Encounters With Christ: The Man Who Died Twice
Today I wish to focus our attention upon the entire 11th chapter of the Gospel of John. And I certainly would recommend it is worth your time to read that chapter in its entirety. But I wish now to read for you just a piece of that chapter. This is the Word of God.
“On His arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 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.’ But Jesus said to her, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will live even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she told him. ‘I believe that you are the Christ. The Son of God who was to come into the world.'”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” After that, what else is there to say? The worst of all possible happenings has happened. The grimmest of all grim tragedies has been played out. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do. It’s over. It’s finished. It’s kaput. Lazarus is dead. Medicine’s administering hands are no longer needed. Doctors and nurses can move onto other patients. Family members and friends can begin to make their way back home. Lazarus is dead.
It happens all the time. In fact it’s so commonplace that when we chance to see a funeral procession passing us along the street, we hardly turn our heads to notice. And we scarcely give a passing thought to those poor souls huddled in that procession, toting a loved one and a load of grief out to some nearby cemetery. Happens all the time. It’s so ordinary. Ordinary, that is, until it strikes close to home. Ordinary, that is, until it strikes at our home. Then it is ordinary no more. Then it explodes upon us with a pain and a despair of frightening intensity. Then it comes like some roaring great runaway freight train, storming its way into our life.
That’s the way it came to the sisters Mary and Martha. Because their brother Lazarus is dead. I mean, they had had the happiest home in all of the little town of Bethany. But then they had the two ingredients which always make for happiness in any home, happiness in every home, happiness in your home and mine. They loved Jesus. And they loved each other. That’s it. Love for Jesus Christ plus love for each other equals a happy home. That’s the secret. And that’s what they had. And their home was the brightest, sunniest, happiest place in all of Bethany. Notice I said was. It is no longer. In the flash of a moment, in the time that it takes to draw a breath, or fail to draw one, their home was transformed into the darkest, gloomiest, saddest place in all of Bethany. Because Lazarus, their brother—Lazarus is dead. We are not told what illness took him. We are not told how much he suffered. We are not told how long he lingered. What we do know is that from the very first moment he was taken ill, his sisters first thought, and then later said out loud, “If only Jesus would come.” But time passed. And Jesus didn’t come.
And so the sisters decided to send Him a message. A simple message. “Lord, the one You love is sick.” That’s all they said. Knowing Jesus, that’s all they felt they needed to say. No ultimatum. No pressure. No demands. Just, “Lord, the one You love is sick.” So they sent the message. And then they waited. And they waited. We do not know how many times they must have gone to the front window of the house to see if Jesus was coming to the door. We do not know how many times they must have scaled to the crest of a nearby hill to scan the horizon to see if Jesus was on the way. What we do know is that death came before Jesus did. Why hadn’t He come? They’d sent Him a message. He knew their plight. He had had time to get there. Why hadn’t He come? I think we can begin to frame an answer when we read 5th and 6th verses of John 11. Listen. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when He heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was two more—” Wait. Is that what it says? “He heard Lazarus was sick. He stayed where He was two more days.” I mean, this is Jesus. We would have expected it to read, “He rushed immediately to their side.” No. No. It says, “He stayed where He was two more days.” Why?
I know that we cannot know for certain. But I certainly can tell you what I believe. I believe that Jesus saw this encounter with Lazarus as being the single most crucial moment in His entire earthly ministry. He knew the end was near. He knew His opponents were conspiring to do him in. He knew that Calvary was just a matter of weeks away. He knew all that. And so I believe that Jesus deliberately chose to use the sickness and the subsequent death of His good friend Lazarus to teach us His greatest lesson. To teach us who He really is. To confront humanity’s greatest enemy. And to demonstrate once and for all and forever His unconquerable power. I believe that Jesus saw it that way. I believe that this encounter with Lazarus was rather like a magnifying glass. You know how when you take a magnifying glass, and you hold it at the precise angle, the magnifying glass takes the vast light of the sun and focuses it down, down, down, to a single burning point. Well, I believe that this encounter with Lazarus took the whole vast earthly ministry of the Son of God and focused it down, down, down to a single burning moment. And I believe Jesus saw it that way.
It was now or never. It was all or nothing. It was do or die. Jesus would confront humanity’s greatest enemy, death. And he would do it for all the world to see. It’s like we say down South. It was time to fish or cut bait. And I believe that Jesus saw it that way. I believe He knew that this was the most crucial moment in His entire earthly ministry.
And you can almost hear or feel the tension in His voice when he says to His disciples, “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake, I’m glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. Now let’s go to him.” And Jesus then, I believe, deliberately chose the death of His good friend to teach us His greatest lesson.
Here, for example, He teaches us that suffering does not mean the absence of God.
Here in the story, you realize that Mary and Martha felt that if Jesus had been there, the whole tragedy could have been avoided. All the pain could have been averted if Jesus had just been there. But you see, what Mary and Martha didn’t realize at the time was that Jesus was there. Jesus was there all along. Nothing happened there that was beyond the knowledge of Jesus or the power of Jesus. He was there. When death was doing its worst, Jesus was there. Only later did they come to realize how true that was.
You know we need to remember that as well. Because we have a tendency to think, when we encounter suffering in life, it’s because God has forsaken us. But that’s not the case at all. Exactly the opposite is true. When we suffer, God is never closer. Let’s be honest here. We do have a tendency, don’t we? When we encounter some difficult time of suffering in life, we have a tendency then to think that God’s just left us. He’s abandoned us. He’s forsaken us. But the reality is if we feel that God is not there, it’s not because He’s forsaken us. It’s because we have excluded Him. You know how it is. We push Christ out of our lives. And that’s why lust sometimes can set its shackles upon us. We close the door of our hearts to the Master’s face. And that’s why sometimes our homes become like a Hell on earth. We turn a deaf ear to Christ’s commands. And that’s why sometimes we resort to cheating and dishonesty in order to make money and get ahead in life. Yes, the reality is if we feel that God is not there, it’s because we have excluded Him. He is there. He is always there. And when we suffer, He is never closer.
I love how—it’s in Isaiah. I think it’s chapter 63. It says there, “In our afflictions, the Lord is afflicted.” That’s it. “In our afflictions, the Lord is afflicted.” When we suffer, Jesus suffers right along with us. That means, dear friends—that means that never is there a darkened home, never a broken heart, never a painful decision, never a sore temptation, never an open grave, but that Jesus Christ is there. Mary and Martha learned that Jesus had been there with them all along. That’s what this story teaches us. That when we suffer in life, Jesus suffers with us. He suffers right along with us. That’s a lesson worth remembering.
And here, Jesus teaches us that sympathy is not a sign of weakness.
I love this 11th chapter of John. It actually contains what I believe to be the most moving sentence ever written. It’s actually just two words. But this single sentence surpasses in its beauty all of the poetry which has ever been written. John 11:35, two words: “Jesus wept.” Think about that. The crown of thorns, the lash of the whip, the nails in hands and feet. None of that could make Him weep. And yet here, in profound sympathy for the sorrow and the heartbreak of His close friends, the tears ran like rivers down His face. Jesus wept.
Why, oh why, oh why have we been victimized into believing that tears are a sign of weakness? That’s especially true, I fear, for those of us who are men in our society. You know what we say. “Real men don’t eat quiche. And real men don’t cry.” Rubbish. Absolute rubbish. Jesus is the strongest man who ever lived. And the Bible says, “Jesus wept.” Jesus is the strongest man who ever lived. I’m talking here about one who possessed the rippling muscles and the taut sinews of a hard-working carpenter. I’m talking here about one whose mental and emotional strength has never, ever been equaled. I’m talking here about one who could stand in the bow of a pitching boat in the midst of a raging storm and command the wind to be still. I’m talking here about one who could walk into the midst of a hostile crowd, never blinking an eye nor mincing a word. I’m talking here about one who could do battle with the Devil in the desert and win. I’m talking here about one who could single-handedly, armed with nothing more than a cracking whip and a blazing tongue, drive the money-changers out of the temple, flipping their tables in the air, sending their coins clattering across the stone pavers of the temple court, and sending the money-changers themselves scattering from that place like a flushed cubby of quail. I’m talking here about the strongest man who ever lived. And the Bible says, “Jesus wept.” And if Jesus could weep, so can we.
When, oh when, oh when, will we ever learn that God has given us the gift of tears as our most profound expression of sympathy for others? And as our most blessed emotional release for ourselves? How does the poet put it? “Oh ye tears, oh ye tears, I am thankful that ye run. Though ye trickle in the darkness, ye shall glisten in the sun. Ye cannot have a rainbow if the rain refused to fall. And the eyes that cannot cry are the saddest eyes of all.” Jesus was the strongest man who ever lived. And the Bible says, “Jesus wept.” And if Jesus can weep, so can we. And that’s a lesson worth remembering.
And then here, maybe best of all, Jesus teaches us that eternal life is not wishful thinking.
The very moment that Jesus at last arrived at the home of Martha and Mary, the very first thing that Martha said to Him was, “Lord, what about my brother?” And Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha said, “Oh Lord, I know all of that. I go to church. I hear the preachers. I know about all that rising again on the last day. But that’s all so vague and hazy and uncertain. How can I know for sure?” And in that next moment, Jesus gave to her, and to us, all the certainty we ever need.
Jesus said to her, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” He said. And Martha said, “Yes, Lord. I believe. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God.” And in that moment then, Jesus turned to the tomb of Lazarus. And the Bible notes that Jesus stopped and bowed His head and prayed. Have you ever stopped to think about the fact, this is the only time in all of the Bible where we’re told that Jesus prayed for a special visitation of God’s power before He worked a miracle? This is the only time. I want to say again, Jesus understood that this was the single most crucial moment in His entire earthly ministry. And so He bowed His head and He prayed, “Lord God, this is the moment. Let your power fill Me so that these people here might see and believe that You sent Me.” And sure enough, the power came. And then Jesus turned to the tomb. And He cried out in a voice so loud it cracked that grave wide open. And it’s cracked open every grave that has ever been or ever will be. He cried out, “Lazarus, come out.” And the Bible, in its exquisite economy of words, says so simply, but so powerfully, “The dead man came out.” Let those five words forever dispel your doubt. “The dead man came out.” The point was made.
Oh, it wasn’t a permanent condition. You see, Lazarus is the man who died twice. He died and was raised on this occasion only, subsequently to die yet again when he had reached, what the Bible calls, perhaps, his three score years and ten. Or perhaps by reason of strength, his four score years. Lazarus was the man who died twice. But the point was made. Jesus’ power is stronger than the power of death.
Do you understand what that means for us? It means that we still have the right to be able to speak of those who have preceded us in death. To speak of them as my wife, my husband, my child, my father, my mother, my sister, my brother, my friend. Because they are still alive. And they are still ours. It may be beyond the bounds of our knowledge. It may be beyond the reach of our understanding. But they are still ours. And one day, yes, one day, God will give them back to us in the glory of a life that will never, ever, ever, ever, ever end. And all because Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” He said it. He meant it. He proved it. And that’s a lesson worth remembering.
The great preacher Peter Marshall once recalled an ancient legend about a merchant in the city of Baghdad. One day this merchant sent his servant down into the marketplace at Baghdad. A short while later the servant returned. He was obviously distressed. He was trembling like a leaf. His face was white. He said, “Master, Master, I have to borrow a horse.” And the master said, “Why? What in the world?” And he said, “Master, when I was in the marketplace a short while ago, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd. And I turned around. And I realized that the woman was Death. And she made a threatening gesture at me. Master, I have to borrow a horse. I will ride that horse to Samarra. And there I will hide, and Death will not find me.” And so the master gave him the horse. And the servant rode off in great haste toward Samarra. Later on that day, the merchant himself went down to the marketplace. And there he saw Death in the crowd. He walked up to her and he said, “Why in the world did you so frighten my servant this morning by making a threatening gesture at him?” “Oh,” Death replied, “it wasn’t a threatening gesture. It was a gesture of surprise. I was surprised to see him here in the marketplace in Baghdad. Because I have a rendezvous with him tonight in Samarra.”
Each one of us has that rendezvous in Samarra. Each one of us has that rendezvous with death. That should be no cause for fear. Not if you’ve put your faith in this Christ who has proved once and for all and forever that His power is stronger than the power of death. I wonder if that faith is your faith. I wonder if this Christ, this Christ who flings wide open to use the doorway to eternal life—I wonder if this Christ is your Christ. I wonder, yes. I wonder.
Soli Deo gloria.
To God alone be the glory.
Amen and amen.