Will Some Never Die?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:25,26 rsv

This is a message about Jesus’ power over death. The scene is a burial site near Jerusalem, in a village called Bethany. A friend of Jesus, Lazarus, has died and been buried. The Lord, though he had been told of Lazarus’ illness some time before, does not arrive in Bethany until four days after His friend’s death. Martha, one of the grieving sisters, comes out to meet Him. We see in Martha someone shaken by the death of a loved one but struggling still to believe in Jesus. Her first words to Him are wistful, plaintive, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21).

Do you sense the disappointment she feels? Martha wishes devoutly that things could have been otherwise, that her beloved brother might not have died. Her words are a kind of lament over what might have been but now cannot be. She is heartbroken that Jesus was not there to heal her brother in his extremity.

Is there also a note of reproach in what she says? Very possibly. Jesus had known of Lazarus’ illness. He might have hastened to his side. Why hadn’t He come sooner? Why, when His friend’s life was hanging in the balance, had He delayed so long? Where were You, Jesus, when our brother needed You so much?

But the most evident theme in Martha’s words is confidence in Jesus’ power. She calls Him “Lord.” She speaks with unqualified assurance about the difference His presence could have made. She knows that He could have prevented their tragic loss. He would have made the difference for Lazarus (she had no doubt about that) between life and death.

LIMITING CHRIST

But this faith on Martha’s part has definite limitations. She seems to restrict Jesus’ power over death to His immediate physical presence. She limits Him with regard to place. He could have prevented Lazarus’ dying, she said, but only if He had been in Bethany, only if He had been close enough to speak a word to His friend, to take Him by the hand, to bid the illness flee. Then everything would have been all right. But He wasn’t there, so there had been no hope.

But her faith is struggling to grow. “Even now,” she says, “whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” She seems to say, “Even in the presence of death, Jesus, Your prayers have power. Whatever You ask from the Father, it will be done.” She’s open to the miracle of answered prayer.

Jesus says to her then, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha can’t quite take in all that that means. She answers with an affirmation she has heard from childhood. It’s the accepted faith of Israel, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Again, she believes, but with reservations. She limits Jesus, in effect, this time with respect to time. There will be a general resurrection at the last day when her brother will rise. She knows this. God will not abandon Lazarus to a shadowy netherworld. In the final day, the day of the Lord, the graves will be opened and the dead will rise. She seems to say, “Surely, that’s what You mean, Jesus. Some day – but not today. Then, but not now.”

She sounds like many of us, doesn’t she? We find it relatively easy to believe in the stupendous things that are to happen at the close of history when the Lord returns. It’s much harder to be confident about what He will do in this present age. We have faith for the far off, but sometimes we have a hard time believing that we will “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

These words of Martha about the last day call forth one of our Lord’s most majestic utterances. Listen: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” This is something more, much more, than Israel’s traditional faith. Jesus isn’t simply repeating the promise of a general resurrection at the end of time. He’s saying something about now, and more importantly, something about His own person and work. He lets Martha know that there are no time limits to His power over death.

Martha’s response to this is a beautiful affirmation of faith. “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is come into the world” (v. 27). In other words, You are Lord over all. You are the promised Messiah. You are God’s unique Son, come to tabernacle among us. It seems that the growing plant of Martha’s faith has come to full flower.

But moments later, it droops again. Jesus, moved by the grief of His friends, is standing now by the cave where Lazarus was buried. He’s looking at the huge rock rolled in front of the door. He says to those around Him, “Take away the stone.” Martha gasps, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” She wonders, Does Jesus realize how long the body has lain there? Does He understand that it has already begun to decompose? Martha means well enough. She wants to save Jesus and others from embarrassment. She’s trying to grapple honestly with the ugly reality of death. But she’s plainly limiting Jesus’ power again. It can only work, she fears, under certain conditions. She’s afraid that the circumstances of death, the grim aftermath of it, will be too much for Him.

LIMITLESS POWER

Jesus puts her fears to rest. He knows what He’s doing. She needn’t worry about Him. It’s her own faith that she needs to look to again. “Did I not tell you,” Jesus reminds her, “that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

Several men heaved back the boulder. Jesus prayed, thanking the Father that He had been heard. Then He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”

What would have happened, do you suppose, if Jesus hadn’t called him by name, if He hadn’t said first, “Lazarus”? Would all the graves of Bethany have been opened? Would all the lifeless have emerged? We don’t know about that. But the call to Lazarus was enough to wake the dead. He did as he was bidden. He came out, grave clothes and all! Here he was, the brother and friend who had been dead, now newly alive. “Unbind him,” said Jesus. In other words, “Take off the bandages and let him go. He has a new life ahead of him.”

And so it was that all the reservations in Martha’s faith melted away. Jesus’ power over death was absolute. There was no space, no time, no condition that could thwart Him, no grave that could hold the ones He called. We don’t know what Martha said after this happened. Words weren’t really needed, were they? It was a time for transports of joy, for grateful worship.

THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE

Now we can see what Jesus meant by those great words, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He had not come merely to reaffirm the ancient faith about the resurrection of the body. “I am the resurrection,” He said. The hope of it, the reason for it, the power in it, all were found in His person. There is no resurrection, Jesus was claiming, apart from Him and what He came to do.

Further, “I am the life.” Jesus had said earlier, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” The Father, apparently, has life in a unique sense, and so does the Son. All created beings, on the other hand, have life only in a derivative sense. That is, they have it from Him who is the Lord and the Life Giver. If creatures die, nothing is fundamentally changed in the universe. Nothing else depends ultimately on their life. But on God’s uncreated vitality, literally everything depends.

“I am the life,” was an utterly astounding claim. Imagine it: all living beings have their existence from Him. And for the life also which is more than temporal, more than physical, He presents Himself as the only source. “In him was life,” this Gospel begins, “and the life was the light of men.”

THEY NEVER REALLY DIE

“He who believes in me,” Jesus continues, “though he die, yet shall he live.” It’s evident that people who believe in Jesus still die. Even Lazarus later succumbed as every generation of Christians has done since. But Jesus says that those who die, believing in Him, will yet live. To the age-old question, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” Jesus gives a ringing affirmative.

Dwight L. Moody sometimes told his friends that one day they would read in the newspapers that he, Moody, had died. “Don’t you believe it,” said the grizzled evangelist, “I’ll be more alive then than I’ve ever been.” Is there life beyond death? Without a doubt. But the only life we can be sure about on the other side of that mysterious barrier is Jesus’ life, the life that He, crucified, risen, alive forevermore, promises to His people.

I sometimes hear people speaking about life beyond death as though it were a commonplace, guaranteed to everyone. All sorts of evidence is offered by those who claim to have been near death or even to have experienced its first stages. “Don’t worry,” they say, “brightness and warmth and welcome are there for everyone on the other side.”

How, I wonder, do they know that? Only one person has come back from the dark realm of death to tell us about it with authority. And according to Him, life is not waiting there generally for all who die but specifically for all who die believing.

But Jesus says even more. “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” What can He mean by that? Is He speaking of history’s final generation of those who will be alive on earth when He returns at the last day, who will be transformed without ever passing through the experience of death? Hardly. Jesus says, “Whoever.” He’s including all believers. He’s saying to you and me now that if we are alive and we believe in Him as our Lord and Savior, we will never really die.

He speaks of death in a different way now, in a deeper way. Physical death in the Bible is always the sign of something else. It’s an emblem of the far more dreadful reality – separation from God. The Almighty is the source of our life. He has inspired our breath and made us living souls. He has created us for Himself. But we are a wayward people. We have disobeyed His commands, spurned His love, turned away our faces from Him. We’ve gone from communion with Him to estrangement, from fellowship to flight. And, left to ourselves, we have no way back. Our physical death is the grim sign that we are alienated, lost, adrift from God.

But when we believe, friends, when we put our trust in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us, we receive the gift of eternal life, God’s life. Our communion with God is restored. The living link of love is forged again. We’re back home now in the Father’s house, near to the Father’s heart. We are wonderfully and forever alive.

Death looks different to us now. It’s still the “last enemy.” Christians never sentimentalize death. But its whole meaning has changed. It’s no longer, for those who believe in Christ, the somber sign that we are lost from God. It’s not a blank wall but an open door, not an exit to nowhere but a pathway to gladness. As someone has put it, “Death is the final festival on the road to freedom.”

Christians don’t fear death. They may shrink from its accompaniments: infirmity, pain, separation from dear ones. But what may lie beyond death, they do not dread at all. “To depart is to be with Christ which is far better,” Paul says. In Him, believers know a life that death cannot touch. All the Grim Reaper can possibly do is usher them into the unveiled presence of the Lord.

Will some never die? Count on it. A great many. A multitude that no man can number will never really die because they belong to the One who stood once by a grave in Bethany and said to all the world, “I am the resurrection and the life.” My prayer is that you will be among them, that you will live eternally. And you surely will if you trust in the living Lord. Jesus’ promise is unfailing: “Whoever believes in me shall never die.”

Prayer: Father, may everyone sharing this message so trust in Jesus Christ as to know an undying life. Amen.