A Lenten Sermon: Martha’s Resurrection Theology in Light of Death; John 11

Audio Sermon

Sermon: You may be familiar with the great artist Giotto’s famous painting entitled The Raising of Lazarus. The painting is a sermon in and of itself. Giotto portrays Jesus as Creator when He lifts His hands in the blue sky. In this fascinating painting there are worshipers, skeptics, some with their hands in their noses because of the stench of this man who has been rotting in the tomb for four days; and when you consider this glorious painting you realize that Giotto is bringing us into this narrative. The Creator Himself in the form of man has entered into the messiness of man to make him whole; to resurrect not just Lazarus, but all of those who trust in Him.[1]

John 11 is the story of a man named Lazarus, but it is also the story of Mary and Martha.[2] In fact, John places them at the heart of this narrative. John observes in verse two that Mary is the one who anointed Jesus with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. Mary is deeply connected to Jesus. She worships Him with her acts of adoration and it is because she is connected to Jesus that she is concerned about others connected and united to Jesus. We find here a lesson for us; that we are to care for those who are in Christ; we are to be concerned for their needs and well-being. Mary and Martha had the great joy of expressing their prayers to the Creator himself, but we too have the privilege of bringing our petitions to our Lord. According to St. Paul, when one of us hurts, we all hurt. We need to consider our duty to bring those who are in need to the throne of grace in prayer.

John’s narrative brings Lazarus’ status into the picture when the women say: “Lord, the one you love is “ill.” The women knew of Jesus’ love. The Bible is displaying our Lord’s humanity; the very nature of God. The Father is love; the Spirit is love; but the way that love is manifested is through the Son of God. Jesus is a God of passion; a God who embraces the pain of others; who takes upon Himself their pain and loves them.

Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus’ status is striking:

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

When you read through this it sounds like Jesus is a cold theologian; meditating on abstract theology; He acts passively; He lacks compassion. To add to our Lord’s strange reaction we discover in verse six that he stays two days longer in the place where he was. Why is our Lord not rushing to solve this problem immediately? Why is he not acting in urgency to take care of this precarious matter? Isn’t this the way we typically think? Aren’t these the types of questions we ask when things are not going the way we expect them to go? The answer, of course, is that Jesus is not being passive; He is not being cruel; He is rather being patient, so that He may be glorified.[3] Whatever Jesus did He did, He did it out of love for Lazarus. There is a point to the delay; to the wait. We know the rest of the story, but at this point St. John is setting us up for what is coming. There is a sense in which John is presenting Jesus as helpless to prevent the tyranny of death. John’s point is that what is considered to be the weakness and passivity of Jesus is actually His way of demonstrating His strength and activity in the midst of His people. Jesus will do whatever it takes to bring the good of His people, but He will do it in His own timing. Like the blind man in John nine, when Jesus appears to be most absent it is then that He is most present. We need a theology of patience; patience that allows us to see the greater purposes of God in our lives and the world. In many ways, this narrative serves as a lens to view history. As those who are optimistic about the work of the gospel in history we may want God to change the world overnight. However, we are called to be patient in our dominion agenda. God will make us heirs of the world, as Paul says,[4] but sometimes He waits. Jesus knows the right time of everything, because He ordained everything. It is precisely at the moment when you think He will not act that He does act.

After two days Jesus decides to go to Judea and the disciples pose a sort of obstacle: “The Jews are seeking to stone you,” they say. Here again we see another demonstration of the sovereignty of Jesus. Nothing will stand on the way of Jesus to accomplish His purposes. He has come to cleanse and He will cleanse; He will heal; He will restore. Interestingly, the barrier the disciples put up refers to the possibility of Jesus’ death. Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead and they are concerned that the Lord over death is going to be killed. The other fascinating point is that they are concerned that Jesus will be stoned. What is Jesus going to do? But the reason Jesus is going to Judea is to remove the stone from Lazarus’ tomb[5] and later the Father is going to remove the stone from Jesus’ tomb. But the disciples are faithful to their Master. “So Thomas, called the Twin said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” In verse 16 they embrace Jesus’ agenda even if it means their own death.  It is impossible to go through these sermons on John and not see the profound call of our Lord to take up your cross and follow Him. Are you sure you want to follow Him? Are you sure you want to live a cruciform life? The disciples of the cross know the consequences of following the Messiah. They know that His message, His style of doing things is not going to attract the applause of men, yet they realize that their callings as disciples is not a call to receive the praise of man, but to glorify the Son of Man.

In verses 17-27, we get a glimpse into the raising of Lazarus. The details here are quite important. We discover in verse 17 that Lazarus has been dead for four days. His body is rotting in the tomb.  The reason John mentions how long Lazarus has been dead is to give the reader an idea of how powerful the work of Jesus will be. “This man is not only dead, but his body is also starting to rot.” John is adding to the list of barriers. Not only is Jesus going to have to face those who wish to kill him, but He also has to face the death of a friend who has been in the tomb for four days.

In verses 21 & 22 Martha takes a central stage in the narrative. In fact, the narrative is built around Jesus’ interaction with her. We read this fascinating exchange: “Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

Martha provides a beautiful expression of biblical theology in her statements. Notice that at no point she denies Jesus’ sovereignty over death. If Jesus had been here before Lazarus died He would have been delivered from death, but even though He is dead whatever you ask of the Father He will grant you. Martha knows that this is not just some ordinary miracle worker,[6] which appeared quite regularly in those days; rather, she believed this man to have full access to the power of God. According to Martha, Jesus not only redeems those in life, but also He is able to redeem, rescue, and resurrect those in death.  He is Lord of the living and the dead.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 

Martha’s response was one of absolute confidence in the coming of the Son of Man. She understood that the future has come to the present; that eschatology has intruded into the present. Jesus is confirming that not only will Lazarus be raised now, but He will also be raised at the last day. What is about to happen is marvelous and miraculous, but it pales in comparison to the resurrection of the Last Day. Jesus declares in verse 25 that He is the Resurrection and the Life. It is only by trusting and believing in Jesus in this life that the dead will find life everlasting.[7] That Christ is the resurrection and the life means that death is incapable of sustaining a prolonged victory. As Calvin writes, “Christ is the commencement of life and the continuance of life.”[8] This statement from our Lord is at the very center of this passage indicating that He is the very essence of life.[9] Notice that this is as much about Martha as it is about Lazarus. Jesus is using this entire scenario of pain to reach Martha. “Martha, do you believe that anyone who lives and believes in me shall never die?” “Do you believe that I am the resurrected way and life?” It is not sufficient to believe that the Son is simply a powerful revelation of God’s power; Martha also needed to understand that He is God himself. Martha’s response is one of absolute confidence: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” Martha’s resurrection theology in light of death is the perspective God calls us to embrace.

How Shall We Then Live?

John 11 tells us something about how Jesus counseled and provided comfort. Jesus provides the real picture of manhood. He is actually emotional. He weeps, as the famous verse 35 tells us. He expresses his deep sense of grief over the affects of sins. A true Reformational view of manhood is not un-emotional and un-attached. The true Reformational view of emotions is to have controlled emotions. The reality is that at times we allow our emotions to control our actions and this is where Jesus offers us another way. Jesus teaches us that anger over sin is not the same as acting in sin. Jesus expresses grief over death. He is angry at the nature of evil and what it does to His people; to His friend. Jesus cares about what people are going through. When you pray to Him you are not praying to someone who is not moved. In Christ, we are redeemed from self-pity and we learn that our grief is Christ’s grief. Our sorrow is His sorrow.

There is also a profound theme of sacrifice in our passage. Jesus is going to be glorified through the raising of Lazarus. This happens to be the reason His enemies condemn Him. This is the reason they will kill him. What Jesus does for Lazarus by raising Him from the dead is that He ends up dying. “As we go about being Christ-like, as we seek the well-being of people, we serve other people by laying down our life for others.”[10]

Death is a tyrannical ruler. Our modern culture loves to submit to it. The decay of the Roman Empire came as one historian wrote because “Rome was in love with death.”[11] Proverbs says that those who hate Yahweh love death.[12] Today our modern culture is in love with abortion and euthanasia. They decided they have the gift of life and death, but by doing so they make themselves gods. But John tells us that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We don’t worship at the shrine of death; we worship a crucified and risen Lord. He is the ruler over life and death.

Children, I want you to see the immense love Jesus has for his friend. This is not just saying He loves His friend, but acting on that love. Do you love your friends? Do you love those friends that God has placed in this church and in your life? Do you love your brothers and sisters? Do you show compassion towards them? Or do you easily lose patience with them? Do you treat them with respect or do you deride them with your words? How do you protect your brothers and sisters? You begin to understand the love of Jesus when you begin practicing love in the little day to day situation.

People of God, the journey of Lent is the journey of love. The journey of giving ourselves for others when we least desire to do so. This is our call as we march towards Easter; the day when the Father said to the tomb of death: ‘Unbind Him and Let Him Go!”

In the Name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[2] It seems the author is reversing the role of women in Scriptures. The women not only see their brother resurrected, but soon the Lord of Glory resurrected.

[3] David Bryant’s sermon offered some helpful thoughts on this text. Also, Robert Rayburn’s sermon is always teeming with poetry.

[4] Romans 4:13.

[5] John 11:41.

[6] I disagree with Calvin’s assessment that she “inconsiderable yields to her own wishes.” Rather, it appears Martha was speaking of the ability and power of Jesus to do deliver in life and in death.

[7] Contra Bell, who argues that the unbelieving dead will receive another opportunity to accept Jesus in the world to come.

[8] John Calvin, Commentaries on John’s Gospel, chapter 11. See http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol34/htm/xvii.iii.htm

[9] See Dennis Tuuri’s discussion of John 11.

[10] Dennis Tuuri.

[11] Roman Historian, quote by David Bryant in his sermon.

[12] Proverbs 8:36.

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About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in John, Sermons/Lent. Bookmark the permalink.

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