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.

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