Summary: The raising of Lazarus - the centrality of belief in Jesus - how far does it go?
Do you believe in Jesus? Do you BELIEVE in Jesus? Do you really believe in Jesus? That I think is the compelling question that we’re faced with as we read this passage today. What does it mean for you to believe in Jesus? As an abstract question it’s probably easy enough to answer. Yes I believe in Jesus. I believe he’s the Son of God. How else could he have done those miracles? I believe he died and rose again. (Sounds like the words of a song doesn’t it?) The evidence for the resurrection seems overwhelming.
The Disciples’ Belief
The disciples believed in Jesus. Peter had spoken on behalf of all of them when he confessed Jesus to be the Christ. But how far did their belief in him go? Well, let’s have a look and see.
When Jesus heard that Lazarus, his friend, was sick, he wasn’t worried. He knew what the outcome would be. So he waited 2 days before announcing to his disciples that they were going back to Judea to check on Lazarus. And what was the disciples response? "Hang on Jesus, it isn’t very safe there at the moment. It’s not that long since the last time we were there and the Jews tried to stone you. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?" How far did their belief in him go? Far enough to trust him to keep them safe? To even keep himself safe? It doesn’t sound like it does it? In fact when he tells them that Lazarus has fallen asleep, they think of natural sleep and think this gives them an out. If he’s sleeping then he’ll recover, so there’s no need to go back at all. Phew! But in fact it isn’t natural sleep that Jesus is talking about, it’s the sleep of death. So Jesus tells them plainly. "Lazarus is dead." Then he says what seems a strange thing. "And for your sake I’m glad I was not there, so that you may believe."
How could anyone be glad that a friend has died? What about the pain that Mary and Martha are feeling at that moment? Doesn’t Jesus care about that? Or is it that all he cares about is making his point with the disciples? Well it becomes quite clear as the story progresses that he does care. Twice we’re told how he’s moved with emotion, moved to tears, as he sees the sadness of those who are there to mourn Lazarus. But still, he knows that there’s more at issue here than their sadness and he knows what the outcome will be. He’s already said that this illness won’t lead to death. Rather it will have the twofold result of God being glorified and the disciples and Martha and Mary growing in faith, in their belief in Jesus. And that’s what makes him glad.
The Need for Deeper Faith
You see the disciples’ belief in Jesus still needed to grow and be strengthened. Even though they’d spent all this time living with him, they still didn’t really understand who he was. And when it came to the crunch their faith still wasn’t enough to sustain them. I read an old Irish proverb the other day. It said "Never doubt in the darkness, what you believed in the light." There’s an echo of John’s gospel there isn’t there? Look at v9: "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them." Interestingly those words are almost identical to what Jesus said at the start of ch9, when he was talking about giving sight to the blind man. So John obviously intends there to be a parallel here with that earlier miracle. But here the idea has been developed further. Here the implication is that while you walk under God’s direction, while you remain close to Jesus, the light of the world, your path will be clear. Even when the darkness of opposition is threatening, if you walk in the light you’ll be safe. But there was a danger that the disciples would be so overwhelmed by the darkness that they would forget what they had already learnt as they walked in Jesus’ light. Again, this is why they need to grow in their faith in Jesus.
The Purpose of the Delay
In fact this is such an important thing that Jesus has delayed his departure so that by the time they arrive Lazarus will have been dead 4 days. That is, he’ll be really dead!
Now imagine that you were Mary or Martha at that moment. You’ve sent a message to Jesus to come urgently because Lazarus is sick, and you wait and wait and nothing happens! What would you be thinking? Would you be wondering whether Jesus cared? Would you begin to doubt whether maybe Jesus was delaying because this case was too difficult? They could have been forgiven for thinking like that couldn’t they?