Missing The Main Event

A few summers ago, one of my sons and I were headed to a concert together. We were on the way, but an accident on the road stopped traffic for about an hour. As a result, we ended up missing one of our favorite bands. We were literally walking up to the stadium as we heard the muffled sounds of their last and best song. We missed the main event. Stuck in traffic.  So common in Washington, DC.

In this same vein, a friend of mine tells the story of going to a baseball game.[1] It’s the seventh inning and nothing’s happening. Neither team has scored all game. Nothing exciting has happened. So, he goes to get some baseball food. He snakes his way to the concession stand and gets a hotdog. And just as he’s applying the mustard, there’s a roar in the stadium. He heads back to his seat and his buddy who’s been watching baseball for 35 years says, “Wow, I have never seen anything like that! What a home run! It left the stadium. It left the parking lot. It left earth’s orbit. It was astounding! Where were you?” He missed the main event. Getting mustard.

The Christian faith has a main event – a lot of people seem to miss it. In John 11:25, Jesus claims to be the resurrection and the life. He claims to have defeated death and overcome the grave. Is it true? Can he be believed?

The build-up…

Jesus makes this claim, that he is the resurrection and the life, in the middle of a dramatic and tragic story. In this story, we get reminders of Jesus’ humanity. He was a man with friends and he actually walked this earth.

One of these friends of Jesus was called Lazarus. Indeed, he was one of Jesus’ dearest friends. At the start of John 11, we read that Lazarus has been sick. But now his situation has deteriorated and become gravely serious. This sequence of events is not foreign to us, especially not in this season. We’ve had the same thing happen to loved ones ourselves.

Lazarus has two sisters – Mary and Martha – and they send for Jesus, saying “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Even in this small detail, we have a helpful model: We ought to bring our loved ones to Jesus. In response, Jesus sends word back to the sisters, saying, “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.”

Wouldn’t this be an encouraging message? Things don’t look good but Jesus – the bread of life, the light of the world, the door to eternity, the good shepherd – says it won’t end in death. The tension in the sisters melts away as they hear the words of Jesus to them.

The story in John 11, however, continues with a rather confusing detail. In verses five and six, we read that because Jesus loves this family, he stays where he is for two more days. Given the urgency of the situation and his love for the family, we’d expect him to go immediately. But he doesn’t.

It’s not until 48 hours later that he says it’s time to go. Why is now the right time? Jesus tries to explain to his disciples in verse 11, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” Understandably, the disciples don’t get it. They respond,Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” The disciples seem to think (as any of us would!) that a good nap is exactly what Lazarus needs! Why would they go to wake him up, in the middle of his recovery? So, Jesus tells 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.” What a curious scene.

In verse 17 of this passage, we begin to see some action. Jesus finally arrives. By this time, Lazarus isn’t just dead, we read that he has already been in the tomb for four days. A casual reading of this text might miss this detail. At this time, Jewish custom and belief asserted that your soul would hover over your body for three days after you died. Then, once decomposition set in, it would depart.[2] So the fact that Lazarus has already been in the tomb four days means he’s not just dead, he’s dead dead. It’s over. He’s gone. There’s no hope.

It is in verse 20 that we begin to see how the sisters are responding in their grief for their brother. Martha hears Jesus is coming and rushes out to meet him while Mary remains at home. When a loved one died in those days, it was customary to sit in your house for a 30-day period of mourning.[3] That’s what Mary is up to here. But Martha – who is normally the rule follower – isn’t having it. Overwhelmed by grief and sorrow she runs to Jesus. But when she finds him, she issues what R. C. Sproul refers to as a rebuke:Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[4]

We can understand that rebuke, can’t we? Imagine, or recall from your own life, what it was like for these sisters – how their brother wasn’t feeling well, so they put him to bed and made him some soup, expecting a full recovery; how their concerns began to rise when the illness lingered and he didn’t rebound like they’d expected; how panic began to set in as he took a dramatic turn for the worse; how things became so desperate that they sent for Jesus; how their hearts and minds were flooded with rest and peace when Jesus said the sickness wouldn’t lead to dead; how time began to pass…and Lazarus kept getting worse…and Jesus kept NOT showing up.

Have you been around death?[5] I think of my grandfather. I think of members of our church. You sit by the bed of your loved one. As the end nears, they slip in and out of consciousness. Moments of clarity, followed by moments of confusion. In time they speak their last words, which are rarely planned and eloquent, but normally confused and incoherent. You continue to speak to them since hearing is thought to be the last sense to go. You whisper your love, your gratitude, then you weep for the separation that’s happening even now. As the final hours arrive, breathing becomes labored, they gasp for breath as you hold yours. Then comes the death rattle. Without the strength to swallow or cough, breathing becomes moist and shallow until it stops.

Death is a horror. It is not the way things are meant to be. And these sisters endured it all without electricity, without painkillers, without an ICU – and without Jesus, who didn’t show up.

Where does this leave Jesus? In response to Martha’s rebuke, Jesus, kind and gentle, says, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha (like so many of us) responds with a bit of theology that’s true but doesn’t seem to have much of a hold on her, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” It’s like she’s repeating something she’s been taught, but it feels like a religious platitude.

Jesus interrupts with a confusing and earth-shaking statement in verse 25. “I am the resurrection and the life.” In other words, Resurrection and life are not just things that will happen in the future. They aren’t just something Jesus does. They are something that Jesus unequivocally and irrevocably is.

I am the Resurrection and the Life

What does that mean? Luckily, Jesus gives us more. Immediately after claiming to be the resurrection and the life, Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

At first this seems a little contradictory, right?[6] Verse 25 says that if you believe in Jesus, though you die – you’ll live. But then verse 26 says that if you believe in Jesus – you’ll never die. So, which is it, Jesus? Do we die or not?

Here’s what Jesus is saying: Everyone will die physically. But if you believe in me, after physical death – you’ll live. So, there’s a sense in which you’ll never die. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Believe in me and I’ll put a life inside of you that cannot be killed – even by physical death.” One commentator describes this as the promise of continued personal existence. The day your physical body dies is not the day the Christian dies.[7] Believe in Jesus and you’ll live forever.

John 11:28-44 contains the big action points of this story. Jesus demonstrates to us the basis for his claim that he is the resurrection and the life. It is in this passage that we have the shortest verses in our English Bibles. John 11:35 tells us, “Jesus wept.” It points us to the love of Christ and it is the prelude to a miracle. We are approaching the main event.

The six verses in John 11:38-44 give us the main event.

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 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.’ 40 Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’ 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.’ 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’

All Jesus does is raise his voice. It’s as easy for him to raise the dead as it is to rouse a loved one from sleep. His is the voice that was at the beginning, the voice that created the world. Now that same voice recreates with nothing but a word. And don’t you love that he uses Lazarus’ name? If he’d left it general, dead people would have risen up all over the place! But this is a personal resurrection – for Lazarus, the one whom he loves.

Look what happens in verse 44: “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.’”

At the word of Jesus, the man who had died – remember, he was dead dead – comes alive alive. Brain waves begin to fire again. His heart begins to beat again. His lungs begin to breathe again. Decomposed flesh recomposes to strength – and he walks out the tomb. The illness did NOT end in death because Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Martha and Mary had to wait. They didn’t know what God was up to. They had moments of doubt. Surely that resonates with most of us. We’ve all had seasons like that. Here is the truth, the hard truth, in the midst of the waiting: Jesus can always be trusted and he’s always at work. Mary and Martha hoped for healing. But they got something better. They got the main event. They got resurrection.[8]

So What?

Before we think, “That’s nice for them…” let’s remember how it’s true for us. We look to the victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lazarus just reminds us of what Jesus tells us in John 10 – just one chapter earlier: “I have the authority to lay down my life, and I have the authority to take it up again” (Jn 10:18). Jesus certainly used that authority. Dying on the cross – until he was dead dead – he took the punishment our sins deserve; then, up from the grave, he rose again to glorious life.

Many years after John wrote this gospel, Jesus was alive to appear to him again. In the book of Revelation, which John received as an old man, Jesus appeared to him and John writes: When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades (Rev 1:17-18). [9] Jesus himself rose again from the dead – that’s the main event! And now the one who is the resurrection and the life has the key to unlock death. And he opens the door to all who look to him in faith.

Toward the middle of the passage we’ve been exploring, John 11:1-44, Jesus asks a key question that he still asks even today. In verse 26, Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” As we listen in on this question he asks Martha, we begin to realize that he is asking us this same question.

Throughout all of humanity history, we’ve been fascinated with what happens after death. We see it in art, in music, in literature, in philosophy, in The Avengers. And in this passage, Jesus makes it clear. All of us will die physically. This is a hard but important truth for us each to face. Have the courage to live in light of inarguable reality. The death rattle comes to us all.[10] But then what? Jesus says some will go to eternal life while others will face eternal death. What’s the difference between the two groups? The difference comes solely in how we answer Christ’s question. It’s the question that serves as the eternal divide. It’s the question that separates those who will live from those who will die.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. If you believe in him – as the one who died so you don’t need to be punished for sin, and the one who rose to defeat death – he’ll call you by name. The promise of continued personal existence. Your death won’t mean the end of life. A personal resurrection because he loves you.

Don’t miss the main event. Don’t be caught in traffic. Don’t be found messing around with the mustard. Come listen to the best music you’ll ever hear. Come watch the greatest play you’ll ever see.

If you’ve already answered this question, you’re still faced with a “Now what?” We believe in the resurrection, but that was 2,000 years ago. Now what do we do?

Did you notice the caveat earlier when I mentioned that the shortest verse in the English Bible is, “Jesus wept”? That’s the shortest verse in English, but it’s not the shortest verse in the original Greek. In the original languages the shortest verse in the Bible is 1 Thessalonians 5:16. “Rejoice always.”

We should remember that we added the verses – they weren’t given to us by God! But we are talking about a biblical truth: Because Jesus wept, we rejoice. Because he died, we have grace. Because he rose, we have life. The resurrection is the main event. And it’s ours in Christ.

Revelation 21:4 tells us that, “[Jesus] will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

We can grieve now. And we should. Jesus knew he was about to raise Lazarus, and still he wept. No one in history has ever been so present. He entered into suffering and was not afraid to cry. But as we grieve, we hope – and even rejoice.

Your burdens, your sorrows, your fears, your weaknesses will all be undone by him. This is the truth, the promise, the power of resurrection.

Every pain and evil we’ve long endured
Will be crushed by Christ our King.[11]

As Christ called the name of Lazarus – so he will call out yours and mine.

Because he lives, we can face tomorrow.
Because he lives, every fear is gone.
We know he holds our lives, our futures in his hand.[12]

General Sources

This list contains the primary resources that were used to prepare this article. Check them out if you want to dig a little deeper.

  • James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, Volumes 2 and 3.
  • John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John.
  • Iain D. Campbell, I AM… Exploring the ‘I am’ sayings of John’s Gospel
  • A. Carson, The Gospel According to John.
  • Matt Chandler, I AM.
  • Ray Cortese, To Believe.
  • Paul Jeon, Life Eternal: The Gospel of John.
  • Timothy Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive.
  • Logos Bible Software.
  • Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel.
  • Tim Mackie, Read Scripture: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books.
  • C. Sproul, Knowing Christ: The I AM Sayings of Jesus.

Endnotes

[1] See Ray Cortese, To Believe, accessed here on 5/14/20.

[2] See D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 411.

[3] See Matt Chandler, The Resurrection and the Life, accessed here on 5/14/20.

[4] See R. C. Sproul, Knowing Christ: The I AM Sayings of Jesus – part 5, accessed here on 5/14/20.

[5] I owe the inclusion of this idea to the Chandler sermon referenced above.

[6] I owe the exegesis of this point to the Sproul lecture referenced above.

[7] See Sproul lecture referenced above.

[8] The insight that Martha and Mary got more than they expected is highlighted by numerous commentators.

[9] I owe the inclusion of this passage to R. C. Sproul in the lecture referenced above.

[10] Strictly speaking, not everyone experiences the death rattle, but the point still stands – all of us will die.

[11] All Glory Be Forever. Words & Music by J. Kauflin.

[12] Because He Lives. Words & Music by M. Maher, W. J. Gaither, G. Gaither, D. Carson, C. Tomlin, E. Cash, & J. Ingram.

James is the Senior Pastor of McLean Presbyterian Church, located just outside of Washington, D.C. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he graduated from the University of Edinburgh, before moving to the U.S. to study at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS), Jackson. He is now a Guest Professor of Practical Theology at RTS Washington, D.C.

Meet Rev. James Forsyth