Images of the Savior (37 â€“ His Raising of Lazarus)
Although we have already seen before the divine power of Jesus the Savior displayed in the raising of the dead, this case is the most notable example yet, first, by virtue of the explicit instruction about his own person with which he illuminates its significance, and second, by virtue of the marvelous circumstances surrounding it, through which we may learn much of what sort of man this Jesus truly is. There had never been a more notable resurrection from the dead than this, nor would there be until Jesus himself was raised by the power of God (Romans 1:1-4), the true firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1:18) inasmuch as he was the first man raised, not to die again, but to the glory of an incorruptible life. Let us rejoice today that the eternal resurrection life which Jesus himself won, having arisen finally victorious over death and the grave, is a life which he won for all of us who partake of his sufferings, and hence are assured as well of a share in his resurrection power (Philippians 3:10-11; I Corinthians 15:20-24)! To all of these truths our text today speaks, and so we will turn there now to learn the source of this amazing sign; its ultimate goal, or purpose; and finally, the instruction which we might derive from its unusual and typical circumstances.
We observe, first, that the source of this amazing display of power and compassion is the love of Jesus for his people. Lazarus, who would be the subject of the miracle, is admitted to be one whom Jesus especially loved, both by his sisters (vs. 3); and even by that whole crowd of Jews, who made it always their business to oppose the works of our Savior (vs. 36). To this truth the apostle John bears certain witness as well, with the additional note that he also loved those for the sake of whose instruction the work was designed, so that it might uncover the true nature and power of Christ before their eyes (vs. 5). And a little later, in verse fifteen, we find Jesus himself rejoicing that this sickness took place, simply because of his love for the disciples, and because of the faith that he would produce in them by what he was about to do. Let us note well: the gift and accomplishment of resurrection life has undergirding it the deep and inexhaustible love of Jesus our Savior; and it is this unfathomable love that motivates every divine dispensation in our lives, those that seem inexplicable for the time as well as those which immediately appear to be full of the sweetest grace and compassion.
Now, let us consider just how inexplicable those acts were to which Jesus' infinite love gave rise. First, we are immediately struck with John's astonishing statement in verse six: because Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he waited until Lazarus died before he came to Bethany. How could his love motivate him to wait until it was too late to heal him of this sickness, before he did anything? This is inexplicable indeed; but even more baffling yet is the following circumstance that, after Lazarus had already died, then Jesus, who had tarried two days after he had heard of the need, decided after all to go to Bethany; even though, as Thomas noted, he was going to his certain death, and bringing his disciples along with him to share in the same fate. How could it be love first to turn a deaf ear, as it were, to the desperate cry of a beloved friend, and then, after it was too late, to lead his other true friends and disciples to their deaths as well? Let us be sure that, if Jesus loves us indeed, we too will meet with inexplicable circumstances in our lives, and we too will be required to follow Jesus to his death and ours.
But let us take courage in knowing that all springs from true and inexhaustible love, all will ultimately issue in a greater good than could have come without the trials, and all will finally be uncovered before our eyes, when it is completed, and will then take on the character of a breath-takingly beautiful tapestry of grace, made deeper, richer, and more exquisite by far through the masterful inclusion of somberer hues, which set off the luster of the victorious tones, and present the whole work as a fitting garment for the matchless Christ, in whose glorious person meet all the diverse excellencies of humility and majesty. And let us take comfort moreover in this, that our High Priest knows all of our sorrows and struggles, and feels the sharp pangs of grief and bewilderment even as he leads us through the valley, having experienced those same pangs in infinitely greater degree when he struggled with his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus allowed Lazarus to die; but did he not weep at his grave, and mingle his own sorrowful compassion with that of the sisters? In the sorrow as well as the joy, let us always assure ourselves that all has been planned by divine wisdom and love; and that, in the midst of the sorrows which Jesus has lovingly brought upon us, he is there weeping with us.
Second, we must realize that, although the source of Jesus' inexplicable actions was true and divine love, yet its ultimate purpose was the glory of God; which is precisely what he tells his disciples from the beginning, that this sickness is not ultimately for the purpose of death, but so that the Father and the Son might be glorified in it (vs 4). This same truth Jesus later proclaims to Martha immediately before he raises Lazarus, explaining to her that the purpose of the miracle is so that she might â€œsee the glory of Godâ€ (vs. 40). What an amazing plan! In the work of redemption, God is glorified when we are given new and eternal life. God is glorified, and we are enabled to see his glory â€“ which is the essence of eternal life and the foundation of everlasting joy (see John 17:3). Let us learn that, back of the divine grace which Jesus has poured out upon us, is the plan that the divine glory be fully displayed. God is ultimately beautiful, and the display of his character is the master plan of the universe, and indeed the only goal which is worthy of such universal significance. Moreover, as â€œGod is loveâ€ (I John 4:8), so the display of who he is means (among other things) the outpouring of rich and inexhaustible compassion, which as perfect love brings that which is perfectly good to its object, namely, the sight of God. Did God undertake to redeem us for his own name's sake, or because he loved us? Let us be certain that it was both, but that the fact of his love for us is itself a part of the manifold display of the rich wonder of his name and character.
But having now examined the source and the motivation of this mighty act, it remains for us to learn of its typical and instructive significance; for indeed, without the mental and affective apprehension of its true meaning, God's glory is neither displayed to us, nor are we brought to the place to which divine love would have us. O Savior, as you did what you did because you loved us and would glorify your name, show us now the truths that you so mightily displayed, so that we might see you more clearly, love you more perfectly, and glorify your name in greater joy and wonder!
We will consider first what we may learn of Christ's actions in waiting until Lazarus had died before coming to him, even after he had said that this sickness was â€œnot unto deathâ€ (vs. 4). It is not until one realizes the nature of Christ's miraculous signs that this could make sense. Physical resurrection of a body that is still imperfect and still able to die again is a good and amazing thing. But what it signifies â€“ resurrection to a body that can never die, but that will enjoy eternal life in God's presence â€“ is far greater. Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died at all. But because it was a better thing to show to him, as a tiny foretaste, the resurrection life that could be found in Jesus alone, and so produce faith in him and the other disciples around him, by letting him die and raising him again; and, because he loved him, and desired the best for him â€“ indeed, had determined to do the best for him â€“ therefore, he waited two days, until he had died.
Second, we will consider what we may learn of Jesus' decision to go to Bethany, where he would certainly meet death at the hands of the Pharisees (as would his disciples also, presumably), even after Lazarus had already died. This was certainly a sign, and a marvelous one, that the disciples would not fully understand until later. Jesus can raise the man who is â€œdead in his trespasses and sinsâ€ (Ephesians 2:1-7), and give him eternal life â€“ and he does so by going to his own death on the cross! But those who still think they live, he does not raise â€“ not until they are dead indeed. Thomas' statement in response to Jesus' strange decision (â€œLet us also go, that we might die with himâ€ â€“ John 11:16) was no doubt unintentionally insightful; just as later in the chapter the high priest unwittingly gives a prophecy of truth (vss. 49-52), so it seems to be the case here. Certainly, it is only as we die with Jesus that we can be raised again to eternal life. Thomas' statement, then, perfectly illustrates the teaching of Jesus, in relation to this sign miracle. One can only find eternal life in Jesus' death if he himself dies with him. If one would live in Christ, he must also die with Christ. Just as Jesus was, in a figure, going to his own death to secure resurrection life, so his disciples were going to their death with him; and in this way, they would be made partakers of the same power of incorruptible life.
Third, let us consider what we may learn of the uncustomary way in which Jesus performs this miracle. We notice that, instead of performing the miracle immediately, the way he had done so many miracles before, he prays audibly, and acknowledges that the Father always hears his prayers. Let us remember that He did this, not for himself, but so that we might know that the Father has sent him. Jesus did not do anything of his own accord, as he told the Pharisees so long ago (John 5:30); what the Father plans, Jesus does, and there is always perfect agreement between the two of them. This is a comforting truth, when we remember what Jesus prays for us just before his death on the cross (John 17), and when we remember that, after his ascension, he is always interceding for us as our great high priest (Hebrews 4:14-16). Jesus is ever pleading our cause, on the basis of his sacrificial blood; and the Father always hears his pleas! In fact, the Father is perfectly united with Jesus in his desire to forgive and sanctify us. His forgiveness is not grudging, but wholehearted. He does not just endure us, he delights in us. This truth, then, cannot fail to comfort those of us who, weak and sinful though we be, have fled to Jesus for refuge.
Then, having prayed to the Father, Jesus raises Lazarus with an authoritative word. At the beginning of his gospel, John made the connection between creation and redemption â€“ just as God, through the agency of his eternal Son, created the world by speaking it into existence; so, when he determined to redeem mankind, he would do so through Jesus, his Son, by an authoritative word. In fact, the goal of redemption is nothing but a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17). And just as God created man originally, by the word of his mouth, so he creates him anew â€“ creates in him a new and living heart of belief â€“ by his own powerful word. A dead man cannot create life in himself. No more can we, who are â€œdead in our trespasses and sins,â€ produce in ourselves the faith which leads to eternal life. But praise be to God, who, according to his mercy and in fulfillment of his promises, raised us up to new life, when we were dead and without hope!
O brothers and sisters in Christ, let us fix our eyes on the risen Savior, who has won for us the unstoppable power of his own resurrection life! Inexplicable sorrows and difficulties may often overtake us on our journey home, and we will often be called to fellowship with Christ in his sufferings and death, indeed, to take up our own cross and follow him (Matthew 10:38); but in all these things, let us persuade our hearts that everything which overtakes us springs from the hand of divine love and compassion, and moves toward the end of displaying the divine glory in the person of Jesus Christ, God's eternal Son, the sight of whom is our eternal joy, and the greatest gift that inexhaustible love could give us. Let us feast our eyes on this sorrowing God, smitten to the heart with our own weaknesses, ready to lay down his own life to bring us to God! Let us feast our eyes on the glory of his power, at whose mighty word the dead spring to life, and the children of sin and wrath are created anew in the image of God! No matter where we may be today, our most pressing need and our only bottomless source of joy is to look to Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life of all who believe in him.