The Resurrection and the Life
Series: The Gospel of John
As John continues to show us who Jesus is, here we discover He is the resurrection and the life: He uses death, He is life, He weeps over death, and, ultimately, He defeats death.
I’ve never really studied English poetry, but I’m told by those who have that in the course of your studies, you will study a poet named William Cowper. Cowper lived in the 1700s in England, and is known now not only for his impact on how poetry was written, but for his poems against the British slave trade. Cowper was also a Christian, though one who lived much of his life without the joy that Christianity typically engenders. No doubt today he would be diagnosed with severe depression, if not other disorders as well. He spent some time in an insane asylum, and during his time there went through a period of months where the depression was particularly severe. Yet one of the beginnings of hope for him came from the passage at which we are looking today. Here’s what he said about it:
“Having found a Bible on the bench in the garden, I opened upon the 11th of St. John, where Lazarus is raised from the dead; and saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct, that I almost shed tears upon the relation; little thinking that it was an exact type of the mercy which Jesus was on the point of extending towards myself.”
In this story, this severely depressed man found a Savior who was able to sympathize with his depression, and a Savior who provided hope in the midst of it. It’s my hope and prayer for you all today that you too will find such a Savior in this story today, whatever your condition, and that you will find in the mercy of this story an exact type of the mercy which Jesus extends toward you. In this story we’ll see that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He uses death, He is life, He weeps over death, and, ultimately, He defeats death.
He uses death
Our passage begins by telling us about a man who was ill named Lazarus. His sisters notify Jesus of Lazarus’ death, and verse 4 tells us that Jesus replied by saying that the illness does not lead to death. It is, rather, for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. Then John clarifies for us in verse 5 that Jesus did indeed love Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Then he says something easy to miss, but fascinating, in verse 6. He says, “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Now wouldn’t you expect that to say, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he went immediately to them and healed Lazarus.” It doesn’t say that. It says precisely because he loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed right where he was for two more days. Why? We get a clue in verse 11, when Jesus explains to his disciples why after waiting two days, he is now going to go. He says there that Lazarus has fallen asleep, but Jesus goes to awaken him. John tells us specifically in verse 13, that Jesus spoke of Lazarus’ death. Then Jesus tells his disciples plainly in verse 14 that Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.
What’s he saying? He’s saying Lazarus is now dead, but for your sake, I’m glad I wasn’t there to heal him, because it is going to be better for your faith to see me raise him from the dead than it would have been for me to just heal him before he died. And do you see now why out of love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he waited two days to go when he knew Lazarus was ill? He wanted to let him die. As he said in verse 4, this was so the Son of God might be glorified. Jesus intends to use the death of Lazarus to reveal His glory, as the one who is, as we saw last week, one in being with the Father, and who therefore can do what only God can do: Raise the dead. And because he loved Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and his disciples, he wanted to show this glory to them, so that they might believe. That was more loving to them, in Jesus’ mind, than simply keeping Lazarus from dying. Rather than keeping Lazarus from dying, which he certainly had the power to do, he used Lazarus’ death to reveal his glory, so that others might believe.
Now do you see what that means? It means Jesus’ biggest agenda, his ultimate aim, for those he truly loves, is not to keep them from hardship. It’s to show them his glory. The death of Lazarus was obviously painful for Lazarus. It was also painful for Marth and Mary; they come to him later in the story weeping, and saying to him, “If you had come sooner, our brother would still be alive.” And they were right! But because Jesus truly loved them, he didn’t do that. He waited two days, let their brother die, and then came to them, because Jesus had bigger plans for them than keeping their brother alive, and he has bigger plans for you than keeping you from illness and death. It is possible, it is even likely, for Jesus to truly love you, and for you still to get sick. It is possible, it is even likely, for Jesus to truly love you, and for you still to die. It is possible, it is even likely, for Jesus to truly love you, and for him to not answer your prayers in the way you want him to at the time you want him to. He just knows what you need better than you do, and he knows how to love you better than you know how to love yourself.
Suffering is no reason to question Jesus’ love for you. Jesus loved Lazarus and his family, and not only did he let Lazarus suffer; he let Lazarus die! Instead of asking whether Jesus really loves you when you suffer, ask how Jesus want to show you His glory through that suffering. Jesus is not with us bodily on earth now; we behold his glory by faith in his word. What true thing about Jesus could you believe more deeply and rejoice in more fully in the middle of your suffering? There’s a question to ask while you’re suffering. When the suffering you’re going through has been inflicted on you by others, Hebrews 12:3 directs us to “consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” In other words, when you face hostility from others, consider, think about, the hostility Jesus, the truly perfect, merciful, loving one, endured from sinners. Behold his glory in that. When the suffering is caused by a battle with sin and temptation, Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15 direct us to consider Christ, who was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin, so that he is able to help those who are being tempted. Behold his glory in that. When it’s caused by shame, consider the shameful death Christ died on your behalf. When it’s caused by illness, either mental or bodily, death of someone you love, fear of illness, or fear of death, the sufferings which take place in this passage, this passage gives you a lot of the glory of Jesus to behold, so let’s continue in it to see how Jesus uses death for His glory. Next, we see He is life.
He is life
So Jesus comes and found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days, and John notes this to assure us that Lazarus really was dead. The first one to approach Jesus when he arrives was Martha, and she affirms her faith that if Jesus had been there, her brother would not have died. We don’t have to read anger into what Martha is saying; she’s just stating a fact that Jesus himself implicitly affirmed to his disciples. But Jesus reassures her in verse 23: Your brother will rise again. Martha replies that she knows her brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. It was a common belief of the Jews of that day that at the end of time, “on the last day,” there would be a general resurrection of all the dead, those who have done good to everlasting life, those who have done evil to shame and everlasting contempt. Jesus also taught as much in John 5. But here Jesus adds something very important to that teaching in verse 25: “I am the resurrection and the life,” He says. Martha, in verse 24, expresses faith in some “thing” called “the resurrection.” Jesus says in effect, “Martha, there is no thing called the resurrection, out there somewhere, and set to happen on the last day. I am the resurrection.”
We must always beware of abstracting the benefits of Jesus from the person of Jesus. Who doesn’t want life? Who doesn’t want to live forever? Who doesn’t want to rise from the dead? But do you want Jesus? Because He is the resurrection and the life. It doesn’t exist apart from him. In John 1 we read that in him was life, and the life was the light of men. In John 5 we read that the Father has granted him to have life in himself. And right now, on this day, it is he who is risen from the dead, seated at the right hand of the father. And so He is the resurrection and the life. And therefore, whoever believes in him, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die.
So Jesus is not promising that if you believe in him, your bodily life will never cease. The story of Lazarus is meant to illustrate just this. Jesus says very clearly in verse 14: Lazarus has died. And yet, we’ll see in a moment that Lazarus will rise again. That’s the promise of Jesus to all who believe in him: Though you die, you will live again. On the last day, the resurrection will come, because Jesus will come, and He is the resurrection. In that day your body will rise again to be reunited with your soul and will live forever with Jesus in a new heaven and a new earth. In that sense, you’ll never ultimately die, and it’s in this sense Jesus speaks in verse 26: everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Though in a sense Lazarus was dead, in another sense he was asleep, only waiting for Jesus to raise him. And those who believe in Jesus have eternal life the moment they do. When their mortal bodies die, they aren’t ultimately dead. Instead, they wait for the day when they will hear the voice of the Son of God, and rise to everlasting life.
The life expectancy in the United States is about 79 years old. Many of you here today fall well short of that, so you may not think about death much at all. Most of us try to avoid thinking of death at all costs, even those of us who may be closer to 79. There are some things about which it’s reasonable to tell yourself: In all likelihood, that will never happen to me. Like even in Philadelphia where there were over 500 deaths by murder last year, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be murdered living here. But here’s the reality: Something is going to get you. Death is the one thing about which none of us can say, “That’ll never happen to me.” It’s the one thing all of us can be sure will happen to us. It will force itself on you. Even before you die, someone you love probably will. I attended the funerals of two of my friends’ dads over the past year. They didn’t want to think about death; they had to. Martha and Mary had to; their brother Lazarus was dead. What can give you hope in the face of the death of a loved one? What can give you hope in the face of your own death? Here’s what Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is real hope in the face of death. And so consider Jesus’ question to Martha for yourself at the end of verse 26: “Do you believe this?”
You can’t stay on the fence about Jesus. And even for those of us who do believe, doubts intrude. But today, do you believe in him? Whoever does has eternal life, because He is the resurrection and the life. And yet, that is not contrary to weeping over death in this life. Jesus himself did that.
He weeps over death
So the next character Jesus speaks with is Mary. When Mary approached Jesus, she started with the same words as Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she also approached him with more of an outward expression of emotion, along with the Jews who had been consoling her. We read in verse 33 that Jesus saw her weeping, along with the Jews who had come with her. When Jesus saw this, we’re told that he was “deeply moved” in his spirit and greatly troubled. It’s hard to know exactly what mix of emotions Jesus was feeling; clearly grief was involved, because he wept, but there may also have been some anger, as the ESV footnote indicates. Suffice it to say that he was deeply emotionally affected by the scene. He grieved with those who grieve, and perhaps was also angry at the cause of their grief and/or the unbelief of some who were present.
Notice, then, how truly human Jesus was. Someone he loves dies, people he loves are weeping, and with intense emotion, he weeps with them. Sometimes we think of Jesus as a bit less human because he was divine. We hear descriptions of him but then think, “Right, but he was God of course.” Right, he was truly God, but he was also truly human. And that means he is truly able to sympathize with your emotions, even your painful, complicated emotions. He is not weeping now; he is now enjoying that glory that makes the afflictions of the present moment light in comparison. But, he knows what it’s like to have wept, to have felt anger, to have been greatly troubled in spirit, and therefore he is able to help you when you feel those same things. He’s like those who have gone through the death of a loved one or some other horrible tragedy, but who have now come out on the other side, and are therefore able to help those in the middle of the same sufferings. So don’t feel like you need to deal with your painful emotions before you draw near to God through him. Draw near to God through him with your painful emotions. He will sympathize with you, and he will help you.
Recognize furthermore that painful emotions are not sinful in themselves, nor inconsistent with great hopefulness. If you are grieved and troubled because your sinful aspirations have not been realized, or your idols are letting you down, like when I get troubled by all the attention someone else is getting, because deep down I crave it for myself, that’s sinful. But grieving because someone you love died is right and good; Jesus did it! In a sense Christians should grieve more than anyone else, because we know this isn’t the way the world is supposed to be! Knowing the story ends well shouldn’t stop us from grieving either. Jesus wept even though he knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead! He told his disciples Lazarus was asleep, and he goes to wake him. Yet he doesn’t say to Martha and the Jews weeping with her, “What on earth is the matter with you people? Don’t you know I’m the resurrection and the life? I’m going to raise Lazarus from the dead. Enough with those tears.” Not only does he not say anything like that; he joins them in their weeping! Real hope for the future is not contrary to real sadness in the present. In fact, it’s what enables it! Think about it: Why is the world so bad at grieving today? We really are; we don’t even have funerals anymore. Instead, we have “celebrations of life.” Why can’t we grieve anymore? Because grief is too scary if there’s no hope on the back end of it. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel, what do you want to do? Stay out of the tunnel at all costs. The world can’t grieve because the world has no hope. All it can do is avoid grief, avoid thinking about death, and medicate what we can’t avoid with literal drugs or a host of other distractions.
But Jesus, the resurrection and the life himself, knew the whole story. He’s the one through whom all things were made, in whom was life, and the life was the light of men. He knew humans weren’t made to die, so he wept over death. He knew he would raise the dead, so he wasn’t afraid to weep. He knew the sorrow would last for the night, but joy would come in the morning. He knew the truth of his own words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:3). If you find you are unable to weep or feel painful emotions in response to sin and its consequences, pop the hood on that. It’s not something you can fix by sheer willpower, but it is something you can recognize as a deficiency. It’s a way you are unlike Jesus; it’s a way I’m unlike Jesus to be honest, and the desire of every Christian should be to be more like him. Consider the emotions of Jesus in a passage like this. Consider the way the world is supposed to be; spend time thinking and imagining what it would look like if God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven, and then force yourself to spend time thinking about how unlike that our world currently is. When people around you are hurting, move toward them, not further away from them. Think about how all the grief will end, how every tear will be wiped away, so that you won’t be so afraid to feel the grief now. And rejoice that when you are unable to grieve as you ought, Jesus grieved for you, as your substitute, and has compassion on even your inability to grieve. His and his only was the truly godly sorrow, and this great trouble he felt within his spirit then motivated him to action. Jesus is the resurrection and the life finally in that he defeats death.
He defeats death
Having spoken with Mary and Martha, Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus now, which verse 38 tells us was a cave, with a large stone rolled over it. Jesus instructed that the stone be taken away, and Martha clearly wasn’t expecting Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead, because she’s just concerned about the smell. Lazarus is really dead, dead enough to start letting off an odor. Nonetheless, Jesus tells her that if she believes, she will see the glory of God, and so they do roll away the stone, and Jesus first thanks his father in heaven in verses 41-42 that he has heard him. He says this aloud so that all who are present would know that he did this by the very power of God, so that they would all know that the Father had sent him. In the passage just before this, Jesus had claimed to be one with the Father, and they’d stoned him for it. Now he’s going to show them that he really is one with the Father.
So we come to verse 43, and Jesus cries out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out.” And in verse 44 John reminds us again that this was the man who had died. But on that day, he came out. In John 5, Jesus said that the day was coming when those who are in the tombs would hear the voice of the Son of God and come out. Now He’s depicting that for us. In John 10, he said he calls his own sheep our by name, and here he depicts that for us, even using Lazarus’ name, to call him out of death itself. Throughout the Bible, the power to give life is God’s alone. To this day, we may have near death experiences from which people recover, someone may even be medically dead and come back to life, but no medicine or technology can bring someone 4 days dead and buried in the tomb back to life. Only God can do that, and because Jesus is God, He did that. And notice the means through which He did it: He spoke. Lazarus’ ears were as dead as the rest of his body, but Jesus still spoke to him, and directly addressed him: “Lazarus, come out.” Why would he do such a thing? Because His words have the power to give that for which they call. As Peter said to Jesus in John 6: You have the words of eternal life. As in the beginning, God created all life by His Word, so here, Jesus brings new life by His Word.
And yet, even this sign, like all of Jesus’ signs, pointed beyond itself. While Lazarus was raised from the dead, he did not ascend into heaven. At some point later, he would return to the tomb. This sign pointed forward to another who would go into the tomb, a tomb that would also be sealed by a heavy stone, but who would rise from it by his own power, never to die again. In order to give resurrection life to whoever believes in him, Jesus first had to die for them. Death is God’s curse on human sin, and humans can only be released from it if one comes and bears their curse for them. That’s what Jesus did when he died on the cross, and then he rose from the tomb and ascended into heaven, never to die again. And so Lazarus, and all who believe with him, will finally come out of the tomb to live with him forever when He who is the resurrection and the life comes again and calls them out. In that day they will see the glory of the Son of God in an even greater way than Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus’ disciples saw it on this day, and their faith will turn to sight. Believe in him today, and though you die, you will live.
To all of you who do believe, this story is a picture of your salvation. You were dead in your trespasses and sins when someone came and proclaimed the good news of Jesus to you. And you came to life when you heard not just their voice, but the voice of Jesus, speaking through them, calling you out of sin, out of the world, out of death, and to himself, and through that word, God gave you new spiritual life that you never had. And that’s why we should have such hope for the salvation of our neighbors and people from every people group throughout the world. You may look at them and say, “But they don’t have any interest in God. They aren’t wondering how to be reconciled to him. They aren’t even really wondering about eternal life. They don’t think they’re sinners. They may not even think God exists. Why would they want to become Christians?” They won’t, unless God gives them new life. But the very thing God uses to give them new life is His word, spoken by people like you.
The mistake we make is we think if people are going to believe in Jesus, we must appeal to desires they already have, and show them how Jesus meets those desires. So you want health, wealth, and prosperity? Here’s why if you believe in Jesus, he’ll give them to you. So you want affirmation, security, significance? Here’s why if you believe in Jesus, he’ll give them to you. That’s what salespeople do. They say, “I want to sell you this car, so I have to figure out what you already want, and show you how the car meets that desire.” But Jesus is not a salesman. He’s the resurrection and the life. So He offers Himself to people who don’t want him, but then through the offer, he changes their desires, so that they do want him. He preaches to dead people. That’s what all evangelism is, all proclamation of the gospel to those who don’t yet believe. Spurgeon said we’re all preaching in graveyards. But we do it anyway, because if the words we proclaim are the words of Christ, they are words of eternal life, with the power to give what they require. Tell people Jesus is the resurrection and the life, tell them whoever believes in him, though they die, will live, and then call them to come out. Don’t worry about whether they will or not; that’s in God’s hands.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Death is still around, and he will still let those he loves go through it, but he won’t let it have the final world, and in the end, he will use it to display his glory as he raises all those who believe in him to everlasting life. The resurrection will come because he is the resurrection, and he will come. In the meantime, grieve with those who grieve, but don’t grieve as those who have no hope. Draw near to Jesus with your grief, and he will help you. Jesus has defeated death, and the day is coming when all who have believed in him will hear his voice, come out of the tombs, and live with him forever, to see his glory.