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What Jesus Thinks About Life and Death

July 2, 2023


Pastor Peder Kling


Sermon Passage: John 11:28–44

Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)

Those Private and Personal Moments

There are certain conversations in life which are so personal, so sensitive, so private and delicate, that they ought not be had with just anyone. These are conversations, we say, that should be had “behind closed doors”. You might think of today’s modern counseling office, or the Pastor’s office, where people are discussing their emotional scars and wounds from past or present relationships. Or, perhaps you recently lost a loved one and you’re really struggling to process that tragedy, and you’d take any help you can get to grieve and heal rightly. You don’t go to just anyone for those difficult conversations. In the professional world of counseling or other similar professions, the nature of these conversations is so delicate and impactful that counselors or school teachers can be sued for malpractice, emotional abuse, or a breach of confidentiality. 


These kinds of conversations are of incredible consequence. Depending on how a counselor speaks—or doesn’t speak—will often disproportionately impact that person’s spiritual or emotional condition. If you say the wrong thing, someone might “give up” and plunge into a worse depression or pain. Say the right thing and the person might be lifted out of their misery, to new life. 


Folks, these sorts of conversations are not uncommon. If I were to ask you to dig up a conversation concerning your life, which you would only have behind closed doors and only with someone you deeply trust, I imagine every one of you could easily think of something. 


What does this all have to do with this morning’s passage? This morning, we’re going to witness Jesus at work in an intensely personal, sensitive moment. Lazarus has died. His family is grieving. In fact, Jesus is even addressing what appears to be a subtle grievance against him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, Mary says in verse 32. She falls at Jesus’s feet, knowing that Jesus could have healed Lazarus, and expresses this deep grief and pain, perhaps disappointment. “I sent for you, Jesus! We did—we sent for you! You didn’t come! Why didn’t you come?!”. This is delicate.


How does Jesus handle this? Did he just come as a counselor, to console this family? Was he even trying to console this grieving family? Why didn’t he come sooner, to heal Lazarus before he died? There are lots of questions we might ask of this passage. Perhaps, maybe—why did he weep over Lazarus’s death when he knew he’d be raising Lazarus? What’s Jesus doing, here?


Folks, it’s simple—and, we’ve already seen the answer in the last week or two. Jesus is showing us his glory, so that we would believe and trust in him. He’s showing us his glory over and in those painful matters of life—moments like death and grief. Specifically, in this story, as we walk through this passage together this morning, we’ll see Jesus show us (1) how we should think of death, and grieving; and (2) how we should think of life, and hope. That’s what we can expect to find, this morning, as we walk through this together. Jesus will teach us a few lessons on death and grieving, and a few lessons on life and hope. 


Jesus on Death and Grief (Three Lessons)

So let’s draw our attention to where our passage begins, there in verse 28. Again, by way of this verse’s context, you’ll remember from last week that Jesus just had a private conversation with Martha. Martha heard Jesus finally made it to town after Lazarus had been dead for four days, so she single-handedly ran out to meet Jesus alone, and she had a conversation with Jesus. That conversation concluded in verse 27, when Martha confessed Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world”. So, that brings us to verse 28.


28   When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.


So, this is all setting us up to see a contrast between Martha and Mary. Now, I don’t want to press this too hard, although I think John’s gospel really is trying to portray a difference in Martha and Mary. 


When you read this story, did you consider why Mary did not come to Jesus with Martha, the first time? Why didn’t Mary come with Martha? Why did Martha have to go back and bring a personal message from Jesus, “the master is here and he’s calling for you, Mary.”?


This is actually a turning of the tides—a turning of our expectations, if you will—from how we usually consider Mary and Martha. If you’ve grown up in the church, hearing Bible stories and sermons for some length of time, it’s quite possible you’ve heard someone say “don’t be a Martha, be a Mary”. If someone is anxious, or if someone is working their tail off in the kitchen at the expense of their spiritual well-being, someone might scold you and say “don’t be a Martha, be a Mary”. Where does that sort of language come from?


You won’t find the story in John’s gospel. It’s in Luke’s gospel, in Luke 10:38–42. It’s hard to know for sure, but it would seem that this is the story where Jesus first meets Mary and Martha. Jesus was passing through Bethany during his public ministry, and Martha took the opportunity to invite Jesus into her home. Luke tells us— 


And [Martha]had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her”. 


Don’t be a Martha, right? Be a Mary—seek the Lord. Sit at his feet and learn. Soak in his teaching, his word, and you’ll find life. You’ll find the better portion. Don’t go about life anxiously serving and fretting about things like Martha. 


That’s Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Now, what do we see of them in John 11? Who is more eager to sit at Jesus’s feet, and learn from him, and seek his blessing? It would seem Martha is, this time. In fact, it almost seems like Mary is in such a funk of grief that she decided not to go to Jesus. It’s hard to tell, folks, but the story almost reads that way. Look again, back at last week’s passage, in verse 20. “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.” The word there is “but”—a word that sometimes is used to show contrast in a sentence. John could have used “and”. He could have said “Martha went out to meet Jesus, and Mary stayed in the house”—that’s a more vague way to say it, to not point out the contrast between Mary and Martha, there. Although John says “but Mary remained seated”. Martha went out (you almost get a picture of her running out to her Lord, to hear from and speak with him); but Mary sat. Was she being stubborn? Was she paralyzed in grief? Was she bitter with Jesus, for not coming sooner to save Lazarus? 


Or perhaps, if we’re thinking the best of her, she hadn’t yet heard that Jesus arrived. Perhaps only Martha heard of Jesus’s arrival, and Martha bolted out to her Lord before taking time to tell Mary. The passage could be read that way. So in a nutshell—was she left behind the first time (in Martha’s haste to see Jesus), or did she intentionally stay back the first time because for whatever reason she didn’t want to go to Jesus?


There are a few more details in this story which might shed a little more light on Mary, here. Look at verse 29. How did Mary respond when Jesus called her to himself? Verse 29, “when she heard it, she arouse quickly and went to him”. Mary quickly arose. So that tells us that she wasn’t totally paralyzed or stubborn in her grief that she was unwilling or unable to go to Jesus. She was willing to come. The master called, she answered—and yes, that’s sometimes how it works when we are really struggling, isn’t it? You need a brother or sister like Martha to say “You know, Jesus is calling. Don’t give up!”. Keep each other accountable, folks. Exhort one another “every day”, Hebrews tells us, lest we be overcome by a stubborn and hard heart.


Now if we read this a little closer, I think we’ll see even more light on Mary’s situation, here in this story. It does seem she was more debilitated, or perhaps even upset with Jesus for his late arrival, than Martha was. Compare Martha’s first words to Jesus in verse 21 (which we read last week), to Mary’s first words to Jesus in this morning’s passage. As Martha took initiative to run to Jesus, she said to Jesus in verse 21, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Do you hear that? “But even now”, Martha says. She acknowledges that Jesus delayed, and that delay could have meant Lazarus’s life. “But even now…”, she says. “God will give you whatever you ask.” Even in her deep grief and pain and confusion, she’s taking the initiative. She’s going to Jesus. She’s mustering up a word of confidence and hope. 


What about Mary’s first words to Jesus, there in verse 32? After she had to be personally summoned by Jesus, what does she say to him when she arrives at his feet? Look at verse 32 again. 


“32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”


That’s all she’s got. She has to be called out to Jesus (“the teacher is here and he’s calling for you”), and then the only words she can muster up as she’s falling at his feet are “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. These are the same words Martha said in verse 21, only she doesn’t confess Martha’s words of hope. She doesn’t say “but I know God will give whatever you ask of him.” She doesn’t expressly say “but I trust you, Lord”. 


Is that a problem? Are we supposed to see that as a sort of contrast between Martha and Mary? Is John’s gospel signaling out Martha’s grief as more faithful and desireable than Mary’s grief? I mean think about this, folks. When it comes to grief, today, our culture is very insistant that there are lots of ways to grieve, and no one way is better than another way. “We all grieve differently”, they say. “We all process pain differently, and no one way is better than the other. We’ll get through it. Just give it time”. That’s often how people talk about grief in our society today. The funeral business has made a whole industry out of it—and, a very godless one at that. “Wear your loved one’s ashes around your neck. Adorn yourself with your dead—he’ll be with you forever that way.” That’s very common today. Is John’s gospel setting us up to see one form of grief better than another—perhaps even Martha’s better than Mary’s?


Keep reading, folks. I think we’ll have an answer. I think Jesus will give us an answer to all this, in this story. Verse 33, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” 


That sounds nice, doesn’t it? Jesus was “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled”. He was deeply moved and effected by their giving—he’s very empathic, right? Folks, this is a very soft interpretation of the actual Greek word in this verse. John is not simply saying that Jesus was moved with empathy, or grief. The word necessarily suggests anger, outrage, or emotional indignation. Verse 33 is saying that when Jesus saw Mary’s weeping, and also the Jews weeping, he was moved in anger and indignation. He was moved to outrage. This sort of language is often associated with rebukes, folks. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if his indignation was visible, in some way, with a deep groan or a sigh or a furrow of the eyebrow.


Think about this. This really is something else. Martha comes voluntarily and has a conversation with Jesus—and, a deeply encouraging conversation at that. Her first words express confusion (“Lord if you had been here, Lazarus would not have died”) but also trust (“but even now, if you ask anything God will give it to you”). Then, she has deeply encouraging conversation with the Lord about the resurrection and life. “I am the resurrection and the life”, Jesus says. 


Then Mary comes at Jesus’s request, and she comes with a host of Jews grieving, and she says “if you had been here Lazarus wouldn’t have died”. Then, Jesus gets angry. 


Why is he angry, folks? I think there are two reasons, and they are not mutually exclusive. One, yes, he’s angry with the curse and pain and suffering. The curse does grieve God. 


Although two, yes, he’s deeply upset with how Mary and these Jews are grieving. That’s honestly the easiest way to read this, isn’t it? “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews… with her… weeping, he was indignant…”. John’s gospel seems to be pairing Mary’s grief with the Jews’ grief, here—the same sort of grief that led some to say in verse 37 “could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”. See that, there in verse 37? The Jews are saying the same thing as Mary did. “He screwed it up! Couldn’t he have kept this from happening?!” “If you had been, here, Lord…”. This angered Jesus.


Folks, the way we view death matters deeply to God. The problem wasn’t that Mary or martha or these Jews expressed grief, or even confusion, or frustration with death or Jesus’s late arrival. The Psalms are filled with God’s people expressing their grievances toward God. But in the end, folks, the Psalms always express faith and hope in God. There’s one way to view death and grieve rightly—and it’s with faith in Jesus’s life and resurrection. 


What does Paul say about this? Anyone remember First Thessalonians 4:13? “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. We have hope. God has given us hope—he’s given us Jesus. Our sin is dealt with. Life is offered in himself, in his power and his resurrection. We ought to grieve and view death accordingly, looking to him and not to death. If we don’t, we’re smiting Jesus’s power and goodness. We’re smiting and belittling his faithful and his promises, and that sort of unbelief angers God, just as any sin angers God.


Although, this also matters because grieving as the world does, without hope in Jesus, is harmful to our souls. Martha, in her grief, wasted no time. She ran out to Jesus with hope and her spirit was lifted up. She looked up to Jesus and found hope. Mary, however, sat. She stayed home and sat to be consoled by the Jews, and to grieve like the Jews without any hope in Jesus’s power or purposes. 


Do you think that was good for her soul? I think Jesus was angry, in part, because he saw how harmful this sort of hopeless grief is to a person like Mary. This is Mary, folks—she once sat at Jesus’s feet to eagerly listen to his words as though they were life to her. “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her”. That’s the Mary Jesus knew—hopeful, choosing the good portion, eagerly sitting at his feet. Now, facing death, she’s despondent and hopeless like the rest of the Jews. Perhaps she’s even bitter with Jesus for not showing up sooner. It drove Jesus to indignation, to see Mary like this—and, for good reason. I’ve seen people crumble in despair and grief, folks. It’s ugly to see. They wear death and grief upon them like a robe of hopelessness, to their own harm.


So, what are some lessons about death and grief, which we’ve seen in all of this so far? To really sum it up—(1) we can grieve and view death with hope in Jesus, looking to Jesus, running to Jesus as Martha did, and Jesus will bless us for it; or (2) we can grieve and view death without hope in Jesus, without faith and belief, and that actually angers Jesus because it belittles his glory and it’s devastating to our souls.


Although there’s another lesson about grief and death, here. If we are struggling to grieve in hope—if we are grieving as the world does—Jesus does not leave us there. One of the points we considered last week is that Jesus uses death for his glory, and to teach us faith. If we belong to him, folks, and we’re struggling to believe and hope in our grief, Jesus won’t leave us there. 


Did Jesus leave Mary in utter hopelessness, or whatever Mary seemed to be struggling with? Obviously not. Lazarus is going to come out of the tomb, and Mary will have great reason to hope. In the next chapter, we’ll see a very different Mary, as she pours a years’ wages worth of ointment upon Jesus out of her devotion and love for him. 


But there’s even more reason to see Jesus’s commitment to Mary, here. Jesus’s anger and indignation moved to tears. “Jesus wept”, right? His groan of indignation was coupled with a lament of tears. This was personal to Jesus. His anger wasn’t heartless, self-righteous anger. It was the sort of anger we might expect of a father who is both angry and sad when he sees his son doing something deeply foolish to his own harm. If a child foolishly gives himself over to heroin, or alcoholism, is a parent not both angry and deeply saddened at the same time? It’s called love, folks. It’s the sort of love that is personally moved to never give up. Jesus wasn’t going to give up on Mary, to leave her in her grief and hopelessness. Isn’t that something? He disciplines those he loves. He works faith into us, even with indignation and tears of grief. He cares that much.


One man said of this passage that “the same sin and death, the same unbelief, that prompted his outrage also generated his greif. Those who follow Jesus as his disciples today do well to learn the same tension—that grief and compassion without outrage reduce to mere sentimentality, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance...”. That’s a solid word, right there. Anger without greif is heartless arrogance. Greif without anger is mere sentimentality. 


That, obviously, helps us understand why Jesus wept. He didn’t weep because Lazarus died. He knew Lazarus was going to be fine. He wept because these people were hopeless, even when they had the Lord of life standing before them.


So, three lessons on grief and death. (1) We can view death and grieve with hope in Jesus, looking to Jesus, running to Jesus as Martha did, and Jesus will bless us for it; or (2) we can grieve and view death without hope in Jesus, and so harm our souls and belittle Jesus’s name. But then, third (3) it’s Jesus’s indignation and grief that moves him to work faith and hope into us when we don’t have it. He’ll do it, folks. Pray for it. “Lord I believe, help my unbelief. Help me grieve and navigate this desperately sick world with hope.” He will.


Jesus on Life and Hope (Three Lessons)

Now, what does Jesus have to teach us about life and hope? Look at verse 38. 


John 11:38   Then Jesus, deeply moved again [or being once again indignant (there’s the same word)], came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 


Notice how intentional John’s gospel is being, here, in the way Lazarus is described. Martha isn’t described as “the sister of Lazarus”. She’s “the sister of the dead man”. You could translate that Greek, there, more literally as “the sister of the man who was being dead”. He’s really dead, and as Martha describes with an odor. Decay and composition would have settled in. That means that when Jesus raised him, there would have been physical changes to his body. The decomposition would have been reversed. I think we often forget about the physical changes that would have happened with many of Jesus’s miracles. Curled feet or broken legs would have been straightened. Blind people would have received new, bright eyes. Stinky dead men like Lazarus would stop stinking. So, Jesus says to Martha’s concern about this stinky tomb (verse 40)—


40 “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”


If that’s not a lesson about life and hope, I don’t know what is. “If you believe, you will see the glory of God”. Think about that. The only way anyone at that tomb saw the glory of God that day is if they believed. This is crazy talk, folks. Think about this. Did everyone believe Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, much less able to perform this miracle? Did everyone that day believe all that? Not at all. Next week, we’ll see in verse 45 some of the Jews who witnessed this didn’t believe. Some of them turned Jesus into the chief priests and pharisees who were trying to kill him. I’d hardly say that if you do that, if you turn your back on Jesus like that, you’ve seen the glory of God. You haven’t believed in him. 


But they saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead! Don’t you think they saw the glory of God? Folks, Jesus is saying, here, that they did not if they didn’t this miracle through the eyes of faith. The glory of God in this passage, folks, is not a walking dead man. The glory of God is not Lazarus walking out of the tomb. What is the glory of God in this passage, folks? What is the hope of glory and life in this passage, to only be seen through faith? It’s Jesus. 


We can’t get distracted by the miracle. The glory of any miracle is never in the miracle, or the sign, itself. The glory of the miracle is the miracle-worker, and that is entirely a matter of faith. Nobody could deny what Jesus did—they couldn’t deny the sign he performed. What they could deny was what the sign meant. They could deny seeing Jesus as the Messiah, as the hope of glory and life. 


Jesus had been clear, folks. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of life”. “Before Abraham was, I AM”. “If anyone believes in me, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”. Jesus was so clear in all this—and, now he’s showing them his words are true. He has power over death. He is life—but despite all the miracles, that hope and truth is only seen through the eyes of faith. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”—Jesus is saying, “if you believed, you’d see me for who I am?”. 


Think about how Martha might have been processing this. Jesus says this to her. She just warned Jesus that taking the stone away would release an awful odor, so Jesus says this to her. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God.” Did Jesus ever say those words verbatum to Martha? Possibly, but if he did they’re not recorded in John’s gospel. He said something like this to his disciples in verse 4, before he even left for Bethany. But he never said those words to Martha, if we’re just going by John’s gospel. What did he say to Martha? Again, verse 25 from last week—

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”


That’s what Jesus said to Martha. “Do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that I am the glory of God’s life and power over death?”. Fast forward a few more hours, now at the tomb, “Did I not say that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”. 


I almost wonder if you could see Martha puzzling all the pieces together in her mind. “Wait, he claimed to be the resurrection and the life. Now, he’s asking me to open the tomb…”. You have to wonder if there was a lightbulb moment, there.


Folks, the miracle is extraordinary and jaw-dropping, but we must not miss the very simple point. Jesus is after nothing less than belief. He’s seeking to use death to cultivate belief into his people; to train his people to look to him as life when death and suffering knock on the door. 


That was the point of his prayer, too. They took away the stone, and what does Jesus do? He prays openly, for all to hear. Verse 41—


“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”


Everything Jesus was doing served to cultivate belief within his people that he has power over death; he is sent from the Father to do his Father’s will; he is in perfect fellowship and union with God and is to be believed upon as God. 


So, the first lesson Jesus is giving us on life and hope, quite simply is that we must believe him to be God’s glory if we are to enjoy God’s life and hope. If we are to rest secure, without fear or anxiety or despair, we must believe him. We must see him. Not his works. Not his miracles. We must see him in all of his glory and mercy and patience and goodness and power. That’s the first lesson on life and hope.


The second lesson—and I intend this to be somewhat redundant—is to not short him of his power when we believe upon him. When you believe upon Jesus, folks, believe the unbelievable. I think that’s what happened to Martha in this story. “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world.” Do you, Martha? Do you even know what that means? “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Do you, Martha? Fast forward a few hours again. Jesus says “remove the stone”, to which Martha responds “Lord, the stink”. 


She believed, folks, but her belief was short-sighted. Her belief was not willing to believe the unbelievable. That’s where Jesus steps in to help her unbelief. He’s the great teacher, folks. Verse 43—


he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


It’s literally unbelievable, folks—but, do you believe it? Do you believe in the power of Jesus’s word? It’s often said about this story that if Jesus had not said “Lazarus”, then we would have seen all the graves of all the dead come out of their tombs in that instant. That’s about right. It’s the right idea—Jesus’s word is that powerful and that commanding, folks. Although, it’ll mean nothing to you if you don’t believe. His word of forgiveness, of peace, of hope, of love and protection and joy will mean nothing if you don’t believe.


One last lesson on life and hope. Jesus must summon it. He must make the call. He must raise the dead—and folks, that is our life and hope. “Lazarus, come out!”. Folks, this is a screaming picture of our salvation, our new birth. “you were dead in the trespasses and sins”, Paul says. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”. That’s our hope. God calls us out of the grave, out of our death and depravity, and the dead hear his voice. 


So, in this intensely sensitive and personal moment of grief, Jesus doesn’t shy away from giving us incredibly important lessons on grief and hope, folks. Do not grieve as the world grieves. Grieve with hope in Jesus. Run to him as Martha did, but be comforted in knowing he’ll call you out of your despondency. Hear his call, answer him, and know that he raises the dead to life. He is the resurrection and the life, folks. Believe it and see his glory for your good.

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