Are You Ready to Boldly Go? (John 11)

“To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilisations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!”  I’m sure you know these are the opening lines from the iconic TV series Star Trek. At the beginning of every episode, Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise says “Space: The final frontier”

Most of us will never get to test that frontier but there is another frontier we all face with a 100% certainty. Death is usually the last thing we want to talk about and yet it comes to us all, sometimes prematurely. And too many people are ill-prepared. When a loved one in mid-life is diagnosed with inoperable cancer, your world is turned upside down. Your faith is tested. Your priorities and hopes for the future are changed, instantly, radically, irrevocably. And so by the way does your circle of friends. Invariably it gets smaller, but I’m thankful for those who have stuck with us over the past five years, who have encouraged us to persevere.

So let me ask you, are you ready to “boldly go”? How often do you think about your future – your long term future I mean? Say 100 year’s time? Do you expect to live for ever? Do you want to? Do you know that you will? I mean really know. Not ‘hope so’. Not even ‘think so’ but ‘know’. Know for sure? If not, then this is for you. If you are sure, then my second question is this: How do you know you have eternal life? On what basis? We will answer that question as well. There is nothing more important than having peace of mind about your eternal destiny. 

Now I personally can’t give you that assurance but I know someone who can. Only God can can give the assurance of eternal life.  And that is linked to the other great promise at the heart of the Christian faith, the assurance of sins forgiven. Knowing your sins are forgiven and that you have eternal life is base camp on the Christian journey. Only when your past is forgiven and the future is secure can you live in the present as God intended. How does God give us that assurance? Our gospel reading today from John 11 contains one of the more poignant encounters between Jesus and his closest friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus is ill and dying. His sisters send a message to Jesus. Would he please come right away. But Jesus waits until Lazarus is dead and his family has given up hope. When he finally arrives, his first encounter is with Martha. Jesus makes one of the most profound promises ever made: 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). 

Jesus asks you the same question. “Do you believe this?” 

As we read the story together observe three things about Jesus. 

1. The Authority of Jesus – His Claim (11:25-26)
2. The Empathy of Jesus – His Tears (11:33-36)
3. The Deity of Jesus – His Power (11:41-44)

1. The Authority of Jesus – His Claim 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). 

The resurrection of the human body is a cardinal belief in the orthodox Jewish faith. But in His ‘I am’ statement, our Lord completely transformed the understanding of the resurrection.

Out of the Shadows into the Light
To begin with, Jesus brought the resurrection out of the shadows and into the light. The Old Testament revelation about the resurrection is at times, “in the shadows.”  Some passages in Psalms and Ecclesiastes at face value can be taken to imply that death is the end and there is no hope beyond the grave. It is only in the New Testament that the final revelation of God’s eternal purposes is fully and finally revealed in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, that the Lord Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). By His teaching and miracles, Jesus clearly taught the resurrection of the human body. In his own death and resurrection, He has demonstrated once for all that although death is real, there is life after death, and that the body will one day be raised by the power of God. Jesus brings the resurrection out of the shadows into the light.

Out of a Book into a Person
Jesus has transformed our understanding in a second way: He took it out of a book and put it into a person, Himself. 

“I am the resurrection and the life”! (John 11:25) While we thank God for what the Bible teaches (and all Martha had was the Old Testament), we realize that we are saved by the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and not by a doctrine written in a book. This was the mistake made by the Pharisees. On one occasion, Jesus said 

“You diligently study the Scriptures  because you think that by them you possess eternal life.These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

In Jesus Christ, every doctrine is made personal (1 Cor. 1:30). When we belong to Him, we have all that we ever will need in life, death, time, or eternity. Jesus brings the resurrection out of the shadows into the light. Out of a Book into a Person.

Out of the Future into the Present
But perhaps the greatest transformation Jesus performed was to move the doctrine of the resurrection out of the future and into the present. Martha was looking to the future, knowing that Lazarus would one day rise again and she would see him. Her friends were looking to the past and saying, “He could have prevented Lazarus from dying!” (John 11:37 paraphrased) But Jesus tried to center their attention on the present: wherever He is, God’s resurrection power is available now (Rom. 6:4; Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:10). 

Jesus affirmed that believers would one day be raised from the dead (John 11:25). Martha did not hesitate to affirm her faith in this truth. The words “I believe” are in the perfect tense. This indicates a fixed and settled faith. “I have believed and I will continue to believe!” Can you say that and mean it?

2. The Empathy of Jesus – His Tears (11:33-36)

Our Lord has tested Martha’s faith; now He has to help Mary.  Mary is found three times in the Gospel record, and each time she is at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:39; John 11:32; 12:3). She sat at His feet and listened to His word; she fell at His feet and poured out her sorrow; and she came to His feet in praise and worship. Mary’s only recorded words in the Gospels are found in John 11:32, and they echo what Martha had already said (John 11:21).

“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32)

Mary did not say much because she was overcome with sorrow. The word used means “a loud weeping, a lamentation.” 

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”. (John 11:33-36)

These were Tears of Compassion
“Jesus wept”. This is the shortest and yet the deepest verse in the whole Bible. Jesus weeps as a friend with those who weep. He could be moved deeply by their suffering because he loved them and identified with them. Our Lord’s weeping reveals the humanity of the Saviour. We follow a weeping Messiah. His, however, was a silent weeping (the Greek word is used nowhere else in the New Testament) and not the loud lamentation of the mourners. But why did He weep at all? After all, He knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead (John 11:11). Jesus He entered into all of our experiences and knows how we feel. In fact, being the perfect God-Man, Jesus experienced these things in a deeper way than we do. 
His tears assure us of His empathy.

These were Tears of Sorrow
These were also tears of sorrow. Sorrow that because of sin, death had entered the world he had created. Have you wept openly because of your sin? If not then perhaps you have not seen yourself as Jesus does. Perhaps Jesus was also weeping for Lazarus, as well as with the sisters, because He knew He was calling His friend from heaven and back into a wicked world where he would one day have to die once more. Jesus knew what Lazarus was leaving behind. Jesus weeps because he knows earth is no match for heaven. How tragic some prefer it. Tears of compassion. Tears of sorrow.

These were Tears of Anguish
Anguish at the ravages of sin in our beautiful world. One only has to see pictures from Ukraine or Syria to appreciate the double anguish of starvation and war which make for a hell on earth. Death is an enemy, and Satan uses the fear of death as a terrible weapon (Heb. 2:14-18).  There is also anguish for Jesus because he knows many will reject him and the life he offers and instead endure eternal separation from God. Anguish for the hypocrisy he saw in some of those around him. They were not there to offer condolences to Mary and Martha but to find a way to destroy him.  Tears of compassion, tears of sorrow and tears of anguish.  

3. The Deity of Jesus – His Power 

“So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:41-44)

The one person who declared her faith was Martha (John 11:27), and even she falters at the last minute. “Open the tomb? By now he smells!” she cries.  Jesus gently reminds her to trust him and witness the glory of God. Martha relents, and the stone is rolled away.  Jesus pauses to pray and thanks God the Father that his prayer had already been heard.  His prayer is therefore for the sake of the unbelieving spectators. One Puritan writer observed that if Jesus had not named Lazarus as He shouted out, Jesus would have emptied the whole cemetery. You know what? One day he will. 

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). 

Jesus called Lazarus and raised him from the dead. A spoken word brought a dead man back to life. Only God can work such miracles. And yet he does the same every day. The experience of Lazarus illustrates what happens when anyone trusts in Jesus as their Saviour (Eph. 2:1-10). Lazarus would die again but rise to eternal life, as Jesus promised. We have observed:

Because he too had encountered the living Christ, Victor Hugo, the author of Les Misérables, wrote:

“When I go down to the grave, I can say, like so many others, that I have finished my day’s work; but I cannot say that I have finished my life. Another day’s work will begin the next morning. The tomb is not a blind alley – it is a thoroughfare. It closes with the twilight to open with the dawn.”

So let me ask you again. Do you know that you have eternal life?  On what basis? Remember what Jesus said, 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). 

Jesus insists, eternal life is not just a sure and certain future hope but it is intended to be our present reality. A little later in John 17, Jesus defines eternal life in this way.

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

The apostle John drew out the significance of this in his first letter: 

“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:11-13).

On what basis can you know? On the basis of the promise of God’s word. If you have trusted on Jesus as your Lord and Saviour then be assured that you already have eternal life. But if you have not yet done so, Jesus weeps for you as he did before the tomb of Lazarus, he calls you by name to respond to him, believe in Him, trust him, receive him, follow him. And he promises he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Amen.

Recommended Resources

Bruce Milne, The Message of John (IVP)
St Helen, Bishopsgate, John’s Gospel: Read Mark Learn (Zondervan)
Charles Swindoll, Following Christ: The Man of God – A Study of John 6-14 (Word)
Merrill Tenney, John, The Gospel of Belief (Eerdmans)

Questions for Group Bible Study and Personal Devotions

  1. What emotions do you typically feel when attending a funeral?
  2. Why does death make us feel this way?
  3. In John 11, why does Jesus wait until Lazarus has been dead for four days before arriving?
  4. How does Jesus react to the death of Lazarus? 
  5. In what way do Mary and Martha show signs of genuine faith?
  6. What however is still lacking?
  7. Why does this miracle provoke controversy? 
  8. In what way is seeing not believing? 
  9. How does Jesus’ answer to Martha affect the way you view him?
  10. How does it affect the way you view death?
  11. What ‘limits’ to the possibilities and power of Jesus Christ have you perhaps set in your life?
  12. How does Jesus’ knowledge of who he is and what he offers affect his attitude to death in this world?
  13. How should these truths affect us?
  14. In John 11:4, Jesus tells us the purpose of the impending miracle will be the glory of God. How has the sign and its impact served to reveal God’s glory to you?
  15. Can you know that you have eternal life?
  16. On what basis?
  17. In what way has John 11 and this study impacted your view of death and eternal life?