|The Beginning of the End of Death (John 11:1-44)
Please bear with me. I am about to use a term and introduce a subject that makes a lot of people uneasy. We’d rather use euphemisms for it. No, we’d prefer just to banish it from our experience altogether. The word? Death.
“Mankind is frightened by the mere word ‘death,’ and nowhere more so than in America,” said J.B. Priestly. “At dinner parties there I have brought up the question of death just to study the stunned reactions. Most people switch off the subject as if they were changing television channels.”
Oprah is probably doing more than anyone in our culture right now to cause people to talk about death. She has an ongoing dialogue with Mattie Stepanek – a 12-year-old boy who is dying of a rare form of muscular dystrophy that has already killed his three older siblings. He speaks easily and confidently about dying – in the language of faith.
Christians even have a hard time dealing with death theologically. If we affirm the resurrection and victory over death through Jesus Christ, is it all right for us to mourn the tragedy we sense at someone’s death? I’ve noticed that the current practice among Christians from many backgrounds is to call funerals “celebrations of life” – a practice, I hasten to add, that I participate in and have no agenda to discourage. But let’s be careful not to leave people thinking that honest grief and tears are signs of a lack of faith. That is far too shallow and judgmental. It isn’t healthy.
In our text for today, we make a critical turn in the Gospel of John. This is the final of the seven signs to Jesus’ true identity in this Gospel and turns us toward Jerusalem and the cross. The issues of life, death, and resurrection are central from chapter 11 through the end of this Gospel, and here is where we switch subjects from self-revelation through teaching and signs to self-disclosure through death and resurrection.
Jesus’ View of Death
In the account of the resurrection of his friend Lazarus of Bethany, Jesus teaches us several things. For one, he shows us that he doesn’t see the finality to death that many attach to it. Yet he does not rebuke the tears and wailing of his deceased friend’s two sisters and other mourners. In fact, he joins with them to cry at his tomb. Jesus’ confrontation with death in this dramatic scene shows there is life after physical death, reveals the Son of God as the one who has power over death, and helps us understand the here-and-now meaning of eternal life.
Before death can be understood as anything else, it must first be acknowledged for what it is in common perception: Satan’s weapon of terror against human beings. This is no overstatement, for it is the language of Scripture itself: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).
Jesus was no stranger in the home of Lazarus; Mary and Martha knew the one they believed was Messiah loved their brother (v.3). Mary will later perform a loving act of devotion toward Jesus that he will validate as an anointing-in-advance for his coming death (12:3ff; cf. v.2). So when Lazarus became seriously ill, we are not surprised that the women sent an urgent message to Jesus. He deliberately drags his feet about going to him – for reasons that become clear later. He assures his disciples, however, that the outcome of all that is in process will not be Lazarus’ death but God’s glory (v.4).
Mourning a death in Jesus’ culture was a week-long event that started with burial on the day of the person’s death and was hardly subdued. If you have seen CNN video from modern funerals in Israel, the loud wailing, flailing of arms, and beating of breasts from those pictures may be read back into this text. So, four days into the week of mourning for Lazarus, Jesus and his followers finally arrive on the chaotic scene.
Sleep Makes People Better
As the group with Jesus had traveled toward Bethany, several in that company were feeling uneasy about going back to the vicinity of Jerusalem (v.8). Just three months earlier at Hanukkah and about six months ago at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus had proclaimed himself the light of the world and indicted the Jewish officials for loving darkness and living as blind men. But his hour was coming very near, and there was no reason for him to flee the final confrontation he knew was on the horizon.
It is interesting, however, that they walked along hearing him renew and expand his claims: “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them” (11:9-10).
Then he gave this cryptic word about Lazarus: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (11:11). When the disciples took that to mean that he was better and resting, he removed the veil of metaphor. “Lazarus is dead,” he told them. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you might believe” (11:14-15). Sensing that something important was brewing but remembering the danger of going back to Judea, Thomas – not Peter this time – speaks up for the group and affirms their willingness to go with him into any danger.
It is so like the John we have come to know in studying this Gospel that he would put side by side the issues of sleeping and dying – and record someone’s comment to the effect that sleep was a good thing and a sign that everything was resolving. John didn’t see all this on the day it happened, but in retrospect he could not fail to mention it. It reminds me of the self-arranged funeral of Sir Winston Churchill. After the service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and with the benediction said, England’s former Prime Minister had arranged the following. A bugler high in the dome of the great cathedral played Taps, the universal signal that the day has ended. After a pause, a bugler on the opposite side played Reveille – the wake-up call to persons in the military. It was Churchill’s way of expressing his faith in what John saw here. A Christian’s “Good night!” here is his “Good morning!” with God. When someone “goes to sleep,” it is a good sign – if he or she knows Christ as Savior and Lord.
The Difference It Makes
Back at Bethany, Jesus arrives on the scene – met along his way by Martha. She expresses the confidence that things could have been much different, if only he had gotten there sooner (11:21-22). Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23). Her response makes it clear that she believed him – but thought he was referring to “the last day” rather than that day. Then comes the most critical part of this text:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:25-27).This is the most critical part of our text? Absolutely! But we haven’t come to the part where Lazarus rises from the dead. I know it, but this story is about Jesus rather than Lazarus. So I’m looking for it to reach a great crescendo around him rather than his friend. And the high point of this story is Martha’s confession of Jesus as the resurrection and the life, the Messiah and Son of God.
Lazarus’ resurrection didn’t depend on what Martha believed. Jesus had come there to raise him, and her faith or lack of it would not be the deciding factor. He had already told the disciples he was going to raise Lazarus for the sake of helping them believe (11:15b). His question to Martha was this: Do you believe in me? Do you have faith that my power is greater than death? Do you accept my lordship over all things? Her confession is the grandest and fullest yet heard in this Gospel: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” What Jesus would do for her brother would be a proof that her already-confessed faith was fully warranted. Her confession entailed far, far more than she knew that day!
Martha called her sister, Mary, and they went with Jesus to their brother’s tomb. What a commotion it must have been when they got there! He was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” by it (11:33). Jesus isn’t frightened by death, but Lazarus has become a victim of death and this wailing crowd represents the chaos Satan has introduced into human experience by means of death. “Jesus began to weep” (11:35). His Satanic Majesty appeared to have triumphed again. He had used his scariest weapon against mortals – death. Enough! No more! It was time for Jesus to serve notice that the devil’s days were numbered. Life would win over death, and the power of Jesus to make that happen was about to be displayed for all to see.
They go to the tomb. Jesus asked for the stone to be moved that covered its entrance. Martha protested that such a thing would be inappropriate and physically disgusting. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39). She wasn’t expecting him to bring her brother back to life. She was horrified at the thought of opening that tomb. (By the way, I think we know now why Jesus drug his feet after first hearing of Lazarus’ predicament. A common Jewish belief from that time held that a dead person’s spirit lingered for three days “hoping to reenter” his body. The fourth day was outside the scope of such a thing, and Lazarus’ body was decomposing. Jesus wanted to be sure this was seen as a resurrection, not a resuscitation!)
With the stage set, Jesus looked toward heaven and prayed. He didn’t pray for empowerment. He didn’t ask for the ability to draw Lazarus from the dead. He prayed for one reason only – to acknowledge his partnership with the Father in this miracle. He does nothing without the Father. He and the Father are one. He and the Father are calling people to life – new life, right-now life, life with a quality it has never had before.
So Jesus looked toward the exposed opening of the tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (11:43). He didn’t shout because Lazarus might have a hard time hearing. He screamed because of his anger at Satan. You don’t whisper when you are facing down the nemesis of the human race. You shout!
I’m just glad Jesus remembered to be specific! If he had just cried “Come out!” in that place, every corpse ever interred in that area – maybe in the whole world! – would have been released from the clutches of death!
Death doesn’t have the last word, life does. Satan can’t win, for Jesus can destroy him by the power of his word. Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your victory? Satan – the one who has used death to terrorize us – has been crushed and disarmed. Before our story is finished, you will hear Jesus say, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades” (Rev. 1:17b-18).
It’s like having a VHS or DVD and going to the final scene first! Death doesn’t get the last word. That belongs to Jesus. No matter how bad things look, no matter how real the suffering is, no matter that your physical life does not survive – if you believe what Martha confessed that day, you have Christ’s power at work in you right now.
It isn’t just that you will come out of the grave a few years or centuries or millennia from now; it’s that you know why you are living today. You have already been plugged into eternal life, life from above, life with a new purpose, life that will forever share in the victorious grace of God. You are freed from the spiritual death that still holds people captive who don’t know Christ. The same power that will one day raise you from your grave is present now to give grace sufficient for all your past, strength sufficient to all your current struggles, and hope sufficient for whatever may come
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