Delayed Mercies Resulting
in Greater Glory to Christ
by William Bacon Stevens
"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." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days." John 11:3-6
It is very pleasing as we read the writings of the evangelists, to light upon passages which unfold the workings of Christ's heart, in its domestic and social relations. While those who deny the divinity of Christ in their efforts to elevate His human character, sink the divine — it is also true that those who believe in His Godhead, are apt to overlook the human side of His life, in their aim to defend the fundamental doctrine of the Bible that "God was manifest in the flesh." Both aspects of Christ's character are to be studied. The one, that we may the more worthily worship and adore Him; the other, that we may more readily imitate His example, and follow in His steps. We bow with reverential awe, before the divine in Christ; we copy with reverential love, what is human.
Both sides of Christ's character are, however, remarkably developed, and intermingled in the portion of Scripture from which the text is taken. We see Him as a man, and as a God. As a man, groaning in spirit, sympathizing with sorrow, and mingling His tears with weeping mourners. As God, waking the dead, and proclaiming Himself the "Resurrection and the Life."
His divinity reveals itself in His words and deeds;
His humanity reveals itself in His groans and tears.
Our blessed Lord had no home of His own. "The foxes," He said, "had holes, and the birds of the air had nests — but the Son of man had nowhere to lay His head." The house, however, of Martha, and Mary, and Lazarus seems to have been a place to which He frequently resorted, not only because it was convenient to Jerusalem, but also because He found there quietness, peace, and love — the essential elements of domestic happiness.
From several incidental notices in the Bible, we learn that the family of Bethany was rather above the middle class of life, had ample means, a large circle of influential friends, and was regarded with great respect, not only in their own village — but also in Jerusalem. But that which most endears the family to our notice is the fact related by the apostle — "How Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus." To be specially singled out from so many of the families of Judea, and to receive the special love of Him who was Himself altogether lovely, and who also could read the very thoughts and intents of the heart — was one of the highest honors which could be conferred on a domestic circle. But neither . . .
their comfortable home,
their united hearts, nor
their friendship with Jesus —
could keep away sickness from their door. It entered into their house, and laid their only brother upon a bed of pain and languishing. Despairing, perhaps, of human help, and remembering the love of their friend Jesus — the sisters sent unto Him, saying, "Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick!" How exquisitely tender was that message! It was not like the nobleman of Capernaum urging, "Sir, come down, before my child dies!" It was not like the message of the ruler of the synagogue, "My daughter Holy Spirit died — but come and lay Your hand upon her, and she shall live!" It was not like the message of the good Centurion sending the elders of the Jews to Jesus, beseeching Him that He would come and heal his servant. It was not like the Syro-Phoenician woman, crying after Jesus with importunate voice that He would cast the evil spirit out of her daughter — but it was a simple message to Jesus, announcing the fact that Lazarus was sick. It contained no request, it did not presume to dictate what should be done, it asked not that He would even come and see him, much less come and heal him.
The sisters, in the fullness of their own love both to Jesus and Lazarus, felt that all that was needed was that Christ should be informed of his sickness, and that His love and wisdom would dictate what was best to be done. What perfect submission and unreserved confidence was here! And how was it more beautifully brought out by that appeal to Jesus' own love for the brother, "Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick." I can scarcely imagine a more touching and submissive message. They stated a fact, appealed to His love — and then rested their case. What a lesson to us all is here!
The appeal, as tender as it was, appeared to be unheeded. Jesus was only a day's journey from Bethany and could perhaps have reached the sick bed of Lazarus before the fatal change, and the sisters doubtless expected His visit, and indulged high hopes that He would come and heal their brother. As the sorrow laden hours slowly rolled by, their watching eyes and waiting hearts grew dim and faint when no approaching footsteps told of Jesus, and no arrest was made to the fatal disease.
But our Lord had higher ends to subserve than merely to restore health to a sick friend. Note the language of Christ when told of the sickness of Lazarus, "This sickness is not unto death — but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby." The sickness, then, of this beloved friend, was a preordained event for a specific end, and with that bed of languishing, was to be associated the glory of God, and with the recall of life to the dead, the Son of God was also to be glorified in the sight of earth and Heaven.
Had Jesus gone at the first intimation of Lazarus' sickness to Bethany and raised him up from sickness as He did Peter's wife's mother — it would indeed have been a miracle of mercy which would have produced a momentary stir in the village, and then been forgotten. The time had come, however, for Christ to make a marked unfolding of His power and His mission, and He would seek an occasion which would best illustrate His design. To that end, Lazarus must die, must be buried, must be turning into corruption. Hence Christ abode still two days in Perea after He had been told that Lazarus was sick.
Not until the third day did He say to His disciples, "Let us go into Judea again," accompanying His remarks with the declaration, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep;" and when His disciples, mistaking His meaning, said, "Lord, if he sleeps, he shall do well," Jesus plainly told them, "Lazarus is dead!" Two days before, He had said that Lazarus' sickness was "not unto death" — and yet he died; so that the first words of Christ must be interpreted to mean, the final outcome of this sickness shall not be unto death; its immediate result was death, its remote result resurrection, and the bringing in of great glory to God. Overlooking, therefore, its immediate and temporary result — death, and looking to its final result — life from the dead, our Lord spoke truly when He said, "This sickness is not unto death — but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby."
And now is brought out another reason why this sickness was permitted to end to all human appearance in death: "And I am glad," says Christ, "for your sakes, that I was not there, to the intent you may believe." These disciples had witnessed many mighty works of Jesus; still they were "slow of heart to believe," and needed perpetually recurring evidences of the power and glory of their divine Master. Such a miracle as that which He purposed would tend very much to establish their faith; for, all things considered, it was the most striking miracle performed by Jesus, and their witnessing it must have tended vastly to the increase of their faith.
At length — to the weeping, hoping sisters, O how long seemed those four days! At length Jesus arrives, and the sisters see Him, and almost with upbraiding voice and blighted hope exclaim, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!" The conversation which ensued was designed to test their faith, and prepare the way for their full reception of the temporal and spiritual blessings which He was purposing to impart. And here again, peer out some of the beautiful human traits of Christ's character. To use the language of a Scotch divine, "Martha's grief is not so overwhelming as to prevent her utterance. She is calm, and cool, and collected enough to enter into argument. She can give expression to her convictions and her hopes. She can tell that her faith is not shaken, even by so severe a disappointment. Not so her sister Mary. She, indeed, when at last she is emboldened by her Master's kind message, goes forth to meet Him, and her reverence, her devotion, her faith, are not less than those of Martha. But her heart is too full for many words. Her emotions, when she sees the Lord, she can not utter. She can but cast herself down weeping before Him and say, 'Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!' She adds not a word more. She lies prostrate and silent at His feet."
And now observe how the Lord's demeanor towards the two sisters was exactly suited to their respective tempers and their different kinds of grief. Martha's distress was of such a nature that it admitted of discourse. Jesus accordingly spoke to her, and led her to speak to Him. He talked with her on the subject most interesting and seasonable — on the resurrection of the body and the life of the soul. When Mary, on the other hand, draws near in the anguish of silent woe — Jesus is differently affected, and His sympathy is shown in a different way. He is much more profoundly moved. He does not reply to her in words, for her own words were few. Sorrow has choked her utterance, and overmastered her soul.
But the sight of one so dear to Him lying in such helpless grief at His feet, is an appeal to Him far stronger than any supplication, and His own responsive sigh is an answer more comforting than any promise. 'When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping who came with her,' for it was a melting scene, 'He groaned in spirit, was troubled.'
When He had asked of the bystanders, 'Where have you laid him?' and received the reply, 'Come and see' — His sympathetic heart could restrain itself no longer, and a scene occurred which, though recorded in only two words, describes one of the most touchingly sublime incidents in the whole gospel — 'Jesus wept!' O most blessed mourner, with whose tears your Savior mingles His own! O sympathy most unparalleled! O glorious Savior, to mingle Your tears with the tears of human sorrow!
To each, the Lord addressed the very consolation that was most congenial. To Martha He gave exceeding great and precious assurances in words such as never man spoke; to Mary He communicated the groanings of His spirit in language more expressive to the heart than any words could be. With Martha, Jesus discoursed and reasoned; with Mary, 'Jesus wept.'
Thus is it now. There is a most wondrous adaptation of Christ's consolations, to the Christian mourner. No matter what your grief, what your temperament, what your situation, what your state of mind — He will give you the very cordial, the very refreshment of which you stand in need. Like a skillful physician, He adapts His healing balms to the various wounds of the spirit. For the sorrow that seeks vent in words, and desires by words also to be soothed — there are the Savior's open ears, the Savior's speaking lips. For the grief that is silent, and which lies silent at His feet — there are the Savior's uplifted hands and the Savior's tears.
The sorrow-bowed and weeping party now stand by the grave. Mary had often gone to the grave to weep there, for affection consecrates the spot where the loved one lies. And now Martha and Mary, and all the Jews who had come from Jerusalem to comfort the sisters, and probably many of the Bethany people also, stood in silent mourning before the cave, never for a moment anticipating the scene that was about to transpire. Indeed, when our Lord, as if to give a premonition of what He was to do, told those around, "Take away the stone," which covered the entrance to the grave, Martha, as usual, ready to speak as well as prompt to act — remonstrated by suggesting that corruption had already begun its work, that she could not bear the exposure of that decaying face, "for he has been dead four days." With a gentle rebuke, and with an allusion to a former conversation not reported by the evangelist, our Lord replies to her remonstrance, "Did not I say unto you, that, if you would believe, you should see the glory of God?"
Lifting up His eyes to Heaven, He offers a thanksgiving prayer — a moment of silent expectation follows, and the loud voice of Jesus utters the mandatory words, "Lazarus, come forth!" All eyes turn to the open cave, and almost start from their sockets — as the slowly moving form, bound hand and foot, obeys the summons and stands, not a dead — but a living Lazarus in their midst. Jesus had told His disciples, "I go to awake him out of his sleep" — and now the awakened Lazarus stood before them. Jesus had told Martha, "Your brother shall rise again" — and now the risen Lazarus proved the truth of His declaration. Jesus had told the sisters that, if they would believe, they should "see the glory of God" — and now that glory was wondrously manifest in their sight. Jesus had announced Himself, "I am the Resurrection and the Life" — and now His deed at the grave of the dead Lazarus vindicated His right to be called the Lord of life and glory.
Wonderful Savior! Just now You were groaning in spirit and were troubled; just now You were weeping in sympathy with a weeping woman, and, lo! while the tears are yet on Your cheek — You send Your quickening voice into the chamber of the grave, into the ear of the dead — and the wrapped, and stiffened, and lifeless body — breathes, and moves, and lives — restored to health, to joy, to his sisters' home, to his Savior's love! The blighted hopes of the sisters have been turned by Christ, into the highest blessing.
And now let us notice how this sickness of Lazarus did redound to "the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby." Here let me remind you that the moral glory of God to which reference is here made, is represented to us, as Paul tells the Corinthians, only "in the face of Jesus Christ." "For God," he says, "who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Hence our Lord Himself said on a subsequent occasion, "Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him."
How then was Christ glorified by this miracle? By the evidence which He gave of the possession of divine power. Looking at the miracle in a merely physical aspect, it was a mighty deed to raise the dead. Human skill or power could not preserve life when it was in the body, could not keep out death when he approached, much less bring back the soul that had fled, and snatch the body from the cold arms of the destroyer! He alone who could create man — could raise man from the dead. He alone who at the first could breathe into him the breath of life — could call back that life when once fled. It is such a miracle as only a divine Being could perform; and it was done, not as the Apostles did their miracles, in the name of another and by invoked power which did not inhere in them. Jesus did this in His own name, invoking no power, and calling no aid from without — but in the consciousness of His divinity, and in the putting forth of His own will, He sent out His voice and cried, "Lazarus, come forth!"
This miracle proved Jesus to be the Conqueror of death and the grave. This, however, involves nearly the whole mediatorial work of the blessed Savior. Death was the curse pronounced because of sin. Had there been no sin — there would have been no death. "By one man," says Paul, "sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned." Hence each death-bed, coffin, funeral, grave — tells of sin. Death as the curse procured by sin, could not be abolished until sin was done away. Now Christ "was manifested," says John, "to take away our sin; and in Him was no sin." Hence Christ, says Paul, "has redeemed us from the curse of the law," or death, by "being made a curse for us." He who in consequence of His sinlessness did not come under the curse of death — voluntarily took upon Himself that curse, and by obeying the law which we had broken, on the one hand, and enduring the curse which our disobedience had merited on the other — He has destroyed for all who believe in Him — the power of sin, obtained for them a justifying righteousness, freed them from the curse of the law, and thus exempted them from eternal death. He conquered death by conquering sin which brought in death; and we, weak, trembling believers, are thus enabled to triumph in His triumph, and can say, "Thanks be unto God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." What a supernatural power was required for this!
This miracle glorified Jesus, and glorified God through Him — by showing that Jesus was the Lord of life and glory. He had already proclaimed Himself the life of men, the life of the world. John declared, "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men." Here He declares with solemn effect, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." He was the life, as being the Prince of life, the Lord and Giver of life — from Him all created life flowed, in Him it had its origin, for "by Him," says the apostle, "all things are held together."
Especially was Christ to show Himself the Lord of life, in the work of the resurrection. It was His voice which was to raise the sleeping dust, His Spirit which was to quicken the dead. He was the Author and Worker-out of the resurrection. Men would die because all had sinned — but men would live again, some to shame and everlasting contempt, some to glory, and honor, and immortality. Jesus would give life to all; but the life of the wicked would be to them an eternal death — a perpetual dying out in the soul of hope, joy, peace, love, and everything that made life a desirable existence; but the life which He would impart to believers is His own life — eternal life in His own kingdom, among His own angels, before His own throne, abiding in His eternal home.
Such, in brief outline, are some of the ways in which this miracle glorified Jesus Christ. It illustrates His human sympathy. It teaches us the source of all true comfort in sorrow. It shows us the interest which Christ feels in the grief of those He loves. It tells us of the blessed hopes which Christ inspires in the mourner's heart. It warns us never under the pressure of grief, to distrust the love or power of Jesus, or to be cast down at the apparent keeping away of the Savior from the house of mourning. It illustrates His divine power — a power reaching beyond this life, a power over the grave and death, a power which only God possesses, and which only God could manifest. It illustrates His mediatorial and redeeming glory, as the Conqueror of sin, the Spoiler of the grave, the Victor of death, the Giver of eternal life. It shows us that redemption's work was fully accomplished, the captives to sin fully enfranchised, the victims of death fully disenthralled, the tenants of the grave fully set at liberty in, and by, and through Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, and who has declared, "He who believes in me, though he were dead — yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die." Never die the eternal death — never die to all the glories, the holiness, the bliss of heaven — but live! Live beyond the grave, live in unending glory as a saint in light!