120. God in action!

[John 11]

What is a miracle? It is an event in the lives of men that can only be explained in supernatural terms. The official definition underlines the mystery aspect of a highly improbable or extraordinary event.

As the dictionary puts it: It is a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.

 A miracle is described as surprising and welcome, a positive outcome. It is the opposite of the crisis or circumstances that gave rise to the need for divine intervention. In other words, it is the inexplicable rectification of a catastrophic or heartbreaking situation.

A miracle is God in action. It is our loving Father, almighty creator-God, who intervenes and does the impossible for our benefit. A miracle is welcomed as a relief where relief was not humanly possible.

Miracles are answered prayers.

God is a mystery, operating in the unseen. Where shall we find Him and how will we “see” His action. God is the God of His people. We “see” Him active His community.

William Barclay explained how a certain Rabbi expounded the text in Deuteronomy 13:4:”You shall walk after the Lord your God.” He said that text commands us to imitate the things, which God is depicted as doing in scripture. God clothed the naked (Genesis 3:21); God visited the sick (Genesis 18:1). God comforted the mourners (Genesis 25:11); God buried the dead (Deuteronomy 34:6). In all these things we must imitate the actions of God.

In this section of John 11:17-27 we meet the household of Jesus’ friends in Bethany. Martha is true to character (Luke 10:38-42).  Martha loved action, and Mary sat still. Martha was up to meet Jesus.

When Martha met Jesus her heart spoke through her lips. Martha’s words were half reproach that came out in desperation and half with faith that is now so disappointed:

If you had been here,”she said, “my brother would not have died.”

Through her words she is asking: “Jesus, why are you late. If you had come when we sent the message, Lazarus would live.” Still there is faith in her words: I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

Martha mentioned the general resurrection on the last day. It is very important words from Martha:

One of the strangest things in scripture is the fact that the saints of the Old Testament had practically no belief in any real life after death. In the early days, the Hebrews believed that the soul of every man, good and bad alike, went to Sheol or Hades. Sheol is wrongly translated Hell; for it was not a place of torture, it was the land of the shades. All alike went there and they lived a vague, shadowy, strengthless, joyless ghostly kind of life. (Psalms 6:5;30:9and many others). It is Hezekiah’s pessimistic belief that:

“For Sheol cannot thank You,

Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth.(Isaiah 38:18).

In Psalms 16:9-11and 73:23-24 the Psalmist wants to believe that not even death can separate him from God. This immortal hope we find in Job. While facing all his disasters, Job cried out:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And He shall stand at last on the earth;

And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
That in my flesh I shall see God,   (Job 19:25-26)

In the time of Jesus the Sadducees did not believe in life after death, but the Pharisees and the great majority of the Jews did. Those who died saw God, and they refused to call them the dead but called them the living. Martha reached out in faith to this belief.

Jesus answered:

I am the Resurrection and the Life,” We have faith in Him for life. His life in us makes NO provision for death of any kind.

Not even a lifetime’s thinking will reveal the full meaning of this; but we must try to grasp as much of it as we can.[William Barclay]

Life is so much more than physical. Even if life is so hard, it makes it almost not worth living, Jesus can make him alive again.”

There is life to come. Death is not the end. Death is just a door into the invisible.

Physical death is the sunrise, the dawn of eternity.

It was the custom, especially for the women, to go to the tomb to weep on every possible occasion, for a week after the burial. Mary’s greeting was exactly the same as that of Martha.

We must remember that this would be no gentle shedding of tears. It would be almost hysterical wailing and shrieking, for it was the Jewish point of view that the more unrestrained the weeping, the more honour it paid to the dead.

Jesus was deeply moved in spirit. The word comes from the verbembrimasthai. It is used three other times in the New Testament. It means rather to rebuke, to give a stern order to.

Why the anger? It is suggested that the display of tears by the Jewish visitors to Bethany was sheer hypocrisy – artificial grief raised Jesus’ wrath. In ordinary classical Greek the usual usage of embrimasthaiis a horse snorting. Such deep emotion seized Jesus that an involuntary groan was wrung from his heart.

Here is one of the most precious things in the gospel. So deeply did Jesus enter into men’s sorrows that his heart was wrung with anguish.

John had written his whole gospel on the theme that in Jesus we see the mind of God. To the Greek the primary characteristic of God was what he called which means total inability to feel any emotion whatsoever. 

If we can feel sorrow or joy, gladness or grief, it means that someone can have an effect upon us. Now, if a person has an effect upon us, it means that for the moment that person has power over us. No one can have any power over God; and this must mean that God is essentially incapable of feeling any emotion whatsoever.

The Greeks believed in an isolated, passionless and compassionless God. 

What a different picture Jesus gave! God’s heart is wrung with compassion for the anguish of his people. God cares.

The usual Palestinian tomb was a natural cave or a space hewn out of the rock. The bodies were wrapped in linen but the hands and feet were enfolded in bandage-like wrappings and the head was wrapped separately. In front of the opening ran a groove in which a great stone like a cartwheel was rolled across the entrance to seal the grave.

Jesus asked the stone to be moved. Martha thought that Jesus wished to look on the face of his dead friend for the last time. She did not think this a good idea and pointed out that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. It was Jewish belief that the spirit of the departed hovered around his tomb for three days, seeking re-entrance. But after three days the spirit finally left. A decayed face was not easily recognizable.

Then Jesus spoke his word of command which even death was powerless to oppose. 

Lazarus came forth.It is weird to think of the bandaged figure staggering out from the tomb. Jesus told them to loosen the grave-clothes and wrappings and let him go. Most probably everybody around the grave stood stunned and just stared, not believing their eyes and not moving.

When Jesus spoke the power of God flowed through him.

Jesus spoke this miracle into being to honour God, just like Elijah when he prayed: “Answer me, O Lord, that this people may know that you are God”(1 Kings 18:37).

In the other three gospels there are accounts of people being raised from the dead: Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56) and the raising of the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-16). In both cases the raising followed immediately after death. It might be possible to believe that in both these miracles the person raised was in a coma.

Burial had to take place quickly in the hot climate of Palestine. Evidence in graves pointed to the fact that people were sometimes buried alive. It could well be that these were miracles of diagnosis in which Jesus saved two young people from a dreadful death.

But there is no parallel for the raising of a man who had been dead for four days and whose body had begun to putrefy.

The Sanhedrin was called to deal with the situation. The miracle of Lazarus forced their hand.

In the Sanhedrin there were bothPharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were not a political party. They lived the law. The Sadducees were political. They were wealthy and aristocratic. To retain their wealth, comfort and position of authority, they collaborated with Rome. All the priests were Sadducees. They did all the talking.

They were notoriously discourteous. Their contemptuous arrogance is a stark contrast to the accents of love of Jesus. 

They were set on the retention of their political and social power and prestige. Jesus might gain a following and raise a rebellion against the government. Rome could never afford civil disorder and always quelled it with a firm and merciless hand. The Sadducees would be dismissed. It never even occurred to them to ask whether Jesus was right or wrong.

A man can set his own career before the will of God. 

History shows an example of dramatic irony. The Sadducees insisted that Jesus must be eliminated to prevent the Romans to take their authority away. In 70AD that is exactly what happened. The Romans besieged Jerusalem and left it a heap of ruins. How different things might have been if the Jews had accepted Jesus!

Caiaphas, the High Priest, made his very ironic, very true statement: Better that one man should perish than that the whole nation should perish.

The High Priest’s role was to ask God’s counsel for the nation. Moses told Joshua when he wished for God’s counsel he was to go to Eleazar the High Priest. (Numbers 27:18-21)

God can speak through the most unlikely people.Sometimes He sends his message through a man without the man being aware. He can use even the words of bad men.

Jesus was to die for the Jewish nation and the world.

By this time Jerusalem was beginning to fill up with people for the Passover. The Jews had to be ceremonially clean for the Feast. Any person would become unclean by touching a corpse. Purifications were carried out in the Temple.

One can just imagine the talk. The people knew what was going on. People are always interested in the man who bravely and stubbornly faces fearful odds. This was Jesus against the authorities.

The conclusion of the gossip was that Jesus could not possibly come to Jerusalem. He could not take on the whole might of Jewish leaders and political authorities.

But they had underrated Jesus. Nothing on earth would stop Him coming. Jesus came to Jerusalem openly. He drew attention upon himself with death-defying courage.

 

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119. Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

[John 11]

It is the one certainty of life. Death follows every life on earth. For as long as man draws breath, death is the existential fact of life, mystified into fearful speculation and hesitant philosophical debate.

Death and the realm of death is a mystery that belongs to God. All that we have is the one-sided accounts of near-death experiences that provide a glimpse into something outside our realm of reality.

As we are so aptly instructed in Deuteronomy 29:29 (The Message):

God, our God, will take care of the hidden things but the revealed things are our business. It’s up to us and our children to attend to all the terms in this Revelation.

There is no doubt that life provides us with enough to take care of. Making a living, raising children with the values and courage to secure the next generation, caring for our earth and extend the hand of God in love to the immeasurable suffering and destruction around us, are more than enough for one lifetime of responsible living. How can we still worry about death?

But death comes, or rather strikes, daily. Sometimes it is anticipated in the elderly and enters slowly into the suffering of disease and weakness, with expectation and even relief. Accidents and crime shock and traumatize the loved ones when death is a painful punch out of nowhere, bruising our inner being with merciless irreversibility.

Death is part of life. Let us then listen attentively to the details of the encounters of Jesus with death, which was such an expected and terrifying cruelty of the young and old in Palestine of the first century.

Just the words He chose to describe the situation are indicative of the victory He brought. He always called death, sleep…

Lazarus and his sisters provided Jesus with a place to feel at home. Jesus said He had no home (Luke 9:58), but in Bethany He had a place of rest. These three people truly loved Him. There He found a place of relaxation and escape from the demands of the crowds.

The name Lazarus means God is my help. It is the same name as Eleazar (Aaron’s son), which is the Hebrew version. Lazarus fell ill, and the sisters sent Jesus a message to say that he is sick. The sisters’ message included no request for Jesus to come to Bethany. They knew that it was unnecessary; they knew that the simple statement that they were in need would bring Him to them.

It is sufficient that Jesus should know. Jesus would not ignore His sick friend. Jesus, on the other hand, was not alarmed. He knew He had the power to deal with anything. God’s glory had to be served.

The power of prayer is that you know He knows. The Bible says He knows everything – He knows before we pray. I can testify that over the years God knew better than me what I needed. Even my request is imperfect.

When we pray we expect the glory of God in action.

Upon hearing the news Jesus makes a statement. What a magnificent answer to the prayer of supplication this is!

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

Jesus talks of his glory in connection with the Cross. (John 7:39) When the Greeks came to Him, Jesus said: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23).

He talks about the kernel of wheat, which must fall into the ground and die. (John 12:16) John says that the disciples remembered what Jesus said about dying.

It is our dying to self that magnifies the glory of God’s redemption in our life.

The Cross was His supreme glory and the way to glory. To cure Lazarus was to take a step, which would end in the Cross. It did and He knew it.

Jesus accepted the Cross to help his friend. He knew the cost of helping. He was prepared to pay it. There was no other way to glory than through the Cross.

When He received the news about Lazarus, He stayed for two more days.

There are various reasons mentioned by some commentators:

Jesus waited so that when He arrived Lazarus would be indisputably dead. It would make the miracle all the more impressive. There was a superstition that the soul of the dead still hovered around the body for three days, seeking re-entry. Thereafter it left and death is fully acknowledged.

Jesus takes action entirely on His own initiative and not on the persuasion of anyone else. When He turned water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11) Jesus’ first answer to Mary is: “Don’t bother about this. Let me handle it in my own way.” In John 7:1-10 it recounts Jesus at first refusing to go to Jerusalem and then going in his own good time.

Our prayer should be that we leave it up to Him to do things His way.

To go to Judaea at that time seemed to them, the surest way to commit suicide by church leaders. The disciples were shocked.

“Are there not,” he asked, “twelve hours in the day?” We live within the confines of time here on earth. It will be worth our while to note the great truths in this statement of Jesus.

A day cannot finish before it ends. The period is fixed; nothing will shorten or lengthen it.

There are twelve hours in the day. There is time for everything a man should do. There is no need to rush.

There are twelve hours but only twelve hours. A day cannot be extended. Time cannot be wasted.

There is time enough, but not too much. The time we have, must be used to the utmost. [See Pebbles 109: And you? What do you have to say?]

If a man walks in the light, he will not stumble; but if he tries to walk in the night, he will stumble. These words might have two meanings: on the surface and is true, and on another level which lies below the surface it is even more profound.

The Jewish day, like the Roman day was divided into twelve equal hours, from sunrise to sunset. The length of an hour varied according to the length of the day and the season of the year.

On the surface: a man will not stumble when the sun is shining, but when the dark comes, he cannot see the way. There were of course, no streetlights in country places. Travelling stopped at nighttime.

A man must finish the day’s work within the day, for the night comes when work is ended.

In a deeper meaning, John uses the words the dark and the night to describe life without Christ; a life dominated by evil as in the case of Judas: “So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night” (John 13:30). Night is when a man goes away from Christ and when evil reigns.

The threat of time is at the heart of the Gospel. A man has only so much time to make his peace with God through Christ. We have the limited time of this life to do God’s work.

Time has in it two tones of truth: the glory of being in time and the tragedy of being too late.

In the section of John 11:11-16 we see that Jesus’ conversations always follow the same pattern. Jesus says something, which sounds quite simple. His saying is misunderstood, and he goes on to explain more fully and unmistakably what he meant.

Jesus says: Lazarus is sleeping. To the disciples that sounded like good news. Sleep is good medicine. The word sleep has always had a deeper and a more serious meaning. Jesus said of Jairus’ daughter that she was asleep (Matthew 9:24); at the end of Stephen’s martyrdom we are told that he fell asleep (Acts 7:60). Paul speaks about those who sleep in Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13) and of those witnesses of the Resurrection who are now fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:6).

So Jesus had to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead. It was a good thing, because it would produce an event, which would serve their faith.

The final proof of Christianity is the sight of what Jesus Christ can do. Words may fail to convince, but there is no argument against God in action. The power of Jesus Christ has made the coward a hero, the skeptic a man of faith, the selfish a servant. The plain fact of history is that the power of Christ has made the bad good. The redemptive power of the Gospel cannot be denied.

We should be a living proof of his power. Our task is to demonstrate in our lives what Christ has done for us.

As a great scholar once said: “I do not like crises; but I like the opportunities which they supply.”

At that moment the disciples might well have refused to follow Jesus. They realized that going even close to Jerusalem would mean certain death. It is the lone voice of Thomas that says: “Let us, too, go that we may die with him.” 

All Jews had two names – a Hebrew name by which a man was known in his own circle and a Greek name by which he was known in a wider circle. Thomas is the Hebrew and Didymus the Greek for a twin. So Peter is the Greek and Cephas is the Hebrew for a rock; Tabitha is the Hebrew, and Dorcas the Greek for a gazelle.

Thomas displayed courage. In his heart it might not even have been courage, but loyal despair. However, Thomas was determined – he would not quit.

Real courage means being perfectly aware of the worst that can happen, even being sickeningly afraid of it, and yet doing the right thing.

 

Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?

(1 Corinthians 15:55, The Message)