A dictionary defines the word, sign, as “an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else.” Signs never point to themselves, they always point us to something else.
The gospel of John is often called “The Book of Signs” because it’s built around seven signs performed by Jesus.*
John tells us elsewhere in his gospel that “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” But John chose to tell us about just these seven signs so that we could come to “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31) (This includes the eighth and perfect sign: Jesus’ glorification, His death and resurrection.)
There are some Christians who claim that miracles should be happening every day of our lives. In one way, they’re right: Whenever a person comes to believe--trust in--Jesus, God grants them eternal life with Him. But if miracles happened every day, they wouldn’t be miracles at all, but, as one preacher says, “ordinaries.”
Jesus’ signs brought the miraculous in-breaking of God into this world, pinpricks of God’s light and sovereignty into our darkness, pointing to God, not themselves.
If people think that miracles--miracles like superabundant finances, never-failing health, conflict-free relationships, perfect fulfillment at work, being brought back from the dead--are the norms for Christian disciples, they misunderstand Jesus and His Gospel.
Today’s gospel lesson, John 11:1-53, recounts a spectacular sign performed by Jesus...the one which, according to John, solidified the intentions of the Jewish religious elite to see Jesus crucified by their Roman overlords.
As has been true over the past several weeks, John’s account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, all that led up to it, and what resulted from it, is too long for us to examine verse-by-verse. We’ll go section by section.
In verses 1-16, we learn that Jesus’ friends, Martha and Mary, are facing a crisis. Their brother, Lazarus, is dying. Jesus knows this, but doesn’t tell the disciples.
Instead, Jesus waits for two days before saying or doing anything. Why? One Bible scholar suggests that Jesus felt the need to spend those two days in prayer, discerning what He should do.
I think there’s good reason to believe that’s true, as we’ll see later in the lesson. But just on first blush, there are several reasons why Jesus might have used these two days to pray.
First of all, Jesus loved His friend. But Jesus also never performed a miraculous sign for His own benefit. Jesus likely wanted to ensure that healing His friend was the Father’s will and not His own.
Another reason: Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem. In just the previous chapter, we see that the last time He was in Jerusalem, there had been efforts to stone Him and to arrest Him. Of course, Jesus’ entire life was spent preparing for the time when He would go to Jerusalem to offer His life: ”the lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) But Jesus would not go to Jerusalem until it was His time, the time appointed by God the Father. (John 7:30) Jesus had to make sure that the Father wanted Him to go to Jerusalem and His cross at this time.
When you and I confront decisions or try to discern whether what we want conforms to the will of God, we need to spend time waiting and praying. If a thing is right, God will give us peace, permission, and prompting. If it isn’t the right thing, we won’t sense God giving us His green light.
Eventually, Jesus and the disciples learn that Lazarus is dead. The disciples are the voice of common sense when Jesus tells them that they need to go to Judea, where Bethany is located. If Lazarus is dead, there’s nothing Jesus can do, they reason, and besides, Jesus would be walking into a death trap.
But Jesus won’t be dissuaded. Thomas, his voice dripping in sarcasm, becomes the first person in our lesson to say more than understands: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
What Thomas didn't realize is that when we throw in with Jesus, it means death to our old selves, the willing crucifixion of our sinful, selfish ways of living, so that Jesus can raise us to new life.
In verses 17 to 37, Jesus goes to Bethany, where He encounters Lazarus’ grieving sisters and their grieving neighbors. Each are disappointed in Jesus.
- “Lord,” Martha [says in verse 21], “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
- In verse 32, Mary says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
- And later, the townspeople ask each other: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37)
You’ve heard me say it before: The only people who get mad at the God we know in Jesus are the ones who believe in Him; you don’t get mad at a God that you don’t believe is there. We may struggle in our faith, like Thomas, Martha, Mary, and the people of Bethany. But if we will wait and pray, God will give us peace and sustain us with the promise underwritten by Jesus’ death and resurrection: All who have the Son in their lives have life with God that cannot be taken from us.
The sign Jesus performs next points to this reality. In John 11:38-44, Jesus goes to the tomb and orders the stone rolled away from its doorway. Martha protests. It’s been four days and the body will have begin to decompose and smell. But, remember that Jesus has already prayed about this. He deliberately waited until He was sure that Lazarus was dead so that Lazarus’ death, as He puts it, will happen “for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) Jesus will perform a sign that will allow all present to “see the glory of God,” so that they can believe. (John 11:40)
Just before Jesus raises Lazarus, He prays again, a prayer of thanksgiving that God had guided Him during those two days of prayer: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:41-42) Jesus’ time of waiting and praying assured Him that He was doing His Father’s will.
Now consider: If Jesus, God the Son, God in the flesh, needed such an investment in waiting and praying before acting, how much more do we need to wait and pray each day?
After uttering this prayer, Jesus called Lazarus from the dead, out of the dark tomb into the light of day.
[A mostly accurate rendering of Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead as portrayed in Jesus of Nazareth. This film is my favorite portrayal of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The words spoken by the John character here are based on Jonah 2:6.]
All who saw this sign were bound to talk about it...and they did! And anyone who heard about it would have been amazed.
But not everyone is happy with it. The unhappy ones, the Jewish religious elite in Jerusalem, see Jesus as a provocateur, sure to incite the Romans to assault their people. The religious leaders in Jerusalem say: “If we let [Jesus] go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:48) (They say this even though the Romans had taken away their nation long years ago!)
Instead of trusting in Jesus, Whose signs gave glory to God and not Himself, the religious leaders put their trust in the power of Roman swords.
It’s always a mistake to put more stock in or be daunted by the power of earthly rulers than we do in God.
Long after the last ruler of this world has died, Jesus, the King of kings, crucified, risen, and ascended will hold the field alone!
Psalm 118:9 says: “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.”
Who do you put your trust in today, Jesus or earthly rulers? Jesus or the things of this world that will someday be reduced to ashes by the hand of God? Jesus and His grace or this world and your fears? This is a choice we must make each day.
As we come to the end of our lesson, Caiaphas, the high priest, becomes the second person in this incident to say more than he personally understands. He tells his fellow priests that instead of worrying about what impact Jesus might have on the Romans, they needed a simple solution. They should kill Jesus off, he said, and save the nation. “...it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50)
Caiaphas thinks that if they get Jesus executed, that will be the end of things. The nation will be spared the Roman sword and life can go on as it had before this Disturber from Galilee arrived.
In plotting to send Jesus to a cross, Caiaphas is actually playing right into God’s plans.
Jesus came into the world to do exactly what Caiaphas proposes: to die on behalf of sinners so that they might not perish.
“I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” Jesus says in Luke 12:50.
Jesus had performed a seventh sign with the goal of showing His identity and, as a result of the world's rejection of Him that resulted, to go to the cross for you and me.
From a worldly perspective, Jesus’ fate is sealed when He raises Lazarus from the dead.
From the perspective of God, this sign is the final confirmation that the One Who performs it is “the Word made flesh,” the Messiah Who came to die and to rise and to give new life to all who trust in Him.
We human beings sometimes presume that we are and ought to be in control.
But the universe, life, death, and resurrection are in the hands of the God we meet in Jesus alone.
That’s important to remember because life in this world can sometimes go wrong. But if you follow Jesus, no matter what the sarcastic or the cynical or the powerful of the world may say, you will never be wrong.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]
*Seven Signs Performed by Jesus in John’s Gospel:
1. Changing water into wine (John 2:1-11)
2. Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum (John 4:46-54)
3. Healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15)
4. Feeding the 5000 (John 6:5-14)
5. Walking on the water (John 6:16-24)
6. Healing the man born blind (John 9:1-7)
7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45)