Approximately three and a half months before His crucifixion, Jesus brings a dead man, Lazarus, back to life. As the events unfold, John provides his reader with the responses of those caught up in the drama. These responses give way to questions that, if we let them, can empower us to live the abundant life that Jesus promises and more effectively advance His Kingdom on this earth.
Jesus & His Disciples
The story, found in the Gospel of John chapter 11, begins something like this…
Jesus, while with His disciples some distance away up the Jordan River, receives word that a beloved friend, Lazarus, is gravely ill. Rather than leave immediately to make the 20 mile journey to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters – Mary and Martha – live, Jesus waits two days before departing. During this time, He informs the disciples that Lazarus’ sickness will not lead to death but to the glory of God. When Jesus finally announces travel plans to Bethany, the disciples attempt to persuade Him otherwise. After all, the last visit to Jerusalem (only two short miles from Bethany) included an attempt to execute Jesus with stones! Despite this, after a misunderstood inference to Lazarus napping, Jesus bluntly tells the disciples that Lazarus is dead, and they are going to him. As Jesus nears Bethany, He and His entourage learn that Lazarus died four days ago.
(Side note: John does not tell his readers the number of days since Lazarus’ death simply to mark the time of Jesus’ delay in coming. Jews held the belief that, after death, the departed’s spirit hovered around the tomb seeking reentry into the body. However, after four days, believing the face had decayed and was no longer recognizable, the person's spirit would leave. In other words, Lazarus is REALLY DEAD.)
In the opening scene, John provides the only mention of the disciples in the entire story. Their responses to situation at hand reveal that their focus is on the physical and temporal. However, Jesus offers them a glimpse of the spiritual and eternal – a greater reality and a grander purpose – God’s glory (see John 11:4). In light of this, we might ask ourselves, when we look at circumstances – both our personal situations and the things happening on the larger stage of humanity – do we look through the lens of the physical and temporal? Or do we look through the lens of the spiritual and eternal? Rest assured, our perspective will determine our response. A physical/temporal focus drives us to live holding onto this life and all it offers, as if this is all there is. So, when life takes an unpleasant turn, we writhe and wrestle and worry, white knuckling anything we can, or think we can, control. Conversely, with eyes fixed on the spiritual and eternal, we live like something better awaits us. After all, those who love and follow Jesus possess a glorious future, one in which the best anything pales in comparison. Adopting this latter perspective, when life takes an unpleasant turn, we may writhe and wrestle, but ultimately we rest ourselves in the hands of a sovereign God, who works out all things for our good and His glory.
Jesus & Mary and Martha
Leaving Jesus and the disciples where John does, on the road to Bethany, we enter the home of Martha and Mary…
Can you see her? Martha? Her body has gone into autopilot. She straightens the house and makes preparations in an attempt to order the external hoping that it will somehow calm the fierce internal storm of grief. Then, with the announcement for which she had been waiting for days—but had not come—Martha drops what she has been doing and rushes out the door, down the road to meet Jesus. When she reaches Him, Martha pours out accusations in one breath, “If you had been here...” And expresses her faith in the next, “…anything you ask of God will be done.” After a brief and perplexing exchange about life and death and resurrection, now and later, Martha returns home to fetch Mary.
Grief’s presence is palpable as Martha nears the house. She presses past the crowd and finds Mary where she left her, sitting against the wall, lost in her pain. Gently, Martha cups her sister’s cheek in her hand and bends over, whispering in Mary’s ear, “Rabboni nears; He calls for you.” Immediately, Mary brings her hand to her lips. Tears begin to fall as she runs out the door. She does not notice the crowd following her. She does not notice that her lungs are screaming for oxygen as she runs, sobbing, toward the figure of a man she recognizes as Jesus standing in the distance. As Mary’s legs carry her toward Him, her mind races with questions, accusations, and what-ifs. She reaches Jesus, her knees crumble, and her emotions explode into words as she cries out, “Lord, if only You had been here, my brother would still be alive.”
Before we glean from Martha and Mary’s responses, we need to look at one more exchange between Jesus and Martha, which comes a little later in our story. When Jesus orders the stone rolled away from the tomb, Martha verbalizes what everyone thinks, “By now, Lazarus stinks!”
Now, looking at every response from Mary and Martha recorded by John, what can we see? While they loved Jesus and clearly believed His identity and power and authority, they had limited Him. Can you hear it? “If only You had been here…” In other words, “You COULD have saved our brother, but it is too late. He is dead. You possess the power and authority to save from death. But now, Lazarus is beyond hope, beyond Your scope of power and authority. ” So, we hold the mirror up to our own lives and ponder, in what ways do we limit Jesus? In what circumstances or relationships have we decided that Jesus needed to have intervened before this or that? Asserting that, at the point, the situation remains beyond Jesus’ reach, beyond repair, beyond redemption.
When all seems lost, when things have not turned out as we had hoped, had thought best, or had even remotely understood, two choices lie before us. Will we abandon hope by limiting Jesus? Or will we boast that nothing is impossible with our God? Our faith lies in a God who can, and will, raise the dead – physical, mental, spiritual, emotional – to LIFE! In this world wracked with sin, painful and tragic things happen. So grieve but do not despair. Mourn but against the backdrop of hope. Weep and wail but mingle songs of victory amidst your sobs. Finally, suffer with an eye on redemption. For REDEMPTION HAS COME AND IS COMING IN FULL!
Jesus & the Mourners
Continuing with the narrative…
When Jesus sees everyone’s grief, He is deeply moved and intensely troubled. Upon request, Jesus is taken to where Lazarus lies entombed within a small cave behind a massive stone. Jesus weeps. Watching Jesus, some decide He surely loved Lazarus. But skeptical others come to a different conclusion, i.e., if Jesus really loved Lazarus, He would have come sooner.
Jesus fully engaged in this life. The events and people in life deeply affected Him. And the community present at the tomb that day judged Jesus’ heart and intention by His outward response to Lazarus’ illness – specifically, Jesus’ delay in coming. Turning the tables, we must ask ourselves, what do we use as the barometer of God’s love and goodness toward us? Do we use the outward appearance of our circumstances? Or do we rely on the truth about the nature and character of God? Ttake a look back at history – both of all creation and yours personally. See a God who has pursued us lovingly and relentlessly and unashamedly! Biblical love is the commitment to do God’s best for another no matter what it costs the giver. And in the case of our God, it cost Him the life of His Son, Jesus. What greater love exists? How much more can our God do to prove His love and goodness toward us?
Raising Lazarus & the Aftermath
Now, to the climax and summation of the drama…
All eyes are on Jesus. His voice breaks through the sounds of mourning, "Remove the stone." After Martha and Jesus have a brief exchange concerning the inevitable odor of one deceased and about seeing the glory of God, the stone is rolled from its resting place. Jesus raises His eyes, and speaks so that the listening crowd can hear, "Lazarus, come forth!" A stunned crowd stands silent and motionless in disbelief at Jesus’ audacious command. All eyes fix on the dark cavernous hole that personifies how death itself has swallowed their beloved Lazarus. Within moments, to everyone’s complete shock and dismay, a figure, completely wrapped in burial clothes, emerges from the shadows. Shrieks and gasps fill the air. Could it really be Lazarus? Jesus orders the figure be unbound and released. This action reveals that Lazarus IS very much alive...back from the dead! Inexpressible joy fills the air that just moments ago had been held captive in the grip of death and mourning. Never had anyone brought someone BACK from the dead. True, prophets past had revived the dead, but to snatch a four-day-old corpse from the grave? Who is this Jesus?!
Jesus’ actions demand a response.
As a result of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, many of the Jews believe Him to be who He says He is. However, others, confounded by what they have just witnessed, take their questions to the Pharisees. Will this turn of events shed light on the true identity of this man? Maybe He really is the long-awaited Messiah, the object of our hopes and dreams. Surely the religious leaders will know the truth. So, others go to them…with their questions.
John does not tell us how the disciples or even the trio of siblings respond to this inconceivably joyful turn of events. Although silent about our main characters, John does reveal how the community of eyewitnesses reacts. That is, many Jews believed in Jesus, but others reported the events to the Pharisees. Note that John does not tell us whether or not this second group believed, but simply that they reported the events to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a sect of Jewish religious leaders and Jesus’ primary opposition. Granted, this second group of witnesses to Lazarus’ resurrection may very well have not believed and simply desired to tattle on Jesus. What if, as I conjectured in the narrative, in reporting the events, this group (or maybe some in this group) of individuals was looking to the religious of their day – those who claimed to know God and His ways and follow Him – to give them an answer for the events swirling around them? Looking to them to ultimately answer the question, “Who is this Jesus?”
My question here for you and me is this. What if the same thing happens today – albeit in more subtle ways? What if people are turning to us, the professing Christians – the religious of our day, who claim to know God and His ways and follow Him – to answer their questions? Might they be turning to us to help make sense of the unfolding events in their personal lives and the world around them? Ultimately, can they find answers to their questions about Jesus (God) and how He relates, if at all, to them? And if there is truth to this speculation, what are you and I communicating to them?
I suspect our answers to their spoken and unspoken questions are more indirect than we realize. It seems people care very little about doctrines and theologies and anything that even hints of hypocritical lip service. Instead, folks watch and listen to our responses in life’s unfolding events to determine what we really believe about Jesus (God). They silently process these responses to determine: Is there a God? Is this God really worthy of their passion and pursuit? Is this God trustworthy and dependable? Is this God really strong enough to handle their life problems, pains, and hidden pasts? Is this God really good and loving – incapable of anything but His very best toward them?
Indeed, our responses to what life throws at us screams to a broken and hurting world what we really believe about life and Jesus.
Now, to Him who is the One Worthy Pursuit of this life be all glory and honor and praise in and through us!