In John 11, a beloved friend of Jesus, Lazarus, falls sick and dies. This verse is often remembered for the miracle of resurrection, which Jesus performs by raising Lazarus from death. But for me, this passage reveals so much to us about Jesus’ character and relation to man.
Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus that He is sick. But by the time Jesus gets to Bethany, where they are, Lazarus has already been dead four days. This isn’t news to Jesus, though; He tells His disciples before they depart: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless, let us go unto him.” Jesus was speaking to the disciples because of they do not understand him and His holiness yet, but I think that we are in the same state or even less faithful than His disciples so I have always found these words to the disciples especially resonant for my own spiritual learning.
So at this point what we know is that Jesus loves Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, and they love and abide in him. Their fate is not a punishment, but rather Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” We learn from Lazarus’ story that Jesus loves those that believe in him, and His followers’ misfortune is not necessarily to strike them down but rather to raise Him up so that all might see His ability and glorify Him for it. That does not, however, mean that it does not hurt Jesus to see His people in pain or suffering. Rather, we see in this story one of Jesus’ greatest points of distress. First, Martha comes out and cries to her Lord, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” And Jesus reassured her that her brother would be resurrected again, and He told her to call for Mary. When Mary came, she immediately fell at Jesus’ feet and wept, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.”
And this, sweet friends, is where we find the shortest and most simple verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” What we see here is the reason I find this story so compelling. Christ Almighty is confronted by two bereaving women of faith who cry to him, “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died,” as if to say, “Lord, where were you? How could you let this happen? We thought you loved us but you did not stop this.”
And the Lord God Almighty, the Word Incarnate who was in the beginning, who was with God, and was God, He did not scold or scorn them like His disciples. He did not spite them or reprimand them for their selfishness or their “smart talk” or “sass.” No. The Messiah, who knew all things, who knew His own end, “He wept.”
Jesus weeps with us and He joins us in our pain and our troubles. We learn here that our pain troubles His spirit. The Lord our God does not take joy in our suffering but rather He joins us in it. But He teaches us in John 11 that trial has a purpose; this life, this journey, this death is not meaningless. It all happens so that we might believe and so that the Son of God may be glorified.
When Jesus goes to resurrect Lazarus, He lifts up His eyes and says, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” The Son of God has told us in John 5:19 that He can do nothing without the Father; in fact, He can only do what He sees the Father doing and the Son does likewise. In His moment of distress, Jesus knows that His Father is with him and participating in His sorrow, and He thanks Him for His presence. He thanks Him even for knowing His heart before He spoke, saying, “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.”
Lazarus was raised up from death to be on Earth once more, but I believe that this story is a lesson so that we may know as believers how to understand and comprehend death. Death is not a sentence from God; instead, He aches for us and raises us up for His glory. We need to see death for what it is: an opportunity for God’s grace to be at work. It is the most desperate and lonely times which God uses to reveal the beauty of His mercies and the pure grace He shows by weeping for Lazarus (and us) though we are unworthy and doubt him, saying, “Lord, if only you were there, this would not have happened!”
This is a feeling that the modern Christian knows all too well. Lord, I believed in you, and still here I am alone in this! Where were you when the towers fell, when children were fired upon in a school in New Jersey, when chaos reigned in New Orleans or Boston; Lord, if only you were there, this wouldn’t have happened! These tragedies truly challenge the faith of believers; they are lies that tell the soul that God is not there for you. But Jesus shows us that He yearns and weeps for us in our sorrow. He shows us that not only does He care but that His graces are larger than any problem we may have; His graces are beyond even Death.
I was struck by posts on the Internet in the aftermath of Sandy Hook saying:
Another, admittedly quite different response, was one of an outspoken minority of American Christians whom believe that tragedies such as Sandy Hook are the works of the Lord and God actually sends shooters and terrorists to execute His judgment on America. The most notable proponents of this thought are the Westboro Baptists who picket many funerals of soldiers and victims of tragedies such as this in order to spread these beliefs. In the first case, the belief is that God was absent from the tragedy, and in the second case, God was the one behind the tragedy. Both takes, I believe, have much to learn from the story of Lazarus.
The Lord does not shy away from our pain nor does He love to see us hurt. God is love, and there are no exceptions to that. His love is so enduring that our short-sightedness denies him of His own definition. In spite and pain, like Mary and Martha, we blame God, doubt Him, and resent Him for not being there to stop the pain before it happened. Yet, God is more loyal than we are. “Praise the Lord! Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His loyal love endures!” (Psalm 106:1) His love endures beyond death, and death is not the ultimate condemnation and separation from God; rather, it has two uses for the Glory of the Lord.
First, Lazarus’ death was used for the Glory of the Lord so that others may see His mercy and believe. All times of heartache, sorrow, and mourning are opportunities to be like Jesus in His time of mourning and thank the Lord for His ever-enduring love and companionship. God’s mercies are hidden in the trials of life because it is those times that people call out to him and realize how much they need His mercy and grace. He works in our pain and loneliness and uses it for His Glory and for our faith because His love can work wonders. The second way that God uses death is through promise of reuniting with Him. In Philippians, Paul writes and comments on both these themes of death, writing:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear…
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (Philippians 1:12-14; 1:19-26)
And so we see that for followers of Jesus Christ, death is not only an opportunity for discipleship and promotion of the glory of the Lord but it is the opportunity to be with Christ which is by far a better circumstance than anything that can be found in this fleeting world. Paul even tells us here the meaning of life on Earth and why we all don’t simply seek death to go be with Christ now; in life, God has given each of us a mission for His glory and even our most grievous sufferings are used for His righteous plan. In verse 16, Paul says that His purpose on Earth is for the wellbeing of His community in Christ and their spiritual journeys. We live, therefore, for others and we die for Christ: so that He may be glorified and so that we may be reunited with Him. Death is not a forsaken or removed state from God; quite contrary, life is, and we as believers only live for the sake that His glory may be further expanded by our sake.
Let us end with a word of prayer. Dear Loving, Father God. You are the Maker of Heaven and Earth. We know that you know each of us by name and that you have called each of us to live our lives to Your glory. Forgive us, Oh Lord, for when we instead live our lives to our own end and for our own glory. We fear, Lord; we are afraid of trusting you and afraid of feeling the pain of being let down. We feel alone and like no one hears us. We feel far from you and we call out, “Why weren’t you there? This wouldn’t have happened if you were here with me like you said you’d be!” Yet, Lord, we know nothing, and you told us you had a plan until the end of time. Still, we doubt you and do not trust in you. You have given us so much, and you have shown us so much grace already. Still we twist Your words and we think that we can interpret the meaning of death and we can figure out things without You. Lord, we confess that we can do nothing without You, and we need You for everything we do. Come, Lord Jesus, come, and give our lives and death the meaning we idly seek. In Jesus’ name, amen.