Jason Helopoulos / Aug 14, 2016 / John 11:1-27
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Sermon Summary / Transcript
Let’s pray, and continue in prayer, as we come to God’s Word this morning. Father, I don’t know a better prayer to pray than what we just sang. I pray that you would show us Christ through and in your Word this morning. In his name we pray, amen.
This is the holy, inerrant Word of God.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 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.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “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. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
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 11:1-27
Though the grass withers and the flower fades, the Word of God is forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.
This has to be one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture. It’s an account that many of you know. Even those who only have a cursory knowledge of the Bible know this, and rightfully so. It needs very little explanation, and (as a preacher) it almost seems silly to add any description to what’s going on here. It’s beautiful, clear, and monumental. But I want to make sure that you get your money’s worth this morning, so we’re going to dive into it anyway.
The trick with a passage like this, which you’ve heard multiple times, is to train yourself to keep focused—to keep your ears, mind, and heart open for what the Lord may be be trying to teach you afresh. I would ask you to do that on purpose this morning, and time and time again afterwards.
As I studied John 11 this week, I kept thinking that I could probably preach 5-7 sermons just on these first few verses. There is so much in them! We won’t be able to get to everything that’s here, but our particular focus this morning, since we’re in a series on the “I am” statements, will be on Jesus’ statement, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
The setting is familiar to you. Mary and Martha resided in Bethany with their brother Lazarus. Just to orient you, Bethany is about two miles outside Jerusalem. We’re told that in verse 18. Jesus often stayed with these two sisters and their brother when he was in the Jerusalem area. They were devoted followers and dear friends of his.
Lazarus had become ill, so Martha and Mary (being the good disciples of Christ that they were) immediately looked to him. Their brother was sick, and they were in trouble, so they turned to Christ. That’s what disciples of Jesus do. If there is trouble, they turn to him.
Jesus was with his disciples when he received this word from the sisters. Clearly, it was a grave illness—one that would lead to death. Jesus must have been aware of that, so you would rightfully expect him to drop everything and run to their aid. “Lazarus is sick! Disciples, let’s get everything together and go!” But he doesn’t do that. He gets the news that his friend Lazarus is sick, and he stays there two more days.
Why did he wait? Was it a lack of commitment to their friendship? Did he not care for them? Wouldn’t a friend, when called, run to the aid of that call? Or was it a lack of love? Did he not love them as they loved him? Didn’t they host and care for him? John even tells us that Mary was the one who anointed Jesus with the ointment. They loved him that much! Didn’t he love them to the same degree?
John tells us in verse 5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” In verse 11, Jesus calls Lazarus his friend. In what proves to be one of the great trivia questions of the Bible—“What is the shortest verse in the Bible?”—verse 35 says “Jesus wept.” He’s weeping for his friend, because he loves him.
Yet in verse 6, John says “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” It seems like an odd response, doesn’t it? “We’re in trouble!” his friends yell—and he stays put. Why? John says, “Because he loves them!” Wouldn’t love propel you to go? “No,” John says, “that’s what caused him to delay!”
How can this be? Jesus tells us in verse 15: “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Look also at verse 4: “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.” The death of Lazarus was an opportunity for Jesus to show his divine power for the glory of God, that they might all believe—so that the disciples, Martha, Mary, and even Lazarus himself might know the power and glory of Christ. He delayed, but there was something bigger in store.
This is a good reminder for us. When we pray a prayer or send out a plea for help, we quickly become discouraged or even jaded when God doesn’t respond. God doesn’t always act on our time schedule. His timing isn’t our timing. Christ is the very image of the invisible God, and he gives us insight here that I’d say is worth tattooing on your arm, if I believed in tattoos: don’t judge God’s love for you based on what you can or can’t see in the immediate moment. Christ delays here, but it’s not because he lacks love. Someone could jump to that conclusion. No, it’s because he’s full of love.
It’s easy to shake our heads in agreement when it’s an abstract theological principle. Of course God delays sometimes. That shouldn’t cause us to doubt his care or love. But then something happens. A loved one is battling yet another bout of cancer. You’ve tried for months and years to get pregnant, and are crying out to the Lord, and there is no answer. Or you just want a job—not Fortune 500 job, just a job. Something that can provide for your family. You’re not asking for the moon, but it doesn’t come. We pray, ask, and plead, and the prayer doesn’t seem to be answered. “When will you save my child? When will you restore my reputation? When will I finally find a spouse?” Our prayers and our pleadings seem like they fall on deaf ears. It seems that he is blind to our condition.
Nothing could be further from the truth! God is never blind or deaf to those he loves. He neither slumbers nor sleeps. He does not ever forget his people! He may delay for a good reason, or may even choose not to answer as we would desire. But it’s always for a better, greater reason. He is worthy of our trust.
He could be delaying so that our faith may increase, as he does in this passage. Or it could be so that we would learn to trust in him more fully. Or perhaps that we would see his divine power even more at work, as they see in this passage. You can think of how often during each and every day he is working on our behalf.
How little we think of it, because it’s a common thing. You got out of bed this morning and didn’t think anything about it. You probably ate breakfast, got into your car, drove here, walked into this building, and the ceiling didn’t fall in on your head. Yet you probably didn’t offer one thanksgiving to God. You didn’t think at all about it. Don’t you know that if he wasn’t working, you wouldn’t have gotten out of bed this morning? You would have gotten into an accident pulling out of your driveway. You wouldn’t have had those toaster waffles for breakfast, and the ceiling would have been on all of our heads, because this world would be in chaos if he was not working.
Sometime, he just delays that we might see him more fully and clearly. When something finally comes that we’ve been praying for, we tend to turn to him in faith and thanksgiving. “Thank you, Lord, for giving us this child that we have so long prayed for.” “God heard my cries! He saved my friend from his bout of cancer.” Give him the glory that is due his name!
Lazarus died. Jesus delayed. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where was, so that they might see his divine glory and trust in him more fully. Lazarus had been in the grave for four days by the time that Jesus got there.
The Promise of the Resurrection
Jesus has resurrected multiple people so far in the gospels. In Luke 8, he resurrected a 12-year-old girl who had been dead for a few hours. In Luke 7, he resurrected a young boy who had probably been dead for a day. But Lazarus, in a hot climate, has been dead for four days. You can’t be deader than dead, but Lazarus is deader than dead. He is dead and buried, as we would say.
In that culture, people came to grieve with the family during such a time. In verse 18, we’re told that people came from Jerusalem to grieve with Mary and Martha. It had been four days, but they were still there.
We don’t tend to do this here in the Midwest, but I saw this practice while I was pastoring in North Carolina. In that culture, if somebody in the church died, everybody would go over to the house and bring food. You would go over, sit, talk, and eat. If someone died in your family and you were part of the church, it was a given that your door was open. People would come at any time, all the time, all day long, for at least a week. You were expected to let them in. People would just sit there. I would walk into someone’s house, and there would be 20 people from church in the living room, just sitting there talking. It was a sweet part of the grieving process: the entire church community grieving together. That’s the picture here.
We’re told that when Martha hears of Christ approaching, she leaves her home and all those grieving people and runs to Jesus! Again, though she is surrounded by others, she turns to him in her hour of need. You can almost feel it as she runs up to him. I’m sure there were tears falling down her cheeks. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That’s an interesting declaration. There’s some faith in it. She trusts that Jesus could have saved her brother, and she expresses that. But there is also much error wrapped up in this statement. She professes that if Jesus had been there, her brother wouldn’t have died. What gives her such confidence? Jesus never promised to keep Lazarus alive through this illness. So often, we put words into the mouth of Christ that aren’t his.
She also expresses a little bit of superstition. She thinks that if he had been there bodily, it would have changed things—as if he wasn’t present because he wasn’t there in the body! Christ is always with his people!
If that wasn’t enough, she also falls into the error of conjecturing. How often do we do this in our moments of weakness? We have these what-ifs: “If only you had been here, Jesus, this bad thing wouldn’t have happened! If this had been done, this wouldn’t have occurred.” But how do we know? We turn ourselves into knots with all of these what-ifs, when it’s so much better to stop, rest, and say, “God’s will was done!” Martha has faith, but it’s stained with all kinds of error.
Here is the incredible grace and kindness of Jesus: he doesn’t rebuke her for her weak faith or correct her for her errors in the moment of her grieving. He gently cares for her, responding in sheer kindness. The first words that he utters at Bethany are, “Your brother will rise again.” A bruised reed he will not break.
We see that time and time again in the gospel. “Oh Martha, let me comfort you! Your brother will rise again.” She is looking back with regret at what could have been and what she thought should have been, and he’s pointing her forward in hope and truth. “Your brother will rise again.”
Jesus doesn’t leave it there. Look at his words here. He begins with that general promise, and Martha responds like a good first-century Jew and follower of Christ. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” First century Jews believed in a resurrection—at least most Jews, and certainly those who followed the Pharisees’ teachings.
You’ll remember that the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. You learned that in Sunday School as a kid, growing up. One of the ways to tell the difference between a Pharisee and a Sadducee is that Pharisees believed in a resurrection and the Sadducees didn’t, so they are sad, you see. Jesus will correct that error of the Sadducees in the gospels. He’ll show them that they’re in error, according to the Scriptures.
But Martha needs no such correction. She believes in the resurrection. Her brother is dead and in the grave, but she believes that in the future, there will be a bodily resurrection of all who have died. She knows that this is the teaching of the Scriptures.
Did you notice that Jesus isn’t content with her answers? She believes in a general resurrection, but Jesus moves her from a general resurrection to him who alone can provide the resurrection. He says in verse 25, “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?”
Jesus is telling Martha, “I’m not just the one who speaks about and points to the resurrection. I am the resurrection.” He is the divine author, the alpha, the beginning, the fountain of life, and the cause of any and all resurrection, whether spiritual or physical. “It only happens in and through me. Do you believe that?” It’s not enough that you just believe that there is a resurrection or that there is a heaven. Martha believed that, and Jesus is redirecting her.
In all my years, I have met very few people who didn’t believe in heaven. It may not be the heaven of which the Bible teaches, but most people believe there is an afterlife. They believe that something happens after death. Interestingly enough, it is always something positive, rosy, and good. It’s a type of heaven, if you will.
Maybe 90 percent of you are 100 percent convinced of heaven. But that’s not good enough. It’s not even good enough if 100 percent of you are 100 percent convinced that there is a heaven. Belief in heaven or in a resurrection isn’t enough. The problem is this: we’re all dead in our sin. The whole human race is trapped in sin. Every single one of us is a sinner. It doesn’t matter if we believe in heaven. You can’t be there if you’re a sinner. God can’t allow sin to go unpunished. He can’t allow that which is unholy to defile heaven. That wouldn’t be just. There is only one way to be resurrected to life. Jesus is saying that the only way is him. He who will pay the penalty for our sin and triumph over sin and death and the grave. One must have a personal encounter and a personal faith in him.
We’ve seen it over and over again in these “I am” statements. He says, “I am the light of the world.” But it’s not just that he gives the light; he is the light. He says that he gives the bread of heaven, but it’s not just that he gives the bread of heaven. He says, “I am the bread of heaven.” He says that you must enter through the door. He doesn’t just point to the door, but says, “I am the door.” Here, he doesn’t just say, “There is a resurrection and life.” No, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. If you want it, it only comes in me.”
The Problem of Death
There’s a message for every single person in this room. We all have the same problem: we’re all sinners and are all going to die. I was reminded of this years ago when I was sitting at a table at a church function with a bunch of senior citizens. A friend of mine came up behind me and whispered in my ear: “Jason, do you know who you’re sitting across the table from?” I didn’t know, so he whispered some guy’s name in my ear. I filed it away. The name didn’t mean anything to me.
But I watched that man all through dinner. He was 80. He was slouching in his chair. His hands shook. He had a drooping mouth. His wife had to reach over and cut his meat for him. Then, every once in a while, she would take a napkin and dab the corner of his mouth, because drool was coming out of it onto the collar of his shirt. It wasn’t very impressive. It looked to me as if he was one step from death.
I went home that night, and was getting ready for bed, when all of a sudden his name popped back into my head. I decided to look him up on the internet. I quickly googled him, wanting to see why my friend thought this man was such a big deal. When I put his name into the computer, all kinds of web pages immediately popped up. At one time, he had been one of the five richest men in the entire world. Yet here he was, sitting across from me at dinner. I spent hours that night reading about him. He was fascinating. He controlled entire industries and portions of the world’s economy, and I had just spent dinner with him, watching him drool on himself. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I may be drooling on myself someday.
I tell us that to wake us up! Everyone dies, even the most powerful, sophisticated, intimidating, successful, and educated among us. Every single person in this room will die. Most of us think little of it—at least, most of the time. We make plans and resolutions. We dream and hope. But death can strike and dispense with them all. We vanish in a moment. We have such great plans, and death can crush them. We have hopes and dreams, and death can squash them in a moment. It is a great, equalizing power. No one can escape it.
I know what you’ve been saying. I can feel the uncomfortableness and tension in the room. “Stop talking about death. Let’s get to the happy stuff.” Every single person in this room will die, because every single person in this room is a sinner. We need to recognize it. We can try to avoid it. We can say, “You can’t come here, death.” We can wish it away, saying, “I hope death doesn’t come”, and see doctor after doctor and take all the right pills, but no one can keep it at bay forever! It comes for every single one of us.
Like that famous passage in 2 Samuel says, “We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” We all come to our end. Have you ever tried to collect water that has been spilled on the ground? You can’t do it. Some foolishly try, though. Communists have a weird habit of trying to do this. Think of their leaders: Stalin, Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh. They embalm them, paint them to look alive, and keep them on display forever. I should not have been reading this before I went to sleep last night, but I was reading about Lenin’s body. Did you know that they tried to preserve it by a steady 61 degree temperature? Then they had a strict regimen where every 30 days they bleached him and soaked him in some mixture of glycerol and potassium. They’re trying to make him look as if he was still alive, and death didn’t happen. They keep painting him over and over and washing him, but the paint job doesn’t work. He’s dead!
We try to keep it at a distance. We use euphemisms. We try to avoid the idea of death. We’ll say, “He’s deceased. He has passed away. He has retired. He has left us. He has departed”—anything to not say, “He’s dead.” We don’t bury. We lay to rest. We inter the body. We try to ignore the enemy that is death.
About a year ago, I was called by a pastor from a church in North Carolina. He called because a Christian woman in his congregation had a mother who just passed away. Her mother was an unbeliever who lived in the Lansing area, and the daughter (who was a Christian) was coming home for the funeral. She wanted a Christian pastor to do the funeral for her unbelieving mother, so that all the rest of her family could hear the gospel proclamation of Christ. This pastor was asking me, “Jason, will you do the funeral for this unbelieving woman?” I said that I would.
So I went to the funeral, and I sat there and listened as different family members tried to make it light and funny, as if we were celebrating someone’s high school graduation. All kinds of jokes and sentimental nonsense were uttered, like: “She’s no doubt spending all her time gardening in heaven.” Someone else said, “Oh, she loved to cook cookies. Right now, she’s cooking cookies in heaven for the angels, and they’re probably enjoying those cookies. They’ve never tasted such good cookies.” My stomach was turning, and not because I was thinking about those cookies.
I got up. I understand. If you don’t have an answer for death, you’ll say anything to comfort one another. Death is a horrible enemy. I rose to give the exhortation of the Bible to the people gathered. I told them about the promise of Christ, and of how he provides eternal refuge from death. There was one woman who was visibly upset with me throughout the whole sermon. She scowled at me, had this angry look on her face the whole time, and would shake her head violently every time I said the name of Christ. Then she would lean over to the people in front of her and beside her and make comments. I was disrupting the charade by speaking truth, and she didn’t want to hear it.
Death is a powerful enemy, and we do no one any favors by ignoring it. It comes for all of us. But, my dear friends, there is one still more powerful than death. Jesus says, “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.” There are two statements here: “I am the resurrection. I am the life.”
I take it that the last half of verse 25, where he says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” is an explanation of, “I am the resurrection…” And I understand verse 26: “…everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” as the explanation of “I am the life.” In Jesus is life. Outside of Jesus, there is only death. “If you have faith in me and die,” Jesus is saying, “you do not remain in death! It can’t hold you. You will be resurrected. You may die physically, like Lazarus, but death cannot keep you. Like Lazarus, you may be bodily in the grave for some time, but you shall be called forth from the tomb.” Why? Because you belong to Jesus! You believe in him. He has conquered death in his own death and resurrection. Death cannot hold the believer because it cannot hold him. By faith, we are in him! He is the resurrection.
Turn to John 6. Look at how many times he does this:
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:39-40
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:44
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:54
Dear Christian, if you believe in Christ and die, your body may go into the ground, but it will come out again! It’s horrific that our bodies go into the ground. It’s the penalty for sin: death. It’s horrific because you and I were born from the dust of the ground. God formed Adam from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him. It’s an abomination that you and I would return to the dust of the ground. But in Christ, you are raised from the dust of the ground, never to return to it again! You’re resurrected to live forever!
It’s not just a promise for the future. It’s a promise for now. “Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”, he says. That’s the second proposition. Once we come to Christ in faith—or, as he says in John 3, we are born again—we live. We’ve already had this experience of the resurrection power of Christ. We were brought from death to life. We were dead in trespasses and sin, but when we came to Christ in faith, we were made alive!
As a Christian, you have already experienced that resurrection power. In a very real sense, we shall never die again, because we have Christ dwelling in us. He will keep us forever. We may die bodily and experience death for a short period of time, but our souls immediately go to be with Christ. They never experience death. We never die! “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” says Paul. Though his body dies, his soul goes to be with Christ. It never experiences death.
One day, Christ will return upon the clouds with the archangels. The divide between heaven and earth shall be ripped asunder. As he descends on the clouds, with the angels and the archangels, the graves shall be opened up and our bodies will be raised from them. Our souls will descend with Christ in the air, and our bodies will ascend from the earth and meet our souls in the air. They’ll be joined together once again with Christ, and never experience death.
Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it’s just a shadow. It lacks power over us. The most helpful illustration of this is the one that Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse—the famous early 20th century pastor of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia—told. I remember reading this a decade or so ago, and it’s always stuck with me. I always think about it when I’m at a Christian funeral.
Donald Grey Barnhouse was married, and had three children. His wife died. He was left with those three small children. As they were driving back from the funeral, and he had them in the car. He was wracking his mind, trying to help his children grieve and understand what had happened. As he was trying to think what he could say to them while he was driving home, all of a sudden this big truck went by them and the shadow of it fell upon their car.
Dr. Barnhouse had a moment of inspiration. He turned to his children and said, “Children, would you rather be run over by a truck or by its shadow?” One of the children in the backseat immediately responded, “Of course, Dad, we’d much rather be run over by the shadow. That can’t hurt us at all.” Dr. Barnhouse said, “Did you know that 2,000 years ago, the truck of death ran over the Lord Jesus in order that only its shadow might run over us?” It’s but a shadow for all of those who believe in Christ: that on that cross and in that grave, the Lord Jesus took the full burden of sin so that you don’t have to bear it. The power of death has been taken away.
Paul, quoting Isaiah, says, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Jesus, after he has explained this to Martha, says, “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that he is the resurrection and the life—that if you believe in him, you will not die? “Do you believe this, Martha?” He would say that to each of us in this room: “Do you believe this?” It’s good to ask yourself questions. We can think we hold on to something when we hold onto it very loosely. Don’t you just nod your heads at this question. Don’t just sheepishly say, “Oh, I believe that.” Do you believe it? Your answer to this question has eternal consequence: eternal death or eternal life. Do you believe that Jesus alone is the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that there is no life apart from him? Do you believe in him?
Martha’s answer is wonderful. She carries his statement to its full conclusion. She knows what he’s after. There is no ambiguity in her mind or heart. She says, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. You are the Messiah! You are the promised Savior! You are the only way that we can live!” She understands. She knows that he alone can save us from death, as he will go on to demonstrate when he exercises his divine power and calls Lazarus out of the tomb. Death is but a shadow for his friends. Our eternal inheritance is life abundant.
Would you possess life forever? Will he call your name someday? Does he call you today, friend? He will, and you are, if you believe in him. He is the resurrection and the life. If you believe in him, you shall never die. It’s a promise.
Let’s pray. Our Lord and God, we thank you that you are a God of salvation. Lord Jesus, we thank you that you are the resurrection and the life. In you, we have the promise of everlasting life and the promise that death has no hold on us. Reveal it to us, that we may see you clearly and cast our faith upon you. In your holy name we pray, amen.
Transcribed and edited by 10:17 Transcription