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Lesson 59: Loved, But Suffering (John 11:1-6)

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June 15, 2014

In Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23), it’s clear that how a person handles trials is a test of genuine faith. The seed that fell on the rocky ground sprouted up quickly, but it quickly faded when the sun, representing trials or persecution, beat down on it. The seed sown among the thorns lasted a bit longer, but eventually the worries of the world choked it out, so that it did not bear fruit. The only seed that represented genuine faith was that which persevered to bear fruit.

But trials can be a source of doubting, even for strong believers. In difficult trials, our emotions flood us with questions like, “If God loves me and He is all-powerful, then why am I going through this terrible trial?” As he languished in prison, even the godly John the Baptist seemed to question his faith in Jesus. He sent messengers to Jesus to ask (Matt. 11:3), “Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” In other words, “If You’re the Messiah, why am I, Your appointed messenger, still in this stinking prison?” If even a great man like John could doubt in a time of trial, it’s important for all of us to think biblically about trials, both before they hit and also in the midst of them.

John 11 gives the account of Jesus’ most dramatic and powerful miracle in His entire ministry: raising Lazarus from the dead after he had been in the tomb for four days and his body was beginning to decompose. Because this miracle is not mentioned in the synoptic gospels, liberal critics have argued that it is not genuine.

While it may be difficult to explain why the other gospels omit this important miracle, it also creates huge difficulties to explain why John included it if it was not genuine. As one commentator wrote (G. R. Beasley-Murray, cited in D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 404, italics his), “One should … keep steadfastly in mind that he who wrote the Gospel of the Word made flesh viewed history as of first importance; he would never have related a story of Jesus, still less created one, that he did not have reason to believe took place.”

The story reads like an eyewitness account. It’s absurd to think that John would have fabricated such a fantastic story and presented it as a true event, knowing that others easily could have refuted it. The synoptic gospels relate two other resurrections from the dead that Jesus performed which John omits (Matt. 9:18-26; Luke 7:11-17). So we can’t know exactly why the inspired writers included some incidents and omitted others. But we do not need to conclude that the events were fabricated.

Jesus had left Jerusalem because the Jews were seeking to kill Him and was ministering across the Jordan River, where John was at first baptizing (10:40), when word came to Him from Mary and Martha that their brother and Jesus’ friend Lazarus was sick. John emphasizes more than once that Jesus loved Lazarus, as well as his sisters, Mary and Martha. But then, contrary to what we would expect, rather than rushing to Lazarus’ side to heal him, Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where He was. By the time He arrived in Bethany, about two miles outside of Jerusalem, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, setting the stage for this miracle.

Some commentators think that Jesus was only one day’s journey away from Jerusalem. In this scenario, Lazarus would have died shortly after the messengers left to go to Jesus, so even if He had gone immediately, Lazarus still would have died. But He stayed where He was for two days. Then on day four, He arrived at Bethany and performed the miracle. But that reconstruction of events seems at odds with the sisters’ complaint that if Jesus had only come sooner, their brother would not have died. So others think that Jesus was much farther away. Lazarus was still alive when the messengers got to Jesus, but he died just before Jesus left to return, which Jesus knew supernaturally (11:14).

In either case, Jesus could have spoken the word and healed him from a distance (as in 4:50). But Jesus makes it clear that He has some higher purposes for this sickness and death, namely, for God’s and His own glory and for the disciples’ and the sisters’ increased faith (11:4, 15, 26, 40). So He delayed going immediately, which resulted in Lazarus’ death and in the sisters’ grief over the loss of their brother. Because He loved them, He allowed them to suffer for greater purposes that they did not understand until later. To summarize the lessons for us:

Although we often can’t know why we’re suffering, we always can take our troubles to Jesus and know that He loves us and will work for our good in His time, not our time.

There are five practical lessons about suffering here:

1. The Lord Allows Those He Loves To Suffer.

Three times here John either directly or indirectly emphasizes the close, loving relationship that Jesus had with these three. In 11:2, John identifies Mary as the one who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair. Interestingly, John doesn’t relate this event until 12:3. Perhaps, writing decades after Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) reported this event and it was widely known (Luke 7:37-39 refers to a different incident), John assumed that his readers were aware of it. But, Mary’s anointing the Lord showed her love for Him and Jesus’ tender feelings for her.

Also, in 11:3, the messenger reports to Jesus, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” And, John adds (11:5), “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” But then follows the surprising connection (11:6), “So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” (The NIV’s “Yet when He heard…” mistranslates the Greek text.) John is saying that Jesus’ special love for these three was His reason for letting them suffer. His love did what was best for them.

But Jesus’ delay in coming didn’t feel like love to Mary and Martha, much less to Lazarus. (They hadn’t read this chapter yet!) We don’t know the cause of Lazarus’ death, but it probably involved pain and discomfort. The sisters helplessly watched their beloved brother go downhill. But their suffering did not mean that Jesus did not love them, but the reverse: He loved them, so He stayed two days longer where He was.

This refutes a popular, but spiritually destructive, heresy of our time: the teaching that it is God’s will for every believer to be healthy and wealthy. This falsehood is flooding into many poor nations, where it entices those who are suffering from disease or poverty with the false promise that if they will believe in Jesus, He will give them miraculous healing or financial success. The false teachers themselves flaunt their wealth, which they have gained from the gullible who contribute to their coffers. When health and wealth don’t happen, they teach that it’s because of your lack of faith. It’s hard to imagine a more heartless and cruel doctrine! Of course, the false teachers don’t mention the fact that they get sick and die with the same regularity as everyone else!

But the Bible is clear that the godly suffer and their suffering is not due to a lack of faith or to the lack of God’s love for them. But, you may wonder, why does He allow difficult tragedies?

2. We Cannot Always Know The “Why” Of Our Suffering.

“Why?” is often the first question that pops into our minds. Why this? Why me? Why right now? Did I do something to deserve this? Is God punishing me?

Several years ago in a letter to supporters, John MacArthur told about a pastor and his wife from Utah who traveled to The Master’s College to enroll their oldest daughter. Their second-oldest daughter planned to attend also in a year or two, so she was on the trip, along with their younger son. They had also brought two Italian foreign exchange students with them, hoping to have some opportunities to witness to them on the trip.

They looked around the campus and planned to attend Grace Church, where MacArthur is the pastor, the next morning. But as they drove away from the college, their car was broadsided at an intersection by a large van traveling at full speed. The force of the impact catapulted the two girls out the back of the car, killing them both instantly. The car quickly caught fire and their son and the two exchange students were badly injured and rushed to the hospital. The van had struck them on the driver’s side, just behind the front seat, so the pastor and his wife only had minor injuries.

MacArthur hurried to be with the couple at the hospital. They were shocked and shattered by their sudden loss, of course. But the father amazed and encouraged MacArthur when he said, “My sweeping thought is this: isn’t God good, that He took my two daughters who knew Christ and loved Christ, and spared these two Italian boys who are not saved? Isn’t God good?”

I’m sure that those parents didn’t have the “why” question answered then, and now, more than 25 years later, they probably still don’t know why that accident happened. But in that moment of tragedy, they were able to trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness.

Someone has said that rather than ask, “Why?” a better question is, “What?” What can I learn from this trial? Or, to ask, “How?” How does God want to use this trial? We can’t always know the answer to these questions, since God often works in ways that we don’t know about. But consider three avenues:

God-ward, the suffering may be to display God’s glory. Jesus says (11:4), “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” We saw the same thing with the man born blind (9:3), “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Does it shock you that God would allow a man to be born blind and live many years in that condition so that God would receive glory through his eventual healing? What about God taking all ten of a man’s children, all of his material possessions, and his health, so that God would be vindicated before Satan and the angels? That’s the story of Job.

If that sort of thing bothers you, then you don’t have a big enough view of God. That was the answer that God finally gave to Job: for several chapters God hits Job with questions like (Job 38:4), “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And (40:2), “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” Job’s final reply was (42:6), “Therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” Although Job was the most righteous man on earth in his day, he had to learn that God’s glory and God’s purpose was far greater than any suffering or loss that Job endured. John Piper (desiringGod.org, “This Illness is for the Glory of God”) writes:

Love means giving us what we need most. And what we need most is not healing, but a full and endless experience of the glory of God. Love means giving us what will bring us the fullest and longest joy. And what is that? … The answer of [John 11:4] is clear: a revelation to your soul of the glory of God—seeing and admiring and marveling at and savoring the glory [of] God in Jesus Christ.

Self-ward, the suffering may be either constructive or corrective. When I first preached through John, 37 years ago, I came to this text the week after our six-month-old daughter had been diagnosed with a congenital hip problem that required being hospitalized in traction and then put into a body cast for several months, followed by a couple of years in a harness to correct the problem. She hadn’t done anything wrong—she was just a baby. And as far as we knew, we hadn’t sinned so as to incur God’s discipline. But because we loved our little girl, we had to correct her problem even though it was painful for her and she didn’t have a clue why we were doing all that to her. Hebrews 12:10 says that God “disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness.” He adds (12:11), “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

Other-ward, the suffering may be to bring comfort to other Christians or to be a witness to non-Christians. In 2 Corinthians 1:4, Paul says that God “comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Also, our suffering may be used as a witness, as happened in the death of Lazarus. Many of their friends who were there to comfort Mary and Martha saw the miracle that Jesus performed and believed in Him (11:45). Even later, many of the Jews who heard about this miracle and saw Lazarus were putting their faith in Jesus (12:9-11).

In her first book (Joni [Zondervan]), Joni Eareckson [Tada] tells of the tragic diving accident that left her paralyzed from the neck down. She chronicles the agony she went through in the aftermath and how eventually she came to trust in Christ and submit to Him. She ends the book by telling of speaking at a rally to hundreds of young people and her hope that scores of them would come to faith in Christ. Then she adds (p. 228), “But I will be pleased if only one person is drawn to Christ. Even one person would make the wheelchair worth all that the past eight years have cost.” That was many years ago and she is still using her suffering to bring others to faith in Christ.

So, this story teaches us that the Lord allows those He loves to suffer. Also, we can’t always know the “why” of our sufferings, although we sometimes can figure out “what” God wants to teach us or “how” He can use the suffering for His glory.

3. We Can Always Take Our Troubles To Jesus.

I don’t know how the sisters knew where Jesus was, but somehow they got word to Him (11:3), “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” Note three things regarding their message: First, they didn’t demand that Jesus come and heal their brother. In fact, they didn’t ask Him to do anything. They just humbly presented the need to Jesus and left it up to Him what to do about it.

Second, they didn’t “claim Lazarus’ healing by faith” and command Jesus by a word of faith to do as they said. The “health and wealth” heretics tell people that we can command God: “Just speak the word of faith and it’s already done.” That’s nonsense and presumption, not to mention the height of arrogance! God is the sovereign of the universe and He has plans and purposes that we cannot begin to fathom. I’ve heard such false teachers say that we should never preface our prayers with, “Your will be done,” because that reflects a lack of faith. No, it reflects submission to the sovereign God.

Also, note that the sisters did not say, “Lord, he who loves you is sick.” That was true, of course. Lazarus loved Jesus. But rather they said (11:3), “Lord … he whom You love is sick.” They didn’t appeal to the Lord on the basis of anything in them or in Lazarus, but rather on the basis of His great love. George Muller, the godly man of faith and prayer, set forth these conditions for prayer that I have found helpful (from George Muller of Bristol [Revell], by A. T. Pierson, combined from pp. 170, 455, 456):

  1. Ask only for that which it would be for the glory of God to give us.
  2. Ask in dependence on the name of the Lord Jesus, that is, expect it only on the ground of His merits and worthiness.
  3. Separation from all known sin.
  4. Believe that God is able and willing to give us what we ask Him for.
  5. Continue in prayer, expecting God to answer, until the blessing comes.

So, take your troubles to Jesus.

4. Always Interpret Your Suffering By God’s Love; Don’t Interpret His Love By Your Suffering.

I’ve already pointed out the emphasis here on Jesus’ love for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Love always seeks the highest good of the one loved, and the highest good for all of us, as John Piper pointed out, is not that we be healthy or wealthy, but that we get a bigger vision of God’s glory in Christ. Joni Eareckson made this amazing statement about her accident (ibid., p. 154):

God engineered the circumstances. He used them to prove Himself as well as my loyalty. Not everyone had this privilege. I felt there were only a few people God cared for in such a special way that He would trust them with this kind of experience. This understanding left me relaxed and comfortable as I relied on His love, exercising newly learned trust. I saw that my injury was not a tragedy but a gift God was using to help me conform to the image of Christ, something that would mean my ultimate satisfaction, happiness—even joy.

She was interpreting her suffering by God’s love, not interpreting His love by her suffering. So should we!

5. Realize That Love Sometimes Involves Delays That We Cannot Understand At The Time.

The sisters did not understand the Lord’s delay. Both of them blurted out the same complaint that they must have said to one another over and over (11:21, 32), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” They couldn’t figure out the reason for the delay that had resulted in their brother’s death.

But as we’ve seen, the reason for the delay was Jesus’ love. By delaying, they would see more of God’s glory in Christ and know more of His power. They would grow in their faith in Him. The Lord’s deliberate delay was out of love, although they didn’t understand it at the time. Romans 8:28 is always true: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

There is much in Scripture about waiting on the Lord. If He answered us instantly every time, we would not recognize our need to depend on Him. God never delays because He is indifferent to our need or too busy or away on vacation! Peter exhorts us to cast all our anxiety on Him and then reassures us (1 Pet. 5:7), “because He cares for you.” So never doubt His love, even though you don’t understand His reasons for delaying.

Here, we learn from the delay that Lazarus’ resurrection was a prototype of ours. Through it we see that although we all die, one day we all will be raised. If Jesus could raise a decomposing body from the grave, He won’t have any problem raising our bodies from the grave (1 Cor. 15:52-53; 1 Thess. 4:14). We also learn that Jesus Himself is the resurrection and the life and that by believing in Him, we will never die eternally (11:25-26).

Conclusion

A woman still overwhelmed with grief approached her church on the Sunday after her mother had died. Just outside the door, a 7-year-old boy met her. With tearful eyes he looked up at her: “I prayed for your mother,” he said, “but she died.” For a moment, the grieving woman wanted just to hug him and cry with him. But she could see that he was seriously disturbed because he thought his prayers had not been answered. So she silently prayed for wisdom and then said to the boy, “You wanted God to do His best for my mother, didn’t you?” He nodded slowly. “Well, God answered your prayer. His best for her was to take her home to live with Him.” The boy’s eyes brightened as he replied, “That’s right, He did!” Then he ran off to meet his friends, content that God had taken her to heaven. (Adapted from “Our Daily Bread,” 5/77.)

So although we often can’t know why we’re suffering, we always can take our troubles to Jesus and know that He loves us and will work for our good in His time, not our time.

Application Questions

  1. Has a time of suffering ever caused you to doubt God’s love? How can you fight this in your next trial?
  2. Why is it not only futile, but sometimes defiant, to ask “why” when you suffer? What assumptions lie behind the question?
  3. The “name it and claim it” folks claim that they are believing Christ’s promises to answer our prayers. What’s wrong with that? Why is their practice wrong?
  4. How can we know whether God is saying “no” or whether we should keep waiting on Him in prayer?

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

Related Topics: Character of God, Christian Life, Comfort, Suffering, Trials, Persecution