokesman, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).
They would rather die with Him than live without Him. These men were not so much afraid to die for the Savior as they were uncertain as to how they could live for Him.
I would like to pass by many of the details of the death and burial of Lazarus170 in order to highlight the significant factors which brought comfort to Martha and Mary in the presence of the death of Lazarus. He brought comfort by His presence, His promise and His person.
(1) Comfort in the presence of Jesus. More than any other factor, it was the absence of Jesus at the time of the death of Lazarus which plagued Mary and Martha. No doubt, the thought expressed by both sisters to our Lord had been repeated to each other often during the absence of the Master: “Lord, if only you had been here …” (John 11:21,32).
The mere presence of Jesus was sufficient to calm the troubled hearts of these two who grieved over the death of their brother, Lazarus. It was in His physical presence that He manifested His deep concern and sympathy over the suffering of His own. Jesus wept171 (verse 35) and was deeply moved in His spirit172 (verses 33, 38). Some have suggested that here we see the real humanity of our Lord revealed in His expressions of grief and emotion. I would personally prefer to look upon this as a reflection of the deity of our Lord. When our Lord was deeply moved with the pains and sorrows of His children, it was not merely as man, but as God. Compassion is a divine attribute, more so than a human one. God is deeply touched with our sufferings. It was not the ugliness of sin which brought our Lord to tears, nor was it the awareness of His coming death or the hypocrisy of those who stood by, rather Jesus was deeply moved by the sorrow of those He loved (cf. verse 33).
When I was a student in seminary, my wife and I promised our girls that as soon as we moved from campus housing we would let them have a pet of their own. When we finally moved into another home, we purchased two kittens. After several days, it became apparent that one of them was desperately ill. When we left for church, one was in its final struggle with death. After church, we came home to find that the one kitten had died. I cannot even today speak of my daughter’s emotional trauma without becoming emotional myself. Now those of you who know me well know that I would not weep long over the death of a kitten, but I want you to know that both my wife and I shed a lot of tears that afternoon. You see, I was moved, not so much at the loss of a cat, but at the sorrow of my daughter. And so it is with God. Whenever we suffer, our Lord is deeply touched. When you and I face the ugly realities of death, even today we may be assured of the fact that we can find comfort in the presence of our Lord.
(2) Comfort in the promise of Christ. This brings us to the second basis of comfort in the presence of death, and that is the promise of our Lord when He said,
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25,26a) .
The promise of Jesus to these sisters, even at the time of the first report of the illness of Lazarus was that his sickness was not to terminate in death (verses 3,4). That promise of the Master was a source of great comfort, even in His absence. But for us, that promise was forever guaranteed when our Lord Himself rose triumphant from the grave. If death could not hold Him, neither can it stand between Him and us. Our hope of life beyond the grave is grounded on His promise, and His promise is certain because of His power over death and the grave (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12ff.).
(3) Comfort in the person of our Lord. Mary and Martha found comfort not only in His presence, and in His promise, but in His person. The promise of our Lord to Mary and Martha was rooted in His person. Jesus said to them, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25a). Those who find in Jesus merely a good man, a famous teacher, will find no great comfort in Him at the time of death and sorrow. Perhaps the confession of faith expressed by Martha is even greater than that of Peter, for even at this hour of great trial and testing, she could make this affirmation of faith in the person of Christ: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world” (John 11:27).
Those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God come into the world to save sinners, the One Who is the resurrection and the life, need have no fear in the presence of death. Those who trust in His person are assured of His presence (Hebrews 13:5), and can rest in His promises.
The most amazing feature of this miracle is its brevity and simplicity. Nowhere is there to be found any of the embellishments of other spurious writings from this age. Jesus simply ordered the stone to be removed,173 and with a loud voice, ordered Lazarus to come forth.174 Even after four days in the tomb, when all hope of recovery was gone,175 Lazarus came forth.
With the current obsession with life after death, men today would have desired much more detail about what Lazarus experienced during these four days. We should have liked to hear John’s account of the conversations which took place between these who were reunited, but without comment John passes such matters by. This miracle was performed as a sign. Our Lord’s prayer was primarily for the benefit of those who stood by. What was important was the response of men to the miracle which had taken place.
For some, yes many, of the Jews, this miracle compelled them to acknowledge Jesus to be their Messiah, just as Martha had previously affirmed (verse 45, cf. vs. 27). The raising of Lazarus was a sign that, to them, could not be ignored. As a result, many came to faith in Christ.
To those who chose to disbelieve, this miracle was not a matter which could be ignored either. When word quickly reached the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (verse 46), they called a meeting of the Sanhedrin to decide what should be done. They had to acknowledge it was a miracle. They even granted that it was a sign (verse 47). But they stubbornly refused to come to the conclusion this sign demanded. Although they refused to believe, the masses seemed to be turning to Him as Messiah.
If there was ever any doubt as to the real reason why the Jewish leaders refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, verse 48 spells it out in the clearest terms: “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Money and power, these were what the Jewish leaders refused to cast at the feet of Jesus. His kingdom was not the kind for which they had hoped. They desired their own position in the present regime far more than what He seemed to offer them. They, as do all who are part of ‘the establishment,’ want the status quo. They had power, influence, prestige. More than this, they had wealth. If Jesus were heralded as Israel’s king, the Romans might view this as treason. The Jewish leaders would be held accountable, and the whole establishment would be snatched from their hands. This was too high a price for them to pay.
What all of the Sanhedrin council members had been secretly thinking was now boldly expressed by Caiaphas, the Sadducee who was the high priest: “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:49b, 50).
This statement by Caiaphas is to be understood on two levels. First of all, Caiaphas meant to say that it was only common sense that one man should be expendable for the protection and preservation of a nation. Better to sacrifice an individual than a nation, we might say. What in times past had been the informal intention of the Jewish leadership was now the official policy and position. This was the beginning of the end.
But by virtue of his official position as high priest, his words were meant to convey a much deeper meaning. They were really a prophesy of the sacrificial death of Christ for the sins of the world (verses 51,52). Even as the Old Testament prophets had foretold, God was going to send His Messiah so that through His substitutionary death, men might be reconciled to Himself.
Historically, so far as John’s gospel is concerned, the raising of Lazarus is the high point of our Lord’s self-disclosure to men. This is without a doubt the greatest miracle of His ministry. Humanly speaking, there was no hope of recovery, and yet at the point of absolute helplessness and hopelessness, Jesus gave life to the dead. The spiritual parallel is obvious, for all men are ‘dead in their trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1-3). When we reach the point of utter despair and self-distrust we find that what we can never do to merit eternal life God has provided as a free gift (Romans 3:20-25; Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus Christ has come, not to aid men in their struggle toward heaven, but to give life to those who are dead. As He gave life to Lazarus, so He offers spiritual life to all men, on the basis of faith.
As this miracle is the high point of Jesus self-revelation as the Messiah, the Son of God, so it is also the high water mark of human resistance and rejection of the person of Christ. In the face of the most irrefutable evidence the Jewish leaders chose to set aside the evidence for the sake of expedience and sentence the Savior to death. Once again, the rejection of men was not based upon a lack of evidence, but upon moral decay and willful rejection of the truth. Our Lord was not taken by surprise, for He said in the gospel of Luke, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
This miracle also anticipated the coming death of the Lord Jesus and guaranteed the fact that He would rise from the dead, as He informed His disciples (cf. Matthew 16:21; 20:18-19). If Jesus had power over death and the grave, then surely death could not hold Him in the grave.
In addition to John’s primary reasons for this miracle there are numerous lessons for us by way of practical application. First of all it confronts men with the same decision which men had to make in Jesus’ day: What will you do with Jesus? You must either accept Him as the Savior and the Son of God, or you should reject Him as a phony and a fraud. He cannot be anything less than one or the other. If we take these gospel accounts seriously at all we must face the same destiny-determining decision as those who witnessed His works while on the earth.
In addition, we are presented with a Christian view of death. Death which is faced by faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is not to be feared, for He is the resurrection and the life. If we trust in Him as the Son of God and the coming Savior, as Martha did, then we need not dread the grave. The Christian can rest assured that death is in the will of God and that its purpose is to bring glory to God. Death, in Christian terminology, is only sleep, for it is a temporary state, which will terminate at the call of Christ for His own (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-13; 1 Corinthians 15). Though we will grieve as did Mary and Martha, our grief is of a much different kind than that of those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
There is much to learn on the matter of Christian suffering. God’s purpose is not that none of His own should suffer, for even His Son suffered untold agony. God’s purpose in suffering is to strengthen our faith (cf. John 11:14-15). Oftentimes Christians who resist the possibility of suffering seem to suppose that God’s highest purpose is that we may be free from pain, when His purpose is to build up our faith through trials and tests (cf. James 1:2-4).
At the outset of this message, I mentioned a funeral sermon in which the minister made the statement that he was convinced the death of the young mother was not the will of God. His fundamental error in that statement was that God’s will can be separated from His power. He viewed his role as something like that of a presidential press agent who is called upon to explain (or cover up) a disastrous presidential error. He stood before that gathering of mourners to apologize for God’s mistake. “God didn’t mean it to come out this way, but it happened anyway, and He is awfully sorry.”
In a very beautiful way, this passage informs us that God’s purposes and His power are never divorced from His eternal love for His own. “Jesus wept.” That is the verse that I want you to remember about this passage, for it was His great love, combined with His infinite power which accomplished this miracle. It was His measureless love which motivated His fathomless purpose to employ suffering to bring glory to Himself and to strengthen the faith of His own. My friend, let us never attempt to make excuses for God’s actions, for whether it is pain or pleasure, it is for the glory of God.
166 Liberal scholars make much of this fact, citing the absence of this miracle in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as evidence that there really was no such miracle at all. Shepard summarizes the orthodox position when he writes, “There is no real ground for questioning the literal exactness of the evangelical record. The objection raised, that this miracle is not mentioned by the synoptic gospels, is offset by the fact that neither did John mention the raising of Jaiirus’ daughter (Matt. 9:22,26) nor that of the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17). The fact is, John gives special emphasis in his gospel to the ministry of Jerusalem and Judea, while the synoptics emphasize more the Galilean ministry. Furthermore, the dramatic vividness of details, the remarkable delineation of personalities, and the numerous minute touches in the historic record, leave no room for doubt, that an eye witness wrote it. He made use of it to show forth the divine personality of the Saviour. This sign is tied up indissolubly with the whole argument of the fourth gospel. He who questions it will also doubt the divinity of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 432.
For a fuller discussion of these issues, cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 532-536. Other liberal interpretations are discussed and refuted by Alford Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, New American Edition 1965), II, pp. 310-312.
167 When Jesus received word of the illness of Lazarus, he waited two days before leaving for the house of Mary and Martha at Bethany. The journey would take another day, a total of three days. But when Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the grave four days. Thus, we would conclude that Lazarus died shortly after the messenger left Martha and Mary and some hours before reaching Jesus with the message from the sisters.
168 “From the non-mention of Peter and the prominence of Thomas, it seems at least doubtful, whether all the Apostles were there.” Edersheim, Life and Times, II, p. 313, fn. 1.
169 “One small piece of evidence supporting the view that Peter was absent is the fact that Thomas is the spokesman for the Twelve in v. 16. Normally we should expect Peter to fill that role.” Morris, John, p. 535.
170 “The four days had been sad and trying ones for the bereaved sisters. They had fasted the day of burial and had eaten nothing since but an occasional egg or some lentils. The funeral procession had been very depressing with its dirge flutes and the wailing friend-mourners, who ‘wept as those who had no hope.’ These were followed in the procession by the two sisters, neighbors, and relatives. At the tomb the men had chanted the ninetieth Psalm and circled the bier seven times, while friends spoke words of comfort to them in formal mien. How they wished for their great Friend, Jesus, in those weary dragging hours, and cast many an anxious look down the Jericho road. In their desolate home they sat on the floor heavily veiled, with unsandalled feet, surrounded by the mourning friends, with their rent clothes and dust-covered heads.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 436.
For a much wore detailed account of Jewish burial customs, cf. Edersheim, Life and Times, II, pp. 316ff.
171 The word used here (wept) is quite different from that in verse 33 (klaio„) which denotes loud wailing. Jesus’ weeping was restrained and dignified. Cf. David Brown, The Four Gospels (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, Reprint, 1976), p. 419.
172 Some commentators suggest that the expression ‘deeply moved in spirit’ denotes divine indignation, but such does not appear to be its meaning here. Cf. Edersheim, Life and Times, II, pp. 323-324.
173 “According to the Talmudists, says Lampe, quoting from Maimonides, it was forbidden to open a grave after the stone was placed upon it. Besides other dangers, they were apprehensive of legal impurity by contact with the dead. Hence they avoided coming nearer a grave than four cubits.” Brown, The Four Gospels, p. 419.
174 The loud voice of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus is in contrast to the whisperings and mutterings of the magical healers (cf. Isaiah 8:19). Also, we should take note that if Jesus had not specified Lazarus as the one who should come forth, every corpse within the sound of His voice should have come forth from their graves.
175 “It was the common Jewish idea that corruption commenced on the fourth day, that the drop of gall, which had fallen from the sword of the Angel and caused death, was then working its effect, and that, as the face changed, the soul took its final leave from the resting place of the body.” Edersheim, Life and Times, II, pp. 324-325.