Expo Preaching
Select a filter to search the sermons in the list.

Death and Life

Sun, Jan 31, 2021
Teacher: Chris Appleby
Passage: John 11:1-45
Duration:23 mins 31 secs
Lazarus is ill but Jesus delays going to him. He dies before Jesus gets there. But Jesus is the the resurrection and the life.

Download media

Message text

Jesus is across the Jordan, at the place where John had been baptising at the start of the gospel. Interestingly, this place is called Bethany in ch1, but it’s not the Bethany where Martha and Mary lived.  

The narrative begins with a certain man named Lazarus becoming ill. Lazarus we discover is the brother of Mary and Martha. Mary is the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them clean with her hair. You may remember the incident in Luke’s gospel where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as he taught his disciples while Martha was in the kitchen getting a meal ready. And Jesus commended her for that decision. So there’s a deep relationship here.

Lazarus is so ill that they fear he may die so what do they do? They send a message to Jesus asking him to come back and heal their brother.

Naturally 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. A couple of chapters earlier we read how Jesus said a similar thing to a blind man about his affliction? 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.” Now think about that. What they’re about to witness is a sign that both glorifies God but at the same time glorifies the Son of God.

That’s because Jesus is the one in whom God pre-eminently reveals himself. As we approach the end of Jesus ministry on earth the unity of the Father and the Son is becoming more evident, in John’s eyes at least.
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, the overture to a great opera. His full glory will be fully 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. Notice, by the way, that John tends not to talk about miracles. He calls them signs: pointers to a greater truth; 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 so it is here.

Now clearly Jesus knows what’s going on. He understands what’s going on in Bethany. But he doesn’t hurry off to heal Lazarus. Instead he waits two full days. What’s he doing? Rather than hurrying off to care for his friends he leaves them to mourn for 4 days before getting there. Well John makes it quite clear that he’s not being uncaring. No, 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. They believed 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 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.

In response to their objection Jesus repeats something almost identical to what he says to them when faced with the healing of the blind man in ch 9: “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 don’t want to go go near Jerusalem.

So he says it plainly. “Lazarus has died.” And he adds that this is a good thing, for their sake. Jesus is 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.

There’s nothing worse than having someone close to you die. I can’t think of anything that could happen that’s worse than that. Whether it’s a spouse or a parent, a sibling, a close friend and especially a child there’s only grief in that moment. And that’s where Martha is. But Jesus sees that 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. One of my favourite New Testament letters is Ephesians where that phrase “in Christ” is repeated over and over again? Interestingly 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, as I said earlier. 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. But again, there’s no rebuke from him. No, it seems more likely to me that he was simply 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.”

In the previous chapter Jesus says 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 has 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 from 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.