As Jesus approaches those mourning, Lazarus' sister, Martha, comes out to meet Jesus and says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Martha's sister, Mary, repeats this phrase to Jesus a few moments later, though, from a much more deferential posture. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Whole sermons have been and should continue to be preached on John 11:35 - "Jesus wept" - but it's also interesting to note the response of the other Jews near the scene in verses 36-37 of the text. "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 have kept this man from dying?'"
This is a universal question. We all have or will ask this question at some point. "Why couldn't the Lord have prevented _________ from dying?" Why my grandmother or my grandfather? Why my friend? Why my mother, my father, my brother or my sister? Why my wife, my husband, my son or my daughter? Why them? And more pointedly, why now? We can identify with Martha and Mary. "Lord, if you had been here, ________ would not have died!"
Death is inevitable for all of us. It's not a matter of if, but when. But the writer of the gospel of John wants to share an antidote for death with his readers. That antidote is resurrection, and resurrection is one of the major themes in his gospel.
The mainstream Jewish view of the eschaton (end times) featured the bodily resurrection of God's people. John's gospel is in step with this theology as he records Jesus' affirmation of the resurrection as the gateway into the age to come. Jesus even affirms that his own voice will signal the final resurrection of the dead. Let's read together John 5:25-29, "Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation."
The writer of John's gospel presents much of his teaching on the meaning of Jesus through 7 signs. The sign of the resurrection of Lazarus is the 7th, and most significant of the signs, but the 1st sign is also important as it relates to resurrection. Have you ever noticed how the 1st sign, the sign of Jesus turning water to wine begins? John 2:1 says this. "On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee..." I believe something else of significance happened on the third day! This is no accident. If you read further in John 2, after Jesus turns the water to wine, you will notice that John tells the story of Jesus cleansing the temple much earlier than the 3 synoptic gospels. In John's gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple near the beginning of his ministry, whereas in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus doesn't perform this act until the last week of his life. Jesus did not cleanse the temple twice. John has simply rearranged the chronology for theological purposes, namely to link the cleansing of the temple to this 1st sign. Notice the interaction between Jesus and his opponents after he shuts down the temple operations.
"The Jews then said to him, 'What sign can you show us for doing this?' Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' The Jews then said, 'This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?' But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.'" (John 2:18-22).
By linking the 1st sign of turning water to wine with the cleansing of the temple, and with Jesus then linking the cleansing of the temple with his own resurrection, the writer of John's gospel is alerting the reader to one of his major themes. He wants us to see that the story he is telling is the story of resurrection.
As one continues through the gospel and the other signs, eventually one is brought to the 7th sign and the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. The 7th sign points to where this story has been going from the beginning, to the ultimate resurrection - Jesus' own eternal resurrection from the dead.
But let's leave Lazarus in the tomb for a little while so that we can overhear an important conversation between Jesus and Lazarus' sister Martha. This conversation points even beyond Jesus' resurrection to the bodily resurrection of all who will put their faith in him.
"When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, '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 of him.' 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. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die. Do you believe this? ' She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.'"
Of course, Jesus does call Lazarus out from the tomb, still wrapped in the burial cloths. He was raised from the dead, but his death was not an eternal resurrection. The body which came out of the tomb on that day eventually died again. Nevertheless, his resurrection is the gospel of John's second most important sign and points to Jesus' own resurrection, the ultimate sign of who Jesus is. Jesus is the resurrection and the life - no one comes to the Father but through him.
Lazarus' resurrection not only points to Jesus' resurrection, but it also points to our future hope of resurrection. And just as springtime and Easter reminds us of the resurrection of the Son of God, it should also remind us that one day, God will give eternal life to all who have put their trust in Jesus. That eternal life will begin with the bodily resurrection from the dead. Resurrection is the gateway into eternal life in the age to come in the renewed creation.
G.K. Chesterton's poem The Convert captures some of these ideas well.
After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright,
And I came out where the old road shone white.
I walked the ways and heard what all men said,
Forests of tongues, like autumn leaves unshed,
Being not unlovable but strange and light;
Old riddles and new creeds, not in despite
But softly, as men smile about the dead
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free;
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
For those of us who have placed our lives in the hands of the one who died and rose again, may we never lose heart, because our future is bright. Our hope - through Jesus - is resurrection. - Shay