Lazarus, Come Forth!
There has been a death. In the Jewish culture, the emotions are allowed to flow freely. There has been grieving. There has been wailing. There has been comforting and consoling. Another individual has met the ultimate end of life that awaits everyone there who is mourning and grieving and wishing they could have one more day with their friend Lazarus, one more meal with their brother, Lazarus.
It's the fourth day since his illness brought his death. His sisters most likely were the ones who wrapped him in cloths. Men could wrap dead bodies of other men, but the women could also do that, and often were the ones responsible. In this small family that we know of, it's quite possible that Martha and Mary had been involved in putting those tight bindings around him…not so much as mummification as the Egyptians were very good at doing, but rather linen cloths to enclose on his body aromatic spices to help hide the decay of the body. No embalming as we do today, the body was just allowed to decompose.
In fact, the way the process worked, they would have a tomb (often a family tomb). They would lay the body in that tomb on a shelf, on a platform inside a carved tomb. In this case, in Bethany, likely a limestone cave that is something that can be worked and carved out. They would then cover that up with a stone, often a rolling stone that would roll in front of the tomb. It would be sealed, and the body would lay there for one year.
After one year, the flesh had essentially decomposed. The tomb would be opened back up and the family, the loved ones, would go in and gather the bones…all that was remaining of the body and they would place it in a small, often again, a limestone box container no longer than the leg bone and just tall enough to write on there the name of the deceased, perhaps to carve some designs on there. The elaborateness of this ossuary box depended on the wealth of the family. They would place the bones into this ossuary and would leave it in the tomb in another area. Often they would stack them one on top of another. That allowed them simply to reuse the tomb, sort of a two-step process where generations could be buried in the same tomb in that way.
So Lazarus is laid in the tomb, and there he stays not just the first or second day, but to the fourth day. Now historians tell us that four days is significant. By the middle of the first century, the rabbis and one in particular is recorded as teaching that the spirit (now this isn't biblical, but this was just the rabbinical teaching) that the spirit hovered around the body for three days. On the fourth day, it departed. Once it saw that it wasn't going to return, it would depart. That was something that had been a legend that had been taught in Jewish circles.
It may be that was even around during the days of Christ. It would certainly present itself shortly thereafter in written form, so perhaps that was something they understood. So by the fourth day then, the spirit (to all the locals) wasn't even there. That, I think, plays a significant role in what Christ is going to do.
I've shared with you over the last few weeks that Mary and Martha, while Lazarus was still sick, had sent word to Jesus that the one whom You love is sick. Jesus had sent word back to them that his sickness will not end in death, but that it is for the glory of God that the Son of God might be glorified through it. Through all of this, the amazing thing is that he still dies. This Teacher, this Messiah, this One whom they trusted, whom they loved, they had His words just going over and over again in their mind…what could He mean, this sickness will not end in death?
After the first day, the second day, the third, and surely by the fourth day when Jesus arrives at the edge of town, the grieving, the wailing, the consoling, the comforting, the darkness, the sadness, the despondency, the hopelessness…these are the colors that paint the scene when Jesus comes. You know that Martha's first speech to Jesus, and I don't want to rehearse all of that again, but one question Jesus asked her, He tells her, He says, "I am the resurrection and the life." He says to her that, "He who believes in Me even if he dies, yet he shall live." And, "He who lives and believes in Me shall never die."
Then He asks Martha, "Do you believe this?" She said, "Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." She expressed a perfect response of who Jesus was and who she was trusting. She was the one who said, "I believe even now that if You ask God, that He'll do something great…even now." Mary comes and expresses her grief to the Lord as well, and then Jesus asked where they laid him.
In the process, they come to the tomb where Lazarus is, and outside that tomb the crowd gathers. The other mourners, those from Jerusalem who were friends with this family, no doubt, had gathered to comfort and console them. Mary is with Christ. Apparently, Martha comes, and Jesus comes to this tomb. He is moved again. Just as we saw last week, that word for the snorting of the nose, He sees the tomb of Lazarus, and again that indignation, that righteous indignation grabs a hold of Him from the inside. I believe certainly at this moment it's the indignation not just at the lack of faith, but just at death itself.
My friends, Jesus didn't come to the tomb of Lazarus to build a monument to Lazarus. He didn't come to carve a tombstone. He came to crush the tomb itself. He came to crush death. He came to show that He had power over the ultimate enemy, over death itself. The scene is one of darkness and gloom and mourning just like it is in our day with our funerals, with our memorial services, the sadness, the missing, the despondency, the hopelessness, the loss. But when Christ comes, there is something different. There is something that takes place when Jesus is there, something you don't see, that you don't feel, that you don't sense in the normal expression over death.
What I want to just leave with you today, what I want you to understand today as we look at just a couple of the verses in our text today is that Jesus is the God of the living. He is the God of the living, not of the dead. There is a place where Jesus will tell the one who wanted to follow Him that he must first go home and take care of his father's passing. Jesus tells him, "Let the dead bury the dead. You come and follow Me. I didn't come here to magnify or worry about death."
Now that sounds cruel to us because humanly and culturally, we see death as such an important part of life, but I want you to know that Jesus is not the God of death, He is the God of the living. When He speaks, life breaks out. When Jesus speaks, life breaks out. His words that He has given to us are words of life, not death. They're words of living.
The Bible tells us in Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 1, "God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets…" Notice in verse 2, "has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…" That's Jesus, but notice this phrase, "whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world." It was Jesus who made the world. When Jesus speaks, life happens.
Jesus speaks to a formless, void planet, and life breaks out on that planet. Jesus speaks to a dead, calloused heart, and life erupts in that heart. The words of Christ are the words of life. If I say that over and over and over again, it's because that is simply what I want you to begin to realize with these words, they are words that bring forth and usher life. Jesus stands before the tomb, and He tells Martha, "Take away the stone." Now that's Martha's family's tomb. It's really going to be up to Martha to command that stone to be removed.
Martha, being of the character that she is, she shows us a lapse of faith in this moment, but it's no different than any of us. We who have confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we have those moments, do we not, where our faith wanes. We're no different from Martha who turns to Jesus and says, "Lord, He has been in there four days. There is odor. If you turn that stone back, the odor of his decaying body will waft into this procession of people."
Now that shows us that not only is Lazarus dead, but his body is decomposing. His body is coming apart. If you've had the misfortune to be around a body that has been dead for several days, even an animal body, you know that smell. You know what decomposition looks like. You know that something that has been dead for four days is beyond repair. It's beyond hope. It's beyond any help.
Jesus says to Martha, "Martha, I know, but did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God? Remember when I told you that if you believed that even if you die you shall live, that if you live and believe that, you shall never die? I asked you if you believe this. Do you remember that? Do you remember Me telling you that?"
We don't have Martha's response, but what we do know is that the stone is rolled away. So she obviously must have said, "Yes, Lord, You are the Messiah. You are my Lord. I don't understand it. From my human mind it seems impossible, but I'll do what you ask." You know the Lord, He could have come. He in His divinity, in His duel nature, He knew of Lazarus' sickness. He could have come when Lazarus was sick. It would have been a glorious thing if Jesus had revived Lazarus from the sick bed, from the deathbed, if He had touched Lazarus, said, "Lazarus rise," as He would say to Tabitha, the little girl, as He would say to others. He could have said, "Rise, Lazarus," and it would have been glorious, but God wanted more glory.
He could have come to the burial, and He could have there just said, "Lazarus, stand up," as He did with the young child of the woman of Nain who stood up in his coffin and sat up. That would have been awesome. That would have been glorious. But God wanted more glory. So He comes four days later when the body is wrapped and decomposing. He has that stone rolled back, and He just simply prays to the Father. He prays out loud. With everyone gathered there so that everyone can hear, Jesus says, "Father, I thank You that You hear Me. I know that You always hear Me, but I am saying this for the benefit of those who are standing by so that they may believe."
Now Jesus shows us how to pray. You see it's not prayer's power…is not in how you expect God to do something, it's not praying and telling God what you want Him to do, the powerful prayer is one where you affirm that God hears you, where you say, "Father, I know You hear me. I know that You hear my prayer." It wasn't important how God was going to answer the prayer of Christ, what was important to Christ was to demonstrate that God does hear…that God does answer.
When we come to God, when we're faced with trauma and the darkness and the blackness of tragedy, and human death, our powerful prayer to God is not, "God, why didn't You come earlier." The comments of the crowd were, "Oh, if only He could have been here when Lazarus was still alive, He could have healed him. Oh God, if only You would have answered this before the loved one died, I'd still have him." No, the powerful prayer is, "God, I know You hear me. I know You hear me. I know You hear me, and I want to see Your glory. I want those around to see Your glory so that they might believe."
Everyone hears that. They've come because Martha and Mary are grieving. They've come because they expect this teacher, this very close friend to want to see the tomb. They've come because that's the thing that they do. That's what you do. You come. They don't come to see a body come out. They're a little concerned when the stone is rolled away.
There have been a few times where I have been at funerals or conducted funerals, and at the graveside, they've asked to raise the lid on the coffin because someone, a relative, who could only come to the graveside and had not been at the funeral home and has not been able to see the body. There have been times when that has happened, and that's good. I like that. That shows the body is still there. I've often wondered what they really did with those things, but to know that it was there. I can understand.
Really, that's where Jesus is. He's that loved on who wasn't there when Lazarus was dying. He wasn't there on day one, so maybe they could understand He's going to roll the tomb back just because He wants to go in. Even though it's decaying, He wants to pay His respects. And like all good mourners, their eyes are down. Their heads are leaning forward. They're nodding graciously and quietly. They're moaning to one another and touching. They're letting this moment, this quiet time sink into this good friend, Jesus.
They hear His prayer. They amen right along with Him, but they didn't think He would say, "Lazarus, come forth!" When He did, Lazarus came out. He came out. His decayed body came back together. Jesus knows where everyone of those molecules of skin had wandered off to. He who spoke the world into existence, speaks life into a decaying corpse, and brings it forward.
The Bible says that he was bound hand and feet with all these aromatic spices. I'm almost thinking he just levitates out of there. He stands, and would you have liked to get a picture of that crowd? Would you have liked to have been there when the one thing they would have never thought would happen, happened? Mary and Martha, their grieving turns to joy. The onlookers have astonishment. Why? Because this One, this Jesus has commanded and has seen a response to His command. His words go forth, and life breaks out of a tomb.
Jesus says, "Unwrap him. Unbind him and let him go. Take those wrappings of death off of him. Take all of those reminders of what the flesh has to endure, take all of those human responses to death, unwrap all of that so he can speak, so he can walk, so he can live." Jesus is not just a good prophet, He's not just a good philosophical speaker, He's not just a good religious leader. My friends, His words have the power of life itself. He speaks life and He speaks it to every one of you.
He, not you, not your intelligence, Lazarus wasn't laying there saying, "You know, I've weighed it all out, and I believe I'd rather live." No, Lazarus is dead. He has no response. He has no inclination to life. He is decaying just as you are decaying, just as sin has destroyed your body, just as your flesh is destined to hell, just as you are destined to return to ashes, your body is decaying and your mind is decaying and your will is decaying. You're not sitting there saying, "Well, I've weighed the things out, and I think I'll choose this." No, we don't do that. What happens is God speaks to you. He says, "Bob, come forth. Mary, come forth." Life breaks out in your heart.
If that doesn't happen, if you don't hear His voice, if you don't respond to His call, all you have is religion. Let me tell you something, religion decays. It decomposes. After a while, it stinks. But Christ brings life to you, and His powerful command awakens a dead spirit. His powerful command speaks to your heart and causes it to begin to consider and believe and hear that which the world says is foolish.
I'm not interested in winning the scientific debates as a result. I'm not interested in trying to convince the atheistic world that the facts of God outweigh the other facts. Those are things that the world cannot see. They cannot understand. Those things are spiritually discerned. How could I expect them to know that? Their spirit is dead. No more than I would go to a dead body and begin to have a conversation with them, would I try to go to someone who is lost and begin to engage in a scientific debate with them. They cannot understand because they are dead until God speaks.
When God speaks, and faith awakens, and life begins to surge through your mortal body, then you can respond. You can have those wrappings of sin unbound off of you. That old clothing is removed. The new clothing, Colossians tells us, we put on. The old man is left behind; the new creature in Christ goes forward. We leave the tomb of our existence, the tomb that the secular world has had us carve out of the limestone of our attempts, and we walk through the door that is Christ into a world of joy and abundance. My friends, I say that to you and I beat that drum this morning because my concern is you've accepted the stench of religion and not the life giving power of Christ.
Transcribed by Digital Sermon Transcription