How are you at reading the signs? I don’t mean street signs or advertising signs, I mean the signs of God’s kingdom? Over the last few months we’ve been looking at how John draws out sign after sign from Jesus’ life; signs of who Jesus is and signs of what he came to do; signs in fact of God’s kingdom being revealed on earth. And the point of all these signs is to bring us to belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God; to show us the way to life. In fact that idea of Jesus bringing life comes out very clearly doesn’t it? We’ve seen how Jesus is the bread of life; how he offers the water of life; how he is the light of life; and today we discover that he’s the resurrection and the life.
But the question is, what does that mean for us? In what sense is he the resurrection and the life for you and me?
Well, let’s see what we find as we look at this passage.
The narrative begins with Jesus hiding from the Jewish leaders across the Jordan where John had been baptising at the start of the gospel: interestingly, it’s also called Bethany in ch1, but not the Bethany where Martha and Mary lived. While he’s there Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, becomes ill. So they send a message to Jesus to come and heal him.
Lazarus, we discover, is one of those who’s particularly loved by Jesus. They would have expected Jesus to respond quickly to this plea but instead he tells his disciples there’s no need to worry because this illness doesn’t lead to death. Rather it’s for God’s glory. Do you remember 2 weeks ago we read how Jesus said a similar thing about the blind man’s illness? He wasn’t blind because of some sin but so that God’s glory might be revealed. Well the same applies here. But notice what else he says: “rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” What they’re about to witness is a sign that both glorifies God but at the same time glorifies the Son of God. In fact if you think about it, Jesus is the one in whom God pre-eminently reveals himself. So any glory that Jesus receives is, at the same time, glory that God receives. Or to think of it the other way round, God delights to see his Son glorified and the Son delights to glorify the Father.
What we’re about to see is the beginning of the glory of Jesus being revealed. It’s not the full glory though, just a glimpse. His full glory will be revealed in his death and resurrection as we discover in the next chapter, but right now he’s about to perform his greatest sign so far, a sign that shows him to be the one the whole world is waiting for.
Now clearly Jesus knows what’s going on. He has some sort of supernatural knowledge of the events in Bethany. But he doesn’t hurry off to heal Lazarus. Instead he waits two full days. What’s he doing? Some people have suggested there’s a hardheartedness in Jesus actions here. Rather than hurrying off to care for his friends he leaves them to mourn for 4 days before getting there. But John makes it quite clear that that’s not the case. He loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus. But they need more than just his comfort and care. They need to read the signs in a way that leads them to true faith in him and as a result to eternal life.
So he waits. The 2 days delay, following a day to get the message then another day to get to Bethany meant that he didn’t get there until four days after Lazarus had died. For us that’s just a long period of time but for the Jews it had great significance. You see there was a belief that a person’s spirit hung around for 3 or four day after they died in case the body was resuscitated. After 4 days the body had begun to decay so it was too late. So it seems that Jesus was waiting to ensure that there was no thought that this miracle was simply Lazarus reviving in the cool of the tomb.
Eventually Jesus says: “Let us go to Judea again.” Well the disciples are shocked. They may believe in Jesus as the Christ but they also know what’s waiting for him in Judea. They say: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” They don’t quite ask “Are you out of your mind?” but that’s clearly what they’re thinking. Or perhaps they’re thinking “Do we have to come too?” Thomas obviously expects that if they all go back to Jerusalem they’ll all die. Mind you, you have to admire Thomas don’t you? I mean, he’s had a lot of bad press over his refusal to believe that Jesus could have risen from the dead. But there’s no doubt in his mind here. If Jesus is going, he’s going with him. Here is great devotion and courage, even if he doesn’t fully understand what he’s saying; even if Jesus role as the lamb of God is one that couldn’t be shared by his disciples.
In response to their objection Jesus repeats something almost identical to what he said to them when faced with the healing of the blind man in ch9: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them”
It’s as though he’s saying something like this: “I could hide away here and not do what I’ve been sent to do and hope that it all works out in the end. But if I do that I’ll end up stumbling in the darkness, all for nothing. On the other hand, if I keep doing what God has given me to do all the way till nightfall I’ll be OK. And there’s a further implication that if they go with him, the light of the world, they’ll be kept safe. And as it is, their time with him is running out so they’d better make the most of it.
Then he explains that Lazarus has fallen asleep. He means he’s died, but the disciples either misunderstand or simply play dumb because they want to avoid going near Jerusalem.
So he says it plainly. “Lazarus has died.” And he adds that this is a good thing, for their sake. Here is someone who’s so confident of the Father’s power that he knows that Lazarus will rise again.
Well off they go to Bethany where Lazarus is now in a tomb, dead for 4 days. You get a feel for how well known this family was by the fact that many Jews had come out, presumably from Jerusalem, to share Martha’s and Mary’s grief at the loss of their brother.
Well, when Martha hears that Jesus has arrived she hurries out to greet him, and perhaps to speak to him in private, away from the noise of the mourners.
She greets him not with a rebuke as some people have taken this but as a simple statement of faith, said in all the sadness of someone who’s grieving over the death of a brother.
It’s as though she’s saying “Lord if only you’d been nearby this would never have happened.” And her faith isn’t exhausted at that statement because she adds an amazing statement of faith in Jesus: “22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Now at this point in the narrative we need to stop and think about where Jesus goes with this conversation. He doesn’t do anything to ease Martha’s pain. Instead he enters into a theological discussion.
This is one of those things you get warned about with caring for people who are grieving over a loved one: the platitudes about how they’re with God now and how Jesus died so we don’t need to fear death. All true of course but not necessarily very helpful in that moment.
So why does Jesus ignore Martha’s pain and begin this theological discussion about the resurrection?
Well, let me suggest a couple of reasons. First of all I think he wants to engender in Martha an even deeper faith than she has already. She’s already said that even now he could bring Lazarus back to life. But does she really believe it? But even more than that I think he wants her to realise that a miracle like that isn’t sufficient. You see, even if he brings Lazarus back to life, he’s just going to die again; hopefully many years later, but that’s his inevitable fate.
What Lazarus needs and what Martha needs is the assurance that they’ll rise from death never to die again. What does he say to her? “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
This is the critical gospel question: do you believe that Jesus has the power to overcome death – for all time? Are you ready to believe in him and live in him?
I know you shouldn’t try to mix John’s theology with Paul’s, but I’m struck by the use of “live in me” there. Do you remember how when we studied Ephesians that phrase “in Christ” was repeated over and over again? Well Ephesus was the place where John spent much of his time after Jesus left, so I wonder whether there’s a connection there.
In any case, Jesus statement includes in it the implication that he alone is the one who can raise us from the dead. There is no other way to be raised because he is the resurrection and the life. Without him there is only death for human beings. But if we believe in him and are “in him” then we’re already enjoying the life with God that heaven will be in all its fullness. It’s in that sense, I think, that we will never die.
Martha’s answer is profound in its simplicity: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Notice, by the way, that it’s Martha in John’s gospel who makes the clearest confession of who Jesus is. In the other gospels Peter declares him to be the Messiah, but here it’s Martha with this deep confession that Jesus is the one God had promised would come to bring salvation to his people.
Well, at that Martha goes to call her sister, Mary.
Mary comes and falls at Jesus feet with the sad acknowledgement, again, that if only Jesus had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died.
You get the feeling that Jesus has a soft spot for Mary. Remember it was she who sat at his feet listening while Martha was busy getting dinner ready one night. And here, as Mary greets him we’re told he was deeply troubled. There’s a stark difference in the way he greets Mary. There’s no challenge, no theological quizzing. In fact he responds to her emotion and that of the other mourners with emotion himself. Mind you it isn’t just sadness that he expresses. We read: “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” The expression that’s used there could mean “outraged and troubled,” as though he was angry? Well what would he be angry at? Is it the crowd of mourners making such a racket just because they were supposed to? Well there’s no hint of any rebuke about that. This was just the way people in that culture responded to grief and loss. It might have been because their faith was so lacking that they couldn’t trust him to bring Lazarus back to life. That was certainly his response in the case of Jairus’ daughter, but there he tells them to stop their wailing. No, it seems more likely that he was angry at the fact that sin and death are such a commonplace in this fallen world.
We need to take a leaf out of Jesus’ book here. It’s normal for us to feel grief and compassion when a friend suffers loss like this but unless that’s combined with outrage at the waste, at the terrible state our world is in that good people perish before their time, that evil men and women are able to do terrible things, even that life itself on this earth is limited to such a short time, and let me tell you, when you get to my age you realise what a short time it is; unless you feel that outrage that Jesus feels here, all you’re left with is mere sentiment. On the other hand outrage without grief leaves you with hard-hearted arrogance.
It seems that Jesus experienced both. As they took him to the tomb he again feels that outrage but also the grief; so much so that he begins to cry in sadness. Even knowing what’s about to happen the deep sadness of death, of his friends grief and loss, brings him to tears.
Jesus comes to the tomb and now he sets them the greatest test of faith yet. He tells them to roll aside the stone. When they object that the body will be smelly by now he reminds them what he’s told them before.
“If you believe you’ll see the glory of God.” So they roll back the stone and he prays out loud to his Father in heaven thanking him for having heard him. Then he cries out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” And out comes Lazarus, with the graveclothes still tied around him until the onlookers free him from them. And we’re told: “45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
Do you remember at the end of last week’s passage Jesus saying to the Pharisees: “ 38If I do the works of my Father, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
All that Jesus has been saying in this chapter have been leading to this conclusion. His claim to be the resurrection and the life is attested to by this sign. Who else could raise someone form the dead after four days? If he can do that, then the other things he claims to be able to do must also be true.
That might have been the end of the story, except that Jesus’ enemies were still after him and this sort of miracle was too great to ignore; not because it required belief but because it was so hard to argue against.
So their only recourse was to have him killed. Caiaphas has the solution: “50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” A lovely piece of Johannine irony: Caiaphas prophesies without realising what he’s saying, yet we see that his prophecy was spot on. In the next Chapter Jesus will make it explicit that he’s on his way to death but that his death will mean life for many. He is the resurrection and the life because he’ll pass through death to life as the first fruits of the resurrection from the dead. Those who die in him will also rise in him. Those who believe in him, even though they die, will live and will never die again.
That is the great good news of the gospel.
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.