John 12:1-11 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 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. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
Thanks to John, Mark, and Matt for preaching and Mike for picking up the pastoral slack while I was working with TLI and out of the office. I’m grateful for these men. God has blessed us all with these good shepherds.
It was good to be able to train another group of pastors and church leaders, and it is good to be back; back at home, back at Grace, and back in John’s Gospel.
It seems especially fitting to me that we are fast approaching John’s account of Jesus’ death and resurrection at the time of year in which we celebrate Jesus’ birth. It’s often too easy to get caught up in celebrating the cuteness of the 8lb, 6oz little baby Jesus and the mystique of the moon-lit nativity scene. Likewise, it’s easy to get stuck on the more theologically-rich reality of the incarnation during this time of year. As special and significant as those things are, they are incomplete without Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Again, it’s good for us to have them paired together in this season—experiencing both the love and peace of the virgin birth and the shock and hope of the cross and empty tomb.
With that, welcome back to John 12. In God’s good providence, we’re now just one week before Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s Gospel, even as we’re just one week before the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth. In chapter 12, as I pointed out in my last sermon (a month ago already), Jesus was moving toward Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. You may remember that Jesus was traveling with a large group of Jews, coming down from the north. While many continued on to Jerusalem on Friday, Jesus and His disciples turned aside a few miles early. They went to Bethany, the hometown of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was there, just a few weeks earlier, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (foreshadowing His own imminent resurrection). Back in Bethany, again as we saw last time, Mary poured the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet at a dinner in His honor.
That brings us to our primary text for this morning: 12:9-11. In that passage, we find a second parallel/foreshadowing between Jesus and Lazarus—the Jewish leaders making “plans to put Lazarus to death as well.” And in that we find even more help to wrap our minds around the significance of who Jesus was/is, what He was about to do, and the crowd’s response to it.
The big ideas of this passage are familiar: 1) The shocking, blinding effects of sin, and 2) The unstoppable grace of God. And the main takeaway for us today is to put our faith in Jesus in such a way that frees us from fear. Let’s pray, therefore, that God would be pleased to use this passage to free us from fear and firm up our faith.
DEATH AND RESURRECTION FORESHADOWED
One of the ways this passage helps us become firm in faith and free from fear is in the fact that it points to something greater than the events in it. I hope our time in John’s Gospel has help you see that God helps His people trust in Him by creating things and orchestrating the events to provide the categories we need to best understand Him and His purposes and ways.
For instance, He created light and dark to help us understand righteousness and sin.
He created male and female and the institution of marriage to help us understand the relationship between Jesus and the Church.
He created stomachs to help us understand what it means to hunger for righteousness.
He orchestrated Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish to help us appreciate Jesus time in the grave.
He orchestrated Noah’s time in the boat to help us understand Jesus’ second coming.
He created the offices of prophet, priest, and king to help us understand Jesus’ nature and work.
He established the sacrificial system to help us understand the atonement that Jesus would provide.
He gave us the tower of Babel in order to help us understand Pentecost.
And He gave us Lazarus, in part, to help us understand Jesus’ nature and mission, as well as the response of the Jews to Him and it. That is, Lazarus provides a kind of foreshadowing of Jesus. In that way, God orchestrated certain events in his life to help us best appreciate certain events in Jesus’ life. And by grasping them, we have help to become firm in faith and free from fear.
Don’t miss these, Grace; especially those the Bible explicitly explains. You would do well to spend some time this week prayerfully considering the many examples of this concerning Christmas. As you read the Christmas story, use the cross references in your Bibles to chase down the OT passages that predict and give depth of meaning to the incarnation. As you do, with the Spirit’s help, you will find great encouragement and joy.
The first way we saw Lazarus foreshadow Jesus was in his resurrection. We saw that back in chapter 11. Lazarus was sick. His sisters sent word to Jesus so that He might come and heal Lazarus before it was too late. In love, and in order to demonstrate the power of God over death, Jesus waited two days before going to Lazarus. Knowingly and intentionally, between the time Jesus heard of Lazarus’s terminal condition and the time He arrived in Bethany, Lazarus died. And yet, as I’m sure you remember, instead of a tragedy, as God intended, this became a tidal wave of grace.
Consider again the basic events of Lazarus’s resurrection from chapter 11.
“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 (11:5-6)…Jesus said to [Martha], ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God’ (11:40)…[And] he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out’. The man who died came out” (11:43-44).
It is—obviously!!!—a miracle that Lazarus was raised from the dead. By itself, it is hard to picture a more spectacular display of God’s power. And yet, as remarkable as Lazarus’s resurrection was, it was merely a foreshadowing of the infinitely greater resurrection to come.
As you know, Jesus’ resurrection was far more significant still. Lazarus was raised from the dead, only to die again a few years later. In His resurrection, however, Jesus defeated death, definitively proved that all the promises of God were YES, and rose as the first to be glorified, never to die again.
In Lazarus, God demonstrated that He alone has power over life and death. He did that, in part, to prepare His people for the greater and greatest display He was about reveal in Jesus. Lazarus’s resurrection helps get us ready for Jesus’ resurrection.
Again, all of that we saw already in chapter 11, but remembering it, puts us in a position to best appreciate the second foreshadowing, which is found in our passage.
A second way that Lazarus pointed to Jesus was in the response of the Jews to his resurrection. Again, that’s what we have in vs.9-11. As always, we can’t properly appreciate what we see here if we don’t slow down and really consider it. Jesus waited until there could be no doubt about the death of Lazarus before raising him from the dead. Lazarus was miraculously, literally, totally, publicly, and undeniably brought back to life by Jesus.
Mary gives us a picture of a proper response to it in v.3, as do some of the Jews in v.11. But the Jewish leaders do just the opposite in v.10. It is good to keep vs.1-11 together to see this contrast most clearly.
9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
That makes sense so far, right? Who wouldn’t want to see a man who had been raised from the dead along with the Man who did the raising?! Again, think about that for a minute. There is no indication in John that any among the “large crowd of the Jews” (or even the religious leaders) believed this to be a hoax. There’s no indication that anyone (even those who hated it) didn’t believe that Lazarus had been dead, was now alive, or that Jesus was responsible for his new life. Of course, they wanted to see Jesus and Lazarus. Who wouldn’t?
And yet, consider now how the chief priests responded.
10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
Can you get your head around that? A man who had been raised from the dead was standing in front of them, along with the One responsible for his resurrection. Many gathered around to witness the object and Performer of this miracle. And the first thought of the ones most responsible to point the people to the glory of God in this event decided instead that the best course of action was to put Lazarus to death, even as they’d already decided to put Jesus to death.
Consider, then, how astoundingly foolish it is to wish death for someone because he had been raised from the dead. There was no accusation of sin. Lazarus didn’t even ask to be raised from the dead. And their first thought was to kill him.
Consider how astoundingly foolish it is to plot the death of one who had already died and been raised from the dead. If his first death didn’t kill him, why would they think a second one would?!
Consider how astoundingly foolish is to not believe in the One who can raise the dead. How could anyone with a right mind do anything other than fall down in worship?
Consider how astoundingly foolish it is to want to stop others from believing in the one who raises the dead. Even if they didn’t believe, how foolish is it to try to keep other from believing?
And, above all, consider how astoundingly foolish it is to wish death for the one with the power to raise the dead. Again, what kind of craziness makes someone think that it’s a good idea to try to kill the One to whom life and death belong?
Jesus raises the dead. And Lazarus was among the first to experience that power. What a gift it was to all who witnessed it and heard of it and were able to see Jesus and Lazarus together after! Imagine the power and glory and might and grace and mercy. Can you imagine a clearer example of the true nature of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead? What help this is for faith and fearlessness!
At the same time, can you imagine a clearer example of the sinfulness of sin? I invite you again to slow down and consider what it would take to cause this response from the chief priests and many of the Jews. We’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again. It is an important theme in John’s Gospel as he wrote to help his readers not respond like this.
For the umteenth time in his Gospel, John recorded this kind of response, in light of this kind of power, in order to make clear this kind of sinfulness of sin. Sin kills and blinds and corrupts. The killing, blinding, corrupting effect of sin looks different in different people in this life, but it always kills, blinds, and corrupts.
In some, it looks like unbelieving belief. In some it looks like bearded-lady curiosity. In some it looks like indifference. In some it looks like soft agnosticism. In some it looks like angry atheism. And in some it looks like murderous hatred.
The thing John absolutely wants us to get our heads around is not the manner in which sin manifests in us, but in the fact that it always kills and the grace of God alone is able to overcome it. Grace Church, learn from this passage that those whose sin makes them unbelieving believers (nice church kids who believe in god and intellectually ascent to the basic tenants of the gospel, but are entirely more impressed with the things of earth than the One who holds them all together) are in no better place than those who spew hatred and lies about Jesus. Neither are closer to heaven. Both are equally and fully dead in their trespasses and sins, unwilling and unable to truly trust in God apart from God’s grace.
In light of this, we do well to consider that it is the same sin that makes us more impressed with things we can order from Amazon or Hobby Lobby than the birth of our Savior; more impressed with Christmas lights around the neighborhood than the coming of the Light of the World; more impressed with fake physical intimacy on our computers than the Bridegroom who died to make His bride holy; more impressed with some entertainment personality than the One who raises the dead to eternal life.
Grace, take some time this week to consider the simple fact that apart from God’s grace, we are all exactly like the religious leaders who wanted to kill Jesus and Lazarus. It is only once we do that we will humble ourselves and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and the strength to live as we ought.
In the chief priests’ desire to kill Lazarus, then, we have a clear picture of the power of sin and a foreshadowing of the kind of sinfulness that will soon lead these men to kill Jesus. Again, in each of these foreshadowings, we learn a bit more about the unparalleled glory of Jesus, the power of sin to blind us to Him, and the grace of God which is alone able to overcome it.
FREED FROM FEAR AND FIRMED IN FAITH
What difference does all of this make? As we simultaneously move toward Jesus’ birth (in Christmas) and death (in John’s Gospel), what does this passage, these foreshadowings, the sinfulness of sin and the resurrection power of Jesus, mean for our lives?
It means a lot of things, but I want to point out two in particular. Rightly applied, it will firm up our faith and free us from fear.
Firmed in Faith
I’d like you all to consider another simple question. What most causes you to trust in someone or something?
On what basis are you most likely to believe a plane will get you from here to East Lansing, MI? I imagine it’s an uninterrupted track record of successful flights before you take one. It’d be really hard to be the first person to attempt it. It’d probably still be pretty hard to be the 50th. But after a few hundred successful flights, coupled with the fact that it will save you around 10 hours of travel time, and it’d get easier and easier to get on board, right?
In the same way, what would it take for someone to get you to trust them to operate on your heart? A serious heart condition of your own and lots and lots of surgeries resulting in the healing of the surgeon’s patients, right? If you only had a minor heart problem or an inexperienced or unsuccessful surgeon, you’d have no reason to trust them to operate on you.
Grace, please really consider this—whether you are a skeptical unbeliever, a teenager who is often bored with church, or someone who longs to give more of your life to Jesus—what would it take to trust or trust more in Jesus? How about an unbroken track record of telling the truth, speaking with unmatched wisdom, performing signs and wonders, raising others from the dead, and raising from the dead, coupled with a growing awareness of the sinfulness of your sin and unworthiness of God’s love?
As I hope to have helped you see, we have all of that in this story of Lazarus. The resurrection power of Jesus and the power of sin to blind us from it. If you are to trust or grow in trust for Jesus, it will be because you humbly ask the Holy Spirit to drive these truths into your mind and heart. The Spirit of God, empowering the Word of God, through our prayers to God, is the means of God to grow your trust in God. And John explicitly tells us that he wrote his Gospel for that reason. Would you pray this prayer today? Would you pray it for yourself, your family, and for Grace Church?
Freed from Fear
Finally, I’d love to know what it was like for Lazarus to be raised from the dead. What did he experience? What did it feel like? Was there a bright light? Did he get even a taste of his glorification? Wouldn’t it be interesting to know?
But I’d also like to know what it was like for him to be on the chief priests most wanted list because of it. If anything could drive out fear, it has to be a resurrection, right? He’d already died once, it doesn’t seem to have been all that bad. Why would he worry about dying again? I don’t know if he was afraid or not, but I do know that you and I are promised an even greater resurrection and yet we are afraid of all kinds of things all the time.
How, then, can we be freed from our fear? How can we overcome our worry about money and sickness and relational challenges and loneliness and our kids’ future and political unrest and geopolitical conflicts and religious leaders who want to kill us after we’ve been raised from the dead? How do we come to live lives of inner peace and courage?
The answer is the same as the last point. True courage and peace don’t come from more successfully walling ourselves off from the outside or getting enough money in our savings or having the best doctors or our kids being obedient enough or living in a country with the strongest military. It comes from, and only from, faith that is graciously given by and firmly resting in the One who raises and was raised from the dead.
Freedom from fear comes from faith in the work and promises of the One who raised Lazarus from the dead, stood firm through the murderous threats of the powers of earth even unto death, and then was defeated death by rising Himself.
Again, then, Grace Church, go to God in humble prayer this week as you consider Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, foreshadowed in Lazarus, and demonstrated over and over in the power of God. Go to God in humble prayer and ask Him to help you believe what is true so that you will live in faith and without fear of anything that can kill only the body.
In John 11 we are given a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection when He raised Lazarus from the dead. In 12:1-8 we are given an example of a right response to Jesus in light of that. In 12:9-11, we see another foreshadowing, in the murderous threats of the religious leaders against Lazarus that would soon be unleashed on Jesus.
As I mentioned in the beginning, these two foreshadowings and the responses they received help us to see more of who Jesus is and what’s at stake in our response. May we turn to God to firm up our faith and grant us freedom from fear. That’s why we have Christmas and why it is worth celebrating in the highest. That’s also why we have Easter and why it’s so good to have both together this week. Glory to God in the highest.