Only the compassion of Jesus can sustain us when we face real challenges.
This morning, I am heading to UCLH to be told what form of chemotherapy or related treatment I will need to take. I know many have prayed for my supernatural healing. But as I was thinking of this yesterday, I was reminded of Jesus’ response to hearing that his friend was sick:
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 Lazarus1 was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was
Like the family of Lazarus my friends and family have been asking for Jesus to intervene in my situation. We have been praying for healing. And Jesus response, like it was for Lazarus is to wait. I thought therefore that I would share today with you an updated version of a set of notes I used to preach on this story eight years ago.
Some of the most mysterious words in the Bible are in this short passage. If we were writing it we would have said something like “And Jesus heard that his friend was sick so he instantly healed him using his miraculous powers which we know do not require him to be in the same place.”
Yet BECAUSE Jesus loved them he waited.
I know that I can also say because Jesus loves me he has not healed me yet. Make no mistake, I do believe that God heals supernaturally. And I have written previously about steps we can all take when we are seeking healing.
But I cannot escape the fact that so far Jesus has not healed me, and hence it is now time to turn to medical treatment, all the while trusting that the God who can heal in an instant also heals through the wisdom of doctors.
Why would Jesus make his friends wait?
Why do we have to wait too?
Why would Jesus allow suffering and sometimes allow it get worse?
We are not told directly in this passage. But we can infer from what comes two things.
- Only by waiting will the glory that will come out of this situation be revealed. John has carefully selected a series of miraculous signs that Jesus performed which demonstrated who he was. This one, a physical resurrection, is the culmination and crown of those that have gone before.
There is a glory that is shown by how we handle suffering also. It is easy to pretend to be a faith-filled Christian when things are going well. When suffering or death comes knocking at our door it is the time we honour Christ more than any other. It doesn’t always feel that way. Often in our struggles we feel like we have been doing badly. Sometimes our families and friends would agree with that assessment! Suffering can make us cranky, bring out the worst in us, and cause our faith to falter. But whilst we are shaken, we are not ultimately destroyed. And there is no better testimony than the Christian clinging stubbornly onto hope when their situation is telling them to give up.
2. Only by waiting can the situation refine us as Jesus intends. Jesus loves us as we are but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. We may remember the story of Mary and Martha found in Luke 10:38-42. Martha misses in that encounter the One Thing which is truly to know Jesus. In her business Martha missed out on the most important person. Yet as we shall see later on, this later story in many ways is all about her. Mary, who was the hero of the other encounter, will hang back and allow Martha to have her own personal encounter with Jesus which will no doubt change the rest of her life. In the midst of suffering Jesus wants to meet you and I too. Mary already knew loving Jesus was the main thing. For Martha it took loosing her precious brother to come to the same place. Sometimes it is only when we loose things that are precious to us that we learn what it is that is MOST precious.
“You may never know that JESUS is all you need, until JESUS is all you have.” ― attributed to
If we allow Jesus to work deeply in us, eventually we will say “It was good for me that I was afflicted” There is much soul work that can only be done in the furnace of suffering. But of course we must never think that suffering itself is a good thing. It really isn’t. God works through bad things round for our good. We therefore thank him IN every situation but not FOR every situation.
All this is something of a mystery and we are still in the introduction to this story which is surely simultaneously one of the most surprising and yet glorious in the whole Bible. In fact as someone facing a sickness which has forced me to confront my own mortality, this is probably the most precious story in the whole Bible except Jesus’ own death and resurrection. In fact in John’s narrative this story of Lazarus is really the introduction to the Passion narrative which starts the very next chapter, when after an interlude Jesus returns to Bethany and out of her deep love and gratitude for Jesus anointed him with a perfume the smell of which no doubt stayed with him throughout the events that led to his death.
Before we move on from this introductory paragraph there is something we must not miss. Jesus gives his disciples a subtle spoiler in this introduction to the story which they seem to have missed
“This illness does not lead to death. ”
We like to pretend death won’t happen to us, or at least not before our time. This passage confronts us with the harsh statistic that one out of one people dies. The whole Bible confronts us with it “and then David died” “And then Abraham died” etc. One day YOUR name will be added to that list.
We will see in this whole passage Jesus’ response to the biggest problem we all face. Death has touched and will touch all of us. It brings sorrow. It is an alien invasion into a world which God intended to be a good.
To the Christian even if we do die, our story does not end there as we will see later in this amazing story of Lazarus.
The doctors have assured me that I am not facing a major risk of imminent death, and that the treatments they are offering are almost certain to make a big difference. So I am laying hold of that promise that this illness will not lead to death as being for me in the here and now. Sometimes the promises of God are fulfilled in our lives right now. But sometimes they will only be ultimately fulfilled when Jesus returns to transform our World and wipe away ALL tears. We live in the already but not yet.
But we are allowing the spoiler to let us get ahead of ourselves. Now would be a good time for us to pause a moment, and read the whole story:
I don’t want anyone reading this article to miss the raw emotion and compassion that this story portrays. Sadly we can become overfamiliar with Bible accounts such that they no longer profoundly move us as they ought. I find sometimes that good worship music is the perfect antidote to this spiritual apathy and the hardness of my own heart.
I urge you then to listen to this song which gloriously captures the essence of this amazing story. It was co-written by Simon Brading and Graham Kendrick. You may find tears begin to fall. They did for me this morning. I include the lyrics to enable you to mediate on this for a moment. Pray and ask God to soften your heart to hear what it is he would say to you today.
SEE MARTHA WEEPING AT A TOMB
How deep the anguish of her grieving
Her brother Lazarus is gone
And hope lies cold and buried with him
And then Jesus comes
See Mary stumbling through her tears
To meet the one who could have saved him
Why did it have to end this way?
Did he not care her heart was breaking?
And she falls facedown, in her deep despair
Pours out her pain, and His heart breaks.
Then His anger burns, in the face of death
Jesus weeps, Jesus weeps
God of compassion, God of compassion is here
God of all comfort, Is here with us, has come to us
God of compassion
There is no pain he does not know
No road of bitterness or sadness
No depths of sorrow we can go
He walks the valley there beside us
Let us lift our eyes, look in to the face
Of a God who knows, a God who weeps
And His voice cries out, in the darkest place
I am the Life, I am the Life
And now He lives, He is the life, He is the life
Alive in Him, we’ll never die, never die
Simon Brading & Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 2009 Thankyou Music\Make Way Music shared online at weareworship
1. The ignorance of the disciples
The Gospels are never afraid to show us the ineptitude of the disciples. Can you blame them though? Jesus communicates with them in what seems a quite opaque way at the beginning of this passage. No wonder they just don’t get it!
Most important question is whether LIGHT is in us! That explains why our enemies are against us, but it also helps US not too fall when things are scary!
Comedic the way they don’t get it that Lazarus had DIED. But then Jesus had said initially that he is sleeping that very Biblical definition of death for the believer. And then Jesus says he was GLAD he wasn’t there in Bethany even though his friend was sick! How cruel we might say! After all there is little so welcome as a visit from friends or family when you are suffering. But again Jesus hints at a spoiler when he says the plan is that they may all BELIEVE, which lets not forget is the goal of this whole gospel John has written.
The Bible is all about life and death. Thomas responses here are real and earthy, it is quite touching. He effectively says, We don’t get it but lets go die with him!
2. The growing faith of Martha
As we mentioned earlier Mary seems to instinctively know that this time its all about Martha. She stays in the house and lets her sister meet Jesus in a quiet place outside the village. We can lead people to Christ but they must meet him alone.
John gospel is written in a way that will lead us to believe in Jesus. Like Martha we must see Jesus face to face. We must come to him not merely as a great teacher, but as the One who loves us and welcomes us into a one to one relationship with him. This is why we see so many face to face meetings in John’s gospel. This is the PERSONAL Jesus we are meeting.
There must be honesty with faith. Faith is not just the big glorious moments, it is earthy reality like this moment a grieving sister meets her saviour.
She calls him Lord which is a critical aspect of faith. She believes that even now Jesus has power. But her faith is mingled with what could be seen as something of a complaint:
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Death hurts us because it brings separation. We love relationship because we are made in God’s image. The loss of one relationship leads Martha to deepen her relationship with Jesus who meets her lovingly in her pain.
Martha is basically saying: I don’t get it, if you were here my brother wouldn’t have died, but somehow I still trust you. Glorious moment of genuine faith that is not manufactured or pretended.
This simple conversation about hope for a physical resurrection is truly revolutionary. Resurrection was there in glimpses in the OT, but no one else in ancient times believed that a body could come back to life.
What makes everything makes sense is Jesus reply: “your brother will rise again” We can be over familiar with this hope, remember Martha didn’t at this point know the end of the story. Not every story ends like this one. It will not all be put right in this world. She doesn’t see what Jesus says as a promise for now. Sometimes God’s Word is a promise for now, but sometimes it isn’t.Matha speaks amazingly comforting and faithfilled words in reply. “I know that he will rise again in ithe resurrection on the last day.”
What faith! Remember, if we are coming to God for a miracle we are not asking him to do something he has not already promised us he will do. The last day is coming when there will be no more suffering. We will all be together. All reunited. All the time in the world. God won’t you do today what we know you will do one day. The healing IS in the atonement, we just don’t know the timing. Sometimes Jesus will make you wait, not as here for four days, or even four years, but four decades or the rest of your life on earth.
Jesus makes it more personal in words that have been quoted at probably billions of funerals:
“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?”
It is a shame that at funerals we don’t tend to include the last four words as that is the most important question I can ever ask you:
DO YOU believe this?
This is what defines whether or not you are a Christian.
Mary makes an amazing confession considering Jesus has not yet been raised at this point: “Yes, Lord; oI believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” This confession is mirrored in the short statement of faith and definition of a Christian later penned by the Apostle Paul:
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” Romans 10:10
When you believe this then you want to follow him with all your life. And if Jesus was raised we can have confidence that we too will be raised.
When you believe this, even if a loved one dies you know this is not the end and so you do mourn, but you grieve as one who has a HOPE that goes beyond the grave.
3. The Compassion of Jesus
How does Jesus respond to death?
How does he respond to the mourning of two of his friends?
Is he dispassionate and professional? NO!
Does he tell them not to be sad? NO!
Does he urge them to exercise a stiff upper lip? NO!
Does he advocate stoicism “whatever will be” NO!
Does he say “its ok I am about to raise him” NO
It is RIGHT to weep.
It is right to enter into the grief of others.
We too must respond with COMPASSION in the face of death.
When we suffer we often feel totally alone.
It is so precious when someone steps into our pain and feels it with us.
Jesus was deeply moved (or indignant) in his spirit and greatly troubled.
DO not let anyone lie to you that God is not capable of emotion or is “impassible” It simply isn’t true.
Surely this shortest Bible verse is one of the most powerful statements in Scipture, and the most moving:
THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE WEEPS.
In cases you had any doubts about it: real men DO cry!
Jesus wasn’t just crying for them.
All the pain that sin and death has ever caused gets distilled into one moment.
It was a bit like this when Princess Diana died, were the crowds just grieving for her? No they were also grieving for their own family.
Jesus was crying for you.
My Jesus cares for you too.
He feels your pain.
He is praying for you.
He is standing with you.
He will never leave you or forsake you.
Here we see COMPASSION in the face of death.
The emotions felt here are strong. There is mixture of emotions in all moments like this. I am absolutely certain that Brading and Kendrick got it right that Jesus’ ANGER was stirred at this moment.
IT IS NOT OK.
If there is no God it shouldn’t matter if a two year old gets run over by a truck. Its Christianity that makes you realize how evil death is. THIS IS NOT PART OF GOD’S original plan. Not stoicism “whatever will be”
It is RIGHT to weep.
Compassion is when we allow ourselves to be moved by others. Somehow the faith of these sisters makes this story more moving. And I am sure that Jesus is also crying tears of amazement that despite the thousands of years of people not really having faith, here these two women despite their pain are clinging on to this most incredible faith that resurrection will come.
Pain WILL CEASE
Then of course these emotions in Jesus stirred him to act. He performed an amazing creative miracle that reunited the grieving family by raising Lazarus from the dead. Unlike Jesus who burst out of his graveclothes, Lazarus has to be released and his stone was moved away by manual effort.
As I said in my post on professionalism:
Compassion is defined in the Miriam Webster Dictionary as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.’ Compassion is when love moves beyond mere emotion and motivates us to action.
This is of course why social action is so important. If we are moved by compassion towards the suffering of others we HAVE to move to alleviate it if we want to be like Jesus, if we want to obey his commands, we must also follow his example.
So we see not just Jesus compassion, entering into our sorrow we see his POWER in the face of death to deliver us from it. He is the miracle worker.
Jesus here conquers death, and one day we will ALL share in this victory.
Jesus may be waiting as he looks at your situation and hears your prayers. But rest assured, one day he will ACT to deliver you.
There is a heavenly logic to prayer that moves the heart of God. First, we appeal to his compassion. Second we appeal to the timing. We do NOT have to ask if it is God’s will to heal. It is ALWAYS his will to heal. And he will one day heal perfectly. He will one day remove all pain and suffering so no matter what you are facing right now you can have confidence that Jesus feels your pain and wants to help you. The only question is, has Jesus finished waiting yet?
When we pray we are asking not for our will to be done. We are not appealing to a heartless distant deity to notice us. HE ALREADY KNOWS WHAT WE NEED. We are just asking him to do NOW what we know he has already promised to do THEN.
There are many prayers that being “You said…” in the Bible. This is why we shouldn’t pray “if it is your will” in the sense of being concerned that God doesn’t want what is best for us. He ALWAYS wants what is best for us. And in the light of eternity we will forget our “momentary” waiting. Even if it feels a long time now, we will call it a little while then!
CONCLUSION: The divided response
You might expect that faced with such a huge miracle as a stinking corpse comes back to life that everyone would want to follow Jesus immediately. So it is no surprise that it is said,
“When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.”
What is more surprising is the response of the Jewish rulers:
“So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”
The challenge Jesus would leave Christians is this: “Tell people about my resurrection power!”
Some will believe, others will curse and hate you. But you will get a RESPONSE!
The power of resurrection doesn’t just raise the physically dead, it raises the spiritually dead too:
SPURGEON– You must also believe in the power of that message to save people. You may have heard the story of one of our first students, who came to me, and said, “I have been preaching now for some months, and I do not think I have had a single conversion.” I said to him, “And do you expect that the Lord is going to bless you and save souls every time you open your mouth?” “No, sir,” he replied. “Well, then,” I said, “that is why you do not get souls saved. If you had believed, the Lord would have given the blessing.” I had caught him very nicely; but many others would have answered me in just the same way as he did. They tremblingly believe that it is possible, by some strange mysterious method, that once in a hundred sermons God might win a quarter of a soul. They have hardly enough faith to keep them standing upright in their boots; how can they expect God to bless them? I like to go to the pulpit feeling, “This is God’s Word that I am going to deliver in his name; it cannot return to him void; I have asked his blessing upon it, and he is bound to give it, and his purposes will be answered.”
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. ” Romans 10:9
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Adrian Warnock is author of Raised with Christ (Crossway, 2010) and Hope Reborn (Christian Focus, 2014). He blogs at Patheos and served on the leadership team of Jubilee Church, London. Adrian is a medical doctor and was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in May 2017. He is passionate about helping Christians learn to approach suffering with hope and compassion. Adrian began a series on the commandments of Jesus in January 2018.