It’s always a privilege to study God’s Word and a joy to present my findings to others. Not long ago I was asked if I would fill in the pulpit ministry at a local church while the pastor was out of the country visiting Turkey. With some hesitation I accepted, since I do not consider myself a pulpit preacher but more of a classroom teacher. What follows is the text from the sermon I preached on Sunday after Easter, 2015.
Soli Deo gloria!
The raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel is the grand finale of miracles in Jesus’ public ministry. Though other miracles of Jesus are not less important, the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ most spectacular display of power before his crucifixion.
This morning I want to address some questions around our text from John 11, and then share several reasons why this final miracle of Jesus points to the most significant event in all of history: the resurrection of our Lord and Savior. It is my hope and my prayer that you walk away feeling the practical importance of Christ’s resurrection in your life and recognize that Easter is not over. Easter is everyday!
As you read John 11:1-46, I raise four questions.
1. Why did Jesus delay two days before leaving to be with his friends Martha and Mary and their dying brother Lazarus (11:6)? After all, he was only about 18-20 miles northeast of Bethany (given the traditional site where John the Baptist was performing baptisms, cf., John 10:40). He could’ve been there in about 10 hrs (walking). An average, healthy male in the first century could have walked between 40-45 kilometers (24-27 miles) in a day. Moreover, the sisters, Martha and Mary, more acutely felt Jesus’s delay as they both mention it when Jesus does arrive. Yet we read that by the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was dead 4 days (Jn 11:39). Why the delay?
As the final miracle before Jesus’ trial, conviction, death, and resurrection, perhaps…
- Jesus delays in order to leave no doubt that Lazarus had indeed expired and so the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead could hardly be questioned. This is no mere resuscitation; it is a resurrection of the dead! After all, Jesus said “it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4)
- Maybe Jesus delays for the sake of his disciples (11:15) so they would believe that death does not end in despair, as well as for the sake of the onlookers and of course his dear friends of Bethany. Undoubtably a resurrection from the dead would significantly shore up faith in Jesus.
- Jesus delays in order to illustrate that he too would rise again just as he had already told them. Like a signpost, perhaps Jesus used the raising of Lazarus as an object lesson pointing to his own resurrection.
- Most likely, all of the above are true.
2. Why did Jesus say Lazarus’s sickness would “not end in death” (11:4), yet later declare “Lazarus is dead” (11:14)? Is this a contradiction? Was Jesus hopeful at first, but confused by grief after learning Lazarus had died? The answer may be in the fact that Scripture speaks of two kinds of death.
On the one hand, everyone who believes in Jesus will “live even though they die” (11:25), whereas on the other “whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (11:26). This only makes sense if Jesus was speaking of two kinds of death. Elsewhere Scripture suggests every unbeliever will experience death twice (Rev 2:11); a physical death and also a second death that culminates in and is tantamount to either a) eternal judgment or b) annihilation (more on that at another time). This second death is graphically portrayed as being tossed into “the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:6, 14), which is a kind of “death” in that it is final, definitive, and irreversible.
Nevertheless, believers will not experience this second death, but only experience one kind of death, which is physical.
I’m unconvinced the text contains contradiction or that Jesus was confused by grief, since Lazarus’s sickness would not end in eternal death, but did result in physical death. The “death” Jesus intended in 11:4 and 11:26, therefore, was eternal death or this second death reserved for unbelievers.
3. What about the responses of Martha and Mary? Interestingly both Martha (v 21) and Mary (v 32) say the same thing to Jesus upon his arrival: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Now consider:
- The faith of Martha and Mary is to be commended on the one hand. It was in the midst of their grief that the depth of their faith was seen, since they really believed that, had Jesus been there, he could have healed their brother. That is commendable faith!
- Their response also implies that they view physical death as the end; not just the end of life but also the end of hope. Death for them is final; it is irreversible.
- How often do we say, “Lord, if you had been here things would have been better” or “Lord, had you acted sooner, my life would not have turned out this way!” But, how do we know that? How do we know things would be better if they went according to our expectations? Do we really have the vantage point of God? The delay of God in meeting our needs is always and only for our good and for his glory. Always! Moreover, any “delay” in God’s response is only a delay from our perspective; not from God’s. He’s always on time.
- The faith of Martha and Mary was commendable, yes, but it was shortsighted on the other hand. They wanted Jesus to heal their ailing brother, but Jesus intended to raise him from the dead! How often are our prayers or our expectations shortsighted? Do you want God to heal the sick or raise the dead!?
- Moreover, was Jesus really absent? “Lord, if you had been here…” they cried. No! He is present always but in ways we don’t often see, working circumstances in ways we hardly expect, performing miracles we often miss. Jesus is never really absent! (Mt 28:20); he’s just not present in ways we expect, but rest assured, Jesus is present!
The raising of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus own impending death and resurrection and this is primarily the “glory” Jesus had in mind in 11:4. Jesus already told his disciples twice that he would die and rise again (John 2:18-22; 10:17-18). He will tell them at least one more time (see John 12:23-24).
Previously Jesus brought Jairus’s daughter back to life, but that text tells us it was a private affair, since Jesus gave strict instructions to the girl’s parents and those present (Peter, James, and John) not to tell anyone (Mt 9:23-26; Mk 5:35-43, Lk 8:49-56).
Here, however, the raising of Lazarus was out there for all to see and this significantly increased Jesus’s public profile. This final miracle of Jesus changed the trajectory of his last couple weeks here on earth. It set the stage for his arrest, trial, conviction, death, burial, and resurrection (11:57; 12:10), all of which is prophesied by Mary’s anointment of Jesus with oil (John 12:1-8).
John 11:46ff shows a major turn of events as the Jews began plotting to kill Jesus because this last and most amazing miracle threatened the Sanhedrin’s political and religious authority. It is very unlikely their use of “our temple” and “our nation” (11:48) was spoken on behalf of what was best for Israel; it was more likely they spoke on behalf of their own self-interests and the advancements of their own political cause. They wanted Jesus dead and the threat to their kingdom gone once and for all.
However, the irony in God’s plan should not be missed here. Though the raising of Lazarus served as a final blow to Jesus’ public ministry and was indeed a death sentence to his life here on earth, it actually ended up kicking off God’s redemptive program for us!
4. Why is the Raising of Lazarus so Important? So What? When Jesus shouted “Lazarus, come out!” these three words said so much more than we imagine. It set the stage for our redemption!
- Like a signpost, the raising of Lazarus points to Jesus’ resurrection and demonstrates that the world is not simply a closed system of cause and effect principles, physical constants in the universe that sustain the laws of nature, biologically determined processes, or socially engineered conventions agreed upon by the human species. Indeed there is the natural world in which we live that is routinely governed by these principles and processes. But the raising of Lazarus shows in empirically verifiable terms that the natural world meshes with another world we call the supernatural world. Our universe is an open system where miracles are not only possible in history but actually occur as history.
- Like a signpost, the raising of Lazarus points to the certainty of our future resurrection. Though the resurrection of our bodies does not occur at our death but instead at Christ’s appearing (1 Corinthians 15:23), we can be sure that we receive a resurrected body (Philippians 3:20-21). Just as Lazarus did not stay dead but was raised to life, so too will we be raised. Something better does indeed lie beyond our current existence here (Rom 8:11; 1 Cor 15:54-57). Paul writes, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:20-23). Meanwhile, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:26).
- Like a signpost, the raising of Lazarus points to God’s power to transform history’s greatest tragedy of injustice (the crucifixion) into its greatest good. It is God’s definitive, victorious deathblow to sin and to death. The resurrection of Lazarus, and of Jesus, provides a tangible, historical, and existential basis for believing that evil and death, at the end of the day, will not and does not have the upper hand. Suffering and pain cannot have the last word. Jesus’s resurrection guarantees that my pain and my suffering have a purpose and have a point. Every instance of everything in my life is going somewhere and heading in one direction we call eternity. And it’s the resurrection of Jesus that gives substance to this new perspective on the injustices of this world.
- When we first have faith in Jesus, we trust a living Lord (Lk 11:45). Many of the Jews believed in Jesus because Lazarus was raised to life. We believe in Jesus because he was raised to life. As a result of our faith in a living Lord, we become, as it were, “born-again” and immediately participate in a new quality of life, which is empowered by the reality of Christ’s resurrection (Rom 6:4-8; Eph 1:18-19; Philip 3:10). This new empowerment gives us strength for living now as God intends (1 Jn 3:2-3). Listen as Paul applies resurrection power to our lives.
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead” (Ephesians 1:19-20).
Listen to me! The greatest display of God’s power was not at creation nor is it in the daily sustaining of the universe. No. God’s power was comprehensively and supernaturally displayed in Jesus’ resurrection, and the raising of Lazarus gives us a glimpse into this reality.
In the resurrection of the dead, we see not only God’s ability to reconstitute my mortal life by raising my material body (Rom 8:11), but resurrection shows God’s power over my moral life as well. Resurrection demonstrates a confluence of the material and immaterial worlds into one reality. It is the merging of the natural and the supernatural into one. What this means is because Jesus lives, you and I have the power to live for him. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life” (2 Pt 1:3).
- “Lazarus, come out!” … Not only is our future resurrection guaranteed by these words, but so also will our believing friends and family members be raised. There was no question that it was Lazarus who was raised to life and not some ghost or spirit that appeared to those grieving at his grave. In fact, we learn in the next chapter that Jesus had dinner with Lazarus (Jn 12:2).With the command of Jesus, “Lazarus came out!” we have every reason to expect that we will be reunited with our believing loved ones who have passed, just as Martha and Mary were reunited with their brother (1 Cor. 6:14; 1 Thess. 4:14). And, “Yes!” we will recognize them (1 Sam 28).
- The raising of Lazarus, and by implication the resurrected body of Jesus, not only assures us of our future and our believing loved ones’ future but also is God’s way of affirming the goodness of all creation. You see, God’s original intent for us was never thwarted nor upset by the Fall and by sin. Our charter, given to us by God in Genesis 2:15, is to be stewards of the entire universe and all the goods therein. The stage upon which this plays out is a newly reconstituted earth because Jesus lives. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus’s physical body guarantees God’s holistic, comprehensive repair and reconstitution of “all things” physical in the universe (Eph 1:9-10; Col 1:19-20; Rom 8:19-23)! It’s not just my body that will be fit for eternity; all of creation will be! No more decay!!
- The resurrection of Christ grounds my life with a new orientation, which is looking up and leaning forward. No longer do I look inward (to my head or my heart), nor outward to my government or my circumstances for answers to life’s most perplexing questions. Instead, I look up to the risen Savior and I lean forward in love for a risen Savior. Scripture is replete with examples of this new perspective or orientation. Paul, for instance, writes in Philippians 3:13-15 “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way.” Hebrews admonishes us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:1-2). As we look up to Jesus we lean forward in holy living. John tells us that one day “we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself [present tense] as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:2-3). Our certain future necessarily impacts our present living. In fact, Peter insists that looking up and leaning forward should have a significant impact on our ethical living, because “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming….we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (2 Pt 3:10-14). I honestly believe that if our daily lives were governed more by the anxious expectation of this new orientation of looking up and leaning forward, there would be far less psychosis and therapy going on and far more hope-filled believers who joyously live for Christ, who walk with a spring in their step, a hope in their heart, and a relentless and infectious optimism. Indeed, it is this forward focus, ignited and energized by Christ’s resurrection, which propels our new life in Christ. This new perspective provides a fresh and exhilarating orientation for living our lives as people of God whose identity is found solely and wholly in Christ Jesus (Gal 2:20).
- Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, our deepest desire to live forever is fully and ultimately satisfied with the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. Eternal life is true, not just because it’s in the Bible or because the Christian Church has always believed it, but because it’s in the real world as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection in real time and real space. Lazarus is just a prelude of things to come.
The Bible admits, along with every world religion, that “something’s not right” and yet only Christianity gives an adequate reason (Gen. 3 and sin) and a viable solution (a crucified and risen Savior).
Our faith is realistic by affirming that this world in its present condition is not the best possible world. But, like no other religion has done, Christianity provides real hope for a joy-filled present and a real future. My subjective hope in eternal life is tied directly to the objective fact that Jesus is raised. This is no wishful thinking, but a hope that someday will be realized.
Here’s your takeaway: Easter was not just last week. Easter is every day because Christ is risen to which you say: “He is risen indeed!”
In addition to our benediction in the close of service, I want us to read aloud with Paul the Apostle:
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits at God’s right hand in the place of honor and power. Let heaven fill your thoughts. Do not think only about things down here on earth. For you died when Christ died, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your real life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.
(Colossians 3:1-4, New Living Translation)
Wherever you go, God is sending you,
wherever you are, God has put you there;
He has a purpose in your being there.
Christ who indwells you has something He wants to do through you, where you are.
Believe this and go in His grace and love and power.