Dealing With Death (John 11:1-37)
Years ago, a very fine young man in our church was attending seminary and also working with our youth. Torrey had an excellent opportunity for a summer internship at another church in the South. While he was on his way to this southern city, his air-cooled Volkswagen engine totally melted down. Word of Torrey’s car problems reached us, and on Sunday morning someone shared his car problem with the church and asked for prayer. Someone else jokingly remarked that “Bob” (me) should be sent down to fix the car. I quickly responded, “I can heal the sick (cars), but I can’t raise the dead.”
We all got a laugh out of this, but one must admit that there is a significant difference between healing the sick and raising the dead. We are all familiar with the expression, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Behind this expression is the assumption that so long as there is life, there is also hope for some kind of remedy. Once death comes, however, all hope for a cure is lost. The good news is that according to our text, this saying is wrong so far as the Christian is concerned. Due to the victory of our Lord over death, we can say, “Where there’s death, there’s hope.” Our text addresses the Christian’s hope in the face of death. Let us listen and learn, for there is great hope and comfort to be found in John chapter 11.
Jesus has already clashed with the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem on a number of occasions. The first major confrontation comes in chapter 5 as a result of His healing of the paralytic on the Sabbath, commanding him to take up his mattress and walk. When challenged by the Jews, Jesus defends Himself and His actions by claiming to be God (5:17ff.). The Jews are already intent on killing Him, but now they are all the more eager to do so (5:18). In our Lord’s “Bread of Life” teaching, He makes similar claims, but this is in Capernaum, not Jerusalem. Many of those who have followed Jesus as disciples now leave Him (6:60-66). In chapter 7, Jesus returns once again to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, where His teaching divides people in this city. Some are strongly opposed to Him, while others are much more favorably impressed (7:15, 30-31, 40-44). Similar reactions are recorded in chapter 8, where our Lord’s words in verse 58 (“Before Abraham came into existence, I am!”) precipitate an attempted stoning, but His time has not yet come. Also in chapter 8, Jesus claims to be the “Light of the world” (verse 12). In chapter 9, He demonstrates that this claim is true by giving sight to a man born blind (9:5-7). In chapter 10, Jesus describes Himself as the true, good, and great Shepherd, while at the same time, He indicts the Jewish religious leaders for being wicked shepherds. He claims once again to be one with God the Father, which brings on two more attempts to stone Him (10:27-30, 39).
Jesus makes a number of statements in chapter 10 which are validated in chapter 11. He, as the Good Shepherd, gives eternal life to His sheep (10:28). He does this by voluntarily laying down His life for His sheep, but He also claims that He has the authority to take up His life again, due to His unique relationship with His Father (10:17-18). These are bold claims, but the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11 proves these claims are valid. Of course our Lord’s resurrection will be the final word on these claims, the ultimate sign (see Matthew 12:38-40).
In our text, Lazarus becomes seriously ill, and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, send word of his condition to Jesus, expecting that the Master will drop everything and rush to their brother’s bedside, heal his malady, and thereby snatch him from the jaws of death. But Jesus does not respond as they expect, and Lazarus dies. The two sisters are perplexed, as are those who have come to mourn with them. The issues with which Martha and Mary struggle are the same issues we must deal with in our lives. Death is the ultimate enemy. How we deal with it determines how we will live. Let us listen well, then, to the words of Martha and Mary and our Lord’s disciples, but most of all, let us listen to Him who has defeated death, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Message Received and Noted
1 Now a certain man named Lazarus was sick, who was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (Now it was Mary who anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and wiped His feet dry with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Take note193 Lord! The one You love194 is sick.” 4 Now when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness will not end in death, but is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 (Now Jesus greatly loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 yet when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He remained in the place where He was for two more days.)195
Mary and Martha and Lazarus appear here for the first time in John’s Gospel.196 They will appear once again in chapter 12, a fact to which John calls our attention in verse 2 of our text. It seems that Jesus has come to know Lazarus and his two sisters quite well, and that they have been privileged to enjoy the company of Jesus whenever He traveled to Jerusalem. Their home in Bethany, a couple of miles from Jerusalem, may have been just far enough from Jerusalem for Him to safely spend the night, out of the grasp of those who wanted to kill Him.
Just recently Jesus has been in Jerusalem, but He left when the Jews sought to kill Him (10:31, 39-42). He continued to minister in a remote place by the Jordan River, where John the Baptist had baptized earlier (10:40). Our Lord is carrying on a fruitful ministry there when Lazarus becomes seriously ill. Mary and Martha become concerned as Lazarus’ condition continues to deteriorate, so much so that they send word to Jesus. It is hard to believe they would not know that returning to Bethany would put Jesus in grave danger. Nevertheless, they inform Jesus in a way that lets Him know they expect Him to return to them immediately: “Take note, Lord! The one You love is sick.”
As I understand the words of our Lord recorded in verse 4, they are a part of the “message” which Jesus sends back to Martha and Mary in response to their message that Lazarus is seriously ill. We know that this message was sent to Jesus by means of a messenger (or messengers). They could not call Jesus on His cell phone, or use His beeper, or send Him an e-mail; they had to send word to Him by a messenger. I am convinced in my own mind that they assume Jesus will immediately respond, so as to save the life of Lazarus. After all, as they remind Him, Lazarus is a man whom He loves197 (verse 3). The sisters of Lazarus must expect one of two things. Either they expect to see Jesus coming as quickly as He can get there, or they expect Him to send word by the messenger that He is coming shortly. I believe the words recorded in verse 4 are not spoken solely for the benefit of those who overhear this conversation between Jesus and the messenger, but as a message for this messenger to take back to Martha and Mary. Notice our Lord’s words to Martha later in this same account:
39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, replied, “Lord, by this time the body will have a bad smell, because he has been buried four days.” 40 Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” (11:39-40, emphasis mine)
It is my understanding that verse 4 is our Lord’s response to Martha and Mary, sent back by the same messenger who brought word to Him of Lazarus’ grave condition.
Our Lord’s words are very carefully chosen: “He responds, ‘This sickness will not end in death, but is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” Jesus is not assuring these women that Lazarus won’t die. He is assuring them that even though Lazarus will die, this will not be the end of the matter. He is also informing them that this crisis has a divinely-intended purpose—to bring glory to God the Father through the glorification of the Son of God. If we grant that the words of verse 40 are also sent to the women by the messenger, Jesus also encourages them to have faith, so that they too will see God glorified in all these things.
Now I am convinced that this is not what the women “hear” the messenger say when he returns without Jesus. I believe they “hear” (i.e., understand) the messenger say, “Jesus told me to tell you that Lazarus will not die.”198 The problem is that by the time the messenger returns to the women, Lazarus may already have died.199 Can you imagine their bewilderment if this is the case? They have already suffered the torment of Lazarus’ death and burial. Then, the messenger returns with word from Jesus which appears to assure them that Lazarus won’t die! Their faith in Jesus is really put to the test.
As we come to verse 6, we have a real tension with which we must grapple.200 John makes a point of telling us that Jesus deeply loves Lazarus and his sisters. His love for Lazarus is mentioned by Martha and Mary in verse 3, and John then repeats it even more emphatically in verse 5. In spite of this, and the urgency of the situation, Jesus deliberately delays His return to Bethany. He waits two full days, so that when He does arrive in Bethany, Lazarus is “good and dead.” How can Jesus love these people so much and yet speak and act in a way that causes them such pain? That is the tension with which John leaves us for a while, as he moves on to the discussion between Jesus and His disciples in verses 7-16.
The Disciples Deal With Death
7 Then after this, he said to his disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples replied, “Rabbi,201 the Jewish authorities were just now trying to stone you to death! Are you202 going there again?” 9 Jesus replied, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If anyone walks about in the daytime, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks about in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After he said this, he added, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I am going there to awaken him.” 12 Then the disciples replied, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover203.” 13 (Now Jesus had been talking about his death, but they thought he had been talking about real sleep.) 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and I am glad for your sake I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas (called Didymus) said to his fellow disciples, “Let us go too, so that we may die with him.”
Martha and Mary must be mystified as to why Jesus is taking so long to get back to Bethany—if not to cure Lazarus, then at least to comfort them. Those four days after the death of Lazarus must have been especially difficult for them. The disciples have a different problem, however: they cannot understand why Jesus is even considering returning to Bethany, no matter what the circumstances. A return to Jerusalem would seem to spell certain death for Jesus, and for them, if they choose to accompany Him. I am not at all certain they are planning to do so—at least not until verse 16.
Jesus waits two days after He sends the messenger back to Martha and Mary, bearing His words to them. When these two days are completed, Jesus says to His disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” Notice, He does not say, “Let us go to Bethany, again.” To go to Bethany is to go to Judea, which is virtually the same thing as going to Jerusalem, a mere two miles away. To go to Martha and Mary in Bethany is to return to that place where the Jewish religious leaders want Jesus dead. The disciples know this only too well. They are amazed that He even considers returning to Judea, and they remind Him of the dangers awaiting Him there. No matter how ill Lazarus might be, no matter how much these women feel they need Jesus, the disciples do not seem to even entertain the possibility of returning to Judea.
It is interesting to contemplate what Jesus could have said at this point. No one can kill Jesus or even arrest Him before it is “His time.” Jesus lives a kind of charmed life, even when powerful men are determined to arrest Him and to put Him to death. The fears of His disciples are really unfounded, given who Jesus is. Nevertheless, Jesus speaks to His disciples in terms they can understand and accept at the moment. When you boil our Lord’s words down to their simple meaning, Jesus would be saying something like this: “What are you men worried about? There are twelve hours of daylight in the day, and the rest of the time it is dark. Men don’t travel at night, because it is dark and they can’t see where they are going. We will be traveling at night. We won’t be seen, and thus no one can harm us. If I am the ‘light of the world’—and I am—then we shall have all the light we need. As long as I am with you, you can safely travel at night, when others would not think of doing so.”
On a spiritual level, men who do not “have the light” stumble when they attempt to walk in the darkness. Only when one follows Jesus as the “Light of the world” can one go about “this present darkness” in safety. Other variations of the “spiritual meaning” of these words have been suggested, as you might imagine.204
Jesus then tells His disciples that Lazarus has “fallen asleep,” and that He is going up to Bethany to “awaken” him. They eagerly take Jesus literally. They jump on this statement like a duck on a June-bug: “Well, if he’s asleep, then he’ll be okay, so we don’t have to go up to Bethany after all.” For these men, who have no desire to risk their lives by going back to Judea, our Lord’s words are indeed welcome. John parenthetically informs us that this is not at all what Jesus means; it is just what they hear (not unlike Martha and Mary, previously, who wanted to hear that Lazarus would not die).
I should probably pause here momentarily to point out that the raising of Lazarus is not a “first” in the Gospels. Jesus had already raised the dead son of the “widow of Nain,” as recorded in Luke 7:11-16. He did so on that occasion as they were taking his body out to be buried, and without being asked to do so by anyone. (Who would have thought to ask Jesus to raise a dead man?) This was followed by the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43). In this latter raising, Jesus tells those who are mourning her death that she is not really dead, but is merely “asleep” (5:39). Our Lord’s disciples and others seem to have forgotten these earlier raisings, nor do they seem to recall our Lord’s use of the term “sleep” to describe a temporary lack of life.
Jesus finds it necessary to speak plainly to His disciples, so He tells them that Lazarus is dead (verse 14). He adds that He rejoices in the fact that He is not at Bethany. His absence, He tells them, is for their benefit. His delay has been by divine design, so that they might believe. Frequently in the Gospel of John, reference is made to the fact that our Lord’s disciples “believed” in Him (1:50; 2:11, 22; 6:69; 13:19; 14:1, 29; 16:27, 30, 31; 17:8; 20:8; 20:25-29). It is apparent that the faith of the disciples continues to grow, the more the person and work of our Lord becomes evident to them. It is my conviction that our faith, likewise, should never be static, but that it should always be growing as our knowledge of Him increases.
Jesus then challenges His disciples to accompany Him as He “goes to Lazarus”205 (verse 15). We would expect Peter to be the spokesman for the disciples here, rather than “doubting Thomas” (see 20:24-28). Some have speculated that Peter is not present at this time. I am inclined to think that it is precisely because Thomas is the biggest doubter of the bunch that his words are reported here, rather than those of Peter. Peter is always the first to “step out” in action, as he does when attempting to “walk on the sea” (see Matthew 14:28-33). The words of Thomas are not, in my opinion, evidence of great faith on his part, but are words of resignation. He reluctantly agrees to accompany Jesus to Judea and urges his fellow-disciples to do likewise. I doubt that Thomas really believed they would all die, but is simply protesting taking such a risk. But if “doubting Thomas” is willing to accompany Jesus, who of the other disciples is going to raise a word in protest? If Thomas can make this trip, then anyone can. And so they do.
“If Only You Had Been Here …”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already. 18 (Now Bethany was less than two miles distance from Jerusalem, 19 so many of the Jewish people who lived in Jerusalem had come to Martha and Mary to console them over the loss of their brother.) 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will grant you.” 23 Jesus replied, “Your brother will come back to life again.” 24 Martha said, “I know that he will come back to life again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, 26 and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She replied, “Yes, Lord, I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God who comes into the world.” 28 And when she had said this, Martha went and called her sister Mary, saying privately, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.” 29 So when Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 (Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still in the place where Martha had come out to meet him.) 31 Then the Jewish people from Jerusalem who were with Mary in the house consoling her saw her get up quickly and go out. They followed her, because they thought she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jewish people who had come with her weeping, he was intensely moved in spirit and greatly distressed. 34 He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 Thus the Jewish people who had come to mourn said, “Look how much he loved206 him!” 37 But some of them said, “This is the man who caused the blind man to see! Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?” (emphasis mine)
When Jesus arrives outside Bethany, I believe that both Martha (and later) Mary greet Him with “their hands on their hips,” so to speak. I am assuming this body language from the situation as I understand it, and from what their words to Jesus seem to imply. The essence of this is: “Lord, You’ve got a lot of explaining to do.” When Lazarus became gravely ill, these two sisters quickly dispatched a messenger to find Jesus, to give Him the news that Lazarus was sick, and to convey the urgent need for Him to come quickly. They expected Jesus to drop everything He was doing and to come to them immediately at Bethany. In their minds, as long as Lazarus was still alive, there was still hope. If Jesus could just get to Bethany quickly, while Lazarus was still alive, then they were sure that He could heal their brother, and thus prevent him from dying. If Jesus failed to get there before Lazarus died, there was nothing more He could do.
From the word they received back from Jesus (by way of the messenger they sent to Him), they expect that Lazarus will not die, but will recover. When Jesus fails to come quickly and Lazarus dies, these two women are at a loss to understand what has gone wrong. Is Jesus wrong in the message He sends ahead to them? Does Jesus delay because He does not care about them? Could Jesus not simply have healed Lazarus from a distance, as He has done before (see John 4:46-50)? What has gone wrong? They still love Jesus, but they do not understand what has happened. In their minds, Jesus has some explaining to do! And so three times in our text we read, “If only you (or “he”) had been here …” The one thing all seem to agree upon is that if Jesus had gotten there sooner, Lazarus would not have died. Although Jesus loved Lazarus and his two sisters, His deliberate delay has cost His dear friend his life and has caused these two women, whom He also loved, great sorrow.
Family and friends gather to mourn the death of Lazarus. Many of these mourners come from Jerusalem. Martha seems to have gotten word about Jesus’ arrival, while Mary does not seem to realize He has arrived until later (verse 28). Martha makes her way out to where Jesus is waiting, while her sister Mary remains inside the house, grieving with many of the mourners who are with her. When Martha finds Jesus, the first thing she says to Him is, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Some take her next words to be an expression of her faith in our Lord’s ability to raise Lazarus from the dead: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will grant …” (verse 22). I think that she does convey her faith in Jesus by these words, but not to the degree we might wish. I don’t think she is suggesting that if He were but to ask the Father, God would raise Lazarus from the dead, then and there. When Jesus speaks to Martha about Lazarus’ future resurrection, she takes this as a reference to his resurrection in the last days, and not at that moment in time. She assures Jesus that she believes Lazarus will rise someday. Further, when Jesus instructs those standing by the tomb to roll away the stone, it is Martha who objects, calling attention to how long Lazarus has been in the tomb already.
What, then, does Martha mean when she says that she believes “that whatever Jesus asks of the Father, the Father will grant Him”? First, let me assure you that I do not wish in any way to demean Martha, or to underestimate her faith. Even though our Lord has caused her disappointment, confusion and grief, she still believes in Him. She does not understand what He is doing, but still she trusts in Him. I also think Martha’s faith is greater than that of the disciples at this point in time. She believes in the (future) resurrection of the dead. She has a good grasp of our Lord’s intimate relationship with the Father, and of the fact that Jesus does not act independently of the Father. Thus, she does not speak of her assurance concerning whatever Jesus attempts to do, but rather of her assurance that God the Father will answer the prayers of His Son. What I believe Martha means by her words is that even though our Lord’s recent words and deeds have puzzled her greatly, she has not ceased to trust in Him, and in His intimate relationship with God the Father. In effect, she seems to be saying, “If You had not delayed in coming, Lazarus would not have died. I don’t understand why You would assure me that Lazarus would not die when, in fact, he did die. But in spite of what I don’t understand, I still believe that You are the Messiah, and that because of Your relationship with the Father, God will grant whatever You ask of Him.”
Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus will come back to life, but Martha sees this as taking place “in the sweet bye and bye.” She knows that Lazarus will live again in the resurrection. Isn’t Martha just like many of us? We believe in God’s power, hypothetically, and that His promises will come about—in the distant future. But we often doubt His power in the present moment. We criticize the evolutionists for believing that anything is possible, if only enough time passes, and yet we do much the same. We believe in God’s power then, but not in His power now. We believe God can do great things, given a long enough time to do it, but we are not as convinced about His ability to act now, if it is His will.207
I want to tell you a story about a fellow-elder, whose name I will not mention (to save him embarrassment). A number of years ago, a man in our church was in the process of becoming an elder. His name was Dan Tarbox. Dan was also attending seminary. In the midst of this, Dan discovered that he had a rare and deadly form of lung cancer. As you might expect, we all prayed very diligently for Dan. And for some time, Dan enjoyed a remission. But eventually his cancer came back, and his condition became more and more grave. It was interesting to see how our prayers began to “downgrade” as Dan’s condition declined. Some of us began to pray that Dan would “go quickly and without pain.” But one of my fellow-elders refused to do this. He continued to pray for Dan’s complete healing, just as he had done earlier, in spite of Dan’s declining condition. He explained why he did so to the rest of us. He said that He believed God was able to fully and completely heal Dan if He chose to do so. He admitted that he did not have any sense of guidance or leading that this was God’s will. But he refused to downgrade his prayers, simply because things looked humanly impossible. He refused to downgrade his prayers, simply because his request appeared to be an impossible one. I learned a very important lesson from my friend and fellow-elder that day, a lesson I pray that I shall never forget.
Jesus now takes Martha to the bedrock of her faith. He declares to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even if he dies, and the one who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (verses 25-26). She confesses that she does believe: “I have believed that you are the Christ, the Son of God who comes into the world” (verse 27). I think I understand why she speaks as she does. First of all, it seems that she confesses to have believed in Jesus as the Messiah at some earlier point in time. I also believe her confession emphasizes that while she does not at all understand what has just happened, she does still trust in Jesus as the Messiah. While these recent events in her life do not make any sense, she still trusts in Jesus as her Messiah. He is the One who has come into the world from above, whose prayers the Father will hear and answer.
Having spoken these words affirming her faith in Jesus, Martha returns home to summon her sister Mary. When Mary learns that Jesus has arrived and is asking for her, she immediately gets up and rushes out to Him (verse 29). This hardly looks like sulking to me. It seems as though Mary remains in the house because she does not know Jesus has arrived. When she learns of His arrival, she is quick to go out to Him. Following along are the mourners who have come from Jerusalem. They do not know she is going out to meet Jesus. They think she is going out to the tomb, to mourn, and so they accompany her.
When Mary arrives at the place outside Bethany where Jesus is, she falls at His feet and repeats the words she and Martha must have repeated among themselves many times, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died” (verse 32). From what we read in verse 33, we realize that Mary’s words to Jesus are interspersed with deep sobbing. The depth of Mary’s heartache cannot be represented well in print, but her words to Jesus must have been spoken something like this: “Lord…(sob), if You had been here…(sob…), my brother…would not have…(long sob)…died…” “Where there’s life, there’s hope,” and thus we can see that with the death of Lazarus, all of Mary’s hope for Lazarus’ healing is gone. It all seems so senseless to Mary, because she knows Lazarus’ death could have been prevented. Why did He wait so long to come?
Jesus knows from the very beginning that the death of Lazarus will be reversed. We might therefore conclude that all of this grieving is, in one sense, needless. But our Lord does not think so. Seeing Mary’s tears, and those of the Jews who have come to mourn with her, Jesus is deeply touched. In verse 33, John employs two terms to describe our Lord’s deep emotional response to the grief of those around Him. The NET Bible renders the first term “intensely moved.” This term is elsewhere used in Matthew 2:18 to describe the emotional trauma of those in the region around Bethlehem whose children, two years old and younger, were slaughtered at the order of Herod. In Matthew 26:75, the term describes Peter’s grief at having denied his Lord. In Luke 19:41, it depicts our Lord’s agony over the unbelief of Jerusalem and its impending judgment. In Luke 23:28, it is used of the mourning of the women of Jerusalem, as they watch the Lord Jesus being taken to His cross.
The second term, rendered “greatly distressed” by the NET Bible, is used to describe Herod, who is greatly troubled at hearing of the birth of Israel’s King from the magi (Matthew 2:3). When the disciples were on their way across the Sea of Galilee and saw Jesus passing by, walking on the water, they were “troubled” (Matthew 14:26). Later, the disciples were troubled when Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection (Luke 24:38). In John, the term is used by our Lord to describe His troubled soul, as He contemplates the cross (12:27), and in chapter 13 when Jesus considers the fact that one of His disciples, seated at the table with Him, will betray Him (13:21).
All of this is to let us know that our Lord is greatly affected by the sorrow of those about Him. He does not dab away at a tear or two; He visibly trembles as He weeps. This is observed by those there at the burial place of Lazarus, along with Mary, and they say to each other, “Look how much he loved him” (verse 26). This is now the third time that mention has been made of our Lord’s love for Lazarus. The first is when Martha and Mary remind Jesus of His love for Lazarus, when they send word to Him of the illness of their brother (verse 3). The second is in verse 5, when John makes it clear with the strongest term for love (agaph) that Jesus deeply loved Lazarus, and his two sisters (verse 5). Now, those standing by Mary can see our Lord’s love for Lazarus themselves (verse 36).
Also for the third time, we find an expression of bewilderment that Lazarus should have died at all: “This is the man who caused the blind man to see! Couldn’t he have done something to keep Lazarus from dying?” (verse 37). This is virtually the same thought expressed by Martha (verse 21) and Mary (verse 32). Anyone who knows anything about Jesus knows that He could have healed Lazarus. What no one seems to believe, at the moment, is that Jesus can and will raise Lazarus from the dead, that very hour! This raising and the various reactions to it will be the subject of our next lesson.
I love this passage. As Dr. J. Vernon McGee used to say, “This is where the rubber meets the road.” Beginning with John the Baptist, many claims have been made in this Gospel concerning the person of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist tells us that He is God, and that He was present and active at the time of the creation of this world (1:1-3). A little later, John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Jesus Himself claims to have come down from God, and that He will return to God. He is the only means by which men can be born again and obtain eternal life (chapter 3). In chapter 4, He very clearly identifies Himself to the woman at the well as Israel’s Messiah (4:26). In chapter 5, He claims that He works the works of God, His Father, thus making Himself equal with God (5:17-18). In chapter 6, after feeding the 5,000 Jesus declares that He is the “bread of life” that has come down from heaven, giving men eternal life (6:32-38). Those who eat of this “bread of life,” Jesus declares, “will not die” (6:50). In both chapters 5 (verses 19-29) and 6 (verse 44), Jesus claims to have the authority to raise the dead. In John 8:51, Jesus tells the Jews that if anyone keeps His word he will “never see death.” In verse 58 of chapter 8, He declares Himself to be the “I am” who existed before Abraham. In chapter 10, Jesus insists that He gives His sheep eternal life, life which no man can take away (verses 27-30). He says that He has the power to lay down His life, as well as the power to take it up again (10:18).
These are bold claims, claims we know and believe to be true. The veracity of these declarations of our Lord is about to be demonstrated by the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately delays coming to Lazarus until after all hope of saving his life is long gone. He is not just dead, he is good and dead. And it is not until this point in time that Jesus comes to Bethany, where He will raise Lazarus from the dead.
The ultimate sign is yet to come—that of our Lord’s own resurrection, as He indicates in Matthew 12:38-40. The raising of Lazarus is a prelude to this great final sign of our Lord. John is right when he writes in the fourth verse of this great Gospel, “In Him was life …” The words of One who can raise the dead are those to which we should give careful attention:
1 After God spoke long ago in various portions and in various ways to our ancestors through the prophets, 2 in these last days he has spoken to us in a son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he created the world … 1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 1:1-2; 2:1-4).
Men say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” The Christian can say far more: “Where there’s death, there’s hope.” In fact, this is not even going quite far enough. It is not enough to say that God gives life to us in Christ in spite of death. It is far more accurate to say that God gives eternal life to men in Christ by means of death. It is by means of His death on the cross of Calvary that the penalty for our sins has been paid.
Many people look at themselves as Martha and Mary viewed Lazarus. They see him as sick, and in need of help. They believe Jesus can heal a sick man, but they do not believe He can raise a dead man. Men and women who are without Christ (who have not been “born again,” to put it in Jesus’ words—see John 3) are not merely sick; they are dead, in need of the life which Jesus Christ alone can give:
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved!— 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not of works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
I am saying that it really was necessary for Lazarus to die here, so that true biblical faith can be produced in many. It was necessary for all hope of Lazarus’s human recovery to die with him, so that the resurrection power of our Lord can be demonstrated. This is no mere healing; it is a raising of a body so dead that it smells.
I want to be very careful how I say this, because it could easily be misunderstood. One of the greatest hindrances to spiritual renewal is that people refuse to die, or better yet, they refuse to admit they are dead. Too many Christians are trying to wring something good for God out of their fallen flesh, as though their bodies were weak, needing only a little divine help. We are dead with respect to any good works. It is His resurrection power which we all need to live the Christian life:
8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not controlled by the flesh but by the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this person does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you (Romans 8:8-11).
You may have a marriage that is in trouble. Rather than looking at it as sick, perhaps you should look at it as dead. I do not mean that you should pronounce it dead and get a divorce; I mean that you should see that it is humanly impossible to save, and that God must give it resurrection life. Biblical faith is resurrection faith, it is trusting in a God who can produce life where there is only death. This is what we are told about Abraham’s faith:
15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 On account of this it is by faith, that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham (who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) before God whom he believed, who makes alive the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness. 23 But it is not written that it was credited to him only for Abraham’s sake, 24 but also for our sake, to whom it will be credited, those who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was given over because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification (Romans 4:15-25).
Biblical faith is resurrection faith, faith which trusts in a God who is able to raise the dead. How many Christians are trying to “keep something alive” that God has declared to be dead? We do not live by the principle, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” We live by the kind of faith which believes that God brings about life through death. Let us not strive to keep alive what should be laid to rest. Let us not strive to preserve life when God means to produce it. It all begins when we acknowledge, with God, that we are sinners who are dead in our trespasses and sins. We must cease striving to produce “dead works,” which we hope will please God, and confess that our finest deeds produced by fleshly efforts are an offense to God. Death is not the end of our hope, but its starting point. It is by means of the death of our Lord that we die to the guilt, penalty, and power of our sins. When we trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, we acknowledge our own sin and inability to save ourselves. We believe that when He died on the cross, He died in our place, suffered the penalty for our sins, and that in His resurrection from the dead, we were also raised to newness of life. Have you experienced this salvation through the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord? I urge you, this very moment, to confess your sin and to trust in the Good Shepherd, who gave up His life and then took it up again, for your salvation.
I have been repeating the truth that for the Christian, “Where there’s death, there’s hope.” This is not true for anyone apart from Christ, for anyone who has not been born again. The Christian has been given eternal life by the good Shepherd, and no one can snatch us from His hand. Our future is secure, for all eternity, and death will not in any way hinder our eternal life. For the non-Christian, there is only hope for salvation in this life. There are no second chances after death: “And just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment …” (Hebrews 9:27).
Where there’s life (i.e., while you are still alive), there is hope (of salvation). Do not put this matter off, my unsaved friend: “For he says, ‘I heard you at the acceptable time, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Let me say something else to Christians from our text. I have indicated throughout this lesson that Martha and Mary both “have their hands on their hips” as they meet Jesus, four days too late to save Lazarus from death. It is certainly clear that Jesus deliberately delays going to Bethany, so that Lazarus will be “good and dead” when He gets there. Martha and Mary expect Jesus to arrive quickly, before Lazarus dies. They expect Jesus to heal Lazarus, and thus keep him from dying. They are shocked and disappointed with Jesus for arriving “too late.”
Both Martha and Mary let Jesus know that He has come too late to save Lazarus, and that if He had gotten there sooner, Lazarus would not have died. They let Jesus know that He is responsible for the death of Lazarus. They blame Jesus to some degree for what has happened. Martha makes it clear that she still believes in Him, but she is certainly disappointed with Him. What a difference a few minutes can make. After the raising of Lazarus, all of the doubts and disappointments are gone. It is not Jesus who is wrong; they are wrong! Working with His heavenly Father, Jesus raised a dead man, bringing him back to life.
From time to time, I have heard Christians speak of “forgiving God.” I have never studied the theology of those who encourage Christians to “forgive God,” but there is something fundamentally wrong with the impression this statement gives us. No one needs to be forgiven who has not done wrong. God never needs to be forgiven, because He never does wrong. I think Martha and Mary suppose that they have “forgiven God” in our text, and if so, they are wrong. Jesus does not fail them. They make the same mistakes you and I make when we suffer. They misread God’s word to them. He doesn’t say that Lazarus will not die. He says that this will not end in death. And so it is. Lazarus lives, but only after he first dies. That is the way it will be for most of us. Unless our Lord returns beforehand, we will die. But that is not the end of it all, for we will be raised from the dead. Ours will be a better raising than that of Lazarus, because we will be raised incorruptible, never to die again. And so I say, Martha and Mary had “forgiven God” wrongly, because our Lord’s word had not failed, only their understanding of it. Many are those who “claim” certain “promises” without correctly understanding them. And then, when God appears to fail them by not giving them all that they’ve claimed, their hopes are dashed, and they feel that they must “forgive God.”208 God never needs forgiving.
Martha and Mary misunderstand something that has troubled many others before and after them—the place of suffering in the life of the Christian. I am willing to grant that Martha and Mary and Lazarus are as close to Jesus as any family could be. I believe they enjoy as intimate a relationship with Him as is possible. I also believe that this was the very reason Martha and Mary expected Jesus to rush to them, and to keep Lazarus from dying. They think that being close to God is like an insurance program, protecting them from suffering. In this, they, like many others, are wrong. Job had to learn to trust God in the midst of his suffering. And it was by means of that suffering that Job grew greatly in his understanding of God. Suffering drew Job nearer to God.
No one could be on more intimate terms with God the Father than was Jesus, His Son. And yet no one has ever suffered more than the Son of God, and this (ultimately) at the hand of His Father. Suffering is a part of God’s “school” through which every saint must pass, even our Lord:
7 During his earthly life he offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. 9 And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 and he was designated by God as “high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:7-10).
Suffering is proof of our sonship:
3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of bloodshed in your struggle against sin. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts.”
7 Endure your suffering as “discipline”; God is treating you as “sons.” For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9 Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them; shall we not submit ourselves all the more to the Father of spirits and receive life? 10 For they disciplined us for a little while as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share his holiness. 11 Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but healed (Hebrews 12:3-13).
When God sends suffering our way, it comes for His glory, as well as our good; it springs from His love for us; it comes from One who Himself suffers with us in our suffering. The tears of our Lord at the grave of Lazarus tell it all. Suffering does not come to the saint from a callused God, who is insensitive to our pains. Suffering comes from Him who has suffered more than we shall ever know, from the hand of One who is touched by our affliction. The verse, “Jesus wept,” may be short, but it is very significant. It is worthy of much meditation on our part. Let us remember that all the blessings into which we have entered as Christians have come as the result of His suffering:
1 Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 2 For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, And as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, There is no beauty that we should desire Him. 3 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. 8 He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken. 9 And they made His grave with the wicked—But with the rich at His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was any deceit in His mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. 11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, For He shall bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, And He shall divide the spoil with the strong, Because He poured out His soul unto death, And He was numbered with the transgressors, And He bore the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:1-12, NKJV).
193 It is true the Martha and Mary do not specifically ask Jesus to do anything, but the word “look” or “behold” is not used lightly (see John 1:29, 36, 47; 3:26; 5:14; 7:26; 11:36; 12:19; 16:29; 18:21; 19:4, 14, 26, 27). They expect Jesus to drop everything and come to Bethany to heal him.
197 The New English Bible calls Lazarus “your friend,” which is not a bad way of rendering the term filew, one of the biblical terms employed for love. This distinguishes between this term for "love" and agapaw, which occurs in verse 5.
199 We cannot really be dogmatic about the precise timing of Lazarus’ death in relationship to the arrival of the messenger, but it seems that since Lazarus has already been dead four days when Jesus arrives, that he must have died shortly after the messenger was sent. Morris comments, “Indeed the death must have already taken place when the messengers arrived. In v. 39 we find that Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus reached Bethany, and the journey would scarcely have taken more than a day.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 539.
202 The “you” here is singular, not plural. At this point in time, any discussion about going back to Judea was, in the minds of His disciples, a personal trip for Jesus. They seem to have no intention of accompanying Him at this point, as I understand the text.
203 It is noteworthy that the word “recover” is the translation of the Greek word swzw, which is the verb that means “to save.” This word is used broadly in the Gospels, to refer to various kinds of healings (of lepers, the blind, of those demon possessed, and so on), as well as spiritual salvation. It is interesting that we would find it here, and I suspect it is significant, though I will not attempt to press the point here.
204 "But in view of Jesus’ repeated statement that He is ‘the light of the world’ (8:12; 9:5) we should probably discern a deeper meaning, in the Johannine manner. Men should make the most of the presence of Christ, the Light of the world. For when He is withdrawn from them there is no possibility of their 'walking' without stumbling. It is not impossible in view of the use of ‘hour’ in this Gospel that the reference here to “hours” contains also an allusion to the work that Jesus, the Light of the world, came to do. The disciples need not fear to go up with Him, because He cannot die before the appointed time, and there is still a little time left. There will also be the thought that to be with Him is to be in the light, and the next verse brings out the reverse—if they are away from Him they will certainly stumble in the darkness.” Morris, p. 541.
205 Jesus does not speak of going to Bethany, or to Martha and Mary, but of going to Lazarus. He does not speak of going to his tomb, or to his body, but to Lazarus. This is surely significant, and another indication of His certainty about the raising (or should we say “awakening”—see verse 11) of Lazarus.
207 There is a tension here, which must be kept in balance. There are many who, like the Corinthians of old, expect (and even demand) all of heaven’s future blessings now, at this very moment. Therefore, they scorn any sickness, suffering or sorrow in the present, blaming it on a lack of faith. There are others who wrongly deny anything supernatural in this present age, supposing that God has left us to our own devices. Neither extreme is true or biblical. But in Martha's case, she seems to have too little faith in what Jesus can do at the moment, while she has greater faith in what He can do in the distant future.
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