It is pretty amazing what children will say. Some children were asked about death, and these were some of their answers: Alan, age7, “God doesn’t tell you when you are going to die because He wants it to be a big suprise;” Raymond, age 10, “A good doctor can help you so you won’t die. A bad doctor sends you to heaven;” Marsha, age 9, “When you die, you don’t have to do homework in heaven unless your teacher is there too;” and here is a very cynical Stephanie, age 9, “Doctors help so you won’t die until you pay all their bills.” What people all over the world say about death is that it is unavoidable. They say that there are two things certain in life: death and taxes. The only thing is that death doesn’t get worse every time congress meets. But if you look everywhere around you, people are saying that death is the end. The Grim Reaper. You could even say that those people who believe that there is a Resurrection think that it is far off, and not of much help in the present time.
The fact is that death is an intruder. Death does not belong in the created realm. God did not create the world with death in mind. Death is a punishment for sin, the sin of all humanity. Sin brings forth death, as the apostle James has it. So often, we look around at the world and say, “Why did death have to come to this person, or that person? Why didn’t God stop it?” The question we should really ask ourselves is, “Why did we sin?” If we want to know who is responsible for bringing sin into the world, we have to place the blame squarely on our own shoulders. We can’t blame God for punishing sin. If He didn’t punish sin, then He wouldn’t be God. God is not the author of sin. Humanity is. Oh sure, we had a little help from Satan. But the blame rests with us. Satan didn’t fall in the garden; Adam and Eve did. The old saying goes like this: In Adam’s fall, we sinned all. Adam was a respresentative for the human race.
Now that is bad news for humanity. Well, it isn’t exactly news. We should have known it for a long time. But we are extremely prone to forgetting the fact that death exists because of sin. What we have to realize now, though, and what our passage today teaches us is that death is a defeated enemy for those who believe in Jesus Christ. Let’s take a close look at our passage, focusing on verses 17-27, but starting with the first part of the chapter.
The NIV has a horrible mistranslation in verse 6. In verse 5, we see that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. The NIV says in verse 6 that, despite this fact that Jesus loved them, He stayed an extra two days where He was. This gives us the impression that we don’t know why Jesus delayed. But this is not what the text says. The text actually says, “Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Therefore he stayed where He was for two more days.” It is because He loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, that He let Lazarus die! This sounds very strange to our ears. But Jesus explains Himself in verses 14-15: “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” It is plain that Jesus already knew that Lazarus was going to be resurrected from the dead. His purpose, then, in staying where He was for two more days, was so that His disciples, and Mary and Martha, would believe, and have their faith confirmed by a mighty miracle.
That leads us to verse 17. Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days by the time that Jesus got there. This is significant. Four days in the tomb meant that death was completely irreversible. Jewish thought at the time said that the soul hovers over the body for three days, but on the fourth, the soul doesn’t recognize the body anymore, and so leaves it. John doesn’t necessarily believe that, but his point is that Lazarus was completely dead, and was starting to decompose.
Martha hears that Jesus is near, and she runs out to meet him. She says to him what she and Mary must have said many times to each other during the three days they had waited for Jesus, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is important to realize that Martha is not reprimanding Jesus for His delay. Even if Jesus had started right away, Lazarus would still have been dead by the time He got there. She does not say, “Lord if only you had gotten here sooner.” Instead, she says, “Lord if only you had been here.” It is regret, not reproach.
Then Martha shows that she has at least some faith. She asks Jesus implicitly to petition the Father for the resurrection of Lazarus. Now, some doubt that that is what Martha means, especially in the light of verse 39, where Martha objects to opening the tomb, because of the smell, plainly indicating (it is thought) that Jesus cannot resurrect Lazarus from the dead. However, what is happening here is that Martha wavers in her faith from hope to grief. She oscillates between the two. It is quite probable that she thought that Jesus might be able to do something about Lazarus even now, though she has nagging doubts.
In verse 23, we see Jesus giving us a wonderfully ambiguous statement. Jesus wants to draw out Martha’s heart, and so He gives a statement that mentions the general resurrection at the end of time. Does Jesus mean to include the resurrection that He is about to perform? Whatever the case, Martha obviously does not understand where Jesus is going with this. She must have heard from the Jewish people about the general resurrection, which is something that Pharisees believed. Martha is a little disappointed, when she replies in verse 24, “I know already about the general resurrection.” It is as if she is saying, “Lord, have you come to tell me what I already know?”
An then comes the real shocker. You see, Martha thought, and so often do we, that the resurrection is a long way off. We think that it is more difficult for God to do a miracle here and now, than it is for God to resurrect people on the final day of judgment. Martha had her thoughts on the present time, thinking that Jesus was not powerful enough to resurrect Lazarus right now, even though she thought He might be able to ask His Heavenly Father for that favor. So what Jesus says is a real shock: the Resurrection is a person, not so much an event! Now, of course, Jesus has just affirmed that the future resurrection is an event that will surely come to pass. However, what He is saying here is that Resurrection power resides in Jesus! The Resurrection is a person! What Jesus is saying is that resurrection power belongs only to Jesus as God. Now, one needs to be resurrected in order to have life, which is why Jesus says immediately afterward, that He is the Life. Resurrection leads to life. Where Christ is not present, there is death. Where Christ is, there is resurrection and life, a fact that Jesus is about to demonstrate in a dramatic fashion.
Here is where the unbeliever stumbles. The unbeliever cannot believe that death could be defeated. Death is the end, according to them. Only by faith can anyone accept that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. There are two ideas that Jesus explains here. The first is resurrection. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” That refers to the physical time-point of death, and then the time-point of physical resurrection. Physical death is no longer the end of the story. There is resurrection, brought to light by Jesus Himself. The second idea is life, spiritual life. That is what verse 26 is talking about: “whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” That is talking about th person who lives spiritually, and thus that person will never die spiritually. So, verse 25 is talking about physical death and resurrection, and verse 26 is talking about spiritual life and the immortality of the Christian soul.
And now comes the question: “Do you believe this?” Do you, here and now, facing death all our lives, believe Jesus’ words? Do you believe that Jesus is your only comfort in life and in death? Do you believe that you must be born again spiritually? Do you trust in Jesus? If you do not, there is no hope for you. There is no hope that there is anything beyond death that is good. No unbeliever has any hope. That is why Paul says that the Christian’s grief is not like the unbeliever’s grief. An unbeliever grieves without hope. The Christian grieves, knowing that it is not the end of their relationship with that person. It bears repeating: it is true to say that so-and-so is in a better place. That is true. But it is not the most helpful thing to know. It is the physical presence of that person that we miss. Therefore it is more helpful to say that if you believe in Jesus, then you will see that person again, touch his hand again, hug him again. See, if you believe what Jesus is saying here, then what you really believe is that that person is not dead! His soul is very much alive, thank you, and his body is merely waiting on the resurrection that will come at the final day, in order to be reunited with his soul. But he is not dead. He passed from death to life, as Jesus says in John chapter 5. I want to read this passage to you, as it is extremely relevant to our passage here in John 11. This is John 5:19-29: “Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out– those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” Jesus is talking about Lazarus here, and about all Christians. The resurrection that Lazarus experiences is symbolic of the spiritual resurrection that all Christians experience when they come to faith. Have you experienced this resurrection? If so, then you have only one death, and that death is a defeated enemy. Christ Himself has defeated death by being raised from the dead. You only have one death, but two resurrections: the resurrection of the soul, which guarantees the second resurrection, that of the body. If you do not believe, then you have only one resurrection to look forward to. And it will be such that you will wish you hadn’t been resurrected. You will prefer annihilation to being resurrected to eternal punishment for sin. Do not delay in coming to Christ. You do not know whether you will be alive tomorrow. You can shrug all this off as hogwash, and go back to your wicked ways, or you can sit up and listen to God speaking. He says, “Let the Christian come forth from his tomb of sin.” It is then that you take off your sinful grave clothes, and put on the spotless white robe that has been washed in the blood of the Lamb. The dead shall hear the voice of the living God. It does not matter what your past life has been. It does not matter what bad choices you have made. Everyone is dead in their trespasses and sins, as Paul makes so abundantly clear in Ephesians 2. But if God can conquer death, if He can call out to Lazarus, and the dead man hears and obeys the voice of the living God, then God can change you. Now is definitely not too late. But take care, this may be your only opportunity. “Sinner, come forth!”