“Though He Dies”
March 30, 2003
Faced with the stark reality of death, only one man can bring life through the tears.
I. A Death for Gods Glory (John 11:1-16)
II. The Resurrection and the Life (John 11:17-27)
III. Jesus wept (John 11:28-37)
IV. Stark Deaths Strong Foe (John 11:38-44)
MessageThe reality of death has been brought into our lives dramatically this week. The militarys embedded journalist program means this war plays out live 24/7. The bomb blasts and the fear in the reporters voices are not special effects, but realities. Weve seen captured American troops, and the Arab network has broadcast videos of the dead. Its sad to think of these sons, brothers, husbands, whose images were broadcast worldwide, their bloody death wounds displayed for all to see. But death is a stark reality of war. You cant go into a fight like this without expecting death and carnage, and the leaders of our military know it. Furthermore the kind of fight theyve chosen, a battle plan intended to spare civilians, increases the exposure of our soldiers and aviators to risk. So were seeing the medical evacuations and the body bags and hearing the proud, heartbreaking words of loved ones who are processing the truth that their son, their brother, their friend has died.
Death is a dark reality, of war and of life. Most of us have lost loved ones, parents, siblings or even children to the grim permanence of death. Weve lost lifelong friends to this enemy. Jesus, in his short life, knew the reality of death and faced it. In the well known account of the death of his friend Lazarus, he reveals how he deals with death. His response is life and the promise of life. Faced with the stark reality of death, only one man can bring life through the tears: that man is Jesus.
I. A Death for Gods Glory (John 11:1-16)
The first of four parts in John 11 shows a death which was for Gods glory. John 11:1-16. Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick." 4When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." 5Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. 7Then he said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea." 8"But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" 9Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. 10It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light." 11After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." 12His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." 13Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." 16Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
This is the first time in the Gospel that Mary, Martha and Lazarus have been mentioned: much of Jesus daily life is not recorded in any of the Gospels. Only Luke tells us of another visit Jesus made to the home of Mary and Martha: Martha was busy and distracted; Mary sat at Jesus feet, and he said Mary had chosen the better part. Lazarus isnt even mentioned there, but we learn here that he was their brother and they were from Bethany, a village only about two miles from Jerusalem. We also learn that Jesus loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Not that he didnt love the whole world, but in the incarnation, his love was focused on individuals in special ways.
John introduces us to Lazarus by referring to an event that hasnt happened yet. In chapter 12 Mary will use a pint of expensive perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus. John is hinting forward to that incident, as good authors often do. But here Lazarus is sick with a life-threatening illness. So the sisters do what any follower of Jesus would, they send for him: the one you love is sick." At the end of chapter 10 Jesus had left Jerusalem to go to a place John the Baptist had once worked. When we studied chapters 1 and 2 we concluded it was on the other side of the Jordan river and some ways up toward Galilee. This would put Jesus four days journey away. Nonetheless word reached him before Lazarus died, so that Jesus says This sickness will not end in death future tense. But two days later he announces that Lazarus has died. The two day delay doesnt mean he could have gotten back and healed him before he died - it was a four day journey. But it does mean that when he arrived Lazarus had been in the ground four days, and thats significant to the story.
But we get ahead of ourselves. On hearing the news Jesus says This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it. Jesus doesnt mean the sickness is not fatal - it is, but he knows it wont ultimately mean death. It will end in resurrection, so that Gods glory might be revealed, resulting in his praise. Furthermore, it will reveal the glory of the Son, so that all might glorify the Son as they do the Father. The vehicle for this glory is the two day delay by Jesus, even though, as John emphasizes, he loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Gods delays in answering our prayers never indicate a lack of love, but they are timing loops, used to reveal his glory and to provide for us in unexpected ways. We need to trust that Jesus is our good shepherd even when delays seems to go beyond whats reasonable and our needs go beyond whats possible.
So Jesus finally says Lets go back to Judea. Naturally the disciples object. Its not safe to go back to Judea, where only a short while ago the Jews had tried to stone Jesus; anyway, hadnt Jesus told them that Lazarus sickness wouldnt end in death? Jesus responds by saying Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. Jesus knows that he is safe and will not stumble as long as he performs his Fathers will. The daylight period of his ministry may now be far advanced, but it would be wrong to quit before the light of day fails.
His disciples, then and now, can have the same confidence: If Jesus is the light of the world, then as long as we have his light and do his will, acting in simple obedience, we can face danger without despair. We might even face death, as Lazarus did. This chapter is going to remind us that death doesnt have the last word. Jesus does.
Jesus explains why hes going: Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up. Did you ever notice that the disciples arent good at metaphor, even a simple metaphor like sleep=death? They respond "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better," thinking his fever has broken and hes going to be OK. We dont really need to go up to Judea. So Jesus has to drop even the simple metaphor and say plainly Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him. Later events will show that Jesus is not glad Lazarus is dead, per se, but he is glad that his death will reveal Gods glory, resulting in a new level of belief for the disciples as well as the family in Bethany.
Surprisingly, these words convinced Thomas, the one known as the doubting disciple, to take the lead in faithful if fatalistic following: Let us also go, that we may die with him. He doesnt know whats happening or what Jesus is doing, but his attitude of being willing to die for Jesus has been a great model to followers and martyrs for centuries, and Jesus will prove to Thomas that not even death can defeat him. So Jesus goes to Judea, promising that though Lazarus has died, God will be glorified.
II. The Resurrection and the Life (John 11:17-27)
In John 11:17 to 27 he teaches Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." 23Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24Martha answered, "I know he will rise in the resurrection at the last day." 25Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" 27"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
This was apparently a four day journey, but the delay amplifies the miracle, since it was commonly held among the Jews that the soul of the person hovered over the body for three days before departing. Thus a resuscitation on the fourth day was, to the Jews, a greater miracle than one on the second. Since Bethany was close to Jerusalem, the mourners who were present apparently included many from the capital city. The family of Mary and Martha and Lazarus must have been fairly prominent to attract this kind of crowd, but their presence heightened the danger for Jesus, since those who wanted to kill him were centered in Jerusalem.
Martha went out as soon as she heard Jesus was coming and met him outside the village. The episode in Luke portrays Martha as being the more active of the two sisters, and this fits. Her first words to Jesus show both her grief and her faith: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask. Shes confident that if Jesus had been present while her brother lay ill, he would have been healed. She even has some hope that if Jesus would ask God to give Lazarus back now, he would do it, though Im not sure she thinks its right to ask. I know Ive sat at funerals and done funerals where Ive honestly wondered Lord, is this the time you want to raise the dead? Why not now? Why not this person? But Ive never felt it strongly enough to seriously ask.
But Jesus has no such hesitation. Facing the stark reality of death, hes the one who can bring life. A young preacher, doing his first funeral, decided to look in the Gospels to see how Jesus handled funerals. He discovered that Jesus disrupted every funeral he attended, even his own. This one is no exception. So Jesus tells Martha Your brother will rise again. Now its true that this could just be kind comfort, drawing Marthas attention to a resurrection to come, belief in which she shared with Jesus and the Pharisees: I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. But Jesus is promising her something more, as will soon become clear.
His next words dont require her to believe he will now raise Lazarus, but theyre a strong call to belief in him, the most important belief Martha or any of us can have. 25: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? In chapter 5 Jesus claimed that with the authority granted him by the Father, he himself would raise the dead on the last day. Here he makes that claim even more personal: he is the voice behind every kind of resurrection and the source of any life really worth the name. Jesus wants to turn Marthas focus from an abstract belief in what happens the last day to a personal belief in the one who provides it.
Jesus is talking about the final resurrection of believers. He says that the one who believes will come to life, that is, be resurrected, even though he dies. Given the stark reality of death as we know it, this is a wonderful claim. It doesnt have anything to do with Lazarus: Lazarus is a proof, a sign. It has more to do with Martha and Mary, with you and me, with all of us who have stood brokenhearted by a coffin. In 1st Corinthians Paul calls death the last enemy because death has always had the last word. But now Jesus has the last word. John 5: a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out. That promise still stands. The fighting in Iraq reminds us of the stark reality of death, of the horror of war, of the cruelty men show to each other. Such horror can be borne only if we know that it is not the last word, only if we believe in the one who will one day say enough: enough death, enough war, enough grief, enough suffering. Max Lucado theorizes and I agree that thats what Jesus will shout when he comes: Enough.
But there is more to this claim than that future promise. He is the resurrection and the life. He says whoever lives and believes in me will never die. The word lives obviously means more than just being alive, it means having new life through him, having eternal life, having abundant life, having now the life of the age to come. We have noticed several times that Jesus considers present belief to be the beginning of eternal life. It doesnt start when you die or when you are resurrected. He said in John 5:24 I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. Its a present reality and ought to be real to us who believe.
Notice again how pervasive belief is in this Gospel. It is the heart of Johns message and show up again and again in the scenes he chooses. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus said to the disciples Im glad I wasnt there when he died, so that you may believe. Now: he who believes in me will live, whoever lives and believes in me will never die. But he doesnt leave it even at that. He confronts Martha. In her time of crisis and grief he calls her to faith and puts some pressure on her to take a stand. Do you believe this? Of course the pressure is in her best interest: only by such faith will she know the promise of eternal life and comfort in her grief. How does she respond? Yes, Lord, I believe. She confesses personal faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. She sees that the one who is the resurrection and the life must be Gods promised Messiah. Don Carson points out that her faith is a rich mixture of personal trust, represented by the Latin word fiducia and confidence that certain things about Jesus are true, the Latin assensus or assent. When we talk about belief we dont want to miss both these elements - personal trust plus a head and heart knowledge of the one we trust, knowing that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross for our sins.
III. Jesus wept (John 11:28-37)
Jesus interacts with Martha in a way that suits her personality, her active and questioning nature. In the next few verses the difference in personalities between Martha and Mary and the difference in circumstances cause Jesus to interact with Mary in a very different way. Verses 28 to 37: 28And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. "The Teacher is here," she said, "and is asking for you." 29When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34"Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. 35Jesus wept. 36Then the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" 37But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?"
Martha tells Mary that Jesus is asking for her, and tries to secure the same privacy she and Jesus just had, but Marys sudden exit causes the mourners to follow her, thinking she is going to mourns at the tomb. Despite the crowd, Mary falls at Jesus feet and says the exact words her sister said Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Any words Jesus may have said in response arent recorded, maybe because John considered them repetitious, maybe because Mary did not need to hear the same things Martha did. Instead John focuses on the heart response of Jesus to the situation. Verse 33: When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
He was deeply moved or even outraged. Why? John doesnt say explicitly, so there have been many suggestions. Some have said he was angry at the professional grief of the mourners. That was the case when he raised a little girl from death in the other Gospels, but theres no hint of it here. Some think he is angry at the unbelief of the people or even the sisters. Martha has expressed faith, but Mary and the mourners are caught up in grief. More than that, though, I think Jesus shares the grief, and is angry at the sin, sickness and death in this fallen world that creates so much suffering and sorrow. He was moved, not just with compassion, but with anger that death got even a partial victory over his friends, that all his loved ones would have to live in a world of sorrow. He was grieving, and grief isnt just sadness: it includes anger. Death brings anger and tears because there is something tragically wrong when relationships designed to be eternal are ripped apart.
Jesus felt these things despite knowing what he was about to do. Why? Mostly because when he became incarnate, he became as human as we are. The writer of Hebrews tells us that since the children have flesh and blood, he shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death__that is, the devil__ and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. Later the same author says Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. So it was in anger at a fallen world and in sympathy with those who grieved that Jesus wept openly at the tomb. His weeping was not gentle tears. The word means a lament or a cry of the heart, the kind of wail associated with some calamity.
Jesus was genuinely moved by the death of his friend. His tears are interpreted in two ways by the crowd. To some they showed how much he loved Lazarus. That was true: Jesus did love Lazarus and his sisters. But the crowd understood his grief to be as despairing as their own - which it wasnt. Others remembered his healing power and wondered why someone so great could not have prevented the death of one he loved. They thought his tears were from frustration that he came too late. That wasnt the case either. Jesus faces the stark reality of death, and he weeps. But does he despair? No. Does he take back his promises of eternal life? No. Does he grieve without hope as the Thessalonians did in Pauls day? No. He grieves because he is angry at the fallen world you and I live in that contains such grief.
IV. Stark Deaths Strong Foe (John 11:38-44)
Jesus recognizes death as an enemy, but one over which he will prevail. Hes prepared to show some prevailing power now. Verses 38 to 44: Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39"Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." 40Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" 41So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." 43When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."
Many Jews buried their dead in caves, natural or hewn from rock. The hole was usually sealed with a stone. Before Jesus says the word that brings life back to Lazarus, he commands the people to remove the stone. But Martha, despite her faith in Jesus, cant quite wrap her mind around the idea of resurrection, so she makes the obvious objection: by this time there is a bad odor for he has been there four days. Actually I like the King James, But Lord, he stinketh. Death is not a pretty thing, no matter how much people try to sanitize it. Death is the ultimate corruption of life, of its purposes, its power, its purity. Death stinks. The odor of human death and decay, which weve probably never smelled, but which our troops are now experiencing on the battlefield, is the odor of hell, where death continues forever.
But Jesus, face to face with the stark stink of death, does not surrender. Through his tears he is more powerful than death. He says Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God? If he is addressing Martha hes reporting part of the conversation John did not record. If hes turned to his disciples, hes reminding them what he said when he first heard of the sickness, that it was for Gods glory.
Next, Jesus prays: Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me. The prayer assumes Jesus has already asked for Lazarus life: now hes thanking his Father for the answer. Notice how this public prayer differs from private prayer. Its not that Jesus is praying theatrically, but that his prayer seeks to draw his hearers into the intimacy he has with the Father. It calls the people into a response of belief based on what they are about to see God do.
Verse 43: When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" Jesus taught that a day was coming when the dead would hear the his voice and live. This is a preview of that day. Some have said that the authority of Jesus is so great if he hadnt called Lazarus by name, all the tombs would have given up their dead. But he calls only Lazarus, and Lazarus emerges still wrapped in his graveclothes.
Properly speaking this is not a resurrection at all, but a resuscitation. Resurrection implies a glorified, eternal body, but poor Lazarus had to come back to his old used body, healed but not transformed. Sometime down the road he had to die again. His new life was bound to his old - he had to be released from his graveclothes. Nonetheless, as John will make clear, this great miracle pointed profoundly to the glory of God and brought glory to the one whose word was the resurrection and the life.
Faced with the stark reality of death, only one man can bring life through the tears. You and I dont want to face that reality, the stink of death and the grief of separation. Jesus knows how we feel; thats one reason we turn to him when faced with death he does not mock our loss, but shares it. The other reason we turn to him in the face of death is that he has the power of life. He showed it in raising Lazarus and he promised it when he spoke with Martha I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? Have you thrown yourself in the arms of the only one who can carry you over from death to life?
I heard a great report from Kuwait on the radio Monday. Aaron Katersky is a reporter for KTRH and is embedded in a Marine air unit on the Iraqi border. In this particular local report he had time to include a number of details that dont make national news. The excerpt youre about to hear shows clearly, even under its secular guise, that in the face of death, men and women still turn to one who has the power of life. (Thank you, J P Pritchard of KTRH for sending me the MP3 file from which these quotes were transcribed):
JP: Aaron of course the war news is top in mind but life is going on as usual. I understand there was a baptism there in the unit where you are.
Aaron: JP, This was remarkable; what an odd place for a religious ceremony. But with F-18's flying by overhead, a watchtower standing sentinel in the background, two Marines, one guy 39, another guy in his 20s, actually went into a fabric pool, filled with 3000 gallons of water, with a Navy chaplain, and got baptized for the first time. Its amazing how combat inspires faith and these guys are wanting to be part of a community they say, just in case. You never know whats going to happen so you might as well make sure youre in the club. And they didnt mean it facetiously; they were very serious about it. They are attending church services which have been abbreviated to account for the demanding schedule of a Marine, but faith is quite important here on base.
Faced with the stark reality of death, one man brings life: his name is Jesus.