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.
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