Let’s pray. Lord, have mercy on us. We are so often blind to spiritual things. Help us to see. We have trouble hearing Your voice, so help us to listen. We are easily distracted, so help us to focus. We are quick to doubt; give us faith. We are slow to understand; give us knowledge. Teach us Your ways. Show us Your Son, that we might live for You and when the time comes that we would die with You, and in You, looking forward to living forever with You. We pray all of this in Christ’s name. Amen.
Our text this morning comes from John chapter 11. Please turn in your Bibles there, to John chapter 11. This is at the back of your Bible in the New Testament. There are four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They tell the same story from different vantage points, and we have been going through the gospel of John for, hmm, a long time now, a year and a half, I guess. We come to John, chapter 11. I’ll be reading verses 1 through 16. Follow along, and then keep your Bibles open so you can follow along with the sermon.
“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.’
What difference would it make in your life if you were absolutely convinced of these two things: Jesus loves you, and He knows what He’s doing. And when I say what difference would it make if you were absolutely convinced, I mean what if you could be so gripped and so sure of those two truths that it animated and defined everything about you from the tip of your head to the end of your toes.
That you were intellectually certain. Like someone could say “Is Matthews, North Carolina in Mecklenburg County?” and you could look it up and you could say “yes,” you could find it on a map, you could go to the county offices, you could be well-established in that fact and have no doubt. Intellectually certain.
But beyond that, if you could be emotionally certain. Like you are emotionally certain that when you see your dog, he is going to be happy to see you. And I am emotionally certain that when I see your dog, he will bark at me [laughter] and jump on my leg and follow me as I run through the neighborhood. [laughter] Emotionally certain.
Experientially certain. As certain as you are the next time you take that sip of coffee, for the coffee aficionados, or the next time you bite into that piece of pizza, it’s going to be good. It was good the last time, it will be good the next time. Experientially certain.
And existentially certain. Just as you are that gravity exists, your whole life operates with that assumption. You, you don’t even have to think about it. You did not get out of bed this morning and say “somebody hold me down, I’m floating up” like Willy Wonka drinking all the fizzy pop and spinning up to the top. You weren’t worried about that. You existentially are certain that gravity exists, or that tomorrow will have 24 hours, or that it will rain sometime this week. [laughter]
Now listen, I don’t assume that everyone in this room is a Christian. Some of you are not Christians and you know it. Some of you are not Christians and you don’t know it. But if you are a Christian, that is if you have been born again, if you have committed your life to Christ, if you are His sheep and He is your shepherd, then knowing these two things ought to change everything about your life. Jesus loves you, and He knows what He’s doing.
Look here at our text in chapter 11. We see in the first paragraph Jesus certainly loved Lazarus and his family. Jesus is up in the Galilee region again on the east side of the Jordan, as we saw at the end of chapter 10. John had been baptizing in a place called Bethany across the Jordan, but Lazarus lies ill in a different Bethany. This is Bethany of Judea, a little town two miles from Jerusalem. The two places are over 100 miles apart.
And this Mary mentioned here, there’s a lot of Marys in the Bible, this Mary is not Mary the mother of Jesus, it’s not Mary Magdalene, this is a different Mary, one of the most common names among the Jews, so it’s not surprising there would be a lot of Marys, but it does make it confusing to us. And sometimes, if we’ve been around the Bible a long time, we forget certain things that we’ve learned, or certain things that we should have learned. I remember one time talking to someone who was just completely new to the Bible and was reading Genesis and asked me the question about the story there of Joseph and the coat of many colors, and said “when does Mary come?” Oh, different Joseph. So this is a different Mary, not Mary the mother of Jesus.
We know from the rest of the Gospels that this family, Mary, Martha, and now we’re introduced to their brother Lazarus, that this was a prominent and prosperous family. We will see later in verse 19, “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.” So many people had come out in the wake of his death to bear grief with them, to give their condolences, perhaps even being hired out as families would do to hire out professional wailers, the wailing women to come and exhibit their exuberant distress. So there were many of them. This is a well-to-do, well-known, prosperous family. They have a home. They host Jesus, presumably His disciples, too.
Turn back, real quickly, to Luke chapter 10, a story that many of you know. And you see the heading about verse 38, “Martha and Mary.” So this is the family that we’re talking about. “Jesus entered a village a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.”
Now we don’t know, were there husbands? Were they widows? Had they inherited money from a father? What exactly is the family situation? But we can deduce that they had a fairly significant livelihood and income that they are welcoming people, probably not just Jesus, but many people in to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive this teaching. Martha is anxious about many things, so she’s probably doing more than just providing some cheese and crackers for Jesus, but there’s a whole host of people here, which says something about their house and about their livelihood.
Mary, now turn back to John chapter 11, she will be the one to anoint Jesus’ feet. You see that in verse 2, it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair.
Now we come to that, if you turn the page over in John chapter 12, verse 3, “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair.”
We haven’t gotten to that story in chapter 11, but John understands that his readers would have had some awareness of these Gospel traditions, and so they would have all known, “oh, that Mary, we’ve heard about that Mary. The Mary, oh, how could we forget about that Mary, who used the very expensive ointment and wiped Jesus with her own hair.”
This hair isn’t going to get it done, so I’m assuming she had more hair than this.
Again, it speaks to something of their prominence and their prosperity that they had a very expensive ointment, worth a year’s wages. This is this family. And Jesus loved this family.
You see in chapter 11 it’s repeated twice: “Lord, he whom You love is ill.” Verse 5, “now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Verse 11, “He said to them ‘our friend Lazarus.'” The text could not be any clearer that they had a unique, special relationship with Jesus. Where else in the Gospels do we have the names of an entire family? Or at least it seems to be the entire family. Jesus knew each one of them.
There are occasions in the Gospels of speaking to each one of them, to Martha individually in Luke 10, and then to come, and Mary, and to Lazarus. He knew them each by name.
And you remember the story in Luke chapter 10 where He says with that statement of great affection, “Martha, Martha.” Not “Marcia, Marcia,” from the Brady Bunch, but “Martha, Martha.” Wherever we have the repetition of a name in the Bible, it speaks of great pathos and affection, “Absalom, Absalom.” Here it’s “Martha, Martha. You’re anxious about many things.”
He knew this family intimately. He had been in their home. They had cooked meals for him. They supported His ministry in a way that very few could, or did.
We will see in the weeks to come Jesus weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus knew this family well, and He loved them deeply.
You know people like this. I hope people know you like this. Maybe they’re sitting in the pew by you, maybe they’re somewhere else in this sanctuary, or maybe they’re somewhere else in town this morning, but people you’ve had in your home, people you love to laugh with, people that you’ve cried with, people that are your close friends, people that you would say without any hint of embarrassment, “I love you.”
That’s how Jesus felt about this family.
Now perhaps you’re saying, “well, Pastor, you said at the beginning that Jesus loves me. Well, I see how He loves Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but I’ve not cooked a meal for Jesus. He’s not been in my home. He’s not physically with me. I cannot anoint His feet like she did. How do I know Jesus really knows me, really loves me?”
Think about all that we’ve already seen about the Good Shepherd and His love for the sheep. If you are a sheep of this Good Shepherd, then think about all the ways that we saw in John chapter 10 that Jesus loves you.
John 10, verse 3: He knows your name. He goes before you and leads you. He will bring you to green pasture. He gives you abundant life. He laid down His life for you. He is not a hired hand on retainer by the Father to watch some ragamuffin sheep. He does not flee when wolves come into your life and into the flock. He knows His own, and His own know Him.
Mark it very well. If you are a sheep, and He is the Good Shepherd, everything that is said here about Martha and Mary and Lazarus is said of you. He knows you. He loves you.
That’s why I said you must know, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, intellectually, experientially, emotionally, existentially… Jesus loves you.
And He knows what He’s doing.
Look at the second paragraph. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
So they know they have a special relationship with Jesus. They get that, that’s why they come to Him in verse 3. How many other sisters have this direct access to Jesus to say “Lord, the one whom you love, is ill”? They know they have a special relationship with Jesus, they know He can do special things, so it is not surprising they would come to Jesus looking for help when their brother is sick unto death.
What is surprising is that Jesus does not leave immediately for Bethany. Rather, He stays two days more in the place where He was.
And what’s even more surprising, I hope you have your Bible open, because sometimes the littlest words in the Bible make the biggest difference. You see that word at the beginning of verse 6? “So.”
The Greek word is “oun.” It means “so.” [laughter] Or “therefore.” In the Latin vulgate, it’s “ergo.” Ergo, therefore, to say because of this, we have that.
Why is that important? Because you would not think that verse 5 would be connected to verse 6 with “so.”
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so” when He heard Lazarus was ill, He made haste to Bethany. That’s what you would expect.
Because of this, because He loved them, so He bolted out of there as soon as He could to see His sick friend.
Or, now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so when He heard Lazarus was ill, He said “Mary and Martha, arise for your brother has been made well.” That’s what you would expect a “so” to lead to.
If not that sort of sequence, then we shouldn’t have a “so,” we should have a therefore, we should have a “but,” or a “yet.”
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” but when He heard the weather was bad and He looked at the forecast, He had to stay two more days.
So I, I don’t want you to move past this too quickly. There’s a connection, that little word “oun,” “so,” or “therefore” connects the love of verse 5 with the delay of verse 6. “He loved them, therefore He waited.” He intended to demonstrate His love by delay.
There’s a greater goal to God’s love than to give us exactly what we want, when we want it, how we want it.
Mary and Martha were not asking for a bad thing. They were asking for a very good thing. “Our brother, the one you love, is sick.” What they wanted was healing now.
Jesus had in mind something bigger and better. He said in verse 4, “it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
He’s already hinted there, the illness does not lead to death. Of course, it will lead to death, but He means ultimately it will not end in death because he will be brought back to life. He will sleep. Now the disciples, being clueless disciples, say “oh, he’s just taking a nap.” Well, no, he’s not taking a nap. Get a metaphor. Take a literature class, disciples. Okay? He’s sleeping… What He means is he’s going to die, but it’s not permanent, therefore it’s a type of sleep.
Jesus is going to let Lazarus die. He is intentionally going to Bethany when He knows that Lazarus will be good and dead. So He waited two days. He waited two days so that everyone would know, by the time He got there, another two day journey, that Lazarus was really, positively dead. Given the medicine of the day, it wasn’t very sophisticated, you couldn’t always be sure when someone was truly dead. Sometimes you would have supposed miracle workers, like Miracle Max, and they would help people who were mostly dead, [laughter] He wanted to make sure no, this is not some fainting, this is not some resuscitation. He’s really, truly dead.
And in some parts of Judaism there was a superstition that your spirit could hover above you, above your body for up to three days, which is why Jesus wants to make sure were getting to at least day 4, and that he will stinketh. So everyone knows he’s dead, dead, dead, dead.
But we’ll get to resurrection next week. This morning I want to have verse 5 and 6 really sink in. “He loved them so” He didn’t do exactly what they wanted.
We all tend toward a view of love that defines love as maximizing my immediately happiness. Now we don’t sit out and write out that definition, but that’s sort of what we operate with: Love is maximizing my immediate happiness.
When a child says to a parent “you don’t love me,” what they mean is “you have not, in this moment, maximized my immediate happiness. I wanted more pie; you didn’t give it to me. I wanted the toy on the shelf; you didn’t buy it for me. I wanted to stay up; you made me go to bed. You don’t love me. You have not maximized my immediate happiness.”
People will come and they will, with any manner of sin, will want their friends and family to condone them, condone you, condone me in whatever our sin is, because it feels good, because it seems good.
And if you say “no, I cannot condone that sin that you are engaged in,” they may something like “you don’t love me,” meaning “you are not maximizing my immediate happiness, you are not affirming in my life what I believe to be the maximization of my immediate happiness, therefore you must not love me.”
And so it happens, too, with God. We have needs, we have hurts, we have fears, we have pains. If, if, if God does not come and do what would make sense to us, to maximize our immediate happiness, it seems to us “how can He really love me?”
We all want to be happy. We want pleasure, not pain. We want things to go well, not poorly. We want people to support us, affirm us. We want people to do what we want. We don’t want people to say “no” to our wishes and desires. We want people to say “yes” to our hopes and dreams.
So I perceive that you love me when you do things that contribute to my sense of well-being, and if you do something that does not contribute to my sense of my well-being, then you don’t love me.
If you do something that makes me feel bad in the moment, or seems hard, or is not what I would have chosen for myself, therefore you must not love me.
Do you see how Jesus operates, and the whole Bible operates, actually, with a very different understanding of love?
Jesus communicates to Mary and Martha, in effect, “I love you, and I love your brother so deeply, I love you and your brother more than you can possibly know. Which is why I’m going to wait. Which is why I’m going to wait.”
We who are parents should understand this. Isn’t it true? You don’t understand this as a child, though your parents might say it, but you understand it immediately when you become a parent. Parents love their kids more than their kids will ever love their parents. It’s not a knock on kids loving their parents; they do and all that, but you understand, there is a love that you have for your children that children simply cannot understand, the depth and the height and breadth and the width, of that love that a parent has.
And yet you understand as a parent, there are many times you have to do things, and you have to lead in such a way, that it feels to your child far less than love, because it is not the immediate maximization of happiness. It is not what lends to the immediate sense of well-being for that child, and yet you are motivated by the deepest love that they cannot begin to fathom.
And so it is with our heavenly Father, and so it is with the Lord Jesus.
The whole point is that the Son of God might be glorified in demonstrating His power over death.
And notice that in the same breath, “it is for the glory of God,” verse 4, “so that the Son of God may be glorified.” What audacity Jesus has to say God’s glory and My glory at the same time, in the same direction, for the same end.
So how is it love, for Jesus to say “I’m gonna wait, so I get glory.” Okay, we know Jesus is God and He can do that, but how does that really “love”?
Here’s why it’s love: Because Jesus knows you will, in the long run, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Christ Covenant, you will be more helped to see My power than to be spared from this pain.
Jesus says if I can lead you to trust in Me, depend upon Me, rejoice in Me, believe in Me, that is the most loving thing I can do for you because in the end, it will be the most maximized happiness for you.
In verse 42 we will find the point of the miracle was that “they may believe that You sent Me.”
So, it’s not just glory; it is that, but it’s Christ’s glory because He loves them. Because seeing that, trusting in that, knowing that, will be ultimately their maximum joy.
You know that there are seven “I am” statements in John and there are seven signs, and this is the seventh of those signs. The eighth, perhaps, is the resurrection itself, but we are coming to the resurrection of Lazarus, which is the seventh of these signs.
Do you see how we have almost a perfect bookend with the first and the last of these seven signs? What was the first sign? It was the miracle of the wedding at Cana and Galilee, and there you have someone who is close to Jesus. His mother come to Him and say “we got a problem right now. We need some wine. You must do something.” And Jesus refuses to act immediately. Why? Because as He delays, as He waits, there is something bigger and something better to come.
“Hold on, I’ll get wine, but I’m gonna wait. And when that wine comes, it’s the best wine you’ve ever had.”
That was the first miracle.
And here we have the last of the signs in John’s Gospel. Same thing, someone very close to Him says “we got a problem right now, do something.” Jesus says “I’ll wait. And when I do something, it will be so much better.”
Calvin says “we are taught by this delay on His part that we ought not to judge of the love of God from the conditions which we see before our eyes. When we have prayed to Him, He often delays His assistance, either that He may increase still more our ardor and prayer, or that He may exercise our patience, and at the same time accustom us to obedience. Let believers then, implore the assistance of God but let them also learn to suspend their desires if He does not stretch out His hand for their assistance as soon as they may think that necessity requires, for,” and listen to this last line, “whatever may be His delay, He never sleeps and never forgets His people.”
In your life, in my life, just as it was in Mary’s life and Martha’s life, whenever Jesus delays, it is always motivated by love.
And you say “but they had to wait just a few days! Easy for us, and then they had a happy ending. Lazarus lived!”
True. We often have to wait more than a few days. But we know the happy ending for us as well. Even if the delay lasts until death, we know that death is not the end for us, just as it was not the end for Lazarus.
There are two odd verses in this passage. The first is Thomas at the end in verse 16. Thomas, called the Twin. Thomas means “twin” in Hebrew or Aramaic, Didymus in the Greek, means “twin.” I’m guessing he was a twin.
So, he says “let us go also.” It’s unclear whether he means let us go with Lazarus and die with him. I think he means “let us go with Jesus” because Jesus has just talked about going back toward Jerusalem and the people say “they want to stone You, You’re nuts,” and Thomas says, in effect, “hey, it’s a trap, boys, but let’s go with Him anyways.” He spoke better than he knew.
This Thomas, who we often know as “Doubting Thomas,” here says “we’re gonna follow Jesus no matter what.”
And then the second oddity is in verse 9, when they say “if you go there again, they’re going to kill you,” and Jesus says this little aphorism, “are there not 12 hours in the day?”
It was common among the Jews and the Romans that they broke up the day into 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. What Jesus is saying in effect is, “Look, it’s still daylight. There’s 12 hours in the day, and while it’s still daylight, My work must continue, and as long as I’m doing the Father’s will, My death will not come until it’s time for My death to come.”
And more than that, He’s saying “as long as it’s daylight, you have an opportunity and they have an opportunity to follow Me, so don’t miss the opportunity to believe in Me before the darkness sets in.”
Both of these little oddities, verse 9, verse 16, are getting at the same point: Jesus knows He’s going to die. The disciples know that if they go with Him, they may die. And yet they ought to have had a confidence that Jesus wants them now to have to understand that even death itself will not have the final victory.
Even when Jesus delays, there is something bigger and better and more lasting than death to come.
In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the French physicist Jean-Baptiste LeRoy. The letter contained this sentence, you’ve heard it before: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”
April 15, tomorrow, don’t forget. [laughter]
The 1936 novel Gone with the Wind gave a slight variation on Franklin’s line: “Death, taxes, and childbirth. There’s never a convenient time for any of them.” [laughter]
Well, we know Franklin’s line and we chuckle at it as a quip. But when we really think about it, of course it’s not a joke because Franklin was right. Everyone will die. According to Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
For most of us there is nothing more jarring, more frightening about life, than that life ends.
Which is why we need to know this Jesus who can conquer the grave. Why we need to know this Jesus who powerfully super-intends all things, and this same Jesus intimately knows everything about you and your life.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist. Has more than a million followers on Twitter, sort of a public intellectual, scientist. Calls himself an agnostic, says he’s never seen convincing evidence that God exists. He tweeted this on April 3, a little over a week ago: “The universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pain. Have a nice day.”
The universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pain.
Here’s what I pray Mr. Tyson will learn some day, and pray that each of you know as well: Even if the universe is blind to our sorrows and indifferent to our pain, the Maker of the universe is not.
Listen, Christian. Jesus knows, Jesus sees, Jesus cares. He does not do things as we would always wish. He does not operate on the timetable that we think is best. He often delays when we think haste would be the order of the hour.
But we ought to know for certain that God wants us to know, from the top of our head to the tip of our toes, if you are His sheep and He is your Good Shepherd, that Jesus loves you. And He knows what He’s doing.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank you for so great a salvation, for so great a Shepherd, and not only a Shepherd, but the Lamb who was slain for our sins. Who has in His hands all power, majesty, glory, and dominion, and exercises all things for the glory of His heavenly Father and for the good of His people. Help us to know it, believe it, and rest in it. We pray in the matchless name of Jesus. Amen.