• The BaptistWay lesson for Jan. 11 focuses on John 11:17-44.
My dad, David, briefly worked for a funeral home doing physical labor—moving caskets, mowing the cemetery grass, digging burial plots, etc. One day, he and a coworker were called to transfer a woman’s body from the gurney to the embalming table. Daddy lifted her head and shoulders while his coworker picked up her feet.
Together, they gently placed her on the table—at which point she let out a deep sigh. My dad got out of there fast. After he stopped laughing, the mortician explained it wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Air gets trapped in the deceased’s lungs, and movement releases it, passing it over the vocal chords, causing the dead person to make sounds. And, in case you’re wondering, Daddy found a new job pretty soon after that.
Death isn’t the ultimate victor
Although it wasn’t a resurrection experience, it gives a glimpse of what it might have felt like for those who witnessed Lazarus’ revival. When someone is dead; they’re supposed to stay that way. But Jesus decided Lazarus and those who knew him needed to see death isn’t the ultimate victor; he is the resurrection and the life.
Jesus understood sickness and death. He saw how disease ravaged bodies destroyed lives and damaged relationships, leaving the ill in sad isolation and the widowed lonely and destitute. That’s probably why he showed mercy as he “went through all the towns and villages…healing every disease and sickness…(having) compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:35-36).
Among those Jesus loved were Lazarus, Mary and Martha, siblings who had hosted the Rabbi in their home (11:2; Luke 10:38). Thus, when Lazarus fell direly ill, the sisters sent word (11:3), presumably expecting Jesus to immediately come heal their brother, as they’d likely seen him do before. But rather than promptly leaving his ministry on the Jordan River’s eastern side, Jesus delayed, explaining Lazarus’ illness would not end in death (11:4).
Imagine then, the disciples’ surprise when, two days later, Jesus told them Lazarus was dead (11:6, 14). Jews typically believed the deceased’s soul hovered over the body for three days before departing. Thus, John’s comment that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days emphasized he was truly dead (v. 17).
If we recall Jesus’ visit to the siblings’ home recorded in Luke 10:38-42, it appears the two sisters have reversed roles in this scenario. Mary, praised by Jesus for listening attentively to him, remained at home (v. 20). Yet Martha, who’d been too busy with preparations, came to meet him, expressing regret—not rebuke—at Jesus’ delay (v. 21) and confidence in his relationship with God (v. 22), regardless of her ability to understand Jesus’ choices.
When Jesus affirmed Lazarus would rise again, Martha concurred (vv. 23-24), but Jesus clarified: “I am the resurrection and the life” (v. 25). This is yet another of Jesus’ ego eimi, (“I am”) statements paralleling Exodus 3:14, identifying himself as deity and clarifying his character. Jesus is the author of the resurrection most Jews believed would come at the end times; he has complete power over death, and this statement simultaneously announced his own forth-coming resurrection.
Jesus also claimed to be the “life”—the source of God-given existence, eternality, salvation, and kingdom fullness and abundance for all who believe in him. Though seemingly cryptic, Jesus was explaining the source of resurrection life is not a thing, philosophy or idea, it’s a person, and he invites Martha—and us, by extension—to abandon the abstract idea of some non-descript future uprising and dull, purposeless existence for a personal belief in and eternal relationship with him (v. 26).
Martha’s confession in verse 27 is bold, honest and straightforward. She confidently speaks of her complete and utter trust—“I believe”—and abandonment of selfish control to faith in Jesus as deity and as the long-awaited Messiah. I wish John had described the emotion of that moment and Jesus’ response. I suspect he enveloped the grieving woman with a comforting smile and bear hug. “She gets it,” he must have thought. And remarkably, she believed, not because life was good, but despite her heartache.
Jesus then called for her sister, Mary. Upon her arrival, she repeated Martha’s words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32). It seems evident the women discussed what they expected Jesus to do, but he doesn’t always meet our expectations, because he sees the bigger picture. Jesus, for God’s glory (11:4), had a plan they didn’t know or understand.
Demonstration of grief
But before he could execute his plan, Jesus had to deal with his own emotions (v. 33). His demonstration of grief in verse 35 reveals his own hatred for death, his agony over the sickness and expiration of his dear friend, and his shared sorrow with Lazarus’ sisters. He clearly understands human heartache, because he is fully human and fully God.
Author Os Guinness had a friend whose son died in a cycling accident. The father screamed in pain and fury, blaming God for his son’s death. Rather than rebuke him, a mutual friend gently reminded the man of the Savior at Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus expressed anger and furious indignation in the presence of death; he felt the abnormality of suffering, he identified with our anguish in this broken world. Like Jesus, he said, we are “free to feel what it is human to feel: sorrow at what is heartbreaking, shock at what is shattering, and outrage at what is flagrantly out of joint. … To pretend otherwise is to be too pious.”
The difference between our grief and Jesus’ is he has the unique ability as God to do something fundamental about what grieves us! In verse 39, Jesus instructed those nearby to open the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb. Martha, ever concerned about details—she was the quintessential hostess, after all—warned Jesus there would be a stench. He wasn’t really concerned about that, though.
Pressing forward, Jesus prayed a grateful prayer to the Father (vv. 41-42) and commanded with authority for Lazarus to “come out” (v. 43). To the surprise of all those gathered around, he did. Jesus then instructed the onlookers to free Lazarus from the linen strips that bound his hands and feet and the cloth around his face (v. 44).
Jesus came to make dead people alive
Jesus longs to see us freed from the things that bind our hearts and minds; he is the victor. He came to make dead people alive (Ephesians 2:5), not just make us “good.” Lazarus—and others whom Jesus raised from the dead—experienced the physical manifestation of Jesus’ power as the source of resurrection life. Today, we can know that power daily in the spiritual sense of being dead to sin, but alive to God when we place our faith and trust in Christ (Romans 6:11). It must be a faith that trusts him regardless of our circumstances, knowing he offers confidence and peace to his disciples in all our various challenges.
Today, examine yourself and ask the following questions:
• Is Jesus alone your source for eternal life, or are you depending on your own ability to do good things in hopes you’ll somehow merit your presence in heaven?
• Are you faithful to trust his decisions in your circumstances even if you don’t understand them?
• Do you honestly grieve over the hurt around you? Do you deny yourself the opportunity to feel deeply, or suppress emotion as if it’s a sign of power or control?
• Finally, do you live free from the restraints of sin, self-consciousness or conformity?
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Believe in him … and live.