The Strange Ways of God
What is the greatest challenge to your faith? What is the one thing you face in life that presents an obstacle to your ability to completely trust God?
For me there is only one answer. And as I've talked to other Christians over the years, I've discovered that many people would give the same answer I would give. For me and for many Christians, the hardest problem to handle in the Christian life is the fact that God often does not act as we expect Him to. God "gets out of line." He disappoints us. He takes too long.
As Philip Yancey observes, "Some people lose their faith because of a sharp sense of disappointment with God. They expect God to act a certain way, and God 'lets them down.' Others may not lose their faith, but they too experience a form of disappointment. They believe God will intervene, they pray for a miracle, and their prayers come back unanswered."
To many, it sounds faintly blasphemous to say such things about God. Many people are afraid to admit that they have such feelings toward God. They guiltily wonder, "What would other Christians think of me if they knew I felt disappointed by God or angry with Him? Worse yet, what must God think of me?"
The fact is that God has already raised this problem in His Word. It is a problem He wants to help us with, so that we can grow in our faith and in our reliance upon Him. It's a problem He wants us to face squarely and courageously. It is the problem which lies at the throbbing emotional cure of the first section of John 11.
The Smell of Death, the Fragrance of Life
John 11:1-16 is an introduction or prologue to one of the most famous events in the life of Christ: the raising of Lazarus. Without question, the raising of Lazarus is the greatest of all the Lord's miracles, apart from His own resurrection.
At this point, it is good to gain a structural overview of the gospel of John. By now, we can see that John's testimony in this book is built around the great miracles of our Lord. In John 2, Jesus' authority over Nature was introduced when He turned water into wine. In John 5, His authority over human illness and weakness was demonstrated when He healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. In John 6 we saw the twin miracles of the feeding of the 5,000, in which He symbolically presented Himself as the bread of life, and walking on water, in which He prefigured the startling nature of the coming New Creation. In John 9, we witnessed the opening of the eyes of the man born blind, which symbolized the removal of the clay of our humanity from our eyes so that we can behold the light of the world.
Now, in John 11, we approach the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This miracle will be the climaxing sign of His identity, establishing His claim to be the lord of Life, the Conqueror of Death.
It is significant that in the miracles which most reveal the Lord's compassion--His healing miracles, the healing of the paralytic, and the man born blind--two remarkable things happen. First, John observes that when each of these "signs" (as John calls them) takes place, many "believe on Jesus." Many are convinced that He does indeed fulfill the predictions regarding the long-awaited Messiah. People can see that these are not merely parlor tricks or special effects. These healing miracles are the result of God Himself reaching out and touching people with His restoring power and with His love. Many people respond to that power and that love, placing their faith in Jesus.
Second, John notes that these miracles have also inspired mounting, intensifying opposition against Jesus. With each confrontation between Jesus and His opponents, the attacks have become more venomous, more murderous.
This, of course, is what always happens when the gospel invades the enemy-held territory of human pride and self-will. As the apostle Paul himself said, the Christian gospel and the Christian way of life are to some "the smell of death" and to others "the fragrance of life." Some people are healed and set free from destructive habits by the gospel.
But others are resentful, angry, and resistant. They oppose and fight the gospel every inch of the way. They fight to suppress the truth with every ounce of strength they possess, because it is the truth that exposes the corruption and sin at the core of their existence. We see this taking place in the lives of Jesus' opponents, and we see it in our society today.
As we shall discover later in John 11, the raising of Lazarus--this climactic and greatest of all of Jesus' miracles of healing!--is going to bring great and climactic division of opinion. More than ever before, crowds of people will be attracted to Jesus. And more than ever before, those who have opposed Jesus will be intent on destroying Him.
Mary and Martha
John introduces the last of the great miracles of Jesus with these words.
11:1-4 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."
When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it."
In these opening words, John gives us insight into a family which means very much in the life of Jesus: the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. In Luke 10:35-42, we learn a great deal about the very different personalities of these two sisters of Lazarus:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
This passage tells us a great deal about these women. Martha was the quintessential hostess. She was a fastidious detail person. She excelled at domestic work and she had the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." Moreover, she was a forthright, frank woman who readily spoke her mind.
Mary, by contrast, was a shy and retiring woman who was more interested in the big picture, the larger questions of life. She didn't care about details or about surface appearances. She wanted to understand deep truths and the meaning of life.
I suspect that this incident was just one among many in which the very different personalities of these two sisters clashed. It is clear that Mary and Martha loved each other, but it is equally clear that they were two very different people.
As John tells us in verse 2, this is the same Mary who anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair. Although that incident is not described until chapter 12, John anticipates that incident here because he wants us to understand which of the various Marys in Jesus' life he is talking about. John wants us to know that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, is the Mary who deeply loved Jesus and who expressed her love in this beautiful way.
While we see evidence of Mary's love for Jesus in this chapter, we see even stronger evidence here of Jesus' love for Lazarus. When the sisters send word to Jesus of Lazarus' illness, they say, "Lord, the one you love is sick." In fact, the dominant chord in this scene is a chord of love--the love within this family, their love for Jesus, and His love for them. I believe that this home was such a welcome haven for Jesus during His earthly ministry precisely because it was such a love-filled home. There is nothing more beautiful on earth than a home that is filled with love. That is what John presents to us here.
God's Plan for Sickness
As the events of this story are set in motion, Jesus has left Jerusalem and has traveled about a two-day journey to the Jordan River. That was where John the Baptist first began his ministry. You can visit the exact place in modern Israel, just about where the Allenby Bridge is located, which joins Jordan and Israel together.
The message from Mary and Martha reaches Him--and His response is amazing: "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." What is remarkable about Jesus' words is that, if you examine the schedule of events, Lazarus is already dead as He speaks them! It took two days for the messenger to get to the Jordan, so when Jesus returned to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Undoubtedly, Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead, just as He had received insight from the Spirit of God on numerous other occasions. He sees this event as a signal from the Father that something tremendous is going to result from it, and the response He makes is, "This sickness will not end in death."
The sickness, Jesus goes on to say, "is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." This is a crucial point to notice, especially in this present age, when so many preachers are selling a "gospel" which claims that sickness is never the will of God for the believer. According to this false health and prosperity "gospel," if you are sick or struggling, then it is due to a lack of faith or to some hidden sin or judgment from God. I have personally stood by the sickbeds of people who were dying, and who were tortured in their dying moments by this false doctrine. Some Christian with misplaced
zeal had inflicted on those people the idea that sickness was a sign of their lack of faith or hidden sin.
But Jesus rebukes that false doctrine. He shows us that sometimes our sickness has a purpose. God can use it and transform it. He can take our sickness and turn it into glory for His Son, Jesus. The fact that Lazarus was sick was not proof that he had sinned or that Mary and Martha had sinned.
It's true that sickness does sometimes result from moral choices make. Gluttony can produce diseases ranging from diabetes to heart attacks. The abusive, addictive habit of smoking can lead to cancer. And sexual sin can lead to sexually transmitted diseases, from herpes to gonorrhea to AIDS. But we must also acknowledge that diseases ranging from the common cold to cancer can enter the lives of the most saintly and sanctified of God's people. To preach otherwise is unbiblical and dangerous.
In the following verses we are going to see the strange ways of God in action. We are going to learn--through the actions of Jesus and from the perspective of Jesus--how He answers our prayers in strange, puzzling, sometimes exasperating ways, yet always in the most loving and wise way possible.
11:5-6 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
That is incredible, isn't it? Jesus waits! He deliberately waits! Verse 5 specifically reiterates Jesus' love for Lazarus and his two sisters, yet verse 6 tells us He simply waits for two days and does nothing!
If someone you loved was sick and dying, would you wait like Jesus did? Of course not! You would call a doctor, an ambulance--if it was a real emergency, you would even call 911! But the one thing you would never do is wait! Yet that is exactly what Jesus does: He waits.
You might say, "Well, why should He hurry? Lazarus is already dead." Yes, but Mary and Martha's hearts were breaking. This is a dearly beloved brother, probably a younger brother, and his death at a young age is a shattering loss to them. Jesus could have been a great comfort to them, even if He didn't have the power to raise Lazarus. Yet even though He knows they need Him, He deliberately remains two days longer. He waits.
That is the question we all ask. We all know the feelings that Mary and Martha must have felt. We have all prayed, asking God to act and intervene in a difficult situation. We wait for Him to act--and the heavens are silent. There is no word at all. And that hurts. And our tendency is to interpret God's delays as God's denials. We say, "What's the use? He didn't answer my prayer. Prayer doesn't work." I have had this reaction myself a number of times. I'm sure you have, too.
Yet the delay that Jesus displays here is just like the delays we experience in our relationship with God. Clearly, Jesus loves Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but He just as clearly delays answering their prayer. What God wants to teach us through this story is that God's delay in answering our prayers is not a sign of God's indifference or His failure to hear. It is a sign of His love. That delay may be painful, but God intends it to help us. It makes us stronger. Jesus deliberately delayed because He loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and knew that this delay would strengthen their faith as they saw God work.
Walking by Day
Imagine how Mary and Martha must have felt when the messenger returned with the news of Jesus' reaction: "This sickness will not end in death." It already had resulted in death! Lazarus was already dead for two days! Imagine the disappointment and disillusionment of these two sisters. Added to the pain of their loss was the apparent discovery that Jesus was not what He had seemed to be. So many miracles! So many wise words! Yet He had been completely mistaken in His response to the illness of their brother--and now, their brother was dead!
The Son of God would make no such mistake. The true Messiah would not have bungled so badly. Their faith must have been shaken and their minds must have been clouded by the way Jesus responded to their prayer.
After two days of waiting, Jesus acts--and now it is His disciples' turn to be surprised.
11:7-10 Then he said to his disciples, "Let as go back to Judea."
"But Rabbi," they said, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?"
Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world's light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles for he has no light."
Over the objections of His disciples, Jesus now decides to return to Judea--and to danger.
What does Jesus mean when He says, "Are there not twelve hours in the day?" He is referring to the appointed timetable of God, comparing God's plan to the twelve hours of broad daylight in each day. He was determined to walk in the daylight of God's will. To step out of that timetable--even if doing so would seem safer by human reasoning--would be tantamount to walking by night. It would lead to stumbling.
The disciples express concern for Jesus' safety if He returns to Jerusalem: "But Rabbi," they say, "a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?" Jesus, however, tells them that the real danger is not from the murder-minded Jewish leaders in Judea. The only real danger comes from walking by night, walking outside of the Father's will and His timetable.
The metaphor of daylight and night applies not only to Jesus, but to you and me as well. God has appointed a time for each of us, and if we are walking in the sunlight of God's will, there is nothing anyone else can do to shorten it, nor is there anything we can do to lengthen it. Our times are in God's hands. As the psalmist prays, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom."
The disciples could not have been more baffled by the Lord's decision to return to Judea! They had just left Judea--probably only a week or so earlier--because the Jewish leaders wanted to put Jesus to death. They must have felt a great sense of relief to get out of the city, with all of its intrigue and danger. The whole time they had been in Jerusalem, they had probably been looking worriedly over their shoulders, wondering when they would all be seized, dragged before the authorities, and condemned to death. They had just barely escaped with their lives--and suddenly Jesus turns around and says, "Let's go back to Judea"!
This is just one of many times Jesus totally confounds His disciples. They simply can't understand His actions. I can identify with these disciples and perhaps you can, too. There are many times when the ways of God are baffling when we simply cannot understand what God is doing, why He is allowing this or that to take place in our lives. We are baffled--and we are discouraged.
The irony is that when the ways of God seem baffling, it is not He who is acting strangely, it is we who do not understand. It is God who is the realist. He always acts in perfect accord with what the situation demands. He does not suffer from illusions and limited understanding as we do. All of His acts are carried out in accord with reality.
As we look at Jesus' words here in His dialogue with His disciples, several facts become clear:
First: When Jesus left Judea, He did so out of obedience to God, not out of fear of the Pharisees. How can we know that? Because He now decides to return to Judea--even though conditions have become more dangerous, not less. He is walking right into the jaws of death.
When Jesus left Jerusalem before, He was not running in fear from His enemies. He was keeping to God's timetable. Inexorable, inevitably, the moment of the cross was approaching--yet Jesus Himself was in charge of every event, every detail, which led to His death. The Father had composed the score, and Jesus was conducting the symphony of events.
Or, let's take another analogy: If you are a backyard barbecuer, you know what has to be done when you have steaks on the grill. You put the steaks on over the coals for a while until the fat begins to melt off the steaks. As the fat hits the coals, the flames leap up and you have to move the steaks back a bit to let the flames die down.
Whenever Jesus made an appearance in Jerusalem. He stirred up the flames of antagonism. The fat was figuratively in the fire whenever He confronted the Jewish leaders. Then, from time to time, He would remove Himself From Jerusalem and the situation would simmer down a bit.
Jesus knew that He was going to die in Jerusalem, but He also knew that God the Father had appointed the hour for His death, and that hour had not come yet. The hour of His sacrifice on the cross would be the Passover, the great feast of Israel, when He would be offered as "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." Jesus was carefully engaging, then disengaging, His enemies, keeping the coals hot. He was motivated not by fear but by obedience to the plan of God. It was all a question of timing.
A Form of Sleep
Next we see a deep gulf between the attitude of Jesus and the attitude of His disciples. The subject: Death.
11:11-15 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up."
His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."
Notice what Jesus is saying here: When we stand beside a loved one's grave and our heart cries out, "Why?", heaven's answer is, "What is death? Just a form of sleep." Death is not final for the one who knows Jesus. It is merely an introduction to another, greater experience of life. From our limited human perspective, we view death as a final farewell, a leap into mystery and darkness and silence. The death of a loved one leaves us feeling lonely and bereft, wandering alone through life. But Jesus says, "No, death is sleep."
When Peter Marshall was Chaplain to the United States Senate, he told of a twelve-year-old boy who knew he was dying. The boy asked his father, "What is it like to die?" The father hugged his son to himself and said, "Son, do you remember when you were little and you used to come and sit on my lap in the big chair in the living room? I would tell you a story, read you a book, or sing you a song and you would go to sleep in my arms. Later, you would wake up in your own bed. That is what it's like to die. When you wake up from death, you are in a place of security and safety and beauty."
That, Jesus declares, is what death is like. And throughout the gospels, and indeed throughout the entire New Testament, death is pictured as sleep. "Brothers," Paul writes to the Thessalonians, "we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him."
A Hard Lesson to Learn
The disciples misunderstand when Jesus says that Lazarus sleeps. So Jesus proceeds to tell them plainly: "Lazarus is dead."
After dropping that bombshell, Jesus makes a statement that is shocking at first glance: "and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe." Jesus was glad He was not there when Lazarus died? Why was He glad? For the sake of the disciples! So that their faith would be strengthened! He delayed going for the sake of His followers--for the sake of those who were with Him and also for the sake of Mary and Martha, so that their faith might be strengthened when they see the full, amazing power of God in action. That is the lesson of the opening verses of John 11.
This is a hard lesson for all of us to learn. It has been a hard lesson for me. There have been many times when I have cried out to God for help, times when I thought a situation was so bad it couldn't get any worse. "Lord," I prayed, "Please act! Don't delay any longer!" That is hard. It's hard to keep believing while we are forced to wait.
There is only one answer to our questions when God chooses to delay. It is the answer God Himself gives us in Isaiah 55:8, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." There are dimensions to our problems which we cannot imagine, but which God sees clearly. There are possibilities and opportunities in every situation that we cannot conceive of. So must wait and learn and trust, knowing that God loves us and is working out His plan, even while our own faith and patience are being stretched to the breaking point.
God Is Going to Amaze You!
In verse 16, we catch a glimpse of the character of one of the most intriguing members of Jesus' band of disciples: Thomas. Here, sketched in by a single line of dialogue, we see both the intense loyalty and the deep pessimism of Thomas.
11:16 Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
Thomas is referred to as "Thomas (called Didymus)." Didymus is a Hebrew word meaning "the twin." Evidently Thomas was one of a pair of twins. Interestingly, the other twin never appears in Scripture. To the question, "Where is the other twin?," one wise Bible commentator replied, "Look in the mirror." Indeed, many of us can identify with the gloomy outlook of Thomas.
Is that the level of your faith right now? When faced with peril and discouragement, many of us easily fall into an emotional and spiritual slump. We examine our circumstances and we say, "God cannot work in this situation. There is no hope. It's time to throw in the towel."
In his book The Light Within You, John Claypool sheds this light on the character of Thomas, a disciple we can all identify with from time to time:
Some time ago, in my own devotions, I worked through the gospel of John again and had occasion to ponder anew this man Thomas. This time yet another facet of his being, one that somehow I had never seen before, came home to me, and that was Thomas' chronic pessimism. Even in the face of his obvious loyalty and honesty and flexibility, I could not ignore the fact that Thomas invariably seemed to expect the worst out of the future. He continually faced the Great Not Yet with very little positive openness to what might happen, and with a lot of negative presumptions about what was going to be.
For example, his words about accompanying Jesus back to Jerusalem have a bitter, fatalistic ring to them: "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16, KJV). The spirit here seems to be more one of exasperation and despair rather than deep commitment and companionship. Thomas was not saying, "I see what you are attempting and, dangerous as it is, I want to risk it with you." He rather seems to have been saying, "The whole thing is suicidal. Nothing good can possibly come of it. We might as well face facts; this movement has had it. Let's resign ourselves to the worst."
Perhaps as you look at your own circumstances, you can identify with the pessimism of Thomas. If so, there is one lesson you can take from this story and apply right now to your life--whatever your circumstances, whatever your unanswered prayer, whatever you are having to patiently endure right now. That lesson is this: God is going to amaze you! He is not going to let you down. On every page, scripture drives us back to the realization that we can trust Him, we can believe Him. God's word is His bond.
We pray and we ask God to act--and He doesn't act. At least, not yet. So what should we conclude?
Perhaps a more relevant question is: What is the purpose of prayer? Is it to bend God's will to our own? Or should we pray in order to conform our will to His? We human beings are an arrogant species--and I readily include myself in this indictment. We think that our finite minds understand reality better than the mighty, infinite mind of almighty God! We say, "God! You're taking so long! What's wrong with you?"
But true Christian humility says, "God, I don't understand you and your ways. What do you want to teach me through this experience of waiting? How can I learn to better rely on your wisdom and your love for me through this difficult experience?" God's word to us will never fail. His love toward us will never falter. We cannot always understand His delays. But if we are open to learning and growing through these times of waiting, we can expect to be amazed at the truth that He will someday reveal to us, at the perfect hour of His own choosing.
If Jesus had been at the side of Lazarus as he lay dying, Jesus would doubtless have intervened and healed him--and that would have been a tremendous answer to prayer! A miraculous healing! A sign of God's love and power!
But it would have been nothing compared to the miracle that God in infinite wisdom wanted to do, the miracle that came about because Jesus waited:
The raising of Lazarus from the dead!