By Dr. Ramesh Richard
I have godly, ministry friends on both sides of many a conflict: personal and political, racial and national conflict.
Take Russia and Ukraine, for instance. I’ve prayed for this situation to cease. I’ve heard from concerned and cornered friends over the past weeks. It’s easier to manage reactions and emotions from the relative safety of our living rooms than to continually face the horrific realities. For those closer to this or any conflict, either in geography or sentiment, suffering and death are impossible to ignore. Suffering and death are realities every day, every hour.
I want to focus on the reality of death in this short reflection on John chapter 11. If we are truly honest with ourselves, death is a reality, even a near reality, for each of us.
Death: An Enigma
Though death is a reality, it is also an enigma. I am grateful for the Scriptures, which illuminate this potentially troublesome idea. John chapter 11 gives us great insight. In fact, the entire book of John was written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing on Him, we might have life through His name. We view death through our ordinary, earthly eyes. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can study this chapter of Scripture and instead see death as an enemy that will ultimately be defeated.
Enigma 1: God is in control and will gain the glory, even in death
John 11 narrates the story of Lazarus’s death. In the beginning of the chapter, Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus:
Lord behold, he whom you love is sick. (John 11:3)
For Martha and Mary (and for the readers of Scripture), here is the initial enigma:
But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but to the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified in it.” (John 11:4)
In Jesus’ reply, He tells us the glory of God is involved. God is in total control of the situation, and He is going to get glory out of this deathly sickness.
Enigma 2: God’s apparent delays are only from our human perspective
The Scripture tells us that after Jesus hears Lazarus is sick, He stays two more days before beginning the journey to see him. He seems to be showing us that He is in control of the situation. He is sovereign. He is authoritative over all realities in heaven and on earth—including death. He holds the whole world in His hands, and any delay is purely from our perspective.
C.S. Lewis writes about his wife’s death in the short book “A Grief Observed.” He explains from his own experience that when everything is going well in your life— when you turn to God, He receives you with open arms. But it sometimes seems when you really need Him, when you are desperate, all you find when you knock on heaven’s door is a door bolted from the inside. In John 11, Martha and Mary are feeling this way. Many in our COVID-stricken and upended world feel this way now.
Enigma 3: Death is a reality for everyone
A third enigma revolves around the reality of death itself. No one can avoid it. Who has not thought about death recently? Between COVID-19 and the war in Eastern Europe, thoughts of death are inescapable. There is a yearning in the human heart for something after death, since all will face it someday. From a human viewpoint, everything about death is an enigma. But Jesus says this, too, is for the glory of God.
Death: Christ’s Enemy
For Jesus, death is not an enigma. Death is just the enemy. We learn this through three encounters Jesus has in John 11.
Encounter 1: Jesus and His short-sighted disciples
The first encounter is with Jesus’ disciples:
So when [Jesus] heard that [Lazarus] was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again.” The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and yet You are going there again? (John 11:6-8)
In other words, “Do you have a suicidal streak in you?” Jesus reminds them that He is there to do the will of God. Here is their exchange:
… He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going so that I may awaken him from sleep.” The disciples then said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will come out of it. (John 11:11-12)
That’s how Jesus viewed death itself—as sleep, as something temporary. The disciples are not understanding, so Jesus explains clearly:
Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about actual sleep. So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus died, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let’s go to him. (John 11:13-15)
The Lord continues to grow His own disciples’ faith. And He is faithful to do that for us, even (especially) through global pandemics or the violence of war.
Encounter 2: Jesus and Martha
When Jesus arrives, He finds that Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. In this second encounter, as Jesus interacts with Lazarus’s sister Martha, we again see death as the enemy. Martha is understandably upset:
Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21)
She knows something about Jesus. “If He had been there.” Her allegation is that Lazarus’s death was a waste.
What follows is her affirmation:
Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give to you. (John 11:22)
At this point, Martha knows about the widow’s son being raised. She knows of Jairus’ daughter being raised. Jesus has already been teaching that one day, at the shout of His voice, the people in the tombs will come forth. On the last day, He will raise people from the dead. Jesus hears Martha’s hint and says to her:
Your brother will rise again. (John 11:23)
Knowing what Jesus has previously taught, Martha replies. And what follows is an unbelievable, audacious assertion:
Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in Me will live, even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. (John 11:24-25)
What an incredible statement. It’s the hinge of the climactic miracle of the Gospel of John. “I am the resurrection and the life.” In earlier chapters, Jesus has already shown His authority over nature and demonic powers. Here he shows that the enemy of death will be vanquished. Jesus, whose flesh and blood is the center point of all life and history, will bring vitality to creation. He will raise the dead. In the story of John 11 and in this very moment in 2022, Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life. Not sometime in the future. It’s not just an intellectual concept. He is the resurrection and the life. He who lives and believes in Jesus shall never die.
Jesus then asks Martha an important question:
“Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I have come to believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, and He who comes into the world.” (John 11:26-27)
The glory of God is found in acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God. Death is simply sleeping under His control. Death is silenced under His conquest.
Encounter 3: Jesus and Mary
Next we learn about Jesus’ encounter with Lazarus’s sister Mary. Mary echoes Martha’s protest:
So when Mary came to the place 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.” (John 11:32)
There’s no great distinction between the sisters’ sentiments and allegations. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, He is deeply troubled. In John 11 we find the shortest verse in the Bible:
Jesus wept. (John 11:35)
He is weeping in anger. He is weeping in sadness. He is weeping in empathy.
Death: His enemy and ours
In these three distinct encounters, Jesus has been hinting at what it is to come. Now Jesus will show them all what it means for death to be His enemy. He comes to the tomb, a cave carved from limestone rock with a stone lying against it:
Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” (John 11:39)
In Greek, it literally says Lazarus is “a fourth-day man.” He’s very dead. But Jesus is not dissuaded:
Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they removed the stone. And Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. But I knew that You always hear Me; nevertheless, because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” And when He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Out came the man who had died, 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” (John 11:40-44).
Jesus shows them all that death is not an enigma to Him. And it doesn’t have to be an enigma for us either. From the perspective of eternity, death is simply Christ’s enemy to be vanquished. He is the resurrection and the life.
Because of Christ’s work on the cross, death remains a reality, but only a secondary reality. Consider the three kinds of death discussed in the New Testament. One is physical death. As we age, we don’t know how much time we have. It is appointed to man once to die, and after this, the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). The second kind of death is spiritual death. We were born in spiritual death, and we walk in spiritual death until we find salvation and the forgiveness of sins in the Lord Jesus. The third kind is eternal death. After this earthly life is over, those who experience eternal death will be forever separated from God. All three of these evils find their answer in Jesus. By believing in Jesus, you escape spiritual death. Because He is the resurrection, you will overcome physical death. Because He is life, you will avoid eternal death.
We learn from the end of John 11 that many of the Jews believe in Him as a result. But some go on to conspire against Him. The Lord Jesus takes on His enemy, death, and is victorious. But those watching cannot simply observe. They must make a choice—to believe in Him as the resurrection and the life or to be His enemy. John 11 was written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Have you found life in His name?