The Defeat of Death

First message in over a week, finishing up this look at the raising of Lazarus.  

Jesus looked death deep into the face and did not flinch.  This is forecasting what he would do at the end of his own life, when he would die upon a cross and go into death.  That he would not only taste death, but he would swallow it whole and render it powerless by triumphing over it in his resurrection.   All of that is being foreshadowed in what we are seeing in how he handles the death of Lazarus, that Jesus is not fearing death but entering into the sorrow and grief of it.

Where have you laid him?   Where is the body?   Lazarus’ body is in a cave tomb, sealed with a large rock in front of it.   Soon enough, Jesus will be laid in his own cave tomb, with a large rock rolled in front of it.  Jesus is standing before a sealed tomb, pointing to the miracle of Easter, the great resurrection of Christ.  Take away the stone, Jesus commands.  Of course there is concern for a great odor, Lazarus has been dead four days.  Jewish funerals then, like now, happened very quickly, because of decay.   There is concern for this, Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.   But Jesus is not concerned, Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?   

Now verse 41.  So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.   These miracles in John are not just miracles to show how powerful God is.  They are signs pointing to something particular about Jesus which John (led by the Holy Spirit) wants us to see.   Signs showing us that Jesus was indeed sent by God with something to communicate.

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”   In the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is foreshadowing the fulfillment of what he had earlier said to Martha, that he is truly the resurrection and the life.  This sign is forecasting his own death and resurrection that is to come, but what ultimately is this sign pointing to?  Is it just the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, or is it something more?  What is this sign pointing to, what is it revealing?

The raising of Lazarus points to the defeat of death.  Death is that thing that modern Americans want to continue to pretend doesn’t exist.  This seems to be a curse of modern American life.  Most people live their lives as if death is not a reality.  This is why when death comes crashing into our lives, we often don’t know how to respond.  We don’t know what to do, because we want to pretend like we’re going to live forever.  It’s a cultural phenomenon.  We exercise and work out to stay fit (which we should all do BTW).  We should want to be healthy, that is a good thing.  

But then we get into all sorts of weird stuff people do to their faces to remove wrinkles and signs of aging, to the point where their faces even get stretched and contorted.  We do this because we can’t deal with aging, because we know that aging leads ultimately to that thing we don’t want to talk about.  The sign of the raising of Lazarus points us to the defeat of death.   But for we resurrection Christians, while this is indeed Good News, it’s not necessarily new news.   We go every Sunday to church to celebrate the resurrection.  Once a year we celebrate Easter, we show up in our Sunday best to celebrate the defeat of death and the joy of resurrection.

Put ourselves back into the place of the last time you were at a funeral of a loved one.  Put yourself back in that setting to see how powerful, how much Good News is wrapped up in this sign that death is now defeated.   In defeating death Jesus did not remove death from the human experience, though he will eventually.  But what he has done is to remove the sting of death.  Yes it is still with us, but the sting is not there anymore.  

Think back to the last funeral of a loved one you attended.  How did you feel?  What was your range of emotions?  

For Christians, we have hope in the face of death knowing that death has been defeated.  The sting has been taken out of it.  Oh death, where is your victory?  We know that every one who dies in faith dies in hope of the ultimate resurrection, that like Lazarus they will rise again at the end.  For us, for Christians, for those of us who are following Jesus, who put all of our hope and confidence in him, we can say with the psalmist “…Weeping may endure for a night, But joy comes in the morning.”  Psalms‬ ‭30:5‬ ‭NKJV.  

Don’t get me wrong, when a loved one of ours dies, we cry, grieve and sorrow.  But we don’t sorrow and grieve like those who have no hope at all.  Yes, we weep through the night but hope rises again and joy comes in the morning.  

This sign of the defeat of death is not just to produce hope within us, there is something more.  It’s also a challenge to the powers that be.  Make sure you catch what happens here.  John is crafting his gospel together on purpose, and the backstory leading up to the raising of Lazarus was all about Mary and Martha and their anguish and sorrow and bargaining.  Jesus says Lazarus come forth, Lazarus come out, unbind him, and you would expect John would tell us about the reaction of the sisters Mary and Martha and we would see a great joyous reunion of brother and sisters.  Mary who had been weeping, Martha who had been bargaining, they have their brother back alive!!  That’s the story we will see, right?

Wrong.  John says nothing about that at all.  Instead, here’s what he does say.  “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” John‬ ‭11:45-48‬ ‭ESV‬‬.  See what happened?  Surprisingly, John says nothing about Martha and Mary’s reaction.  Why?  I think it’s because John wants to reveal something else.  Yes, he wants us to see that death is defeated and to take great hope in that, but he wants us to see something else also.  

The Pharisees and the chief priests, the powers that be, they were afraid.  As followers of Jesus we are not fearing death, but the powers that be in this scenario, the chief priests and Pharisees, they were afraid of losing power and position, and losing the status of their occupied nation.  

Why were they afraid??    Do you think Romans cared whether or not religious people had hope for when they died? I’ll tell you now the answer to that one is no.  The Roman Empire could care less what religious people thought about death.  That’s not what provoked these chief priests when they started thinking about how the empire would respond.  You see, the fear of death has been the tool of empire from the very beginning.  This is the way empire works.  The empire says “Do what we say…or we will kill you!”   That’s the way it worked for the early church.  The Roman Empire told Christians “Do what we say, go the Roman way, pledge you allegiance to the Caesar…or we will kill you!”    And Christians in that early church boldly proclaimed “We will not bow to Caesar.  We believe Jesus Christ is Lord, King, and He’s ruling and reigning.  We will not bow to your Caesar!”  So the empire said Fine, we’ll kill you then.  And Christians, for the first three centuries especially but some to this day, willingly gave their lives identifying with the sacrifice of Christ, saying “You can take our lives if you want to, but we’re still not going to bow to your Caesar.”   

Or we could say it this way – In Christ, death, as the tool if the empire, has been defeated.  So we do not fear death.  We do not fear the empire.  We are free to follow Jesus whatever it costs.  And yes, the truth does indeed set us free…

And while we here in North America currently do not see martyrdom, it still exists all over the globe.  Christians being physically attacked, even martyred, for their faith.  Because the beast of empire is still present.  But we have no fear from the beast, because the Lamb has triumphed and death has been defeated.  Jesus was risen from the dead, and is now alive empowering us by His spirit to stand like Him and say We will not bow.  And we will continue to put our hope and faith and confidence in Jesus.

Today Jesus says, Do not fear.  Only believe.  So the invitation stands.  Come, follow Jesus.  Put all your faith and hope and confidence in Him, for He is good.  He is the Resurrection.  He is the way to life.  So come to the table, the table of the Lord.  Everyone is welcome to come to Jesus, meet him at his table.  It is a celebration of His death, the body and blood of Christ.  The Body of Christ, broken for you.  The Blood of Christ, shed for you.  In taking of communion, we announce his death.  But not just that, but we proclaim that His death brought the defeat of death, and therefore Caesar has not the power of death to use over us.


“And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.””
‭‭John‬ ‭11:34-44‬ ‭ESV‬‬


John Lewis
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