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.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Suffering in the Love of Christ (John 11:1-6)


Suffering In the Love of Christ
John 11:1-6

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 Lebanon, Pennsylvania. 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:

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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 Philadelphia 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.”[4] 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.