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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:See the glory of God revealed in Jesus raising the dead!
Text:John 11:38-44 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Death Defeated

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 95:1-3

Psalm 15 (after the law)

Psalm 18:1,2

Hymn 79

Hymn 45

Scripture reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

Text: John 11:38-44

* 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,

Things aren’t always just what they appear.  It sometimes happens that someone is saying something to you, but there’s something more behind the words.  There’s another level of meaning.  I think you know what I’m talking about.  But if you don’t, here’s an example.  Let’s say you own a business and you’re hiring.  Someone submits an application.  It includes a reference letter from a previous employer.  All the reference letter says is:  “To whom it may concern:  Bob was well-groomed.  He was always courteous to his co-workers.”  You’d look at that and think:  “There’s more behind those words.”  You read between the lines and you know that if that’s all that can be said then Bob probably wasn’t a great worker.  Things aren’t always just what they appear.

It’s the same in the Gospel According to John.  In John’s gospel, there are seven “signs” Jesus does.  They’re scattered throughout the first half of the book.  And this morning we’ve come to the seventh.  When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, this is the seventh and last sign in John’s gospel. 

They’re all miracles, but they’re called “signs.”  Why?  The Holy Spirit calls them signs because their significance is not only in themselves, but also in what they’re pointing to.  A sign points to something.  Signs in John’s gospel point to greater realities. 

When Jesus raises Lazarus from the tomb, it’s an amazing miracle.  It’s a miracle that happened as a historical event.  But because it’s a sign, we’re supposed to look beyond the miracle itself.  In verse 40, Jesus himself tells us that what he’s doing points to greater realities, in fact to the greatest thing of all:  the glory of God.  That greater reality and others like it are going to be our focus this morning.  The main thrust of the sermon can be summed up like this:

See the glory of God revealed in Jesus raising the dead!

We’ll consider:

  1. How dead is dead
  2. How Jesus raises the dead to life
  3. How Jesus sets free the once-dead to live

It’s said that when a memory gets tied to a smell, it burns in your brain and it’s impossible to forget.  I can still remember moving to Inuvik, a small town in the Canadian Arctic.  People would burn their rubbish in big metal oil drums in front of their houses.  I can still remember the smell of burning garbage from over 40 years ago.  Similarly, you read stories of war where soldiers or civilians are confronted with human death.  The smell of dead bodies is part of the lingering trauma of war for many people.  It’s a horrible smell you can’t forget.

In the ancient world that’s a smell that would be far more well-known.  Today we have a sanitized world where death is often hidden behind closed doors.  Few people really get to know the smell of death.

But you can expect that someone like Martha knew that smell.  Her brother Lazarus had been dead for four days.  Martha knew that four days meant a horrendous stench was behind the stone blocking the tomb entrance where her brother lay.  You wouldn’t want to be anywhere near that smell.        

That’s why she objects to opening the tomb in verse 39.  Jesus says, “Take away the stone.”  She says, “No, don’t do it, it’s going to reek.”  Martha previously expressed faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life.  She said she believed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God into the world.  But now here a short while later she’s not so sure.  Her faith comes up against the potential of that smell of death and now she doesn’t want to take any chances. 

Look at how Jesus responds in verse 40.  Jesus gently corrects her unbelief.  He reminds her to believe.  When she believes in his power to overcome death, she would see the glory of God.  She would see that he truly is the resurrection and the life, just like he told her previously.  That would lead to praise and honour for God. 

Now for our purposes here this morning, I want you to note how dead Lazarus is.  He’s four days dead.  Stinking dead.  Lazarus is well and truly dead, as dead as anyone can be. 

This is important because we have to think here in terms of the sign.  What Jesus does here signifies how he has the power over all death.  Not only physical death, but also spiritual death.  We read from Ephesians 2.  Ephesians 2:1 says it straight.  Before they knew Christ through faith, the Ephesian Christians were “dead in trespasses and sins.”  Dead.  That’s the truth about everyone before regeneration, before being born again, before being converted and brought to faith in Christ.  Spiritually dead.  Totally, entirely dead.  Stinking dead.  Apart from regeneration by the Holy Spirit, no one is able to make any moves towards God.  Dead people don’t move. 

Sometimes you’ll hear salvation illustrated with a man in the water.  The man is drowning.  He’s going under.  But God throws the man a life-preserver.  In order to be saved, the man has to take hold of the life-preserver.  God is doing his part and the drowning man has to do his part.  He has to reach out for the life-preserver to be rescued. 

There’s a sense in which that illustration can work.  It can work as an illustration of the biblical truth that there’s a human responsibility to repent and believe.  To be saved, every person needs to turn from sin and take hold of Christ through faith.  The Bible teaches that.  But if you’re trying to illustrate how we’re brought from death to life, the illustration isn’t helpful or accurate. 

If you’re trying to illustrate how we’re brought from death to life, and you want to use a man in the water, imagine the man dead on the bottom of the ocean.  On the ocean floor, his corpse is rotting, decomposing.  If you could smell in the water, it would stink.  God dives down to the bottom of the ocean, brings the corpse up and breathes life into it.  Brings him back to life.  That’s how regeneration works.  God through his Holy Spirit brings someone totally dead to spiritual life. 

Loved ones, when you’re spiritually dead, you’re spiritually dead.  There’s nothing you can do for yourself.  Lazarus couldn’t do anything for himself in the tomb.  He was just stinking dead.  Lazarus needed a miracle to bring him back to life.  A miracle which would bring glory to God.  So too for the spiritually dead today and always.  They need a miracle, a miracle which would bring all the glory to God’s name. 

Well, what does this miracle look like?  Let’s see how Jesus raises the dead to life.

We sometimes say that words are worthless.  We think words have little or no power.  Maybe it seems like that’s often true.  But with Jesus it’s different.  His words always have power in them.  When words leave his lips, things happen.  There are two ways we see that in our passage from John 11. 

First of all, look at his prayer in verse 41.  He says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.”  So Jesus is giving thanks referring to an earlier prayer he made.  In the context here, it’s right to conclude that earlier Jesus had prayed for the life of Lazarus.  He prayed that Lazarus would come out of the tomb alive, restored to his family and friends.  God heard his prayer and answered him.  The words of the prayer of this righteous man were effective.

Then there are more words.  See the command of Jesus in verse 43.  Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus.  The door is open.  He shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”  Amazingly, Lazarus does.  Jesus speaks three words and Lazarus is before them again as a living, breathing human being. 

So, simply with his words, Jesus brings life to Lazarus.  Air flows out of his lungs, through his larynx, over his tongue and lips.  The sound of loud words is heard and Lazarus lives.  Loved ones, don’t fail to see this. 

Also, don’t fail to see that is part of the sign.  This is pointing to more realities.  These realities are part of the experience of all Christians.  What we see here points to the reality of how Christ works for our salvation. 

First, Jesus prays for our salvation before it happens.  This is often overlooked.  But in John 17:20, in the high priestly prayer, Jesus prays for the salvation of those given to him by the Father.  He prays for those who haven’t yet believed in him.  Since Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, we can be confident that the Great High Priest continues to pray for all the elect, also for those who haven’t yet believed.

Second, through the Word of the gospel, Christ calls his own out of the tomb, so to speak.  He calls all his chosen ones from death to life.  That call is effectual.  It accomplishes exactly what Christ intends for it.  It’s been pointed out many times that if Christ had not specifically told Lazarus to come out of the tomb, all the dead would have been raised at that moment.  But Jesus called Lazarus and him only.  And when he called Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus had no choice but to come out.  The call was effectual.  Similarly, when Christ calls any particular elect sinner from death to life through the gospel, the Holy Spirit will ensure that the sinner comes.  Christ’s call to bring the dead out of the tomb is always effectual. 

All that serves for the glory of God.  Look at Lazarus.  Could he take any credit for himself for coming back to life?  Could he pat himself on the back for coming out of the tomb?  Of course not, it was all the doing of Christ.  It was done all for the glory of God, so that people would be impressed with God’s power over death. 

Loved ones, it’s exactly the same with us.  If we’re Christians, if we’ve been brought out of the tomb of sin and spiritual death, it’s all because of what we call sovereign grace.  It’s grace – we didn’t do it, we didn’t earn it, and we don’t deserve it.  It’s sovereign – that means it’s completely apart from us, all in God’s power.  It’s all sovereign grace.  All glory goes to God! 

There’s more glory as we also see how Jesus sets free the once-dead to live. 

Today when someone dies they’re usually embalmed at the funeral home.  Chemicals are injected into the body which slow down the process of decomposition.  In the ancient world, embalming was done in some cultures too – most famously by the ancient Egyptians.  But the Jews in Judea in the days of Jesus didn’t embalm.  Instead, they might put some spices on the body to reduce the smell, and then the body would be wrapped with grave clothes.                 

That’s what happened with Lazarus too.  Soon after he died, they would have put some spices on his body.  Then they’d have wrapped his body loosely with linen strips.  And there’d be a cloth tied around his face as well. 

When Lazarus comes out of the tomb, he’s still wearing all that.  You can imagine the sight.  It must have been something to see Lazarus all wrapped up coming out of the tomb.  He could still have moved, but he would have been hopping and shuffling along.  He’d probably have been banging into things, seeing how his face was still covered.  He wouldn’t have been able to see where he was going. 

Lazarus makes it to the outside.  He’s standing in front of his sisters and an amazed crowd.  Then Jesus commands his grave clothes to be removed so Lazarus can go and resume his life. 

As I said, these are historical happenings.  They happened just the way they’re described here.  But because it’s a sign, we have to looked beyond the historical events to see the deeper spiritual truths to which the sign points.  There’s more here than meets the eye. 

The reality is that when a sinner is brought from death to life by Christ through the Holy Spirit, that sinner continues to wear the grave clothes.  Think about this with me.  Besides Jesus, who was the holiest man in the Bible?  I think someone like the Apostle Paul would be in the running.  And yet what did Paul write in Romans 7:24?  He expresses his frustration with sin in his life.  He says, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  You see, after regeneration, after conversion, after faith, we’re still sinners.   We’re still wearing clothes from the grave and they make us stumble, they blind us and make us bang into things.  Oftentimes it seems like we’re hopping and shuffling through life like Lazarus did when he first came out of the tomb. 

Imagine a young man who’s just become a Christian.  Before faith in Christ, he had many girlfriends and he slept with all of them.  He had one-night stands with girls he met on Tinder.  He had sex whenever he wanted with whomever he wanted.  But now he’s a Christian.  Now he openly realizes that it’s wrong.  But because he’s known that lifestyle, it’s not easy.  Because he’s known the pleasure of that sinful way of life, there’s still a desire to go back to it.  The grave clothes are still there, still stinking. 

But, just as with Lazarus, Christ removes the grave clothes.  Now with Lazarus it happened all at once.  Just like that he was free from what kept him bound.  It was instant freedom from the grave clothes.  But with believers in general, it’s a life-long process.  With his Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ removes the grave clothes bit by bit to set us free to live for him.  This process has a name.  We call it sanctification.  Sanctification is the process of having the grave clothes removed, so we can go and live for the Lord in his ways.  It’s important to remember that this process of sanctification is first of all Christ’s work in us with his Holy Spirit.  He’s the one who is setting us free to live for him.

Where do we fit in?  Well, look at Lazarus again.  After he came back to life, I’m sure that Lazarus was aware that he was wearing the grave clothes.  Surely it must have alarmed him to come back to life and find that he’s all wrapped up and can barely move. 

Similarly, when someone is regenerated, converted, and comes to faith in Christ, they become aware that the grave clothes are still on.  They know they’re stumbling, banging around.  They want the grave clothes gone.  They want to be free of the grave clothes to live for the Lord and for his glory.  Because it’s Christ who does it, we have to call to him and ask him to do that for us.  We have to pray and ask the Lord to give the word to unbind us and let us go.  And the good news is that he’ll do it more and more.  Christ will do it for the glory of God.  He’ll do that so we can live for his praise. 

Loved ones, John 11 presents us with this amazing miracle.  But as we’ve seen, it’s not just an incredible story from long ago with no connection to us today.  No, the story of Lazarus is really the miraculous story of every Christian who’s been raised to life by Jesus Christ.  That’s why our Canons of Dort say that “regeneration is not inferior in power to creation or the raising of the dead.”  Regeneration is a miracle on par with the raising of the dead.  The raising of the dead in our text pointed to the miracle of salvation through Christ.  If it’s happened to you, then you know something of what Lazarus experienced that day.  And you can join with him in giving all the praise and glory to God.  AMEN.


O God of our salvation,

We’re thankful to you for the truth of your Word.  We confess that your Word is true when it says that apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit in us, we’re completely dead.  We’re so thankful that Christ came to call us out of the tomb.  We’re thankful for his prayers for us, even before we existed, before we were born again and believed.  For these things, we give you praise and glory.  But Father, just like Lazarus, we know that we still have the grave clothes on.  They stink.  They make us stumble and bang into things.  We still have sin clinging to us, and we long to be free.  So Lord, please remove the grave clothes.  Give the word to unbind us more and more and let us go and live freely for you.  Please work with your Holy Spirit so that what’s left of our old sinful nature would increasingly die.  Please help us with our sanctification. 

Lord God, we give you all the praise for our regeneration, for our conversion, for our faith, for our sanctification, for our salvation.  Indeed, it all comes from your sovereign grace and so we worship you again for it all here this morning.            

* 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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