Sermon on John 11:17-44, preached on Sunday, 17 March 2019.
Bible Readings: (OT) Psalm 33:1-22 / (NT) John 11:17-44
I. Hearing and trusting Jesus
II. Jesus’ compassion and our faithlessness
III. Jesus’ power over death and sin
This passage testifies Jesus’ miracle of raising a dead whose name was Lazarus back to life. This is a significant moment in the Lord’s earthly ministry because it is His ‘final provocation of the enemy,’ before His suffering, death and glorious resurrection. In other words, this is Jesus’ final public humiliation of the enemy, Satan, through overturning the enemy’s ruling over death and bringing a dead back to life. With this provocation, the enemy no longer remains gnashing his teeth, but snarls at last, exposing his fangs. So, our Lord has moved to be just a step away from His death on the cross and resurrection, the completion of His purpose of coming to earth.
This story of Jesus’ miracle is truly amazing. Let me point out three reasons why it is so. First, a dead person was raised back to life and it’s a unique case, different to the other two similar cases in the four-fold gospels. Previously Jesus raised two other dead ones – Jairus’ daughter in Mt. 9 and a widow’s son at Nain in Lk. 7. But in those two cases, Jesus revived the dead within a few hours or the day of their death. Yet here with Lazarus, the dead was raised and walked out of the tomb on the fourth day since his death. With this case, neither a conspiracy nor a flaw can any captious pedant raise. Second, Jesus wept. This is a rare case of Jesus being deeply emotional, showing His human nature. And third, it was a special and astonishing miracle performed in public. Many guests from both Bethany and Jerusalem were there; it wasn’t performed in a private circle. These are just a few reasons that stand out for making this miracle unique and amazing.
Having said, let’s be honest to ourselves and think about this miracle. A dead person rose and walked out of his tomb four days after his death. So what? What’s the point of his coming back to life? Has his rising from the dead anything to do with us? This is a historical fact – I admit – but, what does it mean to us of the 21st century world? There is a time gap between us – him and us – about two thousand years. In this fast changing 21st century world, does Lazarus’ resurrection mean anything to any of us? What about Jesus’ weeping? Or the multiple witnesses of this miracle on that day in Bethany in the 1st century Palestine? Not much significance to a faithless heart, don’t you think?
Truth is, however, that this great story teaches us two fundamental lessons for our spiritual life – one, Jesus is, literally, the resurrection and the life and, two, we must fully trust Him. Let me repeat these two lessons – one, Jesus is, literally, the resurrection and the life and, two, we must trust Him wholly. Hearing these, some of you might start feeling that your attention level fades away, thinking, ‘Ah, I know this; yes, Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and we must trust Him always. Nothing’s new; I’ve heard about this many years by now.’ If you did, let me ensure you, my fellow believers of Jesus, that these lessons are for you exactly, telling you (and me) that we must wholeheartedly trust Him, Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life. He cannot be half trusted and half doubted; He cannot be merely ‘acknowledged’ as the resurrection and the life, but be ‘experienced’ as the resurrection and the life. That’s the message through Lazarus’ death and rise. To borrow the words of James, this is about ‘living’ faith in comparison to ‘dead’ faith. So, I urge you to attend your ears and hearts to this message for you together with me.
I. HEARING AND TRUSTING JESUS
Firstly, you and I need to know what was going on with the people in this story in terms of their understanding of the Lord. It seems that Martha and Mary were alright with their faith. It seems that they both would’ve made good Communicant members of any Presbyterian Church with their profession on the matters like calling Jesus ‘Lord,’ belief in Jesus’ healing power, bodily resurrection, the last judgment day and so on. Any Session of a Presbyterian Church would say that they would surely satisfy most of the checklist boxes for granting Communicant membership.
But, their faith evidenced in their word and action was skin-deep and superficial. Such a faith is not what is required of Jesus’ disciples or followers; such a faith is, according to the words used in Revelation, ‘lukewarm’ – neither hot nor cold – which the Lord says that He’ll spit out of His mouth.
Let me show you why I say their faith is superficial. Martha seems to be a believer, saying in v. 24, “I know that [my brother] will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Hearing it, Jesus corrects her with the fact that He is the resurrection and the life, and whoever believes in Him shall never die but live. Then, He asks her, “Do you believe this?” She answers, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” But, in a minute later, her own words prove that her confession is shallow. Having arrived at Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus asks the cover stone of the tomb be removed, immediately Martha is alarmed and says, ‘No, Lord, he stinks! He’s been dead four days!’ Hear what Jesus speaks to her in v. 40, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Martha heard Jesus’ words, she heard Jesus telling her who He is and her brother would rise again. But that was it; the words that reached her ears have neither reached her heart, nor been stored in her soul. When her confession of ‘I believe’ is required to act upon, to be proved in action of ‘I surrender, I submit, I follow,’ her skin-deep faith is exposed and she says, ‘No, Lord, I can’t!’
I pray that none of us here this morning has such a shallow faith – word only and no living evidence of such a confession. Martha has, right before her eyes, the One who is the resurrection and the life. Yet, she fails to see who He is; she misses the Life-Giver. I pray that none among us would miss Jesus who is right before our eyes in and through and with these words of the Bible. Also, finding Him and seeing Him, none of us would say in one moment, ‘I believe,’ but say in another moment, ‘No, Lord, I can’t do what You ask of me!’ Instead, our confession in word should be our submission to Him in action.
Among many examples of living faith, we know Abraham. God appeared to him and, confessing his faith in the Lord, Abraham left his hometown and country to an unknown place of sojourning. Having received a son at an impossible age for child bearing, yet, hearing the Lord’s demand for his beloved Isaac, he packed up next morning, took his son and headed for the mountain top the Lord directed him to sacrifice his precious son. Abraham’s confession in word coupled with his act of submission proved his faith living and genuine before God.
This is what it means to wholeheartedly trust Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. He cannot be half trusted and half doubted; He cannot be merely ‘acknowledged’ as the resurrection and the life, but be ‘experienced’ as the Lord who gives life!
II. JESUS’ COMPASSION AND OUR FAITHLESSNESS
This message is again emphasised with our Lord’s weeping. V. 35 reads, “Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible. Why did He weep? Because He was ‘deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled,’ as in v. 33. Interestingly, He was ‘deeply moved’ again in v. 38. In between these deep emotional moments, He wept.
Let me talk about this emotion of the Lord Jesus. Many English translations render it as ‘deeply moved and greatly troubled.’ But this could also be interpreted as Jesus ‘became angry or outraged in spirit’ because the Greek word used in these verses may mean, when it is applied to human emotion, an outburst of anger. So, this could mean that Jesus was either sad and troubled, thus, wept, or greatly angry, so, tears burst out. Or, it could be both – I mean, He was sad, troubled and angry, so, in this mixture of extreme emotions, wept. Whichever is the case, our Lord Jesus was so deeply emotional; His sentiment and feeling were altogether troubled. This is not the Lord we often find in the Bible. Usually, His heart was perfectly calm – that includes the case of crossing the raging Sea of Galilee in a tempest. He was sound asleep in the back of the boat. Standing before the high priest or Pontius Pilate, His spirit was filled with heavenly peace. Rarely did He show strong emotional disturbance like this. Earlier in Jn. 2:15 and following, our Lord was angry, being consumed with the zeal for the Father’s house in Jerusalem. He overturned the money changers’ tables and drove away merchants and their animals with a whip of cords. In other cases, He called the Pharisees, those who rejected the Son of God, as ‘serpents, brood of vipers.’ Yet, all those cases were different from this troubled spirit of the Lord in Jn. 11. What caused such a unique burst of mixed emotions in the Lord’s spirit?
It’s people’s superficial faith, word-only-confession, their half trust accompanied with half doubt. Their ‘dead’ faith, their blind eyes to their Saviour caused Jesus’ spirit greatly troubled and He wept! Look again what our text tells us. Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replies in this sense, ‘I know, Lord, he will rise in a ‘who-knows-when’ sort of time in the future.’ So, Jesus says again to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, thought he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Then, He reassures her, saying, “Do you believe this?” Martha replies, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe You.’ But, Jesus who knows man’s heart knows Martha’s thought and her skin-deep faith with word only. In addition, Mary also comes to Him who is the resurrection and the life, and she weeps alongside all Jews who have followed her. They weep because of death that has separated Lazarus from them; they weep because death will not let them see him again. And they weep bitterly before the One who is the resurrection and the life! Do you see the absurdity of this scene? They face the Life – the Source and Well of Life through whom life springs up eternally and flows abundantly onto whomever He wishes to give. They face Jesus, the Life-Giver, yet, before His very presence, they weep! Jesus came to them to give His life – yet, they weep and mourn bitterly over death! What an absurdity!
You and I can’t really imagine how awful, how vain, dreadful, frustrated, pitiful Jesus might’ve felt at this very moment because we’re finite, fallen creatures and not God. The only closest case we humans might experience in this sense would be the case of parents having a rebellious and ungrateful child who not only denies but also wills to destroy his parents. His parents have done all they could to rear and raise him up to be godly before God and a good citizen in the society, but to no avail. Maybe those parents’ troubled heart might reveal the very tip of Jesus’ troubled spirit in Jn. 11 who sees Martha and Mary and all Jews there gathered together, including His disciples, weeping bitterly and morning over death! How troubled His heart must be! This makes His fully divine yet fully human heart and spirit deeply troubled, so He weeps!
In fact, Jesus wept once more with a similar reason. According to Lk. 19:41 and following, the Lord was coming to Jerusalem and, seeing the city, He wept over it, saying this: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (v. 42). He wept and mourned over their disbelief although the Saviour of the world came and was present in their midst.
But, let me clarify to you that Jesus’ troubled spirit was due to His compassion and grace toward the unbelieving hearts. Jesus’ anger is an expression of His measureless love and care for His people. Human parents often express their absolute love for their children in a form of anger. So, James points out in Jas. 5:11, saying, “the Lord is compassionate and merciful” even in the case of Job of the OT. The apostle Peter explains the Lord’s love and compassion in these words, “The Lord is … patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The psalmist elaborates this in Ps. 37:28, saying, “For the LORD loves justice; He will not forsake His saints. They are preserved forever.” Our first Bible reading this morning from Ps. 118 begins with these words, “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” One last verse I want to point out to you is Rom. 8:39 which says, “nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”! Jesus wept, seeing Martha and Mary and all there around Him without faith who have failed to trust in Him. In His endless love, He wept over them. As did, He still does weep over all who are half trusting and half doubting, whose faith is shallow and word-only without deeds! Yet, waiting for their full trust in Him, the Lord!
III. JESUS’ POWER OVER DEATH AND SIN
What follows after this proceeds quickly and straightforward. Opening the cover stone, Jesus thanks the Father for listening to His prayers, and commands, “Lazarus, come out”! Then, He commands again, “Unbind him, and let him go.” So, Lazarus comes back, rising from the dead four days after his death, and walks freely!
The sole purpose of this story is, as Jesus says in v. 42, that we as well as all those around Jesus at Bethany may believe that Jesus is the Son of God sent by the Father. By believing in Him, be saved from death and live forever in Jesus! He speaks even to you and me that, hearing what happened then at the tomb in Bethany two thousand years ago, you also believe in Jesus and receive His eternal life. Yet, this is not the end of His message for you; His eternal life you receive through faith, you must enjoy in your daily living. This is, in another word, ‘living’ faith. You confess with your word, and do what you confess – that’s how you start ‘enjoying’ Jesus’ eternal life even in this life on earth. When you hear the Lord speaking to you to open the ‘stone,’ that is, whatever that blocks your joy of living and following Jesus, then, do not say, ‘No, Lord, I cannot do it because of such and such reason.’ Never say that, but say in faith, ‘Yes, Lord, I’ll do what You ask of me in faith!’ Then, wait and see, first of all, what the Lord’s good plan for you is and, ultimately, how powerful and victorious He is over death and sin in you!
Summing it all up, let me tell you that ‘living faith’ is a simple and easy faith. You confess your faith in word and live it out in your life. Living faith is to say ‘yes’ to Jesus the Lord and do your ‘yes’ in Him.
Remember that Jesus wept because of His love and care for Martha and Mary and all others. Likewise, remember that He cares for you and waits for you to fully trust Him with all things and in all circumstances. So, let us believe in Jesus, walking our talk and enjoying our Lord’s blessings! ***