READ : John 11:17-27
Jesus’ raising of his dead friend Lazarus is more than just a revelation of God’s heart, an expression of his sympathy and love for grieving people. It is also a demonstration of his power over evil and over our final enemy death itself.
On the island of Cyprus in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea stands the ancient church of St. Lazarus. Tradition says that this church was built above the grave of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus that is to say, his second grave. The church is ornately decorated with many icons. Huge brass chandeliers hang down from the stone vaulting, and the light of votive candles flickers in front of numerous altars. But the real point of interest is underneath the building. If you descend a narrow stone staircase into the low-ceilinged crypt, you can peek into the empty stone coffin that according to tradition once held the body of Jesus’ friend Lazarus.
Lazarus’ grave in Cyprus is empty because during the Middle Ages marauding Crusaders stopped in Larnaca, the town where St. Lazarus’ church is located, and stole his body. They carried it back to France to be enshrined in a church there. But Lazarus’ first grave was emptied in a far more dramatic fashion as John the evangelist describes in the eleventh chapter of his gospel.
A Friend in Need
Lazarus lived with his sisters Mary and Martha in the little village of Bethany just outside Jerusalem. The family knew Jesus well. These two sisters and their brother were among Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus often stayed with them in their home when he visited the city of Jerusalem. So when word was sent one day to Jesus that Lazarus had fallen seriously ill, we might have expected Jesus to rush to his friend’s bedside in order to heal him. But Jesus seemed to be in no hurry at all to come to the aid of Lazarus. By the time he finally reached Bethany, his friend was already dead and buried. Here’s how John picks up the story:
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
John 11:17-27, English Standard Version (esv)
There is no question that Jesus had a special feeling for Mary, Martha and Lazarus who were not only his followers but his beloved friends. In fact, we catch, perhaps, the most intimate glimpse into Jesus’ heart anywhere in the Gospels as we see the scene unfold in John’s account in chapter 11. Jesus stands outside Lazarus’ tomb where John says simply “Jesus wept” (v. 35).
Bible students have long puzzled over this emotional response from the Lord at the graveside of his friend. Why should Jesus weep? Why should he be filled with grief when presumably he knows that he’s about to restore Lazarus to life?
Some early church fathers argued that Jesus was weeping out of pity for Lazarus because he had to come back to earth from the delights of heaven, but surely this is fanciful. No, I believe the best explanation is the simplest. Jesus wept because he loved. His tears flowed out of a deep affection and sympathy for Mary and Martha. He wept with those who wept.
Christ was no stoic, untouched by human pain, cold, indifferent and unfeeling. As he stood and thought of his friends, both the dead and the living, he grieved with genuine tears. This is how all the onlookers saw it; “See how he loved him!” they commented to one another as they saw Jesus crying.
Love is the dominant feeling in the heart of God. That is simply an astounding thing to realize. God is no stern, impassive, uncaring, distant deity. He does not view us with cold detachment. Our sorrows are not meaningless, nor do our cries simply echo in the emptiness of space. No, they touch the very heart of God.
But if Jesus did truly love Lazarus, Mary and Martha, then you have to admit he had a rather strange way of showing it. Yes, he’s going to raise Lazarus from death, but then, I wonder, why did the Lord allow him to die in the first place? Perhaps we’re tempted to ask the same question the bystanders at the grave did: “Couldn’t one who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?” And why didn’t Jesus respond immediately to the sisters’ desperate cries for help? Why wasn’t he with them in the hour of crisis? “Lord,” they said, “if you had been here our brother would not have died.” How often haven’t we thought the same? If only God had been there that terrible thing wouldn’t have happened.
So although the fact of his love is undeniable, Jesus’ actions do not seem loving to those who are his friends. Indeed, his ways are deeply baffling. We, of course, know that everything is going to turn out well because we know how the story ends. But that doesn’t help Mary and Martha very much during those days when they had to sit by their brother’s bedside and watch him die, then bury him, all the while wondering, “Where’s Jesus? Why doesn’t he come? Why doesn’t he answer our prayers?”
It strikes me that Mary and Martha’s experience during those few days their anxiety, questioning, pain and loss offers a sort of capsule version of our whole lives here in this valley of tears. And just as they couldn’t understand their whole story until they had experienced its end, neither can we.
The Ultimate Claim
After Martha’s gentle reproach of Jesus for not preventing her brother’s death, she hints at what she is hoping that even now, even with Lazarus long dead and buried, it might not be too late for Jesus to do something. And Jesus responds with a promise: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha understandably takes this as a piece of conventional piety, like the murmured assurances we offer in funeral homes. “I know he will rise again on the last day,” she responds. No, Martha, that’s not quite the point. Jesus is not simply offering a commonplace expression of sympathy. He is about to make the most audacious claim in human history and to offer the most stunning proof of its validity. And here’s the claim:
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.
And here’s the proof: Jesus proceeds to Lazarus’ grave, and with a cry of command brings the dead man out, alive once more. The voice that commanded the wind and waves to be still, the bread and fish to multiply, blind eyes to see and deaf ears to hear, now commands dead flesh to live. And it obeys. It must obey.
Someone remarked that the reason Jesus said “Lazarus come forth” is that if he had not been specific all the graves within the sound of his voice would have emptied in obedience to that summons. You know what? The Bible says that someday this is exactly what will happen. “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out” (John 5:28-29).
Jesus’ raising of his dead friend Lazarus is more than just a revelation of God’s heart, an expression of his sympathy and love for grieving people. It is also a demonstration of his power over evil and over our final enemy, death itself. This happened, Jesus said, for the glory of God. It is a preview of what you and I can look forward to ourselves if we are friends of Jesus too. Someday he’s going to have just this same encounter with each one of us.
In the fourth Gospel John uses a special word to describe the miracles of Jesus. He calls them signs. That means that these miraculous acts of Jesus’ power point to something beyond themselves. They bear witness to the reality of Jesus’ nature; they call our attention to some great truth about his work. The raising of dead Lazarus is the seventh and greatest of the signs recorded in the fourth Gospel. And its meaning is not hard to see. Jesus claims to be in himself, in his own person the resurrection and the life. He promises that anyone and everyone who puts their faith and trust in him will never really die but will live forever. And then he proves it with the sign of Lazarus and the ultimate sign of Easter day.
I don’t know about you, friend, but all my hope for the future rests on this claim, and this promise.
“I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”