How well do you know Jesus? Who is this person whose coming into the world we celebrate? We may sing, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” but that undermines his true humanity. Is he mild and loving? Yes, but his emotions are far richer than that. Before we interrupt this series on John’s Gospel, look at John 11:17-44 and the Baby of Bethlehem as a grown man, weeks before his death. See him enraged as he accomplishes your salvation.
Jesus had delayed coming to Bethany in response to the message that the one he loved was sick, had delayed it until Lazarus had been in the grave for four days. Martha met him with the affirmation that if the Lord had been there, her brother would not have died. As Jesus assured her that her brother would rise, she responded with the knowledge of the resurrection in the last day.
Jesus then focuses the resurrection in himself. In another of the great “I am” sayings, he proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He goes on to make a claim that even today we find hard to accept: “Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus says far more than that he gives resurrection and life. Rather, he is the resurrection and the life! For the unbeliever, death is final. Beyond burial and even the resurrection of the body for judgment lies only the second death. But for you who trust in Christ the life you have in him is of a piece with life in the age to come. Even you body buried at death, is still united with Christ awaiting the resurrection.
Martha’s response is an affirmation that rivals Peter’s great confession of faith. She says, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, was to come into the world.” She has heard the teaching of Jesus and taken it to heart. She has understood his references to doing the will of his Father in heaven. John records her great confession, a confession that sets the stage for the great miracle Jesus was about to work, so that you might join in that confession of faith.
John’s focus is not so much on the miracle as on the Lord who performs it. Lazarus had been identified as the one Jesus loved. As Jesus is confronted with the death of his friend, he weeps. The verb is used only here in the New Testament. It is different from the wailing mourning of Martha, Mary, and the others grieving. It is not out of control. But Jesus is truly a man, and he weeps.
But that sorrow is not the only emotion. Twice (verses 33 and 38) Jesus is deeply moved. Our English translations, perhaps out of fear ascribing an improper emotion to the God-man, give a weak translation. The verb is used of war horses, snorting before battle. When used of humans it usually refers to anger. Our culture, by and large, has lost the ability for indignation. Our anger is often mixed with sin, but not so that of Jesus. He sees the suffering, sickness, pain, and death that has characterized the world since Adam and Eve sinned, and he sees its effect in the death of the one he loved. He is enraged. The great theologian of old Princeton Seminary, B. B. Warfield, writes:
“His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words. . . , ‘as a champion who prepares for conflict.’ The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but. . . a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover for us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf. He has not only saved us from the evils which oppress us; he has felt for and with us in our oppression, and under the impulse of these feelings has wrought out our redemption.”
Centuries earlier Isaiah (chapter 25:4-8) had prophesied that the death shroud that covered the nations would be removed. Jesus was about to do that by his suffering, death, and resurrection. But here, a few weeks before that peak of his work, he does battle with death–and he is victorious. After thanking his Father, he commands in a loud voice, and the four day dead man emerges from the cave, struggling with the funeral shrouds.
If you join in Martha’s confession, this is the life in which you share. You belong to Jesus. He is your friend. He is so closely connected with you, he loves you so deeply, that on the day he returns in glory his powerful voice will call you from your grave.
As you rejoice in the birth of the Son of Mary, keep in mind what he came to do. John compresses into this miracle the heart of the work of the Savior. Understand his claim, believe with Mary. See the grief and the rage of Jesus. Then join in the thankfulness and joy of his triumph.
[In preparation for a sermon on John 11:17-44, December 2, 2012]