Read John 11:17–37.
Unless the Lord returns in my lifetime, the fingers I’m using to type this sentence will, one day, stop moving. The skin, muscle, and other tissue that I take for granted will rot and waste away. Even the bones, given long enough, will turn to dust. My body, it seems, is a temporary vessel, no less disposable than the cardboard box I used to bring leftovers home from a restaurant the other night.
But that’s only the way it seems.
No matter what biology or cold observation tell us, the Bible provides the most glorious rebuttal: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:2–3). At the end of history, the dead will rise. The decomposed remains of our lifeless bodies will be sewn together once more and be lifted up from their not-so-final resting places. Those who are loyal to Yahweh will be transformed and become more beautiful than we can scarcely imagine today.
Martha cherishes this hope. She clings to it, now that her brother, Lazarus, is in his tomb. Their goodbye was not final; she’ll see him again at the end of redemption’s story. She knows this deep down in her being, in the place where hymns and bits of Scripture get lodged. And yet, Martha is still devastated by the loss. You see, far off hope is bittersweet—sweet because it is real and true, but bitter because it so very far away. It does little to push back the tears that rise up at the sight of the empty seat at her table.
When Martha meets Jesus on His way into town, it’s to express her disappointment. He’s late, and now Lazarus is gone. She tells Him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). I love Martha in this raw moment, because even as she treads a crushing wave of sadness, she’s still keeping an ember of hope burning: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v. 22). The time for saving Lazarus’ life has come and gone, and while Jesus had raised a couple of people from the dead (Luke 7:11–17; 8:49–56), neither had been gone four days. And yet, this is Jesus, “the Messiah, the Son of God” (John 11:27), and so Martha dares to hope.
But then Jesus’ own words seem to bring Martha’s hope back down to earth. He says, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23), and her fragile heart only allows her to imagine the raising of souls at the end of the age: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (v. 24). It’s as though Martha feels she must repent of her hope, as if she had uttered something too wonderful a moment earlier and needs to walk it back.
Resurrection hope, however, isn’t bound up in a particular day on a future calendar. It’s found in a Person, and that Person is standing right in front of Martha. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (v. 25–26). Those who know the Son of God will rise to new life at the end of history because of their connection to Him (see 6:39–40).
Jesus’ promise to Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (11:23), can either refer to that future resurrection, as Marth understands it, or to an event much nearer. You and I just see the name Lazarus in print and think of resurrection, so it can be easy to forget that the man was actually and truly dead. His body was decomposing—and stunk because of it (v. 39). It’s no wonder that when Jesus approaches the tomb, He breaks down in tears.
“Jesus wept” (v. 35). Those two little words carry much weight. Jesus knows what He is about to do. He knows Lazarus won’t remain dead for much longer. The One who is the Resurrection and the Life has come to call him back to the land of the living. And yet, Jesus knows the pain Lazarus experienced as he suffered physically from his illness. He knows the anguish Martha and Mary suffered through as they stayed by their brother’s side until that moment when he breathed his last. He knows the absence and the longing they feel now. He knows the sorrow of separation. Jesus knows death is a foreign invader in God’s good creation, and He can taste the grief in the air as He stands in the aftermath of humanity’s great enemy.
“See how he loved him!” (v. 36). Yes, Jesus loves Lazarus. But He loves you and me as well. He loves us so much that He endured the torture of the cross for our forgiveness and healing. He feels our pain sharply. He knows our disappointments and our anxieties, and He mourns with us for the jagged moments of life that were never supposed to be. His love is the reason that death does not get the final word. His love is the reason that one day every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). His love is everything.