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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Trust the Saviour who always has a purpose
Text:John 11:1-16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Struggling with doubts

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 97:1,2

Psalm 97:5 (after the law)

Psalm 73:1,2

Psalm 73:8,9

Hymn 65

Scripture reading & text: John 11:1-16

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Have you ever struggled with understanding what God is doing?  In general terms, it’s not uncommon.  It’s not uncommon even for Christians to struggle to understand God’s purposes – why he does what he does.  In particular, this struggle often happens when there’s a tragic death.  The kind of death no one was expecting.  The kind of death that knocks the wind out of you. 

In my 20 years of being a pastor and a missionary, I’ve seen my share of such tragic deaths.  There are many stories I could tell.  Stories of murder, suicide, accidents, cancer.  The list goes on.  But I’ve also experienced this personally.  In 2002, after a long struggle with her health, my mother took her own life with a drug overdose.  That was a tragic death.  Suicide is always hard.  It leaves you struggling with God’s purposes and I did too.  We ask God, “Why?”  But there doesn’t seem to be an answer for why this death had to happen and happen in this tragic way. 

In our passage for this morning, we see a tragic death too.  Lazarus was apparently a healthy man.  He suddenly gets ill and, before long, his life is over.  Just like that.  And we have these people in the story whom we’d reasonably expect to have questions.  We have these sisters.  Being single women in that culture, they probably depended on their brother for income and protection.  Then he’s gone.  Why?  And the disciples.  Lazarus is their friend.  Suddenly taken away.  Why?  These kinds of questions are normal for human beings to ask. 

Our passage addresses these questions.  There’s a miracle that’s going to happen later in the chapter.   But now here already, as the scene is being set, Jesus reveals that this tragic death was not purposeless.  Ultimately, we’re being taught here that no tragedy is purposeless.

So the theme of this morning’s sermon is:  Trust the Saviour who always has a purpose.

In our passage we’ll see the purpose he has for the:

  1. Fame of God
  2. Friends he loves
  3. Fate he faces
  4. Faith of his disciples

At the end of chapter 10, Jesus went across the Jordan River.  He went back to the place where John the Baptist had been baptizing a couple of years ago.  That’s where we are with Jesus and his disciples at the beginning of chapter 11.  Jesus is quite a ways from Judea – far away from the Jewish religious leaders who’ve put a target on him.

In the first two verses we get introduced to Lazarus.  We don’t know much about him, except for what we find in this passage.  He’s the brother of Mary and Martha.  And verse 2 reminds us that Mary is famous because of what she did for Jesus, how she anointed him with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair.  That actually takes place in the next chapter, but it would have been well-known to the first readers of John’s Gospel. 

So we have these sisters, and we have Lazarus.  Lazarus is sick.  We have no idea what the sickness was, but it was deadly.  It was obviously so serious that the sisters sent a messenger to Jesus to let him know.  They’re evidently hoping that their friend Jesus will do something about it. 

The message comes to Jesus.  But he doesn’t do anything about it, at least not right away.  However, he does say something about it.  Look at the words of Jesus in verse 4:  “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.”  It’s a peculiar response, isn’t it?  It’s got two parts.  Let’s look carefully at each one. 

First he says, “This illness does not lead to death.”  This is peculiar because we know that Lazarus dies.  His illness does result in death.  Yet Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death.”  Was Jesus wrong? What does he mean? 

He means that death doesn’t have the last word with Lazarus.  Though he dies, yet he will live.  Death has no final claim on Lazarus.  That holds true for all believers.  For every one who places their trust in Jesus the Saviour, no illness ultimately leads to death.  Death will never have the last word with us.  This is because of the Saviour in whom we trust.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life.  When you trust in him, eternal life is in your possession.  You might still get sick and you might physically die from that sickness, just like Lazarus did.  But because of Jesus, your death is an entrance into eternal life in fellowship with God.

Then Jesus says that the unfolding scenario with Lazarus serves for divine glory.  “Glory” is one of those words we use a lot and we don’t always think through what it means.  What Jesus is saying is that what’s going to happen with Lazarus is going to make people impressed.  It’s going to result in praise, words of adoration and admiration.  There’ll be fame for whoever made it happen. 

Whose fame are we looking at here?  Jesus says that it’s the glory of God, and particularly for the glory of the Son of God.  It’s for the fame of the second person of the Trinity, Jesus the Son of God.  What’s going to happen is so that people will be impressed with Jesus and bring honour and praise to him and to his Father In heaven. 

This is going to happen through the sign that comes later.  There’s going to be a miracle.  Something incredible is being foreshadowed here:  resurrection. 

You see, Jesus knows that all of this has a purpose.  It’s all going to serve for the glory of God, for his fame and reputation.  He knows it and he shows it.  He also shows that he cares deeply about this purpose.  This is what he lives for.  This is what he works for, what he does ministry for.   That applies to our lives in two powerful ways. 

First of all, think about this in terms of God’s law.  Does one of the Ten Commandments speak about caring for God’s glory?  Think about the first commandment.  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Part of having God as our only God is giving him all the honour he deserves as God.  Part of having God as our only God is caring about his glory.  God expects that from all of us.  Yet we fail time and again, don’t we?  Here the Bible tells us that we have a Saviour who perfectly and passionately cared about God’s glory.  He was fully obedient to the First Commandment.  When you trust in Jesus Christ, that obedience is given to you as a gift.  It’s imputed to you.  Credited to your account before God.  So here in verse 4 already, we see the good news of a Saviour who was obedient in our place.  We’re called to trust in what he’s done for us. 

Second, think about this in terms of the confidence and comfort we get from this.  Tragedies can and will happen.  But whatever tragedy may come our way, whatever sad and broken things, the Lord has this purpose in it too somehow, some way.  Whatever tragedy may come our way, somehow it will serve for God’s glory.  And a Christian knows that this is the purpose of our lives.  The purpose of our lives is to give glory to our Creator.  Not to live for ourselves, but to live for him.  And if our tragedies can somehow, some way bring glory to God, we can say, “That’s enough for me.  I can accept that.  I don’t understand it, but I can accept it.”

Our Saviour not only loves God’s glory, he also loves his friends.  Twice in our passage we find references to the love of Jesus – you see it in verse 3 and in verse 5.  Moreover, in verse 11, Jesus refers to Lazarus as “our friend.”  That word “friend” also contains in it an element of love.  Friends are people you love.  Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are people Jesus cares about.  Now there’s a sense in which he cares for everyone he meets, but he does have a special relationship with some more than others.  He loves these friends of his in a special way. 

Now that statement in verse 5 is placed right next to verse 6.  This is perplexing at first glance – it’s the first of three perplexing things in this passage.  First we’re told that Jesus loved these three friends of his.  Then we’re told that because he loved them, “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  You’d expect to read that he loved them and therefore he rushed right on over.  But that’s not what it says.  Instead, “he stayed two days longer.”  What’s going on here?    

Let me unpack it for you.  Jesus stayed for a purpose.  There is a purpose, and this purpose includes all the friends he loves.  And that purpose connects back to the first point we were looking at.  Jesus puts God first.  Jesus puts God’s glory first.  He puts God’s timing first.  God has given him a schedule, a plan, and he wants to follow it.  This agenda or schedule always has Jesus in the right place at the right time.  The right place and the right time for his suffering and death to unfold the way they have to. 

What serves for God’s glory serves the good of his friends.  When Jesus wants to do what God wants him to do in God’s way and at God’s time, that purpose is going to be good for the friends he loves.  How?  One way is that it’s going to allow them to be impressed with God at the sign or miracle Jesus is doing to do.  It’s good for human beings to be impressed with God, to enhance or magnify his fame and glory.  Another way it serves their good is that they’re going to be saved by God through the consequences of this sign.  We’re going to see later that when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, that’s the last straw for the Jewish religious leaders.  They become dead-set on Jesus’ death.  That’s going to work for the rescue of all whom Jesus loves.  There’s going to be the cross and that’s where Jesus is going to take their hell.  Where he takes our hell.

So, brothers and sisters, we might look at verse 6 and think it strange that Jesus took his time.  But there was a purpose in it.  Christ revealed that purpose.  Today, all disciples of Jesus are still his beloved friends.  Scripture says that in places like John 15:13-14.  Sometimes he seems to delay to help his friends.  He seems to take his time.  But unlike in our passage, he doesn’t give us the reason.  But from our passage, we do learn that he has reasons.  He has a purpose in it.  Disciples of Christ have to learn to trust that if there is a delay, there’s a good reason for it.  There is a purpose, even if we haven’t been told what it is.   We need to trust our Saviour.

The reason why we can trust is really at the heart of this passage.  We’re looking at verses 7 to 10.  After the delay, Christ calls his disciples together so they can start on the journey to Bethany.  This was going to be a long walk – about 160 km.  His disciples apparently thought that they wouldn’t go at all.  But now suddenly they’re heading out and they’re surprised.  Look at verse 8 and you see their concern:  does Jesus have a death wish?  He was in Jerusalem recently and the Jewish religious leaders wanted him dead.  Now he’s going to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, and surely that not’s going to end well. 

In verses 9 and 10, our Saviour answers his disciples.  He does so in a figurative way.  He points out how there’s a limited amount of daylight in each day.  He says 12 hours.  He’s not being scientifically precise there.  In that area in that era, the daytime period was commonly understood to consist of 12 equal periods, about 12 hours.  Moreover, that period of time is the time for walking.  Because the sun is shining you can walk without stumbling.  You can see where you’re going.  But then the sun sets.  It becomes dark.  At night you’re going to stumble because the sun is gone.  If look at the last part of verse 10, it says, “the light is not in him.”  Other translations like the NIV have “they have no light” and that’s a good way to bring across the meaning.  It means there’s no light, the sun is gone.  And the overall meaning of what Christ is saying here is that the sun is setting on his ministry.  The limited time is just about up.  It’s just about time for him to suffer and die.

So Jesus is saying that he knows that travelling to Judea means the end is near.  This is going to be his final journey.  What happens in Bethany is going to lead to the cross.  The cross is the fate he faces and he knows it.  The illness and death of Lazarus are leading him to Golgotha, the place of the skull. 

If you knew that taking a journey would result in horrible suffering and a terrible death, would you go on that journey?  If you knew that a journey would take you just to what Romans did before the cross, to scourging, you’d think twice.  If you knew that a journey would take you to the cross itself where you’d hang naked and bleeding, you’d probably try to avoid that journey.  If you knew that a journey would lead you to hell, to God’s eternal wrath poured out on you, you’d probably be like Jonah and you’d run in the opposite direction.  Yet Jesus knew all this and he went.  Why? 

He did it out of faithfulness to God.  The Son of God had agreed to come into this world to rescue sinners from the wrath they deserve for their sins.  He made that agreement and he was going to keep it.  He had faithfulness and integrity like no one else. 

But then he also did it out of his love for us.  He saw us lost and perishing.  He had mercy and compassion on us.  He pitied us.  He took this journey to hell because his heart was full of kindness for you and me.  It was going to be terrible, but it would be worth it. 

Christ had a purpose for the fate he faced at the cross.  The cross was horrible for him, but it resulted in life and blessing for us, for everyone who trusts in him.  Loved ones, we need to keep our eyes on the cross, also when we consider our trials and tragedies.  When we wonder about God’s purposes and whether he can make something good happen from what we’re dealing with, look again at the cross.  God took something horrible, horrible suffering, horrible tragedy, and it had a purpose. A good purpose.  It worked for your salvation.  This is the proof you need to trust your God and Saviour in the face of tragedy.  Look to the cross.  Place your trust and faith in the Saviour who hung there in your place. 

Jesus gives attention to that faith in the last verses of our passage.  In verse 11, Jesus says that Lazarus has fallen asleep and he’s going to wake him up.  That makes the disciples confused.  They think that if he’s just asleep, he’ll be all right.  There’s confusion here.  Jesus is saying one thing, but the disciples are understanding him to say something else. 

In verses 13 and 14, it all becomes clear.  John explains in verse 13 that Jesus used sleep as a picture for death.  That happens more often in the Bible.  When someone dies, they appear to have fallen asleep.  So that’s why the Bible uses that language. 

But there is this doctrine out there called soul sleep.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach it and so do the Seventh-Day Adventists.  It’s the idea that when a person dies, their soul falls asleep.  They don’t go to heaven, they go to sleep.  That’s partly based on a literal understanding of the Bible when it speaks of death as falling asleep.  However, we think of the repentant thief on the cross in Luke – Jesus says, “Today you will be me in Paradise.”  Or you can think of Philippians 1:23 where Paul says his desire is to depart and be with Christ.  No, when the Bible speaks about death and calls it sleep, it’s just a picture or a euphemism, it’s not what literally happens to someone’s soul.  And it’s the same here. 

So Jesus says straight up in verse 14 that Lazarus has died.  And then he adds another perplexing statement.  Look at verse 15.  He says, “and for your sake I am glad that I was not there.”  Why?  “So that you may believe.” 

That doesn’t mean the disciples have no faith prior to this.  It doesn’t mean they’re all unbelievers.  What it means is that this sign or miracle is going to serve for the strengthening of their faith.  Seeing the sign that Jesus is going to do is going to help them to trust in him all the more.

Almost to underline it, we see that reaction from Thomas in verse 16.  He says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  There you see a measure of faith and devotion in Thomas, even in the Thomas who’s famous for his doubts later after Christ’s resurrection.  He says, “Let’s go, if our Master is going to die, we’ll follow him.”  Of course, that attitude isn’t very durable.  In the end, Thomas and all of the other disciples abandon Jesus.  But here at this point, there’s a measure of faith and devotion. 

So Christ knows that almost all of them have this faith (except Judas).  And he’s glad to do this sign for the purpose of strengthening their faith.  He rejoices that he has an opportunity to help his disciples grow in their faith.  Even though there’s a tragedy, a loved one has died, this is going to result in more faith.   

Loved ones, today too, our trials have this purpose.  Think of what Scripture says in James 1:2-3, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness…”  The testing of your faith produces a more steadfast faith, a stronger faith.  That testing might involve a tragedy.  There may be a tragic death, but God has a purpose in it.  The testing of your faith is intended to lead to steadfastness, more faith, stronger faith. 

Now in our passage, the purposes in the tragedy of Lazarus’ death are laid out and revealed.  If you look, you can see them.  But in our lives, things aren’t always so clear-cut.  Like me, you might experience a tragic death in your family.  And you ask God, “Why?”  He might lead you to the answer in this life.  He might not.  He might give you the answer in the hereafter.  He might not – he hasn’t promised to.  We might be left with uncertainty about the exact nature of his purposes.  What do you do?  You run to what you know is certain. 

What is certain is God’s Word.  What is certain is the cross.  Brothers and sisters, the cross shows us how we have ample reason always to trust that God has purposes, even when we can’t see them or know them.  God shows us the cross and he calls us to trust him, to trust the Saviour who always has a purpose for us. Because he loves us and gave himself for us.  AMEN.                       


Almighty God of mercy,

Thank you for your Word of comfort to us.  Thank you for the gospel, for the good news that we have in Jesus Christ.  We worship you for the cross, where we see how you can bring the greatest good out of hellish suffering and agony.  Father, we’re grateful that we can look at the cross, and see your good purposes for our lives.  Father, please help us always us to see our sufferings and trials through the cross.  We pray that you’d help us with your Holy Spirit so that our faith grows through whatever tragedies we might experience.  Please help us never to despair or lose our way.  Please constantly assure us of your love and your good purposes for us.              

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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