From Death to Life
John 11:11-14, 17-27, 38-44
March 26, 2023
Spring is here. The Spring flowers are blooming. Soon the grass will green up and need mowing. Each year the coming of Spring astounds me. The death of winter is over, and the new life of Spring is upon us. Spring is an exciting time. Years ago in Springtime I was in Galilee by Lake Gennesaret or what we call the Sea of Galilee. It was beautiful there. There was a profusion of flowers and a fresh odor in the air. Spring is a time when we do well to think about new life and God’s renewing of creation. It is a good time to bless God for the wondrous ways he takes care of us. Spring is a time of new life.
The readings from John 11 are an account of Jesus’ raising his friend, Lazarus, from death. It is a sign of Jesus’ power and a foretaste to his resurrection and his victory over death. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, sent word to Jesus that his friend is ill. The sisters expect him to come quickly to their home in the village of Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. However, he and the disciples are some distance away from Bethany. Jesus tells his disciples, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it (John 11:4).” Jesus is telling his disciples that something big is going to happen and when people see it they will give glory to God. Of course, the disciples do not understand. They told Jesus that he should not go to Judea because the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem want to kill him.
Jesus does not respond to their fears but said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to wake him up (John 11:11).” The disciples are confused by him saying Lazarus has fallen asleep. They tell Jesus, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better (John 11:12).” In Scripture the word sleep is used as a euphemism for dying. It reminds people that genuine death is when we are separated from God. Real death means we live disregarding God’s call and claim on our lives. When we live a lifestyle focused on our pleasures and desires exclusively, we are in the state of spiritual death. When we ignore the Lord and his ways, we are the living dead. On the other hand, when we surrender to the Lord and are obedient to him and live our lives centered on him, we have stepped over from death to genuine life, even eternal life. Jesus ended his disciples’ confusion by telling them plainly, “Lazarus is dead (John 11:14).”
Lazarus is not sleeping. He is not in a coma. He is not in some kind of cataleptic state. John tells us twice in this chapter that by the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. I know people have written books and articles explaining away the death of Lazarus. However, John is clear that Lazarus is really dead. John wants his readers to have no doubts that Jesus is going to Bethany, not to awaken someone in a coma, but to raise a man from the grip of death itself. The Jewish belief at the time was that a person’s spirit hovered around the body for three days and departed on the fourth day. They believed that a dead person had the hope of resuscitation for the first three days but when the fourth came there was no hope that a dead person would come back to life. Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead (John 11:14).”
When they arrived in Bethany, there was no question that everyone knew that Lazarus was dead. The mourners were there in force. Grieving in many parts of the world is serious business. In our Middle class culture we keep a stiff upper lip when it comes to grieving. I don’t know how many times someone who has burst in tears and later said that they “lost it.” They saw themselves losing control. Many have a serious need to be in control. When Jesus arrived, the mourners were loudly expressing their pain and anguish over Lazarus’ death. They were making a lot of noise. They believed that if they did not properly mourn the dead they would be dishonoring them. Crying out in grief is not losing control but is a healthy expression of grief. In Jesus’ day, people shared the experience of grief. It was not a private experience. They did not go off alone and grieve. They had the comfort of friends and family in their grief.
Martha went out meet Jesus while her sister Mary stays in the house. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him (John 11:21-22).” She was a woman of great faith, and she recognized who Jesus was. She knew that the power of God operated through him as it had never operated in a person. Martha knew that Jesus could have healed her brother from the illness that took his life.
Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again (John 11:23).” Martha responds, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day (John 11:24).” This statement reveals that Martha is allied with the Pharisees, not the Sadducees. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead on the last day while the Sadducees did not. The idea of resurrection was not a foreign teaching to Martha.
Jesus says something which raises Martha’s understanding of resurrection to a new level. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26).” This question is not just directed to Martha it is directed to everyone. Is Martha’s friend just a wandering rabbi, a teacher of righteousness or is Jesus the source of life and of new life itself? Jesus is clear about who he is. In John, Jesus makes many “I am” statements. “I am the resurrection and the life” is a key statement of who he is. He is more than a rabbi. He is the resurrection and life. Jesus is the only one who can offer you resurrection and genuine life here and in the hereafter. Through the shed blood of Jesus on the Cross we receive salvation and the promise of eternal life. Jesus was faithful to death and his faithfulness was rewarded by his resurrection and glorification. Through his faithfulness we have the opportunity of salvation. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” Martha had strong faith. She identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.
At this point, Martha gets Mary. Mary rushed to Jesus, knelt at his feet and said the same thing Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died (John 11:33).” She was weeping and her grieving friends were with her. Jesus responds to her grief by being “deeply moved in spirit and troubled (John 11:34b).” One New Testament scholar translates this passage: “He was deeply moved in spirit so that an involuntary groan burst from him, and he trembled with deep emotion.” This is quite a contrast to pagan gods and goddesses. The primary characteristic of a pagan god or goddess is total inability to feel any emotion whatsoever. They were isolated, passionless and compassionless. Jesus responded to the heavy grief present by a deep and powerful anguish which reveals his compassion and love. As God who is fully human, Jesus experienced the whole range of human feelings. He is right here with us experiencing life, not aloof and distant. He knows your pain. He knows the deep emotions of your being. In Jesus, the Lord God experiences our joy and sorrow, pain and happiness. In Jesus, the Lord God reveals himself to be compassionate and loving.
It is time to go to Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus asks Martha where the grave is. She tells him to follow her and she will show him. Now we find a whole collection of grieving people crying out with unrestrained weeping, a tearful Mary, the take-charge Martha, the disciples and Jesus going to Lazarus’ tomb. It looks like Martha is expecting something. The mourners think he is coming to mourn the loss of a friend. When he arrives at the tomb, he again shuttered in anguish. First century tombs are caves carved in the limestone and are sealed with a large rock. He tells them, “Take away the stone (John 11:39a).” Martha is in a minor panic: “But Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days (John 11:39b).” Jesus tells her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you will see the glory of God? (John 11:40).” They took away the stone.
Jesus looked upward in prayer and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me (John 11:42).” What he was about to do was to reveal God’s glory so that those present and people today would believe in him. He then shouted with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43).” The word shouted is found eight times in the Greek Bible. Six of the eight occurrences are in John. Four of the six in John are the crowd before Pilate shouting out, “Crucify him! Crucify him! (John 19:6).” Here is another striking contrast. Jesus shouts for life; the crowd shouts for death. In response to Jesus’ command, the dead man walked out of the tomb. He was wearing his grave cloths. Jesus ordered the people, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go (John 11:44b).” Lazarus was freed from death and the grave so that God may be glorified. Only God in Christ Jesus has the power over death and the grave. As a result, many believed in him.
Faith in Jesus is a matter of belief but belief is more than an intellectual agreement. Belief in Jesus is more than getting the concept. Belief in Jesus means that you place your whole heart and trust in him. Belief in Jesus means that we cry out to the Lord to be freed from bondage to sin and death. Belief in Jesus means ordering your daily life to please him and give him glory. Someone once asked the question “Is the life you are living worth Jesus dying for?” It is all about Jesus. As a Christian song exclaims: “It’s all about you, Jesus. It’s not about me that you should do things my way. It’s all about you, Jesus, for your glory and your fame.”
A sermon preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel
by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS (RET)