A Matter of Life and Death

The following message is based on John 11:17-45, and deals with the identity of Jesus.  It was delievered at the Central Schwenkfelder Church in Worcester, PA on March 8, 2012

This morning, we begin our second message in the study of contrasts in the gospel of John.  Our first was from John 1 and the presentation of light and darkness.  Jesus is the light of the world, and came to our morally and spiritually dark world to shed His light in our lives.  Today’s contrast is found in John 11, that of life and death.  Death is a subject that is very practical; something that we encounter regularly in the news, but also something that we think about on a personal level.

Consider the following interesting and odd facts concerning death:

  • More people are killed by donkeys annually than are killed in plane crashes.
  • More people are killed each year by coconuts than sharks. Approximately 150 people are killed each year by coconuts.
  • You are more likely to be killed by a champagne cork than by a poisonous spider.
  • Fleas have the distinction of killing more people than all the wars man has ever fought. The “Black Death” plague killed 1/4 of Europe’s population in the 14th century, caused by germs transmitted from rodents to humans by fleas.
  • The animal responsible for the most human deaths worldwide is the mosquito.
  • A hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in the United States was forty-seven.
  • Today, only one in two billion people will live to be 116 or older.
  • On average, 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens every year.
  • Robert Hershey, of Hershey Chocolate fame, died when he fell into a vat of chocolate and drowned.
  • Dr. Alice Chase, who wrote “Nutrition for Health” and numerous books on the science of proper eating, died of malnutrition.
  • Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, was present at the assassinations of three presidents: his father’s, President Garfield’s, and President McKinley’s. After the last shooting, he refused ever to attend a state affair again.

These are just some interesting and odd things associated with human mortality. We all recognize that death is inevitable, but we might not think of our own preparedness.  Out of sight and out of mind, we might think.  Or we feel like Woody Allen who said: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

My point in sharing this with you is that we serve a God who overcame death.  He made a wonderful statement in our passage this morning when He stated so long ago: “I am the resurrection and the life….”  He made that statement on the occasion of Lazarus’ passing and resurrection.  So I invite you with me to gaze on what would be, arguably the greatest that Jesus ever performed, to prove His power over death.

When does this miracle take place?  Probably within two months of Jesus going to the cross.  It comes right after a difficult confrontation with the Jews.  Jesus’ life had been at risk.  Going to Bethany was not a wise move from an outward perspective.  The Jews had just tried to stone Jesus in Jerusalem, now He was coming within close proximity.  John Calvin states: “This might indeed be said to be the latest and concluding action of his life, for the time of his death was already at hand.  We need not wonder, therefore, if he illustrated his own glory, in an extraordinary manner, in that work, the remembrance of which he wished to be deeply impressed on their minds, that it might seal, in some respects, all that had gone before.”[1]

This miracle can be divided into three things: Verses 1-16, Jesus’ dialogue with His disciples; verses 17-37, Jesus’ dialogue with the family; and verses 38-45 Jesus’ dialogue with Lazarus. 11: 4 Jesus says: that the purpose of this miracle is to bring glory to God.  The biggest way for it to do so was if Jesus was to delay His arrival.  So we read in verse six how Jesus purposefully delays his trip to Bethany, even though Lazarus was gravely ill.  The point is that Jesus moved as God directed, not as people wished.

That brings us to the subject of prayer. Often times we want to answer our prayers according to our own time table.  Just like Burger King, we want it “our way,” and we want it now.  But here, no one could argue the love that Jesus had towards the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.  And yet, He stayed two extra days instead of beating it to Bethany to save Lazarus.  He did this on purpose.  Notice His words in verse four: “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” And then in verse14: “Lazarus is dead, 15 and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.”  Could it be that when we think God is “delaying,” in answering our prayers that He is waiting for a better time that He might be glorified and that our belief in Him might be fostered?

Verses 17-37 give us Jesus’ dialogue with Lazarus’ sisters.  Notice the emphasis of Lazarus’ passing in verse 21.  Martha states: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”  And Mary’s words in verse 32: “Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” And finally in verse 39, as if to add emphasis: “37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, [a]have kept this man also from dying?” 38 So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus *said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, *said to Him, “Lord, by this time [b]there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” The significance of this is almost in repeated fashion, the women in our story emphasize that Lazarus is gone.  Long gone.  There’s nothing that can bring him back.

What is interesting is the grief of everyone that surrounds Jesus, compared to what He said earlier, that this sickness is not unto death.  Now Lazarus has truly passed.  Yet, Jesus tells the others to roll the stone away.  Martha interrupts the efforts by saying: “Lord, by this time [j]there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus *said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

But it is almost as if they are unaware of Jesus’ power and glory.  This would include power over death.  To have an appreciation for what Jesus is about to do, we must understand what is taking place.  Those of you who have some idea of the physicality that takes place as a result of death, know that even after a few hours, certain things take place.  After 24 hours, consider the following:

  • A greenish-blue color continues to spread throughout the body.
  • There is a strong odor.
  • The face of the person is essentially no longer recognizable.
  • And after 3 days, the gases in the body tissues form large blisters on the skin and the whole body begins to bloat and swell.

For each of us, death looms in the future.  Death first entered this world, not as a result of biological cycle, but as a result of disobedience to our Creator.  God told Adam and Eve that they would surely die, if they disobeyed Him by eating of the fruit.  Ezekiel 18:4 tells us “The soul that sins will die.”  To alleviate such a penalty, Jesus stepped into humanity and died; not as a result of His sin, but of ours.  All people die because all sin. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…. 

And it is the emotion produced as a result of death, which was/is a result of sin, which made Jesus deeply troubled.  In verse 35, we are told that “Jesus wept.”  Jesus is not becoming emotional over simply the loss of Lazarus, for He is aware of what is just about to take place.  Scholars have advised that He is observing the human effect of sin and its inevitable consequence, death.

But as dismal as this situation may sound, it was for this reason that Jesus Christ came to earth as God incarnate over 2,000 years ago.  Jesus said in John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.  Christ instituted this life by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.  Christ died and rose again to abolish death for those who place their trust in Him.  Note Christ’s words in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life….”  The Christian possesses the sweet knowledge and anticipation of life after death, because Jesus arose from the dead, having displayed his victory over it through His resurrection.

This special life that comes after death is given through repentance and faith.  Repentance is the act of turning from one’s sin and seeking God’s forgiveness.  The other is faith- which is an embracing of God and trusting Jesus as God’s sinless sacrifice for sin.  So in order to experience the life that Jesus speaks of, one must turn from their mistakes, seek His forgiveness and follow Jesus Christ.  Again, Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.

THe NIV Study Bible states: “Jesus not only is life but conveys life to the believer so that death will never triumph over him.”[2]  This is why we gather on Sunday morning- to celebrate His resurrection!  So that gives me tremendous hope as I encounter so much death in the world.  There’s so much of it around us.  Whether it is tornadoes in the south, an unfortunate diagnosis, deteriorating health, the loss of family or friends, or the occurrence of tragedy.

In closing, notice verse 41: “So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the [k]people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” 44 The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus *said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  What words of hope in a world where death is so common!  Only Jesus holds command over death!


[1] John Calvin, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John 1-11, Volume XVII, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 424.

[2] NIV Study Bible p.1618.

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