Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Jesus: The Lord of Life and Death (John 11:33-45)

Just a few weeks ago, on March 13, Walter Williams of Lexington, Mississippi, died. Again. On February 26, his family members had watched him breathe what they thought was his final breath. He was zipped up in a body bag and taken to the funeral home for preparations. Several hours later, as funeral home staff prepared to move Mr. Williams body to the embalming table, they began noticing noise and movement inside the body bag. When they opened the bag, Williams opened his eyes. The coroner supposes that his pacemaker had malfunctioned, leaving him with no pulse at the time he was declared dead, and that some hours later, it kicked in again, jump-starting his heart just moments before he was embalmed. A few weeks later, he died AGAIN, this time, for good. Looking back on the first event, the coroner pronounced it a miracle.[1] If I were him, that is probably what I would have said too. It sounds better that way. In reality, it seems that it was more mistake than miracle. What we read about Lazarus was a miracle. It was not a medical malfunction or a coroner error that made him appear to be dead. He was DEAD. And He was raised by Jesus, who is the Lord of Life and Death. That is not just an empty claim. Jesus provided a powerful demonstration of the validity of His claim, and we see it here in the text.

I. Jesus’ love demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death (vv33-36)

Last Sunday, we looked at a portion of this text and talked about how Jesus intervenes in our grief. We mentioned that Jesus confronts our grief with sovereign initiative, by coming to us and calling for us in the midst of our grief. That is a great comfort, to know that we are not alone in our grieving, and that the Lord Jesus is there with us and He is reaching out to us. We also mentioned that Jesus responds to our grief with surprising emotions. We looked at the Greek word that underlies that ambiguous English phrase, “deeply moved” in verses 33 and 38, and discovered that it really means something like “anger,” or “outrage.” He is outraged at the cause of our grief. The cause of all of our suffering, sickness, death, and grief is sin. We have inherited corruptible bodies because of Adam, and are subject to sickness and death because sin is at work within us, destroying us from the moment of conception, even as its effects are corrupting the entire earth. As Paul says in Romans 8:22-23, “we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.” Death is sin’s final blow on human beings, and the Bible calls it an enemy. Therefore, Jesus is outraged at the cause of our grief, because our suffering and death is the work of sin destroying God’s image bearers on the earth.

We also looked at the other emotions Jesus demonstrated here in this text. We noticed that He was troubled by our response to grief. Mary was grieving as if she had no hope beyond the grave for her brother, and she had begun to succumb to the temptation to question the Lord and His goodness and love. The other mourners were putting on a show of artificial and hypocritical sentimentality. It was troubling for the Lord to see this, even as He is troubled when He finds the same within us. Then we noticed from those two profound words, “Jesus wept,” that Jesus weeps with us in sympathy for our grief, mingling His tears with ours.

Now, as comforting and encouraging as those realities about Jesus’ intervention in our grief may be, if we believe that this is all that Jesus can do for us when sin and suffering destroy us in death and grind us in grief, then we have greatly missed the point. I want you to notice something that is said by the bystanders here as they see the emotions that Jesus is displaying. Look at verse 36: “See how He loved Him!” They have arrived at the right conclusion. Jesus did love Lazarus; it is plainly stated in verses 3 and 5. But they arrived at the right conclusion the wrong way.

Do you remember when you were in Math class in school, and the teacher would require you to show your work? The teacher wanted to know, not just that you could come up with the right answer, but that you could get to it the right way. Well, if these folks have come up with the right answer, how did they get to it? They based it on His emotions. They looked at Jesus’ tears and His countenance and concluded that He must have really loved Lazarus. He did, but His love is not chiefly manifested in His tears. His love for Lazarus, and His love for Mary and Martha, and even His love for you and me, is supremely manifested in that He is there.

When I say “there,” I don’t mean “there,” as in, “there with them while they grieve,” although that is certainly true. I mean “there,” as in, “there in Bethany, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem.” He loves Lazarus, and Mary and Martha, and you and me, so much that He is “there,” just outside of Jerusalem at this moment in history. Why is that significant? Ask His disciples. The last time He was in this part of the country, people tried to put Him to death. In verse 8, they tried to stop Him from going back there. They said, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” You and I might say, “Hmm. That’s too bad about Lazarus, but I just can’t go back there. It isn’t safe.” Jesus didn’t say that. Thanks be to God! JESUS DID NOT SAY THAT! He came, knowing that it would be a one-way trip. This is how we know that He loves us: not because He comes back to stand around the tomb and weep over death, but because He comes back to do business with death.

We are barely half way through John, but the remaining portion of the book takes place in the course of one week: the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. In John 12:12, we start reading about Palm Sunday. The raising of Lazarus is the final event prior to the beginning of “Holy Week,” which leads up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus had come on a one-way trip to die. But in His dying, He was loving us. Paul says that God demonstrates His love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). In His dying, He was dealing with our sins and their penalty (death) fully and finally. He came to take our place in death, to take our sins upon Himself and die as our substitute, bearing the wrath of God that our sins deserve in Himself. And by His resurrection, He slays death, and sin, and hell forever for those who trust in Him. Death is a defeated foe because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Oh, these people are so right! “See how He loved him!” Indeed, see how Jesus loved him, and how He loves us! But these people are also very wrong. He does not demonstrate His love because He has come to shed tears. He demonstrates His love most supremely in that He has come to shed blood for us! He has come to lay down His life so that the final enemy, death, can be defeated for us all. By His death and resurrection, Jesus was removing the sting from death for all who trust in Him. He demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death by loving us all the way to the cross.

II. Jesus’ glory demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death (vv37-44)

There were others standing around the tomb who were saying, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” (v37). It’s a fair question I suppose. They aren’t blaspheming Jesus; they recognize that He had demonstrated great power in the past when He healed the blind man in John 9. It is a question that is similar to the expression that both Mary and Martha present to the Lord in verses 21 and 32: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” These statements are similar, but there is one difference. The bystanders are talking about His power – could He not have prevented Lazarus from dying? Did He have that power? And the answer is, “Yes, of course, He could have prevented Lazarus from dying.” But Mary and Martha’s statement concerns, not His power, but His will. They assume He has the power, but they also make a presumption about His will. “He not only could have, He would have prevented Lazarus from dying if He had been here.”  The difference between His power and His will is important for us to know when we pray. There is no situation that we bring to Him that is beyond His power. If you wonder, “Can Jesus …?”, the answer is always, “Yes He can.” If the question is, “Will Jesus …?”, well, that is a matter of divine mystery in some cases. Just because He can does not mean that He always will. And we simply do not know if He would have prevented Lazarus from dying if He had been there. After all, Jesus is not limited by space; He can heal from afar, even as He did on other occasions. He could have prevented Lazarus from dying without coming to Him, but He didn’t. He doesn’t always do what we ask or expect Him to do, even though it is something He could do. This much we know, He will always do that which most vividly displays His glory and that of His Father. In verse 4, Jesus said concerning 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 that is exactly what He is getting ready to do here, in order to demonstrate powerfully that He is Lord over Life and Death.

Jesus asks, “Where have you laid him?”, and the people answer, wisely, “Lord, come and see” (v34). You and I would be tempted to say, “No, Lord, we can’t go there. It is too painful. You don’t need to see that. Let’s have some closure here and just stay away.” But the people said to Jesus, “Lord, come and see.” And so He came to this tomb of Lazarus, a tomb very much like the one He Himself would be placed in just over a week later. And He says, “Remove the stone.” Now they protest. Martha says, in my paraphrase, “Jesus, are you crazy? There is a rotting corpse in there!” She says, “Lord by this time there will be a stench for He has been dead four days!” Jesus doesn’t mind. What is it that you don’t want Him to see in your life? Do you have some sin, some hardship, some monumental grief in your life that you do not want to see because you think it is so filthy? Say with these mourners, “Lord, come and see.” Listen, as He says to you, “Remove the stone. I am about to show you my glory!” He says in verse 40, “Did I not say to you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

We know what is going to happen. We just read it a few moments ago. But, they don’t know what is about to happen. We can imagine their sense of shock and horror as that weighty stone is removed. But then Jesus shows His glory. He calls out with a loud voice, “Lazarus come forth!” And the Bible says, rather understatedly, “The man who died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth” (vv43-44). This man who was dead is now alive and well with them, and they have seen the awesome glory of Jesus!

His glory was manifested in His unlimited power. No stone or stench could stand against Him. No time or tomb could hinder Him. He is Lord of Life and Death and He is able to bring the dead to life. His glory was manifested in His unfathomable person. Notice His unique relationship with the Father that is shown in His prayer. He speaks to God as to His own Father, and speaks of the intimacy that He has with Him in prayer: “You have heard Me; I knew that You always hear Me.” Notice His unique revelation of the Father. In His prayer, He knows that He is being heard by people around Him, and He says, “Because of the people standing around, I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” Now, there is a lesson and a warning here for those of us who pray aloud in public. Remember that Jesus warned against praying so as to be heard by men, like the Pharisees did. Our intention in public prayer is never to impress people with ourselves by using flowery language and meaningless repetition. That is not what Jesus says He is doing here. He is praying aloud, in their hearing, in order to reveal something of Himself and His Father. So, when we pray aloud, we must not forget that our words will impact those who hear us. Let us choose our words, therefore, so as to make known the glory of God-in-Christ. Jesus was revealing something to them about Himself and His Father, namely that He had been sent by the Father. He was revealing His glory as He prayed and acted there at the tomb of Lazarus. His glory demonstrates that He is Lord over Life and Death.

Now, you might say, “Well, where was He when my loved one died? He didn’t crash the funeral and upset the outcome. They are gone, and they aren’t coming back!” Would that have been glorious, if He had done for your loved one like He did for Lazarus? You say, “Absolutely! What greater glory could He show than to put funeral homes and cemeteries out of business!” Well, you see, Jesus never promised that He would bring the dead back to life here and now. He promised something better, something more glorious. How could He do something better or more glorious than raising someone from the dead? We have to broaden the lens a bit on the Gospel of John to understand how the raising of Lazarus, or the raising of any dead person, brings a limited glory to Christ, but He is glorified even more greatly in something better that He has done.

Turn over to the next Chapter (John 12:23-24). Jesus will tell His disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Do you see what He is saying? He is saying, after being glorified by raising Lazarus, that He still had not been glorified in the fullest sense. He was going to be glorified by His death. Again, turn to John 13:31-33. After the Last Supper with His disciples, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately. Little children, I am with you a little while longer.” He is saying, “I am about to be taken away from you in death, and in that death, I will be glorified.” Once more, turn to John 17, and look at how Jesus begins His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of His death: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (17:1). He goes on in verse 5, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” Over and over again, Jesus spoke of the greatest demonstration of His glory being found in His own death, and His subsequent resurrection.

The raising of Lazarus was just a foretaste of glory. The greatest glory is demonstrated in Jesus’ own death and resurrection, by which He definitely validates His claim to be Lord over Life and Death. In the dying and raising of Lazarus, sure, a family was temporarily reunited. By the death and resurrection of Jesus, a fallen race of humanity was eternally redeemed. By this is He most greatly glorified. And He says to us, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will SEE the glory of God?” (11:40). Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you have better promises than Lazarus had. Lazarus was brought back from death to earthly life, to once again inhabit a corruptible, sinful body and to live in a fallen world, only to die again. But Jesus conquered death forever, and was raised in an imperishable body, a glorified body that is fit for eternity and fit for the glory of heaven. And that is exactly how He has promised to raise you, and your loved one, and all who die believing in Christ. That’s what He means when He says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, anyone who believes in Me will live even if He dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (11:25-26). You will inhabit a glorified body and you will see with those glorified eyes the very manifestation of the unmediated glory of God. You have to be glorified to see that. No one can look upon God’s glory in that pure and unmediated way and survive the encounter. You would be incinerated by the very sight of it. That’s why we get new bodies, bodies like Jesus had in His resurrection, so that we can stand before God and see His glory without being destroyed by it. That is a far better promise than a few more days or a few more weeks or years here on earth in a corruptible body. You will see glory. Because God has glorified the Lord Jesus Christ through His suffering and death and resurrection. If you believe, you will see the glory of God. And when you believe that, you know that He is Lord of Life and Death.

III. Jesus’ purpose demonstrates that He is Lord of Life and Death (vv42, 45)

Notice when Jesus prays, He says that He has chosen His words, “so that they may believe that You sent Me.” That word that is translated as sent has the sense of being sent to perform some specific task. So, get this, Jesus doesn’t just want us to believe that He is a man who came from God, who came from heaven, but that He came for a specific purpose. And the death and raising of Lazarus tells us something about that purpose. We come to find out through this amazing thing that Jesus did for Lazarus that Lazarus is not the point! The same is true for every miracle Jesus did! The thing Jesus did, in and of itself, was not the point. The point was always in what Jesus was revealing about Himself through the miracle. His miracles revealed something about His divine nature, His sovereign power, His unique person, or as in this case, He redemptive mission. That’s the point. It’s a picture – not a pencil sketch but a High-Definition, 3-Dimensional picture. So, here’s the three dimensions that Jesus is revealing about His purpose – His redemptive mission – here in this miracle.

First, there is a spiritual dimension. You see, what Jesus did for Lazarus was, in some ways unique. It was not like anything He did for anyone else. There were a few others who were raised from the dead, and in spite of their similarities, there were uniquenesses. In the physical realm, like no one else has or ever will experience, these miracles were unique. But, the physical realm is not the point, the spiritual realm is. You see, in the spiritual realm, what Jesus did for Lazarus is not unique. It is the same thing that He promises to do for every single one of us, and what He indeed has done already for a good many of us. You see, every single one of us comes into this world as dead spiritually as Lazarus was physically. The Bible says that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. There is only one solution for death, and that is resurrection. And this is what the Lord Jesus has come to do – to give new life to people who are dead in their sins. Wrap it up, hide it behind a stone, do whatever you want to about it, but in our natural state, we are rotting, stinking spiritual corpses. But Jesus has come to roll away that stone that seals our hard, dead hearts and call us back to life, and He alone has the power to do it. Many of you heard the Lord Jesus call your name and bid you come forth. Others of you may be hearing Him call to you today. He is saying, “Come to Me and live!” That’s the spiritual dimension of this miracle.

Then there is a Christological dimension. Lazarus foreshadows what will happen to Jesus, but it will happen in a far better way in Jesus. Like Lazarus, He will die. But His is a better death. Lazarus died because he was sick, because sin was at work in him, just like it is at work in each of us. Paul says that “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). So, in a sense, when Lazarus dies, and when we all die, we are dying for our own sins. But Jesus never sinned. So why did He die? In Jesus death, He was becoming our substitute in death. He died for our sins. He took our sins upon Himself and bore them under the outpouring of God’s divine justice that we all deserve. He died the death that Lazarus could not die, and that you and I cannot die. By His death, He defeats death, for He triumphs over it through His resurrection. Lazarus was raised, but not like Jesus! Jesus was raised with a transformed and glorified body that would never again see death. Lazarus would die again, Jesus never will. He is alive forevermore. As Peter says in 1 Peter 3:18, “Christ … died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” So, what Jesus is doing for Lazarus here foreshadows that greater death and resurrection for which He came, for which He was sent by the Father in the world. He was sent to die, so that He might be raised, so that we might be saved.

Then there is an eschatological dimension to this picture of Jesus’ purpose. Eschatological – that’s a big word, but don’t let it scare you. It the theological term we use to refer to the end of all things, the last days. What Jesus was doing for Lazarus is what He has promised to do for all who trust in Him, in a far better way. Four times in John Chapter 6, Jesus made this promise:
6:39 – “This is the will of Him who sent me, that of all He has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.”
6:40 – “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”
6:44 – “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”
6:54 – “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

He can do this because He is Lord of Life and Death, and here at the tomb of Lazarus, He proves it. You will not be raised like Lazarus, but like Jesus – in a renewed, transformed, glorified body that will never be subject to death and decay. You will live forever on the other side of death in the presence of God-in-Christ, if you have trusted in Him to save you. When Jesus made this promise of never ending life to Martha in verses 25 and 26, He asked her very directly, “Do you believe this?” When He prayed in verse 42, He prayed that people would believe this about Him. And verse 45 says that “many … believed in Him.” Jesus never fails. What He sets out to do, He does. He intended that others would believe in Him as a result of what they saw at the tomb of Lazarus, and they did. He intended that many more would believe in Him as a result of what He did at His own tomb, defeating death forever. And many have, and many more will. And for those who do, their sickness will not end in death, as Jesus said in John 11:4. It will end with you seeing the glory of God face to face for all eternity.

Because Jesus is Lord of Life and Death, the writer of Hebrews says that He is the “mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.” Jesus doesn’t promise that you or loved ones won’t get sick and die. He doesn’t promise that He will show up at every funeral and give more earthly life to those who have died. He promises something better. For those who believe on Him, this is the promise: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away … Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:3-4). Isn’t that a better promise? It is yours, if you have trusted in Christ.

He is the Lord of Life and Death. He has destroyed death at its root by dealing with sin forever through the blood of His cross. He can be your Lord. He died your death so that you might have His life. Have you come to Him? If so, you can rest in His promise. Death is nothing for you to fear. We don’t celebrate it; it is still an enemy. But it is a defeated enemy because of what He has done for us. It is not the end. There is far more, and far better, life awaiting you on the other side of death if you have come to believe on Him. If you have never have, you can today. He stands on the other side of the stone, calling out for you to arise and come forth. He has removed every obstacle that stands between you and life everlasting. He is Lord of Life and Death. Trust Him to be Lord of your life, yes, and even Lord of your death today.

[1] Various online news reports. 

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