Late When It Matters (John 11:1–16)

Read John 11:1–16.

Being late isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, I need a reminder.

In college, I was late to my Western Lit class just one time, and I still remember it. For most people, being late to a class wouldn’t be a big deal, but back then I wrestled with certain social anxieties. The thought of the door to the classroom clicking open and every eye turning to look at me as I entered ten minutes late, disrupting the lecture and potentially inviting a public rebuke from the professor—well, it was enough to stress me out. I almost decided to skip the class that day altogether.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t. I was able to sneak in the back without drawing any attention to myself, and I found a seat near one of my best friends. It was then that he leaned over and told me the professor had just read my most recent essay to the class. I was thankful I’d missed that. I would have been mortified if I had heard my words read aloud to a classroom full of my peers.

I had written about how Antigone from Greek literature was likely the archetype for Batman, and apparently the professor agreed with my analysis. She liked my paper enough to share it as an example of creative interaction with the subject matter. Knowing she enjoyed it was enough for me; I was thankful I wasn’t there for the public recognition. Being late paid off.

God sometimes works most powerfully by being late. At least, it often seems late from our limited perspective. When Jesus finds out Lazarus is sick, He doesn’t set off running to heal His friend. Of course, Jesus doesn’t need to be near Lazarus to heal Him. He can remove his sickness from far away, as He did with the royal official’s son (John 4:43–54). But He doesn’t do that either. In fact, Jesus doesn’t do anything. For two days, He just stays put, long enough for Lazarus’ labored heart to stop beating.

The disciples suppose the reason Jesus is staying away from Jerusalem is because the Jewish religious authorities would like to put Him to death. And so, when He later does announce a trip to Bethany in Judea, they protest: “But Rabbi,… a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” (John 11:8). Jesus’ travel itinerary is never based on self-preservation, but rather on the timing of the Father. Jesus is always where He is supposed to be, and He’s always right on time.

The disciples don’t quite understand why Jesus would want to travel so near to Jerusalem after Lazarus has died. (Bethany is just a mile and a half from the city proper on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives.) To risk one’s neck to save a friend is one thing, but to risk it when there is no hope of helping that friend seems foolish. Even so, they stick by their Master. Thomas—a name most Bible readers associate solely with doubt—is the one who speaks up. “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (v. 16). Thomas may be a glass-half-full kind of guy, but he tells it like he sees it. To his credit, at this point in the Gospel story he’s willing to follow wherever Jesus leads, even if it means they all wind up dead like Lazarus.

On this occasion, one of the reasons Jesus chooses to be late is to provide an opportunity for greater faith. Healing a person is one thing; calling them back from death after several days is quite another. “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:15).

We live in a world where it often seems like it’s too late to fix what’s broken. Some of the problems we face as a society are so big, it can be hard to tell if any good thing we do is even making a dent. In our own lives, regrets and mistakes pile up to the point where many of us just want to start over. The fact that we can’t go back makes those sins and missteps sting all the more. The gospel reminds us that it’s never too late with Jesus. He will make all things new (Revelation 21:5), even things we thought were too far gone to repair. He’s that good.

In the meantime, when we see Jesus at work in our prayers and in our circumstances, we have a reminder that things will not always be the way they are right now. A new day is coming, a day we can see rising on the horizon if we squint through eyes of faith.


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