Summary: The day will come when all the graveyards and all the cemeteries in the world will be emptied out. They will give up their dead, who will live again. And those who have believed in Christ will live forever with him.
The apostle John records seven miracles (or signs) from Jesus’s public ministry. Today we come to the seventh sign, and it is without question the greatest sign. For in John 11, the Lord Jesus powerfully restores the life of Lazarus. And it’s actually a miracle that we can relate to, in the sense that probably all of us are familiar with the kind of situation faced by Martha and Mary: grieving for the death of someone who has been dearly loved.
We have been to hospital wards or nursing homes in the last days of a parent’s or grandparent’s life. We have been to funeral services and graveside ceremonies. We have seen caskets and tombstones, and we have faced that confronting moment of a body being laid in the ground, to be covered over with soil. We know people who have died at a good old age, and people who have died far too young. We know that death can come through illnesses like cancer, or through accidents at work or on holidays, through plane crashes and car crashes and suicide.
When we read John 11, and we recall those times we have mourned a loss in our family or church community, perhaps we can relate to the confusion that was felt by the sisters, and their tears, but we also know about their hope and confidence. Altogether, it’s an account of a common human experience, one that each and every one will endure at some time in our life—and probably many times: a death, a funeral, and the aftermath of grieving.
Of course, the events in John 11 are also unlike anything we have experienced. For the burial of Lazarus isn’t the end. The story doesn’t stop with the tears of Mary and Martha, or even the tears of Jesus. No, this typical story of grief has an unexpected twist, a miraculous climax, where Jesus raises his friend from the dead. With his last miracle, Jesus defeats the last enemy!
In this amazing event there is a rich message for us all. We will face grief in this life, and even our own mortality and earthly end. But Christ gives to all his believers the sure promise of a glorious resurrection. He says that we can enjoy new life already now, while we look forward to a full restoration on the day of his return. I preach God’s Word from John 11,
Jesus powerfully restores the life of Lazarus:
1) the man whom Jesus loved
2) the mourning which Jesus did
3) the miracle which Jesus performed
1) the man whom Jesus loved: When Jesus walked on this earth, did He have any friends? It’s not a strange question. He was a person like us, with all the human needs that we have—like the need for prayer, and rest, and friendship. His disciples were his friends, of course, men who spent three years with him. But Jesus had called the twelve, summoned them to follow him, and I’m not sure they could say no.
Yet there was another circle of people around Jesus, people who were loyal and supportive. We meet some of them at the beginning of the chapter. Mary and Martha are two sisters who live near Bethany, which is a short distance from Jerusalem. Jesus had visited their home in the past, a place for him to rest and to teach. These two sisters have a brother named Lazarus—a different Lazarus than the one in the famous parable, by the way. Lazarus has a beautiful name, because it means ‘God helps.’ This meaning was certainly true in his life, and it would also be true in his death.
But Lazarus is sick. There’s no indication what kind of illness, but his condition is grave, because the sisters send a message to Jesus, “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick” (v 3). Notice how Lazarus is described: ‘the one whom Jesus loves.’ This great sign will take place within the circle of Jesus’s close friends—Lazarus is not a nameless part of a big crowd of hungry people, an anonymous stranger begging near the temple, but there’s a real connection. This adds to the depth of what’s going to happen. Jesus knows the pain of losing someone dear.
The sisters know about Jesus’s power and compassion—this is why they send for him. They fully expect that He can heal their brother. But Jesus is some distance away, at least a two days’ journey from Bethany. If He’s going to help his friend, He needs to act quickly. But Jesus already has a purpose in mind, and He tells his disciples, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v 4).
We know how the story ends, so we get what Jesus is saying: the sickness of Lazarus will not end in permanent death, but God is going to reveal his glory through Jesus’s mighty work of raising up Lazarus. The disciples don’t know this is, of course, so when two days pass and Jesus has made no move, they probably think Lazarus will get better on his own.