20 Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 21 Now 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 of God, God will give You.”
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 at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever 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 to come into the world.”
One of the most defining characteristics of a person’s personality and character is how they deal with the reality of death.
Have you ever lost a loved one? It is almost certain that you have. Even in our age of modern medicine, healthy living, and seemingly miraculous pharmaceuticals, death seems to be always at the door. It is one thing to struggle with a difficult diagnosis for yourself, but very different when you face the death of a spouse, family member, or a child.
After the death of his beloved wife, C.S. Lewis kept a journal of his grief. Later these notebooks were published as “A Grief Observed” and offer a window into the emotional impact of losing someone dear to one’s heart:
There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me. –C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”
How do you react to death and grief? There are different stages of grief, of course. You have possibly heard that there are at least five stages of grief ranging from denial to acceptance. When a loved one passes away, you will likely experience each of these in turn.
When someone you love dies, you most often reflect those aspects of your personality that are most comfortable to you–and to others around you. If you are a cheerful person, you may try to tell jokes and keep smiling–or if you are melancholy, you may share cherished memories. If you regularly express emotion, you may cry and appear inconsolable–or if you are private, you may not shed a tear in the presence of others.
Encouragers will seek to encourage.
Providers will seek to provide.
Bakers will seek to bake.
A tradition from my upbringing is that when a death occurs in the community, food is immediately prepared to be delivered to the grieving household. In my small town, it was not uncommon to see a line of ladies with casserole dishes lining the walkway of the home of the bereaved, offering condolences–warm from the oven.
Here in the eleventh chapter of John, we see the face of grief. As the apostle seeks to record the events leading up to Jesus’s return to Jerusalem and the final victory of the cross, he recalls an astounding event.
Jesus, the man of miracles–the feeder of five thousand, the gentle healer, the calmer of storms and the seeker of lost sheep–experiences personal grief in the death of a beloved friend and the shared pain of his dear family.
Jesus knows what it feels like to lose a loved one–yet in the midst of grief, the glory of God is revealed.
This is the death of Lazarus and his miraculous resurrection from the dead. As John recalls this story, we catch a glimpse not only of the power of Christ but a view of those whom He loves, in particular two women, Mary and Martha. Both respond to the death of their brother in different ways–including two very different responses to Jesus.
This tale of grief and hope reminds me of the old song “Mary, Don't You Weep.” This song first found voice as a spiritual sung by African slaves before the American Civil War. It juxtaposes the scene with the two sisters in their grief over their brother Lazarus’s death with the promise of the Exodus from Egypt:
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you mourn
Didn't Pharaoh's army get drowned?
Oh, Mary, don't you weep
First recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915, the song uses a steady repetition to remind the listener of the hope that is found in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life–the deliverer of His people from the ultimate slavery of death. The song has been covered by hundreds of musical artists and groups over the last 1oo years. Two versions you may enjoy are by The Swan Silvertones in 1959:
or the contemporary Christian group Take 6 from their debut album in 1988:
In his gospel account, John introduces Lazarus, Mary, and Martha to us in the first verse. Lazarus is sick and his sisters appeal to Jesus, their friend, for help:
3 Therefore the sisters sent to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”
4 When Jesus heard that, He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”–John 11:3-4
This passage captures a feeling of expectation of Jesus, much like that of His mother Mary at the wedding in Cana. Then, water was turned into wine by a seemingly reluctant Christ–and here His healing power is needed.
Jesus responds in a strange way. He seems to dismiss the news, almost as if He is suggesting that Lazarus is not that sick. But Jesus is not callous; He loves this family. They are among his closest friends
5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was. 7 Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”–John 11:5-7
Jesus knows that this is a moment when His Father’s glory will be revealed–even if that glory must be felt in the deepest levels of grief and loss for those whom He loves.
Imagine the scene for this messenger, he is probably a family servant or a willing friend. He meets Jesus and gives Him the news. Jesus has a reputation for healing–even by a word. Surely a miracle is about to occur! A wave of His hand, a clap of thunder–or at least a “Go back home, he has been healed.”
But nothing. Jesus waits–for two more days–and death takes His friend.
When Jesus finally does arrive in Bethany (at least a two-day journey on foot), He finds a scene of infinite sadness–a family in grief, surrounded by friends and neighbors:
17 So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.
18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles away. 19 And many of the Jews had joined the women around Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother.–John 11:17-18
Four days. Jesus is making a point of delay to illustrate His power over death. The extra days mean something significant to the Jews as well: rabbinic tradition held that for three days after death, the spirit hovers about the body. Jesus was running out the clock of any skepticism or doubt.
Jesus’s delay also shows how our own superstition or expectation can delay our sense of need for Him. How often do we prolong our own pain needlessly?
We see this in the two sisters and their reactions to the death of their brother Lazarus:
20 Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him, but Mary was sitting in the house. 21 Now 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 of God, God will give You.”–John 11:20-22
Mary mourns with open emotion, but Martha busies herself with funeral preparations and the responsibility of it all. What’s more, she confronts Jesus by accusing Him of delay. Jesus meets her head-on:
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 at the last day.”–John 11:23-24
Martha gets that she will see Lazarus again at the final resurrection, in glory. Jesus’s question seems to have worsened her pain. Jesus, lovingly, patiently, digs deeper:
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”–John 11:23-26
“Do you believe this?” Does Martha believe in more than the final resurrection? Jesus is asking if she believes that HE is the resurrection and the life. Mary and Martha have been the subject of many women’s studies. The two are often compared: are you a “Mary” or are you a “Martha?” It seems that the devoted Mary comes out better in these studies than the doubting Martha.
However, Martha’s answer to Jesus knocks the ball out of the park:
27 She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”–John 11:27
In the face of suffering and pain Jesus gives himself as an answer. Martha’s response is astounding: she gets it. These are more than idle words, for Martha confesses that Jesus is indeed Lord. Mary leads with her heart–but Martha shows personal confidence that He is the Christ.
Jesus is taken to Lazarus’s tomb. He finds a scene of pandemonium. Jewish families were expected to hire a professional mourner or two. A well-to-do family such as Lazarus’s would likely have had many. Add in the family, friends, well-wishers, and likely the whole community of Bethany--frustration grows in Jesus:
33 Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled.–John 11:33
Here, English translations seem to soften Jesus’s reaction. The Greek here likens Christ’s “groan” to that of a “snort,” such as an irritated horse. This scene, these people, the presence of death and sin, the underlying lack of faith in Him, fill Him with holy outrage. D.A. Carson explains that for us to be angry is not be loving. The holy outrage of Jesus is ultimately a sign of His own grief:
Grief and compassion without outrage reduce to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens info self-righteous arrogance and irascibility. - D.A Carson, The Gospel According to John
In verse 35, the shortest verse in scripture, Jesus wept. Does He weep for Lazarus? No, Jesus weeps at sin and death.
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, 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 him who was dead, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.”–John 11:38-39
Martha, who has made her beautiful confession, stumbles here at the end. She reminds Jesus of the stench that lies behind the door. She is still focused on the expectations of others.
You see, everyone relies on Martha. Martha confesses Jesus - but still feels the need to do what others expect. Her brother has died. Jesus can raise him - but there are still mourners to hire, food to prepare, and the expectations of others to fulfill.
Because Martha is a “control freak”.
Because Martha could always be counted on to do and fix.
Because Martha thought it was all up to Martha.
Listen to Jesus:
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”–John 11:40
And Martha, with hundreds of others, did see the glory of God that day:
43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”–John 11-43-44
My wife, who closely identifies with Martha, says, “The world needs Marthas - but Marthas need Jesus.” She shares further with these thoughts:
Are you a Martha? Do you believe in the strong and everlasting arms of God– but just forget that you can lean on them too? You believe that God is a mighty fortress; you just forget to drop your own shield to hide in Him. You believe that God is the awesome ruler of eternity; you just think that this minute, it is still up to you.
The world needs Marthas. Marthas do a lot of good and things keep rolling when they are around. But Marthas need Jesus–not just in their minds, but in their moments. So slow down, Martha, deeply breathe, and look well because you will see the Glory of God–even for you.
The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:
The weekly study guides, which include the Monday–Friday devotionals plus related questions for discussion or meditation, are available for download here:
Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.