The ancient Roman statesman Cicero once said that with the exception of wisdom, nothing better has been given to man than friendship. Many of us know this to be true as we have enjoyed and experienced the benefit of deep friendships in all seasons of life. But when it comes to Jesus we might wonder. Did He need friends during His earthly ministry? Being the incarnate Word of God we may be tempted to think friendship was something below Him or something He didn’t need as we do. Wrong. The picture presented to us in the four gospels is a clear one. Jesus not only many friends, he had three very close friends. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It is these friends who come into view in our passage this morning, and as we see how Jesus interacts with them we will be greatly encouraged.
Here’s what I want to do this morning. I’ll first walk through the text, stopping here and there to comment on it. Then I’ll end by trying to first show you a new perspective on suffering this miracle gives to us followed by two life-altering moments this miracle points us to.
11:1-6, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, he whom You love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it He said, “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.” 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.”
The text begins with news, a certain man is ill. Lazarus of Bethany is his name, the brother of Mary and Martha. Seemingly Jesus had close dealings with this family and because of that the sisters, after learning of this illness, send a message to Jesus saying in v3, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They didn’t ask, invite, or request Him to come. It was just a statement. These sisters were apparently aware of Jesus’ great affection for them and trusted they didn’t have to ask Him to come but that, upon hearing the news, He simply would come. He gets the news, turns to His disciples and says in v4 that this illness does not lead to death, rather it exists for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. This is the definitive reason Lazarus fell sick in the first place. It didn’t happen by chance, circumstance, or happenstance, it happened so Jesus, the Son of God, could be made much of. Jesus said a similar thing back in John 9 about the man born blind. Remember the disciples asking, “Who sinned that this man should be born blind?” ‘No one…’ Jesus said, ‘…this man is blind that the works of God might be displayed in Him.’” As it was with the blind man, so it is with Lazarus. Which means there is more going on here than meets the eye.
Now, Jesus did indeed love this family, it says so in v5. So we’d think that Jesus would immediately leave to tend to these things. But v6 tells us that Jesus didn’t leave right away to visit them but stayed home. This is puzzling for sure, but remember from Jesus’ perspective there was a divine design in the sickness of Lazarus. From Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ perspective there is only sickness and impending death. So you can imagine Mary and Martha attending to their sick brother and looking out the door every hour or so to see if Jesus had made it yet. But look as they may, there’s no sign of Him.
Have any of you ever felt like these sisters? Have you ever felt that life’s circumstances have gotten so bleak that you begin to believe the only possible interpretation of these events is that God no longer cares about you? That God no longer loves you? Sure God may be sovereign and in control of all things, but this God isn’t good at all, and how my life is unfolding these days is proof of His absence! Well, I’m afraid as the years come and go that you and I will often find ourselves in this spot. Try to remember one thing. Our perspective of the circumstances of our lives is massively limited. We can only see what’s right in front of us. God can see the whole thing. We can only see the individual moment, God can see His entire work of weaving all our moments into a tapestry for His glory. While they were frantically attending to Lazarus trying to save his life and waiting for Jesus to come save him, Jesus calmly went about His work for two more days. Why would He do such a thing?! We’ll see soon.
11:7-16, “Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.”
After making the disciples aware of His desire to go back into Judea, the disciples urge Him not to because of the imminent danger awaiting them all back there. Remember one chapter earlier Jesus is almost stoned by the Jews for saying “I and the Father are one.” When they bring this up Jesus responds to His disciples in an odd manner, saying that there’s twelve hours in the day, and no one stumbles in the day because of the light of the world, and the only ones who stumble walk at night because the light is not in him. In other words He was saying, “The night of My work has not yet come. I still have much work to do. It is still day, and My ministry to Lazarus is part of that work.”
His disciples were confused so He and said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, I go to awaken him.” Still not getting it the disciples say, “If he’s asleep, he’ll wake up Jesus.” After still showing confusion Jesus tells them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe, let us go to him.” Thomas still a bit afraid or coming back into the city said, “Let us go also, that we may die as well.” Clearly he thinks a very great danger awaits them in Judea and boldly accepts what he thinks is their own impending death. Jesus doesn’t respond to this, instead He just leaves for Bethany. They arrive in 11:17 where we’ll continue reading.
11:17-27, “Now when Jesus came, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany 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?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When they arrived Lazarus had been four days dead. Many others had come to comfort them. The sisters heard He had finally come, and while Mary seems to be so sorrowful that she doesn’t even get up to greet Jesus, Martha does go see Him. And when she does she asks why He had delayed so long saying implying that His delay was the reason her brother had died. They had waited and waited but He didn’t come! From her perspective all was lost. We know her pain. “Where were You God, when the cancer came…when my mother died…when my parents split and Dad left…when my child died…You could’ve done something but You didn’t…You we’re too late.” The delays of God’s great, gracious, and sovereign love sometimes allow the pave the way for the most tragic of events. Martha’s thoughts are honest, understandable, and surprising too many…appropriate to say to God. Over 1/3 of all 150 Psalms are Psalms of sorrow or lament. God is kind to give us vocabulary for the times when the venom of despair sinks in. Jesus didn’t rebuke her honest accusation but met it with head on by directing her to Him. In her sorrow Martha merely repeats the common belief of 1st century Jews. That on the last day a resurrection to life will occur. But Jesus turns the statement on its head and proclaims that “resurrection and life” are only to be found in Him. I’m not sure if Martha understood the extent and meaning of Jesus’ words here but she responds (MARVELOUSLY) through her sorrow in faith saying she does believe He is the Christ, who is coming into the world.
11:28-37, “When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to Him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met Him. 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. 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.” 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. And He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how He loved Him!” But some of them said, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Remember we saw Jesus get questioned by the disciples, we saw him get questioned by Martha, and now we see Him receive the same from Mary. Mary’s words show she had been thinking the same thing as her sister Martha. Yet Jesus responds differently than we’ve seen so far. He sees Mary weeping, He sees those that have come to comfort the sisters weeping as well, what happens? Jesus in v33 is “…deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled.” Now, pause here. Some people have said this describes Jesus being caught up with deep emotion from the sorrow of this event. I’m sure this was going on but I don’t think it was the only thing going on. In the Greek, the words for “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled” are terms of rebuke. This is interesting because if Jesus weeps in v35 for a reason that’s based in rebuking, that changes the meaning of His tears! Rather than crying on behalf of Lazarus out of grief, or at the unbelief that surrounded Him, I think these words indicate to us that Jesus was fuming and irate at one thing: death. Just as it would be unthinkable for someone to draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, so too, death is a blemish on God’s perfect creation. Every time someone dies we’re reminded of Genesis 3…that death is an unnatural intruder to man’s existence. So seeing death take His friend, Jesus becomes filled with fury and asks to be shown where the tomb was, and goes straight to it to do the deed He came to do.
11:38-44, “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that You have heard Me. 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.” When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Deeply moved once again He approaches the tomb. They warn Him of the smell as He commands them to take away the stone. Reminding them He says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” In an intimate and public moment He prays, “Father, thank You that You have heard Me, You always hear Me, I am saying this to You so that those near Me may believe You sent Me.” Remember v4? “This illness is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Here we go. The stage is set. The Son is about to be made much of, the disciples faith is about to increased, all present are about to be changed forever. The same One who in Genesis 1 spoke creation into existence by His Word, the same One who in Exodus 3 met Moses on the mountain, the same One who in Joshua 5 defeated the peoples of Canaan and led Israel into the promise land, the same One who in 1 Kings 18 defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, the same One who in Ezekiel 37 called the dry bones to life through His Word, the same One who came as a crying infant, the same One who calmed the sea with One Word, the same One healed the blind man and numerous others, this same God with His strong and mighty voice called out into death and created what was not there, “Lazarus, come forth!” In a moment all their sorrow, pain, and grief turned to gladness! Tears of despair now gave way to tears of delight as Lazarus walks out of the tomb.
So ends the reading and exposition of what is likely the most remarkable miracle of Jesus. Now, I said at the start I wanted to end by firstly showing you a new perspective on suffering followed by two life-altering moments.
A New Perspective for Sufferers
Throughout this chapter we’ve seen two prominent perspectives. On one hand we see the perspective of Mary and Martha which is bleak, despairing, and sorrowful. On the other hand we see the perspective of Jesus which is strong, certain, and life giving. From Mary and Martha’s view all they could see was pain and death. To them Jesus’ delay caused the death of their brother. To them Jesus was too late. From Jesus’ view He intentionally did delay so that Lazarus would die, so that He could raise him to new life, so that all would see Him for who He really was. His delay, according to Him, was a delay of love working toward God’s glory and their good. To Him He wasn’t late, but precisely on time. Listen up all you sufferers. It’s true that in the thick of it we (like Mary and Martha) can only see the pain, the sorrow, the absence, the death, and the mess that this fallen world is. In those times our pain is very real but our perspective is vastly limited. We cannot see how these things will turn out for God’s glory or for our good. But remember, we know that our perspective isn’t the only perspective in view. God’s perspective is vastly greater than our own. From His view, He is working in all things, the good and the bad, into a marvelous mosaic that will end up bringing Him glory and bringing us the best possible good.
Life-Altering Moment #1: Our Conversion
In the raising of Lazarus we learn how we are saved. Many people view salvation as if we are sick with sin, on the brink of death, and in need of a Savior to rescue. The image is a person in the hospital bed sick with no cure. What will they do? They will call out and ask for rescue and be saved. Great right? No. This idea has every pleasant quality about it except of the fact that it’s not true. You see, we’re not lying on a hospital bed in need of a cure. We are Lazarus, four days dead in the grave and people are afraid to roll away the stone due to the stench. We are not merely sick in sin before Christ saves us, there is no life in us before Christ saves us. Ephesians 2 says it like this, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked…we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy…when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with Him.” So, it was by grace Lazarus was raised from the dead, not of his own works so he could not boast. It’s the same way with us. When God saves us He saves us with no help from us! He looks into the darkness cavernous evil of our own hearts and creates what it is not there – life!
Life Altering Moment #2: Christ’s Resurrection
Easter is fast approaching us so I don’t want to belabour this point so I’ll just say this. Lazarus is not the only one who rose from the dead. In this miracle Jesus gives us a preview of what will happen in just a few more days when He would confront this enemy head on and kill it by allowing it to kill Him. So rejoice Christian, He is risen! The death of death took place in the death of Christ! And all who are united to Him by faith will similarly walk out of the tomb at the last day when He returns to usher in His Kingdom in full measure.
 Richard Phillips, John 11-22 – Reformed Expository Commentary, page 5.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT, page 538.
 Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 285.
 Hughes, page 286.
 R.C. Sproul, John – St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 203-204.
 Hughes takes this view and explains it well, see page 290-291.
 Morris takes this view and explains it well, see page 556-558.
 Sproul, page 210. See also F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, page 246.
Oh, Adam! This message given you by the Holy Spirit…has the Lord bursting in my heart!!! These are the Words that brought me the complete and comforting knowledge of ‘how great God is’. His Sovereignty, His control, His perfect plan…saved my life. Though there was weeping for years these words gave me unbelievable knowledge, comfort, joy, and peace to walk with Him through my terrible pain. Pain in the flesh that can not possibly be overcome and in the end kill one’s heart, soul, mind. But God! The great “I AM” can and does give life surely by grace, yet more emphatically I can know and declare forever His glory!
Bless you for asking me to read these words to my family.
With His love, Toni
Toni K. Palavis, B.S. Christian Counselor
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).