In 2013, I made a choice to believe in the resurrection.
Two years earlier, my father-in-law, Alan Shates, was diagnosed with ALS, a disease for which there is no known cure. As we watched this disease slowly strip Alan of his life, we prayed that the end would come quickly. But I found myself doing a lot of thinking. I asked, “Do I really believe all this resurrection stuff?”
Of course, I had professed to believe in the resurrection years before. I’ve heard countless sermons on the resurrection of Jesus. I know Jesus said in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life.” I’ve read these words, even preached these words. But reading and preaching these words are altogether different than actually believing in them, than “faithing” in them.
Because believing these words…well, that changes everything.
When we “faith” in Jesus as the resurrection and the life, we no longer grieve as those who have no hope. We trust in the promise of someday, the promise of eternal life. But to faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life is to find eternal life today as well. Belief in the resurrection means that we cannot garb ourselves in grave clothes any longer because we have experienced resurrection power in the present. And again, that power makes all the difference.
Believing in these words helps me perpetually take off the grave clothes of grief and despair. Sure, there are times when I find those articles of clothing draped over my shoulders again – because this is our natural reaction when we lose someone we love. But belief in Jesus gifts me with the power to choose, the power to set aside the grave clothes and to be arrayed in Christ.
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Take off the grave clothes.”
Today, we will focus on a man whose name means “God is my help.” He probably never realized the full truth of his name until the day he took off his own grave clothes. This man is Lazarus and his story is found in John 11.
As the chapter begins, we learn that Lazarus is sick. He lives in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem, a suburb of the big city. His sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” The Gospels indicate that Jesus was especially close to this family. But when he hears that Lazarus is sick, Jesus doesn’t immediately set out for Bethany.
V4, When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Of course, Jesus is right. Lazarus’s illness doesn’t end in death; it actually leads through death to what lies on the other side. In the case of Lazarus, what lies on the other side of death is new life in Jesus.
V5-6, Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days. This is an important detail and it will help us make sense of all that follows: Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. John says this right here, right up front, so that it’s never in question. And yet, Lazarus still suffered. Martha and Mary still endured heartache and grief. And the fact remains that Jesus did not rush to their side to spare them this pain.
We can extrapolate an essential truth from this: when we go through hard times, we should not assume that this is an indication that God doesn’t love us. Jesus loves this family, yet they endure pain, sorrow, and grief. And John’s up-front point should not be lost on us: God’s love toward us is unwavering, even in the wake of our own adversity and pain.
In John 2, we read about Jesus saving the day at a wedding in Cana. Here in John 11, Jesus crashes a funeral in Bethany and turns this hour of grief into a cause for celebration.
Read John 11:17-22
By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. In such a warm climate, a dead body would decompose quickly, so the burial took place soon after death. This rules out any sort of “accidental” burial wherein Lazarus was only presumed to be dead. After four days, his body had no doubt begun to decompose.
When Martha hears that Jesus has come near, she goes out to meet him. Martha is probably best known for being too busy with the food preparation to sit down and talk with Jesus in Luke 10. But here we find her leaving the house to talk with Him, while her sister Mary stays at home. Martha has a unique opportunity here, the chance to speak directly to Jesus in her grief. And she says rather pointedly, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I wonder how many of us have said the same thing: “Lord, if you were where you said you’d be, this wouldn’t have happened. My loved one would still be here!” When I was less mature in my faith, I said such things to God.
But we probably shouldn’t be too hard on Martha, for she turns right around and says, “But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask.” She believes that Jesus, had he been present, would have acted to preserve Lazarus’s life. And she says as much. But then she shifts gears by saying, “But you’re here now…and God will give you whatever you ask.”
But let’s see how Jesus responds:
Read John 11:23-27
Here we find Jesus having yet another theological conversation with a woman. Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again.” At first, I don’t think Martha really understands what Jesus is saying. Perhaps she thinks Jesus is saying the sort of things we say to one another in our grief: you know, things like, “He’s in a better place,” or “You’ll see him again.” When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha replies by saying, “Yes, he’ll rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Martha is affirming the Pharisaic position on resurrection.
But that’s not what Jesus is actually saying. He’s not trying to placate Martha by pushing out her hope to some yet-to-be-realized horizon. No, he wants to know what Martha believes RIGHT NOW: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Remember our discussion from a few weeks back, that “faith” is not a noun in John’s Gospel but always a verb? After declaring to be the resurrection and the life, Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this; do you faith this?”
And Martha replies, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Why is Martha best known as a kitchen busybody? THIS is her big moment, the moment for which she should be remembered! In many respects, she’s the hero of the story – apart from Jesus, of course! If you know how the story ends, you know we can’t say much about Lazarus. He may be the man who died and lived to tell about it, but he doesn’t even have a single line in this episode. But Martha is a woman of deep faith. Even / especially in her pain, she clings to the essential truth about Jesus.
Mary, meanwhile, is at the home, likely engaged in the Jewish custom of sitting in mourning, also called “sitting shi’vah.” The word “shi’vah” means seven; following a death, it was Jewish custom for family members to stay home for a period of seven days. They would wear black clothing to represent the darkness of grief that enveloped their hearts. And they would customarily sit on a low stool or box as a demonstration that they had been “brought low” by their grief. When John tells us Mary stayed home, it’s very likely that she stayed home to observe the practice of sitting shi’vah.
Martha returns from speaking with Jesus and now we find Mary going to Him.
Read John 11:32-35
Mary reiterates Martha’s comment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And it says that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled (v33) when he sees Mary weeping. The first of these verbs may include an element of anger or indignation; it has a connotation with the idea of “thunder.” The second verb carries the idea of being emotionally disturbed, distraught. These two verbs combine to describe the deepest sort of human emotion. Even the one who is himself the resurrection and the life is deeply unsettled by human grief and death.
And this is where we come across the shortest verse in the Bible, Jesus wept. It’s true that this is the shortest verse but it also contains the greatest depth. Can you fathom the eternal Son of God weeping over the separation caused by the death of a friend? Earthly pain CAN and DOES move the heart of God!
Twice John tells us that Jesus was deeply moved by Martha and Mary’s grief. That tells me that God doesn’t want us to miss this point: when we hurt, God hurts. When we weep, God weeps. Our pain thunders in His heart. And the ultimate demonstration of this is about to unfold.
Read John 11:38-44
Jesus brings Lazarus back to life with a simple prayer and a command. He prays – not by bowing his head but by looking up to the heavens – and thanks the Father for hearing him. And then Jesus calls out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” It was Augustine who said, “Jesus had to call out Lazarus by name, for if he didn’t, all the dead would’ve come out of their graves!” Jesus, the eternal Word of God, is mighty to deliver Lazarus from death back to life.
The raising of Lazarus is a sign pointing to Jesus as the source of new life. We should use our language precisely here: Lazarus was not resurrected, not in the Christian sense of the term. Lazarus was resuscitated, but not resurrected. What’s the difference? Well, Lazarus – along with Jairus’s daughter, the son of the Shunammite woman, Dorcas, Eutychus, and every other Bible character who was raised from the dead – they all died again eventually. But as the firstfruits of the resurrection, Jesus Christ lives to this day. His heart still beats because He lives. The raising of Lazarus is merely a sign pointing to the deeper reality of Christ’s resurrection.
Even so, as we noted last week, miracles are only signs to those who are willing to see them as such. In the next chapter, John tells us that the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. Just take a minute to let that soak in. Lazarus died. Jesus raised him from the dead. So the chief priests come up with this brilliant plan to kill Lazarus. Do you see a problem with this strategy? On account of Lazarus, many are choosing to “faith” in Jesus, so the chief priests simply decide to destroy the evidence. Again, miracles are only signs to those who are willing to see them.
When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, his final words are important: take off the grave clothes. Grave clothes simply aren’t fitting for someone who has experienced new life in Jesus.
What grave clothes do you need to take off?
- Have you worn the grave clothes of grief for far too long? Depression? Worry? Anger? Regret? Hopelessness? Are you still wearing the reeking garments of bitterness even now, years after the fact?
- Are you clothing yourself with garments that undermine your new life in Christ? Garments like pornography? Sexual immorality? Gossip? Racism? Pride?
- Do you look for comfort in the flimsy, tattered rags of a substance addiction, or an illicit behavior, or an unhealthy relationship?
When we open our eyes to Jesus, we find that our closets are absolutely filled with grave clothes. And unfortunately, some of those articles fit us all too well.
But hear these words today as words of grace. Take off the grave clothes and be clothed in Christ, for He is the resurrection and the life.
To faith in this changes everything.