It has been long wondered why the stunning miracle of the raising of Lazarus is not mentioned in the Synoptic gospels. It was, after all, a miracle that must have been among the most significant of all the Lord’s miracles, leading as it did to the final determination of the religious leadership to kill him, Any number of reasons have been proposed, but perhaps the most convincing is that Peter was not present on the occasion of this miracle and so did not include it in his account, in the Gospel of Mark – which, you remember, is Peter’s gospel – because he was not himself an eyewitness. He wanted his Gospel to be an eyewitness account and he had not seen the raising of Lazarus with his own eyes. The absence of this account in Matthew and Luke may well be due to the fact that it was omitted in Mark. Peter is absent by name in the Gospel of John from 6:68 to 13:6. It appears not unlikely that he remained behind in Galilee taking care of his livelihood when the others went to Jerusalem. This also is a likely explanation for the unusual role of Thomas in this account. We expect Peter to speak for the group, but someone else would fill that role if Peter were not there.
v.1 This Bethany has not been mentioned in the Gospel before. It is not the same Bethany as the one mentioned in 1:28 – which was across the Jordan, and so John identifies it more precisely as the village of Mary and Martha. This Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem on the Jericho road.
v.2 The account of the Lord’s anointing by Mary is not given until 12:1-8. The fact that John mentions the incident before he reports it probably indicates that he knows his readers, or many of his readers, are already familiar with the story. On the other hand, perhaps this is simply narrative foreshadowing, a technique to keep the reader moving forward to find out about a story that has been anticipated but not yet told.
v.3 Though we have not met this family to this point in the Gospel, it is clear that they have a close and affectionate relationship with the Lord. That he had enjoyed a more than usual friendship with them is a reminder of how much we do not know of what happened during the three years of the ministry. What is more, they clearly have confidence that Jesus would be able to do something about their brother’s illness. They knew about, of course, if they had not seen with their own eyes, the Lord’s healing miracles.
v.5 The statement in v. 4 could seem harsh, an evidence that Jesus did not care about Lazarus’ suffering. So John hurries to forestall that impression. Jesus loved those three.
v.6 The NIV’s “Yet when…” is a mistake and is followed by nobody. The words are simply and straightforwardly translated “When, therefore…” That is to say, Jesus’ delay in coming to Bethany was motivated by his love for them. And that, of course, becomes a question in the reader’s mind. How can his delay be an act of love? We will discover that in due time.
v.10 Twelve hours stood for the whole day, the daylight period. Twelve hours is all the time there is in a day when a man may work without stumbling. The Lord has work to do, his assignment from his father. While there is still day, he must be about that work. It is a statement similar to that made in 9:4. The last statement clearly extends the thought to the metaphorical level. Men who walk in darkness – that is who do not have the light of Christ – must stumble. There is a darkness deeper and more sinister than nighttime.
v.11 He has a particular piece of work to do, in other words, work from his father to complete. The disciples misunderstand the euphemism, but there is something beautiful here. Christ has transformed death – the enemy that everyone fears and no one can do anything about – into mere sleep.
v.14 The fact that he has supernatural intelligence of Lazarus’ death further indicates that he is going to Bethany on assignment.
v.16 Because of his role at the end of the Gospel we think of Thomas as “the Doubter.” Here, however, he shows raw courage, however mixed with misunderstanding it may have been. Here we see the makings of the great missionary to India.
A few years ago, Florence and I visited Rome at the end of two charmed weeks in Greece and Italy: a trip, you may remember, that the congregation gave us in recognition of the twentieth anniversary of my pastorate here. We drove into Rome in our rented car and had an experience that has been shared by virtually anyone who has driven as a tourist in large European cities. We had a map, but it hardly showed us everything we needed to know or, at least, in the way we needed to see it. The traffic was whizzing by while we were trying to locate street signs – usually posted in places an American would never think to look – without causing an accident. From the outskirts of the city we made our way gradually, not without some wrong turns, toward the center of the city from which we hoped to be able to find our way to the Campo di Fiori, the famous flower market by which our hotel was located.
At last we found ourselves all of a sudden at the Coliseum and then down the broad avenue to the War Memorial. We were getting closer. But what street to take from there. It was hard to tell from the map and, in any case, we were being carried along by the traffic and could hardly have turned if we had wanted to. Now, I understand from others that often in situations like this – with the wife desperately searching the map in the front passenger seat while her husband drives – the husband can get irritated and upset with his wife because she seems unable to give him clear directions in a timely way. Fortunately, in our case, there was nothing of that! Calm, cheer, and goodwill prevailed in our car. But, still, we turned here and turned there, then would stop to get our bearings, to try to find our location on the map. Streets would have one name for a block and then another, many were one-way the wrong way, and sometimes, even when we stopped to study it out, we couldn’t tell where we were precisely, all the more frustrating because we knew we were at least in the general vicinity of where we needed to be. One more turn, one more stop to look up at the side of the buildings where the street signs were posted. And, lo and behold, we found ourselves, quite by accident, smack dab in the Campo di Fiori. We had made our way by a series of wrong turns to that exact point where we needed to be.
Well, life is very much like that for Christians! The Bible says so many times. We do not see where we are going from moment to moment. We cannot see clearly the map of our life and connect one circumstance to the next. We often make wrong turns and appear to ourselves and others to be quite lost. But, then, suddenly, we find ourselves exactly where we ought to be. We couldn’t ourselves explain how we got there, but there we are: we are home, we are safe. All the time we were struggling to find our way, all the while we felt we were lost in a maze and couldn’t find our way out, the Lord God was directing our steps in ways we did not recognize to lead us to that place we needed to be at just the time we needed to be there. Of course the grandest illustration of this is how people view their past when first they become Christians; how the Lord led them by a route they never even realized they were taking inexorably to him and to faith in him. Looking back it is clear to them, but beforehand they had no idea. But the same is true all through the Christian life, until at last we find ourselves in heaven and can hardly say how we got there, having taken as many wrong turns as we did!
Look here in the introduction to the greatest of the Lord’s miracles in the Gospel of John. We have two groups of believing people all in a muddle. Life has caught them up and is tossing them about and they feel that they have lost direction and control. Two sisters who love their brother deeply see him slipping away from them and they are desolate. They cry for help but none comes in time. They grieve for their dead brother.
Some others here, the disciples, think that the Lord’s plan to return to a town so near Jerusalem was sheer suicide. They are loyal to him, willing even to die with him – and that was no mere romanticism on their part; we read in chapter 10:39 of a very recent attempt by the religious leadership to seize the Lord – but that is what they think will happen if they go to Bethany. This is, in their minds, most definitely a wrong turn.
It is, of course, all so transparent to someone who knows how the story ends. They will all be delighted in the outcome. At the end the sisters will be so much happier that their brother died than they would have been if he had simply been healed before his death. And the disciples will see something that will change their lives forever. If it is true, as it seems to be, that the Apostle Thomas, in the years following Pentecost, took the Gospel eastward as far as India, how many times do you suppose his thoughts went back to those days when he despaired of his life as they walked to Bethany and then came face to face with Christ’s power to raise the dead? When he was discouraged, when he faced persecution, when he feared for his life, how many times do you suppose he thought back to his own doubts and then the astonishing thing he saw when Lazarus, four-days dead, walked out of that grave in Bethany? How many times do you suppose the remembrance of that put a spring in Thomas’ step and reminded him that he served the Prince of Life and that he had no reason to fear death ever again?
Fact is, no one in either of these groups had anything to worry about. They were both just a few days away from the purest joy and deepest amazement. But they couldn’t see that then. Not at all. They were lost in a maze and couldn’t see their way out.
But the Lord wasn’t lost. He knew precisely where he was going and where he was going to take his people. He knew that Lazarus would die and then that he had died. He didn’t hurry to Bethany precisely because he intended that he should raise Lazarus from the dead rather than simply heal him of his sickness. He knew precisely how he himself would die and he knew it wasn’t going to be in Bethany. Indeed, he knew that the miracle he was going there to perform would be a means of bringing about his crucifixion in Jerusalem during the Passover Feast that was drawing near. The Lord could see all of this. His disciples and his friends in Bethany couldn’t see any of it.
And in that distinction we find ourselves much of the time, do we not? How often the Bible indicates, either before or after the fact, that certain dark and difficult circumstances had been appointed by the Lord as a means to show himself to his people or to reveal his power and glory to the world. Such was the case of the man born blind, as were read in 9:3. When the disciples ask the Lord Jesus who was at fault for the man’s blindness, he himself or his parents, Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” But, of course, neither the man nor his parents had any inkling of that during the long difficult years of his blindness or at the terrible moment when the mother and father discovered that their baby was blind. No what was, in fact, brightness itself – the prospect of this man being healed and gaining his sight miraculously in the middle of his age – had been years of darkness and disappointment for him and tears and heartache for his father and mother.
How different things would appear to us, even the darkest, heaviest things, if we could see how they fit into God’s gracious plan for our lives.
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
(In the same way, how dark even the brightest, happiest things would appear in the lives of unbelievers, if they could see what their temporary pleasures and successes were leading them to at the last!)
But it is even more than simply that heavy things and dark days and discouragements will lead at last to light and glory for the children of God. It is even more than that troubles will bring their blessings while we are still in this world because God has appointed our troubles for good in our lives. No, when you confess that God is absolutely sovereign, infinitely wise, and immeasurably kind and merciful, it becomes necessary for us to go on to confess that as dark as our way may sometimes seem, there could be no better way for us to travel. As many wrong turns as we may seem to take, getting nowhere, in fact we are traveling the only way we shall want to have traveled when our traveling days are done.
Samuel Rutherford once made this point in a letter to Lady Kenmure, a woman who more than once felt sorrows and bitter disappointments such as Martha and Mary felt in the death of their brother.
“Madam, when ye are come to the other side of the water, and have set down your foot on the shore of glorious eternity, and look back again to the waters and to your wearisome journey, and shall see, in that clear glass of endless glory, nearer to the bottom of God’s wisdom, ye shall then be forced to say, ‘If God had done otherwise with me than he hath done, I had never come to the enjoying of this crown of glory.” [Letter XI, p. 52]
God knows best and the Bible is teaching us, here and in many other places, that we can confidently believe that, even when our circumstances seem dark and God’s blessing seems distant. We have the same right and the same obligation to feel that as Martha and Mary had to feel that the Lord knew precisely what he was doing and had nothing other than love for them in his heart or their good in his plan when, with broken hearts, they saw their dear brother take his last breath. We do not know, of course, how a particular sadness will turn out to our blessing and our salvation any more than Martha and Mary knew that Lazarus’ death was going to be the occasion of the greatest, the most thrilling happiness of their lives. But we know that this miracle is intended to be a picture of how God blesses and sanctifies all sadness, all disappointment in the lives of his children.
Christ waited for those two days, we read in vv. 5-6 precisely because he loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus! He brought them into despair precisely because that despair would be a means of his bringing them to greater happiness and goodness and a stronger faith. And he says the same thing in v. 13 regarding his disciples. Had he gone immediately and healed his friend, the disciples would have been glad for it, no doubt, and may have marveled again at the Lord’s power to heal the sick, which they had seen many times before. But, he says that he was glad that Lazarus died – heartbreaking as that experience had been for his sisters and terrifying as it would be for the disciples to return to the environs of Jerusalem – because only in that way could he show his power to them and gain for them a far greater, sturdier faith than otherwise they would have had. “For we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And how many times in days of darkness and trouble did those disciples remember how that had come true in the case of Lazarus, his sisters, and themselves.
The point is not that every sadness will be overcome in this remarkable way and turned in a day or two into indescribable joy. The point is that the Lord holds our darkness in his hands and employs it for our blessing and it is our privilege to know that and to believe that if sorrow lasts through the night, joy will definitely come in the morning, however long the night must last, however sooner or later the morning will come.
And what then are we to do? Well, just this. We are to remember that God loves us in our troubles and is after good things for us in them. Here he was after a stronger faith. He is often after a stronger faith, the kind of faith that is produced only when his people see the Lord coming to help them when they are in great need and when his people feel his hand lifting them up when they felt themselves about to fall. But he is after other things as well: a softer heart, a more humble mind, the diminishment of the pleasures of sin and the allurements of this world, a greater sympathy for others, and on and on.
Listen to this wisdom from P.T. Forsyth.
“It is a greater thing to pray for pain’s conversion than for its removal. It is more of grace to pray that God would make a sacrament of it. The sacrament of pain! That we partake not simply, nor perhaps chiefly, when we say, or try to say, with resignation, ‘Thy will be done.’ It is not always easy for the sufferer, if he remain clear-eyed, to see that it is God’s will. It may have been caused by an evil mind, or a light fool, or some stupid greed. But, now it is there, a certain treatment of it is God’s will; and that is to capture and exploit it for Him. It is to make it serve the soul and glorify God. It is to consecrate its elements and make it sacramental. It is to convert it into prayer.
God has blessed pain even in causing us to pray for relief from it, or profit. Whatever drives us to Him, and even nearer Him, has a blessing in it. And, if we are to go higher still, it is to turn pain to praise, to thank Him in the fires, to review life and use some of the energy we spend in worrying upon recalling and tracing his goodness, patience, and mercy. If much open up to us in such a review we may be sure there is much more we do not know, and perhaps never may. God is the greatest of all who do good by stealth and do not crave for every benefit to be acknowledged. Or we may see how our pain becomes a blessing to others. And we turn the spirit of heaviness to a garment of praise. We may stop grousing and get our soul into its Sunday clothes. The sacrament of pain becomes then a true Eucharist and giving of thanks.” [The Soul of Prayer, 42-43]
I love that: the sacrament of pain! You know, Lazarus died again some years later. And, I imagine his sisters, if they were still living, wept over the loss of a dear brother. But, do you not think that they also laughed through their tears? They had turned their pain into a sacrament, a means of grace to them, precisely because they now knew that this pain was the means to his blessing and theirs.
One of the very last pieces ever published by John Chrysostom, the great preacher of early Christianity, was a letter to a faithful Christian woman, Olympias who had been one of John’s lifelong friends. It concerned the persecution then being suffered by the followers of John in the capital of Constantinople and elsewhere in the eastern empire. John himself was in exile during this time and died just a few months later. The letter bore the title No Man can be Harmed Save by Himself. John’s point was a simple one. God is in control of our lives and things fall out according to his will and purpose. We may not be able to see that purpose, but we can trust it to be good and tending to our blessing and salvation. Therefore, all that remains for us to do, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, is to trust and to obey. Believing our lives to be in the Lord’s hands, let us then serve him faithfully, cheerfully, obediently. The Lord is directing our steps with an infinite love in his heart. It is ours to live for him as though we know that! Our circumstances can do us no harm, said Chrysostom, only our failure to remember the Lord who stands behind them and will bless us in them.
Don’t you suppose that later, Mary and Martha and the Lord’s disciples would find themselves in difficult or discouraging straits and would be tempted to despair and despondency and anger and irritation and then would catch themselves. They would remember what had happened at Bethany long ago and smile to themselves and say, “Oh no; I’m not going to make that mistake again!”