John 11

Bill McFarland

June 12, 2005


Since it is impossible to please God without faith, and since it is necessary that all of us believe that God is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him, and since the great Gospel of John is written so that we might believe and believing have life in the name of Christ, all of us need the message of this great Gospel.  John tells us the story of several signs which were worked by Jesus to prove the truthfulness of his claims, and the conversations which his claims started.  All of this together helps us along toward the kind of faith that will give us life with the Lord. 

If we need the message of the Gospel of John, we especially need the message of John 11.  Within this passage, the fifth of the seven “I AMs” of Jesus is recorded for us.  To prove his claim, the seventh and, if there could be a greatest, the greatest one of the signs takes place.  John sees it as important enough that he takes more space in describing the circumstances surrounding this event than he does with the others.  What this passage has to say addresses some of the most difficult challenges to believing that we will encounter and gives us stronger reasons to believe than we could ever have imagined. 

Remember that the story described here begins with Jesus receiving word that a dear friend is ill.  That message was sent by two sisters who were much beloved to the Lord because of their kindness and their faithfulness and their encouragement.  Their home had been a place of hospitality for him.  That meant everything.  When Jesus received their message, he delayed in taking any action.  The sisters made no real request to him.  They just said, “The one whom you love is ill.”  When he finally made the journey with his disciples, who were somewhat puzzled, they arrived and found that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already.

I want to pick up the story with you in John 11:18.  The Bible says, “Bethany (the village where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived) was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.  So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.  Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.  Do you believe this?’”

The Claim

Isn’t that a great claim, and doesn’t the Lord’s question challenge all of us?  Notice here the situation.  Martha, the lady who takes action, the lady of energetic faith, goes out to meet Jesus.  She tells him that she is convinced that if he had been there, her brother would not have died.  Some people take that as if is some sort of a rebuke from her to Jesus.  I don’t think that is necessary.  It is really a statement of faith when you think about it, but it is also a statement of wishing he had been there, perhaps even regret about what had happened.

Then she adds on to that an even greater statement of faith: “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”  We don’t know how far she thought he would go in response to that question, but it does tell us that her faith has not been destroyed by the loss of her brother.  Her faith was not the kind which was so dependent on his giving her what she wanted that when it didn’t happen like she wanted, then she would give up and not believe any more.  Martha had a stronger faith than that.  Jesus responds to her by saying, “Your brother will rise again.”  That was a great promise, and what he meant was earthshaking in its consequences. 

Notice that Martha says in verse 24, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  There is a gap there between believing something to be doctrinally true and believing it will have an impact on us right now in our lives here.  She believed in the doctrine that the Old Testament taught and that the Pharisees held that there would be a resurrection in the last day, and the loss of her brother had not changed that.  She just didn’t believe that this fact was going to impact them much in the short term here and now. 

Jesus responds to her with his great claim in verses 25-26.  How rich we are that are Lord came in the flesh and made this fact known to us!  How would we like to approach the end of our lives, the loss of our loved ones, the fact that we are mortal without knowing what Jesus said in this wonderful text.  He makes an astonishing claim – not just that it is doctrinally true that there will be a resurrection on the last day – but he says, “I am the resurrection and the light.”  That power and that principle which will bring life to everyone in the last day is the power he is claiming that he has.  He is making the claim for himself that John had made in the beginning of this great part of the New Testament.  Remember John 1 beginning at verse 1, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life and the life was the light of men.”  Jesus makes the same sort of a claim in a little different form in John 5:21.  In that passage he says, “For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the son gives life to whom he will.” 

Imagine what an arrogant and foolish statement that would be for anybody else to make.  But Jesus at a very serious time says to people that he loves, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  He is not trying to mislead them.  He is not trying to disappoint them.  He is trying to lay before them the most important and powerful truth that he could at that time.  He is telling them the source of the life that their brother needs and that they are longing for.  That needs to be heard by all of us today.

Look at the implications.  If Jesus is the resurrection and the life, he says, “Whoever believes in me though he die, yet shall he live.”  He is not saying here that whoever believes in him will never face physical death.  Notice “though he die.”  Remember as Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed to all men once to die.”  We all face that fact.  But what Jesus is saying here is “that’s not the crucial thing.  That is not the important thing.  There is a certain situation where physical death may be viewed as basically meaningless.”  “Though he die yet shall he live.”  He is talking about the kind of death there that would be the wages of sin, according to Romans 6:23. When one has the kind of faith in him that he is talking about here, then “though he die, yet shall he live,” that kind of death does not touch him, and he still has the consciousness and the relationship with God and the hope of life eternal that is guarantee because of who Jesus is.  He says, “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Here we are living in this present world, believing in Jesus, and there is a certain kind of death that will never touch us.  There is never the separation from God which is death while we are in Christ. 

The Challenge

Look at that great claim.  That is the essence of this passage.  Look at Jesus’ challenge then.  He looks directly at Martha and says to her, “Do you believe this?”  That question is really what John 11 is all about.  It is not just describing for us the raising of Lazarus.  It is telling us that the raising of Lazarus happened so that you and I might deal with this question, “Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?”  Look at verse 15.  Jesus said to his disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”  To Martha then he says, “Do you believe this?”  A little later in verse 40 he says again, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  Then a little later in verse 42 in his prayer to the Father in heaven, he says, “I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”  And in verse 45, after this mighty work, “Many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what he did believed in him.”  That is the issue – do you believe?  Do you have the kind of belief that makes any difference in how you are living and thinking in the here and now?

It is important to observe in this passage that there are three great challenges to belief lying in the background of this whole story, three things that all of us are likely to find attacking our faith from time to time.  The first challenge which is here is confusion.  There is the confusion first of all about why Jesus tarried.  Why did he wait to make that journey from where he was across the Jordan to Bethany in response to the news that his dear friends had sent to him?  In verses 5-6 it says, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  Therefore, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  When he got there, both Martha and Mary when they went out to meet Jesus said, “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died.”  By the fact that they both say the same thing, I take it that they have said that to each other at different times during their grieving over Lazarus death.

The confusion is over why Jesus didn’t act immediately.  His answer to that was, “So that God may be glorified and so that his disciples may have their faith deepened.”  It doesn’t mean that he was just ignoring the needs of his people.  We sang a while ago “Does Jesus Care.”  One of the questions was, “Does he care enough to be near?”  Sometimes when our faith is challenged, we wonder why the Lord wasn’t with us.  What did he wait for in answering our prayers?  That is the challenge that is here.

And to go along with that confusion, there is the confusion that his disciples felt in why he would bother to go to Bethany that close to Jerusalem at all.  We find out in John 8:59 and John 10:31 that they had taken up stones to stone him the last time he had been in that area.  The disciples are thinking, “Lord, why would you go back there knowing that they are seeking to stone you?  It is dangerous.  There are too many threats there.  How can you make this trip?”  A little later when he told them that Lazarus was asleep, then they thought, “Well, if he is asleep, that means he is getting well.  There is no need to go now.”  When Jesus said, “I am going,” Thomas’ response was faithful but kind of hopeless.  He said, “Let’s go also that we may die with him.”  (v.16)  Thomas thankfully was choosing to face death rather than to have life and be without Jesus.  That is commendable.  But they were confused on why Jesus would make a trip like that.

Friends, are there questions in your life that there are no good answers to?  Do you find yourself asking why or when or how or what, and the devil uses that to attack your faith?  Sometimes confusion is in the background of our spiritual journey. 

Secondly, there is in the background of this story the problem of grief and the sense of loss and loneliness and again confusion that goes along with that.  Grief caused Mary and Martha to be surrounded by many Jews who came to Bethany to comfort them, this story says.  They came to be there and they came to cry with them.  The weeping and the mourning and lamenting was noisy and noticeable, and all of that is fine.  But notice that these people who came to be their comforters could not bring them any hope, no word that would deal with the sense of loss that was overwhelming to them.  I believe when Mary and Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here,” there is that part of grief that always makes us talk about the “ifs.”  If I had done this, if we had been there, if we had gotten this doctor, if we had been to this place, if we had acted sooner, and the regret that is so much a part of this bitter experience that we hardly know what to do with it.  That attacks faith in this story.  No comfort and then the puzzlement that is there!

And then the third challenge to faith which is here is the self-interest that always seems to plague us in our spiritual journey.  Especially here is this found with the leaders of the Jews that are mentioned in verses 45 and following.  This is a situation where the chief priest and the Pharisees gather with the Council, many of whom are Sadducees, especially the high priest.  They had nothing in common as far as their outlook, or at least very little.  They were spiritual enemies in several ways, but the one thing they all had in common was self-interest.  They believed that if people started believing in Jesus that would be a threat to their power and to their position, and something had to be done because of that.  That danger is in the background of this story.

The Call

There is confusion, there is grief, there is self-interest, and then, thankfully, there is an answer to those things in this passage.  What Jesus does at the tomb of Lazarus answers the challenges to belief that threaten us so much, and here’s what they tell us.  When your faith is challenged by confusion or grief or self-interest, first believe in the deity of Jesus Christ.  Believe not just in what he said, but in who he is.  Martha in verse 27 makes one of the great confessions of the Bible, and I don’t know why we overlook this great statement of faith as much as we do.  This dear lady said, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world.”  Notice that that confession of her faith is personal.  I am told that in the original language the “I” is emphatic.  I believe!  Notice that that statement of faith is one which is continuing.  The word for believe means I did believe in the past, and I am believing right now.  In other words, the tense of it is that this is an ongoing faith.  And then notice that her faith is not only personal and continuing, but it is substantive.  It is not just the warm, spiritual fuzzy thing.  It is instead something which is specific.  I believe, first she says, that you are the Christ.  You are the anointed one, in other words.  You are God’s prophet and priest and king.  Secondly she says, “I believe you are the Son of God.”  There is the deity of the Christ.  And third she says, “You are the one who is coming into the world.”  You are the one who has been promised by prophecy.  You are the one who is coming to defeat the spiritual enemies that challenge the people of God.  Believe in the person, the deity, of Jesus Christ.  When you are confused and don’t know all the answers, believe at least in who Jesus is.  When grief attacks you and you feel that sense of loss, believe in who Jesus is.  He is the resurrection and the life.  And when self-interest wants to take over, remember that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that he comes first.

Secondly, when faith is challenged, believe in the purpose of the Lord Jesus ChristWhen his disciples are trying to reason with him, “Lord, why would you go to Jerusalem?  They are already seeking to stone you,” Jesus says in verses 9-10, “Are there not twelve hours in the day.  If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble because he sees the light of the world.”  Let me paraphrase a little what he is saying there.  Jesus is saying of himself that he has a day or a purpose for which the Father sent him into the world, and while it is daylight he is engaged in accomplishing his purpose and fulfilling his commission.  As long as he is doing what God sent him to do, then nothing outside of God’s will for him can happen to him.  Look at that sense of purpose of peace in that statement.  He then applies it to everybody else in verse 10: “But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles because the light is not in him.”  Jesus was committed to doing his Father’s will.  He was committed to the purpose for which he came into the world, and believing in that purpose helps to overcome the challenges to faith today. The church needs to reemphasize its faith in the purpose of Jesus and in the mission he has given to us.  When our faith finds itself under attack, we need to return to who Jesus is and to what he came to do, what we are here to do.

Third, I want you to notice that this passage tells us to believe in the love of Jesus.  Believe that he cares.  When our faith is weak, that is when we begin to wonder whether we are really in this by ourselves and whether he really does care for us individually or not.  But in this beautiful story, Jesus first talks to Martha.  He apparently sends her for Mary; Mary falls down before him in faith and submission.  In verse 33 it says, “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jew who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”  He saw Mary weeping; he heard the lamenting and the mourning of grief that was practiced by these comforters who had come with her.  It says, “He groaned in his spirit.”  I am told that the term “deeply moved or groaned” has within it the idea of being indignant.  There is a certain kind of anger that is there. 

What is it telling us about Jesus?  It is telling us that he saw in that situation and in their grief what sin brought into the world and what the devil works in human life, and that Jesus is angered by the death which has been foisted upon all of us by the work of our enemy.  When he saw what disease and loss and pain and hurt it brought into the lives of people by that, he was indignant and he groaned because of that.  He said, “Where have you laid him?”  One writer says Jesus went out to that tomb as a champion ready to wrestle with the enemy and to overcome him. 

Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”  In contrast to the loud lamenting and the weeping that others were doing, Jesus’ eyes welded up in tears.  It couldn’t have been that he didn’t know that he was going to bring Lazarus to life again, so it must have been that these are tears of sympathy.  He was moved so much by his care for what these loved ones were going through.  When you go through times like that, remember that it is not just comfort or words when we say the Lord cares and the Lord loves you.  He cares in a way that cost him.  It cost him dearly.

In the fourth place, when faith is under attack, believe in the authority of Jesus.  Believe in his purpose, believe in his love, and then believe in his authority.  They came to the tomb.  It was a cave with a stone rolled against the mouth of it.  Jesus said to them, “Take away the stone.”  Did he have the authority to say that?  Martha protested, “Lord, he has already been in that tomb for four days.  Decay must have set in by now.”  I wonder if she just thought Jesus was just going to look at the body or something.  But at the very least, she is protesting here about what Jesus is saying.  We might say, “I don’t think that is such a good idea” or “I don’t know that that is necessary,” or “Lord, what are you thinking here?”  Sometimes we believe that we  have to know exactly why the Lord asked us to do what he did, that he has to explain it all to us before we are obligated to act.  Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  The implication is that whether she believed was going to be shown by whether she acted in response to his command and instruction.  Whether she believed would be shown in whether she was willing to have them move the stone just because Jesus said to do it.  That is what trust is about.  So they took away the stone. 

Fifth, when faith is challenged, believe in the blessings of God.  Be grateful.  Jesus said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  (notice that he thanks God as if this has already happened)  I know that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’  And when he said these things he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’”  The words just mean “here, outside.”  He didn’t say it loud so that a dead man can hear.  He said it that way so that everybody standing there would know that that man came out at the word of Jesus Christ.  I wonder what it was like to be standing there.  The man who had died came out!  His hands and his feet were bound with linen strips.  How did he come out still bound?  Does that mean the Lord just brought him?  Did he have to struggle to walk?  How was it?  Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.”

In John 5:28-29, the Lord said, “Do not marvel at this for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”  The same term as Lazarus coming out.  “Those who have done good to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”  I wonder which it will be for me or for you.  Do I believe in the person and in the mission and in the love and in the authority of Jesus Christ?  I need to make that choice today to be ready for that hour.  Maybe you are here and you are ready to confess that Jesus is the Christ like Martha did.  Maybe you are ready to be baptized into him for the forgiveness of your sins.  Maybe as a Christian you know that your faith has been overcome by come of those challenges and you need it restored.  If we can be of help to you, would you not come right now?