The bulk of this article was published on this site in November of 2004, but I am going to repost much of it in response to discussion about my article from earlier today entitled, Total Depravity and Divine Knowledge. There has been discussion about whether the act of regeneration – the act whereby those who are spiritually dead are made alive – precedes or follows a person’s expression of faith. While there are many proof-texts that can be offered, I find John 11 to be one of the most poignant.
The story of Lazarus, found in John 11, is one of the most moving stories we find in the Bible and surely portrays one of the most significant acts of our Lord. There is so much depth in this short story – so much we can meditate upon. It seems each time I read it something new jumps out at me. Having read the story several times this week, I want to share some of what I have learned. Naturally it would aid your understanding if you were to read the story before you read this article, so you can do so here.
Love is Patient – The difference a word makes
When Lazarus was taken ill, messengers were immediately dispatched to summon the Lord. Jesus was known to be a healer and his close friends Mary and Martha had every reason to believe that He could save their brother. They probably had little doubt that He would immediately hurry to them and heal Lazarus. The messengers told Jesus “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” It is important to note that the word translated “love” here is in the Greek phileo which denotes a strong affection. Mary and Martha knew that Jesus had a deep affection for their brother, and it is evident that they were close friends.
It must have puzzled the sisters that Jesus did not do what was expected of Him. He did not rush to his friend’s side, but rather stayed two days longer at the place he was. Cryptically he told the disciples “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” They probably assumed He meant that He would arrive in time to heal His friend. In verse 5 we read “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” The next verse says “So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.” (my emphasis) “So” could also be translated as “therefore.” Are we to believe that because He loved them He did not hurry to comfort and support them?
We learn why He chose to do this when we examine the meaning of the word “love” in verse 5. In this verse the word is agapao which speaks of dedication. Jesus was dedicated to His friends. Read what Ralph Earle has to say about this: “The highest motivation for love is not our feelings or affections, but rather an honest, intelligent facing of the question: ‘What is best for the one I love?’ This is how God acts” (Word Meanings in the New Testament, page 89). Jesus was more interested in their faith, in their dedication, than their affection. Or as my pastor tells us, “God was more interested in their character than their comfort.”
And so it was that after waiting for two days, Jesus went to meet Mary and Martha, knowing already that Lazarus had died, and indeed had already been in the grave for four days. He anticipated being able to share a lesson with Mary and Martha – those for whom he felt deep devotion. And in this we see a picture of how God works with us today. Because he is devoted to us He wants what is best for us, even if what is best hurts. He is far more concerned with making us like Himself than in giving us quick and easy happiness.
Realistic Expectations – Dead men stink
Martha had realistic expectations for her brother, didn’t she? When Jesus commanded that the stone be rolled away from the entrance to the tomb Martha said, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” She knew what to expect from someone who is dead. A dead man is incapable of doing anything other than rot, decay, putrefy and stink. Martha did not expect that her brother might be waiting for them in the tomb or that he may have decided to get up and leave. Dead men can do nothing to make themselves alive or even to stop their decay.
But there is One who can bring dead men to life. In this case He did not do so by coercion or force – He merely extended a life-giving call to a dead man. “Lazarus, come forth!” He called to the dead man and life once again coursed through his veins. Having proven that He could do other miracles – turning one person’s meal into enough to feed thousands and healing so many sick people that sickness was nearly unknown in the area, He now proved that He could also bring the dead to life.
And therein was the lesson for Mary and Martha. They knew Jesus could heal the sick and they had confidence that Jesus would want to do that for a dear friend. But Jesus, with great concern for them and for their character, made them wait, made them experience the death of one dear to them, so He could then prove that He has power over death.
God continues to extend that life-giving call today. As with Lazarus, there is no force or coercion, He merely provides life where before there was only death and decay. And like Lazarus, men and women continue to come alive and to emerge from the tombs in which they sat, rotting. In this story we see a beautiful picture of God’s work of salvation. We see a perfect picture of how He extends the call that brings life from death.
A Reputation – Rethinking Martha
It strikes me as tragic that we often remember people, even Biblical characters, for their faults more than the great things they did. We speak of a “doubting Thomas,” for example, remembering Thomas primarily for his lack of faith. We often think of Peter primarily as the one who denied Jesus. When we think of Martha, we generally remember her as the one who complained that her sister was spending too much time listening to Jesus rather than helping her prepare food. Jesus scolded her for being too concerned with temporal matters and ignoring what was more important. Perhaps we should honor Martha by remembering her for the faith and understanding she shows in this chapter. In verse 27 she says “I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Could she have said anything better? Anything more grand? She bore testimony to knowing who Jesus was long before most other people had grasped just who He was and what He had come to do.
There is so much more I could have spoken about – so much more that God has taught me through these verses. But the point I want to make today is this: we are dead and dead men do not desire life. Dead men are not able to express even the desire for life. Martha had a realistic expectation of a dead man – “there will be a stench!” That is all dead men can do, isn’t it? Dead men can rot, stink and putrefy, but they cannot desire life, nor can they even extend an arm to grasp the outstretched hand of God. To raise Lazarus, Jesus extended His call, which brought life to death. That is what He continues to do in the souls of those to whom He gives eternal life.