As she passed the arched doorway to the main living quarters, a young woman glanced to where her younger sister sat with a large group of friends. There was hardly space for anyone else to enter the room, but even in so large a gathering, the expression of intense grief was universally evident. Wagging her head as she resumed her tread, the woman fought back her own tears, trying to settle the anxious thoughts rising in her own heart. There was still work that needed to be done.
Her beloved brother had been sick for weeks, and though she had been sure she knew how to cure him, he had still died. She and Mary had sent word to the only man who could have helped him, but the man had simply sent a message back, stating that the sickness was not going to end in death, but result in God’s glory. Yet her brother had died, and still the question rang in her mind, refusing to be pushed aside any longer: why hadn’t He come?
You might have already guessed it, but this young woman was Martha of Bethany, her brother who died was Lazarus, and of course, Mary was their sister. Their story in John 11 describes the roller coaster of emotions these two ladies went through involving the death of their beloved brother and Jesus’ response.
The chapter opens with a note that Lazarus was sick, deathly sick. Martha and Mary knew that Jesus dearly loved them and their brother, so they sent Him word, imploring Him to come and heal Lazarus (John 11:3, 5). They were close friends of Jesus, they knew what He could do. He had opened the eyes of a blind man after all, so certainly He could heal their brother.
Yet Jesus doesn’t immediately come. He sends some comforting words, but then He waits two days longer before He begins His journey to Bethany (John 11:4, 6, 7). Now to Martha and Mary, this was simply incomprehensible. Of course, they knew that it was dangerous for Jesus to journey near Jerusalem, and their home was only a few miles from that city, but they were sure that Jesus would do something to heal Lazarus (John 7:1; 10:31, 39; 11:18). Yet Jesus delayed, and when He did come, Lazarus had already died and been buried for four days, and everyone had given up hope of seeing Lazarus in that life again (John 11:17, 39). Jesus had resurrected people before, but they had never been buried, and they definitely had not been dead for days (Matthew 9:18-25; Luke 7:11-15). This seemed too much for even Jesus to do anything about.
But of course it wasn’t, and as we read on through the story, we see that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and that many believed in Him because of it (John 11:43-45). This is a beautiful story, containing one of the great “I Am” statements and the last great sign of Jesus’ public ministry in this gospel account, and it would be so easy to simply leave the story at that. That is what so many do, and there is certainly nothing wrong with focusing upon those aspects of this narrative, or even upon the significance of resurrection.
Yet as I was studying this chapter recently, the Lord began to show me another aspect that is often not talked about in depth. The issue is the question of why Jesus waited. HE didn’t half to, so why did He? Earlier the Jews tried to seize Him, but they couldn’t “because His hour had not yet come,” so that couldn’t be the reason why He waited (John 7:30). So why did He wait?
If we examine this chapter carefully, we see that Jesus Himself tells us why, though it is not what may first come to mind. Though we might think He waited so that He could show more convincingly that He had power over death, that is only part of the reason. Actually, the text tells us that Jesus waited because He “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5, 6).
Now if you are like me, that has got to strike you as seeming almost backwards. Jesus let Lazarus die and the sisters wrestle with sorrow for days because He loved them? Though it may be hard to see this at first, that is exactly what He did.
All too often, we get the idea that once we become a Christian, life should be nothing but a bed of roses. We are saved, so God will make everything work out for us, right? He certainly will, but we have to understand what that really means, for it does not imply what most people think it does. While God does work all things for our good, that does include leading us through trials (Romans 8:28, 29; James 1:2-4). It is not the trial itself that He calls good, but what He produces in us that is good. The story of these three siblings illustrates this.
Death was never part of God’s original design, and both it and all sorrow will one day be banished from the earth (Revelation 21:4). So from that perspective, Lazarus’ death and the sisters’ grief was not good. However, we need to look at what God did in and through them to find what He does call good.
First, let’s look at Martha. She seems to be holding it together pretty well, and though she does not understand that Jesus could raise her brother that very day, her faith in Him as the promised Messiah and Son of God is unshaken (John 11:21-24, 27, 39). She did not know everything about Jesus and His power before He raised Lazarus, but even so, she refused to give up her faith in Him as Lord. What strength of character and what unshakable faith, and that is not achieved by any power of the human will. It didn’t make sense how Jesus could allow what He did, but she had believed in Him and would continue to trust Him (John 11:27). And the next time we see Martha, she is “serving” at a banquet held in Jesus’ honor (John 12:2). Her faith was unwavering even before Jesus raised her brother, and then once He did, she demonstrated her love by her faithful service.
Mary, though outwardly more broken than her sister, had an unrivaled love for Jesus and demonstrated her worship with an extremely great sacrifice. She is so weak with grief, she at first stays in the house until Jesus calls for her, and then when she does come, she can hardly get out one sentence, let alone answer Jesus’ question about where the tomb was (John 11:20, 28-34). But as low as her hour of trial was, she held nothing back in giving her worship to the Lord. The next time Jesus comes to them—which is very soon—she pours an entire pound of “pure nard” on Jesus’ feet (John 12:3). We find out that this perfume was so valuable, it was the equivalent of nearly ten months’ wages for a working man (John 12:5). It seemed like such a waste—would you take something that valuable and pour it out in a single act of worship?
Though some derided Mary’s actions, it was beautiful in Jesus’ eyes. When we look at Matthew’s account, we see a promise that “wherever this Gospel is preached…what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). Now how would you like for Jesus to say that He was so pleased with your worship, He would make sure it was spoken of as an example to the whole world?
And last but by no means least, we see what God did through Lazarus. Although there was an initial harvest of people brought to salvation at his resurrection, his Gospel witness certainly did not stopped there (John 11:45). As time goes on, we find that he is leading so many to faith in Jesus with his testimony, the Pharisees plan to put him to death as well (John 12:9-11, 17-19). His death and resurrection were a large reason the people met Jesus at the Triumphal Entry, which was the basis for the Pharisees’ statement that “The world has gone after” Jesus (John 12:17-19). What if we were to have a testimony like that, a testimony that would lead countless people to Christ for salvation?
So these three siblings went through one of the hardest things to face, but look at the good that God produced in them: an unshakable faith, an unquenchable love, and an undeniable testimony. Is death good? No, not in itself. But did God use it for His glory in the lives of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, as well as in the lives of all those they met? The answer is a resounding “yes!”
And so for each of us today, we should learn a lesson from their story, recognizing truths about the difficult trials we face in our own lives. Just because we go through extremely difficult situations and circumstances, it doesn’t mean God is withholding His love from us. It may be the very reason He has permitted it to happen to begin with. He is going to bring glory to Himself, and He can use our darkest nights to create a love and faith within our hearts that will motivate us to share a testimony of power to those we meet, a testimony not of our strength, but of God’s.
And though Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, He can still produce the same spiritual good in us even if our physical situation does not change. If you want an example, just look at Paul. He wanted God to remove a trial he faced, something he begged God repeatedly about (2 Corinthians 12:7, 8). Yet the Lord chose not to, instead giving him the power and strength to endure it (2 Corinthians 12:9). In response, Paul did not shake his fist at heaven, nor did he turn away from God in bitterness. Rather, he writes that he will “Gladly…boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10). In his situation, God’s power was not shown in delivering him out of the trial, but by bringing him through it.
So whatever the case may be for you, whether God is going to miraculously deliver you from your trial or whether He will give you the grace to endure it, do not give up. He has faithfully promised that He will “never desert you” (Hebrews 13:5, 6). He has such plans for you, plans to draw you closer to Himself and to share the Gospel with others. It is hard to realize this in the moment—I doubt Martha or Mary understood it—but it is nonetheless the truth.
Our God is not bound by our circumstances—He can turn our deep days of struggle into trumpet blasts for the Gospel. It is not dependent upon how strong we think we are, for it is all upon our omnipotent God. Your circumstances may not be good, but look to Jesus and trust in Him, no matter what. If you do that, I promise you, what He will produce in and through you will be superbly good.
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