A while back I was preaching on the raising of Lazarus, and I got thinking about the narrative shape of this passage of scripture (John 11:1-43).
From a dramatic perspective, the climax of the story of the raising of Lazarus comes at the end, when the dead man walks out of his tomb after four days. But from a revelatory perspective the real climax of this story comes in verse 25, unexpectedly, as Jesus is talking with Martha.
When Martha, anxious to see Jesus and no doubt exasperated by his two day delay, runs up to Jesus on the road outside of town, she says “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus’ first answer is “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Martha has a completely orthodox (if somewhat distant) hope that one day she will see her brother again – that he will rise on the great Day of the Lord which is to come. But Jesus’ next statement reveals to her the deeper truth about resurrection:
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Life comes from God, we all know that. And it is a mistake to think that we can know and enjoy apart from God, who gave us life. Later, in John chapter 17 Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” To know God is to participate in his life; and to know Jesus is to know God – he is God incarnate.
Therefore, resurrection is not some remote benefit that we get because we believe in God; Jesus is not a ticket to heaven; he’s not giving out resurrection gift certificates, so that we can cash them in when our number is up. No, resurrection is a personal communication of Jesus himself, who is the divine life; if we are raised, it is not because we have obtained resurrection as a benefit, but because we are joined to him who is the resurrection.
Paul says, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom 6:5). Even more poignantly Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus’ gift to Martha, though I’m not sure she understood it at the time, was to show her that his plan was not simply to raise Lazarus from the dead, but to unite him, and her, and all of us, with himself, so that we might truly share in the love that he shares with the Father and the Spirit. By being united with him who is resurrection and eternal life, we can know that death will not have the last word.
Why do I think Jesus statement to Martha is more of a climax than the actual raising of Lazarus? The proof is in the grave clothes.
This is a seemingly strange detail to the story. If Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, why couldn’t he remove his grave clothes? Why did have to ask others to do that for him?
The grave clothes remind us that there is a difference between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was raised, the grave clothes were left behind. The disciples found them in the tomb. It was a once and for all resurrection. He now and forever lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit, one God. When Lazarus was raised, on the other hand, it was only to die again. Tradition has it that Lazarus lived for thirty years after Jesus death. But he did eventually die. What Jesus did for Lazarus was a truly great miracle, but it was only a pale reflection of the resurrection of Jesus.
That’s what Jesus is saying to Martha. Lazarus will rise again. But I am the resurrection. And one day you will understand that by uniting yourself to me, you have a far greater hope; right now you are just wishing that you brother would have survived his illness; but that is only a temporary hope, a deferral of death until a later date. My resurrection, on the other hand, will bring complete and permanent healing. We will leave those grave clothes behind, once and for all.