The story of Lazarus' death provides an incredible glimpse into both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. What does it tell us about each? Find out now.
I have read of a sad custom observed by many on the Fiji Islands related to the customs of bereavement - the practice of lamenting the loss of the dead. The one who has suffered bereavement climbs to a high tree or stands on a cliff and after calling out the name of the deceased he cries out, "Come back, come back". The heartrending wail is filled with despair.
This morning we are going to enter the valley of the shadow of death and observe people lamenting the death of a man who had filled the shoes of dear friend, close brother, family man and committed disciple.
More importantly, we're going to watch Jesus Christ interrupt the funeral with an incredible display of humanity and deity. . .so much so that we will, like those early observers have to make a decision; a decision to believe Him or reject Him.
The story opens with verse one of John chapter 11. Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2. And it was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. (by putting the gospel pieces together you learn that Jesus was very close with all three of these individuals and often used their home as a bed and breakfast resting place and retreat) 3. The sisters therefore sent to Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick." 4. But when Jesus heard it, He said, "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it."
Now throughout this chapter, Jesus Christ will teach a number of different truths to those who care to search for them.
- Verse four is lesson Number #1! Sickness can be a divine laboratory where new discoveries are made about the nature and character of God.
You ought to underline the motivation for this miracle of resurrection. The key word is "glory" in verse 4. and also the word glorified at the end of the verse.
The word comes from the root word "doxa" from which we get our word doxology - it refers to the glorious attributes and splendor of God's character. The Hebrew counterpart is "kavod" which means "weight" or "heaviness". Whenever the Hebrew and Greek word is used of God it refers to God's weighty and glorious honor or reputation.
Jesus says, "This sickness is for the glory of God and that the Son of God may be glorified". In other words, Jesus says in effect, "I'm going to do something about my reputation - and is it ever going to challenge your thinking, about who I am!"
Now look at one of the most fascinating things Jesus did - 6. When therefore Jesus heard that he was sick, He stayed then two days longer in the place where He was!
Later in the passage we discover that by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the body of Lazarus had been in the grave four days.
If your thinking that Jesus waited around because he really didn't care, you need to notice John's answer for that - 5. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
But this just doesn't make sense - If Jesus loved them, then why did Jesus wait?
Let's begin with the obvious answer and work backward. There isn't any doubt that you and I need to be reminded of the obvious principles:
First of all, Jesus knew what they didn't know! They wanted Him to arrive immediately to reveal his power to heal. He wanted to wait so that He could reveal His power over the grave.
- But there's more to it than that - one of the harder principles to learn is that waiting on God and waiting for God can be the will of God!
People often say, "I'm waiting for the Lord to reveal His will to me. . ." The truth is, at that moment, you are doing it! And by doing that in the present you never need to fear missing it in the future.
- Another obvious truth, of course, is that God is never rushed!
We're always in a hurry! I mentioned some time ago racing through a yellow light at an intersection, my daughter who was sitting next to me had observed the whole thing and asked very innocently, "Daddy, does yellow mean to speed up."
Most often it does!
I thought I was bad until my second grade son a few weeks ago asked me the profound question, "Dad, when I blink, do I miss something in life?" He was determined not to blink if that meant he'd miss something somewhere. What a terrific attitude!
Don Moore, who led our worship a few weeks ago and I were talking about our pace. He said one of the most convicting things to him is that if you asked his children what he most often said to them. . ."I'll bet their answer would be two words, "Hurry up."
The amazing thing about Jesus Christ is that He only had three years to reveal his message and prepare his messengers - and He never said, "Hurry up, we've got to move faster, we're never going to make it. . ." Jesus Christ never panicked. And the more like Him we become the less frantic we will become.
Verse 7. Then after this He said to the disciples, "let us go to Judea again." skip to verse 11. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep."
Now there are a number of false beliefs that have taken this verse out of context to teach a soul sleep. That is, upon death, the body ceases to exist - the immaterial part of your being enters a state of spiritual limbo - an earth bound wandering.
However, scripture clearly teaches that to be "absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." Paul also wrote in Philippians, "I have a strong desire to depart and be with Christ, yet also to remain on in the flesh for your sake."
The spirit goes to be with the Lord, and the body sleeps - that is, the body awaits the resurrection of the rapture, when, according to I Thessalonians 4, the body will be recreated from it's decomposed dust, glorified, resurrected and reunited with it's spirit only to live forever with the Lord.
The metaphor for death is sleep and it appears 14 times in the New Testament. In fact, the word cemetery is from a greek word that means "sleeping place."
So for the time being, in the cemetery, the body is dead - that is, it sleeps, yet the spirit of every one of us will never miss a second of action. . .our spirit never blinks!
Well, the disciples misunderstood the metaphor of sleep - 12. The disciples therefore said to Him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." 13. Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. 14. The Jesus therefore said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him."
Did you catch that? "Lazarus is dead and I am glad. . ." Why? So that you may believe!
Another truth emerges from this passage - here it is:
- Sorrow often creates the ideal environment for growth in our faith.
The disciples will learn the most powerful, faith deepening truth about Jesus Christ's deity - not at the wedding in Cana, but the funeral in Bethany. Not in a storm on the sea of Galilee, but among the mourners at a cemetery.
The setting for the revelation of Jesus Christ's greatest miracle was not a synagogue but a cemetery, and the emotion was sorrow!
Verse 20. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him; but Mary still sat in the house. 21. Martha therefore said to Jesus, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died."
Bless you Martha...she's 100% wrong, but she put into words what so many of us have felt! She's looked the Lord in the eye and gave him a speech that we've all wanted to give Him.
"Lord, if you'd been a little quicker, this wouldn't have happened...Lord if you had only been listening, my spouse wouldn't have died...my child would have lived...my business wouldn't have failed...my health would still be with me...Lord, if you'd just been quicker on your feet, my life would be more comfortable!"
She had come to the wrong conclusion that we so easily make - that the presence of Jesus erases the potential for suffering. If God really cared, there'd never be a reason to cry.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, in just a moment, God himself is going to cry!
Now let's go on to Jesus response to Martha - v. 25 "...Your brother shall rise again." 24. Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." The O.T. taught enough for them to know that there would be a general resurrection. The N.T. adds enough revelation to inform us that there will be more than one resurrection. 25. Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies."
He's teaching her something - For believers, there is another life beyond the grave. "he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies!"
We need to reverse our thinking - we are not in the land of the living, headed for the land of the dying; we are in the land of the dying, headed for the land of the living.
And if you know Jesus Christ as your Messiah, you are not walking toward the sunset of life, you are walking toward the sunrise.
But He's also teaching another truth - For unbelievers, there is another death beyond the grave 26. "and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. What does that mean? that Christians are never going to die?! No. Dying in this verse is a reference to the eternal death, eternal separation from God that the Bible refers to as the second death.
Just prior to John's revelation of the new heaven and the new earth, the eternal destiny for sin, Satan, demons, and all who've rejected Christ is revealed in a terrifying finale - And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, (what is?) the eternal lake of fire. 15. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
John in his Gospel and now here in his Revelation has taught us clearly two things: if you've been born twice, you'll only die once. That is, if you've been born physically and you've been born again spiritually, you will only die physically; and that death is merely the hand that opens heaven's door. BUT, if you've only been born once - physically, you're going to die twice. Once physically, and second - eternally separated from God in the lake of fire.
So . . .
If you’ve been born twice - you die once.
If you’ve been born only once - you die twice.
Now back to John's gospel. . .
The Lord has just taught the truth of the resurrection to Martha and then He asks her - John 11:26b. "Do you believe this?!" Do you believe this specific doctrinal truth of the resurrection abiding within Me, Jesus asks.
I'm so glad Jesus didn't ask Martha, "Now Martha, how do you feel about this." According to Jesus, how she felt wasn't important, but what she believed was!
What do you believe?
There are a lot of Christians like that man who was being interviewed for church membership (not at Colonial mind you). He was asked, "Sir, what do you believe?" He replied, "I believe whatever the church believes." That didn't exactly satisfy the interviewing committee and so they asked further, "And could you tell us, sir, what the church believes?" The man answered, "The church believes what I believe." "And just what do you and the church believe?" He answered, "We believe the same thing."
You know what will carry you through the sorrow of a death experience? The death of a loved one; the death of a business; the death of a relationship; the death of a life-long dream? Not what you feel - but what you believe about Jesus Christ!
Now it's Mary's turn - look at verse 30. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him. 31. The Jews then who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary rose up quickly and went out, followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32. Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died." (These two sisters had reached the same conclusion). 33. When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her, also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled. 34. And said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, Lord come and see.
Before we go any further, allow me to draw a few, very earthy, yet practical lessons from the funeral of Lazarus that, in our day, will benefit us all.
- First, when it comes to material trappings, be simple.
Let me explain. This was a time in the history of the Jewish people that funerals had become incredibly costly things. The body was clothed in the most magnificent robes possible; and all kinds of valuables were buried in the tomb along with the body. They had adopted some of their Egyptian past without considering the implications. Naturally no one wanted to be outdone in the expression of their love for the deceased, and so more and more expensive clothing was purchased; and the treasures left in the tomb, became more and more expensive. Midway through the first century, people were becoming bankrupted by burial traditions. UNTIL . . . a famous Rabbi named Gamaliel the Second gave orders that he was to be buried in the simplest possible linen robe, and so he broke the tradition once and for all. I have read that at Orthodox funerals even today, a blessing is offered to the Rabbi who rescued the Jews from their extravagance. From Rabbi Gamaliel's time onward the body was wrapped in a simple linen dress given the beautiful name "the travelling dress."
That's good advice for all of us who will at some time make similar decisions. For many of us, in order to keep up with the ever increasing costs of funeral extravagance, we can't afford to die.
Now I have a life insurance policy, and my wife knows that if I die first, she's not to use that money to bury me in splendid hand carved oak with satin cushions monogrammed with my initials. I won’t be in there thinking, "I wish she'd bought me the mahogany one!" Truth is, at that moment in time I couldn't care less!
By the way, don't use extravagance as a way to make up for guilt over the past - don't shackle yourself with a ten year debt - it isn't the time, it isn't the place, that isn't the way to deal with those issues.
- Secondly, when it comes to emotional responses, be sincere!
Don't put on the mask - don't hide the tears; don't suppress the feelings - don't quote a verse and suppose that the lump in your throat will get any smaller!
look at this passage - Mary and Martha are angry and frustrated -they are in tears - friends and neighbors are in tears!
- This leads me to the third lesson - When it comes to the bereaved, be sympathetic!
Look back at the emotional sympathy/empathy in verse 33, When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her, also weeping, (note this) He - Jesus - was deeply moved in spirit (that's internal) and was troubled (that's external).
The word translated troubled is a Greek word used also of a working horse breathing heavily and snorting under a heavy burden. It could be translated, shuddered or shook.
Phillips translates it well, He was deeply moved and visibly distressed"
NOW look at v. 35. Underline it - circle it - memorize it. "Jesus wept!"
Can you believe it? God is crying?!
Now to the Greek reader, this was an astonishing thing. You see to that world they believed that God primary characteristic was "apatheia" - from which we get our word, "apathy". That is, God was unable to experience any emotion whatsoever.
They reasoned this way - if we can feel sorrow or joy, it means that someone can have an effect upon us. If a person has an effect upon us, that means that for a moment, a person has power over us. no one can have any power over God; thus, God is essentially an emotionless, feelingless God!
In verse 35, the tense of the verb translated would read, "Jesus burst into tears."
One of the greatest things Jesus did was show us God in tears.
Now I've uncovered about 9 different views as to why Jesus wept -the text doesn't tell us - but it's interesting that the crowd came to a unanimous opinion - 36. And so the Jews were saying, "Behold how He loved him."
Do you know what it means that Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? It means that Jesus experienced grief - and being the God - man he could experience grief to the depths we could never imagine!
Jesus, the God MAN, entered into our most common, universal grief.
And if God can cry, so can you!
The tears are about to cease however - in fact, this provides a prophetic illustration of our future where in the new heaven and the new earth, death will be no more and God shall wipe all tears from our eyes. (Rev. 21:4)
38. Jesus therefore again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
Let me put the story on pause one more time and give you a final reason I believe Jesus waited until Lazarus had been dead for four days. . . it may be the primary reason, although we can't be sure.
I want you to understand that in this day, the Rabbi's held to the belief and taught the people that the soul hovered over the body, intending if at all possible, to reenter it; but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs. The oral law held that a body had to be identified within three days of the person's death, believing that the appearance began to change after three days.
Is it coincidental that Jesus waits until Lazarus had been dead for four days - perhaps so that there will be no question that Lazarus wasn't somehow mistakenly declared dead - or that he had some near death experience and the spirit reentered his body...no, there would be no doubting, even in the minds of superstitious people -Lazarus was "D" "E" "A" "D"!
The stone has been rolled in front of the cave. The people are involved in what was called deep mourning - Lazarus was not coming back - so they thought!
Now verse 39. Jesus said, "Remove the stone." Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, "Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days." 40. Jesus said to her, "Did I not say to you, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?" 41. And so they removed the stone. And Jesus raised His eyes, and said, "Father I thank Thee that Thou heardest Me. 42. And I knew that Thou hearest Me always; but because of the people standing around I said it, that they may believe that Thou didst send Me." 43. And when He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth." Literally, "Lazarus, here, outside".
Augustine was the one who first said, that if Jesus had not called Lazarus by name, at that moment he would have emptied the cemetery by means of resurrection.
44. And he who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrapping; and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
Now you need to tie this miracle together with the proclamation of Jesus earlier in the Gospel - chapter 5:25 where Jesus said, "The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live."
Jesus displays his deity by means of power over the final enemy -death!
I would have loved to have been there - funeral mourning turned into joy - what a wonderful picture of the future resurrection.
Now quickly, the response is not surprising.
First, there was belief. 45. Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him.
Remember the motive for the resurrection of Lazarus - go back to the last part of verse 42 - "...that they may believe that Thou didst send Me."
We so often refer to the empty tomb of Christ as the living proof of Christianity's authentic claim to the worlds only true faith. It's interesting to consider that in the mind of Christ, (here's is the final lesson in the chapter) the empty tomb of Lazarus was proof enough that this Jesus was indeed God.
Lazarus is living proof.
The other reaction to the miracle is tragic blindness - 47. Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, "What are we doing?" For this man is performing many signs. 48. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." 49. But a certain one of them, "Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, 50. Nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." In other words, let's kill this imposter before the Roman army comes in and wipes us all out for following a false king. John adds his own commentary here, 51. Now this he did not say on his own initiative; but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53. So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.
On the one hand - belief - which you would expect. On the other hand - blindness/rejection which is almost too hard to comprehend.
An empty tomb - a family reunited - a man who was indeed dead, now alive! Yet the leaders refused to hear and see.
James Montgomery Boice tells the story of something that happened in a church pastored by one of his assistants. He retells the story in his commentary, The Gospel of John. A man lived next door to the church in St. Paul Minnesota. He did not want to go to church. In fact, he refused all invitations. However, one week the church had a series of special meetings featuring exceptional music. The neighbor heard the music and was so taken with it that he decided to go in and hear it. He reasoned, "I'll go in, just for the music and then leave before the sermon." So he went in and sat down near the back of the church. When the musical portion of the evening was over and the preacher was standing up to preach, the man realized he was hemmed in by the packed auditorium. . .there was no way he could get out without being noticed. So he said "I'll do the next best thing; I'll put my fingers in my ears so I can't hear him." So there he sat with his fingers in his ears. God, who was at work in this man's heart, wasn't deterred - soon a little fly began to buzz around this man's nose. The man ignored the fly as long as he could. But finally that little fly buzzing around his nose got to be just too much for him. He took one hand and swatted at the fly. At that moment the Pastor said, "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what God says."
The religious leaders had their fingers in their ears and their hands over their eyes, and even the resurrection of Lazarus didn't phase them - "Lazarus who?" "What resurrection?" We don't see anything - We don't hear the laughter and joy resonating from Bethany, outside an empty tomb. How tragic...how sad.
My friend, if you do not know the Lord Jesus as personal God and Savior, don't cover your eyes, don't cover your ears. Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
I want you to know why I will never stand on some high cliff or climb some tall tree and shout after my departed loved ones, who like me have placed their faith in Christ.
You know why I will never shout, "Come back...come back!" Because I know that one day, they will - one day there will be a resurrection and a reunion. . .
And Lazarus, is the living proof.