Today on the podcast we look at God’s love to us. And we are going to look at his love to us when life hurts the most. This is one of those areas that proves especially challenging for us to grasp. But we must learn this lesson. And we do in the life and ministry of our Savior. Because it’s relatively easy to see and feel God’s love when things are going well in life. But what about when sickness hits? What about when we feel weak? What about when we come to the end of our resources? Even as we approach the end of life, how do we feel God’s love and his purposes in our pain?
For that answer, we turn to Jesus and watch how he handled the sickness of his good friend Lazarus in John 11:1–6. There are lessons here for all of God’s people. To explain, here’s Pastor John from a 2019 sermon, preached in Northern Ireland.
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. (John 11:1–6)
Focus on John 11:1–2, just for a moment: “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 her ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.”
The striking thing about verse 2 is that that hasn’t happened yet in the Gospel of John. That’s odd. That’s going to happen in John 12:3, one chapter later — Mary’s going to anoint the Lord with her hair. And he says to the reader, “This Mary who’s asking him to come, that’s the Mary who did that. Now, I haven’t told you she did it yet. That’s the one I’m talking about.” What’s the point of that?
That’s the first instance in this text of how John is going to draw out the endearing, special, sweet, deep, precious relationship between Jesus and this family. He’s reaching forward to get a remarkable moment in the life of this woman, who’s going to love Jesus like that, and he mentions her that way here. So we can conclude, at least, that this is special between Jesus and this family, especially Mary.
Now, John 11:3: “So the sisters sent to him, saying, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’” So this is now, I would say, the second instance of drawing out that he loves this family. Now he’s mentioning Lazarus in particular. This man loves this family, and Jesus is underlining it. He loves them, and he makes it explicit. He’s not dealing with a casual acquaintance, saying, “Please come. He’s sick.”
Glory of the Son
John 11:4: “But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness is not going to lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’” So the first thing Jesus does is connect the news of Lazarus’s sickness with the glory of God. Not many people think this way, and we need to. He put it in relationship to the glory of God. It’s about the glory of God. It’s about the glory of the Son of God, who’s going to be glorified through it.
So, “Take a deep breath, Mary and Martha. This is all about my glory. It’s not going to go the way you think, and it’s not going to go the way you want. It’s about my glory.” “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.”
You probably remember chapter 9, the blind man, and the disciples say, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2–4). All these years of blindness are about glory.
Same thing here. He’s going to die, and Jesus knows he’s going to die. He’s going to let him die intentionally. We’ll see that in just a minute. And it’s all about glory.
Love of the Son
Here comes the third mention of love, in John 11:5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” So there it is the third time. He loved her. Loved Mary. Loved Lazarus. Loved Martha. “Now Jesus loved Martha.”
So I’m overstating it, aren’t I, when I say it’s all about glory? No, it’s not all about glory. It’s largely about love. And that’s what clobbered me in this text, right? This is about underlining three times, “He loved them. He loved them. He loved them.” He let him die. That’s what’s striking.
“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” So surely John the writer is writing this to help us come to terms in our experience with what the love of God is like for you. What is it like to be loved by Jesus? It’s like this. Love is not a minor theme in these six verses. It is a major theme. Three times he’s saying, “He loved them. He loved them. He loved them.” He doesn’t want you to miss that. And he wants you to put yourself in that situation and say, “Okay, I’ve been told that since I was little. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me.”
“The world has no categories for understanding this kind of love.”
And these texts — this one in particular — is in the Bible to help turn our world upside down when it comes to understanding the love of Jesus, because the world doesn’t get this. The world has no categories for understanding this kind of love that we’re about to see, but you should. Apart from the Holy Spirit, this text is in inexplicable.
Lazarus’s Resurrection and Our Own
Here’s the second thing to think about. I think John, in writing chapter 11, is intentionally inviting us to see our own resurrection in relationship to Lazarus’s, our death and our resurrection as parallel to Lazarus’s.
Why do I think that? You might want to drop your eyes down to John 11:23–26. See if you think I’m right about this: “Jesus said to her [to Martha], ‘Your brother will rise again.’” So when he gets there, he gives them the hope he’s going to rise again. “Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”
Now here’s the connection: Jesus could have said, “Yes, and isn’t that wonderful news?” What he said was, “I am that resurrection of the last day. I just showed up. That resurrection is coming to the world — that power, that control, that life-giving force is me. And I’m here. And let’s show you right now what that’s going to be like because I want you, Martha, and all of you, to put the connection between Lazarus’s experience and what you will experience.”
So he continues. “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” (John 11:25–26). In other words, “My raising your brother from the dead will be what will happen to you.” Which means that the way to think about Lazarus’s death is as a forerunner, a little trailer, of ours — our death and our resurrection.
So now as you step back and think, “Lazarus has died, and Jesus didn’t go, and he let him die because he loved him,” you shouldn’t whitewash that, diminish that, minimize that by saying, “Oh, he is going to raise him four days later” — because he’s going to raise you, too. And the distance between your death and the coming of Jesus, when the resurrection will happen, is a length of time that compares to four days as nothing compared to eternity — as nothing.
So your death and resurrection and Lazarus’s death and four days later rising are virtually the same — except yours is better. You never die again. Poor Lazarus; he had to go through this twice. So if you’re going to minimize Lazarus’s experience, you better minimize your own, and say, “No big deal to die; I’m going to rise in four days anyway” — I mean, more or less.
And you don’t do that. You know you don’t do that. You don’t minimize your death. You don’t minimize your loved one’s death. You take it seriously. You groan and you grieve. You ache. And that’s the way we should feel this.
How Is This Love?
So let’s look again at the logic of verse 5 and 6, because this is the main point I want you to feel, because it turns your world upside down. Verse 5: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Therefore . . .” Because of that love — you with me logically? I don’t want to add anything here; I don’t want to make anything up. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Therefore, because of love, “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5–6).
And that’s what we have to understand. How is that love? How is it love? That’s what we’re supposed to see. John intends, Jesus intends, for everybody who reads this to ask that about your experience. He loves them; therefore, he does not heal them. He loves them; therefore, he does not save him from death. John intends, Jesus intends, for us to ask this about ourselves. How are we loved when we’re dying? He doesn’t heal him. He just lets him die. How is that love?
The answer is given, I believe, in verse 4. You just have to think a little bit. “This illness does not lead to death.” In other words, he’s going to die, but that’s not the point. What is the point? “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So the point of his death is not death. The point of his death is to reveal the glory of God, and particularly the glory of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
So now you step back and you say, “Okay, the so at the beginning of verse 6 says that the meaning of the delay and the death is love. And verse 4 says that the meaning of the delay and the death is the glory of God.” And what would you do? I mean, how would you preach the sermon from here on out? What would you draw out for your life? Here’s what I draw out.
Show Me More Glory
The world doesn’t understand what love is. What is love? Love is doing what you need to do in order to reveal most fully and most durably the all-satisfying glory of God in Jesus. To be loved is to be shown glory — the glory of God. If we’re not a God-centered people, who see God himself in his Son as the greatest treasure, the most beautiful reality, the most all-satisfying friend, experience, and Father — if we’re not that way, that makes no sense.
“If God is the supreme treasure of life, then to have more of him is to be loved.”
You go out and do an average interview on the street with any unbelieving person in Belfast and say, “What is love?” They won’t go here. They won’t say to love is to have anything happen to me — life, death, sickness, anything — that will show me more of God. Nobody’s going to say that.
That’s true. If God is all to you, it’s true. If God is minor, if God is marginal, if your life is your most important thing, if your kids are your most important thing, your marriage is most important, your health is most important, that won’t make any sense. But if God is all, if God is beautiful, if God is the supreme treasure of life, then to have more of him is to be loved. That’s the point of the so at the beginning of verse 6.
So, here’s my definition of love based on this text: love is doing whatever you have to do, or whatever God has to do, at whatever cost, in order for the glory of God to be shown.