Jesus vs. Death (John 11:1-44)

For the past seven weeks, we’ve been looking at the miracles in the Gospel of John. Today we’re coming to the final one, the most climatic one.

If you’ve been following along, every one of the miracles has pointed to something deeper. The miracles aren’t just events that happened. They reveal who Jesus is. They show that he has power over nature, power to heal, whether it’s someone who’s been blind from birth or someone far away. But as we approach John 11, we’re approaching something more serious than that. The question at the beginning of John 11 is, “What can Jesus do about death?” You may already know the story, but there is a bit of suspense at the start of the chapter. Sure, he can turn water into wine, but what can Jesus do about death?

Nobody likes to talk about death. When I visit my father in England, I often pass by the church cemetery just off the village square. The tombstones are so old that you can’t even read them anymore. It’s a bit sobering that nobody comes to lay flowers there anymore, nobody’s got pictures of these people on their mantles. They’re forgotten, and even their names aren’t remembered. The Bible says, “Our days on earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die. The wind blows, and we are gone-as though we had never been here” (Psalm 103:15-16).

Death is a reality, whether we want to talk about it or not. Death is horrible. It raises questions about God. I’ve just been reading C.S. Lewis’s book A Grief Observed. Lewis was a strong believer in Jesus Christ, and even gave lectures on suffering. But when his wife died, he found himself asking brutally honest questions about God. Let’s look at what happened in John 11, and let the story enter into our lives today.

A man named Lazarus was sick. He lived in Bethany with his sisters, Mary and Martha. This is the Mary who poured the expensive perfume on the Lord’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Her brother, Lazarus, was sick. So the two sisters sent a message to Jesus telling him, “Lord, the one you love is very sick.” (John 11:1-3)

Bethany was Jesus’ base of operations near Jerusalem. Some guess that Jesus lived with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha whenever they came to the area. The relationship was obviously close. John assumed everyone would know the story of what Mary did, even though it’s not one he included in his Gospel. Mary and Martha somehow knew where to find Jesus, and when Jesus was told “the one you love is very sick,” he didn’t have to guess. He knew it was Lazarus.

But when Jesus heard about it he said, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it is for the glory of God. I, the Son of God, will receive glory from this.” Although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days and did not go to them. Finally after two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again.” (John 11:5-7)

We find out later that Jesus already knew that Lazarus had died, even by the time that the messengers arrived. By the time Jesus got there, Lazarus had been dead four days, and the messengers had left four days earlier, probably right before he died. Jesus already made a statement that this would have a higher purpose: that he would receive glory through the upcoming events – not just the immediate events, but the chain of events that would follow, leading ultimately to his death.

For Jesus to return to Bethany would be extremely dangerous. The disciples said in verse 8, “Teacher…only a few days ago the Jewish leaders in Judea were trying to kill you. Are you going there again?” Thomas said in verse 16, “Let’s go, too-and die with Jesus.” Bethany was only a couple of miles away from Jerusalem, and everyone knew that if they went, they were walking into harm’s way.

The decision was made to go. Jesus knew what was coming, and he knew it had a higher purpose. “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake, I am glad I wasn’t there, because this will give you another opportunity to believe in me. Come, let’s go see him” (John 11:14-15).

When Jesus arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Some Jews believed that the soul hung around the body for three days, until decay set in. Then it would abandon the body, and there would be no hope of life. Some may have believed that Lazarus could be raised the first three days. Nobody would have held out hope on the fourth day.

Jesus didn’t even enter the town, because he knew that it would create a scene. He waited outside for Martha, probably the older sister, to arrive. When she did, she repeated something to Jesus that had probably been said numerous times since Lazarus had died four days earlier. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:21-22).

When I’ve read Martha’s statement before, I’ve thought that she was expecting Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead. Actually, she wasn’t. We find this out later, because she protests when Jesus asks for the tomb to be opened. She wasn’t expecting a miracle anymore. She was simply stating, “Lord, if you had been here, things wouldn’t have been different. But I still believe in you, despite what’s happened. It hasn’t shaken my view of who you are.”

Jesus challenged her. It wasn’t enough for her to acknowledge that she believed in him, even though Lazarus had died. She had to believe that he had the power, even over death. “Jesus told her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ ‘Yes,’ Martha said, ‘when everyone else rises, on resurrection day'” (John 11:23-24). She believed in the resurrection one day – a teaching that was pretty controversial. But Jesus wanted to clarify things. It’s not enough to say, “Okay, he died, that’s the end of it, but one day God will put it right. In the meantime, I still believe in you, Jesus.” It’s not just some future event; it’s actually someone, standing right in front of Martha, who is the resurrection and the life:

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish. Do you believe this, Martha?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” (John 11:25-27)

It’s not a belief or a dogma. It’s a person. It’s not even about a future resurrection; it’s about never dying, never perishing. Even between the point of physical death and the resurrection, the one who believes in Jesus still lives. Jesus is about to show that he has power over death, and that his followers don’t have to say, “We still believe in you despite the reality of death.” We can say, “We believe in you because you are the one who gives life beyond death. You are the resurrection and the life.”

In the next few verses, a similar scene unfolded with the other sister, Mary. Jesus still stayed outside the village, and Mary said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). This was obviously something that Mary and Martha had been telling themselves.

What happens next doesn’t really come through the English translations too well. “When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, he was moved with indignation and was deeply troubled” (John 11:33). “Moved with indignation” is pretty hard to translate. It was used in that language to talk about the snorting of a horse. It conveys anger, shuddering, the strongest emotions you could imagine. “Deeply troubled” means agitated, almost confused. I’ve always pictured Jesus getting upset, but it goes further than that. He had a breakdown. He burst into tears.

Jesus was facing death face to face. He was seeing the effects of sin. Words weren’t enough. Just as when we face death, there’s a sense that at times, words can’t convey how terribly bad death is. He broke down and shuddered. A few vers es later, in verse 35, he cried more quietly. He asked to go to the tomb, and even then he continued to be disturbed.

Every person needs to ask what hope they have beyond the grave. Some have decided that they don’t need hope, or that hope is an illusion. Jesus offers more. He not only cries – sobs – at the sight of death. He does something more.

“Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.
But Martha, the dead man’s sister, said, “Lord, by now the smell will be terrible because he has been dead for four days.”
Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you will see God’s glory if you believe?” So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so they will believe you sent me.” Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out, bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” (John 11:39-44)

Jesus said earlier that this was going to bring glory to the Son, and give the disciples another opportunity to believe in him. It did. It gave the disciples the opportunity that Jesus wasn’t just the one who turned water into wine, who healed the sick and made the blind to see. He is also the one who conquers death. He’s God over all. He’s the resurrection and the life.

It would be easy to think that this story is about Lazarus, but it isn’t. Lazarus would die again one day. I’m sure that it was a lot easier to face, knowing what would come, but I think I’d be saying, “Not again.” Dying is one of those things you only want to do once.

This story is ultimately about Jesus and his power over death. It’s about his glory, and what happens to those of us who put our trust in him. We gain victory over death, because we then enter into a relationship with the person who is the resurrection and the life.

It’s about Jesus, because the events that unfolded ultimately led to his own death. Right after this story ends, the leaders plotted Jesus’ death. What happened here ultimately led to his own death, which led to our salvation. Jesus could face his own death, because he himself was the resurrection and the life.

For those of us who are bereaved today, there’s hope. There’s hope because Jesus sobbed at the death of his friend. Jesus met death, and saw its ugliness. He understands. There’s hope too because “Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again” (John 11:25). There is life beyond the grave.

We would probably be smart to realize today that our lives are going to be shorter than we think. I have a friend who came to a party. I sent him a picture later, and he was disgusted at how old he looked. Life goes much faster than we’d like. We don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about death, but no herbal supplement or exercise program will delay it indefinitely.

There are few answers for death, but we do know the one who has conquered death and promised eternal life. Today, you can know the one who died so that you can live.


Comfort for those who are bereaved; that all of us would believe in the one who is the resurrection and the life
Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada