Sorrow for the Glory of God

As a child, I can tell you that one place I did not like to go was a funeral. Who enjoys a funeral? And yet, the Bible teaches us that a funeral home is a beneficial place to go.

It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

There is something about a funeral that does more for your heart than a party will ever do. It makes you think about life. It makes you re-evaluate your existence, your purpose, your goals, and your future. Today, we are going to look at a funeral, and we will learn something very important. The death of someone you love can lead you to believe the truth about Jesus.

The death of someone you love can lead you to believe the truth about Jesus.

Perhaps you have had this experience. Perhaps God has used the death of a loved one to intensify your seriousness about life and about learning the truth. Let’s see what we can learn about Jesus today from this encounter with death in John 11.

Notice that death does not frighten Jesus. (John 11:17-19)

Death is unavoidable. Sooner or later, we all will die. But Jesus was not afraid of dying. The disciples had tried to change his mind about making this trip, remember (John 11:8)? But he went anyway. He traveled to a town nearby Jerusalem, where the Jews were plotting to kill him. And not only does he get close to this serious threat, but he also visited the home of Mary and Martha, when there were many Jews mourning there. (While it was normal for some Jews to join a grieving family, John says many came in this case. Why? These three seem to have been a prominent, well-liked family.) By getting close to Jerusalem in front of such a large group, Jesus risked the safety of his own life.

The sorrow of death can bring the truth about Jesus into clear view. (John 11:20-27)

So the threat of death does not deter Jesus from his plans. But how should death and sorrow affect you and me? Here’s one way that we find in John 11. We should allow death and sorrow to stimulate fresh evaluation our religious beliefs. Here’s why I say this. Martha, who was grieving the loss of her brother, heard that Jesus was traveling to her town, so she ran out to meet him. Look at what she said to him. Her words do not express anger or frustration that Christ had not come earlier. Instead, they express confidence in Jesus, mixed with heartfelt grief at the same time.

In reply, Jesus offered words of comfort. “Your brother will rise again.” To this, Martha responded with a customary belief in a final resurrection of the dead. You see, orthodox, devout Judaism – led by the Pharisees – taught a final resurrection and return to bodily life. This would provide a degree of hope for the future, enabling Martha to know that she would see Lazarus again. So, she gave a good, standard, theological response, one that agrees with established Old Testament teaching.

Here’s some of what the Old Testament teaches:

Though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself. (Job 19:26)

This is the oldest recorded Bible reference to the resurrection, written perhaps as early at 2000 B.C. Job is saying in plain language that though his body would decay in the grave, he would still stand before God. He would be resurrected. Though these Old Testament verses are encouraging and give us hope for the future when we experience death, Jesus is saying something more to Martha. He is telling her that not only does the Old Testament teach a final resurrection from the dead, but he is the resurrection and the life that these verses teach. As such, he does two things: 1) he personally makes this resurrection possible after death to everyone who believes on him, and 2) he provides everlasting life to everyone who resurrects as a believer. What a claim! Look again at what the Old Testament teaches, but this time in Daniel 12:2:

Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

According to this verse and others, Christians are not the only people who will return to bodily life in the last day. Did you know this? Everyone will have a resurrection, but there will be two ways for this to turn out. Those whose names are written into the Lamb’s Book of Life will enter into the New Heaven, New Earth, and New Jerusalem that God will make forever. The last two chapters, Revelation 21-22 describe this in detail. But Revelation 20:14-15 explains the other way. Those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be thrown into a place called the Lake of Fire, with their physical body. This is also called the second death. It is like dying again because these people are returned from the grave and to their bodies, but are thrown into the Lake of Fire afterward.

Everyone will have a resurrection, but there will be two ways for this to turn out.

So, technically, believing in the resurrection was not enough to save a person from his or her sins. All will be resurrected in the end, but not all will be resurrected to eternal life with God. Many will be resurrected and thrown into the Lake of Fire.

That’s why John 11:25-26 is so important. If you believe the truth about Jesus, then you will still experience the first death like everyone else, and you experience the first resurrection like everyone else. But you will never die again. You will go on living forever with God in his kingdom. Do you believe this? That’s what Jesus asked Martha.

Martha answered in John 11:27 that she did. She affirmed that she viewed Jesus as more than a close family friend, more than a good Jewish teacher, and more than a miracle worker. She believed on him as the Son of God who alone could take away her sins and give her eternal life. And that’s what we all need when someone we love dies.

General religious beliefs do not provide true hope and peace.

We need more than abstract faith in general religious ideas. We need the hope that faith in Jesus Christ provides. General religious beliefs do not provide true hope and peace. People – even clergy – say a lot of nice things at funerals. But the only thing you can say at a funeral that brings true hope is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah who takes away your sins if you will believe in him. Put another way, the only way to have confidence and peace when death casts a shadow into your life is believing that Jesus is the only person who can give you resurrection and eternal life.

Not all sorrow underscores the truth about Jesus. (John 11:28-36)

John 11:28-32 describe how the other sister in this family responded to Jesus visiting them. Unlike Martha, she did not immediately go to see Jesus. But when Martha told her that Jesus wanted to speak with her, she went quickly to him. Then she fell down on the ground and said the same thing that Martha had said. By saying this, again, she was not expressing anger or frustration with Jesus. She was expressing a measure of trust in him, while at the same time expressing the grief she was experiencing. Her mind was jumping back and forth to what might have been and what happened instead. We do that when we’re grieving, don’t we?

What is grief? Sorrow? It is the emotion we experience when we lose something. That is what death does. It takes away something that was never supposed to go away, people. People were not made to die. They were made to live forever. But sin changed that. When someone dies, you experience the emotions of losing something that you were never supposed to lose in the first place. How did Jesus respond (John 11:33-36)?

Sorrow is the emotion we experience when we lose something.

Unlike with Martha, he did not have a theological discussion. He handled this meeting differently. But, why did Martha try to arrange a private meeting for Mary and Jesus? Some people have made a big deal about this, saying that she was trying to protect Jesus from being killed by the Jews. A better answer seems to be that Martha was trying to provide some appropriate privacy for her sister, since she was mourning the death of her brother. People who are grieving need some time to mourn in private. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Jews were sensitive enough to let this happen.

Jesus was in public view of the other Jews and near to the home. And please notice the weeping that we see here. John does not say that Martha was weeping; but Mary was. The Greek word here is klaio, which is a loud, serious kind of weeping. The same word describes the weeping of the Jewish crowd. Mary and the crowd were showing much less emotional restraint than Martha. As Jesus heard this, it was loud, sorrowful, and difficult to take in. As a result, he was unable to speak with Mary, unlike with Martha.

This weeping disturbed Jesus.

He groaned and was troubled. What does this mean? To help us understand the first word, listen to this explanation:

In extra-biblical Greek, it can refer to the snorting of horses; as applied to human beings, it invariably suggests anger, outrage or emotional indignation … German translations get it right; most English translations soften the passage to ‘he groaned in spirit’, ‘he sighed heavily’, ‘he was deeply touched’ or, as here, ‘he was deeply moved in spirit’—all without linguistic justification. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 415.

In addition to this word, the second word means “to be deeply disturbed and to have emotional distress.” Why are these definitions important? We need to understand that these words do not describe a normal response of grief and sadness. They show us that Jesus was upset – not in a sinful way, but for a legitimate reason. And what was he upset about? Not about losing Lazarus, because he knew that he would resurrect him. The best answer I can offer is that Jesus may have been upset at the weeping and wailing that was going on. The verse seems to connect these things together.

At the least, the wailing of the crowd from Jerusalem was the kind that pointed away from the hope that Jesus would provide. It did not even point to any sort of confidence in a future resurrection, which they claimed to believe. Martha and Mary both said the same thing to Jesus, but he could only talk to Martha about important theological truth. He was unable to do so with Mary due to the hopeless influence of the crowds. That is probably what led to this inner turmoil of Jesus. Could it be that Paul had this very moment in mind when he wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14?

I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

Jesus also mourned.

In addition to quiet outrage, Jesus also experienced another emotion at this time. As he approached the grave of Lazarus, the Bible says that “he wept.” This word for weeping is a different Greek word than the one John used for the wailing of Mary and the crowds. It tells us that rather than weeping and wailing, Jesus “shed tears.” It wasn’t loud and crazy, but it was quiet, noticeable, and distinctly genuine. It was not tears of hopelessness, but was tears of genuine, heartfelt compassion.

For a teacher to show tears like this would have been unusual. In fact, rabbis and their students often refrained from participating in mourning for the dead to remained dignified. On rare occasions would they join a funeral procession. But Jesus was unconcerned about his image dignified teacher. He was outraged at their hopelessness and moved to tears by the very same situation, and by his love for Lazarus.

For a teacher to show tears like this would have been unusual.

Now, one more word about the problem of this weeping and wailing. Remember how the Jews believed in the doctrine of a resurrection? They may have believed this, but it was not the kind of belief that was transforming their approach to death. If they had truly believed in the resurrection as God taught it, and even more – if they had believed the truth about Jesus as the only person who could provide them with resurrection and eternal life, then they would not have mourned in the same, hopeless way.

How do you respond to death?

Let me ask you this question: how do you respond to death? Answering this may help you to understand what you truly believe about Jesus. If you are afraid of death or are unable to find deep and abiding hope and peace when you mourn the death of someone you love, it is very possible that you do not understand and believe the truth about Jesus. The person who believes the truth about Jesus believes only on Jesus and that he completely saves them from sin and gives them an everlasting relationship with God. To this person, death is only a shadow, a bee without a stinger, sword without a blade. It is a sad and difficult thing, but not a scary or hopeless thing. What about you?

Through a variety of encounters with sickness and death, God works to draw people to the truth about Jesus. (John 11:37)

In closing, consider a question that the crowds asked about Jesus. This was the same crowd who saw Jesus heal the blind man in John 9. Remember how the religious leaders worked overtime to twist that miracle around so that no one would believe on Jesus? Well, these people were reconsidering that propaganda and wondering whether it might be true. Maybe the Jewish leaders were right after all, because if this man could heal a man born blind, why didn’t he prevent the death of one of his closest friends? Hmm. Maybe he was just a regular man like the rest of us.

Let me ask you the same question. Why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus and prevent him from dying? The answer is simple. Lazarus was not the man born blind. They were two different people in two different situations. I know this is obvious, but Jesus didn’t heal every sick person he encountered. And he didn’t heal every person that he healed in the same way. There is no question that Jesus could heal people. But being able to do so did not obligate him to do so every time.

Why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus and prevent him from dying?

Last week I mentioned the chronic physical problem that Paul suffered from, whatever it was. He called it a “thorn in the flesh” that really made things difficult for him. He was an apostle! On some occasions, he could even heal people! But he asked God three times to take away his own difficulty, and the Lord said no. Did God love him? Yes. But sometimes God teaches important lessons by not healing. Other times he heals. The question is not really about whether or not he heals. The question is what is he teaching through the illness or through the death that occurs? Why did Lazarus get ill? Why did he die? Remember what John tells us in 11:4 and 11:15?

When Jesus heard that, he said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.”

And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless, let us go unto him.

The most important thing for you to experience in this life is to believe the truth about Jesus and to receive the everlasting life that he provides. If it takes me being born blind and then being healed to believe on Jesus, then so be it. If it takes someone else in my life going through suffering or dying, then so be it. But for Lazarus, whether he was healed or not was beside the point. Jesus wanted to teach this crowd and his disciples that he was the only person with resurrection power and with the power to give eternal life. So, he let Lazarus die to be able to teach this to them.

The most important thing for you to experience in this life is to believe the truth about Jesus and to receive the everlasting life that he provides.

What is it for you? Whether you become ill or not. Whether you become sick or not. Whether you are healed or not is a side issue, really. Whether or not you believe the truth about Jesus is the real question. And in the case of Lazarus – when you have a close and personal friendship and relationship with Jesus, it is possible that he will allow you to suffer and even die, if that means others will come to learn the truth about Jesus. If you have already believed the truth about Jesus, are you willing for God to do that through your life?

2 replies
  1. Rhulani
    Rhulani says:

    Amen, this is a wonderful lesson about how we should approach the funeral….our perspective should be what God is trying to teach us through our dairly setuation as Christisns.
    Rhulani from South Africa.

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