This message from John 11:1–53 titled Lazarus from Don Carson was given at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The three-day conference was titled Conversations with Jesus and urged participants to be faithful in their efforts at evangelism and gospel proclamation.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of this message. Please confirm quotations using the original audio or video, above.
The passage before us is a long one (John 11:1–53). But what better way can we spend our time than reading a significant block of Holy Scripture? There are parts of this message that will make a lot more sense if you can jump around in the text with me, as we follow the line of thought.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “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?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
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.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life. (John 11:1–53, NIV)
This is the word of the Lord.
The Surprise of the Gospel
So often, God surprises us. Moses thought so. As a young man, he thought he’d bring about a revolution. But he ended up on the backside of a desert for the next half-century or so. And finally, when God called him, Moses was already 80 years old, an appropriate age to retire and slow down. And besides, Moses didn’t have any gift of speech, he wasn’t comfortable speaking in public. It was a bit surprising that God would call an 80-year-old. Mind you, I have more and more sympathy for 80-year-olds, I have to say.
Habakkuk thought it was a bit surprising too. God is surprising. He could understand how God could use a regional superpower to chasten His covenant people because of their idolatry. What he didn’t understand was how God could use a regional superpower which on every graph was socially more corrupt, was morally more corroded, more violent, and more destitute of grace and godliness than the Israelite people that they were sent to chasten. How could God do that?
Paul thought that God was a bit surprising. I mean, He could pray for people and they would be healed. He saw the hand of God’s power in the alleviation of illness. Now he has this thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment him, and he prays about it. And God says, “I’m not going to do it. I’ll give you grace instead.” This response initially didn’t satisfy Paul at all. He prayed diligently, setting aside repeated times for intercession in every prayer until Paul learned, “My grace is sufficient for you.” So often, God surprises us.
And then, of course, there’s Abraham. He is promised this son who finally shows up, and then God tells Abraham to slaughter the boy.
But one of the things that is most striking about the gospel is that at its heart, it is a gospel of surprises. Who amongst the apostles anticipated that God would redeem his people by sending His Son to die for them by taking their place? Who expected Jesus to rise from the dead? Not the women who went to the grave; they brought ointment to pour on his body. Not the apostles; they were busy hiding in an upstairs room. They weren’t saying, “Yes, I could hardly wait until Sunday.” They were scared they were going to be arrested and crucified themselves. The gospel is the gospel of surprise.
Despite all of the passages from the Old Testament Scriptures that anticipate the coming of a Messiah, who would be a servant, slaughtered lamb, glorious King, triumphant conquer, and bleeding sacrifice, and despite all the Scriptures that talk along these lines—many of them using typology rather than mere verbal prediction to point in that direction—the truth of the matter is, an accurate expectation wasn’t, by and large, picked up. Which is why when Jesus walks with a two disciples on the Emmaus road, after the resurrection, he can rebuke them and say, “Oh fools and slow of hard to believe all of the prophets have written. Ought not Christ to have suffered?” (Luke 24:25). Fact remains, it was a surprise.
So when we come to this passage, where Jesus demonstrates that he is himself, the resurrection and the life, the passage is marked by surprise after surprise after surprise, until we come to the greatest gospel surprise of all.
Surprise #1: Jesus Demonstrates His Love by Delay
Number one, Jesus hears a desperate plea for help and demonstrates His love by delay. In John 11:1–16, we’re introduced to Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. I love the description, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” Have you noticed this even in a church with a good pastor? Just about everybody in the church thinks they’re the pastor’s special friend. They feel loved. And that’s true in larger familial relationships as well. One of the remarkable things about John’s Gospel is that the evangelist simply calls himself “the one whom Jesus loved.” That does not mean, “He loves me more than you.” It’s just that he feels so loved that it becomes the way he likes to designate himself: “the one whom Jesus loved.” We also see how the sisters refer to their brother Lazarus who is ill: “Lord, the one you love is ill.”
Isn’t it a wonderful thing that as we interact with our relationships, our family, and our responsibilities, we can think of ourselves as “ones whom Jesus loves”? Isn’t that what Paul prays for in Ephesians 3?
That you . . . may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:18–19, NIV)
In other words, Paul is praying so that these Christians might be mature. The implication is, you can’t be mature, unless you experience for yourself more and more fully, that you are loved by God. This experience of spiritual maturity is already being picked up in Jesus personal earthly relationships, “the one whom you love is sick.”
You can’t be mature, unless you experience for yourself more and more fully, that you are loved by God.
When He heard this, Jesus said, in John 11:4, “This sickness will not end in death.” Well, it won’t end in death, it will go through death on the way. “No, it is for God’s glory.” Not in order that God may receive glory—that’s not the idea here—but that God’s glory may be displayed. The sickness of Lazarus happened for the display of God’s glory simultaneously displayed in the glory of Christ as Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. That’s why this man is so sick.
John uses the transition “So” (John 11:6), and it’s a strong word. “Therefore, when He heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where He was two more days.” How do you like that for a demonstration of love? “Oh, I sure love my disciple, Lazarus. So when I hear that he’s definitely ill, I hang around two more days before I set out to help him.” That’s what the text says! And in fact, the timing is underscored again and again and again in the narrative. He waits two days, we’re told. And then, after two days, He says, “Let’s go back to Judea.” And it turns out in the following conversation that Jesus has come to know supernaturally that Lazarus, meanwhile, has died. So he hears that Lazarus is sick, waits two days, knows the Lazarus has died, and then wants to go back south, about a three-day, or three-and-a-half-day walk.
After Jesus arrived (John 11:17), he discovered that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. So, if he had set out immediately, Lazarus still would have been dead. He would have been dead for two days. Why wait for two more days? Dead is still dead. But the significance of the four days is stressed again and again in the book. For example, down in John 11:35. “Lord, by this time, there is a bad odor for he has been there four days.” We may not be aware of what burials were like in hot countries, where the custom was to bury the deceased within the first 24 hours. There was no embalming unless you came from extravagantly wealthy homes, and even then it would be a process that could take months. Lazarus was dead and buried and was decomposing enough that as the King James Version memorably puts it, “by this time, he stinketh.”
Because there was no embalming and no medical practitioners of the contemporary sort that are needed to declare a person dead today. Occasionally, what happened was the heart started fibrillating. The breathing was so shallow that you couldn’t even detect it. There were reports of people being carried out in their caskets to the grave when suddenly, as they’re being carried out, you hear tick, tick, tick, the body inside is resuscitated. This led to a number of Jewish theories. For example, in one first century document, we read, “When a person apparently dies, the soul hovers over the body of the deceased person for the first three days, intending to reenter it, but as soon as it sees that the appearance changes [that is when decomposition is set in irreversibly] then it departs.”
Now, I’m not suggesting Jesus is buying into that. But he knew jolly well, that if he had healed Lazarus or apparently raised him from the dead after only two days, some people in the crowd would have said, “Just two days, the spirit is still hovering around. Impressive but not that impressive.” But after four days, by this time, “he stinketh.” Jesus loved Lazarus, and Mary and Martha, therefore, he waited two days. And in waiting two days, He established such spectacular certainty of Lazarus’s death that when he raised him from the dead, no one could say anything slanderous, or cynical or skeptical.
“I am glad that I was not there,” Jesus said, “for your sakes so that you would believe.” He wanted them to believe that he really did have the power to raise people genuinely from the dead without any spooky stories of delayed spirit departures and that sort of thing. Jesus demonstrates His love in this case, by delay.
And that is often the case. It’s the child who lives in the immediate now. Our son when he was three years old, or three-and-a-half years old, had the voracious appetite of a teenager. And my wife runs by ordered schedules. As we got close to the next meal time, she wouldn’t start passing out treats to stave off hunger. She’d tell him, “They’ll spoil your appetite.” Now I personally never thought you could spoil Nicholas’s appetite, but that’s another matter. He became her little shadow. And finally, she would turn around and say, “Nicholas, it’s only 10 minutes. Just go away, and dinner will be ready in 10 minutes.” But his attitude was, “I’m hungry now.”
Similarly, that’s the way we want our blessings from God. “Now, I need it now.” And sometimes God expresses his love instead by delay. He teaches us such things as perseverance and faithfulness, things that are transcendentally important. Don’t we read, for example, in Romans 5:
We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3–5)
James 1 makes much the same argument. God sometimes displays His love toward us in delay.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds that you much dread,
are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.
So here’s the first surprise. Jesus hears a desperate plea for help and demonstrates His love by delay.
Surprise #2: Jesus Brings Comfort by Directing Attention to Himself
Number 2, Jesus comes up against devastating loss and consoles grief by directing attention to himself. See John 11:17–27: “On His arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was two miles outside of Jerusalem and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them.”
Now, you must understand how this comfort takes place. In a lot of Anglo-Saxon cultures, you demonstrate your Christian maturity at funerals and the like by a kind of stiff upper lip. You watch a widow or widower at a funeral and maybe a tear or two escapes, but it’s all rather disciplined and sedate. Afterward, you might summarize it by saying, “She was very strong, you know.”
Whereas in many other cultures, it doesn’t work like that. The way you demonstrate your tears, your grief, your godly sorrow is by wailing and crying. In fact, in first century Judaism, you made sure that you hired a professional wailing woman to help if tears were drying up a wee bit. If there was not enough crying, she would start blubbering, and at that, granted the sensitivity of everybody’s feelings, pretty soon the whole crowd would join in. In addition, they would often hire professional musicians to play dirge music. At the very least, even a poor family would have two flutists playing dirge music. But the family of Lazarus was wealthy. So, maybe they had a whole orchestra playing dirge music. And now, they’ve come from Jerusalem to comfort Mary and Martha. We’ll see how they do so in a few moments. They comfort them by providing the background to encourage wailing and gnashing of teeth.
When Martha had gone out (always the activist) to meet Jesus, Mary stayed at home. And now, in John 11:21, Martha finally finds Jesus and falls at his feet. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Now, you could read that cynically. And imagine that Martha is blaming Jesus. “It’s your fault. If you’ve been here where you should have been, you would have been able to heal him when he was sick. He wouldn’t have died. If you’d been here. Why were you away? Don’t you love us after all?” But that’s just too cynical. It’s too cynical by half. And, Martha herself realizes that she could sound like that.
So she asked immediately, John 11:22, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you want.” But you mustn’t think that this means she was, therefore, expecting her brother to be raised from the dead immediately. That she is not expecting it is very clear, for even when Jesus gets to the tomb later in the chapter (John 11:38), she protests that the stone should not be taken away. It’s too late. “By this time my brother is emitting a bad odor.” She’s not expecting a miracle at this stage. She’s merely trying to say, “I’m not really blaming you, Jesus. I know that you’re wonderful. I know that God will give you what you ask.”
Jesus answered and said, “Your brother will rise again”—spectacularly ambiguous. She responds at the level of good Jewish conservative orthodoxy. “I know, Lord. There is a resurrection at the end of the age. My brother will rise then.” She’s orthodox. But it couldn’t be understood, “Your brother will rise again in the next few minutes. She doesn’t pick up any of that possibility. And then Jesus says the most important words in the entire chapter. “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?”
Now, the thing to see initially before we look at these words closely is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “Oh, you poor woman. Let me give you a hug. I’m praying for you. You know, God still cares and loves us.” What He does is direct attention to Himself. It’s not enough to get her to confess orthodoxy. “Oh, yeah, he’s going to be raised on the last day.” Death as the last enemy does not have the last word. “Yes, yes, I know that.” He goes way beyond that. He points to himself, “I am the resurrection. I am the life. Do believe this?”
Earlier, in this gospel, Jesus has spoken of the resurrection that takes place in the last day and of his authority within it. In John 5:21, Jesus says, “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.” That sort of claim is made several times in chapters 5 and 6. And now Jesus says it a bit more poetically, “I am the reason resurrection and the life.”
There are two claims, “I am the resurrection. And I am the life.” And what He means by each is unpacked in the following words. “I am the resurrection, the one who believes in me will live even though they die. Death does not have the last word, and I am the life. Whoever lives by believing in me will never die. That life begins now. In the deepest, most eternal sense, in terms of connection to the living God who gives life, you will never ever die. You have eternal life. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
In one of the bloody revolutions that marked the history of modern, France. France, at the time of the Fourth Republic was in chaotic disrepair. And it was not at all clear that it would escape Civil War. And Charles de Gaulle was asked by some newspaper people, “Where is the state now?” And he said simply, “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”). [This phrase is first attributed to Louis XIV.] Now, of course, at an ontological level, that doesn’t make any sense at all. He’s not the state, he’s just a man; he’s going to die. But the state was so bound up with de Gaulle and his authority at that time that you understand exactly what he was saying.
Let me try another example. The first fast-food chain that developed here in North America was not McDonald’s. The first big one was Kentucky Fried Chicken. And everywhere, there were pictures of Colonel Sanders and his finger-licking good secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices and so on. So you could imagine that at some point in the advertising, and I never heard this, but you can imagine at some point in the advertising, Colonel Sanders saying, “I am Kentucky Fried Chicken.” That wouldn’t not be an ontological claim. He wasn’t a chicken Kentucky Fried or otherwise. But you could understand what he meant. He was so much tied up with Kentucky Fried Chicken that without him, without his chain, without his restaurants, without his finger-licking good secret recipe of herbs and spices, there was no Kentucky Fried Chicken. All the rest was phony. “I am Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
That’s the kind of thing Jesus is saying. He’s not making an ontological claim. He’s saying in effect, “I am the resurrection of the dead. I am life. There is no resurrection and from the dead, there is no eternal life whatsoever apart for me. I am the resurrection and the life.” He’s focusing all the attention on himself. “Do you believe this? It’s one thing, Martha, for you to believe that there is a resurrection at the end of the age. You’re in line with orthodoxy in Jewish circles. But do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life?” And if she answers positively, then a miracle that takes place is almost a kind of acted parable of what will be at the end of the age. He is not asking her if she believes that he is about to raise her brother from the dead immediately. Instead, he is asking if her faith that there will be a resurrection at the end can extend to deep trust in Jesus as the only one who grants eternal life now, and will resurrect the dead on the last day. In short, he’s asking if she can trust him as the resurrection and the life. And if she answers positively, then the raising of Lazarus, as I’ve said, becomes the kind of acted parable of the life-giving power of Jesus anticipating the end.
Jesus is saying in effect, “I am the resurrection of the dead. I am life. There is no resurrection and from the dead, there is no eternal life whatsoever apart for me. I am the resurrection and the life.”
Hence she replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27). Her reply carries that narrative forward. Clearly she believes that the one who is the resurrection and the life must be such by virtue of the fact that he is himself the promised Messiah.
But the surprise in all of this from the point of view of modern health and counseling and grief counseling, and so on is how much of Jesus’ response is simply Jesus pointing to himself. In fact, when you stop to think of it, that’s what he’s doing constantly in the Gospels. He points people to himself.
Consider, when John the Baptist points out who Jesus is, John the Baptist says, humbly, “He must increase but I must decrease. I’m not worthy that He should loose and even my sandals. He’s the bridegroom, I’m just the best man. There’s no comparison. I’m not the Messiah.” It’s not false humility; John is just telling the truth.
But in Matthew 11, and Luke 7, when Jesus bears testimony to John the Baptist, far from saying something like, “He’s a pretty great preacher and I tried to follow in his train.” There’s no sort of mutual humility, with each side trying to be more humble than the other. What he says is, “I tell you the truth. John the Baptist is the greatest man or woman because he introduced me.”
Now, suppose Tim Keller had sat down after introducing me, and then I got up and said, “Listen up, folks. I’m telling you the truth. Tim Keller is the greatest man or a woman because he just introduced me.” But that’s exactly what Jesus says. Jesus claims that John is the Elijah who has to come, the one who announces the way of the Lord, pointing out who Jesus was.
Oh, there is a sense in which Abraham points out who Jesus is. And Moses points out who Jesus is. And David points out who Jesus is, and Esther points out who Jesus is. There is a sense in which all of these things, these people, their institutions, and their places in history point forward to who Jesus is. That’s all true. But it fell on one man, John the Baptist, to say, “There, that’s the promised Messiah; I have come to prepare the way for the Lord. He is the one.” Jesus gets up and says, “That’s what makes him the greatest man who ever lived because he introduced me.” There is such a spectacular, self-conscious awareness of who he is in Jesus’s mind and words, that it makes no sense whatsoever to view him as merely, one more of a type, one more of a breed, one more prophet. So yes, God spoke to the ancestors by the prophets had many times and in many ways, but in these last days, he has given us the Son in revelation (Heb. 1:2).
There’s a wonderful pair of lines at the end of chapter 10 of John’s Gospel:
Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed, and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.” And in that place many believed in Jesus. (John 10:40–42, NIV)
You who are preachers of the Word of God, how would you like that as your epitaph? “Don Carson never performed a miracle, but everything that he said about Jesus was true.” John was the greatest of all those born of women up to that point because he pointed out who Jesus was.
And in this passage, Jesus brings comfort to a lonely, battered, grieving sister. And he brings comfort to her not by talking in abstract terms about life and death, or in eschatological terms of about final resurrection, but by pointing her to himself. “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” And in the comfort we give to Christians going through hard times are facing be resistant and loss, that’s where our focus must be. We must always, always, always point to Jesus, to Jesus, to Jesus.
Surprise #3: Jesus Displays His Sovereignty in Tears and Outrage
Third, Jesus comes up against implacable death and displays his sovereignty over it by tears and outrage. We find more surprises in John 11:28–44. Jesus apparently stays outside the town, Bethlehem, not because of some desire for anonymity, but because he’s letting the mourning take place and his disciples themselves are trying to protect him. He knows that he’s in danger from the authorities. But Martha goes back and calls Mary. And Mary joins Jesus. But this time, the crowd observes Mary leaving.
“The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. (John 11:28–31, NIV)
When she approaches Jesus, she uses exactly the same words that her sister Martha had used. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). Probably they had talked about that together. And that was the conclusion at which they had arrived. But now the conversation goes in a very different direction. This is not a private interview between Jesus and Martha, and now Jesus and Mary. Rather, the crowd is there. The Jewish mourners would have come along with her also weeping.
In response, Jesus was, well, our English translations all have some form of “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” I don’t know why they translate it this way because it’s simply not what the original says. Interestingly enough, in this case, all the German translations have it right. The English translation have it wrong. The verb that is used for “deeply moved” does not suggest simply depth of emotion or the like. A better translation would be something like, “He was outraged and just troubled.” And then again, John 11:38, “Jesus was more outraged, and came to the tomb.”
Perhaps if you notice the tears in John 11:35 (“Jesus wept”), you might automatically think in terms of the tears we shed at our funerals. And we might say Jesus wept because of the loss of his friend. “Really?” Jesus knows that in three minutes or so, Lazarus is going to come forth. That sounds like crocodile tears to me. If the reason for the tears is because he’s missing his friend, he’s only got three more minutes to go. No, no, no. He’s deeply outraged and troubled, and weeps. Why? The narrative tells us (John 11:33). He sees Mary weeping, and the Jews who came along with her also weeping. And this is a lot of noise. Culturally, this demands cries and outburst and orchestral dirges. There were more tears, more weeping. And Jesus is outraged. For what he sees is death, the last enemy. It is outrageous.
We have domesticated death so much in our culture, the experts come in and take away the bodies and then they’re embalmed and everything is played with soft music at a funeral hall, and it’s all domesticated. But it’s not the way death is in many cultures around the world were death is desperate. It’s not for nothing that the Apostle Paul insists that death still remains the last enemy. No, it does not have the last say, but it is the last enemy. We ought to be outraged by it. We lay our spouses in the tomb. We bury our babies. We bury elderly parents. And of course, there’s part of us that remembers with a certain kind of joy that death does not have the last word. When this aged mother, my mother, who died after nine years of Alzheimer’s and couldn’t recognize any of her children, wakes up in glory she was in the presence of Christ. And one day she will be raised from the dead in bodily form as well in the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness. Of course, that’s glorious, but it doesn’t detract from the tragedy, the ugliness of Alzheimer’s and death, and sorrow, and bereavement. And all of that, as was eloquently put in the last address, all of that because of sin.
Jesus sees sin, and the tears, and the death, and the loss and He is outraged and troubled, and weeps. These are tears of the same sort when Jesus pronounces his woes upon the city of Jerusalem and weeps (Luke 19:41). He has compassion, yes, but he is outraged. There is a sense in which we ought not to domesticate death by so emphasizing what comes after death for Christians, that we fail to see how ugly this thing is. It is appointed unto all of us wants to die after that the judgment. There’s no escaping it. It is the fruit of sin; it is inevitable; it is unavoidable; and it is ugly. So, he confronts implacable death and sovereignly addresses it, as we’ll see, but with tears of outrage.
Some people want to focus all the attention on the fact that Lazarus is finally resurrected from the grave. And we wonder what he was thinking about. He’s been there and come back. Why don’t we hear anything about that side of things? Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a poem called “In Memoriam” that tries to imagine why there’s silence on these matters.
Behold a man raised up by Christ!
The rest remaineth unreveal’d;
He told it not; or something seal’d
The lips of that Evangelist.
What does the evangelist portray? Jesus outrage saying,
“Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. (John 11:39–41)
And then Jesus prays. He prays understanding that this prayer is a public prayer, and therefore it needs to be worded a certain way. Public prayers are not to be shaped exactly the same way as private prayers because, although you may be addressing God, you know that people are listening in, and they are learning something from it. Hence,
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me. But I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41–42)
This is part of the display of the glory of God in Christ Jesus. “When He had said this, He called in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth’” (John 11:43).
Some wag [or, joker] has observed that if Jesus hadn’t prefixed his command with the name Lazarus, every tomb in Jerusalem would have spit out it’s dead. The dead man came out, hands and feet wrapped with strips and a linen cloth around his face. That’s where the focus is, not on what was passing Lazarus’ mind. Was he saying, “Nice to see you sis.” Or, “Oh, good grief, I have to come back here.” We’re not introduced to any of that. It’s secondary. It’s not important. What’s important is the manifestation of the glory of God in Christ Jesus even over sin and death, the glory of God displayed.
Surprise #4: Jesus Gives Life by Dying
And finally, the greatest surprise of all. Jesus comes up against moral and spiritual death and gives life by dying himself. The crowds respond predictably. Some believe Jesus when they perceive the miracle; however, how genuine their faith is, the text doesn’t explore it at all. But some of them will simply rat him out to the Pharisees to see what trouble they can stir up (John 11:46). And this generates a meeting of the Sanhedrin, trying to see a way out of the conundrum in front of them.
What do we do with this chap? He’s pulling in such great numbers that that eventually the Roman authority, the overlord, that the vassal state must bow to the dictates of the regional superpower. “Surely there is a danger. They’ll send in the troops and mow people down. They’re taking away our Temple. They’re taking away our place. They’re taking away our privileged status all because this chap is drawing big religious crowds, and it looks like an insurrection. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and then the Romans will come and take away both our Temple and our nation.”
So Caiaphas speaks. The language he uses his condescending. “You bunch of nincompoops; you know nothing at all. You ignoramuses. Don’t you realize that it is better for you that one men die for the people in that the whole nation perish?” This is royal politic. It’s brutal expediency. He shows no concern for justice or truth, no reflection on what might be properly concluded from the fact—the well-established fact with lots of witnesses—that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, no reconsideration of their assessment of Jesus, no worship, and no adoration. It’s all politics for Caiaphas. What he proposes is a substitutionary death. “It’s better for you that one man die, however unjustly, rather than the nation should perish.”
And of course, the deep irony, as anybody who reads this book knows is that in another 40 years, the nation would have perished. Jerusalem was crushed, and the Temple was destroyed. The death of Jesus from that political perspective was all for nothing. But John sees something deeper. He comments, “Caiaphas did not speak on his own but as high priest that year, he prophesied” (John 11:51). Borne along by the Spirit of God. He prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation. Well, that’s exactly what Caiaphas had said. It’s not that God by his Spirit was using Caiaphas the way God spoke through Balam’s ass. When Balam’s ass gave his counsel to the prophet, Balam’s ass was not giving it’s considered opinion. It was empowered to speak by the miraculous display of God’s power, that’s it. But Caiaphas was giving his opinion. And he was speaking of a substitutionary sacrifice. He just got the directions all wrong. He thought of a sacrifice in which one man would take the place of the nation in the physical arena to stave off a political coup. But as often in John’s Gospel, sometimes people speak better than they know.
Jesus bore the death of his people, not only the Jewish people, but of the scattered children of God whose death would be sucked up, borne, and exhausted in his own death.
Jesus bore the death of his people, not only the Jewish people, but of the scattered children of God whose death would be sucked up, borne, and exhausted in his own death. He died as a substitute for them. Jesus comes up against moral and spiritual death and gives life by dying himself. One of the briefest forms in which this is expressed in the history of the church is a little four-line poem,
He [hell in hell] laid low,
Made sin, he sin o’erthrew,
Bowed to the grave, destroyed it so,
And death by dying, slew.
We live this side of the cross. This is so elementary and fundamental a part of our Christian confessionalism. We can’t confess Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, without embracing within that confession the truth that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. He is the resurrection and the life. But when these words were first spoken, not even the apostles had a very good understanding of what they meant.
When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t include in his confession that the Messiah must die. For when Jesus goes on to talk about his impending death, Peter says, “Never Lord this shall never happen to you,” earning him the immortal rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan. You do not understand the things of God.” That does not mean that Peter was overtaken by demon possession, and it wasn’t really Peter speaking, it was really the devil himself. Rather, Peter was giving his own considered view, just as Caiaphas was giving his own view. But when Peter spoke, he was serving as the devil’s mouthpiece. When Caiaphas spoke in God’s great providence, to everyone’s surprise, he was serving as God’s mouthpiece.
Suddenly the strands of Old Testament line and thought come together. Why all those sacrifices on the Day of Atonement on Yom Kippur redeem year after year, year after year, after year? Why the slaughter of the Passover lamb that turns away the wrath of God, year after year, after year, after year? Why all this death? Why the picture of approaching God through a mediating priest once a year under God’s prescription on Yom Kippur to bring the blood of atonement both for the sins of the priest and for the sins of the people and splatter it upon the top of the Ark of the Covenant? Why all this? Where does it end up? Where does it go?
The fact of the matter is people didn’t guess where it went because they didn’t have a big enough category for God. They couldn’t imagine that God would reconcile people to himself by this means, even though all the images were there, and all the prophecies were there. They didn’t see it. The gospel itself came as a spectacular surprise.
We today confess the truth that Christ died in our place and rose from the dead. And that is elementary confessional wisdom for us today. But there are still millions of people who have heard these terms and don’t believe them. We long for a day when by the Spirit they are able to see, the surprise is gone and they see and believe. No wonder Peter can talk about Old Testament saints striving to understand the nature of the prophecies that they were writing. They wrestled for clarity and understanding when the Holy Scriptures spoke of the sufferings of Christ and the things that would follow. We are so privileged, brothers and sisters in Christ, to live this side of Calvary and the empty tomb.
It is elementary Christian proclamation that announces this news again and again and again in our generation, in the earnest hope and expectation that God, by the proclamation of the gospel, will enable others see and believe.
Let us pray.
Even angels desire to look into these things, oh Lord God. Have mercy upon us that we may plumb the depths of your grace as disclosed in Holy Scripture. And be eager not only to understand and believe but to proclaim this good news to a needy, lost, broken world. For Jesus sake. Amen.