Suffering In the Love of Christ
Within the last few weeks, a
Philadelphia couple has been in the news
after being convicted of third-degree murder in the death of their son. Already
on probation following the death of their two-year old son in 2009, in 2013 the
couple watched their eight-month old die without seeking medical attention. They
believed that God would heal their children miraculously, and that it would
demonstrate a lack of faith for them to seek a doctor’s help. Most tragically,
this family is not unique. There are millions of people who are deceived by the
false promises of health and wealth in the so-called “Prosperity Gospel,” which
is no gospel at all. The preachers of this false religion fill the airwaves on
television and radio, and their books fill the shelves of Christian and secular
bookstores. The message is always the same. If you have enough faith in God,
you will not suffer, you will not be sick, and you will not be poor. Therefore,
if you are suffering, if you are sick, if you are poor, then the reason is that
you do not have enough faith in God. People believe that. They send a lot of
money to these preachers. And they get sicker and poorer, and believe that it
is all their fault for not having enough faith in God.
As we look into the Bible, it does not take long to discover that the “Prosperity Gospel” is at best a man-made spiritual Ponzi scheme, and at worst a satanic deception aimed at diverting people away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that delivers us from our most pressing ailment – that of our alienation from God because of our sin. Through that reconciliation with God, we have the promise of eternal life with Him in heaven, where all of our desires will be satisfied infinitely, and where we will know healing and wellness in a way that can never be experienced on earth. Meanwhile, we wait in hope and faith for that day, longing for it with confident expectation, knowing that, as Jesus promised, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NIV).
As we look at our text today, we find several realities about the sufferings and sorrows that will afflict us, even as we walk with Christ. If you adhere to the prosperity gospel, these hardships will rock your faith and send you into a spiral of spiritual depression. If you do not know Jesus, you will be prone to become stoic and fatalistic about life. But if you know Him, and have been well-instructed by His word, you not only accept hardships that come your way, you expect them. When they happen, and they will, Satan would delight in seeing those tragedies rupture your confidence in Christ. He would seek to fill your mind with his hellish lies that your faith is not strong enough, that your love for Christ is deficient, or worse that His love for you is defective. But this is why you must formulate your theology of suffering in the clear-headedness of the good days. If you have done that, you will not run away from Jesus when troubles come. Rather, you will run to Him in the midst of the crisis knowing that you are loved, that He is good, and that His glory will be revealed fully in His own time. Let’s see how these ideas are addressed in our text today.
I. Christians are not immune to suffering and sorrow.
In His magnificent “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17, Jesus says to the Father concerning His disciples, “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” Notice that it is the will of God the Father, and of God the Son, Jesus Christ, that followers of Jesus remain in the world for a season. We might think it better if, one nano-second after we professed faith in Christ, we were gloriously transported to heaven. But Jesus did not think it better. He prayed that the Father would leave us in the world. This world in which we have been left is a dangerous place. Because of the sorry history of human sinfulness and the effects that sin and its consequences have had on the world, there is no such thing as a suffering-free existence in the world. All suffering is rooted in the presence of sin in the world, the effects of sin in the world, and the outworking of it in the world. We cannot escape it.
In this passage, we are introduced for the first time in John’s Gospel to a set of siblings: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Several facts about them become clear to us as we read about them here and elsewhere in the New Testament. First, they loved Jesus. We are not told that specifically, but their love for Him is evident. Notice how Mary is introduced here. There are at least six, maybe seven, women named Mary in the New Testament. In order to distinguish this Mary from the other Marys, John tells us that “It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair.” John hasn’t told that story; he will in the next chapter. But the other gospel writers have told it, but did not name her. John expects that many of his readers will be familiar with her story, and he lets them know that this is the person the others described, and whom he will describe further throughout this chapter and the next. Nowhere in the Gospels is love for Christ so extravagantly displayed than when Mary anointed His feet with the costly perfume and wiped them with her hair. It was this Mary who was also described in Luke 10 as “seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word.” Martha, her sister, would be well known to readers of the other Gospels as the one who feverishly served the Lord Jesus at her home in Luke 10. Notice also that they call Him “Lord” in verse 3. For many in that day, the title “Lord” could be nothing more than a polite term of address, not unlike we might use the word “Sir.” But for people who were so obviously devoted to Jesus, to call Him “Lord” must carrier much stronger overtones. There can be no doubt about it: these people loved Jesus.
Neither can there be any doubt about this: Jesus loved them. In fact, it is specifically stated twice in this short selection of verses. In verse 3, they send word to Jesus, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” They were aware that Jesus loved Lazarus, and undoubtedly that He loved them too. Then in verse 5, it is made all the more clear, as John tells us, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Notice that His love for each of them is individually expressed. He has already said that He is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep and calls them by name (10:3). You are loved as a unique and specific individual by the Lord Jesus. You could just as well insert your name into verse 5. He loves you.
In fact, He loves you more than you know. In verse 3, when the sisters send word to Jesus, they use the Greek word phileo to describe Jesus’ love for Lazarus. The word is used to describe “brotherly love,” and speaks of personal affections, a matter of sentiment or feeling. We might call it “friendship.” This is the kind of love that the sisters know that Jesus has for Lazarus. But in verse 5, when John tells us that Jesus loves Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he uses a different word: agape. This is the perfect and unconditional love of God, which is based upon His infinite knowledge and His perfect will by which He chooses to love us. It is a divine love, a love that God alone can have. If we love with this kind of love, it is because God gives us the capacity to do so. Like the sisters here, you may think of Jesus’ love for you as no more than that of a friend who is there for you when you need Him. It is certainly not less than that, but infinitely more than that. It is a perfect, unconditional love – the kind which God alone can have for you.
So, this much is clear: they loved Jesus, and ever moreso did He love them. However, notice that this does not exempt them from the suffering and sorrow that is so common in this fallen world. In spite of their love for Christ and His love for them, Lazarus is now sick. The word used here implies a physical weakness. He is sick, and wasting away. Those familiar with the story know that Lazarus will soon be dead, and his sisters will be afflicted with the grief and pain of losing a loved one. Most of us know what it is like to be sick. We know what it is like to lose a loved one and be struck with grief. In those moments, it is very easy to feel like God has abandoned us. That is exactly how the enemy wants us to feel. That is why this passage (along with so many others) is so helpful and instructive for us. When Satan tries to force feed us lies to shipwreck our souls in the midst of suffering, we have to remain confident that our circumstances are no reflection of the unshakable love of Jesus Christ in our lives. Everyone suffers in this world, and Christians are no exception. We need to expect it, and not be surprised by it when it happens. We suffer in this world just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, we suffer in the love of Christ. You have to know that just because suffering has come, in whatever form it takes, it does not mean that your love for Him has been deficient, or that His love for you is defective. Though we are often unwell, we are never unloved.
II. Jesus may not do what we think He should do in our difficult circumstances.
Elisha Hoffman was pastor of a congregation in
One day, he made a routine visit to a woman in his church, of whom Hoffman
wrote, was one “to whom God permitted many visitations of sorrow and
affliction.” On the day of this particular visit, he writes that he “found her
much discouraged,” asking him, “Brother Hoffman, what shall I do? What shall I
do?” After sharing with her from various portions of Scripture, Hoffman said to
the woman, “You cannot do better than to take all of your sorrows to Jesus. You
must tell Jesus.” Hoffman said that the women seemed for a moment to be lost in
meditation, but then “her eyes lighted as she exclaimed, ‘Yes, I must tell
Jesus.” Hoffman says, “As I left her home I had a vision of that joy-illumined
face … and I heard all along my pathway the echo, ‘I must tell Jesus … I must
tell Jesus.” As he reflected on the visit, Hoffman composed a hymn that is
still familiar to many of us over a century later: Lebanon, Pennsylvania
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus! I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus! Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.
Hoffman’s advice to that suffering woman is still as relevant today as it was then. Tell it to Jesus. That is what Mary and Martha did when their brother was in the throes of death. They sent word to Jesus saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” They told it to Jesus, as we must do as well. And one of the marvelous blessings of prayer is that we are invited (we might even say, “commanded”) to ask of Him whatever it is that we desire. Philippians 4:7 tells us to “let your requests be made known to God.” The sisters did not make any specific request in their message to Jesus, but it was clearly implied. They wanted Him to know what was happening, but they also wanted Jesus to do something about it. When Jesus came to them, both Mary and Martha said to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv 21, 32). Clearly, they expected that when He received the news, He would come right away and heal Lazarus. But He did not.
Verse 5 says that when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, “He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” He deliberately chose to not do what they clearly expected Him to do. Some of us can relate to that. We have prayed and asked the Lord to intervene in our hardships in some specific way, only to find that He has not done so. Sometimes, the answer comes much later than we wished it would. Sometimes it does not come at all. Sometimes, we find ourselves tempted to plunge into the same kind of despair of which C. S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife. He said, “When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing [God], … if you … turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be … welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” Have you been there? Are we not often tempted to be very much disappointed with God and His delays? In that moment when God does not do for us what we expect Him to, or act when and how we think is best, it is easy to feel very much unloved by Him. But this is never the case. And it was not so for Mary and Martha.
Notice how verses 5 and 6 flow here in our text. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.” Did you catch that? The delay was not detached from His love. His love for them was the reason for the delay. That’s hard to wrap our heads around, isn’t it? He loves us so much that He does not always act in the way or in the time that we think He should. That is because we do not know what is best for us, but He does. If He were to act when and how we think He should, He may be depriving us of what is best. It is because He loves us that He determines to not allow us to dictate how He should act in our suffering. He is determined to be and to do for us something better than we imagine.
We often comfort ourselves and others in the midst of grief with the reminder that God has a purpose, and our assumption is that in due time, we will understand what that purpose. We need to be careful with issuing this as a pat-answer to suffering people, or even in how we apply it to ourselves. Surely, God is sovereign over all of the affairs of the world, including the circumstances of our suffering. And, since God is sovereign, He does indeed have a purpose through it all. But, this does not mean that we will ever know what that purpose is, or that (even if we do know it) we will ever understand it. Much of the suffering that we endure will appear from our earth-bound perspectives to be gratuitous – entirely pointless and for no purpose other than the harsh realities of living in a sin-corrupted, fallen world. As Bruce Waltke writes, “Simply because God has a plan does not mean that He necessarily has any intention of sharing it with you; … the Lord in His sovereignty may allow terrible things to happen to you, and you may never know why.” You may never know why He allowed the suffering or the sorrow to come your way in the first place. You may never know why He delayed to act in the timing that you deemed most suitable. You may never know why He chose to act in the way that He did. But do not allow that to make you think that you were ever for one moment not loved by Him. It is because of His love that He acts toward us when and how He deems best, which is not always when and how we deem best.
James Montgomery Boice was a faithful pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in
for several decades. At the pinnacle of his fruitful ministry there, in April
of 2000, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Seven weeks later, in spite of
many prayers from saints around the world, Dr. Boice died. He knew what it
meant to suffer. His family and his congregation suffered through that ordeal.
But it was Dr. Boice who had taught his congregation well over many years how
to view events such as these. Boice had said that the delays of Christ “are to
be interpreted in the light of His love, and not the other way around.”
Don’t allow His delays to make you feel unloved by Him. Know that His love is
the reason that He acts when and how He deems best for you. You may never
understand it, but you can trust Him, and you can rest in the knowledge of His
unfailing love, no matter how hard life becomes. Tell your problems to Jesus.
Trust Him to do what is best because He loves you, even if it means a divine
delay or a different answer than you were seeking.
III. The suffering of the Christian never ends ultimately in death, but always in the glory of God-in-Christ.
It was the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (and not Kelly Clarkson) who stated, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Before you adopt that as a motto for your life, consider that even though Nietzsche said it, his life didn’t reflect it. He was a sad, lonely man who had few friends and suffered many illnesses, including chronic migraines, eye troubles, a venereal disease, severe mental illness, two debilitating strokes which left him unable to speak or walk, before he ultimately died from a stroke in 1900. There was much in his life before his death that did not kill him, and it did not make him stronger. His godless philosophy was as sad as his life was. As any of us who live in this fallen world can attest, there is much that does not kill us that weakens us; and then there will come that which ultimately kills us. It is unavoidable. Research shows that one out of every one person, a full 100% of us, will die. Christians are included in that number.
This is why Jesus’ words in verse 4 may be quite puzzling to us. He says concerning Lazarus, “This sickness is not to end in death.” Some of us have read this story before, and we know what is coming. Lazarus will die. He will die before Jesus reaches him. Jesus doesn’t soft-sell that. In verse 14, He says plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” Someone will break the same news to our loved ones one day. So, did Jesus not know what He was talking about in verse 4 when He said that Lazarus that his sickness would not end in death? Of course not. That is never an option. He always knows. He knew Lazarus would die, and He knew that he would die before He got to him. He also knew what He was going to do. He was going to raise him from the dead. So, He could say of Lazarus, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” And indeed, in a most-powerful way, Jesus would be glorified by calling the dead man to return to life and exit the tomb! “Well, good for Lazarus!” we might be tempted to say. But what about the day that my best friend died? What about the day that your loved one died? What about the day that you will die? What does Jesus have to say about that? Well, for the Christian, He says the same thing. “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.”
You see, what Jesus did for Lazarus was unique in a sense. He does not promise to crash every funeral that He attends and overturn it. But in another sense, what Jesus did for Lazarus was not unique, for it is the same thing that He ultimately promises to do for everyone who comes to Him by faith and calls upon Him as Lord and Savior. Jesus’ promise in John 11:25-26 is not exclusive to Lazarus and his grieving siblings. He says there, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” But we have known so many who believed in Him and yet died. Ah, but here is where Jesus seeks to adjust our perspective on things. For the Christian, death is not the end. It is a movement from life to life – from life here, filled with hardships in this fallen world, to life eternal in the presence of His glory in heaven. If you or your loved one is a follower of Christ, life does not end in the gloom of the cemetery. It never ends, but goes on face-to-face with the glorious Lord Jesus!
The Gospel of John speaks often of Jesus being glorified. All of those references point to a singular event in history. The glory of God-in-Christ is most fully revealed in the cross where Jesus died to redeem us from our sins, and in His glorious resurrection from the dead. The death and resurrection of Lazarus that will occur in this chapter is a great foreshadowing of what will happen more significantly to Jesus Christ. Lazarus’ return to life is only temporary. He would experience the sting of death again one day. But the Lord Jesus would die and rise, never to experience the sting of death again. And as a result of this, it will happen for all who are in Christ as well. He has removed the sting of death for all who call upon His name by faith, and replaced it with the triumph of glory! Whether you are at the side of the sick-bed of a loved one, or standing over a grave in a cemetery, you can say with confidence on the authority of the word of God, “This sickness will not end in death, but in glory.” That does not mean that the Christian will not suffer or be sick. It does not mean that the Christian will not die in this life. It does not mean that God will heal every sickness we have. It does not mean that He will return our loved one to us here and now. We are assured of two things in God’s Word: We will suffer greatly in this life. We will be healed gloriously in the life that is to come. Revelation 21:4 promises that He will wipe away every tear from our eyes; and there will no longer be any death, any mourning, any crying or pain. And so with that perspective, the Apostle Paul can say in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Similarly, in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Know this well, Christian. In this world, you will suffer. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Expect it. When it happens, tell it to Jesus. Tell Him what it is that you want Him to do for you. Know that He loves you with a love that you cannot fathom. You may be often unwell, but you are never unloved. He may not work in the way or at the time that you expect Him to, but if He does not, it will be better than we can imagine. Know that death is not the end for the Christian. Know that He will be glorified, in spite of your hardships, in the midst of your hardships, and through your hardships. Know that you might have to wait until the day that you behold His glory face-to-face to understand that, but never doubt that it is true. Preach it to yourself even as you suffer: “Jesus loves me. He will be glorified.” Preach it with your dying breath, and meet Him face-to-face with those words on your lips. He loves me. He will be glorified.
 Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), 89.
 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam, 1961), 4-5.
 Bruce Waltke, Finding the Will of God: A Pagan Notion? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 15.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volume 3 (An Expositional Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 826.