Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany. [Mary and Martha, his sisters] sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again… Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”
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 is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him...”
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
And after she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. "The Teacher is here," she said, "and is asking for you…” Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, 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 came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and 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 have kept this man from dying?” Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."
The physical revival of Lazarus was yet another of the seven miracles that John included in his gospel to fulfill his stated goal: so we would believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Jesus himself says this happened “so the Son of Man will be glorified…so that you may believe…you will see the glory of God…for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe you sent me.” In this miracle, we see Jesus establishing that he has has the power to raise the dead. This is important, because the Bible teaches us two key principles that follow from this fact.
First, death cannot stop God from raising us into eternal life. One chapter earlier, John quotes Jesus as saying: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28) Martha affirms this. She believes it will happen on the last day. Jesus basically says, “Yes, because of me.”
Second, God can raise us from spiritual death to life in this life. Paul wrote in Romans 8:
“If Christ lives within you, even though the body is as good as dead because of the effects of sin, the Spirit is infusing you with life now that you are right with God. If the Spirit of the One who resurrected Jesus from the dead lives inside of you, then you can be sure that He who raised Him will cast the light of life into your mortal bodies through the life-giving power of the Spirit residing in you.” (Romans 8:10-11)
Jesus infuses us with new spiritual life through His Holy Spirit even before he raises us up to the ultimate glory of eternal life in bodies that are incorruptible and free of the ravages of sin and death.
Matthew records that Jesus healed a lame man so people would know he had the power to forgive sins (Matthew 9). In other words, he did something miraculous they could see in order to prove he could to miraculous things they couldn’t see. Here again, Martha believed in an unseen world of resurrection; Jesus raises Lazarus in the seen world so that people would believe the entirety of his claims.
But there’s another portion of this story that lingers with me, an odd and even gross detail that was important enough to include. In this midst of this celebration is a sobering reality: even though Lazarus had been raised into new life, he had spent some time in the corrupting power of death, and he stank. And now those who loved him were going to need to hold their noses and get their hands dirty as they unwrapped him.
I realize that this is not the main point of the story. That fact that Jesus has the power to bring the dead to life is the main point of the story. Next week, I am going to focus on the implications that has for our lives. But today I want to focus on a small detail I believe offers something for our spiritual instruction. Remember: Jesus used a physical miracle to prove a spiritual reality. In this case, I think we see a physical analogy that acknowledges an important part of the spiritual reality of what it will look like when we are raised into a new spiritual life in Christ.
When we move from death to life, it’s glorious but it’s not always pretty. Let’s start with the glorious part. Our resurrection with Christ saves us from spiritual death. It frees us from the legacy of our sin eating away at us and corrupting us. This is fantastic news.
“You laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.” (Colossians 3:9-10)
“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)
So it’s glorious. If you have a testimony that includes freedom from bondage to sin, you know this. When Jeff shared his story a couple weeks ago, the glorious power of God at work in his life was made clear. Our new life is glorious. It’s just not always pretty. Zombie stories give us a decent analogy for what sin does to us. It kills us and we don’t know it. We stumble around, falling apart, consuming others, wasting away in ways that are both heart breaking and terrifying.
And Jesus heals us from that.
I was watching a special on the History Channel about Halloween, and in their segment on the history of the zombie in world literature they noted that Jesus was the only ‘zombie’ (person who was dead and came back to life) that came back to give life to others rather than take it away. The History Channel was not promoting the divinity of Christ, but even they recognized that there is something different and important about Jesus.
But even though we have been brought to life, we spent time dead in sin experiencing spiritual corruption, and there is a legacy that lingers. It’s going to be a process. There’s some cleaning up to do. Can we just be honest about that? Here’s Lazarus celebrating – “Woo hoo! No way! I’m alive!” and his friends are like, “You need to take a bath.”
In heaven, the corruptible will put on the incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:54). We are not there yet. New life on this side of heaven is glorious but it does not yet equal perfection. We are freed from the controlling power and the eternal penalty of our sin because of Christ, but God made a world in which we reap a temporal penalty for what we have sown (Galatians 6:7).
This is why, if you were dead in greed, or gossip, or sexual sin, you likely won’t walk away from a new commitment to Jesus suddenly freed of the habits and patterns you have formed over the years. We are “being renewed” (2 Corinthians 4:16) and “being transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2) Those are progressive verbs. We still have to “put on the new self” (Ephesians 4:24).
This is not one momentous moment where you announce “Old self out!” drop the mic and walk away with no connection whatsoever to anything you have done before. We walk away from who we were, but when we first start out we are still pretty close to where we started. Distance takes time. Addicts will long for their addiction even as they conquer their old habits. Criminals might spend time in jail even if those they wronged forgive them. Gossips have wounded friendships that need time to heal.
I often hear people say, “I’ve changed. Why can’t we just move on and forget about who I was?” Well, because you have grave clothes on. They will come off, but it will take some time, and you still stink. You’ve trained yourself to think about people and situations in a land of corruption. You have spent years building a whole system on how you gauge your value and worth in a land of corruption.
God promises to transform you if you surrender your life to Him, but it’s a process (what we call sanctification). Be patient. You need some unwrapping, and right now you don’t smell new yet.
We must be honest. The church is full of forgiven people who have been given new life in Christ and who stink. I know I do. I might clean up good on a Sunday morning and look fine (theoretically), and I have been raised from death to life by the power of Jesus Christ, but if you know we me at all, you know that there are still some clothes from my time spent in the grave that still need some unwinding.
Back to Romans 8. After Paul talks about new life in Christ, he writes that all of creation groans in anticipation of God’s New Creation in the world to come but has not yet arrived – and that includes those who are children of God:
“Though we have already tasted the firstfruits of the Spirit, we are longing for the total redemption of our bodies that comes when our adoption as children of God is complete— for we have been saved in this hope and for this future. But hope does not involve what we already have or see. For who goes around hoping for what he already has? But if we wait expectantly for things we have never seen, then we hope with true perseverance and eager anticipation.” (23-25)
We celebrate new life, we take great hope in the total future redemption we can experience because of Jesus – and we recognize that the reason we are full of expectation and hope is that Heaven has not yet arrived. We live in a church community full of people who have walked out of their spiritual graves (yay!) and are trailing grave clothes behind them (yikes). I hope this gives us a realistic expectation of church community.
- It’s why we celebrate together - and then struggle with each other.
- It’s why we praise God for redemption – and then beg him to help us be better at forgiving the redeemed around us who wound us.
- It’s why we can feel torn between loving Jesus and loving the people who claim to love Jesus.
- It’s why we can’t hide from others in our walk with Christ. We need others to help us move into the life God has given us.
It’s beautiful and messy on this side of heaven. And it’s in these times that the community of the Church has an opportunity to shine.
God expects the church to move stones and unwrap grave clothes.
Jesus could have enlisted angels or moved the stone himself; Jesus could have knocked those grave clothes off with a word. He didn’t; he let Lazarus’ friends and family do it. This physical reality points toward an important spiritual one:
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
“Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another. In the end, you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
For whatever reasons, Jesus enlists us in His service.
“In the commands for the bystanders to roll away the stone and unwrap Lazarus we learn that although only God can raise the dead, He still uses men to do the things they are capable of doing. That's how the Lord always operates. He does what He does, but we do what we can do. There's no greater joy in the world than … taking off grave clothes for the Lord! We play a part in what He does.” – John McArthur
I don’t think “joy” is a word that comes to mind, frankly, when I think of helping others get rid of the lingering reminders of their spiritual corruption. I’d like everyone around me cleaned up, thank you very much. I don’t want the hassle of high-maintenance friends or needy family members or other people in church who offend me or make me angry because their words, attitudes or actions still stink. But that’s a crucial reason we do life together. There are 59 “One Another Verses” in the Bible. Why are there so many? Because it’s hard to do life together, but it’s crucial.
I have two tips to offer today on this aspect of ‘life together’: be humble and be wise.
1. Be humble. Get over yourself. For every person you help become free from their grave clothes, someone else is helping you. You might think the lingering effects of someone else’s sin is overwhelming…but I’m telling you, somebody close to you has is rubbing Vicks under their nose when they help you out. There is never room for arrogance or meanness in the church.
2. Be wise.
- Seek God’s wisdom and truth. Sin is subtle. You can enable someone rather than help them if you aren’t careful. You can shame those you are trying to help if you aren’t careful. You can get pulled into the very sin you are trying to help others be free from. We are to be people of grace and truth, and that balance can be tricky. You will need to pray and read Scripture. You may need to read books on a particular subject or listen to sermons/podcasts. If you can do this without betraying someone’s confidence, you may need to ask an expert you know. Seek wisdom beyond your own feelings and thoughts.
- Know your boundaries. Do you have a relationship with this person? Will you be meddling or helping? Do you have good reason to believe they will value what you have to say? Are there others around them already doing the unwrapping? Maybe you can help, but maybe you will be in the way. This is part of the things for which you should be praying, and, if appropriate, seeking counsel.
- If you are helping someone and it feels messy, use your words. Here are four examples for different situations.
- “I feel like I need to be honest about you, but I don’t know if what comes out of my mouth will reflect what’s in my heart.”
- “I am not your enemy; I am your friend, and because I am your friend we’ve got to talk about this thing in your life.”
- “I’m glad you have confided in me, but I don’t know what to do or say right now. Can we just hang out?”
- “I think I offended you. I’m sorry.”
So be humble, and be wise.
Jesus does what only he can do: bring the dead to life.
We do what he asks us to do: welcome those who were dead back into the community of the living. And in the process of God raising and we, the church, unwrapping, the glory of God will be revealed so that the world might believe.
 Why did Jesus weep when he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead? The Bible is not clear, but I suspect it had to do with a) Jesus’ grief over the calamitous reality of the devastating consequence of what sin does in the world. See “Why Jesus Wept,” http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-jesus-wept
 This passage occurs in a broader context. The gospel of John is famous for Jesus’ Seven Miracles. They progress in interesting ways:
- Water to wine – Jesus shows the power to change elements, and he only reveals this to his mother and servants, two classes of people looked down upon in Jewish culture.
- Healing the official’s son – Jesus shows power over temporary sickness as well as distance (he doesn’t have to go to the man’s house). This miracle was shown to a Gentile from Herod’s court, one of the oppressors of God’s people.
- Healing the paralytic – Jesus shows power over long-term sickness as well as his power over the Law. This third miracle is done once again for one of the culturally marginalized.
- Feeding the 5,000 – Jesus shows power not only to multiply elements rather than just change them , perhaps linking him to God’s provision during the Exodus. This is his first very public miracle, shown to thousands.
- Walking on water – Jesus shows his power over elements once again, perhaps as another purposeful connection with God as revealed in the Old Testament. The Spirit of God moved over the water in Genesis 1; now John, who made a clear connection to Genesis in the beginning of his book, records the Word of God moving over the water.
- Healing the man born blind – Jesus shows he has the power of creation; he doesn’t just heal eyes that had once been good and then gone bad, he creates working eyes where there had been none.
- Raising Lazarus – Jesus shows his power over physical death, which establishes his power over spiritual death .
 Whenever the Bible takes the time to point out that something stinks, this is never a good thing. In Genesis 19, the angels said of Sodom and Gomorrah that “the stench of the place has reached the Lord…” “And I have made the stink of your camps to come up unto your nostrils: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD” (Amos 4:10). Isaiah 65 talks about God gagging on the stench of rebelliousness and pride and hypocrisy.
 See Theopedia’s definition: http://www.theopedia.com/sanctification