This Illness Is for the Glory of God
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “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.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
In the beginning — the absolute beginning of all things, except the one who was there in the beginning — was the Word, our Lord and Savior. And the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . and the Word became flesh — the God-man Jesus Christ — and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father full of grace and truth. . . and from his fullness we have received grace upon grace (John 1:1, 14, 16).
Fully Divine and in Absolute Control
And because he was in the beginning, and is God, and is therefore infinitely great beyond all our powers to exceed, he was the most important reality on 9-11-2001, and is the most important reality in all the world today on the tenth anniversary of 9-11, and is in himself able to encompass, and explain, and put right, not only the horrors of 9-11 but also the tenfold worse horrors of the earthquake in Bam, Iraq, two years later, and the 100-fold worse horrors of the great tsunami of 2005.
Fully Human and Able to Comfort
And because he became flesh, and lived a human life and suffered and died and rose again, he is in himself able to encompass, and explain, and put right, and comfort personally, intimately, and tenderly the loss of every individual life, including the life of fourteen-year-old Victor Watters, whose funeral we will do this afternoon at four o’clock.
The King Speaks
This is our God whom we worship, Jesus Christ, infinite in his divine majesty, and as close and caring as a mother’s hand. And we are gathered to worship him in his word. We are not gathered as a school at hear a lecture, but as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” to hear a word from our King, Jesus Christ. A word about suffering and death, and word about love, and a word about his own glory. And how these three relate to each other — suffering, love, and the glory of Christ.
I didn’t choose this text for the anniversary of 9/11 or for the Watters family. God did. This is where we are in the Gospel of John. And this is what the king has to say to us today. And it is very relevant.
Our text is John 11:1–16. Just before this chapter begins, the crowds in Jerusalem had picked up stones to kill Jesus (John 10:31), and in verse 38 they tried to arrest him, but he escaped. He travelled east and north and crossed the Jordan. And before long (see “just now” in John 11:8), Mary and Martha, his friends from Bethany near Jerusalem, sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was very sick.
That’s the setting for Jesus’ amazing words about death and love and the glory of God. As I read verses 1–6 listen for those three. Death, love, glory. And listen for their relationship. This is our king, shaping the way we see the world of death and love, and the way feel about the horrors and the beauties that happen in the world. Perhaps these words will turn your world upside down. They have for many of us.
An Unusual Love
Verses 1–2 of chapter 11: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” What’s remarkable about verse 2 is that this anointing hasn’t happened yet. It happens in John 12:3. So John is reaching for the clearest evidence of the extraordinary relationship that exists between Mary and Jesus, even though that evidence is yet to come. The point is: She is no stranger. There is an unusual love between her and Jesus.
Verse 3: “So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” So now John makes it explicit. He means for us to see and feel the love that Jesus has for this family. This request for help is not coming from a casual acquaintance. It is coming from the closest circle of Jesus’ friends.
All About the Glory of God
Verse 4: “But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘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.’” The first thing Jesus does when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness is put it in relation to the glory of God and his own glory. This illness is about God’s glory. It is about the glory of the Son of God. It is not mainly about death, though he will die (and Jesus knows he will die); it is mainly about God about the Son of God and about how glorious God and his Son are. This is what Jesus says (verse 4): “This illness does not lead to death — the point of this illness is not death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
This is just like chapter 9 where the man was born blind not because he sinned or his parents sinned, but so that the works of God might be manifest (John 9:3–4). Only here the issue is going to be death, not just blindness or illness. Lazarus is going to die. Jesus knows this. In fact, he chooses for Lazarus to die. We will see that in just a moment.
Stressing Jesus’ Love
Now, John underlines for the third time the love that Jesus has for this family. Verse 5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” John really wants us to see this and feel this. Three times he says it: Verse 2: This is the woman who anointed Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. Verse 3: “The one whom you love is ill.” You love him! Verse 5: “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Surely John is stressing Jesus’ love for this family because he knows that what Jesus is about to do here does not feel like love to most people. Very few human beings think of love this way. I dare say you don’t think of love this way — nobody thinks of love this way — apart from the Spirit of God changing our hearts to see what love really is in this text. This is why I said this text may turn your world upside down.
Unlocking the Shock
John knows that what he is about to say in verse 6 goes against all ordinary human experience where God is not supreme. And the key word that unlocks the shock is the word “so” at the beginning of verse 6. It’s really there in the original, and it means “therefore.” So verses 5 and 6 read like this: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So [therefore], when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Jesus knew what this would mean — this delay. It would mean the certainty of Lazarus’ death. We know this because of verse 14. When Jesus decides to go to Bethany he knows Lazarus is dead: “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died’.”
It Was Real Death
Jesus is choosing to let Lazarus die, or to make sure that he is very dead, when he gets there (four days dead, as it turns out). And if you say, “Well, it wasn’t really so bad because he knew he would raise him. It wasn’t as bad as our death — Victor’s death.” If that is the way you are thinking, consider two things:
1. Lazarus really died. It is not an easy thing to die. And as far as Lazarus knew, Jesus didn’t come. And his sisters saw him die. And they buried him. And they wondered where Jesus was. This was real death. And real loss. And Jesus really didn’t show up to stop it.
Seeing Our Resurrection in Lazarus
2. In the way John presents this story, he means for us to see the resurrection of Lazarus as a picture of our resurrection — the resurrection of all who believe in Jesus. Listen to Jesus in verses 23–26:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
In other words, my raising your brother is just what will happen to everyone who believes in me.
Which means that the way to think about Lazarus’ death is this: The death of Lazarus was real and terrible, just as terrible as yours. And if you think his was less terrible because Jesus raised him, the truth is your death will not be any more terrible than his, because you too will be raised by Jesus, and it is only a difference of time. And the amount of time between your death and resurrection are as nothing compared to eternity.
Love Moved Jesus to Let Lazarus Die
And now, perhaps, we are prepared to see and feel the main point. It was love that moved Jesus to let Lazarus die. It was the love of Jesus for this family and for his disciples — and for you, reading this text — that caused him to choose to let Lazarus die.
Look again at the connection between verse 5 and 6: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Therefore [because of this love], when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” He did not hurry to his side.
How Is This Love?
And in writing John intends — and Jesus intends — for everyone seeing this to ask: How is that love? John has gone out of his way to set this up. Jesus loves them. He loves them. He loves them. Therefore, he does not heal him but lets him die. Why is this love?
Jesus has given the answer loud and clear and will give it again in verse 15. He said in verse 4: “This illness does not lead to death [in other words, the point is not death]. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” This illness will turn out for the glory of God, and the glory of the Son of God. This illness will put the glory of God on display. It will make Jesus look amazing.
Therefore (verse 6) love lets him die. Love lets him die because his death will help them see, in more ways than they know, the glory of God.
What Is Love?
So what is love? What does it mean to be loved by Jesus? Love means giving us what we need most. And what we need most is not healing, but a full and endless experience of the glory of God. Love means giving us what will bring us the fullest and longest joy. And what is that? What will give you full and eternal joy? The answer of this text is clear: a revelation to your soul of the glory of God — seeing and admiring and marveling at and savoring the glory God in Jesus Christ. When someone is willing to die — or let your brother die — to give you (and your brother) that, he loves you.
Love is doing whatever you have to do to help people see and treasure the glory of God as their supreme joy — to help people see and be satisfied with the glory of God.
Look at the way Jesus says it in verses 14–15: “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.’” The human counterpart to the revelation of God’s glory is believing. Believing is coming to Jesus to be satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. And we come to him that way only when we see his glory — “we beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
God’s Glory and Our Joy — Together
These are the two great purposes of all things: God’s demonstration of his glory in Christ, and human beings treasuring that glory above all things. That is the meaning of life and of all creation. And these two great purposes are really one: Because our treasuring God’s glory above all things — even life itself — is the way we join God in demonstrating his glory. God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.
So Jesus lets Lazarus die to show the glory of God and to intensify the faith of his disciples. And the Gospel of John was written for these two great aims — to reveal the glory of the only Son from the Father, and to awaken and deepen our faith in him — our receiving him as the supreme treasure that he is.
Jesus Died for This
And the main point of today’s text is: This is love. The aim of love is to bring people to the fullest knowledge and the fullest enjoyment of the glory of God. Jesus didn’t just let Lazarus die for this. He died for this. “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus prayed that on the other side of his death his redeemed people would see his glory: “I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory” (John 17:24). What is love? Love is the longing that labors and suffers to enthrall others with what is infinitely and eternally satisfying: the glory of God.
It Will Be Revealed at the Resurrection
One last exhortation. Between the death of Lazarus and his resurrection four days later, his family could not see how God would be glorified in it. That would be revealed at his resurrection. Therefore, if that is where you stand today — and all of us do, in some sense, not seeing clearly how God is glorified in the death of our beloved — do not judge before the resurrection. God is doing more than you can know. And the resurrection will bring it all to light. In the mean time, trust him, and treasure him above all things.