Christians are about to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Of all the Christian holidays it’s the most holy because with the resurrection of Jesus comes forgiveness of sins, newness of life in the power of the Holy Spirit, and eternal life free from sin and corruption.
But the Bible tells us of another resurrection a few days before Jesus’ resurrection – the resurrection of Lazarus. The story of Lazarus is found in John chapter 11. It’s one of my favorite stories, not just because it has a happy ending for Lazarus and Mary and Martha, but because of the less obvious truths it contains for every believer and for creation itself. And it’s these less obvious truths that I want to bring out into the light.
So let’s begin digging through this story. I think you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of God’s love for each of you and for creation and how what looks like evil to us this side of eternity is used by God to draw us closer to Him, molding and shaping us into the image of Jesus Christ.
I want to begin by telling you ahead of time that…
Lazarus represents our spirits (conscience, intuition, ability to worship) and Mary and Martha represent our souls (will, emotions, intellect).
That’s important to remember and I pray it will make sense to you when I’m finished.
We’re going to go through the story of Lazarus a little at a time to make it easier to uncover what I believe the Holy Spirit is trying to teach us.
“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 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’” (John 11:1-4 ESV).
This seems simple and straight forward, but I want to break it down some and show how it’s our story. There’s nothing I the Bible by accident. So when I read and study the Bible I look at the names of the people involved in the stories as well as the locations involved and the context in which they are written.
When we do this for this story about the resurrection of Lazarus…
We discover this is a story about us.
This story begins with anxiety and misery and fear because Lazarus is deathly ill and Jesus is far away and the future is uncertain. This truth is revealed to us not just by the words we read, but by learning what the name “Bethany” means, the town Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived in.
Bethany means either “House of Dates” or “House of Misery”.
The meaning is determined by the context and what we discover is that in our case it begins one way and ends another. (Just to be clear: “House of Dates” doesn’t refer to a place where men and women go to meet. Dates come from palm trees and the leaves of palm trees were used to represent victory and peace. Thus, the laying of palm branches in front of Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.)
The story opens with Mary and Martha (our soul) living in misery because Lazarus (our spirit) is sick and about to die. They are living in a “House of Misery”. But they end up living in a “House of Dates”, a place of victory and peace and life.
This is us. We live in a “House of Misery” so much of our lives because we have blinded ourselves to the truth that if…
“anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17-17 NASU).
In other words Jesus has taken our “House of Misery” and turned it into a “House of Dates” – a house of peace and victory. But our lack of taking care of our spiritual health (Lazarus) causes us to delay remodeling our new home with what Jesus offers us and keep all the old furnishings we have bought from the world.
Why would we do this? The names of Mary and Martha give us a hint.
Mary means “bitterness”. Martha means “lady”.
These names, which represent our souls – our will, emotions, and intellect, seem contradictory. But they’re not. In fact, they are a very clear picture of my soul and very likely your soul. What do I mean?
So much of life creates bitterness within my thinking because it seems evil is rewarded and good is beaten down. I can will it to be otherwise, but nothing changes. The result is a life of emotional ups and downs. I get angry at what I see around me and the darkness that I know that lives within me. I live in fear that others will see me for who I truly am and turn away from me in disgust. So, what do I do? The same thing you do. I put on a mask for the world to see, a mask that hides the truth. Rather than the world seeing the anger and bitterness that lives within my soul I become “lady-like”. That is I present a face to the world that tells everyone I’m a good person, I have no problems, and I have everything under control. That’s Martha.
Some time ago David Morales and I were talking about some of the battles I fight and some of the things that drive me crazy. He said, “Terry, you remind me of Martha running around the house worried about so many things, when it was Mary who was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening and learning.”
What he meant was Martha was busy doing needful things, but it was Mary Jesus praised. Why? Because Martha was playing the role of “Lady” making sure everything was prim and proper for her guests. She wanted everything to look just right.
But it was Mary who recognized the importance of listening to the words of Jesus while she had the chance. She could eat physical food later – and so could her guests. Her priorities were correct.
I look around me and see all the injustice and pain and the double standards the world uses to judge right from wrong and the hypocrisy and it makes me angry – very angry. And the result is me, often than I would like to admit, trying to set the world straight by cursing the darkness rather than turning on the Light of Truth by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The next thing to notice is what Jesus says about Lazarus being sick. He says…
“This illness does not lead to death” (John 11:4 ESV).
But it did, didn’t it? Lazarus did die. But that wasn’t the end.
Lazarus’ illness did not lead to death; it led through death to life.
When my father died a few members of the family were in the room where he was along with a couple of ladies that worked for hospice. Right after Dad died someone asked me to say a pray. I only remember one thing I prayed at that time. I said,
“Father, I thank You that my dad is as much alive right now to You as he was to us an hour ago.”
You see from God’s point of view no one is dead. All are live. Lazarus was just as alive to God when his body lay in that tomb as he was when Jesus raised him up. In a sense the resurrection of Lazarus was God allowing us to see with His eyes.
Let’s continue with the story.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him’” (John 11:5-10 ESV).
Notice here that it says Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus. This appears to be nothing more than an affirmation of verse 3 that we read earlier…
“Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3 ESV).
But this is more than a restatement of that fact.
The Greek word used for “love” in verse 3 is phileo.
It means to have a feeling or sentiment of affection toward someone. It’s the love we have toward some family members and good friends. And this is a good love, a love that reveals itself by our kindness and compassion toward the one we love. But it’s not necessarily a love that would die for another.
There’s a different Greek word for that kind of love. It’s agape.
This is the highest form of love. It’s a self-sacrificing love, a love that will pay any price to ensure the one loved receives the highest good. It’s a love that continues to love regardless of whether the one loved deserves it or not.
We usually don’t have a problem believing Jesus loves us when we’ve been good, but we have a very hard time believing Jesus loves us when we’ve been bad. Mary and Martha and Lazarus had been good and believed Jesus had a strong feeling of affection toward them – phileo. But the Bible tells us Jesus’ love for them went deeper than that – He loved them because of who they were, not because of what they had or had not done – agage.
What this story tells us is God loves us with a love that is far greater, far deeper than anything we can imagine. And that’s the love we’re supposed to have for one another. Do we?
Agape is also a love that can cause misunderstanding.
It was because Jesus loved Lazarus that He delayed in answering Mary and Martha’s prayer. We may not understand why God doesn’t heal our friends and loved ones immediately or even let’s them die, but…
As Christians it’s not as important to understand the why of things, but the Who behind the things.
Do we truly believe God loves us with an agape type love when the storms of life are destroying everything around us?
Let’s go on.
“After saying these things, he (Jesus) said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:11-16 ESV).
Have you ever had a good friend, someone really close to you, question you about the path of life you are walking down as you follow the leading of the Holy Spirit? No doubt such concern is well meaning. He doesn’t want to see you hurt, nor does he want to experience that hurt with you. So he tries to give you reasons for changing course.
This is what the disciples were doing with Jesus. They knew Jesus’ life was in danger – as well as their own – if He went back to Judea. But when it became clear to them Jesus was going Thomas gives this resounding word of encouragement to Jesus and the other disciples doesn’t he? Uh, not so much.
It’s more like he takes a deep breath, looks around and says…
“Ok, fine. Let’s all die together.”
I can hear Thomas thinking…
“So what’s Jesus going to do? Raise Lazarus from the dead or something.”
Not only do we all have naysayers in our lives like Thomas, well-meaning friends who are loyal to us, but nevertheless do more discouraging rather than encouraging, there’s usually more than one of these people. That’s why I find it interesting that the name “Thomas” means “Twin”. Not only do we have a “Thomas” in our life, he’s not alone. Misery truly does love company.
And the story continues.
“Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.”’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’” (John 11:17-27 ESV).
Note that Lazarus had been dead four days. That’s significant for a couple of reasons. First, the Jews believed that when someone died their soul remained near the body for 3 days making it possible for him to be revived. But after the 4th day all hope was gone. That means Lazarus was truly dead as far as the Jews were concerned which made his resurrection all the more remarkable.
Four is the number for this world, this physical creation.
And according to tradition the world was about 4000 years old at the time Jesus walked on the earth. That means that the world, creation had been dead in trespasses and sins for about 4000 years because of Adam and Eve having eaten of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
This is what the death of Lazarus, though real, symbolizes spiritually. He became sick and when Jesus didn’t immediately intervene to heal him he died. Likewise, when Adam and Eve fell into sin creation became “sick” and when God didn’t immediately intervene to “heal” it, man’s spiritual death eventually resulted in physical death. God could have immediately “healed” creation when Adam and Eve sinned, but out of love He had Jesus wait 4000 before coming to this world to raise it from the dead.
Why would He do that? The delay was necessary to show man that apart from God there’s no way to be “healed” from sin.
The delay proved man’s knowledge and religion could not change his sinful nature.
For 4000 years man tried to rise from the dead, so to speak, by trying to be good and trying to obey the commandments given to him by a sovereign and holy God. But rather than being healed he discovered just how dead he was. At best he was a zombie.
Romans 3:19-20 tells us:
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19-20 ESV).
Mary and Martha represent the bitterness of life man faced after the Fall and his attempt to fix the problem of the deadness he sensed within his spirit by living a good, moral life outwardly. But his attempt to do good by obeying the Law simply revealed how dead his spirit was – which is exactly why the Law was given in the first place.
God knew man died in the Garden of Eden, but it took the Law to prove it to him.
Let’s look at this at an individual level. Mary and Martha represent your soul – your will, emotions, and intellect. There is often much bitterness in your life, often a lot of pressure, and many painful situations. That’s Mary. But because you don’t want the world to see all the garbage and pain in your life or all your failures you put on a mask for others to see. You do all the proper “ladylike” things a Christian is supposed to do. You try to be nice to people, but inside you can’t stand them; you try to say nice things to them, but inside you’re screaming at them; you say you’ll pray God will bless them, but inside your prayer is that God would strike them with lightning.
You get frustrated because you want to be good, be ladylike, but you can’t. Why? Because Lazarus, who represents your spirit – your conscience, intuition, and communion with God – lays dead until raised by Jesus into new life. Once your spirit – Lazarus – is “born-again” and becomes “Head of the household” so to speak, and your soul – Mary and Martha – submits to the headship of your now divinely inspired spirit, you can quit trying to be good and masking the fears and brokenness that is a part of all of us.
Let’s go on.
“When she (Martha) had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying’ (John 11:28-37 ESV)?
I want to quickly point out the difference between how Martha approached Jesus as compared to Mary. Both of them said the same thing to Jesus.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32 ESV).
But notice their posture. Martha came and stood before Him; Mary came and fell at his feet. Though polite and respectful to Jesus Martha’s posture is one of dignity and emotional control. Mary’s position is one of brokenness and worship. She didn’t care what those around her thought of her behavior.
Too often the masks we wear as Christians so we will appear dignified and in control of ourselves – ladylike – comes at the expense of humbling ourselves in the presence of Jesus out of fear of being thought of as strange or radical. Much of our outward worship is tailored to meet the expectations of those around us rather than allowing ourselves to be free to express our fears, and pain, and brokenness openly. It shouldn’t be that way.
We come to the climax of the story now.
“Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’ (John 11:38-44 ESV).
At this moment all the doubts and questions the disciples and Mary and Martha had about Jesus’ actions and strange – to them – behavior vanished. No longer would they ask, “Why did Jesus delay in coming to Lazarus? Did Jesus truly love him? Was He unwilling to heal him?”
All of these were replaced with the knowledge that He was willing not only to heal a sick man, but raise a dead man.
But this story wouldn’t be complete without revealing what the name “Lazarus” means. Romans 5:6 says…
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6 NASU).
You know, I have never known of anyone who has a nice home, a nice car, money in the bank, a healthy family, and no problems waking up one morning and saying: “I think I’ll become a Christian today.” That doesn’t happen. It’s when we lose everything and everything begins to spin out of control in our lives and we’re helpless to fix it that we’re brought to our knees before the Lord and seek Him.
I tell you that because the name…
“Lazarus means “helpless”.
Lazarus symbolizes the helplessness creation and we face when we try to save ourselves. It’s only when we realize that we are spiritually dead and are helpless to remove the smell of death from us, it’s only when we realize we are helpless to open the door of our spiritual tomb, and it’s only when we realize we are helpless to remove the grave clothes we are wrapped that we will experience our resurrection from the dead. It’s only when we realize that our name is “Helpless” that we will respond to Jesus when He calls us out of the tomb. Because as long as we think we are not Helpless we will remain deaf to the call of Jesus which describes the majority of mankind.
Finally, notice it was Jesus who gave Lazarus new life, but He used others to roll away the stone from the tomb and it was others He used to remove Lazarus’ grave clothes. That is a picture of the mission of the Church.
Only God can bring a dead spirit back to life, but it’s up to us to open the door of their heart that they might hear the voice of Jesus calling them and it’s up to us to remove the “grave clothes” of the newly born-again that they might be clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ instead.