March 22, 2015
Way back at the beginning of Lent, we talked about “The First Miracle” of Jesus. Do you remember what that was? It was at the Wedding at Cana. Jesus turned the water into wine. And he made that day, not just wine, but what? He made good wine! And he made, not just good wine, but what? He made a lot of wine! He made somewhere on the order of 60-80 gallons of it!
Well, today we’re talking about the last miracle, the Raising of Lazarus. And as we’ve been saying, Jesus’ miracles increased in both their power and their scale. It’s hard to compare turning water into wine with the raising of a dead man. I suppose in their own way, both were impressive miracles. But the drama of this last one, and the power Jesus showed that day, is really beyond compare. This was arguably his greatest miracle!
The other thing we’ve been seeing about these miracles is the reaction of the people who witnessed them. And specifically, we’ve noted how those who were opposed to Jesus grew in their opposition as these miracles grew more and more powerful. And now, in this last miracle, the reaction against him was at it’s greatest height. This was the event that Jesus’ “enemies” saw as “the last straw!” It was because of this miracle that they decided to eliminate him!
In this last section of John’s account, we see not only that opposition at it’s height, but we also see some of the reasoning behind it. And here’s where I think we have to give these religious leaders some benefit of the doubt. They saw Jesus as a threat, but not just to their religion. They saw him as a threat to their nation. They said, “If we let him go on like this, the Romans will come and destroy our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:48) That was a very real fear for them! And it was a very legitimate fear!
The Jewish people were a difficult people for the Romans to govern. Most of the people they conquered were just made to submit to Roman rule, and to adopt the Roman religion. And at first, the Roman religion was one of many gods – which they “borrowed” from the Greeks! But eventually the “official” religion of the Roman empire was the worship of the emperor – the worship of Caesar himself!
But not so with the Jews! There had been a number of rebellions over the years. And those rebellions had been quashed – ruthlessly! Historians talk of times in Israel when the Romans crucified hundreds of people – all at once. But at the time of Jesus, in order to “keep the peace,” there had been certain “concessions” made with the Jewish people. They were allowed to have their own government of sorts. They were allowed their own religion. But that was a tenuous condition.So when the priests said, “If we let him go on like this…” that was a legitimate worry! It was a very real worry! Caiaphas was being more than just “strangely prophetic” when he said, “Do you not see that it is expedient that one man should die for the sake of the people?” (John 11:50) He was being practical! He wasn’t speaking about Jesus’ atonement, though looking back on this, it seems that he was. And John acknowledges that in verse 51. “Being the high priest he prophesied…”
Well, in the very next verse, verse 53, we find the statement that confirms this as the time of their final decision. “So from that day on, they took counsel how to put him to death.” This, the last and greatest miracle, was the one which, for various reasons, became the one that caused Jesus’ enemies to seek to eliminate him.
So we look at this last miracle today, because it’s the last day to look at the miracles. Next week is Palm Sunday. But it’s also appropriate because this is the event that led directly to Palm Sunday. According to John, many of the people who there to see Jesus that day, were there because they had heard – by word of mouth – that he had performed this miracle!
Look for a moment at the next chapter. In fact, read all of this when you get a chance. It’s too long to read right now. This took place just before Passover, and Jesus was in Bethany again – at the home of Mary and Martha – and their brother, Lazarus. And John tells us that, “When the great crowd of Jews learned that he was there, they came, not only on account of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Then he says this. “So the chief priests also planned to put Lazarus to death! Because on account of him, many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” (John 12:9-11)
Do you see again how this miracle was the focus of their “mission” to eliminate Jesus? And it led directly to Palm Sunday! In the very next verse we read, “The next day, the great crowd who had come to the feast, heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him.” (John 12:12) That’s Palm Sunday. And if you’re still not sure about that connection, notice how sure John was. In verse 19 of his Palm Sunday account, he says, “The reason they went out to meet him (Jesus) is that they heard he had done this sign.”
Well, the next thing they did, was the very thing the priests feared. They proclaimed Jesus to be King! They shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It was bad enough to praise him that way in this “parade.” But then they added, “…even the King of Israel.” That was treasonous to the Romans. That constituted rebellion! Because of that, there was a very good chance that they might just do what the priests feared!
So, with all of that in mind, think about this story for today. And make no mistake! Jesus really set up this whole thing. John tells us how he delayed in going to see Lazarus. And that was fine with his disciples, they knew of the growing opposition to Jesus, and they feared for his life if he got anywhere near Jerusalem. And when he finally did go to Bethany – which was close enough – Martha said, “Lord, if you had come sooner my brother would not have died.” She knew the stories about Jesus healing people! She had no doubt he would have prevented Lazarus’ death!
Well, the other thing to keep in mind here, is that this is not about making his friend well. Yes, Jesus really did love Lazarus. He grieved for him. And he agonized with those who also grieved for him. In the shortest verse in the bible, we read, “Jesus wept.” Volumes could be written about that, and they have been! But that’s not what this was about. If it were, Jesus surely would have gone earlier and healed the man. This was about the two main themes in John’s Gospel. He stated them several times. The first was this. “These words are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Christ.” And the second theme was, “and in believing you may have life in his name.” That’s the essence of John’s Gospel. Belief and life!
Jesus then confirms all that by making this prayer. And in it he states that purpose. “Father, I know you always hear me. But I say this on account of those listening, that they may believe…” Then he raises the dead man… for that same reason. And Lazarus emerges from the tomb partially wrapped with the binding cloths. Can we even imagine that scene?
So here’s the first thing we should take from this miracle. Jesus said it, then he did it! Jesus is who he said he was. And he proved who he said he was. Simple, right? Not really! Remember, the priests themselves did not deny that Jesus had done this miracle! They didn’t say, “Oh, he staged it all! He’s a fake! He’s a charlatan! That man was just hiding in the tomb!” No! They knew this was real! Scripture is clear about that! They knew it, yet they refused to believe. So I ask you, are there people today – or throughout history for that matter – who are sure Jesus actually did what it was said he did, and yet they refuse to believe? And, the bigger question! Are we ever in that camp?
So that’s the first thing. The second thing is this. It’s not always easy to believe and then to follow. That’s how we started the year. We considered what we believe, then how we follow. But we recognized that following is not as easy. We don’t have the Romans watching over us in our day. We don’t have the religious leaders trying to “keep us in line,” lest things get “out of hand.” But what do we have? What are the pressures and influences that make us shy away from following Jesus? It’s always easy to imagine ourselves living in his time and think, “Sure, I would have followed!” But would we?
Throughout Lent, we’re talking about how we dedicate ourselves to following. So we need to ask ourselves, what steps have we taken so far to move closer to God, and to follow more closely? What’s your answer? What have you been doing? What steps have you been taking? Have you been spending more time in prayer, or reading? Have you tried to be more dedicated in your Christian activities?
Holy Week is next week! And I would only say that it’s not too late to prepare. And how we do that has everything to do with how we live! So take that time this week, and prepare!
Eternal God, like the man who approached our Lord, we say “We believe. Help thou our unbelief.” We believe, but we find it hard to live the life you want us to live. In this time of Lent, draw us closer to you. Help us to have the strength to follow our Savior, to live in his love, and to know the joy of his kingdom. For we pray in his name, Amen.