A. “The One You Love Is Sick”
My family originally came from western Kentucky. Not so long ago it was common for women there to marry at a young age. My grandmother was married at 14 and had three children by age 17. I was born when my mother was 19, and as a result I enjoyed the blessing of young grandparents.
My grandmother was a second mother to me. She figures large in almost every one of my childhood memories. She loved all of us dearly, and I cannot count the number of wonderful hours I spent in her home. Even now her house symbolizes peace and comfort and love to me. I recently had the privilege of holding her hand while she died.
As we stood by the hospital bed in her final days, I often wondered what Jesus would have done about her situation. I wondered why God had not healed her. Since then I have come to see that such feelings reflected my own grief and selfish desires more than a real concern for my grandmother. In death she has now found a true life in God that I cannot yet comprehend. Do we maintain our trust in Jesus when death hits so close to home?
B. Lesson Background
John 1:15-12:50 has been called The Book of Signs within that great Gospel. The raising of Lazarus is one of the signs in the Gospel of John through which Jesus revealed himself to be the Son of God (compare John 2:11; 4:54). What we may call the “purpose statement” of John’s Gospel stresses the importance of the signs: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name”(John 20:30, 31).
While the earlier signs demonstrated Jesus’ divine power, the resurrection of Lazarus revealed Jesus’ authority over the grave. One can scarcely ignore a deed of this magnitude. The account is significant to the larger flow of John’s Gospel in that it leads the chief priests and Pharisees toplot Jesus’ death (11:45-53). Today’s lesson is not about Lazarus’s resurrection itself, but rather it is about the facts and attitudes that preceded it.
I. Sobering News (John 11:1-7)
A. Sickness (vv. 1-4)
1, 2. A certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick). Back in John 1:28 the apostle identified “Bethany beyond Jordan” as the place where John the Baptist had preached and baptized. At the end of John 10, Jesus left Jerusalem for a preaching tour in that same area after the Jews attempted to arrest Him for blasphemy (10:39-42). Mary and Martha, however, lived in a different village named Bethany. This town is less than two miles from Jerusalem, east of the Mount of Olives. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (sisters and brother), seem to be close friends of Jesus. Perhaps He stayed in their home whenever He attended a feast in Jerusalem. On one of his visits, Martha had criticized Jesus for not making Mary help her prepare a meal. In reply He reminded her that food is less important than devotion to His teaching (Luke 10:38-42). The mention here of the anointing by Mary looks forward to John12:1-3.
HOUSE OF AFFLICTION
I am often fascinated by biblical place names. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.”Isn’t that an interesting name for the place where Jesus was born, the one who proclaimed himself as the bread of life?
Jerusalem means “city of peace”, it is the capital city of the land where the prince of peace walked. Bethsaida, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, means “house of fishing.” That is certainly an apt name for a fishing port.
The meaning of Bethany, for its part, is a bit uncertain. It could mean “house of dates or figs.”Other possible meanings are “house of poverty”, “house of the poor,” or even “house of the afflicted ones”. There is no indication that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were poor, but we can assume safely that the town of Bethany at least had its normal share of death, disease, disappointment, marital discord, family squabbles, and other perennial setbacks to human prosperity.
Leprosy was a devastating disease, and in Bethany lived Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6). Also too there was Lazarus. With his death there were two grief-stricken sisters plus a whole crowd of others weeping with them. Bethany was definitely a house of affliction at that time. If you stop to think about it, each of us lives in a “house of affliction” of some kind, either with discord, strife, despair, delusion, fatigue, abandonment. But it is Jesus, and only Jesus, who can move us into a permanent “house of joy.” The change that Jesus brought about at Bethany with Lazarus’s resurrection was temporary, since Lazarus obviously died again later. The change that Jesus is able bring to us because of His own resurrection can be permanent and eternal, if we will allow it.
3. Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick. The exact nature of Lazarus’s illness is not specified and is probably not relevant to the story. Clearly, though the sister’s believed that his condition was critical for they would not have bothered Jesus over a minor case of the flu.
Mary and Martha naturally assume that Jesus would be concerned about His friend’s condition. They probably expected Him to rush back to town for a healing (see comments on John 11:22, below).
In addition to John’s overall emphasis on Christ’s divine power we will see this story provide insight into Jesus’ humanity. John depicts Jesus as experiencing the ups and downs of human feelings and relationships. Lazarus is His friend, and the sisters know that it will be natural for Jesus to be concerned about him.
4. When Jesus heard that, he said. “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby”. When the message got to Jesus, He replies with what would seem to be very good news: This sickness is not unto death. When that statement is added to the remainder of the verse—that the Son of God might be glorified thereby—those who are listening probably infer that Jesus will honor the request to go and heal Lazarus.
As on so many other occasions, Jesus’ power will indeed be revealed. Lazarus’s circumstance ultimately will bring greater glory to God—but not in a way that anyone is expecting! We should pause to stress that this verse should not be taken to mean that God causes all sickness. Of course God is glorified by the confidence that believers can display in the face of illness or death. But here Jesus is simply saying that He plans to bring good from a bad situation.
B. Delay (vv. 5-7)
5. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
John now confirms the sisters’ claim in verse 3 (“he whom thou lovest”) by noting that Jesus really does care deeply for Lazarus and his family. This verse leads the reader to expect that Jesus will leave for Bethany immediately, just as the sisters supposed.
6, 7. When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he abode two days still in the santé place where he was before heading back to Judea again.
This is stunning in light of what has preceded. Jesus loves Lazarus and seems to have just indicated in verse 4 that He would go to heal him. But after telling everyone, in effect, “Don’t worry,” Jesus chose to wait two days before doing anything. The disciples may interpret have interpreted this delay as a sign of caution, for the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem had put out a warrant for Jesus’ arrest (John 10:39; 11:8). But in John 11:14-15 (not in today’s text) Jesus makes it clear that He is “glad” for the delay.
While Jesus’ actions (and inactions!) may seem harsh or confusing, they are clearly calculated to glorify God to the fullest possible extent. In the first place this incident illustrates Jesus’ claims throughout the Gospel of John that He does not act according to His human desires and interests. Instead, He does everything to please God. “…to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (John 4:34: compare5:30; 7:17. 18). Everything must proceed on God’s plan and God’s timing, even if this is painful for Jesus and His friends.
Second, the event as it unfolds will show clearly that Jesus wants this to be more than a healing. He will demonstrate, rather, that His power reaches even beyond the grave.
II. Courageous Belief(John 11:17-27)
A. Already Dead (vv. 17-20)
17. Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.
Jesus’ intentional delay ensures that Lazarus had already lain in the grave four days. Jesus has the ability to heal from a distance, if He so desires (Luke 7:1-10). But that is not the plan here. See question #3, page 208.
By the time Jesus arrived, the tone had changed from hopeful expectation to that of grief and mourning. The reference to four days is significant. Some ancient Jews believe that the soul of a departed person hovers around the body for three days. On the fourth day, when signs of decomposition are clearly evident (such as the stench that Martha will mention in verse 39), the person’s spirit supposedly departs for good. To be dead for four days would thus mean some-thing like “really, really dead.”
Whether or not this four-day theory is true, no one can doubt that Lazarus is actually dead. There is no reasonable way to suggest that Jesus simply resuscitates Lazarus or brings him out of a coma. The situation calls for a resurrection rather than a healing.
18, 19. Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off: And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother. The Jews place high value on the ethical need to comfort the bereaved. Funerals may last for a week. Lazarus’s funeral seemed to be especially remarkable in this regard. The fact that many of the Jews had come from Jerusalem to the little town of Bethany to mourn for him suggests that the family is well known and perhaps wealthy. Clearly Jesus is not the only person who loved Lazarus. I See #4, page 208.
John may also wish to emphasize the size of the crowd in order to stress that a large number of people will witness Lazarus’s resurrection (11:45). Fifteen furlongs is about one and three-quarter miles.
20. Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house.
The fact that Mary stays in the house does not necessarily mean that she feels angry toward Jesus. She is not indifferent about His arrival, as verses 31-33 will reveal. Perhaps the reason that Mary stayed in the house can be explained this way. The house seems to be packed with mourners; a messenger arrives, finds Martha, and tells her that Jesus is on His way. In her excitement Martha perhaps goes straight to Jesus without pausing even to tell her sister. Note that Mary does not seem to be aware of Jesus’ arrival until verse 28, after Martha goes back to the house.
We may also speculate that Martha does not want to draw too much attention to Jesus right away: when she finally does tell Mary that He has come, she pulls her aside so that the crowd can’t hear (again, v. 28). Martha seems to see the need for Mary to have a private moment to share her grief with Jesus.
B. Steady Faith (vv. 21-27)
21. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. At first glance Martha’s comment Lord, “if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died”, may sound like criticism. But in view of the statements to follow, it appears that Martha wishes to reassure Jesus that she does not hold Lazarus’s death against Him. Martha’s mind is clouded with grief at the moment. We may guess that she assumes that Jesus had very legitimate reasons for His delay. One reason could include the obvious danger of visiting a town so close to Jerusalem.
History is filled with “what if” situations. What if General Robert E. Lee had remained in the Union Army as the American Civil War broke out? What if the apple had not fallen on Isaac Newton’s bead? What if Martin Luther had not been frightened by a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm? What if Christopher Columbus had believed that the earth was flat? What if U.S. President John F. Kennedy had not gone to Dallas in November 1963? What if U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of polio in the 1920s before his election? We can speculate endlessly about such situations, but it doesn’t change anything now.
Martha told Jesus that if He had been there, then her brother would not have died. But Jesus had intentionally stayed away. In Jesus’ wisdom He saw there was more ultimate benefit to Lazarus and his family (and, indeed, for the entire world) for Him not to be there.
Since God controls the present as well as the future, He can see things and place them in a perspective that we don’t have. As Christians we believe that God is still ultimately in charge of the universe, and everything happens according to His plan. If we had our way, we would want things to work out for our immediate benefit, and we probably would miss out on some of the ultimately better benefits that God has in store for us.
We do well to remember that God is holding out for the grander good that we can’t perceive. It’s a good thing we can’t control all the “what ifs” of history. Instead we can trust that God is in control and managing the world quite nicely in His own way.
22. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. This verse is clearly a statement of Martha’s continuing faith in Jesus. Even so, commentators are divided on the exact meaning of her words. Lazarus needs more than a healing now, so perhaps by saying “whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee”, Martha thinks that God will empower Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. On an earlier occasion Jesus had interrupted a funeral in Nein to bring a corpse hack to life (Luke 7:11-15). Is Martha expecting Jesus to do the same thing now for His good friend?
Against this possibility however, are Martha’s comments in verses 24 and 39. Those verses strongly imply that she does not really expect Jesus to help Lazarus at this point. Thus her words here are intended to show Jesus that she holds no grudge and has not lost faith in Him. He did not heal Lazarus, but of course that does not mean that Jesus is not a unique messenger of God.
Martha’s remarkable faith in the face of grief is certainly commendable. She seems, however, to underestimate Jesus’ power.
23, 24. Jesus said to her. “Thy brother shall rise again.” And Martha said to him. “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Many ancient Jews expected a final day of judgment, when the Messiah will appear in order to bring an end to this wicked world. At that time the righteous dead will be resurrected to enjoy eternal life. “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
Martha probably assumed that Jesus must be referring to the glorious occasion that the prophet Daniel mentions. So she interprets Jesus’ remarks as words of pastoral comfort. It does not yet occur to her that Jesus will raise her brother much sooner than this. She is about to receive more than she expects.
25, 26. Jesus said to her. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”
Resurrection and eternal life are not blessings that we have to wait until the end of time to enjoy. Rather, we experience their hope right now through faith in Christ, who has all power over death. The statements about death and life are powerful, aren’t they?
Believers who die physically (like Lazarus) will live eternally through Christ’s power to save. If we choose in this life to believe in Jesus, we will never die spiritually in the sense that Christ grants us eternal life with Him in Heaven, even though our current bodies obviously will fail and decay. For more insight on our physical resurrection, see 1 Corinthians15:12-55.
27. She said to him. “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.”
Martha undoubtedly does not understand why Lazarus had fallen ill or why Jesus had waited before coming to Him. She undoubtedly does not understand (yet) what He means by saying that the dead will live. Even so, Martha is firm in her understanding of one thing; she knows that Jesus is God’s Son. This verse is John’s equivalent of Peter’s confession at Matthew 16:16: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This kind of confession is a vital part of receiving eternal life.
Martha’s confession touches on two key elements of John’s portrayal of Christ. First, she seems to understand that Jesus is not just a political messiah. Rather, she realizes that He is the one who came from Heaven to reveal the Father to the world (John 1:14, 18; 3:13; 6:51). Second, Martha’s comment parallels John 20:31. That verse is often cited as the “purpose statement” of the Gospel of John that we noted in the lesson Introduction. Nowhere else in the Gospel of John do we see such a strong expression of faith, a fact that testifies to Martha’s firm commitment in the face of grief.
A. The Final Breath
Perhaps you think it strange that today’s lesson text does not include the account of the actual resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:38-44). We all like to read “a happy ending,” don’t we? That resurrection itself is indeed marvelous, but by leaving out that event, today’s lesson has forced us to examine the faith and emotions of Martha. It is a faith that knows something of Jesus but not everything. It is kind of an “in between” faith. It is the kind of faith that says, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). It’s the kind of faith that many of us still have! Jesus’ question, “Believest thou this?” in verse 26 is applicable not only to Martha but to all of us. It’s easy to sit in a Bible study class and say, “Of course, I believe that Jesus can grant us eternal life”; it’s harder to feel that way as we stand beside the grave of a loved one.
As we close the lid of the casket, or as we face serious health problems ourselves, how will we answer the question, Believest thou this? Do we really believe that Jesus has conquered death and that He has the power to grant eternal life? Real faith is tested at the final breath, whether ours or that of someone we love.
Several years ago the wife of a retired Bible college professor died. The funeral exhibited what a Christian funeral should: sadness and grief over the of loss of a loved one, but also a confident realization of an eternity with Jesus into which she had crossed. The husband she left behind said it best: “Of course I’m going to miss her. But let’s face it—I haven’t been preaching fairy tales all these years!” He had no doubt where she was. He had real faith that passed the test.
Father, we do not want to die, and we do not want to lose people that we love. Help us find peace in the knowledge that Christ is the source of resurrection life. Help us share that peace with everyone who suffers grief. Give us the faith to really believe that Jesus has conquered death for us, in Jesus’ name, amen.
C. Thought to Remember
Christ still has power over death.