April 4, 2021
Tana and I have been privileged in recent years to visit Israel. I’ll never forget our first trip, back in 2005. We met one of my college roommates who had planted a church in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem. He drove us around, showing us the sights. We visited Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth. We drove through Nazareth, where He was raised. We visited Capernaum, the base of His Galilean ministry. A short drive and we saw the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.
We visited Jerusalem, where we walked the famed via Dolorosa. We saw the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed the man lame for 38 years. We saw the Pool of Siloam, where He healed the man blind from birth. We ate at a restaurant atop the Mount of Olives, where we had a great view of the Kidron Valley, the Temple Mount and the Eastern Gate. We visited what is thought to be the Garden of Gethsemane, containing olive trees over 2,000 years old.
We stayed in the Jerusalem Hotel, right across the street from what is thought to be Golgotha, the place of the skull, the mount of crucifixion. And we visited the Garden Tomb. We don’t actually know if it was the tomb where Jesus was buried, but it was certainly one just like it. There were many interesting facts about this tomb pointing to the possibility it was His place of burial, to include that there are no DNA remains – since Jesus was raised from the dead and His body was not left to decay.
It was a great trip. At one point, as we were driving from Jericho to Jerusalem in the area of Bethany, we saw a sign, which supposedly marked the cave where Lazarus was buried, at least for four days. I wanted to stop, but our guide, my roommate, just laughed. He stopped long enough to let me take this picture, but then said, “Scott, it’s well known a Muslim, realizing rich Americans would pay to see Lazarus’ tomb, found a cave in the area of Bethany, posted a sign, and he would be happy to take your money.”
Well, regardless of the actual site of that empty tomb, I want to talk about this familiar story on Easter Sunday: the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. I want you to visit the site with me and be amazed with Jesus. That’s why it’s here – so that seeing this last miracle recorded by John in the book – you will be impressed with Jesus – more, you will believe He is the Christ, the Son of God. And by the way, I’d be happy to sell you copies of this picture for ten bucks each.
Let’s begin reading the story – John 11. it stretches all the way through verse 44, so we have a lot to cover. Let’s start with verses 1-16, which sets the stage for us.
Those verses set the stage for an amazing miracle. We’ll outline the story as follows:
- The Death of Lazarus (1-16)
- The Meeting with Martha (17-27)
- The Meeting with Mary (28-32)
- The Resurrection of Lazarus (33-44)
Let’s begin with that first point – the Death of Lazarus. The last time Jesus was in Jerusalem, He claimed to be one with the Father, which really irritated the religious leaders, so they tried to stone Him. Jesus eluded their grasp, and He and His disciples made their way across the Jordan, to the area where John the Baptist first baptized. It’s now only a few weeks, maybe days, until the events of the Passion Week begin to unfold, beginning with the Triumphal Entry in chapter 12, which we looked at last week.
Jesus is teaching, still performing miracles, many were believing in Him. But, John tells us there was a certain man, Lazarus of Bethany, who was sick. Lazarus is only mentioned in chapters 11 and 12 of John. He was the brother of Mary and Martha who we first meet in Luke 10 when Jesus visited their home. That’s the story where Martha is busy preparing a meal while Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Lazarus isn’t even mentioned. Bethany, by the way, is a little less than two miles from Jerusalem – an important point – less than two miles from the city where they had recently tried to take Jesus’ life. We read the additional detail Mary was the one who anointed Jesus with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair.
Lazarus is sick, so the sisters sent word to Jesus – Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick. Notice, they don’t ask Him to come – perhaps they recognize it would be dangerous for Him to do so. But, they do appeal to His love for Lazarus as reason to believe Jesus might do something about the illness. You would expect Jesus to jump on the fastest camel around and hightail it to Bethany. Or maybe He’d just do another healing from a distance thing – like with the nobleman’s son back in John chapter 4.
Instead, we read these enigmatic words in verse 5, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Okay, we’re fine with that – Jesus says, this sickness won’t end in death – okay then, just say the word. Notice also, this is just like the healing of the blind man, whose life of misery was so that the glory of God could be put on display. Keep that in mind – this sickness, and even his death was to put the glory of God on display. That’ll mess with your theology.
Don’t miss Jesus interchanges the glory of the Father with the glory of the Son. That’s a constant theme in this book – the glory of the Father and the glory of the Son are mutually shared. Anyway, we’re kind of expecting a miracle at any moment. In fact, we get to verse 5 and John tells us Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Again, at this point everything is proceeding quite normally – if you’ve read about Jesus’ other miracles, you expect another one to take place, about now. But it doesn’t.
Verse 6: “So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer.” What’s up with that? Please catch the very important wording. Verse 6 follows verses 4 and 5 and starts with a conjunction. This sickness will bring about the glory of God and the Son. And, because He loved this family, He stayed away. You would think it would be, because He loved this family, He went. Not so. Isn’t that what we expect – if God loves me, He will show up, right now.
Here’s a very important point. We know how this story ends. But at this point, the sisters don’t know. Lazarus doesn’t know. No doubt as the first couple of days went by, Mary and Martha and sick Lazarus were waiting – perhaps going to the door, looking for Him or the messenger – waiting for Jesus to show up and do something. After all, He loved them, didn’t He? And they just let Him know what their need was, didn’t they? So where was God? It may have seemed to them like God was absent – God, what are you doing? You love me, don’t you? I asked, didn’t I? Where are you?
Have you ever experienced that? Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And I have a need – a rather serious need. So, like the Bible also says, I make my requests known to God. And nothing happens. Where are you, God? Don’t You know what’s going on? Have you heard me? Don’t you care? Why don’t you show up?
This story tells us, God does know and care – He loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus – the word is agape – He had a deep and strong love for them. But, in the midst of that love, and I would suggest because of that love and for the glory of God, Lazarus was not only sick, but he was going to die. Yes, Jesus said this sickness will not end in death – and it didn’t. It’s not the end of the story, and it’s not the end of your story.
Well, the sisters were going to experience the grief of premature death. And the wonderful experience of a funeral. In the meantime, where is Jesus? Have you done that? Faced an unexpected, premature death of a loved one? Wondered where God was? We find in this story: death is not forever. Not for followers of Jesus.
Only God can reconcile His own glory and our good and His love and our joy in such a way that it all works out – even when we don’t see it. Don’t understand. Pastor Kent Hughes says it this way, “Have you ever felt that way? ‘Where were you, Lord? You came too late? Where were you when my loved one died? Where were you when my marriage dissolved? Where were you when my parents divorced? Where were you when my father became an alcoholic? Where were you when my child went astray? … and we wonder if God cares…John 11 elevates our perspective and tells us that no matter how things appear, these inexplicable delays are delays of love.” The truth is, only God is sovereign, only God is omniscient, only God is omnipotent. And only God is good. So, we may question – that’s what the sisters did – but in the end, they, and we must trust, based on the truth of God’s word, that He knows what He’s doing.
Think about it – don’t you suppose Lazarus’ sickness and even his death were a bit uncomfortable? A bit of a trial? Don’t you suppose his sisters felt deep grief and pain and sorrow? Don’t you suppose it was worth it, for the display of the glory of the Father and the Son? Because Jesus loved them, and for His own glory, He was bringing them to full faith through this amazing miracle.
And I want to give you a further truth here. This is not a promise that Jesus will raise us, individually, from every sickness and every death. But it is a picture of the promise that He is the resurrection and the life – and one day we will all be raised to life eternal. This is the promise of Easter – our sins can be forgiven, and we can be raised to life.
Jesus waited two days, likely in His omniscience knowing when Lazarus would die. Then He said, let’s go to Judea, now’s the time. Not when Martha and Mary and even Lazarus thought it was time – when Jesus thought it was time. I would suggest, Jesus is seldom early, but never late – even though it may seem so to us.
The disciples are of course aghast. Rabbi, the Jews were just seeking to stone You, and You’re going back? The ministry here is going great – you’re doing miracles, and the people are believing just like they’re supposed to. Why would you place Yourself at risk and return to Judea?
Jesus’ answer is basically this: while it is still light, during the twelve hours of the day – while I’m still here and before I return to heaven, we must walk/work. We must do the work while we can – at night, we can’t walk without stumbling; at night, we can no longer work. Now is time, so let’s go. Then Jesus says to them – our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.
Now, we know Lazarus has died. But please note how Jesus refers to it as sleep. It’s one of the great truths of the Christian faith. People around the world have always feared death. It’s always been viewed with great horror. But with the coming of Christ, it could now be viewed as sleeping. It’s the last enemy to be destroyed. Jesus brought hope such that the New Testament speaks of our dying as sleep.
They don’t get it. Jesus says, Lazarus had fallen asleep, I’m gonna go wake him up. The disciples think if he’s sick and sleeping, that would be good, wouldn’t it? So Jesus tells them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And, I’m glad for your sakes I was not there. Think about it – what would one more healing do? I’m glad I can put the glory of the Father and the Son on display so that you may believe. That’s the purpose of the book – that’s the ultimate purpose of this story.
At this point, Thomas, you know him as Doubting Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” Now, there are two ways to look at that. One, he’s living up to his reputation – doubting they would survive. Or, you can look at it as a man who would follow Jesus anywhere – even to his own death. We might be a bit too hard on this disciple.
Which brings us to our second point, Jesus’ Meeting with Martha. Read verses 17-27.
What an important passage – one that is often rightly read at funeral services. Jesus sets out for Bethany. When the messenger came, Lazarus was still sick. Jesus waited for two days – until He knew Lazarus had died. Then He said, let’s go on the two-day journey. Why did He wait? There was a commonly held belief that the soul hung around the body for three days after someone died, hoping to return to the body. But once the body began to change – that is, decompose, the soul left. So, just to make sure Lazarus was really dead – so no one could say, well, He just resuscitated him – He wasn’t really dead – He was just mostly dead, Jesus waited. Now, we understand the soul doesn’t hang around, but Jesus waited so they would know Lazarus was irrevocably dead.
From the other stories of the sisters, it appears they were a family of some means. Many come from Jerusalem to pay their respects and mourn with the sisters. In fact, it was customary to hire at least two flutes and one professional mourner for a funeral, just to make sure there was appropriate mourning. The official mourning would last for seven days, the family would mourn for thirty. Remember, until Jesus, death was a time of great mourning. All that to say, there were lots of people at Martha and Mary’s home.
Martha hears Jesus has finally arrived, so she goes out to meet Him. She says, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.”
I don’t think that’s accusatory nor anticipatory. She’s not laying blame at Jesus’ feet –she’s upset – Lord, I don’t understand. If you had been here, my faith in You tells me he’d still be alive. But, I still believe – I still believe God gives you whatever you ask – my faith in You has not wavered. She’s not asking Him to raise Lazarus from the dead – else she wouldn’t have argued with Him later when Jesus ask the stone to be removed. She’s distraught, expressing both her pain and her continued faith in Jesus. Which I would suggest is the way we go to God in our pain. Lord, I don’t get this, but I still believe. Cry out to Him. Then, trust.
So, Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Now, if she were expecting an immediate miracle – an immediate resurrection – she would have said, great, let’s go to the tomb. She didn’t, she said, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” She was expressing her orthodox faith in what Jesus had said earlier – there is coming a day when all who are in the grave will hear His voice and come forth.
But we know the rest of the story. Jesus is moving her and us beyond orthodox belief to personal faith. He has something else in mind, namely, His glory and further proof of His deity. So He says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” This is one of the most glorious, hope-filled statements in Scripture. It’s the truth of Easter. It’s the fifth “I am” statement in this gospel:
1. I am the bread of life (6:35)
2. I am the light of the world (8:12)
3. I am the gate (10:7,9)
4. I am the good shepherd (10:11,14)
5. I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
6. I am the way, the truth and the life (14:6)
7. I am the true vine (15:1,5)
All those are meant to be exclusive – He alone is the bread of life, He alone is the light of the world, He alone is the good shepherd, He alone is the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this, Martha? It’s good you’re orthodox – it’s good you believe sound doctrine. Do you really believe in Me as the resurrection and the life? Do you believe in Him and Him alone as the way, the truth and the life?
In this important claim, Jesus is saying, I alone offer eternal life to everyone who believes. It is found nowhere else. And the good news of the gospel is everyone who believes will live – even if he dies. You see, physical death can never affect the life I give. He or she will never die – eternal life is forever.
And He asks Martha, do you believe this? He is drawing out her faith – He is drawing out our faith. And she makes this incredible confession. The same confession Peter made in Caesarea Philippi. The same confession the woman at the well made, the same confession the blind man made. The same confession that is necessary for faith, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”
Yes! That’s it, Martha. That’s the faith I’m looking for. That’s the point of the book – it’s the point of the passage. Now, Jesus is simply going to prove it, which means we move quickly through the last two points.
Point three – Jesus’ Meeting with Mary – let’s read verses 28-32.
There’s not much to add here. Jesus asks for Mary, she comes out to see Him. The difference in Martha and Mary’s personality is seen once again – Mary falls at Jesus’ feet, a position of trust and submission. And she says the same thing Martha said, “Lord, if You had been here my brother would not have died.” Lord, I don’t get this, but she’s at His feet – I don’t get this, but I trust you. It shows the depth of the grief and heightens the expectation for something to happen.
Which brings us to that something in verses 33-44 – the Resurrection of Lazarus.
The first few verses here are a bit difficult to understand, and our translations don’t help us. Both verses 33 and 38 say Jesus was deeply moved within – verse 33 says He was troubled. We read that and think, well isn’t that sweet – Jesus felt deep compassion for those weeping over the death of Lazarus. And then, verse 35 says that even Jesus Himself wept. The word there is different from mourning – it simply describes tears running down His cheeks. There’s no doubt He felt sorrow and pain, even compassion.
But really, what is going on here? A better translation would be, Jesus was perturbed and troubled, which makes more sense. He was perturbed at their lack of faith, at their sorrow which was devoid of hope. He had come to offer hope – and no one seemed to get it. So, when one among them died – all they could think of was their personal misery. He was a bit irritated.
It’s true, He also wept. Wept because Lazarus died? No, since He was about to raise him from the dead. He wept because of sin and what it brought – death. Wept because of their lack of faith and hope. Wept because of the brokenness of this world.
And so, He asks them where they had laid Lazarus – they take Him to the tomb. It was a cave with a blue sign hanging on the outside. There was a stone lying against it. Jesus said, remove the stone. Martha, not expecting a miracle, said, Lord, he’s been dead for four days – he’s beyond hope – the soul is gone. Surely there is a foul stench. You don’t really want to see him.
To which Jesus said, “Did I not tell you if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” He sums up their conversation – the glory of God will be seen in the resurrection of the dead. So, they removed the stone, and Jesus prayed. Interesting prayer – it was to His Father, but also for the benefit of those around – He prayed so they would know the relationship He had with His Father, and they would believe God had sent Him. It was further proof of who Jesus was.
And when He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” It has been suggested that He said Lazarus – He called Him by name – to identify who He was talking to. If He had just said come forth, then everyone in the tombs would have obeyed the voice of the Son of God and come out. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like it. Because there is coming a day when all who are in the grave will hear His voice and come forth.
This man who had died and been dead for four days – meaning He was really dead, came forth. This is a promise of that to come. He was bound in the traditional burial method, like Jesus would be a few days later. Wrapped from shoulder to feet with spices to diminish the smell of decay; and with a separate cloth for his head. Jesus said, Unbind him and let him go.
Now, why did Lazarus have to be unbound? Why didn’t he just come out like Jesus did and leave the grave clothes behind? Because his was only a bodily resurrection to the same physical body he had before. He did not receive his glorified body – meaning he could not pass through cloth or locked doors like Jesus. Meaning he would die again. But it would not matter – everyone who believes in Jesus will live, even if he dies.
And so, this picture was complete. Jesus is the resurrection and life – and all who believe in Him will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die but have eternal life. It is His crucifixion, burial and resurrection which assures our future resurrection. So, I finish with John 20:30-31, the purpose of the Gospel of John, and my message to you today:
30 Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.