The story for this morning begins with a certain sense of urgency. It is
easy to stand here now and talk about it with some sense of calm, but I can
assure you that there was no calm for Martha and Mary. They were beginning
to panic. Lazarus, their brother, was slipping fast. Indeed, it looked as
though he would not make it.
Now, I want you to envision a person in your mind. I want a face to appear
in your mind's eye. Who would you turn to if you faced a serious crisis in
your life? There are some people we would instinctively turn to in time of
trouble. I want you to know that the person who came in Martha's mind was
Jesus. She sent an urgent message to him: "Lord, he whom you love is ill."
That is an interesting wording isn't it. You see, love sees with special
eyes. Mary was sure of one thing. That Jesus' love for his friend would
compel him to come. This is the situation that John paints for us at
Bethany. There is tension, there is fear, there is a sense of anxiety. But,
there is hope.
Now the scene shifts to the far side of the Jordan River. Jesus is there for
a specific reason. He had been in Jerusalem and a very dangerous situation
had developed for him. The Jewish authorities had become so enraged with his
words that they had risen up against him and had even attempted to stone him
to death. Indeed, John tells us that some stones were tossed. So he retired
to an area where, we are told, John the Baptist had begun his ministry.
Jesus is getting back to the roots of his calling. While there large crowds
came to hear him.
Upon hearing the news of Lazarus's illness, we expect Jesus to drop
everything and come running, but alas, it does not happen. He is only about
seventeen miles away. If he really pushed hard he could make it by late
evening or by early the next morning. In one of the most bewildering scenes
in all of scripture, however, Jesus did nothing for two entire days. Surly
he must understand their anxiety. Surly he must be eager to help. But there
it reads: "He remained two days in the place where he was."
Why did this happen? I can only respond to that by saying: I do not know.
When I read this story I want to know. Why did he delay? Surly there must be
an answer to this. But read the commentaries of all of the great minds:
Luther, Dodd, Calvin. None offer an answer. To this day it is still hard for
me to accept not knowing why. How true were the words of the Apostle Paul
when he wrote: In this life we look through a mirror dimly. If we had all
the answers then we would not need faith, for faith picks up where sight
leaves off. The Book of Hebrews reads: Faith is the evidence of things not
seen." In my mind I, understand that but I still cannot get out of my mind
the thought of Martha looking down the road that first night waiting for
Jesus to come. Every time she sees someone her hopes are lifted as she
thinks: maybe that's him. But God has his own schedule.
Two days later Jesus suddenly announces it is time to return to Judea. He
said: I go to awake our friend Lazarus out of his sleep. Now Jesus is
speaking theologically, which is the only significant way to speak, but the
problem is that we usually do not think theologically. Since he is only
asleep, they questioned, why should he risk his own life by returning to
Judea. More of a cooling off time was needed they argued. Jesus must now be
blunt with them and tell them that he was only speaking figuratively. John
words it by saying: "Then Jesus spoke out plainly. Lazarus is dead. I am
glad not to have been there; it will be for the good of your faith. Let us
now go to him." It was the twin that spoke out. We will go and die with
you," said Thomas. Clearly the disciples thought that it was a bad decision
but they are not ready to abandon ship yet.
Now John shifts the scene back to Bethany. Lazarus is...
[note: Monday night New York City marked six months since the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks with moments of silence and a memorial of light
symbolizing the destruction of the World Trade Center and the thousands of
Americans lost that day. This powerful sculpture of light will be lit until
early April. The lights outline the shape of the world trade center towers.
We will be incorporating this into the sermon. It was a moving event and a
foreshadowing of the rebuilding of the area. The tie in of course is that
Lazarus' resurrection is a foreshadowing of our Lord's resurrection.]
A Twofold Death and Resurrection (Jn. 11:25-26)
by Fred B. Craddock
Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 21-28, p. 299, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
I am the resurrection and the life; they who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26) . The church clings to these words like few other sayings of Jesus. The scene of Jesus with two grieving sisters, weeping at the grave of their brother and his friend, has offered comfort and hope unmatched by any other resource, biblical or nonbiblical. Most Christian funerals allude to these words or this scene.
However, sometimes the popular appropriation of a text inhibits further exploration for richer and deeper meanings. One is hesitant to remove an old chapel even if it is for the purpose of erecting a larger and more accommodating sanctuary. Even so, a few comments will not diminish the blessing of this text to those who have clung to it in an hour of death.
John’s account of the raising of Lazarus (John alone reports it) is one of several sign stories in this Gospel. A sign story consists of a miraculous act of Jesus usually surrounded or followed by a theological discussion of its meaning. Such is John’s presentation of Jesus turning water to wine, healing a cripple at the pool, feeding the multitudes, giving sight to a man born blind and raising Lazarus. At least two features mark sign stories. First, Jesus acts according to his own time and not according to external pressures. For example, Jesus separates himself from his mother (2:4) before acting at the wedding feast at Cana. The reader should not, then, be disturbed by Jesus’ response to the urgent message about Lazarus’s illness (11:3-6) : Jesus stayed two days longer where he was. In this Gospel, Jesus’ actions are "from above." Second, to say this is a sign story is to say that its primary function is revelation. Some truth about the meaning of God’s glory and presence in the world is made known through Jesus’ ministry. For the stories to function this way, they must be seen to operate on two levels. On one level Jesus heals a cripple, opens the eyes of the blind or raises the dead, but on another level he reveals a truth about life eternal which God makes available in Jesus Christ.
The story of the raising of Lazarus is prefaced by a statement of its purpose: it is not only for the glory of God but "that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it" (V. 4) . This is to say, the raising of Lazarus will effect the Son’s return to God by means of his death and resurrection. The reader, therefore, is alerted to what the characters in the drama do not know; that is, what is really going on here is not only a family crisis in Bethany but the crisis of the world, not only the raising of a dead man but the giving of life to the world. On one level the story is about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, but on another it is about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The sisters want their brother back, to be sure, but Jesus is also acting to give life to the world.. Jesus declares this truth to Martha at the heart of the narrative: "I am the resurrection and the life."
With these two meanings in mind, the passion of Jesus bleeds through the surface of the story. Jesus was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (v. 33) , he was "deeply moved again" (v. 38) , and he wept (v. 35) . Why? He had deliberately delayed coming until Lazarus was dead and buried. The crowd said, "See how he loved him!" (v. 36) , but in this Gospel they never understand what is really going on. Jesus is experiencing something like a Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means that he must enter it. The narrative will shortly make that fact abundantly clear: the belief in Jesus generated by his raising Lazarus prompts the religious leaders to plot Jesus’ death (vv. 45-53) . But for Jesus there is no other way because only in this act can he be the resurrection and the life for the world. And so the reader sees in and through the Lazarus story the Jesus story. Notice: Jesus is troubled and weeping; the tomb is not far from Jerusalem; the tomb is a cave with a large stone covering the opening; the stone is rolled away; Jesus cries with a loud voice; the grave cloth is left at the tomb. Sound familiar?
Let there be no misunderstanding: Martha, Mary and Lazarus are not simply props for a spiritual story. They are real people trapped in death and grief, and Jesus brings comfort and life. Jesus was a real human being ministering among the suffering. But John wants us to understand that God’s blessing did not come solely to certain people who happened to be in that place at that time. There was not simply one spot called Camelot where cripples were healed, the blind could see and the dead were raised. It is not the case that subsequent generations in other times and places would have to be satisfied with the thin diet of reading and recalling the wonderful days when Jesus was here and said, "I am the resurrection and the life; anyone who believes . . ." Although we were not there, Jesus also said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (20:29) . Faith is always first generation, with an immediacy about it that does not distinguish between our being there and his being here.
The Resurrection and the Life
A couple of years ago I attended the funeral of a young woman who died of cancer. The woman who had passed way was a young mother, 32 years old, who left behind a husband and two young children. It was indeed, in human terms, a tragic death. The minister who conducted the funeral was the pastor of a very large and liberal church. I will never forget his message, for it was instrumental in my life to completely change my way of handling a funeral service. In the course of his message, he made this statement: “I am convinced that it was not the will of God for this young woman to die.”
It was hardly more than a week later that I was called upon to preach a funeral message from behind the very same pulpit that this liberal pastor had stood. My family and I had slipped away to Houston for a couple of days of retreat. We had just arrived when the call came that an acquaintance had passed away, and that, if possible, the family would like me to handle the service. I can still remember my thoughts as I was driving back to Dallas, pondering what I would say. I had been reading in the gospel of John, chapter 11, when all of a sudden the matter of a Christian view of death came into sharp focus against the backdrop of the funeral service I had attended just a few days before. It is that view of death which I would like to share with you as we come to the greatest miracle in the life and ministry of our Lord, the raising of Lazarus from the grave. An account recorded only in the gospel of John, chapter 11.166
Comfort in the Purpose of Death
From the last verses of John chapter 10, we would conclude that Jesus was in Perea, approximately 20 miles from the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus when word reached the Master that Lazarus was gravely ill (John 11:3). As we piece together the details of the account it would seem that even at the time word reached the Savior Lazarus had already passed away.167 Mary and Martha are known to us from Luke 10:38-42. In the 12th chapter of John, we are told of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus in preparation for His death and burial. In the urgent message sent to the Master, there was evident a confidence and faith in Him as both Savior and Friend. He was simply informed of the situation. No suggestion was made as to the course of action He should take. They knew Jesus would do what was best.
What Jesus actually did was a complete surprise, for we would have expected Him to heal (or raise) Lazarus from a distance (cp. Matthew 8:5-13). At the very least, we would have expected Him to immediately go to Bethany. But instead He purposed to stay where He was for two days (verse 6). The disciples would hardly question the decision of Jesus, assuming it a matter of common sense. Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem (verse 13), and the Jews had already attempted to put Jesus to death there (John 8:59; 10:39). No sense putting your head in the lion’s mouth. But concern for personal safety was not the issue at all to Jesus, as we shall see later. The reason for our Lord’s delay was due to the divine purpose for Lazarus’ death.
“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 in it.’” (John 11:4).
Here is where the liberal preacher whom I mentioned before was absolutely wrong. It was the will of God for that 32-year-old mother to die of cancer. Just so, it was the will of God for Lazarus to die, while the Savior Who could have healed him was 20 miles away. If God is God at all, He is God of all. It is impossible for God to be God and not to be responsible (ultimately) for all that occurs. By this I do not mean to say that God is the source of all evil, but that God is responsible for including the existence of evil, tragedy, and suffering in His plan. He does not cause sin, but He does purpose to employ its commission to further His purposes (cf. Genesis 50:20).
The immediate outcome of God’s will for Lazarus was for him to die (verse 14), but the ultimate goal was for him to live (verse 23). It is for this reason that the Master spoke of his temporary condition of death as sleep, for he would soon be awakened.
God’s purpose in the death of Lazarus was to glorify Himself, through the glorification of His Son (verse 4). Although there were other times that Jesus raised men from the dead, this was done after Lazarus had been dead for four days. While others had been raised from death in more out of the way places (cf. Matthew 9:22-26; Luke 7:11-17), this took place at the very heart of Judea, only two miles from Jerusalem. This was the high-water mark of the miracles of our Lord. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus was shown to be the ‘resurrection and the life’ (verse 25). No greater evidence of His person can be found in all of the Gospel accounts.
This was the word of comfort which Jesus sent back to Martha and Mary: Lazarus is only temporarily dead, and better yet his momentary death would be used to the glory of God through the exaltation of the Son. And this, my friends, is precisely where we must find comfort as well. Whenever the Christian comes face to face with death, whether the reality of his own, that of a relative or friend, or that of a stranger, whether saved or unsaved—we are to find comfort in the fact that this death, every death is for the glory of God.
You will understand that I am momentarily departing from our text, but we have come to a point too crucial to pass by without comment. Let me suggest several reasons why death is to the glory of God. First of all, death reveals God to be holy and just, a God Who cannot overlook sin, but Who must punish sin. He is a God Who deals decisively with sin. Centuries ago God told Adam concerning the forbidden fruit,
“But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Paul wrote, ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Contrary to popular opinion, death does not make God look bad. It shows how offensive sin is in God’s sight. It reveals God’s holiness and justice in dealing with it so severely. The fact that every man will die reveals that God is absolutely consistent and unwavering in His judgment on sin.
Second, death brings glory to God in that it is the ‘last enemy’ over which our Lord Jesus Christ will prevail, and in so doing He will manifest Himself as Lord of all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). Third, I would suggest that death is designed to bring glory to God through the victorious testimony of His saints in the face of death. The world dreads and avoids every suggestion of it. The Christian does not delight in it, for it is an ugly reminder of sin, but he does not dread it. Instead, he considers it a defeated enemy. Death to the Christian is a necessary step in entering into the presence of the living God (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; Philippians 1:19-24; 2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
I have lingered long on the fact that death is a part of the purpose and plan of God to bring glory to Himself. In this, we may find comfort. But in the midst of the fact that God has purposed death to glorify Himself let us not miss another clear and resounding strain which permeates the first six verses of John 11—that is the depth of the friendship and love which existed between Jesus and Lazarus and his sisters: “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
Throughout the entire account of the raising of Lazarus, the intimate friendship and love of Jesus for this family is underscored. And herein is one of the most comforting of all principles to strengthen and comfort us in the face of death: THE PURPOSE OF GOD IS NEVER SEPARATED FROM HIS LOVE FOR HIS OWN.”
So often those who stand solidly on the truth of the sovereignty of God (as I pray I do) tend to depreciate the love of God. God’s purposes never sacrifice the best interest of His own. God’s love for His own is never surrendered to His purposes. The two go hand-in-hand. What a comfort we should find in that truth!
Comfort in the Possibility of Death
The real concern of the disciples was not distress over the death of Lazarus (for they did not yet comprehend that he had died (verse 13), but over the possibility, better yet, the probability, of their own if they went with Jesus into Judea. After the two days had passed, Jesus announced to His disciples168 that they were going to Judea. To them, this was suicide (verse 8). At this point of fear for the future over what seemed certain death, Jesus laid down another principle for Christians of any generation concerning danger in the service of the Master:
“Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him’” (John 11:9-10).
Jesus had already been shown to be the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). If the light of the world is in us (as He surely is when we are engaged in His service), then there is no danger of harm or injury outside of God’s will. Men only stumble in the absence of the light. The disciples need not fear physical harm for the light of the world is with them. The principle then boils down to this: “THERE IS NO PERIL IN THE PERFORMANCE OF GOD-GIVEN DUTY, ONLY IN ITS NEGLECT.”
When we commit ourselves to doing God’s will, we have, so to speak, a charmed life so long as we are fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives. When we are in real danger is when we depart from divine duty to pursue our own selfish desires. Men have suffered and died in the service of the King (as did our Lord Himself), but such was the purpose and plan of God for them when they did. No matter how great the danger may appear, it is a mere illusion when we are on a divinely appointed task. So long as God has work for us to do and we are busily engaged in that work, we are indestructible.
Having laid down this principle, our Lord went on to explain to His disciples that Lazarus was physically dead, and that this death was, in part, for the strengthening of their own faith. The disciples did not fully comprehend what our Lord had said, but as Thomas169 expressed as their spokesman, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16).
They would rather die with Him than live without Him. These men were not so much afraid to die for the Savior as they were uncertain as to how they could live for Him.
Comfort in the Presence of Death
I would like to pass by many of the details of the death and burial of Lazarus170 in order to highlight the significant factors which brought comfort to Martha and Mary in the presence of the death of Lazarus. He brought comfort by His presence, His promise and His person.
(1) Comfort in the presence of Jesus. More than any other factor, it was the absence of Jesus at the time of the death of Lazarus which plagued Mary and Martha. No doubt, the thought expressed by both sisters to our Lord had been repeated to each other often during the absence of the Master: “Lord, if only you had been here …” (John 11:21,32).
The mere presence of Jesus was sufficient to calm the troubled hearts of these two who grieved over the death of their brother, Lazarus. It was in His physical presence that He manifested His deep concern and sympathy over the suffering of His own. Jesus wept171 (verse 35) and was deeply moved in His spirit172 (verses 33, 38). Some have suggested that here we see the real humanity of our Lord revealed in His expressions of grief and emotion. I would personally prefer to look upon this as a reflection of the deity of our Lord. When our Lord was deeply moved with the pains and sorrows of His children, it was not merely as man, but as God. Compassion is a divine attribute, more so than a human one. God is deeply touched with our sufferings. It was not the ugliness of sin which brought our Lord to tears, nor was it the awareness of His coming death or the hypocrisy of those who stood by, rather Jesus was deeply moved by the sorrow of those He loved (cf. verse 33).
When I was a student in seminary, my wife and I promised our girls that as soon as we moved from campus housing we would let them have a pet of their own. When we finally moved into another home, we purchased two kittens. After several days, it became apparent that one of them was desperately ill. When we left for church, one was in its final struggle with death. After church, we came home to find that the one kitten had died. I cannot even today speak of my daughter’s emotional trauma without becoming emotional myself. Now those of you who know me well know that I would not weep long over the death of a kitten, but I want you to know that both my wife and I shed a lot of tears that afternoon. You see, I was moved, not so much at the loss of a cat, but at the sorrow of my daughter. And so it is with God. Whenever we suffer, our Lord is deeply touched. When you and I face the ugly realities of death, even today we may be assured of the fact that we can find comfort in the presence of our Lord.
(2) Comfort in the promise of Christ. This brings us to the second basis of comfort in the presence of death, and that is the promise of our Lord when He said,
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25,26a) .
The promise of Jesus to these sisters, even at the time of the first report of the illness of Lazarus was that his sickness was not to terminate in death (verses 3,4). That promise of the Master was a source of great comfort, even in His absence. But for us, that promise was forever guaranteed when our Lord Himself rose triumphant from the grave. If death could not hold Him, neither can it stand between Him and us. Our hope of life beyond the grave is grounded on His promise, and His promise is certain because of His power over death and the grave (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:12ff.).
(3) Comfort in the person of our Lord. Mary and Martha found comfort not only in His presence, and in His promise, but in His person. The promise of our Lord to Mary and Martha was rooted in His person. Jesus said to them, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25a). Those who find in Jesus merely a good man, a famous teacher, will find no great comfort in Him at the time of death and sorrow. Perhaps the confession of faith expressed by Martha is even greater than that of Peter, for even at this hour of great trial and testing, she could make this affirmation of faith in the person of Christ: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world” (John 11:27).
Those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God come into the world to save sinners, the One Who is the resurrection and the life, need have no fear in the presence of death. Those who trust in His person are assured of His presence (Hebrews 13:5), and can rest in His promises.
Comfort in the Power of Christ Over Death
The most amazing feature of this miracle is its brevity and simplicity. Nowhere is there to be found any of the embellishments of other spurious writings from this age. Jesus simply ordered the stone to be removed,173 and with a loud voice, ordered Lazarus to come forth.174 Even after four days in the tomb, when all hope of recovery was gone,175 Lazarus came forth.
With the current obsession with life after death, men today would have desired much more detail about what Lazarus experienced during these four days. We should have liked to hear John’s account of the conversations which took place between these who were reunited, but without comment John passes such matters by. This miracle was performed as a sign. Our Lord’s prayer was primarily for the benefit of those who stood by. What was important was the response of men to the miracle which had taken place.
Culmination in the Condemnation of Christ to Death
For some, yes many, of the Jews, this miracle compelled them to acknowledge Jesus to be their Messiah, just as Martha had previously affirmed (verse 45, cf. vs. 27). The raising of Lazarus was a sign that, to them, could not be ignored. As a result, many came to faith in Christ.
To those who chose to disbelieve, this miracle was not a matter which could be ignored either. When word quickly reached the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (verse 46), they called a meeting of the Sanhedrin to decide what should be done. They had to acknowledge it was a miracle. They even granted that it was a sign (verse 47). But they stubbornly refused to come to the conclusion this sign demanded. Although they refused to believe, the masses seemed to be turning to Him as Messiah.
If there was ever any doubt as to the real reason why the Jewish leaders refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, verse 48 spells it out in the clearest terms: “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.” Money and power, these were what the Jewish leaders refused to cast at the feet of Jesus. His kingdom was not the kind for which they had hoped. They desired their own position in the present regime far more than what He seemed to offer them. They, as do all who are part of ‘the establishment,’ want the status quo. They had power, influence, prestige. More than this, they had wealth. If Jesus were heralded as Israel’s king, the Romans might view this as treason. The Jewish leaders would be held accountable, and the whole establishment would be snatched from their hands. This was too high a price for them to pay.
What all of the Sanhedrin council members had been secretly thinking was now boldly expressed by Caiaphas, the Sadducee who was the high priest: “You know nothing at all, 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” (John 11:49b, 50).
This statement by Caiaphas is to be understood on two levels. First of all, Caiaphas meant to say that it was only common sense that one man should be expendable for the protection and preservation of a nation. Better to sacrifice an individual than a nation, we might say. What in times past had been the informal intention of the Jewish leadership was now the official policy and position. This was the beginning of the end.
But by virtue of his official position as high priest, his words were meant to convey a much deeper meaning. They were really a prophesy of the sacrificial death of Christ for the sins of the world (verses 51,52). Even as the Old Testament prophets had foretold, God was going to send His Messiah so that through His substitutionary death, men might be reconciled to Himself.
Conclusions and Application
Historically, so far as John’s gospel is concerned, the raising of Lazarus is the high point of our Lord’s self-disclosure to men. This is without a doubt the greatest miracle of His ministry. Humanly speaking, there was no hope of recovery, and yet at the point of absolute helplessness and hopelessness, Jesus gave life to the dead. The spiritual parallel is obvious, for all men are ‘dead in their trespasses and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1-3). When we reach the point of utter despair and self-distrust we find that what we can never do to merit eternal life God has provided as a free gift (Romans 3:20-25; Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus Christ has come, not to aid men in their struggle toward heaven, but to give life to those who are dead. As He gave life to Lazarus, so He offers spiritual life to all men, on the basis of faith.
As this miracle is the high point of Jesus self-revelation as the Messiah, the Son of God, so it is also the high water mark of human resistance and rejection of the person of Christ. In the face of the most irrefutable evidence the Jewish leaders chose to set aside the evidence for the sake of expedience and sentence the Savior to death. Once again, the rejection of men was not based upon a lack of evidence, but upon moral decay and willful rejection of the truth. Our Lord was not taken by surprise, for He said in the gospel of Luke, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
This miracle also anticipated the coming death of the Lord Jesus and guaranteed the fact that He would rise from the dead, as He informed His disciples (cf. Matthew 16:21; 20:18-19). If Jesus had power over death and the grave, then surely death could not hold Him in the grave.
Implications and Application
In addition to John’s primary reasons for this miracle there are numerous lessons for us by way of practical application. First of all it confronts men with the same decision which men had to make in Jesus’ day: What will you do with Jesus? You must either accept Him as the Savior and the Son of God, or you should reject Him as a phony and a fraud. He cannot be anything less than one or the other. If we take these gospel accounts seriously at all we must face the same destiny-determining decision as those who witnessed His works while on the earth.
In addition, we are presented with a Christian view of death. Death which is faced by faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ is not to be feared, for He is the resurrection and the life. If we trust in Him as the Son of God and the coming Savior, as Martha did, then we need not dread the grave. The Christian can rest assured that death is in the will of God and that its purpose is to bring glory to God. Death, in Christian terminology, is only sleep, for it is a temporary state, which will terminate at the call of Christ for His own (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-13; 1 Corinthians 15). Though we will grieve as did Mary and Martha, our grief is of a much different kind than that of those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
There is much to learn on the matter of Christian suffering. God’s purpose is not that none of His own should suffer, for even His Son suffered untold agony. God’s purpose in suffering is to strengthen our faith (cf. John 11:14-15). Oftentimes Christians who resist the possibility of suffering seem to suppose that God’s highest purpose is that we may be free from pain, when His purpose is to build up our faith through trials and tests (cf. James 1:2-4).
At the outset of this message, I mentioned a funeral sermon in which the minister made the statement that he was convinced the death of the young mother was not the will of God. His fundamental error in that statement was that God’s will can be separated from His power. He viewed his role as something like that of a presidential press agent who is called upon to explain (or cover up) a disastrous presidential error. He stood before that gathering of mourners to apologize for God’s mistake. “God didn’t mean it to come out this way, but it happened anyway, and He is awfully sorry.”
In a very beautiful way, this passage informs us that God’s purposes and His power are never divorced from His eternal love for His own. “Jesus wept.” That is the verse that I want you to remember about this passage, for it was His great love, combined with His infinite power which accomplished this miracle. It was His measureless love which motivated His fathomless purpose to employ suffering to bring glory to Himself and to strengthen the faith of His own. My friend, let us never attempt to make excuses for God’s actions, for whether it is pain or pleasure, it is for the glory of God.
166 Liberal scholars make much of this fact, citing the absence of this miracle in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as evidence that there really was no such miracle at all. Shepard summarizes the orthodox position when he writes, “There is no real ground for questioning the literal exactness of the evangelical record. The objection raised, that this miracle is not mentioned by the synoptic gospels, is offset by the fact that neither did John mention the raising of Jaiirus’ daughter (Matt. 9:22,26) nor that of the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17). The fact is, John gives special emphasis in his gospel to the ministry of Jerusalem and Judea, while the synoptics emphasize more the Galilean ministry. Furthermore, the dramatic vividness of details, the remarkable delineation of personalities, and the numerous minute touches in the historic record, leave no room for doubt, that an eye witness wrote it. He made use of it to show forth the divine personality of the Saviour. This sign is tied up indissolubly with the whole argument of the fourth gospel. He who questions it will also doubt the divinity of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 432.
For a fuller discussion of these issues, cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 532-536. Other liberal interpretations are discussed and refuted by Alford Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, New American Edition 1965), II, pp. 310-312.
167 When Jesus received word of the illness of Lazarus, he waited two days before leaving for the house of Mary and Martha at Bethany. The journey would take another day, a total of three days. But when Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the grave four days. Thus, we would conclude that Lazarus died shortly after the messenger left Martha and Mary and some hours before reaching Jesus with the message from the sisters.
168 “From the non-mention of Peter and the prominence of Thomas, it seems at least doubtful, whether all the Apostles were there.” Edersheim, Life and Times, II, p. 313, fn. 1.
169 “One small piece of evidence supporting the view that Peter was absent is the fact that Thomas is the spokesman for the Twelve in v. 16. Normally we should expect Peter to fill that role.” Morris, John, p. 535.
170 “The four days had been sad and trying ones for the bereaved sisters. They had fasted the day of burial and had eaten nothing since but an occasional egg or some lentils. The funeral procession had been very depressing with its dirge flutes and the wailing friend-mourners, who ‘wept as those who had no hope.’ These were followed in the procession by the two sisters, neighbors, and relatives. At the tomb the men had chanted the ninetieth Psalm and circled the bier seven times, while friends spoke words of comfort to them in formal mien. How they wished for their great Friend, Jesus, in those weary dragging hours, and cast many an anxious look down the Jericho road. In their desolate home they sat on the floor heavily veiled, with unsandalled feet, surrounded by the mourning friends, with their rent clothes and dust-covered heads.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 436.
For a much wore detailed account of Jewish burial customs, cf. Edersheim, Life and Times, II, pp. 316ff.
171 The word used here (wept) is quite different from that in verse 33 (klaio„) which denotes loud wailing. Jesus’ weeping was restrained and dignified. Cf. David Brown, The Four Gospels (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, Reprint, 1976), p. 419.
172 Some commentators suggest that the expression ‘deeply moved in spirit’ denotes divine indignation, but such does not appear to be its meaning here. Cf. Edersheim, Life and Times, II, pp. 323-324.
173 “According to the Talmudists, says Lampe, quoting from Maimonides, it was forbidden to open a grave after the stone was placed upon it. Besides other dangers, they were apprehensive of legal impurity by contact with the dead. Hence they avoided coming nearer a grave than four cubits.” Brown, The Four Gospels, p. 419.
174 The loud voice of Jesus at the grave of Lazarus is in contrast to the whisperings and mutterings of the magical healers (cf. Isaiah 8:19). Also, we should take note that if Jesus had not specified Lazarus as the one who should come forth, every corpse within the sound of His voice should have come forth from their graves.
175 “It was the common Jewish idea that corruption commenced on the fourth day, that the drop of gall, which had fallen from the sword of the Angel and caused death, was then working its effect, and that, as the face changed, the soul took its final leave from the resting place of the body.” Edersheim, Life and Times, II, pp. 324-325
THE ORIGIN OF THIS FESTIVAL DAY
Traditionally, the commemoration of martyrs occurred on the anniversaries of their deaths. However, for all those whose death-dates were unknown, a commemoration for "all the martyrs" was established perhaps as early as c. 359 in Edessa (presently Urfa, Turkey) and certainly by 411 in Eastern Syria. So this feast day is nearly as old as Christmas, which began in the 4th century.
By the 7th century, this feast had begun to include non-martyrs as well.
The date for the festival varied in different parts of Europe and Asia. The use of November 1 for this feast is first recorded in England in the 8th century. "According to John Beleth (died c. 1165), Gregory IV in 835 transferred the feast from May 13 to November 1 after the harvest so that there would be sufficient food in Rome for the pilgrims. In the twelfth century the date of May q13 for all saints disappears from the liturgical books" (Philip H. Pfatteicher, Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship).
This Sunday would be a good time to discuss "What is a saint?" Some quotes on this topic (which have been posted before) follow.
A JEWISH STORY ABOUT SAINTHOOD
A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi.
It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.
The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I perform austerities. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, the shammes [a synagogue sexton] gives me forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."
And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do.
"Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?" (from A Treasure of Jewish Folklore, page 109)
WHAT ARE HAGIOI AND HOW DO WE BECOME ONE?
The Greek word usually translated saint is hagios. Literally it is an adjective meaning: "holy" It can refer to "holy things" or "holy people". The word "holy" means "to set apart". I frequently paraphrase it to mean "special". Holy Communion is a "special" fellowship between God and us and each other. The Holy Bible is a "special" book. The Holy Spirit is the "special" breath or wind from God. God said, "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy" means to make that day "special". A form of that word is used in the Lord's prayer: "Hallowed be thy name." That means to make or treat God's name as holy -- to make it a "special" name.
So what's a saint? A saint is a holy person. What's a holy person? A holy person is special person.
How do you become a saint or a special person?
In the Old Testament, things became holy through contact with other holy things. For instance, Exodus 29:37 gives the command:
For seven days make atonement for the altar and consecrate it. Then the altar will be most holy, and whatever touches it will be holy.
A similar command is given in the next chapter concerning the Tent of Meeting and many of the things used for worship: "You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy."
What makes a book the Holy Bible? It has been in contact with the Holy God. What makes a wind or breath the Holy Spirit? It has been in contact with the Holy God. What makes a fellowship a Holy Communion? When we are in contact with the Holy God. What makes a person a saint? When he or she has been in contact with the Holy God.
In the Old Testament, it was only a few people -- the priests who could come in contact with the holy things. Jesus changed that. Jesus opened the way for all of us to approach and come near to the holy God and become holy ourselves.
Being a saint comes as a gift from God. You are a saint because you are in contact with the Holy God -- or better, because the Holy God has come in contact with you. Being a saint is not something you do for yourself, although we often use the word in that way. We often think of a person as a saint because they live a very good life, but a saint is a saint because of his/her contact with the Holy God.
CELEBRATING "ALL THE SAINTS"
When I read the following from Kennon Callahan, I had to confess that I had been guilty of making All Saints Sunday a backward-looking memorial service. Last year I followed the suggestion and also highlighted all the new "saints" who had joined the congregation during the previous year.
I once attended a Sunday morning worship that included a memorial service in which the congregation, once a year, remembered all those who had died during the previous year. At one point in the service the pastor thoughtfully read the names of each person who had died. As the names were read, the organ played softly in the back-ground, and outside, the church bell tolled slowly. The service climaxed with a prayer of thanksgiving for those lives and a hymn of victory.
Afterward, when the pastor asked me what I thought of the service, I told him, "It was excellent, most helpful, most meaningful." Then I asked him, "When do you do the same for each new baby born this past year, for each person who has discovered Christ during this past year, and for those who have significantly advanced God's mission during this past year?"
"Oh," he replied. "Well, when a baby is born, we place a rose on the altar.'
I said, "Yes. One rose, one service. And when a person dies, you often have flowers on the altar from the funeral service, and people take food over to help the family in the midst of their grief. You offer prayer for the person and the family during the illness; then you offer prayer for them on the Sunday following the funeral service. You do all these things for those experiencing grief at the end of a life. And you do this excellent memorial service once a year. You are celebrating the past. Celebrate the future as well." [Kennon Callahan, Dynamic Worship: Mission, Grace, Praise, and Power, page 89]
TWO SIDES OF SAINTHOOD?
I find the two gospel lessons assigned for this day (All Saints B = John 11:32-44 & Proper 26 B = Mark 12:28-34) present a two-sided truth to sainthood.
The lesson from John is about the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This text illustrates that our sainthood comes solely through the power of God. Dead Lazarus could do nothing for himself (or for God). He could only passively receive the new life God gave him.
The lesson from Mark is the question about the great commandment: Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. This text suggests that our sainthood comes from our own abilities and actions in loving God, neighbor, and self. However, when the scribe agrees with Jesus about the importance of these commandments, Jesus tells him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." Knowing (and perhaps even obeying these commandments) doesn't get one into the kingdom of God. "Close, but no cigar," as an old saying goes.
To return to the John text, one might look at Mary and Martha as examples of saintliness. Although there isn't much said about them in our lection, there is Mary's passion when she comes to Jesus and Martha's skepticism when Jesus asks that the stone be removed for the tomb.
John 11:32-44 exegetical notes
This will be the first opportunity for us Lutherans to use something besides Matthew 5.1-12 on All Saints Day. Previously, the assigned lesson for All Saints Day did not follow a three year pattern. Note also that John 11:1-45 is the assigned lesson for 5 Lent A.
As usual in John, this miracle has both a literal meaning -- the raising of Lazarus from death -- and a symbolic meaning -- the giving of life to all people whom Jesus loves. There is physical death and life illustrated by Lazarus. There is spiritual death as separation from God and spiritual life as connection with God. Both are part of John's message in this text.
MARY & JESUS [(28-31) 32-33]
While Martha's faith is centered on knowing, Mary's is much more emotional. She moves "quickly". She begins by saying exactly the same words as Martha: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (v. 32), but she is saying them while crying at Jesus' feet. She says nothing else. She doesn't utter all the proper phrases like Martha about the all-powerful Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God or any belief about the resurrection of the dead. Mary just cries.
While Martha had depth in her confession, there was little emotion. Mary has great emotion, but little depth to her faith. While it might appear that Mary's tears moved Jesus to raise Lazarus, that isn't the case. Jesus had told his disciples before they arrived that he was coming to "wake up" "sleeping" Lazarus. He went there with the intentions of raising Lazarus before either sister came to him.
V. 33 presents a translation problem: how should embrimaomai be understood? (It also occurs in v. 38.) Usually it is a term of anger. (It's root brimaomai was thought to sound like the sound of horses snorting in anger.) It is always used of anger or indignation in the LXX. If it means "disturbed" as in the NRSV, the emotion implied is a negative one. What would Jesus have to be angry about? Perhaps the people's inadequate faith (illustrated by Martha and Mary)? Perhaps coming face to face with the powers of Satan represented by his friends death? However, given that we are told that Jesus has just seen "her weeping and the Jews who came with her weeping," could his anger be at the large crowd who would witness what he is about to do? Some in the crowd will "get the picture" and have a proper faith in Jesus. Some will misinterpret the miracle and have an improper faith in Superman-Jesus. Some will be "turned off" by the event and actively seek to kill Jesus (see v. 53). These last two groups will make life miserable for Jesus. (These same types of reactions make life miserable for ministers, too.) If it had only been Jesus' disciples and Mary and Martha who were to witness the miracle, would Jesus have been so distressed in his Spirit? I think not.
PRELUDE TO THE MIRACLE [34-40]
John 11:35 has been a favorite verse for generations. In the Greek, it is not the shortest verse in the Bible. It contains three words and 16 letters. 1 Thess 5:16 has only two words and 14 letters.
This is the only occurrence of dakruo ("weep") in the NT, meaning that it is a different word than used of Mary or the Jews "weeping" (klaio). Does John mean to imply that Jesus' crying was somehow different than the weeping (wailing?) of the others?
The question from the crowd is provocative: "Couldn't this one, who opened the eyes of the blind, do something so that this one would not have died?" First of all, they recognize Jesus ability to heal the blind (John 9). Secondly, as far as I remember, there are no instances where Jesus kept someone from dying. There are other instances of Jesus (and his followers) raising up those who had died. I think that the promise we proclaim is not that Jesus can keep people from dying or even suffering; but that Jesus will raise up the dead -- neither (physical) death nor suffering will never separate believers from God.
Martha's statement about the smell strongly suggests that they was not expecting a resurrection of the dead. Her comments also affirm the reality of Lazarus' death -- four days -- the hovering soul would have left by now.
pisteuo -- "to believe" could be a theme that is explored as that which defines us as "saints". The word is used frequently in John 11 (vv. 15, 25, 26, 27, 40, 42, 45, 48).
In v. 40, faith is related to seeing "the glory of God" in the miracle of raising Lazarus. Apparently those who want to kill Jesus after this event (see v. 53) did not have the faith to see the glory of God.
Could we expand this notion of faith -- that it is required in order to the glory of God in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus? or in our own lives? or in the little events that happen around us? Faith sees God where others see not.
THE MIRACLE (41-44)
Jesus' prayer doesn't ask for the miracle; but is one of thanksgiving (eucharisteo -- present tense = "I am giving thanks") to God and meant to be overheard by those standing by. Perhaps like the Great Thanksgiving in the Eucharist, while it offers thanks to God, it is also a proclamation to those who overhear the prayer.
The purpose of the miracle is so that the people might believe that God has sent Jesus (v. 42). As I said earlier, believing could be a thematic approach to this text. Here, the content of faith is that Jesus has been sent by God. That is a "faith-theme" that reoccurs throughout the gospel of John. Jesus is the one sent by God.
Jesus' shout (kraugizo) in v. 43 gives life. The same word is used of the crowds shouting for Jesus' death (18:40; 19:6, 12, 15). (Its only other instance in John is 12:13 where the palm Sunday crowd shouts their Hosannas.) It is in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus finds life. (Could Lazarus have refused to come out?) It is also in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus is freed from his restrictive bindings, by other people. Not all of God's works take place supernaturally. Sometimes they require a lot of work on our part.
deuro -- "come" is used in the synoptics as a discipling word: Mt 19:21; Mk 10:21; Lu 18:22. (The related deuto is also used in Jesus' call "to follow" him -- Mt 4:19; 11:28; Mk 1:17.)
This text might be used as a allegory of discipleship -- answering the call "to come" and follow Jesus. The call means leaving the old, (dead) life behind.
The dead are bound (deo of Lazarus in v. 44 and of Jesus in 19:40) in bandages. Jesus' act of releasing (luo) Lazarus results in Jesus being physically bound (deo) at his arrest (18:12, 24). These same two words (deo & luo) are used in Mt 16:19 & 18:18 as the authority given with the Keys of the Kingdom -- "to bind" and "to loose". Could resurrected Lazarus symbolize the "loosed" (luo) and the "forgiven" (a frequent translation for aphiemi which is used in the last line of v. 44 "let him go")?
Two other pictures of faith in the larger context of this text: The disciples -- they don't understand what's going on. They misunderstand Jesus' words about "sleeping". They are reluctant to go with Jesus, because they might die; but by going with Jesus, they will see God's glory and God's power to give life to the dead! They are pessimistic and discouraging in this text. They are still Jesus' disciples, but perhaps not the best models of faith.
There is Lazarus who is dead in the grave. Lazarus can do nothing for himself. All he can do is receive the power of God to give him new life. The call to faith is a call to die, so that God's power might be manifested in giving us life. Theologically, we died in baptism and we die in daily repentance and God raises us to new life beyond our sins. However, sometimes after we have been given new life by god, we still want to keep ourselves wrapped up and bound in our grave clothes -- signs of the old life. We can keep ourselves bound up by holding onto those sins from which Jesus has freed us and has forgiven us.
I wonder how life was different for Lazarus after his death and resurrection event. Were his priorities the same afterwards as before? Did he work less and spend more time with family and friends? Could we imagine what his new life was like and then apply it to our own lives as resurrected people through our births from above in baptism?
O'Day [John, New Interpreter's Bible]:
... The church preaches about death and resurrection at the time of death, but shies away from such topics in the midst of life. Yet it is the everyday rhythms of life that the church most needs to talk about Jesus' power as the resurrection and the life, so that death can indeed lose its sting. To proclaim the power of resurrection only at the time of death is both to impoverish the proclamation and to weaken the power of its witness in the face of death. There is thus a critical need to include conversations about death and the theological significance of Jesus as the resurrection and the life in the ongoing theological reflection of the church, not just in its reflection about death.
In the moment of crisis, at the funeral of a loved one, the immediate need is for pastoral care and reassurance about the power of the resurrection. Indeed, funerals do provide gospel witness to the power of God in Jesus. But a funeral is not the moment for believers to reassess their lives in the light of the new eschatological reality in which the incarnation enables the church to live, because the power of grief and loss is so palpable. Why, then, does the church so often save its most powerful proclamation about death and resurrection for funerals?
Jesus' powerful announcement to Martha suggests that the church needs to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not only at times of death, but also in the daily moments of human lives, because these moments, too, whether one names them so or not, are also lived in the face of death. John 11 asks the church to reflect that Jesus is the resurrection and the life not just for the crisis moment of death, but for all moments in life. Jesus as the resurrection and the life is the decisive eschatological announcement, because he announces that the world is now definitively under God's care and power.... John 11 thus offers a promise about how those who believe in Jesus will live their lives, not just about how they will end them. [p. 695]
Similarly, our "sainthood" doesn't happen after our deaths, but it is part of our lives in the present time. We are connected with the holy God now.