Jesus was on His way to Bethany with His disciples. Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem, the capitol city where the religious leaders were plotting to have Jesus killed. Going anywhere near Jerusalem was a dangerous decision…except it wasn’t. Jesus knew that His life was in the Father’s hands, and that He would only lay down His life when the right time had come. When the news came that Lazarus, the dear friend of Christ, was dying in Bethany, Jesus made plans to make His way there, in spite of the danger. Yet instead of going immediately, He waited several days. He told His disciples that Lazarus was going to go to sleep. It was a way to say Lazarus was going to die. The question we have to ask is why did Jesus wait until Lazarus was dead to show up? Why allow the family and friends of Lazarus to experience the pain of loss?
When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Bethany, they learned that sure enough, Lazarus had died, just as Jesus had said. In fact, he had already been laid in a tomb and had been there for four days. Jews from Jerusalem had come streaming in to give comfort to Martha and Mary. Imagine the deep sadness of these women. Imagine their confusion. Their dear Lord Jesus, who had healed so many, had failed to come on time. He could have saved Lazarus! And now, four days later, He wasn’t even among the first to come and join the mourning.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet Him. Mary stayed inside the house, sad and hurt and grieving. Martha said to Jesus, “‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give you.’” Wow. That was bold faith! And a bold request!
Jesus told her, “‘Your brother will rise again.’”
Martha said, “‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’” She did not understand that Lazarus was going to rise again that very day!
Jesus responded, “‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” He was pressing Martha to declare deeper and greater levels of truth…and what a wild truth it must have seemed. Jesus was claiming to have power over death itself. The only requirement was faith in Him. For anyone else, it would be a preposterous lie, a heinous and rather narcissistic deception. But for Christ, it was (and is) true, and so it was all the more critical…of unsurpassed importance, in fact…that His followers grasp it with their whole hearts.
Martha looked at her Jesus and spoke with bold faith, “‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’”
As she declared the most important truth in history, it became even more true for her heart than it ever had been before. It was bright, and it was eternal. Christ received her confident faith. How beautiful and simple it was next to the arguments and arrogance and questions of the religious leaders and their minions that were trying to undermine Jesus, the men who had such power and authority in Israel. God does not value what the world values, including positions of influence and status. What mattered was faith, and there in the middle of Palestine, 2,000 ago, it was a woman without a husband, and now without a brother, to protect her, who was given the privilege of proclaiming the testimony of God’s Son.
When Jesus said that those who believe in Him will never die, it might seem like He meant that their bodies will never die. We know that isn’t true, don’t we? All of the disciples ended up dying, and so did Martha and Mary. But their death wasn’t a permanent death. It was merely a passing from this cursed world into the next. And the next world, the one where Jesus rules and reigns and where everyone does His perfect will, is a far better place to be! Those who put their faith in Christ will ultimately die to this world, but they will resurrect to something so much more glorious that it changes the nature of death altogether.
Then Martha went off to get Mary, her deeply grieving sister. She took her aside and spoke to her quietly so nobody else would hear. “‘The Teacher is here and calling for you.’” When Mary heard that Jesus had come, she went to Him as quickly as she could. When the rest of the crowd saw her get up so quickly, it made them curious, so they followed her out of the house. Jesus was still in the place where Martha had met Him, so He hadn’t even entered the village yet. When Mary saw Him, she went bursting towards him and fell at his feet. “‘Lord,’” she said in disappointed tears, “ ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”
Oh, the grief of these two dear friends as they waited on Jesus. How greatly they had suffered! Jesus looked down on His dear friend and wept at the cost of the curse. He looked around and saw the other dear family members and friends who were also grieving the loss of Lazarus, and their sadness affected Him. The Bible says that Jesus was, “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” How He was moved by their suffering! Yet even as He was saddened by the hard moment right then and there and had tremendous compassion for them, He also knew that joy was on the way.
The people who saw Christ’s tears wondered. “‘See how He loved him!’” some of them said. But others just complained, “‘Could not he who opened the eyes of a blind man also have kept this man from dying?’” they grumbled. They did not understand that God had a much higher purpose that was about to unfold. For all the grief that had come to Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, they were going to give great glory to their Lord!
When Jesus arrived at the tomb, He was moved deeply in His heart again. There in front of Christ and all the people that had followed Him was a great stone that had been rolled over the mouth of a cave. Lazarus was somewhere inside. Jesus told them to take the stone away. Martha spoke up. She didn’t want the memory of her brother to be shamed.
“‘Lord,’” she said, “‘by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.’” Jesus looked at His friend and said, “‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’”
It is interesting to think about what Jesus might have been feeling at that moment. Was His still raw from the grief of seeing His friends suffer? Was He experiencing growing delight at the wonder that was about to come?
They rolled the stone away. Jesus lifted His eyes up towards Heaven and said, “‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they might believe that You sent Me.’”
Wow! This prayer shows us an amazing insight. Jesus spoke out loud the conversation that He was always having with His Father in silence. Jesus was showing that the raising of Lazarus was part of His response to the will of His Father, and that He was absolutely confident that the Father would give Him power to do it!
“‘Lazarus, come out!’” He commanded. And then, from within the darkness of the cave, something began to move. There he was. Lazarus was walking, wrapped from head to toe in burial cloth. The Lord said, “‘Take off his grave clothes and let him go!’”
Lazarus was alive! There had been grief for a moment, but in a total reversal of everyone’s expectations, joy had come. Can you imagine how Martha and Mary felt? Can you imagine how they ran to their brother…how they danced? Can you imagine the questions everyone had for Lazarus? Can you imagine how ridiculous those who had been criticizing Jesus must have felt?
The curse of death had brought terrible pain for the friends of Christ, but the Lord brought life. As He reversed the powerful effects of the Fall, Jesus gave a shining illustration of His glory for all of Israel to see. This was the Kingdom of God! It was the friends of Jesus who had the honor of being among the first whose lives would bear the cost of suffering for the sake of honoring His name.
Jesus was going to offer Himself as a sacrifice, and already it was becoming clear that His followers were being called to the same obedient surrender to the will of God. It was with breathtaking humility and a deep surrender to faith. A point comes in the heart when it decides that the eternal things are more important than the things of this world. There has to be belief that God is powerful, that there is life everlasting beyond this world, and assurance that He will richly reward those who earnestly seek Him (check out Hebrews 11:6).
When Jesus spoke with Martha and asked if she believed, it was not as if she had no faith before. It was like He was gently drawing a thread around her heart and drawing her into deeper faith in Himself. She had to trust Jesus even when the thing most precious to her was bound up in a tomb! And as the whole family moved from death to life through Christ’s power, their identity and purpose became more deeply identified with Jesus Christ Himself. He was becoming their life and hope! What an amazing image of the hope we all have in the resurrection life that will one day carry us to eternity.