DEATH SETS THE STAGE
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
September 27, 2020
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
— John 11:1-16, ESV
With ten chapters behind it and ten more to follow, chapter eleven centers John’s Gospel in more ways than one. The author’s overall aim is to magnify the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he does so magnificently from beginning to end. But the middle chapter reveals to us that the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ may have never happened except for the death and resurrection of a dear friend of His named Lazarus.
This death and resurrection of Lazarus is the last straw for Jesus’ enemies and sets a great stage for the grand finale of the gospel. The seventh sign is also the best illustration of the gospel anywhere in Scripture. All human beings are spiritually dead because of sin, but those whom God chooses to save are raised to life by the word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the first sixteen verses we build the stage to see the grand play, a stage set by the news of the death of Lazarus. Grab a seat in front for the first scene and see a special man, extraordinary love, pure sacrifice, and some surprising faith.
A Special Man
Chapter eleven begins with “a certain man” (vs. 1). His name is “Lazarus,” which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” There are seven men with that name in Old Covenant literature, and all of them are good men who, with God’s help, helped others to know and love God.
Lazarus was the brother of two sisters, Martha and Mary, and we will speak more about their special relationship with Jesus in a moment. They had a home in Bethany, a small village on the edge of Jerusalem. Bethany is a one-hundred mile, two day journey from Jesus’ home base of Capernaum.
The sisters sent a SOS to Jesus. “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (vs. 3). In other words, “Lazarus! Eleazar! God help us! Our brother is sick and about to die.” It takes two days for Jesus to get the message, then Lazarus expires. Jesus waits two days before beginning the two day journey to Judea, thus Lazarus will have been dead for four days when the Lord arrives.
God’s specific plan for this certain man is calculated, planned out to the minute. It is the same for you and me. It is so ordered “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (vs. 4). Whatever happens to one of God’s children, even something as appalling as death, can set a stage for God to act for His ultimate glory and our overall good.
A Higher Love
The motivation behind God’s plan for this certain man was love. And it was no ordinary love. It was a higher love.
Think about it, there must be higher love,
Down in the heart or in the stars above.
Without it, life is wasted time,
Look inside your heart, I'll look inside mine.
— Steve Winnwood
Though Jesus obviously had a special relationship with Lazarus and his sisters (ref. Luke 10:38-42), I’m not sure they knew how much Jesus loved them until death placed them on this particular stage. Sure, the message Martha and Mary sent said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (vs. 4). But they word they chose for “love” is phileo, friendly love, family love, fond love. It’s as if they said, the one you are so fond of is dying.
The late, great author Brennon Manning was known for being terminally happy, in spite of his many trials and tribulations. When asked why he liked to say, “The Father is very fond of me.” Indeed He is, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Jesus was fond of this family. He liked talking to Lazarus. He liked teaching God’s word to Mary. He liked Martha’s cooking. But the Apostle John, who could look inside Jesus’ heart as well as anyone, found in Him a higher love.
John wrote, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (vs. 5). In a world where koine Greek was the official written language, John could have used eros, selfish and sensual love, but he did not. He could have repeated the word the sisters used, phileo, friendly love, but he did not. He used agape, a higher love, a deeper love, a sacrificial love. This is John’s favorite word to describe the love of God, and for good reason, for such great love requires great sacrifice.
A Great Sacrifice
John will use the word agape again when he writes, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (ref. John 15:13). Consider how Jesus showed His love for His friend, Lazarus.
Jesus did not merely say a prayer or send an encouraging word. He walked a hundred miles to be with the family in person. In doing so, He put Himself at great risk. Remember our last episode in the Gospel of John? Jesus disciples did. “The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’ (vs. 8).”
Jesus was sacrificing His own life by going to see Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. He was walking in the day or in the light, another favorite expression of John, which means He was doing the will of God, whatever the cost. The opposite, symbolized by walking in night or darkness, means sin, dishonoring or disobeying God, and this Jesus could not do, even if it meant giving up His own safety and security. Jesus knew the risks of going back into Judea, He new the next Passover was at hand, and He knew this time, He would be the lamb.
When you commit to a life that honors and obeys the will of God, and you do so in response to God’s great love for you and your true love for Him, you will sacrifice. You will always sacrifice your time, often your resources, sometimes your health, and maybe even your life. Yet, as we will see in the subsequent acts of this great play, no child of God ever really dies.
A Surprising Faith
As Chapter eleven continues, there is much more to see about Jesus. There is much more to say about His dearly beloved Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But the last verse that sets the stage is a quote from a more obscure, often misunderstood disciple.
Thomas was not his real name. Thomas was his nickname. Everyone called him the twin, didymus in Greek, to-ma in Hebrew, Thomas in English. We don’t know his real name and we don’t know anything about his twin brother or sister. We think we know something about his character from his other nickname, Doubting Thomas.
Since the New Testament era unfolded, anyone who doubts anything, anywhere, anytime is called a Doubting Thomas. Christians use the term, non-Christians use the term. Thomas is shrouded by doubt now everywhere he goes. But he should not be called Doubting Thomas, he should be called Courageously Faithful Thomas.
When the other disciples were trying to talk Jesus out of going back into Judea, listen to what Courageously Faithful Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” It takes a special man to say that. It requires a higher love to say that. It involves personal sacrifice to say that. It is not doubt, but a strong and living faith in Jesus Christ.
You are special to God. His love for you is higher than you could ever know. He has sacrificed for you, died for you. Are you willing to die for Him?
You could be like Thomas and those original disciples, who almost to a man did die for the gospel. You could be a historic martyr like Jim Eliot, who died in Ecuador giving out the gospel. Or you could me a more ordinary Christian, dying one day at a time just trying to do the will of God. You’ll have your doubts. You’ll have difficult days. And unless you live until Rapture, you will die. But as we will see in the subsequent acts of the play, no one who knows the Lord will every really die. Death just sets the stage for the greatest life of all.
EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
September 20, 2020
30 I and the Father are one.”
31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, I said, you are gods’? 35 If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— 36 do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; 38 but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first, and there he remained. 41 And many came to him. And they said, “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true.” 42 And many believed in him there.
— John 10:30-42, ESV
One of Bob Dylan’s first and most enduring hits contains the repeated chorus, “Everybody must get stoned.” Those who don’t know Dylan well or listen carefully to his Nobel Prize winning lyrics think this is a song advocating the use of illicit drugs. But Dylan, by his own testimony, never wrote a drug song.
“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (a much debated title that does not appear anywhere in the lyrics) is a song about persecution, persecution for being someone different or doing something differently. Dylan wrote it in the mid-60’s during his transition from folk/acoustic to rock/electric. His fans booed him and the critics trashed him. It was professional persecution. Hearkening back to his Jewish upbringing and the Old Testament Scriptures, Dylan felt like people were throwing stones at him.
Dylan is pretty cool in my book, but Jesus is the coolest, ever, and everlasting. He was a distinctive person. There is no one else like Him. He did things differently for His day, or any day For being distinctive and doing things differently, as you can see in this text, “The Jews picked up stones to stone Him.” If someone as divine and perfect as Jesus is to be stoned, then everybody must get stoned.
The Distinctive Person of Christ
The Jews, especially the religious leaders, should have known that when Messiah appeared, He would be an “only begotten” (ref. John 3:16), which literally means “one-of-a-kind,” being who is both fully God and fully man. Consider the prophecies of the most quoted Jewish prophet, Isaiah:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
— Isaiah 7:14
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
— Isaiah 9:6
The virgin-born man who is “God with us,” and the God-man who is both “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” is Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord Jesus Christ. So it should be no wonder, and certainly nothing worth being stoned over, that Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”
But it freaked the Pharisees out something awful. Not even Jesus’ reference to Psalm 82 could convince them that He had not blasphemed the true and living God. How could He, when the Father and the Son are two persons of the exact same being, the same substance, homoousian.
Remember, they were not looking Jesus the Divine, but for another Judah the Hammer. They were playing politics, looking for military might and an economic policy that favored them. They were looking for a leader who would codify their extra-biblical rules, not God’s word.
Besides, if Jesus and the Father are one, they thought, they would have to bow down and worship Him. They would have to follow and obey Him. They would have to love and honor Him. They would have to put the sovereign Lord above their autonomous selves. Perhaps this is why the vast majority of Americans today, and up to 30% of confessing evangelicals, deny the deity of Christ.
So, it was decided, Jesus had to go. “The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him,” as they had at least once before (ref. John 8:59). And if they are going to stone Jesus for being Lord and Christ, then everybody must get stoned.
The Different Work of Christ
“Believe the works,” Jesus said to them. But they would not. They weren’t that kind of works, done in the kind of way, that the Pharisees wanted.
If the religious rulers of Jesus’ day could have captured the power of God and put it in a bottle, they would have poured it out upon certain people in a certain way. They would have used it against their enemies, to destroy them. They would have used it for financial gain, to enrich themselves. They would have used it to enforce a smothering legalism upon the population, whereby they could control them and make them conform to their image.
Jesus worked differently. He catered to the poor and marginalized and even reached out to Gentiles. His followers were fisherman, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He used His power never to harm, only to help, never to confine, only to liberate.
Jesus kept a woman they would have stoned from being stoned, lepers they shunned from being shunned, and the blind they kicked out of the synagogue from remaining in darkness. Jesus did so many of these works on the Sabbath day, which was no violation of God’s word, but a strict rebuke against the Pharisees’ ridiculous rules.
“For which of them are you going to stone Me,” Jesus asked. All of them, I suppose. But if you are going to stone Jesus Christ for doing God’s work God’s way, then everybody must get stoned.
The Distinctive and Different Life of Christ
Jesus knew He would not get stoned that day, it was not yet His time. But Jesus did know, omniscient God that He is, that they would not fail to kill Him in four months time.
With this in mind, Jesus retreats from the aborted stoning, lingers into the shadow of the cross, and takes time to reflect. We would do well to reflect with Him, to consider the great price God’s Son paid for God’s people, and come to the conclusion that if Jesus Christ had to have the cross, all of His followers must take up their cross, too.
At this time of reflection we only know about a mere three years of Jesus’ life. Matthew and Luke do describe His birth, and Luke ads a caveat at age twelve, but the bulk of the Gospels, especially this one well chronicled by John, covers a little over three cycles of the annual Jewish feasts and festivals.
It began with John the Baptist, which is why we find Jesus here, “Across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first.” Jesus, with about a hundred days to live, thought about they day just over three years prior when He was baptized by John to begin His public ministry. He thought about His first followers, Peter and James and John and the others, who must have been by His side at this moment. He thought about all the sermons and miracles He had done to prove His deity and preach the gospel. He thought about all the joy at the meals and festivals, and He thought about the pain and suffering, which He could now see through His front windshield.
Ironically, at this out of the way place, it is written, “Many believed in him there” (vs. 42). John’s Gospel of belief sometimes plays fast and loose with the term, sometimes superficial, sometimes sincere. How can you tell if it is distinctive, different, saving faith? Do you pick up stones against Jesus, or are you willing to take them with Him?
Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be good,
They’ll stone you just like they said they would;
They’ll stone you when you’re trying to go home,
And they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone.
But I would not feel so all alone,
Everybody must get stoned.
— Bob Dylan
Jesus did not just try to be good, He was and is the Good Shepherd. They killed Him just like they said they would. He went back home, to Heaven, with the promise to bring sheep with Him. He died alone on the cross, but Jesus will not be alone, if you will take up your cross and follow Him. Everybody must get stoned.
SHEEPING IS BELIEVING
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
September 13, 2020
22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
— John 10:22-30, ESV
The Gospel writer John must have really loved sheep, even though they have always been considered dumb animals. They do make an apt metaphor for Christians, though, and John mentions them more than the other three Gospel writers combined. Though he was a fisherman in his youth, and a fisher of men under Jesus Christ, he preferred to picture the King and the kingdom of God as a Good Shepherd with His sheep.
This was not the image of the Messiah the Jews were looking for in the first century, however. They wanted a warrior. They wanted a shrewd and powerful politician. They wanted a candidate for president who would make Israel great again by overthrowing the deep state of Roman overlords.
The Jewish religious rulers had been watching Jesus of Nazareth for about three years. He showed promise, with His insightful parables and undeniable miracles. But He was not militant enough, not material enough, not manly enough for them. So they ran out of patience with Jesus at this feast, and at the next one, they would kill Him.
Jesus Was Not Their Messiah
The “Feast of Dedication” is the setting for this story. It was not one of the big three (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles), so it did not require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But it was important and symbolic, and Jesus decided to attend, for the last time.
The celebration, also known as the "Festival of Lights,” occurs in the month that corresponds with our December. While we celebrate Christmas, Jewish people commemorate “Hanukkah” (the Hebrew word for “dedication”).
Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights,
Instead of one day of presents, we get eight crazy nights!
— Adam Sandler
Hanukkah commemorates the liberation of Israel in 164 B.C. from a tyrannical overlord named Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” (a self-given nickname of a madman who thought himself a manifestation of the gods), who had profaned the Temple in Jerusalem by sacrificing swine on the altar. After the war was won and the Temple was cleansed, a small oil lamp was found and lit. Instead of burning for the normal eight hours, its light shone for eight days and nights.
The hero of the Jewish revolt was Judas Maccabeus, or Judas “the Hammer.” Hammer-time was about the only time the Jews lived freely and independently in the promised land from the time of the Babylonian captivity of 586 B.C. to the United Nations’ recognition of the State of Israel in 1948.
This is a significant part of the story because this is the kind of Messiah the Jews were looking for in Jesus’ day. They wanted a hammer, not the humble, holy, and hard-to-understand person embodied by the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was not their kind of messiah and they were not Jesus’ kind of sheep.
They Were Not Jesus’ Sheep
The Jewish religious rulers and the people at large did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus said this was due to one simple fact. “You are not among my sheep,” Jesus said, which is perhaps the saddest and most tragic thing a person could ever hear from God. But God knows, and it is not too difficult for others to tell, who the sheep are not.
When you are not a sheep, you do not want to go where the other sheep go. Jesus’ sheep form an assembly of born again believers who gather on the Lord’s Day for worship and serve the Lord every day as ambassadors of Christ’s church. You can tell those who are “not among my sheep,” because they generally shun the church.
When you are not a sheep, you do not want to eat what the other sheep eat. Jesus’ sheep feed upon the word of God, the Bible. It is the centerpiece of their Sunday worship and their daily diet throughout the week. You can tell those who are “not among my sheep” by the way they ignore or attack the Bible.
When you are not a sheep, you do not follow the Shepherd like the sheep in love, devotion, and obedience. You can tell those who are “not among my sheep,” for they follow their own way, their own will, and spend their time and money on things they want, without reverence or respect for God and His sheep.
When you are not a sheep, you will not wind up where the other sheep are ultimately going. Christ’s sheep are going to Heaven, according to the precious promises of God given by God’s Son in this passage of God’s word. On the Day of the Lord it will be painful and obvious to tell those who are “not among my sheep,” for they will be banished from the presence and kingdom of God and experience the awful wrath of God.
John Chrysostom said, “If you do not follow Jesus, it is not because He is not the Good Shepherd, it is because you are not a sheep.” When you are not a sheep, you just don’t believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But when you do, sheeping is believing.
Sheeping Is Believing
John’s Gospel is about believing. John’s Gospel is about sheep. Sheeping is believing.
What people believe wrongly about believing in our day is that it is a singular act of belief. But believing is not a singular act. It is a new life and an ongoing lifestyle. It is becoming a sheep, behaving like a sheep, and receiving the blessings and benefits of sheephood.
We become sheep by being “born again … through the living and abiding word of God” (ref. 1 Peter 1:23; see also John 3). “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. It is a real epiphany, unlike the ungodly claim of Antiochus IV. Sheep hear the voice of God when by grace the gospel is preached to them and in faith they understand it and accept it. When a non-sheep turns from sin and selfishness and turns to the Lord, they turn into a sheep.
We behave like sheep when we obey God’s word and God’s will in our lives and lifestyles. “Follow Me” becomes the two most important words the Good Shepherd ever spoke. True sheep, Jesus said, “They follow Me.” John also wrote, “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (ref. 1 John 2:4-6). Sheep are not perfect, they get wounded and weary, but the warp and woof of their lives is to follow the Lord and obey His word.
We get the benefits of sheep in the double blessing of eternal life and eternal security. Sheep, and sheep only, are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Sheep who know the Lord can know they are saved and kept and guaranteed an abundant life now and an eternal life forever, with the Good Shepherd of our souls.
And just who is this Good Shepherd? He is Jesus Christ, and He is God, for Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” I’ll have much more to say about this in the next sermon. For now, believe in sheeping, for sheeping is believing. Sheep are not so dumb, after all.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org