Series: Face to face with Jesus (John’s gospel), by Rosie Moore.
Since I started writing ‘The God Walk’ in 2018, I’ve tried to publish a devotional every Friday, except during holiday periods. Some people assume that it’s easy, like a factory churning out words from an established set of moulds, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’m a slow writer and a slow thinker. Most weeks I wrestle and scribble and pray in my journal for many days before I timidly start clicking away on the keyboard. I think that’s because I made an agreement with myself long ago that I’d never try to teach or write about the Bible until it had changed me first. I am in awe of God’s Word. And never has it been harder for me to write on a text than today. The text is John 11, the true, historical account of Christ raising Lazarus to life after four days in the tomb. It’s in this awesome story that we see Christ’s fifth “I am” statement in John’s gospel. This is what Jesus told Martha just before he ordered Lazarus to come out of the tomb:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
This is surely the greatest ‘I am’ statement that Jesus made, followed by an intensely personal question directed at the grieving sister. It is a question that I myself have needed to answer over and over again.
Do you believe this?
“Yes, Lord,” Martha replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:25-26). Martha makes a profound confession of faith even though she hasn’t yet grasped what Jesus is about to do. Remember that she hasn’t yet seen her brother’s resurrection, or indeed, the resurrection of Christ. She thinks that Jesus is talking about the final resurrection at the end of time, not a miracle in her back yard.
I’m glad that Martha had the chance to publicly affirm her faith after being too preoccupied to sit down and talk to Jesus on a previous occasion (Luke 10:38-42.) It gives me hope for myself! This time, it is busy Martha who runs out to meet Jesus and says, “Lord, If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:20-22).
Even though she didn’t fully understand, Martha was a woman who trusted Jesus as her Saviour and Lord. She believed Christ, with her limited knowledge of Him at that point. And this is the response God wants from each one of us, even today. He doesn’t first give us all the answers and solve all mysteries, but He calls us into relationship with His Son. He wants us to put our trust in Jesus Christ, the same Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead.
A corpse walks.
There is no more audacious claim than this one: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me, even though he die, he shall live forever”.
Then, to match the claim, Jesus performs a magnificent sign before an audience of mourners. This was no mere resuscitation, for Lazarus’s corpse had been in the tomb for four days. Always the practical realist, Martha warns that the body is smelling bad by that stage. Lazarus was already in an advanced stage of decomposition (John 11:39), and Jesus made sure of that by delaying his trip to Bethany.
I can just imagine the crowd of mourners hearing Jesus pray to his Father in heaven, then calling out in a loud voice,
“LAZARUS, COME OUT!” It was an order, not a request.
The familiarity of this story must never desensitize us to its wonder. It seems almost unbelievable. Yet in John’s mind, this is no fable, no metaphor, no hearsay evidence. He writes it as historic fact. The apostle John heard Jesus with his own ears and saw Lazarus walking out of the tomb with his own eyes, as did many mourners. John’s eye witness account couldn’t be more certain: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face” (John 11:44). No one living at the time ever contradicted the resurrection or exposed it as fake news.
Although none of us was a witness at the graveside that day in 33AD, John wants us to know that Lazarus was well and truly dead when Christ called him out of the tomb. He tells us this seven times just in case we’re in any doubt (John 11:14; 21; 32; 37; 39; 44). John was there, along with the rest of the disciples (John 11:16).
I took some time thinking through the implications of this miracle: A living person has ten major systems that must all function simultaneously in order to survive a single day– skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, urinary and reproductive. A human heart needs to pump 100 000 litres of blood around the body every day. But Lazarus’s heart had stopped beating four days before and every one of his systems had shut down. Rigor mortis had set in and his flesh was decaying.
In an instant, Christ ordered every organ in his friend’s corpse to fire up and function normally again. Without hesitation or medication, every molecule of the finely tuned engine known as the human body, obeyed his voice.
John records Jesus saying, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:43-44).
That you may believe.
“That you may believe” is a phrase that’s impossible to miss in John’s gospel. It’s the whole point of the miraculous sign (John 11:14; 25-26; 42; 40). ‘Believing’ is the reason why John wrote his gospel in the first place (John 20:31). He wants us to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and by believing, to have life in his name. Lazarus’s resurrection was an indisputable object lesson that no one in Bethany or Jerusalem could ignore.
Of course, this miracle seems unbelievable, because we know that no human can create a single molecule out of nothing. The best our scientists can do is mimic systems that God has already created. Don’t our ‘miraculous’ vaccines, prosthetics, implants and insulin pumps just mimic the wonderful bodies that God has given us, from the beginning? As useful as they are, man-made imitations don’t come close to the real thing. The supernatural raising of Lazarus proved, beyond reasonable doubt, the divinity of Jesus. There is no other explanation for the miracle.
And the Jews who witnessed the resurrection knew this. They hadn’t been indoctrinated with the theory of evolution like us. They knew that only Yahweh could give and take life, or reconstruct a rotten corpse with a word. They believed the Creation account described in Genesis 1 and 2. And that’s why this miracle caused such a stir.
It’s why, a chapter later, the Chief Priests even conspired to murder Lazarus, because “on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in Him” (John 12:10-11). They weren’t interested in truth or facts. They were only concerned that Jesus was identifying himself as the Creator God and masses of people were believing and following Him!
I am the resurrection and the life.
It’s easy to underestimate the magnitude of this sign, but it undergirds Christ’s claim to be the Resurrection and the Life. It also proves his earlier claim:“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it…25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:19-27).
The raising of Lazarus took place in Bethany. It was a graphic preview of Christ’s own resurrection, which was soon to take place at another tomb in Jerusalem. The sign points us to the spiritual life that Christ gives freely to all believers– the new birth (John 3:3;14-15). But it also guarantees a future bodily resurrection for all who believe (Acts 4:2; 24:15; 26:8; Matt 27:52-53). The sign of Lazarus emerging from the tomb is a powerful picture of the new creation. John believed this with all his heart and he wants us to too.
Yet, unlike Mary, Martha, John and many mourners who saw and believed (John 11:45), not all who witnessed the miracle put their faith in Christ as Lord. Some were charmed but unchanged. And others refused to open their hearts to Jesus, but instead reported Him to the Pharisees (John 11:46). It seems almost unbelievable that after witnessing such a wonderful miracle of life, after experiencing the goodness and compassion of Christ at the graveside, some hearts would remain stone cold in unbelief.
Yet, John tells us that the Pharisees even conspired against Jesus for fear that so many people were putting their faith in Him. Because Christ threatened the ‘peace’ and their power, they plotted to scapegoat and kill a perfectly innocent man. They knowingly suppressed the truth for the sake of political expediency. (John 11:47-53). Nothing much has changed since then.
The humanity of Christ.
But the main reason this devotion was so hard to write was because the love and humanity of Christ in this story totally overwhelms me. John records the raw emotion of Christ weeping at the tomb of his beloved friend, weeping with the heartbroken people around him. It is a deep cry of the heart that only the bereaved understand.
“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb.
The two words, “Jesus wept,” are pregnant with a deep agony of spirit. Jesus overflows with a mixture of indignation and gut wrenching sorrow. He is “deeply moved and troubled” at the sight of his friend’s tomb and the grief of the mourners. We are told repeatedly in the story that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters very much.
Last Thursday, I taught this story to some students at Christ Church Preparatory School. I don’t think I presented the lesson well, but a boy in the back row drew the class’s attention to the humanity and compassion of Jesus in John 11:32-34, asking a question that stuck like gum in my mind:
“Why did Jesus weep if he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead in just a few minutes?”
And so, that evening, whilst having dinner with some dear Christian friends, I threw the question out, asking our dinner guests for the answer they would have given the boy. Our friend, Alex, took a keen interest in the question. He’s always the first to volunteer to teach a Bible lesson and it’s just like him to care for the fidgety kid in the back row! Although I can’t accurately recall every word, his answer was along these lines:
“When Jesus wept, He showed us that He’s not just a God far away, with the power to bring a dead person back to life. He’s also gentle and compassionate towards the brokenhearted. He knows the pain of those left standing at the graveside. He knows that before He returns to earth to restore all things, there will be plenty of death and misery in the world. Jesus was a good friend to Lazarus and he loved Mary and Martha. He hated seeing their grief. He hated death and its power to rip loved ones apart. Even though Jesus knew that He would bring his friend back to life, he also knew that Lazarus would die again, and generations of grieving people would stand over the bodies of their loved ones, mourning all that they’ve loved and lost. Jesus ministers to those who grieve and is very near to the brokenhearted.”
I remember wishing that I’d given Alex’s excellent answer to the boy at the back of the classroom, because he seemed to see God’s grace more than anyone I know. But I hadn’t realized how prophetic his words would be.
Only two days later, in the early hours of Sunday morning, Alex’s own wife and daughters were grieving his horrific death. Alex Otto was ripped from his family and friends when he was hit by a taxi while riding on his bicycle, training for the Cape Epic cycle tour. He was chatting and joking with his friend as they were hit from behind. This week, hundreds of shocked and grieving friends, family and fellow cyclists have been wracked by the gut wrenching horror of death in a way we can’t explain. Alex was only 50 years old and he was dearly loved.
So what is the point of this story? There are so many beloved people that we’ve had to mourn in the last few years. We cannot minimize any of these deaths, old or young, from whatever cause. Each one is precious in God’s sight. I’ve said goodbye to more loved ones in 2020-21 than in my entire lifetime. But is there any consolation to be found in the story of Lazarus, or in Christ’s claim to be the resurrection and the life? Don’t you find yourself asking a version of the same question expressed in John 11:36-37,
“But Lord, the one you loved believed in you with all his heart. If you loved him so much, couldn’t you have kept him from dying?”
Death is always a mystery to us, and it’s also scary. We know it’s not as it should be. As Tim Keller says, “Its terrifying. One person called death “the worm at the core of human pretensions to happiness”. It’s that one thing that’s just always eating away. No matter how successful you are, no matter how happy you are, no matter how healthy you are, no matter how well your life is going, you still know this: Death is coming. We will all die sooner or later.” Death is the big issue that we can never solve. The Bible tells us that it is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15:26-27, 54-57).
Grieving with hope.
But, as those who have put our faith in Christ, we do not grieve without hope or comfort. Jesus made us a categorical promise at the graveside of Lazarus that we must hold onto:
“The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). We cannot miss Christ’s promise or the pointed question at the end. Who is this Jesus that John wants us to believe in?
Even though he never believed, Caiaphas the High Priest unwittingly got it right in John 11:49-52: This is the Jesus who loved us so much that he died for our sins and entered the tomb of sin and death on our behalf. The Jesus who defied the natural order of death by rising from the dead, victorious and transformed in a new and glorious body (Acts 13:29-30; 34). Like Lazarus, this Jesus appeared to many eye witnesses (1 Cor 15:3-9; Acts 2:32). He backed up his promise with his own death, resurrection and ascension.
But unlike Lazarus, Christ did not stagger out of the tomb, covered in strips of burial linen. No, Christ left the grave clothes neatly folded in an empty tomb, never to return. His victory over death was complete, as His atoning work on the cross was done.
And so, when a believer, like Alex, shrugs off their earthly body like a worn-out coat, they slip seamlessly into the eternal presence of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, to be raised with an immortal body on the day that Christ returns– A new body, free from the consequences of sin and brokenness. This future hope of redemption fills today’s grief with meaning and consolation (Rom 8:22-25).
And as we wait and long for that great resurrection day, we live with full confidence that Christ loves his people with a deep, unfailing love. He too is troubled and deeply moved by our sorrows. He hates evil and death, and loves our loved ones as much as we do, even more. He stands at the grave alongside us and ministers to the brokenhearted. He weeps with those who weep. That is what Jesus is doing right now with my friend Janet, and all her family, as they walk through their darkest valley.
Written in loving memory of Alex.
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Let the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life (Rev 21:5; 22:17).