“The Raising of Lazarus” (John 11:1-53)
Our text today is the account of “The Raising of Lazarus,” from John chapter 11. In this chapter, Jesus does three things: He raises the dead. He arouses faith. And he rouses the opposition. Three things, and what he does, he does for you.
The most obvious thing Jesus does is to raise a dead man. Think about that. Jesus raises a dead man! Who has ever heard of such a thing? The man’s name was Lazarus. He was a friend of Jesus and his disciples. His sisters you’ve heard of, too. Mary and Martha. They lived in a town called Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. Jesus and the disciples often stayed there when they came to Jerusalem; they stayed at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Well, now, it turns out Lazarus was sick. Very sick, about to die. They send word to Jesus. Obvious implication: “Jesus, come quickly. Jesus, come and help.”
But for some reason, Jesus doesn’t go as soon as he hears of it. In fact, he purposely waits a couple of days. Why? “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” You see, this sickness would not lead to death, in the sense that it would not end in death. Death would not be the end of the story. God will be glorified through this event. God’s Son, Jesus himself, will be glorified through it.
So now Lazarus is dead. Jesus goes to Bethany. Four days Lazarus has been dead now. No question about it. No one can dispute that he was really dead. He was not just unconscious or something. The body is already starting to decay. Jesus goes to the tomb. There’s a large stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone.” Then Jesus calls in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” It’s a good thing Jesus put Lazarus’s name on there or else maybe all the dead bodies in that graveyard would have come out! So powerful is Jesus’ word. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus’ word does what it says, and so Lazarus does come out, looking a little like the Mummy, I suppose. But this man is alive, his flesh is restored. Take off the grave clothes! Life comes walking out of that tomb. Life called forth by Jesus, the Son of God.
“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus is going to say that again someday–only this time, with your name on it! And the name of your loved one who has died in the Lord. “Doris, come out!” “Albert, come out!” Your brother, your daughter, your husband, your wife–all those who die in the Lord, who die in faith–Christ will raise their bodies from the dead at the last day. Christ will raise your dead body when he comes again. Take comfort in that! Rejoice in that! Death is not the end. These mortal bodies that we lay in the ground will be raised immortal, glorified, no longer subject to death, whole and restored, in an even better state than they ever were before. The raising of Lazarus signals this. It is a sign of the resurrection to come.
It is a sign of Christ’s own resurrection. He himself would rise from the dead in just a short while. The stone would be rolled away, but not by human hands. The grave clothes would be left behind. Jesus himself would rise from the dead, leading the way for us, from death into life. He is the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead. First Jesus, and then all of us.
So the most obvious thing Jesus does in this chapter is to raise a man from the dead. In so doing, Jesus is telling us today that he will raise us from the dead, that he has power over death, that his mighty word speaks life into our lifeless bodies. “Lazarus, come out!”
Jesus raises the dead. The second thing Jesus does is to arouse faith. Faith in him. Jesus says to Martha, “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?”
Jesus calls forth faith from Martha. Not that she didn’t have it already. She did. She tells Jesus, “I know that my brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And that’s true. That is Martha’s faith in what God had promised, even in the Old Testament: the resurrection of the dead on the last day. But Jesus leads her to see what’s standing right in front of her eyes, to make the connection: the connection between the resurrection on the last day and the one who is the resurrection, there in front of her on that day. Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life. “Mr. Life” is right there. No need to wait till the last day. Jesus is going to do the job right now.
To see the connection between Jesus and the resurrection, between Jesus and life–that is what faith is all about. That is what Jesus is leading Martha, and Mary, and the disciples, and all the people who were there that day–and us, we who are here on this day–that’s what Jesus is leading us to see. That he, Jesus, is the resurrection and the life. Put your faith in him, believe in him, trust in him, for he is the one–the only one–who can and will raise you up on the last day and give you life now in these days and for all the days to come, even life everlasting.
And notice that. The life that Jesus gives includes the resurrection of the dead, the victory over death and the grave, but it also includes life now. Jesus weaves both of these together when he says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”–that’s the resurrection from the dead–and then he adds, “and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” That’s life now! You have that everlasting life right now, you who believe in Christ. You will never die. Not the Big Death, Death with a capital “D,” which would separate you from God forever. No, that will never happen to you. For you have eternal life right now. It started when you died and were buried with Christ in Holy Baptism and were raised to newness of life. And that life–which you are walking in right now–that life with Christ will never end. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
“Do you believe this?” Martha answers, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” So the question comes to us also: “Do you believe this?” By God’s grace, we too answer, “Yes, Lord; I believe.”
Jesus raises the dead. Jesus arouses faith. And the third thing that Jesus does in this chapter is to rouse the opposition. That’s the undercurrent in this story, the rising tide of opposition to Jesus. His enemies are being roused to action. This miraculous sign, done right outside Jerusalem, is the last straw. Jesus is a threat to their system, to the religious industry they had built up for themselves. He’s a threat to their power. They’ll have nothing more of it.
The chief priests and the Pharisees call a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we doing? Here is this guy, doing all these things. We can’t let him go on like this. Too many people are going his way. He’s stirring up too much trouble. The Romans may come in and shut us all down. We don’t want to risk losing our power and position.”
Caiaphas the high priest speaks up: “Listen. Don’t you know that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish?” Now what Caiaphas meant by that is that they would knock off Jesus, get rid of him, rather than risk bringing down the wrath of the Roman army. But ironically, what Caiaphas was unwittingly, unintentionally prophesying was that Jesus would die as the substitute for the sins of the nation–indeed, for the sins of the whole world, “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” What Caiaphas said, he meant as, “Let’s kill Jesus. Better him than all of us.” Caiaphas meant it for evil. But God meant it for good.
Did Jesus know that going in? Did he know that raising Lazarus would stir up such opposition? Of course he did. The last time he was in Jerusalem, they tried to stone him. When Jesus got the news about Lazarus and said he was going to go there, his disciples objected, “But Rabbi, a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” Yes, Jesus would go there, knowing what lay in store for him.
Jesus is telling us today that he was willing to die for our salvation. He willingly, knowingly, went into that buzz saw of opposition and hatred known as the Jewish Sanhedrin. He would go to Jerusalem–he would go to the cross–for you. “It is better for you that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.” Or to put it more directly: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Christ died for all us scattered children of God, to bring us together and make us one in him. Jesus knew what he was doing when he roused up his opposition. He was setting in motion the events that would soon lead to his death.
You see, the sin-death connection had to be broken. As long as sin remained unpaid for and unforgiven, death would reign, the stone would remain, and weeping would have the final word. But how to deal with all the sin, which causes all the death? It would take the death of the Son of God to pay for it all. That’s what Christ came to do, and it would take him to the cross and his own tomb. But his death means the death of Death! The sin-death connection is broken! Sins forgiven, death vacated of its power! That is why Jesus would go to the cross. That’s why he was willing to face the hatred and plotting of Caiaphas and company.
In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus did three things: First, he raised the dead, by the power of his life-giving word. “Lazarus, come out.” Second, he aroused faith in those who witnessed this miraculous sign–in Martha, in the disciples, and in the others. “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?” And the third thing Jesus did was to rouse the opposition, knowing he would so stir up the hatred against him that they would seek to kill him. In the ironic words of the high priest’s unintentional prophecy, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.”
So now take those three things Jesus did and apply them to what he is doing here today: First, Jesus is assuring you of the resurrection of the dead, for you and for your loved ones who have died in the Lord. Second, he is calling you to faith, to faith in him who is the resurrection and the life. And third, by facing such hostile opposition, Jesus is showing you the full extent of his love, that he would willingly go to the cross for your sake. Dear friends, all that Jesus does, here in the raising of Lazarus, he does for you!