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John 11:1-44: Death Has Been Defeated

April 17, 2022 Speaker: Josh Tancordo Series: Various Sermons

Topic: Default Passage: John 11:1–11:44

John 11:1-44: Death Has Been Defeated

If you’ve ever played hide-and-seek with a young child, you probably know that, quite often, places that they think are good hiding spots actually aren’t good hiding spots at all. One of my favorite examples of this is when one of my children tried to hide behind the curtains in our dining room and thought that we couldn’t see her. However, she made one critical error—and that was to only hide her head behind the curtains. I guess she thought that, as long as her head was hidden and she couldn’t see us, that we wouldn’t be able to see her either. Unfortunately for her, though, that’s not really the way things work. And, of course, that’s an understandable mistake for a young child to make in hide-and-seek. But the interesting thing is that there are some areas in which adults can sometimes do something similar to that as well. When it comes to certain subjects, we often seem to assume that, if we just don’t think about them, then maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll never have to encounter them or deal with them. 

And the subject I’m thinking of in particular is the subject of death. People often seem to imagine that if we simply avoid thinking about death or talking about death, then maybe it won’t ever happen to us. Of course, on some level, we understand that’s not true. But many of us nevertheless go through life essentially in denial about our own mortality. In fact, several decades ago, an anthropologist named Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book entitled The Denial of Death, in which he argues that the fear of death haunts us like nothing else. In fact, according to Becker, virtually everything we do is ultimately an intellectual and emotional defense mechanism against the knowledge that we’ll all one day die. The totality of human civilization is basically an elaborate attempt to live in denial of our own mortality. Now, whether or not you’re prepared to go as far as Becker goes in his claims, it’s plainly apparent that he’s right about at least one thing: people really don’t like talking or even thinking about death. It makes us feel profoundly uncomfortable. And yet, it’s a reality that we all have to face. It’s hard pill to swallow, but the reality is that in 100 years, every single person in this room today will almost certainly be dead. 

And as if that weren’t enough, we’re also forced, throughout the duration of our lives, to endure the deaths of many people whom we know and love. I imagine just about all of us have lost friends and family members whom we miss dearly and whose deaths we grieve. There are few things in life that are more difficult than working through the grief we feel at the loss of a loved one. And as we turn our attention to the main passage of Scripture we’ll be focusing on this morning—John 11:1-44—we see that we’re not the only ones who have a difficult time dealing with death. 

In John 11, we read about the death of a man named Lazarus. Lazarus was a good friend of Jesus, and so were Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha.  And when Lazarus became sick, Jesus was travelling in a region called Galilee, so Mary and Martha sent word to him that Lazarus was very ill.  But in verses 5-6 of John 11, it says, 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Now, why would he do that? Why would Jesus delay? Well, as we’re going to see further down in the passage, he had a purpose. 

The passage then records that Jesus eventually went to the town where Lazarus lived and discovered that he was already dead.  Verses 17-22: 17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 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.” 

So Martha, the sister of Lazarus, is obviously grieving and also wishing that Jesus had been there so that he could have performed some sort of miracle and kept Lazarus from dying. Jesus then comforts her in verses 23-27: 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.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” That statement is one of the most direct statements about Jesus’s identity that we find in the Gospel of John. 

The story then continues in verses 28-35: 28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 

So notice, throughout this passage, how people respond to the death of Lazarus. Not surprisingly, of course, Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary, are grieving his death. But in verse 35, we see that even Jesus has some feelings of grief that he’s working through. It says, quite simply, “Jesus wept.” In his humanity, Jesus felt the full range of human emotions, including grief and sadness and heartache. And there’s a good reason why everyone in this passage is grieving the death of Lazarus—and, for that matter, why we also respond to death in the very same way. We instinctively sense that death is profoundly unnatural. No matter how much we try to tell ourselves that death is okay and that it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of the universe, I’m not sure anybody really believes that. I think we all sense that there’s something terribly wrong with death—that it’s not at all a natural thing but rather is a very unnatural plague on the human race. 

And the Bible actually explains why we have that instinctive aversion to death. Going back all the way to the very beginning of the Bible, we learn in the first few chapters of the book of Genesis that, originally, God created this world to be a place of wonderful goodness and peace and harmony. There was no such thing as evil or sickness or pain or death. Those things were nowhere to be found in God’s original creation. Instead, the first humans, named Adam and Eve, were able to enjoy the perfect goodness of God’s creation and even commune with God himself in a beautiful paradise called the Garden of Eden. 

But, tragically, it didn’t last. Adam and Eve rebelled against God and, in so doing, plunged all of creation into a state of terrible brokenness, dysfunction, suffering, and ultimately death. All of this was God’s judgment on the human race—a judgment we fully deserved. Just as we’d expect a human judge to uphold justice by punishing a criminal, God upholds his standard of divine justice by punishing humanity. So that’s why we experience death. It’s a consequence of humanity’s rebellion against God. Death isn’t okay, it’s not natural, and it wasn’t a part of God’s original creation. And just about everyone can sense that in their heart. Each one of us feels in our heart that death is an unnatural plague on the human race. And it actually gets even worse—because not only will we face physical death one day, we’ll also face what the Bible calls the “second death”—a spiritual and eternal death separated from God. It’s what we commonly call “hell.”

So what can we do? We’re facing death and can’t escape it. No matter what healthy habits we adopt or what new medicines or medical treatments become available, each one of us is going to die one day. There’s no preventing it. What can we do? Well, we can choose the approach that we talked about earlier, which is essentially to try to live in denial that death is coming. You know, we can strive to make the most of the days on this earth that we have and live life to its fullest and try our best to just not think about what, deep down, we know is coming. That’s really all there is to do if we’re following the path that many in our society are following. Yet I’d like to suggest that that approach it utterly inadequate. It kind of reminds me of being forced to jump out of an airplane with nothing but a plastic shopping bag and holding that bag above our heads in a desperate attempt to slow ourselves down and trying our best, as we’re falling to the ground, to comfort ourselves and stay positive and just not think too much about what’s going to happen when we finally hit the ground. Guys, I’m sorry, but I, for one, have no desire to do that. 

And thankfully, we don’t have to. You see, the Bible offers us something more than the nonsensical advice and shallow cliches that society offers us in order to deal with death. The Bible offers us hope—real hope, substantive hope, certain hope. And that hope is found in Jesus.

Continuing on in John 11, look at what we read in verses 38-44: 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

So Jesus shows his divine power by miraculously raising Lazarus from the dead. He’s the one who originally gave life to humanity at the very beginning and who also has the ability to restore life when somebody dies. And that’s what he does here with Lazarus. And the reason Jesus performs this miracle isn’t just because he misses his friend Lazarus or wants to do a favor for Martha and Mary. No, Jesus is demonstrating, through this miracle, the truth of what he stated to Martha back in verses 25-26. That statement, that we encountered earlier, is the key to this whole passage. The whole passage revolves around what Jesus tells Martha. Again, verses 25-26: 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die….” 

So the main idea of this entire passage that we see here in these verses is that, through Jesus, death has been defeated. Through Jesus, death has been defeated. You see, even though we’ll all still face physical death one day, we can be victorious and triumphant over death in an ultimate sense. We’ll die bodily but not spiritually. That’s what Jesus means when he says in verse 26 that “everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Instead, death will be more of a transition into a kind of life that’s more glorious and wonderful than anything we’ve ever known before and that will never end. That’s what Jesus raising Lazarus is all about. Jesus came not just to raise Lazarus from physical death but to rescue all of us from spiritual death. 

And notice, in verse 25, that Jesus doesn’t just say, “I’ll bring about the resurrection” or “I’ll accomplish the resurrection.” He says, “I am the resurrection.” Resurrection from the dead and eternal life with God in heaven are inseparable from Jesus. It’s almost as if they’re fused to his very identity. There’s no resurrection or eternal life in heaven apart from the person of Jesus. That’s why he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Also, in saying this, Jesus is using the phrase “I am” in a very deliberate way. This is actually one of seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. In John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” In John 8:12, he says, “I am the light of the world.” In John 10:7, he says, “I am the door of the sheep.” In John 10:11, he says, “I am the good shepherd.” In John 14:6, he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And in John 15:1, Jesus says, “I am the true vine.” And of course, there’s plenty of rich meaning bound up in each of these metaphors that we don’t have time to get into. But it’s no accident that Jesus uses the phrase “I am” on each of these occasions. In the Old Testament, “I am” is the sacred name by which God identifies himself. In Exodus 14, when Moses asks God what his name is, God says to him, “I AM WHO I AM.” God then tells Moses to say the rest of the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.” The name “I AM” speaks of God’s self-sufficiency and self-existence and sets him apart as the only Being in the entire universe whose existence isn’t contingent upon anyone else. He alone is the uncaused cause and the one from whom everything else in the universe derives its existence. So when Jesus makes these “I am” statements in the Gospel of John, he’s making an unmistakable claim to being God himself. 

And as God, Jesus is supreme over all things, even—as we see here in John 11—over death itself. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. Yet, in order to truly and fully triumph over death, Jesus would have to experience death himself. Because, remember, death is the result of sin. So, in order to deal with death, Jesus would have to deal with sin. And he did that by dying on the cross. On the cross, Jesus suffered in our place, taking our sin on himself and enduring the judgment we deserved. The Bible says that he was the atoning sacrifice for our sins—meaning that his sacrifice paid the debt we owed, with the result that we can be forgiven. Essentially, Jesus endured death so that we can enjoy life. Jesus endured death so that we can enjoy life.

Then, after Jesus died on the cross and was buried in a tomb for three days, the Bible teaches that he resurrected from the dead. That’s what we’re celebrating today on Easter. And the reason that’s such a magnificent cause for celebration is that Jesus’s resurrection means that we also can share in his triumph over sin and death and experience a kind of resurrection ourselves. His resurrection is a foretaste and a foreshadowing of what’ll eventually happen to us. You might say that Jesus was the prototype—kind of like the prototype of a car or something like that. You’ve probably seen pictures of shiny new prototypes that automakers love to display in various auto shows around the world. The point of these prototypes, of course, is to show what’s coming. And that’s the point of the resurrection as well. In the resurrection of Jesus, God was displaying to the world what’s in store for his people. The resurrection is a picture of what God will do with countless others all around the world as he raises them up and gives to them glorified resurrection bodies one day. 1 Corinthians 15:20 refers to Jesus as “the firstfruits” of those who have died. That term “firstfruits” refers to the first sample of an agricultural crop that indicates what the rest of the crop will be like. Similarly, Jesus’s resurrection foreshadows our resurrection. 

You see, contrary to popular imagination, heaven isn’t going to be a place of disembodied spirits just floating around and playing harps all day. Rather, it’s a place where God’s people will have glorified resurrection bodies and enjoy what the Bible refers to as a new creation—also described as a new heavens and new earth. In many ways, it’ll be like the “Garden of Eden 2.0”—a perfect paradise in which we’ll get to enjoy unending pleasures in the presence of God himself. And one important element that’ll make it even better than the original Garden of Eden is that there won’t be any possibility of sin. Our hearts will be filled with nothing but perfect love for God and each other throughout all eternity. And not only will there be no more sin, there will also be no more death. Death will be nothing more than a faint and distant memory. That’s what those of us who are Christians have to look forward to and what we celebrate on Easter. 

I love the way C. S. Lewis describes it in the Chronicles of Narnia. He says it’s as if our earthly lives have many different stories, but when we get to heaven, that’s the real story. And when we arrive in heaven, we’re only at the beginning of that real story. He says it’s as if everything we experience in this world is just the title and the cover page and that when we get to heaven, to quote him directly, we’ll be “beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” That’s something I can’t wait to be a part of—an existence “in which every chapter is better than the one before.” That’s the hope Jesus offers us. 

Yet the Bible’s very clear that not everyone will experience this. Only those who turn away from their sins and put their trust in Jesus will get to experience the benefits of what he’s accomplished. We have to come to the point where we realize that there’s nothing we can do to get right with God through our own efforts. No matter how hard we try, we we’ll never be able to earn his favor or merit eternal life. The only way to heaven is through Jesus. He is the resurrection and the life. You know, the day’s coming when you will face physical death. You can’t escape it. So the question you should be asking yourself this morning is, “Am I ready for that? Am I ready to die and stand before God and face the ultimate reckoning?” That day is coming. Are you ready? Have you put your trust in Jesus to do for you what you can never do for yourself and rescue you from your sin? 

Those who trust in Jesus are able to look forward to the end of their earthly pilgrimage not with fear but with confident hope and joyful anticipation. I recently came across a Facebook page called “Brooklyn’s Journey Home.” In the intro to the page, Brooklyn invites us to “Join me on my journey through hospice to heaven.” Brooklyn, as we learn, is a 25-year-old young woman from Colorado who has an extremely rare disease in which her body’s connective tissue is essentially too stretchy and also deals with severe comorbidities related to her nervous system, immune system, and digestive tract. In a manner of speaking, her body is literally falling apart.

The first post on the page is dated December 28 of last year. Brooklyn writes, “I recently left my doctor’s office with a referral to hospice. Hospice is end-of-life care. Over the last two years of battling my connective tissue disorder, my health has been in a downward spiral. Specialist after specialist has given up or pushed me aside. All treatments have failed. I have fought very hard for a very long time. With much prayer, Godly counsel, and medical advice, God has made the way forward clear. It’s time to go home. Honestly, I left my doctor’s office with a giant smile on my face. My heart is overjoyed contemplating being in the fullness of God’s glory (1 Cor. 13:12). Conversely, I have been grieving with friends and family, as they must say goodbye. Death is awful. But, for the believer, it’s just the beginning. We will start the process of taking me off medications on January 17th. I will die by the end of February. Please pray for comfort for my grieving family and friends. Please also pray that I will run the rest of my race well. I desire to run tenaciously until the very end, not lagging in the last miles (Heb. 12:1-3)….

Fast forward to January 20: “I have two feeding tubes in my abdomen (and a bunch of other things in this pic).… [However] our state of wellbeing doesn’t need to be dictated by circumstances. People ask me why I’m so joyful….Any divine peace or contentment is supplied through the Holy Spirit (Phil. 4:6-7).… Through strength supplied by the Spirit, the believer can take on a stance of perpetual thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:16-18). There are many things to be thankful for. Clean water. Central heating. Cat videos… Apart from gratefulness for physical blessings, the believer can find comfort in taking on an eternal perspective. When we focus on our future, eternal hope in Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-4), the downfalls of this world are miniscule…In the absence of necessities, the hope of our heavenly inheritance in Christ remains (Col. 1:5). Salvation stands. Nothing can take away a believer’s assurance of eternal glory (Jude 24).”

Moving ahead to February 2: “I feel like I’m on the spinning teacup ride at Disney. Constantly. Without having to pay to ride. Without the option to get off. My world is spinning, but not out of control. I am getting worse. But everything is according to plan. God’s plan.”  

On February 8, Brooklyn was taken off of nutrition support as a part of the hospice plan of care. She then writes on February 14: “The ONLY thing I like about being malnourished is how it makes me rely on Jesus. Jesus says He is my bread of life (John 6). Without actual bread, I’m pushed to rely on God’s promise of being my spiritual sustenance (Matt. 4:4). He always provides exactly what I need (Matt. 6:25-34). It may not be what I think I need. Like the ability to eat...But it’s always what I DO need. For example: a lesson in faith, a special moment with Him, or time to meditate on His character (Psalm 63:6-8). Even when my physical sustenance is absent, God always provides my daily bread (Matt. 6:9-13) through His presence and perfect provision. If I have Jesus, I have all I need (2 Cor. 12:9).”

Then, Brooklyn’s final post on February 22: “As I wait for my last breaths I’ve been reading through the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). The Apostle’s descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion are a gut punch for anyone. Now, dying myself, the description of how my Savior died is so much more potent. It leaves me in awe of a God who was born into flesh, willing to die in brutality (and rise again) for the sin of humanity.  Jesus didn’t JUST die… I’m dying in a bougie adjustable pillow-top bed. He died naked and exposed amongst criminals. I get kind notes and cards from friends and strangers alike. He was hurled insults and abuse. My best friends visit me, His abandoned Him, denying even knowing Him. Every step of this process makes me even more elated over the gift of salvation….”

Then, on March 1—about seven weeks ago from today—the page has a post by Brooklyn’s sister announcing that has gone to be with Jesus.

So, as you can see, even at the age of 25, Brooklyn was able to face death with confidence, hope, and even joy because of the relationship she had with Jesus. Do you have that relationship? Can you look toward the day of your death with the same level of confidence and hope that Brooklyn displayed? This Easter, we celebrate that, through Jesus, death has been defeated. And his victory can be your victory if you’ll put your trust in him. Let’s pray.