Have you ever felt guilty for experiencing grief? It might seem like a strange question — why would you feel guilty for grieving? But sometimes Christians do feel guilty, precisely because we believe in Jesus. Belief in Jesus, so it is thought, should remove any reason for grief. Jesus loves me. Jesus died for me. Jesus is in control. Jesus raises the dead. With such beliefs, how could any real Christian give in to grief?
Believers commonly subscribe to this equation. But this equation is completely wrong — as seen in the life of Jesus himself.
His friend Lazarus died. And the shortest verse of the Bible gives us Jesus’s reaction to this death — “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). But this simple statement may cause some confusion. It is clear throughout John 11 that Jesus knows exactly what he is going to do about Lazarus’s death (John 11:11, 14–15, 23). If he knows that Lazarus will be up and walking again in about five minutes, why does he weep?
Jesus weeps because Lazarus has died. Though Lazarus will live again very soon, he has experienced death, and death is awful. Even though death may be overcome by resurrection, we must not make light of the dark and evil tyranny of death. Jesus weeps because his friend is dead, even though he believes in the resurrection of the dead (and knows he will raise him).
Sometimes our Christian funerals are too happy. Yes, we believe our loved one is with Jesus. Yes, we believe that he or she will rise again. We do not grieve as those without hope. But we still grieve. If Jesus weeps for Lazarus, who he knows will not stay dead for long, it is appropriate that we weep for those who have died. They are with Jesus, but we will not see them again in this life. We will not speak with them or embrace them again here. It is right to grieve — with hope, yes — but still grieve.
After he wept for Lazarus, Jesus went to the tomb and ordered the stone to be removed (John 11:38–39). Martha, who so far has shown great faith and insight, doesn’t fully understand what’s going on. “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39). Jesus responds to Martha with a mild rebuttal, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40). What he is about to do will reveal the glory of God.
After praying, Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”
And he does.
The Resurrection and the Life
The raising of Lazarus is an incredible miracle. It is the seventh, and final, sign in John’s Gospel. It is also the greatest sign, as though the others have been leading up to it. Each one is more spectacular than the last, climaxing now in Jesus’s authority over death itself. While Mary and her friends knew from the previous signs that Jesus is powerful — he could have prevented Lazarus’s death — they did not believe he had power over death itself. The seventh sign proves them wrong.
This is why Jesus told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). He embodies resurrection. He alone has the power to give life, even to those who have come under the tyranny of death. He has authority over life and death in himself.
Many understand this sign to point to Jesus’s own resurrection, and it is easy to see why. Jesus is in the tomb three days, until the stone is rolled away and he walks out. Sounds similar to what happened to Lazarus. But ultimately, this sign is not about Jesus’s resurrection. It is about yours.
Jesus will raise the dead. He will call out the name of each one, and each will rise from their grave.
“Lazarus, come out!”
“Marlene, get up!”
“David, live again!”
“Kim, rise from the grave!”
Each person who trusts in Jesus will hear him call their name on that day. And we will rise.
We Will Rise
Raising Lazarus is a sign of what will come. But Lazarus’s resurrection is not the one we anticipate. Lazarus was not raised to eternal life (not yet, anyway). He would die again. This is because Jesus had not yet done what was necessary to raise the dead to eternal life. For that, Jesus would need to die himself and rise again.
Jesus’s death is anticipated in John 11 when Caiaphas tells the Sanhedrin that Jesus should die for the people (John 11:49–53), and they plot to kill him. It is no accident that this occurs immediately after the raising of Lazarus. Once the sign has been seen, the reality is put in motion.
Jesus dies for our sins. And by taking the penalty for sin, he also overpowers death. Because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), sin and death are evil partners, conspiring against us. Because we sin, we die. So, the only way to defeat death is to defeat sin. This is why Jesus’s death offers us life. By removing the hold of sin over us, he conquers the tyranny of death. Break one, and you break the other.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life because he has conquered sin. Because he has conquered sin, he has conquered death. While we will still die because of our sins, we will not stay dead. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).
We still will taste the tyranny of death. And so, grief is appropriate. But we who believe in Jesus also will experience a resurrection into eternal life. And so, we grieve with hope.