“The last enemy to be conquered is death.” If you recognize that sentence, it might be because you’ve read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In the book, Harry and Hermione find the quote inscribed on the tombstone of Harry’s parents, Lily and James. But J.K. Rowling is not the original author of that phrase. It is actually taken from 1 Corinthians 15:26. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Authors and filmmakers often use the Bible as a main ingredient when they cook up stories. And as in this case, one of the most common areas where they attempt to use biblical ideas is in matters of life and death.
Rowling wrote, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death! A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. ‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea? Why is that there?’ ‘It doesn’t mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry,’ said Hermione, her voice gentle. ‘It means…you know…living beyond death. Living after death.’”
In the end, Harry proved what it means to defeat death because he chose to live his life for the sake of living, not in fear of dying. That may sound noble from a human perspective but it fails miserably when compared to the teachings of God’s Word. The very best our culture can offer is, “Live your life to the fullest. Don’t worry about death. It comes to all of us but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is living.” But as the people of God we have a different view. Each of our stories has an ending. But it’s not death. In fact, our lives on earth are just a fraction of what we’ll experience—just the first sentence of our first scene. Death’s sting is gone because Jesus has conquered the last enemy, death. The best part is that we, too, can conquer death if we place our trust and hope in him. Jesus is Lord over death!
As we come to consider this portion of John’s Story we quickly realize a very important truth. John 11 is not about Lazarus…it’s about Jesus! It is another example of John’s intent that both the original audience, as well as we the readers, must come to some specific conclusions about Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son. In this chapter, Jesus is the victor. He is God defeating Enemy Death. He is Lord over all, even death.
The structure of this chapter helps direct our thoughts and attention to Jesus. There were three specific audiences who were given to see God’s glory revealed through his Son.
1. The disciples were told in v. 4, “This is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Later, in v. 15 Jesus also declared his desire that the faith of the disciples may be increased.
2. Martha and Mary were also destined to see God’s glory in Jesus’ dealings with the Lazarus crisis. Jesus said to Martha and Mary, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40)
3. The crowd who witnessed the amazing events in Bethany that day was also intended to see God’s glory revealed through Jesus Christ. During his prayer he said, “But I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (v. 42)
So from both a thematic as well as a structural point of view the focus of John’s Story was clearly on Jesus Christ. But where was Jesus’ focus? On death! The final enemy. The one he came to conquer. Let’s dig into this chapter and learn how Jesus both defeated death in the case of Lazarus and also prepared the way for us to understand the significance of his own impending resurrection and victory over death. As the Apostle Paul would declare in his letter to the Corinthian church, “For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this moral body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:53-57)
I. The Death of a Disciple (vv. 1-7)
A. The first relevant fact that John established for the reader was that Jesus and the family from Bethany were very close. When Jesus was ministering in the Galilee area he stayed in Capernaum. In fact, there is evidence that eventually his family moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. When Jesus was ministering in the Judea area he stayed in Bethany with these very dear friends.
B. There is no question that the relationship between Jesus and the family from Bethany was exceptionally close. He loved them and they loved him. Mary’s love for Jesus was so great that John reminded the reader that she was the one who anointed Jesus with the costly nard, an act that Jesus declared honored him and prepared him for his death. Also, the exceptional love that Jesus had for them was captured by the request that they sent to him when Lazarus was sick. “The one whom you love is sick.” They were such intimates that they didn’t even need to name Lazarus. Jesus would know.
C. It also should be noted that Jesus’ relationship with this family was beyond close and loving. It was also a discipling relationship. When Martha informed Mary later that Jesus had come to Bethany she simply said, “The Teacher is here.” There is a very personal sense in this reference to Jesus. In that culture disciples were almost exclusively men. Young men would join themselves with an older man and learn from him. It was unheard of that a woman would be a disciple. Yet, to Martha and Mary Jesus was far more than a friend. He was their teacher, too.
D. When Jesus and his disciples heard the news that Lazarus was seriously ill Jesus declared to them, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Whenever we read a purpose statement we should take careful notice. Something was happening and there was a reason for it. There never was a question as to what Jesus would do about the Lazarus situation. Lazarus would live. Why? Because the whole episode was so that Jesus’ disciples as well as many of the people of that area would know that he was the Son of God. The event was designed to bring glory to God in that specific manner.
E. So, although the setting of this story involves the death of a disciple, Lazarus, death was not the end of the story. It was only the beginning. God was on the move!
II. The Training of Disciples (vv. 8-37)
A. John gave special care to inform the readers of the intent behind Jesus’ every action. When news came to him of Lazarus’ sickness he intentionally remained where he was for two more days. The end of chapter 10 informs us that Jesus had been in the Jordan region near where John the Baptist had earlier been baptizing. Interesting how many times Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of John the Baptist seemed to shadow one another. We have reason to believe that this means that Jesus was actually in another community called Bethany, one that was across the Jordan. It would be about a two-day walk from one Bethany to the other. It is very possible that Lazarus had already died about the time that Jesus got word from the sisters. He waited two days and then they traveled two days to reach Bethany near Jerusalem. This would account for the fact that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrived Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. In those days they did not embalm the bodies but rather buried them before sun down of the day that they died.
B. After purposefully delaying his journey to Bethany for two days Jesus declared that they should go back again into Judea. Jesus’ disciples were shocked. They knew of the danger this posed for Jesus. They had been over in the Jordan region specifically because there were leaders in Judea who wanted to kill Jesus. The disciples questioned Jesus about this but his reply made one thing exceptionally clear. There was still work for him to do and he needed to be obedient to the Father’s will. (See v. 9-10)
C. It was at this point that Jesus pointedly told his disciples that Lazarus was already dead. But in so doing, Jesus used the term “sleep” instead of “death.” For Jesus, death did not have the permanent sense that it has for us. He already knew the plan of action that he would take. But his language threw his disciples off. Understandably, they thought it was a good thing that Lazarus was sleeping. Maybe the rest would make him better. Then Jesus explained that Lazarus was already dead and it was his plan that the disciples witness Lazarus’ resurrection so that they would believe more fully in him.
D. Thomas’ reaction is not one to treat lightly. We tend to treat Thomas like he was the Rodney Dangerfield of the disciples. But his statement, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” actually reveals that Thomas understood the cost of being a disciple. A call to discipleship is a call to take up our cross and follow him. The purpose of a cross? Death. The call of discipleship is a call to “come and die with me.” Thomas was ready to do that. He was not speaking in a manner designed to discourage. He was speaking as one ready to die for a cause to which he was totally committed.
E. We stated earlier that Martha and Mary were also disciples of Jesus. His interaction with them is a remarkable part of this account. Too much has been made over the roles of these two women. (See Luke 10:38-42) Was Martha more spiritual because she first came to Jesus? Was Mary a harder worker because she was still at the house where all the company was staying? Actually, those issues have little to no bearing on the story. What is revealed is the fact that Martha was the older sister. Her role was different from that of the other siblings. It was only appropriate that she would communicate with Jesus first. And in their communication Jesus challenged her with the doctrine of the resurrection. Her initial response would resemble our typical attitude toward death. Yes, there will be a day at some distant time when we will be reunited with our loved ones in resurrection but that does little to ease our grief at the time of death. But Jesus declared something that changed Martha’s perspective. Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” This was a transformational statement. Jesus was not simply reminding her to believe in a future resurrection. Jesus was challenging her to believe in him. He personally is the resurrection. He personally holds the power over death and the grave. He was challenging her to see him in a totally different way.
F. This is the great truth of the chapter. Jesus’ challenge to Martha. Jesus’ interaction with Mary. Jesus’ concern for the crowds that followed him to the grave was all for one specific reason. That they would all come to see him as the victor over death. He did not just have resurrection power…he was the resurrection! Jesus was not simply teaching them that death was a reality and they needed to embrace it so that they could move on. That’s what our culture seems to believe is the end goal. Jesus wanted them to understand more fully who he really was. He alone had complete power over death. Death had no real power when Jesus was there. That is the source of our hope as well! Our faith is in Jesus! We have a victor! The battle has already been won. That should totally change our perspective when it comes to death. Both ours as well as the deaths of those we love.
III. The Resurrection of a Disciple (38-44)
A. Oh, how the training of his disciples tested the patience of Jesus. They were often confused by his words and disappointed in his actions. The conversations with his inner circle while commencing to travel to Bethany revealed this dynamic. Upon arriving at Bethany the initial reactions of both Martha and Mary demonstrated the their confusion. “If only you would have been here our brother would not have died.” They knew Jesus’ power to heal the sick. But he wanted them to learn of his power over Enemy Death.
B. The crowd that hovered near Mary because of their concern for her was also confused by Jesus’ actions. “Couldn’t the man who made a man born blind to see have saved Lazarus from his sickness?” It was a legitimate question. And in the midst of the confusion and emotion Jesus showed his own compassion. Twice the text declares that Jesus was troubled in his spirit and famously, v. 35 records, “Jesus wept.” Were the tears of Jesus the same as the tears of one who is grieving the loss of a loved one? Was Jesus sorrowful and mourning Lazarus’ death as were the sisters and their friends? No. Jesus’ tears displayed his humanity. How do you react when you see tears? For most of us, it brings us to tears. Last Sunday, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we took time during our worship to greet one another and share one thing for which we were thankful. As I turned and looked at our congregation I saw at once several people moved to tears. In most cases it was family members expressing to one another, “What am I most thankful for? You!” It was sweet. It brought tears to my eyes. When we see tears we are often moved to tears. It’s a very human response. That’s what happened to Jesus. He was not grieving because he knew he would raise Lazarus from the grave. His tears were the simple human response of seeing others weep. He was much like us. But his actions would go far beyond the typical human response.
C. I want to carefully treat the two statements (vv. 33 and 38) that tell us that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled in his spirit. For many years I have been told that Jesus was troubled because he saw so many hurting people and so many who did not understand what he was about to do. Their confusion troubled him greatly. Their confusion caused him pain. However, that is not the case. This is an occasion where the power of the original language comes into play. We don’t have to know Hebrew and Greek in order to study our Bibles but the existence of these tools are for our edification. The same Greek word occurs in both verses. It is “embrimaomai” and it is actually a word associated with rage. In classical Greek writings it was used to describe a warhorse charging into battle with nostrils flared and snorting in fury. Three times in the New Testament it was used to describe sharp displeasure (Matthew 9:30, Mark 1:43 and 14:5). One commentator wrote, “The word indicates an outburst of anger, and any attempt to reinterpret it in terms of an internal emotional upset caused by grief, pain, or sympathy is illegitimate” (Beasley-Murray quoting Schnackenburg in their commentary on John, page 193). What aroused the anger of Jesus? Why was he outraged in the deepest level of his being? He knew he was confronting the last enemy. He knew that the sorrow of the people was because they did not understand the authority he possessed. He was standing before a tomb, the symbol of defeat. But he was the victor. Death held no authority. Satan’s power was already defeated in the person of the Christ. It was time to act! It was for this reason he had come. It was within his authority to defeat the enemy death, reverse the curse of sin, and provide himself as the source of life everlasting. His response was a passionate and decisive one. His righteous indignation burned strong. He was ready for his greatest battle to begin. And that fact should totally change our perspective of death.
D. So, in spite of the fact that Lazarus had been dead for four days…in spite of the concern of the sisters and their friends…and in spite of their superstitions about dead bodies, Jesus ordered the stone to be rolled away and commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb. He shouted at Lazarus! He took charge over death! What an absolutely incredible moment! Nothing in Scripture comes close to comparing except the resurrection of our Lord himself! To the shock, joy, and amazement of everyone there Lazarus appeared at the opening of the tomb. But he was struggling. The burial strips of cloth with which he had been bound were making it difficult for him to stand, much less to walk. “Loose him and let him go!” In Jesus Lazarus was raised and literally set free!
IV. A Mixed Response (vv. 45-46)
A. For those who have been faithful to our recent series on Wednesday’s when we taught how to read, understand, and apply the Bible, you already understand the significance of these last two verses. They record for us the response of those who were present when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. As we might expect, the response was mixed. Some believed. Some did not. Why did John include this in the record? Because he wanted his intended audience to understand that they had to make a choice just as the people who were in Bethany that day and witnessed Lazarus struggling out from the tomb. Were they going to believe or not? So, where does that leave us? At the very same crisis. We must choose whether to believe or not believe. That’s where John’s Story intentionally takes us. A confrontation between King Jesus and Enemy Death. Jesus was the victor. That changed everything we believe about death.
B. As we read v. 45 the response makes sense. Those people witnessed the greatest miracle that Jesus performed during his earthly ministry. Lazarus, a man who had been dead four days. A man who had already been conquered by death was raised to life by the one who had power over death. Satan was losing his grip! It was the author of Hebrews who declared that Satan held the power of death. Death was the result of sin and the curse. But that grip on death was beginning to slip. King Jesus was exercising his power. Satan’s powers are great but they are limited. And his time was running out. The miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection was only a precursor to what was coming next. The resurrection of Jesus Christ and his permanent victory over death. Many that day believed in Jesus because they witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection. The fuse to the powder keg had been lit. Events were happening in rapid-fire succession. And, as God intended, some believed.
C. As incredible as it may seem, there were others who also witnessed the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection and yet chose not to believe. Even a miracle could not inspire them to believing faith. This should not surprise us. We have noted numerous times in our study of John’s Story that the faith that is only a reaction to a miracle was considered suspect faith. The fact that some chose not to believe is consistent with the fact that it takes more than a miracle to bring someone to true faith. Think for a moment of another famous Lazarus is the New Testament. Luke’s account of the beggar named Lazarus and the rich man who died and went to hell. Tormented in the flame, the rich man pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers lest they wind up where he was. These two accounts are not about the same man. Actually, the name Lazarus was a very common man’s name in Jesus’ day. But the words of Luke 16:27-31 are very relevant to our thoughts today. “And he said, ‘I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” Isn’t it interesting how these two passages, only connected by a common name, sheds light on the response of some to the miracle that Jesus performed? Even witnessing the miraculous, even one coming back from the dead, did not bring some to faith.
D. So, what is our response? Are we going to respond to death in the same man-centered way as our culture? “Let’s not think about death. Let’s focus on life. Yes, death is real but we choose to just focus on life.” Is that a valid response? Is a Harry Potter transformation as good as we can do? Or, will we see Jesus in all of his sovereign power? Will we choose by faith to see him as the one who conquerored death for all time? Will we choose to believe in him, the author of life, eternal life, life in this world and beyond?
Conclusion: In his own dramatic way, the Apostle John presented to us through this Lazarus account a revelation of Jesus Christ in all of his sovereign power over death. What was his purpose? To provoke a response in our hearts. Do we see death from a distinctly Christian perspective or do we view death as the world understands it? May our faith have Christ as its object. May that faith sustain us even when we are called upon to walk through that valley…whether it is the death of a loved one or our own journey to meet the Lord. Jesus Christ is Lord over death!