John 11:1-16, Remsen Bible Fellowship, 10/27/2019
God moves in a Mysterious way/His wonders to perform/He plants his footsteps in the sea/and rides upon the storm. So opens William Cowper’s famous poem, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” As we examine the first 16 verses of John 11 this morning, we will see God, in the person of his Son, moving in very mysterious ways.
We will see the love of God on display in this text. But God doesn’t put his love on display here in the way we might expect him to or want him to. We can’t lift our 21st century, modern American ideas of love and drop them into this text or we’ll get horribly lost. When we read about God’s love in the Bible, we must then allow God himself to define what this love looks like. What we will see in our passage this morning is Sovereign Love in Action.
As we examine this passage, we’ll do so under four headings: First, we will see that this is love from which Jesus is acting. Second, we will see that his love is a sovereign or determining love. Third, we will look at the actions undertaken by this Sovereign Love. And finally, we will look at the goals of this Sovereign Love in Action.
Jesus’ Love for the Family: v1-5, cf 35-36
The passage opens not with Jesus, but with an illness. But immediately we recognize the family.
This is the same Mary and Martha whom we meet in Luke 10; they live in Bethany, just a couple miles outside of Jerusalem.
Remember that Jesus is, at this time, across the Jordan River, ministering in that region (10:40); this would be at least a one day walk, maybe two from Bethany.
In case his readers don’t immediately register what family this is, John spells it out in v2 who Mary is. She is the one who worships Jesus in an extravagant fashion. However, why spell this out before he has told us the story? (cf, 12:1-8)
They are first, likely already familiar with the story (remember when John is writing in comparison to the other Gospels); second, it establishes the interest of a reader who is unfamiliar with the story to keep reading; and third, to our point here, this explanation of just which Mary we’re talking about demonstrates the intimate friendship which our Lord shared with this family.
This home seems to be a place of real human friendship for Jesus, and as such they would have been familiar not only with his teaching, but his power.
Thus when Lazarus falls ill, how do they respond? They call Jesus.
But note the content of their message, v3. Do they ask Jesus for healing? Ask him to hurry back?
The implication of their message is that they assume Jesus will hear that his dear friend is sick, and will immediately come back to heal him, or at least be with the family.
Jesus makes a curious response, which we will examine in a minute, but then in v5 we get yet another affirmation of Jesus’ love. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So John, in telling us this story, opens by showing the sort of love Mary has for Jesus, he repeats the sisters message to Jesus in which they refer to Lazarus as the one whom you love, and then Jesus’ love for this family is spelled out in just those words. So that is the framework through which we should see everything else that happens.
But is love, in and of itself, enough? Not when life gets hard. If the love of Jesus is to have any ultimate or final meaning for us, it must be a sovereign love.
The Sovereign Nature of the Love: v4
Jesus’ response, the message he gives to the messenger (though surely the disciples hear it as well), what we find in v4.
The disciples, and the messenger, almost certainly take this to be a promise that Lazarus won’t die, note v11-13. This isn’t Jesus intention, but it’s what they take away.
In giving a response like this, a purpose statement for an illness, Jesus is giving yet another glimpse at who he is. This is no mere man or even mere miracle worker. He is able to stand at the beginning of a circumstance and tell the end of it. He identifies himself with the God of Isaiah 46:10.
The sovereignty, or divine rule of God over all things, is a dominant theme of Scripture, and yet there has been great resistance to it throughout human history. We do not want a God who controls everything. Some of the reasons for this are obvious: if God is real and in control, then he has the right to demand my worship, to tell me how to live, and I don’t want that, I want to be my own God.
But some of the objections come from “inside the camp”. They come from folks who believe God exists, believe he ought to be loved and followed. And maybe this is you this morning. Maybe you struggle with the idea that a God who is in control of all things, yet made a world that went so wrong, and continues to allow it to go disastrously wrong, could somehow be a good. Surely if God were truly good he wouldn’t allow all of this evil? He wouldn’t allow children to be neglected and to starve, church shootings to take place, tsunamis and hurricanes to devastate poor countries, or let my brother die. Surely.
But here we look back at our text. V11, 14. Their brother does die.
God does all of these things. This is sin-wrecked world is the world we live in. Nature is red in tooth and claw, evil men abound, and regardless of the cause, natural disasters wreak havoc. And as for brothers and mothers, dads and sisters, best friends and children- many of them suffer, and all of them die.
So is God not good? Does Jesus not care? The text says that Jesus loved them! Perhaps you want to give him the benefit of the doubt: surely he does care, he just can’t control all of the circumstances. But again in Isaiah 46, this time v11b. Cf, Ephesians 1:11
There is no doubt, brothers and sisters, that the goodness of God, the love of God, is a difficult truth to hold alongside his sovereign reign over a world that is so broken. And yet, while it creates hard questions, the right response at this point is not to say, “too hard, I’m checking out” or “I give up, this is more than I can swallow.” The right response, the response of faith is to say, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)
Let me submit this to you: while these two truths are central to understanding the Bible, and grasping who Jesus is, they are also vital to walking with God and having joy in life. If God truly is loving, and truly is in control, only then can I believe promises like Romans 8:28.
“God has gracious intentions, even when he seems to delay.” Matthew Henry
The next line in Cowper’s poem: Deep in unfathomable mines/of never failing skill/he treasures up his bright designs/and works his sovereign will.
The Actions Undertaken by Sovereign Love: v5-16
So if we at this text from a place of confidence, confidence that Jesus is acting purposefully as the Sovereign Lord of the situation, but also from a framework of love, both as God and as a close friend of this family, let’s examine his actions.
Jesus Lingered in the Distance, v6
It is important to note, just to reiterate, the connection between v5 and v6. So or therefore. That’s obscured in some translations, but we need to see that the love of Jesus is causal here.
We also want to note what is implied specifically by this action.
A- He allowed Lazarus to die.
Could Jesus have prevented Lazarus death? Absolutely! Yet he chooses not to. We would think that love would compel him back to Bethany, this is obviously the assumption of Mary and Martha.
But Jesus lingers and Lazarus dies. Now, given the chronology of this story, Lazarus is possibly dead by the time the messenger gets to Jesus, and almost certainly within a short time thereafter. Yet is distance any hindrance to Jesus? Not according to what we saw back in 4:46-54.
But again, Jesus intentionally doesn’t do anything to prevent Lazarus’ death. Lest we try to make this seem less devastating than it is, this means Lazarus dies thinking, Jesus didn’t show.
It seems almost callous, doesn’t it? The mourners think so, down in v37. Couldn’t he…? Almost and implied, shouldn’t he have…?
B- He allowed Martha and Mary to feel forgotten.
Look at v21 and 32. These statements seem to have combined in them a real faith and trust in Jesus, you have the power to stop death itself, and a deep sorrow or even disappointment, but you didn’t.
Have you ever prayed and asked for something, maybe something you thought was a shoe-in for God to answer, and felt no response?
Maybe you’ve asked God to save a marriage, to save your child’s soul, to restore a relationship with a coworker or friend, or to heal someone who is desperately sick. What do we do with that seeming non-response?
The biblical response is to keep praying. Luke 18:1-8, esp 7-8
The fourth line of Cowper’s poem, Judge not the Lord by feeble sense/but trust him for his grace/behind a frowning providence/he hides a smiling face.
We keep praying on the one hand of course because we want the situation to change or improve. But we also pray, we persist in prayer, to deepen our dependence upon the God who hears our prayers. Judging not by our feeble senses, but trusting him for his grace.
Jesus left safety behind. v7ff
A- Jesus puts himself in the way of danger
When Jesus chooses to leave this region beyond the Jordan, he is essentially choosing to head back to set up his death. These events surrounding Lazarus serve as a sort of final catalyst to the religious leaders and their planning to actually have Jesus killed.
Remember the circumstances under which Jesus left Jerusalem and the region of Judea. John 10:31-33, 39
The disciples remember, and thus are reasonably concerned in v8.
B- Jesus puts his disciples in the way of danger
By heading to Jerusalem himself with the authorities out to kill him, the disciples know that tagging along implicates them as well.
This might explain both the question of v8, and the statement of v12. They think Jesus refers to physical sleep, and well, if he’s sleeping, he’ll get well, and then why do we need to head down there? Things are going so well here, people are believing, and more importantly they aren’t setting out to stone you or us.
Thomas, good old “doubting Thomas,” displays what I think is deep allegiance to Jesus in v16.
Is Jesus primary concern for us in this life our temporary safety? There are those who teach that God gives health, wellness, and a good earthly life to those who trust him. I think the disciples would beg to differ.
These men don’t die on this trip to Judea, Jesus protects them. But outside of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and then killed himself, the rest of these men face profound difficulty and except for John, death because they followed Jesus. So it would seem that some level of danger and risk is part and parcel of what it means to follow Christ.
But is it really dangerous to follow him? V9-10
The way they divided daylight then was to take however much light there was and segment it into 12 “hours”, so it wasn’t quite the same as our 60 minute hours. But essentially they idea is that if you’re walking around in the daylight you can see where you’re going, and thus you won’t fall. You’re safe.
What is Jesus’ point here? Who is the light of the world? He is. The true light which gives light to everyone, who came into the world. And if we walk in his light, if we are trusting him alone for salvation, trusting him alone for our security, then we will always be exactly as safe as he wants us to be. Those who trust in Christ are always safe in an absolute sense of being held by him, they will never taste death (8:52), indeed, Jesus tells Martha, they shall never die (11:26). And in our earthly lives, we will be as safe as is good for us. The disciples think heading to Judea is a bad idea. But love often calls us to stick our necks out in confidence that God, not our circumstances, provides our safety.
The Goals of Sovereign Love: v4, v15
What are the goals of Jesus’ perplexing demonstration of love in this passage?
In verse 4 Jesus says that this sickness will lead not to death, but rather it was for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. How does this happen?
Jesus demonstrates power over death > 7th and culminating sign in the gospel > Jesus is displaying his power and his person
Jesus acts to bring glory to himself, 9:3-5
This glory he brings for himself might seem simply self-aggrandizing, like, look at me, look how awesome I am! (Which God would have the right to do!). But it is also a profound service to humanity, that God would manifest himself in the flesh, that all might see and any who will humble themselves before him can believe and be saved. This is precisely Jesus’ point in v15.
The point of this gospel, the point of the Bible, the point of the universe is to display the glory of God, chiefly through the Son of God, so that we might believe in him, have life in him, and worship him. God exists as an eternal being of unspeakable glory, and he acts in this world, even through -often through- profoundly difficult circumstances, to give us glimpses of that glory. This is the most profound act of love imaginable.
Mary and Martha are going to see an amazing glimpse of the glory of the Most High. The disciples are going to see the power of the Messiah on display. The crowds are going to see Jesus call forth a dead man from the tomb. And Lazarus will be pulled forth from death to life, as a sort of foretaste of what will happen for all believers in Jesus at the Resurrection of the dead.
Glimpsing his glory, tasting his goodness, trusting Jesus for life is better than life, better than healing, better than changed circumstances. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Place your hope in him.