Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
Saving the Best for Last
I imagine you all have been in a position where someone might say to you, “Don’t get too excited. I’ve saved the best for last.” Those are usually words we hear as certain blessings are being poured over us, layer upon layer. Children—perhaps it’s your birthday or it’s Christmas, and your parents have gone through a series of presents which were nice and thoughtful. Then, they pull you in—“ah, but guess what? I’ve saved the best for last!”. Or perhaps you’re at a several-course dinner, and everyone knows dessert is coming. We love to save the best for last, don’t we?
We see Jesus doing that, here in John’s gospel this morning. As we open up to the first half of John 11 this morning, we are turning to Jesus’s last and final great miracle which John records of Jesus’s public ministry. We won’t see another miracle from Jesus until he gets up and leaves the empty tomb in chapter 20. This is the last miracle (or sign, as John calls them) of his public, earthly ministry, here in John’s gospel—and folks, it’s an incredible one.
Jesus is putting his actions to his words. He’s walking the talk. He’s said he is the bread of life, the water of life, the light of life. John’s gospel has built us up to this moment, and in this last miracle we find that Jesus is no longer speaking abstractly or in some high and spiritual manner. He’s really the life of life. He is life, folks. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (verses 25-26). He says this just before he raises someone who has spent the last four days dead in a tomb. This is objective, real-life stuff. He is the life of life.
Folks, there’s a lot of awesome things to see in this story. It’s not just some miracle, or just some resurrection story. Jesus goes out of his way to really build this whole thing up. He’s calculated and purposeful in everything he’s doing. He’s ensuring that this miracle isn’t wasted away as a sort of shock-and-awe moment. By the time he had raised Lazarus, he had set things up so that people will look at him and marvel at him, rather than Lazarus. He waited four days to show up. He showed up and said some incredibly appropriate, stunning things concerning the resurrection. We’ll see next week that he grieved and wept with the family, and he called Lazarus out of the tomb. This isn’t about Lazarus or his grieving family. This is all about Jesus, and how he is revealing himself as life. Everything he’s doing, here (even before he raises Lazarus) is showing him to be life. That’s what this whole thing is about. It’s about revealing Jesus in the way Psalm 36 speaks of God—"with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.”
Those who see and trust in Jesus, in this passage, are blessed with light and life. He doesn’t simply give life. He is life. So, that’s what we can expect to discover. As we walk through this passage this morning, we’re going to see a number of ways Jesus shows himself to be life. There are a number of them, and we’ll simply discover them together as we walk through this story together.
Jesus is Life #1: Using Death for His Glory
So, look at verses 1–3 with me as we start our study this morning.
John 11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
So, that’s the situation. “A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany”. Lazarus had two sisters—Mary and Martha. This is the first time we meet this family from Bethany in John’s gospel, although we do meet them in Luke’s gospel if you remember the well-known story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 where Martha is all busy and anxious over her hospitality, and Mary sat at Jesus’s feet to learn from him. We really don’t know a lot about how deep Jesus got in his relationship with this family. It seems that the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 is the first time they meet, but gleaning many details about this Bethany family’s relationship with Jesus is a bit difficult.
The point John is demonstrating to us, here, is that this isn’t some random family. Verse 2 points out there that it’s this Mary who pours a years’ wages worth of ointment on Jesus, inadvertently anointing him with oil before his death. There was some well-established chemistry and love, here. So when Lazarus grows deathly ill, his sisters send for Jesus with a message saying “Lord, he whom you love is ill”. Don’t you love that? They don’t just say “Lazarus is sick”. They pull at his heart-strings, so to speak. “He whom you love is ill.” They’re hoping and praying that Lazarus wouldn’t simply be moved out of pity, but out of love and urgency for his beloved friends.
What does Jesus say? Verse 4—
4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
How’s that for a response? Next time someone is deathly ill in our congregation, and I’m called for a pastoral visit, how do you think it’d go over if I said something like this? “Ah, it’s ok. This doesn’t lead to death—it’s for God’s glory your sick. God will work it out for his glory.” Is that usually how a good man responds when he learns someone whom he loves is sick?
And mind you—this did lead to death. Lazarus died. “This illness does not lead to death”, Jesus says. What’s he saying, here? Of course, he’ll say something a bit more nuanced and more clarifying later on in our passage, in verse 25—“whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live”. Those have been some of the most comforting words to me over the last year and a half. That’s your go-to funeral passage, right there, when a believer dies. We’ve had a lot of funerals, here at Covenant—and yes, some very difficult funerals. I’ve been so comforted, so grounded as a minister, to know that my job is to be a minister of Jesus’s words and Jesus’s promises. That’s my job. “Though he die, yet he shall live”. Or, as Jesus says here, “This kind of illness [i.e., affliction] does not lead to death”. There’s more to death than just death, you know. That’s what Jesus is beginning to hint at, here, even in verse 4. “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God…” When God has committed to glorify himself over death, in this way, then death is no longer death. It’s an opportunity for God to glorify himself over death as life. The only way you can be glorified over death is if you conquer it with life.
So, Jesus is saying that this an opportunity for him to be glorified as the life-giving Son of God. “This illness… is for the glory of God so that the Son of God [that is, “I”, “Jesus”] may be glorified through it.” Jesus’s glory is so great, we might not even say this sickness leads to death. Lazarus, by all intents and purposes, isn’t going to die. He’ll die, but he won’t die, because Jesus’s glory is that great.
Just think of the broader context, here in John. Jesus has been claiming all those titles as the living water and bread of life and light of life—what do you think we might expect to see when Jesus commits to glorify himself in a situation like this? He’s going to show up giving bread, living water, light, life. He must, folks. If he doesn’t, he’s going to make himself out to be a liar. His reputation would be profaned rather than glorified—and, it’s a marvel that he would commit to being glorified even over something like this deadly illness.
You have to wonder what his disciples around him thought when he said this. “This illness… is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God [that is, “I”, “Jesus”] may be glorified through it.” If the disciples around him were paying attention, they’d start thinking, “Get ready, we’re about to see the bread of life, the living waters, the great shepherd of the sheep in full force.” That’s what they should have thought when Jesus said this.
It’s what we should think, ourselves, whenever we suffer. It’s not a far stretch by any means for us to turn Jesus’s statement onto our own sufferings and afflictions. “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This suffering, this affliction, is for the glory of God so that Jesus would be glorified through it as the bread of life, the living water, the light of life, as life itself. We can say confidently, “I don’t need to despair of death! I have Jesus!” It must be so, because God his committed himself to such glory.
So, that’s the first way we see Jesus as life, in this passage. In verse 4, there, we see that he uses death and sickness to glorify himself as the author and giver of life. The only thing that can ultimately have glory over death, folks, is life. Isn’t that true? It’s a very simple, but very true statement. He’s purposed to glorify himself over Lazarus’s sickness and death, which can only mean he’s going to be glorified as the author and giver of life.
Jesus is Life #2: No Fear of Death
Now, keep reading in verse 5.
John 11:5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So there, Jesus’s love is reiterated. It’s a wonderful statement, really. Jesus had close, loving, deep, meaningful relationships. Jesus ate meals with these folks. They meant something to him. He loved them. So, verse 6—
6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Don’t miss how odd that statement is. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so (or therefore) when he heard Lazarus was ill he” stayed put for two more days. If you hear that someone is desperately sick, is the natural course of action to stay put where you are? That’s what this verse is saying. “Jesus loved Marth and her sister and Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was ill”, he stayed put.
It’d be like me saying “Just this last week I heard my brother in Minnesota was in a fatal car accident, and was in critical condition. Now I really love my brother, so I stayed here in New York”. It seems almost heartless, doesn’t it? In fact, this is after verse 4, which at first glance, also seems a little bit distanced and heartless. “This illness isn’t leading to death, it’s for my glory”—and then, verse 5, “out of true love for this family, I’ll stay where I am right now”. Folks, Jesus is operating on a totally different playing field, here. He stays two more days because he loves this family from Bethany. He’s life, folks. He’s all sovereign God calling the shots, dealing the cards, and working an incomparably great glory for his people. The most loving thing he can do for them is to show them that he’s life. He’s the glory of life, on their behalf, so they don’t need to fear anything.
We’ll see this again later when Martha makes a reference to Jesus’s delayed arrival in verse 21. For now I’ll just say it becomes very clear Jesus truly was acting with decisive control and genuine love in all of this. He waited two days for a reason—and, a deeply loving reason at that.
For now, if you keep reading in verse 7, you’ll see another layer in this story which I think is fairly easy to miss—but, it’s another layer of seeing Jesus as life. Verse 7—
7 Then after this [the two days of delay] he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”
Don’t miss what’s going on, here. Bethany is in Judea—it’s about two miles away from heart of Jerusalem. The last time Jesus was in Jerusalem—presumably, not too long prior to all this—the Jews tried to stone Jesus. They’re really upping their ante. Jesus had poked the beast one too many times, and we’re at a point where a return to Jerusalem is a near suicidal journey.
That’s an awesome layer of detail in all of this, folks. Don’t miss how John is laying this on, thick, here. It’s almost humorous. They had just fled from Jerusalem so they don’t die, and now Jesus says “let’s go to Judea again”. His disciples respond in disbelief, “Rabbi, again? Really?!”.
It’s a lot of the apostle Paul in Acts, isn’t it? The apostles couldn’t keep Paul from constantly hurling himself into near-suicidal situations. Paul was constantly and fearlessly hurling himself into rioting crowds and colosseums and Jewish opposition, at the dismay of his missionary associates. Why would anyone do that? Why would Jesus, or Paul, or anyone else, throw themselves back into the hands of murderous people like this?
The answer is simple, folks. Paul—and here, Jesus—do not fear death. Jesus’s disciples, here fear death. “Again, Jesus? Back to Judea? Really?”. Jesus doesn’t fear death. Why is that, folks? Why would he venture right into the arms of death like this? He’s life, folks. He is life. Remember what Paul said, “to live is Christ, to die is gain”. You only say that if you genuinely believe Christ is life, and if Christ is your life. Paul walked the talk, too. Jesus, here, as he’s saying “I am the resurrection and the life”, is walking the talk. “Let us go to Judea again”, he says to his disciples’ dismay and confusion. Earlier, by the way, he was very clear about all this in John 10. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” He’s in control. He’s life, and no one takes his life from him. He only gives life—even his own life for his friends.
So, we’ve seen two ways so far that Jesus is life. (1) He uses our death to glorify himself as the life-giver, and (2) he’s not afraid of death. He goes right back into Judea “again” because no one can take his life from him. He is life.
Jesus is Life #3: Working Tirelessly
There’s another reason way Jesus shows himself to be life in this passage. As we keep reading along in this story, picking up there in verse 9, we’ll see Jesus answer his disciples dismay with something like a parable. They get baffled by his desire to go back into Judea, so he responds to them with a baffling word puzzle. He answers them in verse 9,
9 “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
So there, Jesus is referring to the common way these Jews of the time understood time in a day. Time was measured by dividing up the daylight in to twelve even periods. If it was summertime and the days were longer, the twelve periods would have been a bit longer. If it was wintertime and the days were shorter, the twelve periods would have been a bit shorter. Whatever the case, there were always twelve hours of daylight to work before it got dark and people would go to bed. You work during daylight, and you sleep when the sun goes down. It’s how things worked back then before electronics and lightbulbs.
So, Jesus’s response to his baffled and confused disciples is simple—“why am I going back to Judea again, where they want to kill me? Because it’s still daylight and I have work to do.” He’s speaking about his ministry, there, and not so much that particular 24 hour day. Jesus is saying, “my ministry has not yet eclipsed into dawn. The sun has not yet gone down on my ministry—it’s not yet time for me to go to sleep, to end my work and my ministry on the cross.” So, he keeps working. He keeps following his father’s will that he might be glorified.
Jesus was committed to work right up to the time the sun would go down on his ministry, so to speak. He worked right up to his death, folks. He redeemed the time despite all adversity.
This is a testament to his life, folks. Have you ever seen someone work tirelessly, and wonder how they did it? You look at them with a raised eyebrow, “how do you keep going, man? If I were you I would have been dead exhausted months ago!” What do we often say about people like that? “They’re full of life. They just keep going.” There are some people who seem to literally have more life in them than others—it’s not necessarily true, but it appears that way at times, doesn’t it?
Well, it doesn’t just appear that way for Jesus. He kept going as the river of living water—he kept going until the fulfillment of his ministry with life brimming out of him. In some of the other gospels, especially as they highlight more of his Galilean ministry amongst massive crowds numbering in the tens of thousands, we really see this in Jesus. He just kept going. He just kept serving, and he got the strength and the life from within himself. He is life, even as he shares life eternally as God the Son with the Father and the Spirit. It’s a marvel, folks.
And in case we miss it, again, he’s in the business of giving life. He makes that strength and life available to us. He he came and died to give us that strength and joy and peace and life. I’ll use Paul as an example again, as he said that he “worked harder than any [of the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is in me”. Or, you might think of when he confessed “I can do [i.e. suffer] all things through Christ who strengthens me”. His life and strength is always available to you, folks. What does that actually look like? He offers forgiveness of your sins. He offers you his righteousness and holiness before God, to stand blameless before him and receive all of God’s benefits. It’s daytime, folks, and our Lord is calling us to use the time wisely, depending on him for strength and help.
So Jesus answers his disciples that it’s daytime, and that’s why he’s going to Judea. The dawn of his ministry had not yet come. It wasn’t time for him to go to sleep yet—for him to die yet—and so fulfill his ministry. So, he keeps working with the life that is within him. There’s the third way Jesus reveals himself as life. He keeps going, so long as it’s daytime.
Jesus is Life #4: Redefining Death
Now keep reading, there in verse 11. We’ll find another way Jesus is life in this passage.
11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died…
That’s beautiful, folks. What I want us to see, here, is how Jesus redefines death for us. He has the audacity to call death sleep, and to really play on that language to the bewilderment of his disciples. They thought Jesus was actually saying Lazarus, who was ill, was sleeping. “We’re going to Judea again—and, for a sick man who is resting?” It flew right over their heads, and reasonably so.
We are fairly used to that kind of language when someone dies. We’ll say something like “Jack has finally entered into his eternal sleep”. Although, that kind of language wasn’t altogether common back then. We see it a little bit in the Old Testament, but most commentators mention that it was not a common way to refer to death back then. But, Jesus goes there. He really plays this up. “Lazarus has fallen asleep.”
Folks, Jesus was teaching his disciples something about death. He was preparing them for what they were about to see. They were about to see the security and hope and meaning of death when a believer dies in Jesus’s security and power. If you are secured by Jesus, believing in him, then your bodily death isn’t death. It’s more like sleep—and, I’m not talking about what some refer to as soul sleep. Soul sleep is the belief that our body and our soul will sleep in some unconscious state until Jesus returns. We don’t believe that’s what the Bible teaches. “Today you will be with me in paradise”, Jesus says to the thief on the cross. There’s a sense of immediacy, there, even though the thief’s body did not enter paradise on that day. The thief’s soul did, not his body.
When we die, our souls are immediately brought up to Jesus and the life he offers, and our bodies rest in our graves as though they are sleeping. The day of our first life has ended, and the new day of glory is yet to dawn. When the day of Jesus’s return dawns, our bodies will wake up and be united with our souls for all eternity.
Death, for the Christian, is a wonderful thing. It’s life to our souls, and rest for our bodies. Our word cemetery derives from a Greek word that means sleep? A Christian cemetery is a place of sleep, not death. We believe that, because we believe Jesus is our life. It’s not just some kind way to speak of death.
I love how the larger catechism speaks of all this (and, I paraphrase this a little bit)—
Q. 86. What [will believers] enjoy immediately after death?
A. [After death], their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, [and they are] waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, until at the last day they be again united to their souls.
I find that deeply encouraging, folks. “Lazarus has fallen asleep”, Jesus says.
Thus, we find yet another reason to regard Jesus as life in this passage. He redefines death for us. It’s not “the end of life”. It’s not judgment or hell. It’s like sleep for the body, and glory for the soul. Jesus could only say this confidently if he truly is life, and gives life to his people so they might not experience the torments of hell.
So far, we’ve seen four ways Jesus is life in this passage. (1) He uses our death to glorify himself as the life-giver, (2) he’s not afraid of death, (3) he’s working all 12 hours of the day, fulfilling his ministry as though he’s brimming with life and strength, and now (4) he’s redefining death for us, referring to it as mere “sleep”.
I have one more for you, in this passage.
Jesus is Life #5: Using Death to Produce Faith
Number 5, he uses death to produce faith in his people. You see that quite clearly in verses 14–15,
14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
There, we’re really getting at the heart of this. Jesus was glad he wasn’t there to save Lazarus. He was glad Lazarus died “so that you may believe”, he says. Folks, this is Jesus literally saving the best for last. He’s done all kinds of amazing miracles—but this one was outside anyone’s purview. No one would have even thought Jesus might do this kind of miracle. He’s setting all of this up so that people—his disciples—would believe in him rightly. He set this all up so that people would believe in him fully, as they ought. Up to this point, their belief was not full. Sure, they believed he could heal the sick and cast out demons. They believed all sorts of amazing things about Jesus. But this is where the rubber hits the road. Do you believe Jesus is life—that there is no death or misery or suffering outside of his power?
Jesus, here, is using death to produce faith in us. He’s using the worst form of suffering—death—to produce in us a will to trust him. “Will you trust me with death?”—is there a higher form of belief or trust? I don’t think so. To trust someone in that situation would be nothing short of ascribing to that person the power of life. “Yes, I trust you to get me through death.” He’s using death to produce faith in us. He’s life, folks. The story, of course, only continues to elaborate more on all this. I think all of verses 17–27 are there to further produce faith and assurance into us, that we might believe he really is life.
Think about what’s going in on verses 17–27, there. He arrived and Lazarus had been dead for four days. That’s a Jewish way to say he was dead-dead. He was really dead. It’s largely agreed upon by scholars that the Jews of this time believed that the soul of a person would hover over a body for the first three days, and then it would finally depart on the fourth day once the soul saw signs of decay on the body. That was just a Jewish superstition of the day—there’s no biblical evidence to back it up. But, it was the view, and Jesus leans into it here. This was the fourth day. Everyone is thinking the soul is gone. This was also the fourth day of grieving—meaning, the heaviest of their grieving rituals had subsided. Things were beginning to calm down, now, as people accept the reality of the man’s death.
Can you imagine it? Three days of grieving, and just trying to accept the unbelievable truth that your loved one has passed away. You never really do fully accept it, in some ways—but it’s especially hard in those first few days. Day four, it’s beginning to really settle in. Then, in comes Jesus. “Your brother will rise again”.
Martha gets in a little conversation with Jesus about the last resurrection, which was commonly believed by the Pharisees and Jews of the day. But Jesus clarifies—“I don’t think you get it, Martha.” He says, “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?”
Jesus comes with life, and he’s looking for faith. He’s using this whole situation to prepare people for faith, and to give his people faith. They will believe, folks. We’ll see that in the aftermath of this story, in the coming weeks. People came to believe upon him as the resurrection and the life. That’s what he’s after in all this. “Do you believe this?”, he says. Do you?
Folks, Jesus’s words there are worth deeply pondering. “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”. Think about it, and ask yourself if you really believe it. If you really live it. You’re not going to die. That means the life you are living now is the same life you will live for eternity. Think about that, and ask yourself if you really believe it. Do you believe that the life you are living right now is the same life you will be living from now and unto eternity? That’s what it means to never die, right? It means you’re living that life (in some way or another) right now. Do you believe that? It’s what Jesus seems to be alluding to, here.
The only thing that will be different is that Jesus will do away with your struggle with sin and suffering. Fundamentally, though, we’re talking about the same life—we’re talking about Jesus. We’re talking about his life, his joy, his peace, his forgiveness and grace. If you’re experiencing that by faith today, I hope and trust you’re saying “yes and amen” to what I’m saying, and that you’re eagerly welcoming the thought of an eternity with this life and joy in Jesus we are experiencing now. Yes, it’ll only get bigger and fuller and more glorious. But, we have the firstfruits now, folks.
So, don’t grumble. Be thankful, You have life, eternal life. Though you’ll die, you will never die. This is going to continue unto glory.
So folks, this is the best for last—and yes, he’ll capstone all of this with his own death and resurrection which secures our resurrection and life. The capstone of Christianity is confessing and seeing and loving that Jesus himself is our life. “To live is Christ and to die is gain”. That’s the life, folks. Here, in this passage he’s showing that he’s life as (1) he uses our death to glorify himself as the life-giver, (2) he’s not afraid of death, (3) he’s working all 12 hours of the day, fulfilling his ministry as though he’s brimming with life and strength, and now (4) he’s redefining death for us, referring to it as mere “sleep”, and (5) he uses death to produce faith in us. So folks, believe and live life with gratitude to Jesus.