Christmas is a difficult time of the year for many people. It is the time when the death of loved ones becomes more pronounced than ever. Like many of you, I understand that much better this year after my dad died. The place at the table is empty and the memories from Christmases past alternate between being overwhelmingly painful and being delightfully cherished. At times the memories make us feel like we have our loved ones back with us again, and at other times the acute pain of loss washes over us with fresh force.
It is hard in such cases to think of Christmas without also thinking about life beyond the grave. Because of that fact, our text this morning is especially welcome. We turn to John chapter 11 to look at the fifth of the seven “I Am” statements of Jesus. This is a text that I have referred to hundreds of times in funerals over the years. These are powerful words of hope.
Before we can look at the words themselves, we need to look at the setting. The story centers around some dear friends of Jesus: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They lived in Bethany which was a short distance from Jerusalem. It appears that whenever Jesus was in the area, he stayed at their home. When Jesus made trips to Jerusalem he always returned to Bethany for the evening. Mary and Martha are mentioned several times in the gospel account.
Jesus was on the other side (the east side) of the Jordan River when Lazarus became deathly sick. Mary and Martha sent a messenger to Jesus (we don’t know how long it took the messenger to get there. It would appear that Jesus was around 20 miles from Bethany). We are told Jesus delayed for two days before he left to come to Lazarus and when he arrived, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. It is possible that even if Jesus had left immediately He would not have arrived before Lazarus died.
We are surprised that Jesus did not head right to the side of Lazarus. They were friends. On other occasions Jesus simply had to say the word (He didn’t have to go to the home) and the person was healed. Instead, Jesus delayed because He said God had something better in mind. God was going to use this circumstance for His glory (and of course by hindsight we know that is what happened).
The Bible tells us that God uses all things for good for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. In other words, God’s delays are always purposeful. However, from our perspective God’s delays and ways sometimes are painful.
- When a spouse walks out
- When a child becomes terribly ill
- When a friend turns on you
- When you are laid off from a job
- When the person you love marries someone else
- When the Doctor uses words like: MS, Cancer, ALS, or Alzheimers
- When death makes an unwelcome visit to your family
The Bible teaches that even in these difficult times, God is at work. William Cowper who lived in the 1700’s struggled with depression in his life but he wrote these great words,
God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never failing skill, He treasures up his bright designs and works his sovereign will.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Jesus understood what God was doing but Mary and Martha did not. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, Martha went out to meet Jesus and John records the verbal exchange,
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
We don’t know whether Martha was upset at Jesus or whether she was just stating facts. In the midst of her pain, she expressed her faith, “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” I don’t know if Martha believed Jesus could raise her brother from the dead. He had raised others but Lazarus had been dead for four days and the Jews believed that the spirit of a body hovered around the body for three days but on the fourth day (when the body would begin to decay) the spirit would depart. (Are you beginning to see why Jesus delayed?)
When Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again”. Perhaps to Martha this sounded a little like saying to someone at a time of loss: “We’ll see him/her again.” When someone says that to us we don’t think they mean right now! They mean someday we will be reunited in Heaven. Perhaps this is what Martha thought. That may be why she said, “I know he will rise again at the last day.”
It was at this moment that Jesus spoke the powerful words: “I am the am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
THE POWER OF RESURRECTION IS IN CHRIST
Jesus did not say, “I can make the resurrection of Lazarus happen” meaning he was an agent of resurrection. He did not say ”If you have enough faith Lazarus can be raised from the dead” as if the resurrection depended on the faith of Mary and Martha. Instead He said, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life”. He is the One who holds the key to life beyond the grave. He is the One who possesses the power of life and death. True life (here and beyond the grave) is found only in Him.
Jesus claims to possess the power to give life. He claims power that we know resides in God alone. Jesus is once again claiming to be God!
There is a condition to Jesus’ promise of resurrected life: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies:” This is not a promise that says EVERYONE will live in Heaven after they die, He is only promising that those who believe in Him will have such life. The implication seems clear: those who do not live and believe in Him will NOT live even though they die.
The kind of belief talked about here is something that is deep. It is not simply a belief like, “I believe in Santa Claus”. It is a settled conviction based on objective truth that results in a change in orientation. The belief Jesus requires is a confidence that is so great that we give our lives to Him. Let me state it again, it is a settled conviction based on object truth that results in a new orientation to your living.
The phrase “They will live even though they die” is interesting. What is Jesus promising? Obviously, Jesus wasn’t saying that every believer who dies will not need to be buried because they will come back to life immediately like Lazarus. This idea of being alive even though you have died has two different dimensions.
For Those Who Are Dead In Sin
In Ephesians 2:1-3 the Bible talks about those who are dead in sin.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
Every one of us is a person who was dead in our sin. We were dead to God. We did not embrace God’s heart and we refused to submit to His rule in our lives. We may have engaged in religious behaviors but we did not submit to God, we wanted Him to submit to us! We were spiritually lifeless. However, there came a time when “God made us alive” (Eph. 2:4). William Barclay recounts one such illustration of a man named Tokichi Ishii,
Ishii had an almost unparalleled criminal record. He had murdered men, women and children in the most brutal way. Anyone who stood in his way was pitilessly eliminated. Now he was in prison awaiting death. While in prison he was visited by two Canadian women who tried to talk to him through the bars, but he only glowered at them like a caged and savage animal. In the end they abandoned the attempt; but they gave him a Bible, hoping that it might succeed where they had failed. He began to read it, and, having started, could not stop. He read on until he came to the story of the Crucifixion. He came to the words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and these words broke him. “I stopped,” he said. “I was stabbed to the heart, as if pierced by a five-inch nail. Shall I call it the love of Christ? Shall I call it his compassion? I do not know what to call it. I only know that I believed, and my hardness of heart was changed.” Later, when the condemned man went to the scaffold, he was no longer the hardened, surly brute he once had been, but a smiling radiant man. The murderer had been born again; Christ had brought Tokichi Ishi to life.
This is what Christ has the power to do. He has the power to change even the hardest heart. He can breathe new life into spiritually dead bodies. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as this. A man can become so selfish that he is dead to the needs and feelings of others. A man can become so involved in the petty dishonesties and the petty disagreements of life, that he is dead to any sense of honor. A man can become so hopeless that he becomes unable to move forward, which is spiritual death. Jesus Christ can resurrect these men. The witness of history is that he has resurrected millions and millions of people just like them and his touch has not lost its ancient power.
Perhaps this describes some of you. Maybe you sit here today but you believe you are too far gone. You have done too much or pushed God away too many times. My friend, He is the resurrection and the life, he can bring you to spiritual life even though you feel dead inside.
You may have a friend or a family member that, quite frankly, you have “written off”. Maybe you have tried to talk to them but they have made fun of your beliefs. You have watched them as they lived their lives in “self-destruct” mode. If you were honest, you would say that you believe they are beyond hope.
Please hear these words! Jesus is able to bring even such spiritually dead people to life! God did it with the tax-collector, Zaccheus; he changed the life of Saul of Tarsus who became Paul the apostle. He turned St. Augustine from a wild “party guy” into one of the leaders of the Church. He changed Tokichi Ishi and millions more. He can change your friend. He can change you.
THOSE WHO ARE DEAD PHYSICALLY
The other group of people to whom this passage speaks are those who, like Lazarus, die physically. Jesus told Martha that the person who believes in him will live even though He die. In other words, death is not the end. Jesus said that those who trust Him can be sure of eternal life beyond the grave. What a comforting promise to every family who has lost someone whom they love: if that person trusted Christ as their Savior and Lord, they will live on in God’s presence. What a comforting promise to those who inhabit bodies that are wearing down and decaying . . . this life is not all there is.
It easy to dismiss such sentiments as wishful thinking, however our confidence in Jesus’ words is anchored to two powerful things: First, the fact that Jesus did bring Lazarus back from the dead and the fact that Jesus rose from the dead Himself. By these two acts Jesus showed that He does have the power of life and death (making Him God) which makes His promise of life beyond the grave sure.
Paul said the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith. He said, “If Christ is not raised, we are all fools and our sin is not forgiven.” Paul concluded his argument about the resurrection with these great words: Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:58) Jesus wants us to know that we are not on our way to death . . . we are actually on our way to life!
There are two final observations. First, note the key question of Jesus: “Do you believe this?” Remember, Jesus is asking one of his dearest friends this question. It is a powerful reminder that we can look good and sound good as believers, but faith is really shown in whether or not we trust Him in the hard times. So let me ask you, Are you one of His followers or just part of His cheering section? Are you simply attracted to Jesus or are you committed to Jesus? We all need to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith.
Martha confessed that she believed. She said, “Yes, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world.” What about you? Do you have that same kind of confidence?
Second, there is a practical reality: if we believe these words of Jesus, our perspective on all of life will change. J. Vernon McGee wrote,
Martha believed in a resurrection. But listen, it makes less demand upon faith to believe that in a future day we shall receive glorified bodies than it does to rest now on the assurance that they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. It is easier to believe that the Lord is coming and the dead will be raised than it is to believe that tomorrow I can live for God. It is so easy to comfort people who are mourning and say, “Well, you’ll see your loved ones someday.” That doesn’t take much faith. It takes a lot of faith to say, “I have just lost my loved one but I am comforted with the assurance that God is with me and He does all things well.”
If we understand the words of Jesus, better yet, if we believe them, it will change the way we approach life. We will understand that our lives are in the Sovereign and loving hands of our Great God. The delays, the frustrations, and the disappointments of life are allowed by God for a good purpose – – even if we don’t see it.
These words speak powerfully to those who grieve at Christmas. There may be an empty chair at your table and some deep sorrow from loss in your heart. There is nothing wrong with feeling sad. It is a natural part of grief. But even as you mourn your loss I hope you will also celebrate the Savior born in Bethlehem with a new sense of passion because He is the one who brings hope even in the midst of sadness. He is the One who promised that those who believe would live even though they died. His promise is established and sealed by His life. Not only can we be confident of His promise, we can bet our lives, and our eternity on it.