Sunday, April 20, 2014

Depressed Disciples and the Living Lord (Luke 24:13-15, Easter 2014)


Easter Sunday is a special day for Christians. But in some sense, it is also just another Sunday for us. You see, we do not come together just once a year to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus. Every Sunday, we gather to commemorate, to celebrate, and to communicate that we serve the death-proof King who has saved us by His grace. Still, there is something uniquely special about this particular Sunday for most Christians. Even for some non-Christians, Easter is a special day for dressing up, gathering with family or friends, and maybe even that annual sojourn to church. But not everyone understands or appreciates Easter Sunday. Some think it is about rabbits that lay chocolate eggs. I am not a biologist or a zoologist, but I know enough to know that if you ever see a rabbit lay a chocolate egg, you do NOT want to eat it! Easter is ultimately about the historical fact that some 2,000 years ago, the tomb of Jesus was empty because He had conquered death through His resurrection. He proclaims victoriously, “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore” (Rev 1:8). 

There are, of course, many who do not believe that the resurrection of Jesus explains the empty tomb. Since the first century, one of the most often repeated “alternative suggestions” is that the disciples of Jesus stole the body. If we read the New Testament’s honest depiction of the disciples following the crucifixion of Jesus, we find that this was not a clever band of con-artists scheming to find a way to pull off history’s greatest hoax. The resurrection of Jesus, even though He Himself had foretold it numerous times, was the farthest thing from their minds. On Thursday night, most of them completely defected and abandoned the Lord when the mob came to arrest Him. Peter denied even knowing Him to save his own skin. John kept a safe and silent distance. After Jesus died, most of the disciples all seem to have just gone their separate ways. When Jesus did appear to them, most of them didn’t recognize Him, because He was the last person they expected to see. Every single one of them was surprised by their encounter with Him following His resurrection. They were hardly the kind of people that could pull off a very convincing hoax.

Following Friday’s crucifixion, they were dismayed, discouraged, and disillusioned. In a word, they were depressed. That’s how we find the two on the road to Emmaus in our text. Who were they? Well, we know one of them was named Cleopas. The other one was almost certainly his wife, whose name was Mary. The whole family were devout followers of Jesus; one of their sons was the apostle known as James the Less. Mary was with those who watched Jesus die on Friday. And now, on Sunday morning, she and her husband are walking the long road back to their home in Emmaus. And they are depressed.

Can you relate? Have you ever had your hopes dashed on the rocky shore of disillusionment? Have you ever held to something by faith and found in the end that it was all empty and in vain? Has Jesus ever not done something that you fully expected and trusted Him to do? Have you stood with your head in your hands and thought, “I never thought it would turn out like this!” Waves of discouragement are crashing over you, burying you, and you can feel the flame of faith dying slowly in your heart. If you haven’t ever felt that way, you most likely will one day, because it happens to us all. If you find yourself walking along the Emmaus Road depressed and discouraged, there is Someone who wants to come along side of you and change your perspective. That someone is the Risen Lord Jesus. In our text, we find the characteristics of depressed disciples. We will probably find some encouragement as we see those characteristics because we will see that we are not alone, and our situation is not new or unique. But, thanks be to God, we don’t just see the characteristics, we see the cure for depressed disciples as well. We can be changed through a fresh encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus.

I. The Characteristics of Depressed Disciples.

Can you envision Cleopas and Mary as they walk this seven mile journey from Jerusalem to Judea? Maybe they are walking slowly, shuffling their sandaled feet, kicking a pebble every few steps, shoulders shrugged, head down. And the Bible says that they were talking with each other about “all these things” which had taken place. You know how it is, when you have seen an unspeakable tragedy, those images stain your mind for a long time. Maybe Mary is telling Cleopas, “You should have seen it. They tortured our Jesus! I have never seen anything so horrific! They drove nails into His hands and feet. There was so much blood! There was so much agony and anguish. He was crying out as He died. It broke my heart to hear Him say, ‘My God, My God why have You forsaken Me?’ You should have seen His mother. What will she do now? Who will care for her?” Maybe Cleopas is saying, “The fellows are all confused. I didn’t know what to tell them. Peter said he’s going to take up fishing again. I don’t know what we will do now.” And on and on it would go, seven miles, seven hours (so the scholars tell us), all the way back to Emmaus.

You might have walked that road before. Your head hung low, kicking stones along the path, rehashing over and over again the depressing circumstances that engulf you. Let’s observe what the text says about these depressed disciples. Notice that they have surrendered. They have just given up. What direction are they walking? Verse 13 tells us that they are walking away from Jerusalem, away from the center of Christian fellowship. Depression will do that to you. When the thing you need most is to surround yourself with godly encouragers, something within you says, “They don’t know what you are going through. They can’t help you. Just give up and walk away.” And so you do, just like Mary and Cleopas did on that day. You might be sitting here in church today, but your heart is already seven miles down the road. Maybe you’ve been so disappointed by God’s failure to do for you what you expect Him to do that you are already planning to take your first steps along that road. It is a well worn path. We can still see the footprints of many of our friends and family members who have walked that road before us. They were walking with the Lord, then the bottom fell out in their lives, and they gave up and walked away from Christ and the Church. That is essentially what Cleopas and Mary are doing here in the text.

Verse 17 tells that they were looking sad. They were so sad, they could not even perceive the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus as He joined them on the journey. Verses 15-16 says that Jesus Himself approached and began travelling with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. Jesus says to them (v17), “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. Everything in them probably wants to say, “Look Mister! This is an A and B conversation, so ‘C’ your way out of it and mind your own business!” In verse 18, Cleopas speaks up from his sadness and says, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” Do you see the irony of that question? In point of fact, Jesus is the only One who is fully aware of the things which have taken place! He knows better than they do what has happened in Jerusalem this weekend. But their countenance is so downcast in sadness that they fail to perceive that it is Him. Friends, as you walk this depressing road to Emmaus in your sadness, you need to know that you are not walking alone. Jesus is coming along side of you, and He wants in on the conversation. You might want to tell Him to just butt out and mind His own business, but you see, you are His business. Your hurts, your sorrows, your sadness is very much His business. Would you say to Him, “You wouldn’t even understand. You don’t even know what is going on?” But friends, what we must understand is that Jesus is the only one who truly understands the hurts of our heart. He knows what you’ve been through. He knows where you have been. He knows where you are going. The Bible tells us that He is “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). Hebrews 4 promises us that “we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.” Why don’t you talk to Him about the things that have made you sad? He already knows all about it. In fact, He knows more about it than you do.

Not only are they surrendered and sad, but also notice that these depressed disciples are shattered. They began to rehearse to the Stranger on the road all that they had observed over the weekend: how this One called Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet might in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, had been sentenced to death and crucified by the chief priests and rulers (vv19-20). And then notice these heartbreaking words in verse 21: “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” Have you ever spoken of your hope using past-tense verbs? We were hoping. That means that they aren’t anymore. Their hopes have been shattered. So shattered are they that they have abandoned their hopes in spite of numerous evidences that Jesus is alive. They have been told by two different groups of people that the tomb was empty (v22, 24). They have been told that there was an angel who had proclaimed that Jesus was alive (v23). They didn’t listen. They just kept packing their bags for Emmaus. What’s more than this even, they don’t even recognize that the Living Lord Jesus is walking right beside of them and talking to them. How much more proof do you need that Jesus is alive?

Maybe that is where you are today. You are absorbed in the sadness, the sorrow, the shattered hopes that life has stolen away from you. But Jesus is alive. “Yeah, yeah,” you might say, “I am not so sure about that now.” But, what about the time that He first drew near to you and saved you? What about the time that you were in a desperate circumstance and Jesus came to you and brought you through it? What about the time that you opened the Bible and it came to life on the page as you encountered Him in His Word? What about the countless times you have seen Him radically transform the lives of others? He has proven it to you over and over again: He is alive! But you just ignore that, block it out of your mind, and keep packing. Keep walking. That is what so many are doing.  

These are the characteristics of depressed disciples. They are so surrendered that they walk away from the center of Christian fellowship. They are so saddened that they cannot perceive the presence of Jesus with them in the midst of their suffering. They are so shattered that they are oblivious to the many convincing proofs (Acts 1:3) by which He has proven that He is alive forevermore? We’ve all been there. Or else we all will be one day. Some might be there today. You might ask, “Can a Christian really ever feel that way?” Certainly. No one is immune to these things. Cleopas and Mary were as much disciples of Jesus as any other has ever been. And they were not alone. This sense of despair had affected every follower of Jesus on that weekend. And still today, it can infect entire churches. For any number of reasons, a church can find itself just going through the motions of religiosity without any real hope, any real faith, or any real living passion for the Living Lord Jesus. At times it is pandemic. I think of the words of G. Campbell Morgan who, in his preaching on this very text of Scripture, characterized the condition of churches across England in the early twentieth century as “everywhere an appalling flatness.” He says that there was “a marked cooling of enthusiasm, a lack of passion, an absence of fire.”[1] What of us today? What is there but an appalling flatness when we count the seconds until we can break out of the church doors to fill our bellies on Sunday afternoon? What is there but an appalling flatness when we are not driven by a sense of burning desire to gather with the saints to pray or to come along side them in their suffering? What is there but an appalling flatness when evangelism, mission and ministry are engaged by but a tiny remnant of the congregation? What is there but an appalling flatness when the work of the Lord is put on hold because we have no concern to be involved in discussions related to the church’s business affairs? Have we become like those depressed disciples who are so immersed in our own shattered hopes and frozen faith that we forget that Jesus is alive and walking with us on this road to Emmaus? If we are not already depressed, the very appalling flatness of it all (to use Morgan’s words) is enough to depress us. What do we need? How can it be remedied? Thank God there is an answer here in this Easter text of Scripture!

II. The Cure for Depressed Disciples.

What would it take to rekindle the fire that has gone out in the hearts of depressed disciples? What would it take to return vitality to that appalling flatness that affects so many of Christ’s followers?  Let’s look at two people who found that flame rekindled and see how it took place. It wasn’t a vision, a voice, a ritual or an experience that rekindled the fire of faith and hope within these depressed disciples. It happened as the Lord Jesus, before they ever recognized Him, opened to them the Word of God and began to point them to His truth that it contains. At the root of their woeful condition was a failure to grasp by faith the full truth of the entirety of God’s Word. How do we know that? Look at how the conversation turns in verse 25.

Cleopas and Mary had rehearsed all that had taken place over the weekend. But in verse 25, Jesus says to them, “O foolish men and slow of hear to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” They had read about the coming Messiah, and how He would bring people out of bondage and into a time of peace and prosperity. Like most people in their day, their assumption was that He was going to raise an army and storm Jerusalem to throw off the shackles of Roman oppression and restore Israel to its former glory. But Jesus didn’t do that. He went in and got Himself killed. And their hopes were shattered. They knew the Scriptures, but they had selectively chosen which parts of it to believe. Jesus says that they were foolish for being slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken. The prophets had clearly spoken of a Savior who was coming to redeem humanity from the curse of sin through His own suffering. Therefore it was necessary for Jesus to suffer these things and to enter into His glory. Verse 27 says, “Then, beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

It must have been the greatest Old Testament Bible Study lesson ever taught. Jesus taught them how He fulfilled every single promise God had made from the beginning, from the Seed of Woman in Genesis 3:15 to the suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 and everything between and beyond. It all pointed to Him. Now, this is the interesting part. It was this careful, detailed exposition of Scripture that rekindled the fire of faith in their hearts. Notice in verse 32, after they had realized that it was Jesus who had been with them, and after He had vanished from their midst, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” It was the word of God that lit the fire afresh within them. If it is to happen to us, it will happen the same way. You might think, “What we really need today is a new church program or a weeklong revival service. Let’s sing some new songs! That will excite us again.” You might think, “What we really need is for Jesus to come and make Himself visible to us, or to speak audibly to us. Then we would be on fire for Him.” But is that what it took for Cleopas and Mary? No, before they ever knew it was Him, their hearts were set ablaze by the page-by-page and verse-by-verse exposition of the Word of God. He showed them how the whole biblical metanarrative centered on Him as promised Redeemer who would rescue us from sin and death by His own sacrificial death and His glorious resurrection. And here is the wonderful truth of that – it can happen to us today. Every time we open this marvelous book, the flint is struck, and sparks fly toward our cold hearts to set them ablaze with a white-hot passion for His glory.

The Psalmist said, “The unfolding of Your words gives light” (Psalm 119:130). Look how it happens. Cold hearts are fanned into flame by His truth. Once that fire really burns in you, you will mourn the thought of it ever growing cold. As they arrive at their home in Emmaus, still unaware of the true identity of this stranger, Jesus “acted as though He were going farther.” But, they could not bear the thought of cutting their time with Him short. They invited Him in to stay. And He did! And He will for us too. He will not barge through doors that we have barred and double-bolted against Him. He will walk on to another place, looking for doors that are opened by hot hearts of faith. But if you invite Him in, He will come, and He will pour gas on that fire and stoke into a towering inferno.  

Notice what happens next. Once those hearts are set on fire by His truth, notice how that flame illuminates their darkened eyes to His presence. Cold hearts never open blind eyes. But once the heart is burning, Jesus is seen clearly with the eyes of faith. This Stranger who had walked with them suddenly becomes recognizable to them as they watch Him break and bless the bread around their table. But before the opened eyes, there had to be the hot heart. You say, “Yes, that is what I want. I want to see Him and know that He is here with Me. Why doesn’t He show Himself?” Well, notice what happens. As soon as they recognize that it is Him, He vanishes from their sight (v31). In nearly every appearance that the Risen Lord made to His disciples, He vanishes from sight at some point. Morgan writes, “The chief value in each case was not in the appearing, but in the vanishing.”[2] He was teaching them in His vanishing that we need not see Him with our eyes to know that we have been in His presence, that He is alive, and that He abides with us still. As hearts burn with His truth, eyes of faith are opened to His presence to know that He has not left us nor forsaken us, and we refuse to let our circumstances dictate otherwise.

But there is more. When the Word of God is unfolded and light breaks forth from it, tired feet are set in motion for His mission. Notice in verse 33 that “they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem.” That very hour is important. Go back to verse 29 when they pleaded with the Lord to tarry with them. They said, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” By this point it was late evening. They had walked for seven hours and seven miles that day. Have you ever walked for seven hours or seven miles? I did that on multiple consecutive days while I was hiking on vacation. After one very long hike, Donia said, “Why don’t we walk over to this place,” which was quite a ways away. I said, “Why don’t you go and come back and tell me about it.” Oh, but that is not what these disciples said. Their tired feet are quickly set in motion and they set out to travel seven more miles to return to tell the others what they had seen and experienced with the Risen Lord. Are you tired? Are you weary? Shoulders ache from burdens carried, hands throb from hours serving, bodies are exhausted from much labor. But when our hearts are set ablaze by God’s truth, our feet are set in motion for His mission. If your feet are set in motion for the mission of Christ, you are waiting for the benediction today, not so you can go eat your Easter ham, but so that you can go and report to others that Jesus is alive and tell them what He has done for you!

And that brings us to the final result of the rekindled fire of faith: silent tongues are set loose to proclaim His glory. As soon as they got back to Jerusalem, they gathered together with the other disciples and said, “The Lord has really risen!” and they “began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of bread.” They told them two true stories – they told the objective story of the Risen Lord Jesus. They told how He had really conquered sin and death, how He had really done all that the prophets had foretold, and how He had really secured salvation for His people through His sinless life, His sacrificial death, and His glorious resurrection! Then they told their story – they subjective account of their own personal encounter with Him. Al Mohler has recently said, “At the end of the day, the greatest obstacle to evangelism is Christians who don’t share the Gospel.”[3] But you might say, “I don’t know what to say to another person?” You have a great example right here in the text: tell the objective facts of Jesus’ story – His life, death and resurrection; and tell your story of how you came to know Him and walk with Him by faith. When our hearts are set on fire with God’s truth, our tongues will be set loose to proclaim His glory. We won’t be able to not tell it. We will be like the prophet Jeremiah who said, “If I say, ‘I will not remember Him or speak anymore in His name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer 20:9).

My primary aim on this Easter Sunday is to address the Church of Jesus Christ – particularly those disciples of Jesus who have given up, who have become sad, whose hopes have been shattered, and who are kicking rocks along the road to Emmaus in a state of appalling spiritual flatness. I want you to know that the living Lord Jesus is walking alongside of you, trying to join the conversation and unfold the truth of His word to you to rekindle the fire of faith set you ablaze for His glory so that you might burn in your hearts, see with your eyes, run with tireless energy and proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. Jesus is alive. That ought to make a difference in how you live, how you worship, how you fellowship with other believers, how you pray, and how you serve Him. It seems incongruous for Jesus to be the living Lord over a dying church. Meet Him afresh in the pages of the Word of God and allow Him to bring your smoldering embers back to a burning flame.

Maybe you are here today, and you aren’t a follower of Jesus, you have never personally trusted in Him as Lord and Savior. You surely know that we have not come to church today to celebrate fuzzy bunnies who lay chocolate eggs. We have come because we believe that some 2,000 years ago, God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ and He lived a sinless life of perfect righteousness, yet was condemned to die on the cross. But His death was no accident in the purpose and plan of God. It was the very reason He came, for in His death, God was dealing fully and finally with the sins of the human race. He became your substitute under the just judgment and wrath of the Father. He bore your sin and its penalty, and He conquered it forever through His resurrection. Jesus Christ is alive forevermore, and we come not on this day only, but on every Lord’s day, to celebrate this truth. Because in Him, our sins have been cleansed and forgiven, and we have received by faith His very righteousness so that we might be saved and reconciled to God. I want to ask you today to consider that He might be coming alongside of you along life’s road. You weren’t looking for Him, but He came looking for you.

That was what Malcolm Muggeridge found. He was one of the most well-known cynical agnostics in all of England in the middle of the twentieth century. Muggeridge wrote, “I never wanted a God, or feared a God, or felt under any necessity to invent one. Unfortunately, I am driven to the conclusion that God wants me.”[4] What happened in his life? Muggeridge was dispatched by the BBC to the Holy Land to produce three documentaries on the New Testament. He says that as he toured the various sites from Christian history, he was convinced that it was all a fraud. That is, until he saw “a party of Christian pilgrims at one of these shrines, their faces bright with faith, their voices as they sang so evidently and joyously aware of their Saviour’s near-ness.” Muggeridge says, “I, too, became aware that there really had been a man, Jesus, who was also God. I was conscious of His presence.”[5] Where did it happen? It happened along the road to Emmaus. Muggeridge says,

As my friend and I walked along like Cleopas and his friend, we recalled as they did the events of the Crucifixion and its aftermath in the light of our utterly different and yet similar world. Nor was it a fancy that we too were joined by a third presence. And I tell you that wherever the walk, and whoever the wayfarers, there is always this third presence ready to emerge from the shadows and fall in step along the dusty, stony way.[6]

Muggeridge says, “On every walk, … whether to Emmaus, or Wimbledon, or Timbuktu, there is the same stranger wanting to accompany us along our way, if we want Him.”[7]

I close today by asking you this question: “Do you want Him?” He ever lives to save you and set you free from sin and set you ablaze for His glory in the world. He will not beat down your door. He will walk on farther, because somewhere there is a door that is open to Him. But if you want Him, He will tarry with you as you receive Him by faith as your Living Lord and Savior today.


[1] G. Campbell Morgan, “The Rekindled Fire,” in Great Sermons on the Resurrection of Christ. Wilbur Smith, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 97, 101.
[2] Morgan, 98.
[3] http://www.ligonier.org/blog/2014-national-conference-day-1. Accessed April 17, 2014.
[4] Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1969), 29.
[5] Ibid., xii.
[6] Ibid., 86.
[7] Ibid., 77-78.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:17-27)


“Marley was dead.” With those words, Charles Dickens opened one of the most well-known pieces of English Literature, A Christmas Carol. Dickens goes on to describe Jacob Marley’s condition this way: “Old Marley was dead as a door-nail. Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”[1]

As we come to our text today, we can say the same thing about Lazarus: “Old Lazarus was dead as a door-nail.” At the beginning of Chapter 11, Jesus received word that he was sick, but He intentionally delayed going to him for two days. Now, in verse 17, Jesus arrives in Bethany, and Lazarus has been dead for four days. Of course, Jesus knew this already. In verse 14, Jesus said plainly to His disciples, “Lazarus is dead.” Nothing is hid from His knowledge. If we could reconstruct the timeline, Lazarus probably died before or soon after Jesus received the message. It would have taken the messenger approximately two days to get to Jesus with the word that Lazarus was sick. Then Jesus waited two days, and likely took two days to journey to Bethany. So, even if Jesus had left as soon as the messenger arrived, He would not have arrived in time to prevent Lazarus from dying. He was now dead as a door-nail, and there was seemingly nothing anyone could do about it. Tragedy had struck this dear family, and they were thrown into that dark and bitter suffering of the soul that we call by very clinical sounding names: grief, sorrow, mourning.

It is an all-too common scenario. Death is no respecter of persons. It visits us all. It sometimes happens quickly and unexpectedly. It sometimes drags its victims through a long travail of suffering. It comes upon the young and the old alike. If it has not struck your close circle of loved ones, it will. Or else it will strike you directly and leave your loved ones grieving in its wake. Whether it is the sorrow of death, or some other variety of suffering, as live in these broken bodies in this fallen world, we are often visited with hardships. It is far from rare for us to find ourselves in grim predicaments. But this text reminds us that in those moments, Jesus comes to us to comfort us with gospel promises and to confront us with His glorious person. As we look at how He does this for Martha, the sister of Lazarus, in our text today, let us consider that He does it still for us all.

I. Jesus comes to us in our grim predicaments (vv17-20)

There are a lot of cultural myths that get passed along in funeral homes. People say things like, “Well, heaven has another angel now,” or, “I guess ol’ so-and-so finally got their wings.” That’s not true. Angels are not the spirits of dead humans. It is a myth. People have held to myths about death throughout human history. First century Judaism was no exception. Though the Jewish people had the revelation of God’s Word, they often went beyond the words of Scripture to invent mythology and superstition. One of those ideas was that when a person died, their soul hovered over the body for three days, hoping to be reunited and returned to life. But on the fourth day, it was believed that decomposition set in, and the soul would depart permanently. At that point, it was believed that death was irreversible.[2] This belief was apparently widespread, as John is careful to point out in the text that Lazarus had been dead for four days! In verse 39, Martha is appalled by the thought of opening the tomb, since “by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Neither John nor Jesus spends any time debating the absence of merit for that superstitious belief. The common belief about the fourth day of death would only serve to demonstrate the awesome nature of what Jesus was going to do there. Their mistaken notions leave them absolutely certain that if there is any chance for Lazarus to ever return to life, it would take a divine miracle. And that is what Jesus had come to do. But no one knew that yet. At this point all they can see is their grim predicament.

Our text tells us that many people had come to be with Martha and Mary to console them. In that day, because the climate was warm and the Jews did not practice embalming, burial typically took place on the day of death, and the time of grieving came afterward. For seven days, a family would be surrounded by friends and relatives for a time of intense grieving. The fact that many are specified in the text indicates that they were probably a very prominent family with many friends and acquaintances. Not everyone would be so blessed. Some were often alone in their grief. The same is true for people today. Some, when they are struck with tragedy and grief, have a wonderful support network around them. Others suffer in isolation. Grief can be very lonely, therefore it is important for us to be there for them as they go through it. You might say, “Well, I am sure that they have a lot of company right now,” but you don’t know that. Go anyway and let them tell you that your presence is not needed. You might say, “Well, I wouldn’t know what to say.” Good. Say nothing. In fact, I have found that the only time people remember someone’s words in the midst of their grief is when someone says something stupid. One friend told me that the only comment he remembers someone making in the early days after the loss of his wife was when someone said to him, “I guess God needed her more than you do.” He said, “I wanted to punch him in the face.” I said, “If I had been there, I would have done it for you.” Your words will not be remembered, but your presence will be. Just go. Give them a hug. Sit with them a while. Let them cry on your shoulder. Ultimately, there is only so much we can do to bring comfort. If we do speak, we must be to point the grieving ones to Jesus, who is the only One who can truly comfort them. He must come into our grim predicaments. And He does.

We see that here in the text in verse 20, Martha hears that Jesus is coming. Who told her? We don’t know. I wish we did, because that person did the most wonderful thing that any of us can do for a person in grief. That person reminded Martha that Jesus was not far off from her in her sorrow and suffering. We can do that for others. “Jesus is here. He is close at hand. He is drawing near to you.” And Martha did what we all must do – she went out to meet Him. Comfort is not found ultimately in others coming to us, but in Jesus coming to us, and our going to Him. Martha did that. We are not told why Mary and the others did not go out to meet Him. Maybe they didn’t know He was near. Later they would be told, and they would go to Him. So, we must make sure that our grieving friends and loved ones know that Jesus is not far off from them, and they need to go to Him with their grief in the midst of their grim predicament. We can be like that precious, unnamed friend who told Martha that Jesus was coming to her.  

We might assume that Christian people are always aware of this, but many of us know how easy it is to feel far off from Him in that dark night of the soul. We think of the Jesus in John 2, who shows up at weddings to add to the joy of the moment! We need to remember that He is also the Jesus of John 11, who attends funerals to comfort the grieving. He comes to us in our grim predicaments. Because He is the Word of God made flesh, where He is present, He is not silent. He speaks to us, if we are willing to hear Him. And as He speaks, we see (secondly) that …

II. Jesus comforts us with gospel promises (vv21-26)

 Disappointment happens when our expectations go unmet. Philip Yancey wrote a book called Disappointment with God to address the nagging questions people wrestle with when God fails to meet their expectations. You might not say (out loud) that you have ever experienced that, but Yancey says that when news got out that he was writing this book, his phone began to ring often. “‘Is it true you’re writing a book about disappointment with God?’ the callers would ask. ‘If so, I’d like to talk. I haven’t told anyone before, but my life as a Christian has included times of great disappointment.’” Yancey says, “True atheists do not, I presume, feel disappointed in God. They expect nothing and receive nothing. But those who commit their lives to God, no matter what, instinctively expect something in return. Are those expectations wrong?”[3]

Consider Martha. She was a follower of Jesus. She loved Him, she served Him, and she knew of His love for her. So confident was she in His divine power that, as her brother began to draw near to death, she sent word to Jesus. The message didn’t say, “Come as fast as you can.” But, you know she was expecting Him to do so. It is evident in her words to Him in verse 21. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” She had faith in Him; she knew He could have healed Lazarus if He had come. But now, we see the limitations of her faith. Limited faith always restricts the Lord Jesus to space and time. She believed He could have healed Lazarus if He had been there. Apparently she was unaware that at other times, Jesus had shown His ability to heal from afar. He did not have to be physically present to heal. And she did not believe that He could do anything to help Lazarus now. She thinks His power was limited to the past. If only He had come four days earlier! She also knows that His power can work in the future – she says in verse 24 that she knows Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. She doesn’t have any doubt that Jesus could have done something before, or that He will do something later, but here and now, she thinks He is powerless to help Lazarus.

Some would look at verse 22 and say, “Oh no, even now she believed that He could raise Lazarus from the dead!” She says, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give you.” But this is not the same as saying, “Even now I know You can raise him back to life.” In fact, her protest in verse 39 demonstrates she did not believe this was possible. It had likely never entered her mind as a possibility. What she likely meant by this was just some sort of generic principle or platitude, like, “Even though You didn’t get here in time to help Lazarus, You could probably do something good for me now.”

We are often no different from Martha. In the midst of our grim predicaments, our faith becomes limited. We ask, “Why didn’t He do what I thought He would do? How could He possibly do anything now? If only He had acted sooner for me?” Or else we think only of the future, that one day down the road, He will make it alright, even if it is not until we get to heaven. And we soothe ourselves with generic spiritual platitudes, like, “Well, He must have had a purpose,” or “Maybe something good will come from it someday.” This kind of limited faith is of no comfort to us. Jesus does not comfort us with generic platitudes. He speaks to us with Gospel promises. He says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again!” This is not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by kind of talk. He is talking about unleashing His power here and now.

If we aren’t careful, these kinds of stories in the Bible can make us feel worse. After all, why would Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and restore him to earthly life, and not do the same for our loved one? Well, you see, when Jesus performed miracles, He was revealing spiritual, Gospel truths in the physical world. His words in verse 23, “Your brother will rise again,” were true for Lazarus in a unique way. Raising Lazarus from the dead was a physical sign of the spiritual truth of the Gospel that applies to every single one of us. And it is true for us in a far better way than it was for Lazarus. If you had four days in heaven, the last thing in the world you would want to do would be to leave and come back to this sin-stained world. And we wouldn’t want to bring anyone else back from the visible and tangible presence of God in the perfect and glorious environment of heaven to go through this world’s sin and suffering anymore, only to face death again. I feel sorry for Lazarus. He had barely had time to enjoy heaven, before the voice of Jesus came beckoning back here to all of this. Look, do me a favor – if I die, let me stay dead. I don’t want to come back to all of this. I love you, and I like being with you, but the deepest longing of my heart is to be with Jesus! Don’t try to bring me back here. If you think Lazarus had it better than your loved one because he got to come back to life, I think you should reconsider what all Lazarus had to leave behind when he had only such a short time to enjoy it!

Gospel promises comfort us, because they offer us something far better than another chance at life on earth. Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” The Gospel promises of Jesus say this: “He who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” That means that Lazarus, though he had been stinking up the tomb for four days, was not in fact dead at all. He was very much alive in heaven! D. L. Moody once said, “Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now.”[4] And that same thing is true for everyone who believes upon Christ. We are no less alive after death than we were before, and certainly a great deal more alive than ever! There’s a word for Lazarus there. Jesus is the Resurrection. Because He has conquered death through His own death and resurrection, those who believe in Him go from life to life.

But we do not have to wait until death to experience the comfort and power of Gospel promises. There is also a word for Martha here. Not only is Jesus the Resurrection, He is the Life. Thus, He says, “Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” There is hope and comfort for life and for living in the Gospel promises of Jesus. There is no life, in the truest sense, apart from Him, for apart from Him there is only the deadness of sin. We are made alive as we turn to Him in faith and trust. And we are made alive to a life that can never end. It is ours to experience here and now, not just then and there in heaven. The glory of heaven is that we will be with Christ. Here and now, believers in Him have a foretaste of that glory as He dwells in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Eternal life began in you the moment you met Jesus as Lord and Savior, and though you will pass through the valley of the shadow of death, you will escape it unharmed because eternal life cannot be quenched by death. There will never be a nanosecond of separation from Him, or from real eternal life for the one that believes in Jesus.

These are Gospel promises. Because Jesus died for our sins, and conquered sin and death and hell by His resurrection, eternal life can be ours. And it is available to us now. So, if you believe in Him, and you’re dead like Lazarus, you will still be alive. And if you believe in Him, and you are alive like Martha, you have life, real life, that death cannot take away from you. That is real comfort. That is the kind of comfort that can look down at an open casket in the funeral home and say, “My loved one might look dead, but he is alive.” That kind of comfort is able to say, “I watched her die, but I know she is more alive than ever before, because she is with Christ. And Christ is with me, in me, so I am alive too! My eternal life has already begun by faith in Him. I am raised from the death of sin, and alive in Christ. And that life will never end. One day they will put my body in one of these depressing boxes, but I won’t be there. I will be with Him in a way that is even more amazing than what I have with Him here and now.” If Gospel promises don’t comfort us in the midst of the grim predicaments of life’s disappointments, then what help can they really be? Gospel promises are the only comfort we have. Jesus comes to us in our grim predicaments and comforts us with Gospel promises. And that brings us to the final point …

III. Jesus confronts us with His glorious person (vv25-27)

This world and this life will hurt you deeply. That is what sin has done. It has brought ruin and destruction and none of us can escape or avoid it. You will hurt. And when you do, religious platitudes will not help you. Superstition and myth will not help you. Hope and comfort come to us through Gospel promises, and those promises point us to Jesus Himself. Jesus says to Martha in verse 27, “Do you believe this?” That is confrontational. He is getting very personal with her. We might say He’s gone from preachin’ to meddlin’. He is not asking her about popular opinion, but personal belief.

But what is He asking her? Does she believe what? Is He asking her if she believes religious facts? No. She already believed those things and had expressed them. She said in verse 24, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” That is a religious fact. Everybody in that day believed that. Well, almost everybody did. The Sadduccees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. That’s why they were sad-you-see! But aside from them, everyone in Israel believed in the resurrection of the dead on the last day. The Hebrew Bible had taught that plainly in several passages, but nowhere more clearly than in Job 19:25-26 – “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God.”

But Jesus is not pointing Martha to religious ideas. He does not ask her, “Do you believe that I am able to give resurrection and life?” He says that He IS the Resurrection and the Life. He confronts her with the question: “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that I am what I say I am? He is pointing her to His glorious person. What we have here in verse 25 is the fifth of seven “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel. In every single one of them, Jesus is declaring that He alone is the One who satisfies our deepest longings. Are you hungry? Eat something. But you are still hungry, because there is a hunger in us that nothing on earth can satisfy. Well, He says, “I am the Bread of Life.” Are you groping about in the darkness? He says, “I am the Light of the World.” Do you feel alone and isolated from God? He says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and “I am the Door of the sheep.” Are you afraid of death, stricken with grief, perplexed about the meaning of life, the deadliness of sin, and what lies beyond the grave? He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Every longing you have was implanted in you by God Himself. And every time you try to satisfy that longing with something other than Him, you end up disappointed. That’s by design. He loves you too much to let you experience satisfaction in anything other than Himself. So, Jesus tells us, “I am the one you need. Come to Me.” A race of people dead in their sins and every day drawing one step closer to the grave are desperately in need of resurrection and life! But resurrection and life cannot be found in anyone and anything else. He alone is the Resurrection and the Life.

And He confronts Martha with a simple question, “Do you believe this?” Notice her answer. Unlike before, she does not respond with a doctrinal recitation of religious facts. She expresses unwavering faith in the glorious person of Jesus Christ. She says, “Yes, Lord. I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” Her faith was fixed on Him personally. Her faith was far from perfect, as she demonstrates on more than one occasion here in this Chapter. She does not affirm more than she knows, but she affirms all that she knows. She knows Jesus, and believes Him to be who He has said He is: The Christ, the One who is able to deliver us from the bondage of sin; the Son of God, the divine God of the universe who has incarnated Himself as a man in human flesh; the one who comes into the world, in fulfillment of all God’s promises through the centuries.

We hear people say things about having faith all the time. They say you have to have faith. They say that they have faith, and that faith makes a difference in their lives. But the real question is, what is the object of your faith? Faith has to be anchored in something real if it is to be of any value at all to us. And the only real thing for us to anchor our faith in is the glorious person of Jesus Christ. He is not confronting us with a question about what facts we know or what ideas we believe. The confrontational question He asks is, “Do you believe that I am who I say I am?” Do you believe that by faith in Me a person is raised to a new level of life that is spiritual and that there is no end to this glorious relationship? Do you really believe in Me in terms of the higher truths I have taught about Myself and My mission?[5]

So, do you believe this? You and Jesus are the only people who can answer that question. You know what you believe about Him, and He knows better than you do what you believe about Him. So, if you don’t believe it, it is best to acknowledge it to Him. He is able to supply the faith we need to believe in Him. Ask Him for it. You may say, “I believe, but I have doubts. My faith is weak.” Say to Him what one man said in Mark’s Gospel, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” You may say, “I believe, but there is so much I don’t understand, and do not yet know.” Follow Martha’s example. Affirm what you do believe about Him. “I believe You are the Christ, the Son of God, even the One who comes into the world. And I trust in You as my Lord and Savior.” That is a faith He can build upon as you grow in grace and in knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18).

You won’t escape hard and painful days. You will have more of them than you want. If you haven’t already experienced them, you will experience grim predicaments. If you have, you will probably experience more of them before the end of your life on earth. But Jesus comes to us in our grim predicaments. In the midst of times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, He is there. And He comforts us with Gospel promises. He has overcome death for you by His cross and resurrection. Our help, our hope, our comfort, and our ultimate and eternal satisfaction is found only in His glorious person. Anchor your faith in Him, and He will carry you through. He will unite you to Himself and give you eternal life – a life that begins now, and a life that even death itself cannot take away from you.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Joining Jesus in His Work (John 11:7-16)


I recently read the memoir of Marty Sklar. You may not know who Marty Sklar is, but a good many of you have probably visited a place that he helped design and create – Walt Disney World. For the better part of his 54 year career at Disney, Marty Sklar was the head of the Imagineering team – the team behind the creation of Disney’s theme parks, resorts, and attractions. As a young man, he was invited to join the staff at Disney just prior to the opening of Disneyland. Though Walt Disney only lived to see one theme park opened in his lifetime, Marty Sklar is the only person who had a hand in the opening of all eleven of Disney’s theme parks around the world to date. Yet, you won’t find a Sklar-Land, Sklar-World, or any other reference to him when you visit a Disney park. And Marty Sklar never seemed to mind that. As the head of Imagineering, he often told his staff to keep one thing in mind: There is only one name on the gate, and it is none of ours – it is Walt Disney’s – and together the Imagineers could make that name great or mediocre in the entertainment world.[1]

As I thought about what a great privilege Marty Sklar had been given to join in the work of Walt Disney, I also thought about the even greater privilege that has been given to every Christian. We have been invited to join in the work of the greatest name of all – the name above all names (Php 2:9), the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 19:16), Jesus Christ. When He called you to believe in Him and know Him, He was calling you to serve Him, to join Him in His work in the world. His mission did not end at the Cross. It continues on today and reaches to every tribe and nation of earth, transforming lives as His message of redemption goes forth through those who join Him in His mission. His work in the world is being done through us. We are in the service of the King for the sake of His Kingdom. There is only one name on the door of this Kingdom, and it isn’t any one of ours. It is the name of Jesus, and we have been invited to join in His work to make His name glorious in all the earth.

In our text today, we find Jesus once again inviting His disciples to join Him in His work. Let’s remind ourselves of the context. As Chapter 11 begins, Jesus receives word that His dear friend Lazarus is sick. But Jesus did not go to Lazarus right away. He delayed going to Him until this point in verse 7. But He does not plan to go alone. He could, but He doesn’t. He desires to involve others in the mission. He says in verse 7, “Let us go to Judea again.” That is an invitation to be part of His work.

Jesus is still doing this today. We need to understand that God does not need our help! The Lord Jesus is perfectly able to do all He desires to do in the world without any of our involvement. But He will not do it that way. Because He loves us, He has determined to use us in His work. Every morning that we wake up alive, Jesus is calling out to us, as if to say, “Let us go do this thing together.” I believe that our text today has relevant application to what it means to join Jesus in His mission. There are at least four essentials for us as we join Jesus in His work that we find here in these verses.

I. We must not be deterred by risk (vv7-8).

Let us be clear right off the bat – serving King Jesus is not safe. Now, to be perfectly clear, serving Him is safer ultimately and eternally than not serving Him. But if you think that because you are serving Jesus that no harm can come your way, you are mistaken. I can point you to thousands of people throughout Church History who were exactly where God wanted them to be, doing exactly what God had called them to do, who were severely harmed and even killed in the line of duty, beginning with the Lord Jesus Himself. We would do well to remember the words of C. S. Lewis in his marvelous little work of fantasy, The Lion, the Witch, and theWardrobe. As Mr. Beaver tells the children about Aslan, the great lion who represents Jesus in the story, the children ask the question: “Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” And the response they receive from Mr. Beaver is, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”[2] So it is with the Lord Jesus, whom Aslan represents. Following Him and serving Him is by no means safe. But He is good. And He is the King. Better to embrace the risks on behalf of Good King Jesus than to not do so.

What do we mean by risk? A risk is an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss, injury, or death.[3] By nature, risk is something that we are averse to. We don’t like the idea of loss, injury, or death, so we are prone to avoid it whenever possible. So were the disciples. Notice their response to the invitation of Jesus. When He says “Let us go to Judea again,” they say, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” They are remembering what happened earlier in Chapter 10 after the Feast of Dedication. There, when Jesus made a clear and bold claim to be God, the people tried to stone him to death. Two things I want you to notice about their response: (1) They are exaggerating things a bit. “Just now” is a bit of an overstatement. It has been two to three months. Risk-averse people always tend to exaggerate things when they are trying to slide out of it. And thus (2) notice that they are trying to slide out of it. Jesus said “Let us go.” They said, “Are You going there again?” Simple answer: No, He is not going there again; We are going there again. He has no plans to go there without them, and He isn’t going to let them slide out of this.

When we try to slide out of risk, we are unwittingly exposing a little hypocrisy within ourselves. Think about it. If we were to avoid all risk, we would never get in an automobile, because we never know when a terrible accident might occur. We would never board an airplane, because planes can crash, they can get hijacked, we have even learned recently that they can disappear completely in mid-air. We would be very careful about what we eat and drink, because we don’t know that we might not get food poisoning. We would want to go to the doctor more often, or maybe just check in permanently to a hospital, but then again, we never know when a staph-infection might occur. If we wanted to completely risk-proof ourselves, we might never get out of bed. But then again, as we saw in the news not long ago, we never know when a sinkhole might open up and swallow our whole house. The thing is, we take risks every day. We like to pick and choose them though. But is it not hypocritical for us to willingly take risks on a regular basis, and yet refuse to take them when we are invited to join King Jesus on His mission?

This comes up every time we plan to do something in service to King Jesus. Someone will say, “Is it safe to go to South Asia or the Middle East? Is it safe to be a part of the night club ministry?” Well, in point of fact, it is not safe. But neither is it always safe to go to the grocery store. Might the trip to Judea go badly for Jesus and His disciples? Yes. In fact, it will end in Jesus’ death and the scattering of the disciples. But never is a risk more worth taking than we are gloriously and graciously invited to join King Jesus in His work. When you join Jesus in His work, is there risk? Certainly. Will you always be safe? By no means. Could you get sick, injured, persecuted, or killed? Yes. Then why would you would take Him up on this invitation? Because those things could happen to you every day as you do things far less significant than journeying with Jesus in His mission. So, what the disciples had to learn, and what we have to learn, is that it is essential for us to not be deterred by risk. He is worth all the risk that is involved when we join Him in His work. That’s the first essential we see in this passage. Now, here is the second …

II. We must walk in the Light and work in the day (vv9-10).

Recently, a number of you experienced a rather unexpected, prolonged power outage due to the ice storm. Times like that remind us that we often take for granted our dependency on electricity. I can’t tell you the number of times I tried to turn on a light switch or the television while the power was out. We are used to having light any time we need it. One of the most difficult adjustments to make for our mission teams when we travel abroad is the unreliable availability of power in many parts of the world. In Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, for example, power is out every day for 8-12 hours, and you never know which hours those might be. If it occurs in the nighttime hours, there is nothing to do but sit around in the dark. The same is true for much of the world today, and what we often forget is that for the entire world, this was the way it always was until the last hundred years or so. We might wonder how people functioned when there were no lights after sundown. Well, they walked while they had light, and they worked in the daylight hours. At night, they went home and went to bed.

Jesus says this as a general truth in verse 9. “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.” In both the Jewish and Roman cultures of the first century, a twenty-four hour day was divided into the time of daylight and the time of darkness. Everyone knew this. They worked in daytime and walked while there was light, because after dark, they could not work, and traveling would be exceedingly difficult. On the surface, it might seem like this has absolutely nothing to do with the point of the text, but in point of fact, it is an essential for joining Jesus in His work. You see, Jesus knew that His life was in His Father’s hands. He would not die before the predetermined time set by His Father. As long as that time had not yet come, it was in a sense “daytime,” time for Him to work. When the time came for His death, it would be “nighttime.” But it was not dark yet, metaphorically speaking. He had to maximize how He spent the limited time He had been granted by the Father, and work while He could. The enemies of Jesus down in Judea could not shorten His life by one minute from what His Father had planned, and the cautious reserve of His disciples could not lengthen His life one minute beyond that plan. They need not worry what will happen to Jesus in Judea when He returns, because nothing will happen to Him unless and until the Father has ordained it.

Now, in saying this, Jesus is also encouraging His followers that the same is true for them. And it is true of us. Did you know that God already knows how long you will live? You do not know, but He does. He knew what your last day of life would be before you had your first day of life. Psalm 139:16 says, “In Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.”  So, in the same sense that Jesus could serve the Lord without fear, knowing that He would die until the Father’s predetermined hour came, His followers can as well. The disciples do not have to fear Judea. You do not have to fear what Jesus is calling you to do. When that last day that has been written in God’s book for your life comes, it won’t matter where you are, what you are doing, or how you go. You cannot die a moment too soon or a moment too late, for God has already ordained the number of your days. Since you don’t know how many of them you have left, it is imperative to join Jesus in His work and make the most of each day that comes along. We have daylight left in our lives! Let’s not waste it sitting around as if we were in darkness. Let’s walk in the Light and do the work of the Lord. Jesus is the Light of the World, and as long as we walk with Him, we can join Him in His work. Let’s not worry that something could happen to us. Let’s not make excuses about why we cannot do it. Let’s use the rest of our days to labor for Him as He has invited us.

Now notice the third essential for joining Jesus in His work.

III. Do what He calls you to do, and trust Him to do what He alone can do (vv11-14).

In Exodus 3, God speaks to Moses through the burning bush invites him to join in His work. He says, “I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land.” Notice the first thing that Moses says to God in response. He says, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” You see, Moses misunderstood God. God had not said a word about Moses doing anything. God said He had come down to do this. He was merely inviting Moses to be a part of the work He was going to do. So, the Lord speaks again to Moses and says, “Certainly I will be with you.” You see, Moses knew that He could not do all that was necessary to bring the people out of bondage. What he did not know was that God never expected him to do more than was possible for him. Moses was to do what God called him to do, and to trust God to do what only God can do.

In our text in John 11, Jesus has invited His disciples to join Him in His work. He says, “Let us go to Judea again.” But then notice how in verse 11, He changes the subject from us to I. He says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” Jesus was using the language of sleep to describe Lazarus’ condition, as the Bible often does to speak of the death of the righteous. But the disciples didn’t get it. They thought Jesus meant, you know, sleep. So they again try to wiggle out of the invitation by saying, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” In other words, “Let’s just leave him alone for now. After all he’s been through, he needs his rest. Let’s don’t disturb him. He will wake up feeling like a million bucks again soon.” So Jesus responds, and the Bible says He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

Dead? That’s a whole different issue from sleep! I mean, if he is just asleep, you know, we could wake him up. But he’s dead! There is nothing we can do to help a man if he is dead! If you have seen the movie “The Princess Bride,” you will remember that scene where the hero Westley is believed to be dead, and so his friends bring him to Miracle Max to see what can be done for him. Miracle Max, played by Billy Crystal, says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do. … Go through his clothes and look for loose change.” Well, for Lazarus, you see, he was all dead. There was absolutely nothing that any of the disciples could do for him. Even if they could have recruited Miracle Max, all he could do for Lazarus would be to search his clothes for loose change. He was DEAD. But Jesus never called or expected the disciples to bring Lazarus back from the dead. He said that was what He was going to do. They didn’t have to do that. What was their part? To go to Judea with Him. That they could do.

Friends, the invitation to join Jesus in His mission often strikes us as intimidating – even terrifying! After all, the lost souls with whom we have been commissioned to share the good news of Jesus are as dead spiritually as Lazarus was physically. When someone comes to believe in Jesus, it is as though they were being raised from death to new life. Who among us can do that? There is not a single one of us who can! But He did not ask us to raise the dead. He did not ask us to save anyone. Jesus does not ask us to do anything more than follow Him, live for Him, love Him, love others, and speak the truth in love about Him. That, we can do, and all the more when we consider that His Spirit indwells and empowers us. We do not even have to do it in our own strength. He fills us with His own supernatural and divine power to do what He has called us to do. But the miracle part, the raising of the dead and the saving of souls, well, that is His part. He didn’t call us to do His job. He called us to join Him as He does it. We do what He calls us to do, and we trust Him to do what only He can do. That is essential if you are going to join Jesus in His work.

Now, we come to the fourth and final essential. If you are going to join Jesus in His work, …

IV. Maturing faith and obedience at all costs are necessary (vv15-16).

Perhaps you think that you have not grown in your faith enough to really serve the Lord. Maybe you think you are too new in the Christian life, too inexperienced, or maybe you think you are not quite “holy enough” to be involved in Jesus’ work. Well, here is the good news. He is not inviting perfect people to join Him in the work. That’s good news because none of us are. The disciples were far from perfect when Jesus invited them to go with Him to Judea. If Jesus was determined to only use perfect people, He wouldn’t be able to find anyone to invite to join His mission. He does not expect you to be perfect, or for you to be a well-seasoned veteran, or for you to be “fully mature” as a Christian to take part in His work. But you must be open to being stretched in your faith, and allowing Him to grow you and continue the process of maturing you as you serve Him.

Notice in verses 14 and 15, Jesus says (quite puzzlingly), “Lazarus is dead and I am glad.” Wait, what? He is glad Lazarus is dead? No, keep reading. “Lazarus is dead and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there.” His delay in going to Lazarus is now going to benefit to the disciples – He is not glad for His own sake, or for poor Lazarus’ sake, but for the sake of His disciples. Why? He says, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Now, they already believed in Him, so He isn’t talking about initial faith. He is talking about them advancing in their faith. As they join Him in His work, their weak and imperfect faith will be strengthened and matured by what they see and experience. And the same is true for us. You might think you need to attain to a certain level of spiritual maturity before you can serve the Lord, but I am telling you from experience that you cannot progress beyond a certain level of immaturity until you join Him in His work. You will see and experience things as you serve Him that will stretch and strengthen your faith in Him to a degree you never thought possible!  Jesus invites His disciples, and all of us, to join Him in His work so that our faith might be strengthened as we engage the mission with Him.

We see a surprising example of this kind of maturing faith in one of the disciples. When you think of Thomas, what comes to mind? Doubting Thomas, right? We always tend to associate him with that post-resurrection encounter where he refused to believe that Jesus was risen unless He could see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands. It is unfortunate that Thomas gets such a bad rap. When we see him here, we don’t find a skeptical doubter. We find a person who is committed to joining Jesus in His work and obeying Him at all costs. It is Thomas who says in verse 16, “Let us also go, so that we may die with Him.” He is the first to respond to the invitation.

Now, in fairness, we need to admit that we don’t have an audio recording of this statement. More than a few have come away from this assuming that Thomas is being overly pessimistic about future prospects. In my mind, I can hear him saying this kind of like Pooh’s friend Eeyore: “Well … come on … we might as well go … and die with Him.” But is it not also possible that Thomas could have spoken these words with confident faith, like a warrior enjoining others to march with him into battle? “Let us also go! Let us go and die with Him!” How exactly he said it, we will never know. Probably somewhere between those two views. But even assuming the worst of ole’ Thomas, let’s give credit where it is due. Even if he is being pessimistic about the whole venture, he does not let that stand in the way of his obedience to the Lord Jesus’ invitation. Thomas is wise enough to know that it is better to journey with Jesus, even if the path leads into the valley of shadow of death, than to take the ultimate risk of journeying without Him. The cost of discipleship is high. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship can be summed up in one word: “Suffering.” It will mean doing things that are not comfortable, popular, or safe. It could mean death. But the cost of discipleship is not nearly so high as the cost of “undiscipleship.” A stubborn, disobedient spirit that refuses to follow Jesus is a mark of unbelief, and the consequence of unbelief is dying in one’s sins and entering hell for eternity. Better to go with Jesus and face death and find heaven, than to go it alone apart from Him and find hell.

Thomas wasn’t excited about what might lie ahead. For all we know, he was reluctant and afraid. But, he was willing to obey the Lord at all costs, and that is a mark of maturing faith. Jesus might call you to join Him in His work in a dangerous place, doing a risky thing. He doesn’t expect you to always be jovial about that. It is a fool who rushes headlong into danger without considering the possible outcomes. If you are timid and terrified, it is perfectly understandable. Jesus already knows it, so you might as well be honest with Him about it. But we must not allow our timidity and trepidation to become a barrier to obedience. A willingness to obey Him at all costs – even when the cost is frighteningly high – is a mark of a maturing faith. Those two things, maturing faith and obedience at all costs, are absolutely necessary essentials if we are going to join Jesus in His work.

There is no greater privilege in the universe than for the Lord Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, to invite us to join Him in His work. We don’t deserve that privilege. We have done nothing to earn it. Frankly, He doesn’t even need us. He could probably do His work better without us. But He has sovereignly and graciously determined to do His work with us, and through us. When He called you to follow Him – to trust in Him for salvation – He was calling you to join Him in His work of extending His Kingdom to all nations. There is no higher calling than this, no greater privilege. If you would join Him in His work, you must know: there will be risk, but do not be deterred by it. Walk in the light and work while it is day, for your life will not come to an end a moment before or after the Lord has already determined it to. While you have life, use it to glorify Him. Do what He has called you to do, and trust Him to do what only He can do. And continue growing into maturity in your faith. That process continues even as you journey with Him into His work. As you mature in the faith, your desire to obey Him at all costs becomes greater and greater, leading you to say with Thomas, “Even if joining Jesus in His work leads to death, let us do it.” It’s not like you are going to avoid death by disobeying Him. Let there be no regrets of things left undone for Him when you stand before Him.



Easter Imperatives



For the April church newsletter, I have submitted the following article. Much of the content is drawn from James Montgomery Boice's message, "Four Words for Easter Sunday," found in The Christ of the Empty Tomb (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2010), 187-196).

As we turn our thoughts toward Holy Week (Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Resurrection Day), I would like for us to consider what we might call "the first Easter sermon" ever preached. In Matthew 28, when the women came to the tomb to complete the preparations of Jesus' body for burial, they were met by an angel who said these words: "Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you" (Matt 28:5-7). The great announcement of Easter is that Jesus is not "here" (in the tomb), "for He has risen." Flowing out from that announcement are four imperatives that are as relevant for us as they were for the women at the tomb.

I. Come! Throughout the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus, He was calling men and women to come to Him. For instance, in Matthew 11:28, He says, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." The invitation to come to Jesus has gone out in all the earth, and many of us are among those who have responded by coming to believe upon Him. Have you? You can do nothing else of any significance in life until you come to Him.

II. See! The angel said, "See the place where the Lord lay." Some might consider it morbid to enter into a tomb and look upon the place where a corpse had been laid to rest. There are, however, five reasons that we should "see" with the eye of our mind that place: A) It reminds us of Christ's condescension. Jesus is the God who became a man, and who subjected Himself to all of the experiences of humanity, including death. He fully identified with us in His incarnation, and became obedient, even unto death (Philippians 2:8). B) It reminds us of the horror of sin. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). When we consider the horrific death of Jesus, we must remember that these were not the "wages" due for His sin, for He was sinless. These were the wages due to each of us. If we want to consider how God views our sin, we need look no further than the cross of Jesus Christ. C) It reminds us of our future. As we look upon the place where the Lord lay, we are reminded that someone will lay us to rest in a grave at some point in the future. Unless the Lord returns first, all of us have a grave in our future. D) It proclaims to us that death has been defeated in Jesus' resurrection. As we look at the place where He lay, we find that He is not there. He is risen! He has defeated sin, death, and hell by His almighty power in His triumphant resurrection. E) It reminds us that those who belong to Christ will rise as He did. When death has delivered its final blow to us, we who are in Christ shall rise in victory with Him, "Christ the firstfruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:23).

III. Go! There is work to be done, and those who come to the Lord Jesus by faith and considered the significance of His empty tomb must labor for the Master until He calls us home. In a sense, every Sunday is Easter for the Christian. We worship on Sunday to commemorate His resurrection. But the holiest moment of our weekly worship service is not the call to worship, the choral anthem, or even the sermon. The holiest moment is the benediction, for then we are commissioned to out into the world and labor for the Lord Jesus as His body in the earth. As important as it is for us to "come" to worship on Sunday morning, it is as important for us to "go" out into the world to serve Him "between Sundays." There is no limit on what we can do for Him. Anything we do can be done for Him if our perspective is right in the doing of it. The best thing we can do for Him as we go is that fourth and final imperative in the angelic message ...

IV. Tell! The Gospel of Christ crucified and risen is good news, and good news must be shared. The world around is literally dying to hear this good news. But what shall we tell them? Tell them that Jesus died for their sins. Tell them that He is risen. Tell them that death has been defeated. Tell them that God has made this Jesus who was crucified both Lord and Christ, and that by believing, they might have life in His name (Acts 2:36; John 20:31). The empty tomb is the evidence that Jesus is risen and that He is able to save them forevermore.

We find these same imperatives throughout the Gospels. As Philip sought to introduce Nathanael to Jesus, his simple message was "Come and see." Jesus final words to the church, the Great Commission" were, "Go and tell" (Matthew 28:18-20). These are the imperatives that should define our Christian lives. Have you come? Have you seen? Have you gone? Have you told? As we move toward the celebration of Jesus' death and resurrection this month, commit yourself to carrying out these imperatives daily.