John 11:17-37 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
In the way of a reminder, or to bring you up to speed if you weren’t here last week, we’ve made our way to John 11. It’s largely the story of Jesus’ love for a trio of siblings, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who lived together in a town called Bethany (which, as we see in v.18, was very near Jerusalem, and as we will see, turns out to be significant during Passion week). The story and Jesus’ love both hit their climax when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (next week). Along the way, however, we encounter several other real, practical, exemplary ways in which Jesus cared for this family as well.
Last week, as we considered the first 16 verses of the chapter, we saw that Jesus received word from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, was sick. They urged Jesus to come quickly, and Jesus reassured them that this illness would not result in death, but glory for both Him and the Father…and then, curiously, He waited two more days before He began making His way to Bethany.
In our passage for this morning, Jesus arrived and remained at the outskirts of Bethany after Lazarus died from his illness. Having heard that He was near, Martha ran out to meet Him and later urged Mary to visit Him there as well. Both were grief-stricken and attempting to make sense of why it took so long for Jesus to get there and what it might look like for Him to help even now. For His part, Jesus grieved with each of the women, reassured them that this story would not end in tragedy, and explained His power and glory quite a bit more.
The big ideas here are the deep compassion that was embedded in Jesus’ love, the faith of the sisters, and the unparalleled glory and resurrection power of Jesus. And the main takeaway is to trust in Jesus’ promises—all the way from salvation to glorification—no matter what. Let’s pray.
This portion of the story is neatly divided into two parts. The first part records Jesus’ encounter with Martha and the second, His encounter with Mary. Let’s look at each.
Dead for Four Days (17-19)
Our passage opens with a clear time stamp. It tells us that by the time Jesus got to the edge of Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days
17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
This is significant in at least two key ways. First, it is significant in that it meant word had time to spread. Friends and family had time to hear and gather. As v.19 says, “and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.” And the main point of this is that there was a large crowd and lots of witnesses to the fact that Lazarus died. Given where this story is heading—both the story of Lazarus and the larger story of Jesus’ ministry on earth—these witnesses will prove exceedingly significant.
In this is a simple, but important reminder. Christianity is a religion rooted in fact and truth. It is historical and real. It is not the product of “someone’s authentic self” or “personal truth”. Christianity rises and falls on whether or not the things it claims actually happened. If they didn’t, Christianity is false and we shouldn’t be here. If they did, and these witnesses help us to see that they did, then Jesus is everything, then there’s no other place on earth that makes more sense for us to be than right here, right now.
The second key is that four days was significant. One commentator says it this way (Kruse, TNTC, 244), “Had [Jesus] left immediately, Lazarus would still have been dead for two days. So nothing would have been gained by his immediate departure [when He first received the news and call from Mary and Martha]. However, there was something to be gained by waiting two days before setting out. The spirit of the departed was thought to hover around the body for three days in the hope of a resuscitation. The raising of Lazarus after four days, then, would have been clearly seen as a manifestation of the glory of God.”
It seems that either the Jews had seen Princess Bride or the Princess Bride writers were familiar with the Jews because both had similar types of dead: “sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead”. Likewise, both believed that mere mortals can do something about “sort of dead” and “mostly dead,” but that once someone hits “all dead” status everything changes. For the Jews, apparently, “all dead” started on day four and for that reason Jesus waited until then in order to completely separate Himself from Miracle Max and all other imposters. That’s the fuller significance of vs.5-6, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” His love for them mean that He wanted what was best for them. And what was best for them was to understand that His power and glory were altogether different.
Martha Met Jesus (20-23)
Having caught word that Jesus was near (v.20), “[Martha] went and met him.” For reasons we’re not told, “Mary remained seated in the house.” Although she will come into the picture soon enough, she initially stayed behind.
Understandably distraught and confused, “21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.'” No greeting, no thanks-for-coming, no preamble at all; just grief that her brother was dead and that Jesus hadn’t come in time to do anything about it.
How often are you functionally like that, Grace? How often, with Jesus present in your life to bless you, do you rebuke Him for not being present and blessing in the ways you determined He should? How often do you find yourself disappointed because of the circumstances in your life in spite of Jesus’ repeated promises to use all of them—sweet and bitter alike—to bless you and accomplish the greatest good for you? While her grief over the loss of her brother was certainly appropriate, let us learn from this passage the folly of thinking we know better than Jesus.
Nevertheless, misguided and discouraged as she may have been, Martha remained hopeful that Jesus could still do something about her brother’s death. Therefore, she said to Him, “22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” In effect, she said, “You obviously blew it on the front end Jesus, but perhaps you could still do something on the back end? It’s not too late for God to work here, is it? And you have unprecedented access to Him, right Jesus?”
It’s not clear exactly what Martha wanted Jesus to ask for and God to give, but Jesus’ reply would have cut straight to her greatest hope; one it seems that she hadn’t even allowed herself to consider. “23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.'” Again, Jesus knew Martha’s unspoken desire. Above all, like any of us, she wanted a resurrection miracle even if she never considered it as a legitimate possibility. And, perhaps surprisingly, without qualification or amendment, He assured her that she would get what she secretly hoped for.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve asked Jesus for? Was it as big as a resurrection? He is, as we’re about to see, entirely able, Grace. Likewise, what’s the tightest link you’ve ever experienced between any prayer and Jesus’ answer? Has it ever been as tight as this? He is, as we’re about to see, entirely able, Grace. What remarkable news it was that Jesus gave Martha! We obviously expect her to respond in thanksgiving and praise, right?
As surprising as Jesus’ answer was, Martha’s response to it is just as surprising. Rather than resulting in thanksgiving and praise, Martha was skeptical. Again, it’s almost as if she never even considered the possibility that Jesus might do something so remarkable, so completely and immediately. And her skepticism led to misunderstanding. She assumed that Jesus was speaking in eschatological terms rather than immediate terms. Therefore, “24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.'” And if we’re to finish her thought, it’s probably something like, “but that’s not what I asked. I want some type of comfort now.”
Again, can’t we be like that too, Grace? We’re so often so slow to recognize God’s kindnesses in our lives.
Unfortunately, I recently fell into this trap myself. For years, along with many of you, I’ve marveled at how spectacularly God has blessed our little church with physical fruitfulness; dozens and dozens of babies over the years. On one hand, it’s entirely natural and on the other hand, there’s something clearly supernatural about it as well. Well, some of the original planters of Grace were here a few weeks ago and I asked them what stood out to them about Grace Church today compared to when they were last here (20ish years ago). Without hesitation they mentioned the number of kids. They told me they prayed over and over for such a gift. Instead of immediately recognizing it as the awesome answer to prayer it is, I got caught up in my “rational” thoughts wondering if the unusual fruitfulness we’ve experienced really is the kindness they asked God for; just like Martha.
I Am the Resurrection and the Life (25-27)
Well, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that Jesus’ kindness never runs out for His people. Martha made one request (bring some comfort now). Jesus granted it, but Martha mistook Him for promising a different, a future, blessing (raise Lazarus at the fullness of time). Instead of correcting her, Jesus upped things to another level entirely.
Jesus had already claimed, “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the door of the sheep.” “I am the good shepherd.” And now, in response to Martha’s confusion, Jesus made the fifth of His seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel, “25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.'”
Martha was hoping for something, anything, to immediately stem the pain. Jesus went one better. And in order to make sure she didn’t misunderstand this time, Jesus explained exactly what He meant by it, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.'”
The gist of what Jesus put in front of Martha is the simple fact that her aims, as big as they might have been, were far too small. She wanted, at most, a resurrection, but standing in front of her was the resurrection. And if she, or anyone else, would receive that, it would no longer be death to die! Death is no longer to be feared for any who live and believe in Jesus. Jesus was about to prove that in part by raising Lazarus from the dead, and then in full by raising from the dead Himself as the true firstborn from among the dead (Colossians 1:18).
Having promised something greater than Martha had dared imagine, Jesus asked, “Do you believe this?”
This is the great question that everyone of us must consider for ourselves and then put in front of everyone on earth. We are beckoned over and over in John’s Gospel to receive Jesus as the Christ, and promised over and over that if we do, we will be made alive spiritually and never again die spiritually. Do you believe this, Grace? Do you live and believe in Jesus as the resurrection and the life? Is that the single and great hope of your life and eternal life? John has shared example after example of why it should be, but is it?
What’s more, we’re meant to tell the world about who Jesus is and what He offers and then ask exactly what Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” It is not enough to know it. Knowledge of Jesus and the things He’s said and done are not enough. The world must believe, truly believe them, and so we share and call them to respond to it in faith.
Confronted with this question, Martha emphatically replied, “27“Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” What an awesome, faithful response! By God’s grace, Martha was able to see and hear Jesus for who He was/is, and therein truly believe in Jesus for who He was/is, and therein never die.
Evidently Martha was convinced and impressed enough that she left Jesus and “28 …went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.'” And evidently Mary’s trust in her sister and Jesus was high enough that “29 when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.”
Again, Grace Church, may we learn from these two remarkably faithful women. “When she heard it [that is, when she heard her sister tell her of Jesus’ summons], she rose quickly and went to him.” May we be as quick to respond to Jesus’ call and commands as Mary was here. May we stop trying to fit our obedience around our own pursuits, or hobbies, or kids’ hobbies. May we stop putting off Jesus’ summons until a more convenient time comes along. Be warned by the seriousness of Jesus’ reply to the man who said he’d follow Jesus once he buried his father, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). And may we stop believing the lie that there is anything greater than a call from “the resurrection and the life,” the “Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Which of Jesus’ commands do you need to stop putting off today? Who do you need to reconcile with? Who do you need to serve? What sins do you need to repent of or who do you need to lovingly confront in their sin? Do you need to begin having faithful quiet times? Do you need to make the Great Commission a greater priority in your life? Do you need to stop telling lies? Do you need to confess a secret sin? Is there a specific promise of Jesus that you have been reluctant to trust?
For reasons we’re not told, Jesus still refused to enter Bethany and, therefore, according to v.30, Mary had to go to Him. She found Jesus right where He’d been when He talked to Martha.
Presumably out of concern for Mary, the friends and family who’d gathered to comfort the sisters followed Mary when she ran out of the house. John tells us they did so even though they didn’t know where she was going. “31 they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.” This ought to remind us of the love of Jesus we saw last week. The love of Mary’s consolers was marked by concern and a willingness to move toward Mary to help in (what they presumed to be) her overwhelming grief.
Rather than leading the crowd to Lazarus’s tomb, however, Mary was leading them to Jesus. In her grief, desperation, and trust, “32 when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet.” She threw herself down before Jesus, placing herself at His mercy.
Like her sister, without any introduction or greeting, she immediately poured out her heart to Jesus, “saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Both sisters were of one mind. They knew that Jesus could have prevented the death of their brother, were hurt and confused as to why He didn’t, but remained hopeful that something still might be done by Him. There was deep and profound faith in their lament.
There is much for us to learn here as well. There is a way to be faithful before God answers our prayers and there is a way to be faithful after. Beforehand, faithfulness trusts that God hears, cares, and is able. For these reasons, we pray expectantly and hopefully, knowing that God is never bothered by our requests and He always hears them in love. Afterward, if He grants our requests, faithfulness pours itself out in gratitude. And it is more satisfied in God than whatever it was that He granted. More to the point, there’s a way to be faithful even when God does not grant our request. That kind of faithfulness is not naively happy or hopelessly despairing. It acknowledges the pain of the loss, but continues to look to Jesus for comfort and the better way He has for us, whatever it may be. That’s what Mary was doing here and that’s what we ought to do when we find ourselves in her shoes.
This kind of faithfulness is perhaps best seen in contrast to some of the Jews. Unlike Mary (and Martha) who, though grieved, continued to trust in Jesus, “37 some of [the Jews who’d followed her to Jesus] said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?'” Both grieved Lazarus’s death, and both understood Jesus to have been uniquely able to do something about it, but Mary responded to the disappointment in faith, while certain Jews did so in doubt.
The rest of the passage describes a profound sadness that permeated Mary, the rest of the Jews who were with her, and Jesus. There was grief over Lazarus (from Jesus, Mary, and the Jews), grief over the grief of the sisters (from the Jews), and grief (from Jesus) over the grief (of the Jews), over the grief (of the sisters). Vs.33-36 are profoundly emotional and moving.
33 When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Jesus was “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled.” There is compassion, sadness, and even a touch of anger in these words. Jesus was filled with emotion as He considered the death of His friend, the sinfulness of sin to pay such wages, the shaky and fleeting faith of the children of Abraham, and the grief of everyone present. And yet, Jesus remained steadfast, firmly anchored, in His resolve to do the will of the Father. Though “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled,” Jesus determined to help in the best way possible.
One of the more important distinctions that I’ve heard is between sympathy and empathy. One of my favorite authors (Rosaria Butterfield) recently said that empathy is like jumping into a rushing river to save your friend and sympathy is like throwing her a rope. Both are expressions of compassion and love. Both mean good things for your friend. And yet, while your friend might prefer empathy in the moment, sympathy almost always offers the better chance of providing real help.
As we’ll see next week, it was deep sympathy that Jesus brought with Him to Bethany. He cared profoundly for this family, but instead of merely throwing Himself into their grief, He grieved and kept His feet on solid ground in order to be able to help most fully and effectively.
As we saw last week, genuine love for another always seeks what’s best for them, no matter the cost. And in a world that is increasingly confused about what’s best, love often seems like not love, even as not love often seems like love. Let’s look, therefore, to Jesus once again. He did not give this family what they most wanted because He loved them too much for that. Instead, He gave them what they most needed. He grieved with them, but not on their own terms. He grieved with them in a different kind of hope and trust in the plan of the Father.
In all of this, and in conclusion, we see the true nature and expression of love and the rightness of trusting in Jesus no matter what. Since Jesus is the resurrection and the life and He expressed those truths most fully by rising from the dead, we cannot miss His infinite and eternal love and trustworthiness. May we give ourselves wholly to believing in Him and following Him in all we do. And in order that “though [we] die, yet shall [we] live.”