Jesus is more than you know: Reflections on John 11
John 11 is a striking and oft turned to passage. It is the pinnacle of John’s signs series and the resurrection ‘I Am’. Like John’s account of wine at Cana is to weddings, it is many a preacher’s first thought of a passage for a funeral. For those in distress it contains the Bible’s shortest and most comforting verse. And for those drawn to drama D.L. Moody’s famous quip adds to the grandeur when Jesus shouts ‘Come out!’ specifically to Lazarus. But are we reading it properly? Is this death-defeating Jesus the one who will intervene in our trouble? Is this Jesus who wept a Jesus of comfort? There is comfort sure enough but I am not sure it’s the comfort we want it to be.
Jesus is not who you think he is
We can hardly be blamed for turning to the Jesus of John 11 when we are in distress; we’re not the first to do so. Isn’t that exactly what Mary and Martha are doing in verse 3? They want Jesus to help, intervene, for him to do something that will change things and alleviate their distress. Isn’t that exactly why we so often run to Jesus? But his reply is not what we want to hear when we send him our plea for help. He says, ‘This is not to death, but for the glory of God’. Some comfort that is! No rescue mission, no miracle, no indication that he’s even going to go to them! How do we know that? When Jesus decides to go to Judea the disciples have completely forgotten about Lazarus’ illness and complain about how dangerous the region is for them.
Is this your experience? Have you run to Jesus with your troubles and found no answer, no miracle, no hint that he’s heard you? Isn’t this the question of the age: How can God allow suffering? We cannot believe in a God who will not intervene. But rather than baulk at Jesus not doing what we have decided he should, what does he do? Rather than reject an inactive god of our own design, far better that we ask what the true, living God is doing.
Jesus is far more than you know
John’s scene transition in verse 17 compounds the hopelessness. There was a belief in Judea around this time that for the first three days after a person had died the soul could still re-enter the body. We don’t necessarily know if Mary and Martha believed this, but if they did it explains the significance of the four days. Jesus waits until the point at which all hope is lost; Mary and Martha have nothing left to cling to, not even any scrap of superstitious hope. It is only then, when all hope is gone, that he comes alongside. And see how he does!
To Martha, the practical sister, the person who needs thought and truth for comfort, Jesus talks and explains. She comes to Jesus with her grievance that she wishes he had intervened. There is no bitterness, but neither is there any hope. In response to Jesus’ wonderfully ambiguous question she shows that her hope of resurrection is somewhere in the distant future; when Jesus calls for the tomb to be opened she is the one who can only imagine her brother as a dead, rotting corpse. But Jesus gives her a better hope. You see, true resurrection hope is not trust in some distant event and eternal life is not about length. The life that is in Jesus is not a life that will begin somewhere in the future and just go on forever and ever and ever; life in Jesus is present, here and now, and it is strong – stronger than even death. Eternal life is not about length; it’s about strength! True resurrection hope is not a distant event, it is here and now in the person of Jesus! He says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ so that Martha, the thinker, can anchor her hope in real, present fact.
To Mary, the emotional sister, the person for whom thought and truth will do nothing, Jesus gives company for comfort, a friend to cry with. What could be more incredible than the one who is life itself revealing that he is the resurrection to Martha? How he deals with Mary blows me away. The maker of the universe, the one in whom all things hold together, the almighty creator God comes to her, takes her to the grave where she needs to grieve, and he grieves with her. The creator weeps with one of his creatures. To the sister who needs emotional comfort, the Lord of the entire universe offers deep, heartfelt empathy. In fact the word glossed as being deeply moved betrays more than deep emotion: the word was classically used of the snorting of horses – death makes Jesus furious! The dead end that sin leads to, the pain of broken relationships, the devastation that death brings; these make Jesus’ blood boil!
Jesus proves he is far more than you ever imagined
By the time we reach verse 39 we find that this well known climax is actually a complete surprise. No-one has any idea what is coming. To everyone’s mind Jesus had his chance to intervene and he missed it (see verses 16, 21, 24, 32, 37 and 39). But Jesus is more than they ever imagined, and all of this is for the glory of God (verse 40 – there’s verse 4 coming round again!). After meeting Martha and Mary in their grief and mourning with them, he does more than they ever imagined. We must not miss that he did not remove the grief, or act to prevent it. Only when the whole episode was over and any thought of deliverance was gone in the mind of everyone else involved, did he act. And what an act! Isn’t it always the case that the lower we are led, the greater the glory when deliverance comes? With a cry Jesus summons the dead man, and the dead man obeys!
So what should we expect from Jesus in difficulty? Deliverance? Yes, but not without pain and heartache. What he assures us of is not protection from pain or grief but his presence alongside pain, and a comfort that runs as deep as any grief can go. Our future hope is ours in him already, as we rejoice in the already and wait for the not yet. The challenge to us is, will we accept this mighty Saviour who breaks every boundary of our understanding? Verse 45 records that many saw what Jesus did and believed in him. There is nothing at all remarkable about that. The challenge is the next two verses: the council actually recognises that Jesus is proving that he is the Messiah. Remarkably, they recognise him but are not willing to accept him. Accept him and the journey will not be easy. He will not save you from every heartache and all pain, but he will comfort you in your pain and the deliverance, when it comes, will be more than you ever imagined (Heb. 4:14-16).
Alan Cartwright is the assistant pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Barry.