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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Jesus raises disciples to challenge unbelief
Text:John 12:9-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's gathering work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 77

Psalm 119:14 (after the law)

Psalm 2

Psalm 98

Hymn 70

Scripture readings: John 15:18-25, Acts 9:1-9

Text: John 12:9-11

* 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,

Jesus tells us in Luke 14 that his disciples have to count the cost of following him.  They have to recognize that you may have to give up certain things in order to be a disciple of Christ.  So let me ask you:  have you counted the cost of following Jesus?  Have you reckoned with what it might cost you to continue being one of his disciples? 

Matthew Kim tells the story of how he and his wife were hosting another couple for dinner in their home.  The husband was a believer, but the wife was skeptical about Christianity.  Together they had a conversation about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  They talked about how being a follower of Jesus means that we love him more than anyone or anything else.  At a certain point, the woman said something staggering:  “I don’t love anything more than my two boys, and I don’t care if I go to hell if I can ensure that my kids will be safe and have a successful life on this earth.”

If I can speak to the mothers among us:  can you relate to that?  Do you love your children more than you love Jesus?  Have you reckoned with what it might cost you to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?  It’s challenging, isn’t it?   

By virtue of our baptism, all of us are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ.  To be a disciple is to be a follower.  We believe in Jesus as our Saviour, we follow the teachings of Jesus in his Word, and we also seek to be like our Master in his life.  It’s a costly calling, but it’s crucial to recognize it’s not purposeless.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer has that famous saying, “When Christ bids a man come, he bids him come and die.”  But to that, we could add that he doesn’t bid him come and die for no reason.  Being a disciple, counting the cost and at times paying the cost, it’s always purposeful, never meaningless or vain. 

We see that in our passage from John this morning.  Lazarus was a friend and disciple of Jesus.  Back in chapter 11, Christ raised him from the dead.  Lazarus was then called to continue living as a disciple of Jesus.  That was for a purpose.  It was a difficult purpose, one which could see Lazarus back in the tomb.  But Christ did have a purpose in it.  Jesus wanted the ongoing unbelief of the Jews to be challenged through what he’d done in this disciple’s life.  So I’ve summarized the theme of this morning’s sermon like this:  Jesus raises disciples to challenge unbelief

We’ll consider his:

  1. Wondrous resurrection work
  2. Disciples’ successful witness
  3. Wicked enemies’ vain plans

Our text takes place in Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.  Bethany is just down the road from Jerusalem, just over 3 km away.  So that’s an easy walking distance for most people.  Moreover, this is around the time of Passover, a time when many Jewish people made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The population of the city would swell during this time.  So given the short distance to Jerusalem and all the people present for Passover, it’s understandable that a large crowd might gather to see Jesus in nearby Bethany.

But they didn’t come only to see Jesus.  They also came to see Lazarus.  Lazarus was a living miracle.  At the beginning of chapter 11, Lazarus had fallen ill.  He became so sick that he died.  By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days.  He was well and truly dead.  But Jesus stood outside his tomb and said, “Lazarus, come out.”  And he did.  The soul of Lazarus was reunited with his body, life came back into him, his heart started thumping again, he got up and he walked right out of that tomb.  It was an astonishing miracle. 

Now the Gospel According to John has a special word for miracles:  they’re called signs.  Miracles are called signs because they point to other realities.  When Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, this sign was pointing to four other incredible realities.  Let’s briefly look at them. 

When Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, it was a sign of his almighty divine power.  It proved he was God with power over life and death.  Lazarus living and breathing was proof of how Jesus was no ordinary man.  In fact, he was both man and God.  He was God come in the flesh for the salvation of sinners.  That’s the first reality of which living Lazarus was a sign. 

The second reality was how this foreshadowed Christ’s own resurrection.  In just a short while after this passage Jesus would be put to death and his body laid in a tomb much like that of Lazarus.  But then he too would rise from the dead.  In his case, there was no one outside the tomb saying, “Jesus, come out.”  No, he’d rise from the dead in his own divine power.  Because he was God, death couldn’t keep its grip on him. 

Next, the resurrection of Lazarus was a sign pointing ahead to our resurrection.  Loved ones, when Jesus returns, he will call your name, so to speak, and tell you to come out of the grave.  Your body will be restored, reconstituted, and your soul will come back into you.  You’re going to live forever in the new heavens and new earth.  Lazarus later died again, but when you’re raised from the dead, you’re going to be raised imperishable, never to die again.  You have eternal life already for your soul, but then eternal life will also come to your body.  This is an awesome reality for all believers, the hope which makes us praise God with glad hearts. 

The last reality has to do with how Jesus spiritually raises disciples from the dead.  With his Holy Spirit, he comes to cold, dead hearts and he makes them come alive.  This is the miracle of regeneration, of being born again.  Once dead in sin, the disciples of Jesus have been brought to life.  As we confess in our Canons of Dort, this is a “supernatural, most powerful, at the same time most delightful, marvellous, mysterious, and inexpressible work.”  When that spiritual resurrection happens, other wonderful stuff follows.  Like faith.  When someone’s dead heart has been resuscitated by the Holy Spirit, that person places their trust in Jesus for salvation.  They become a disciple of Jesus Christ, loving him and following him, committing their whole life to him.  Has that happened with you?    

If it has, then recognize that being a disciple also means being a witness for Jesus Christ.  Witnesses testify.  It’s important to understand that when the Bible speaks about witnessing or testifying, it’s more than just talking about something you’ve seen or heard.  In the Bible, a witness is connected with the idea of a courtroom.  A witness brings testimony which convicts the accused.  He or she talks about what they’ve seen and heard and that becomes part of the case against the accused.  So in general, when the Bible talks about Christ’s disciples being witnesses, it’s this idea of giving legal testimony before the Judge that stands out. 

Lazarus was one such disciple.  He had two different kinds of testimony to bring into the courtroom.  The first was just the plain fact that he was alive.  People in Bethany had seen his cold, dead body.  They saw him laid in the tomb.  He was dead and gone.  But then four days later Jesus arrived.  And then Lazarus was back, walking around their village, talking with people.  Just his life was a testimony to the power of Jesus, a witness against those who denied Jesus was the Christ sent by God to redeem sinners. 

But there was also another kind of testimony, one that would’ve been especially useful for the large crowds coming from Jerusalem.  Not many of those people would’ve known Lazarus.  But they could’ve gone up to him and asked him what happened.  He would’ve told them, “I once was dead.  I died.  But Jesus called me out of the tomb and now I’m here alive again.  Jesus raised me from the dead.”  His words too would’ve been a testimony to the power of Jesus, a challenge against those who didn’t believe Jesus was the Christ sent by God to rescue rebels.

So Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead to challenge unbelief, to convict unbelievers, to bring them to repentance and faith in Christ.  Jesus raised Lazarus to be a witness and witness he did.  His witness had an impact.  It was successful in the sense that it did appear to change Jewish minds about Jesus. 

Look at what it says in verse 11.  Because of Lazarus, because of his witness, “many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.”  They were going away from their commitment to following the Jewish religious leaders.  Instead, they appeared to start becoming disciples of Jesus.  And then later on, in verse 17 we read how some of these new disciples continued to bear witness in Jerusalem.  The good news about who Jesus is and what he does continued to spread.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead for this purpose:  to witness for him and challenge unbelief.  And loved ones, we’ve been raised from the dead for the same purpose.  With his Holy Spirit, Christ has raised us from spiritual death, so we’d go out into the world to witness for him.  Like Lazarus, we can do that to a degree with our lives.  With our lives, we can show we’re disciples of Jesus who’ve been raised from the dead.  Our differences to the world will make us stand out.  But it’s especially with our words

Again, think of it like a courtroom.  There’s the accused.  It’s someone who denies who Jesus is and what he’s done.  It’s an unbeliever who says Jesus isn’t God and he doesn’t raise people from the dead.  That unbeliever is on trial.  As a disciple of Jesus, you’re called as a witness in the case against the unbeliever.  By the very fact that you’re present that could be taken as testimony that Jesus does indeed raise the dead.  You wouldn’t be a witness for the prosecution otherwise.  But the testimony would be far from complete without your words.  Courtroom trials require words to be spoken.  Witnesses have to speak.  So it is with us as disciples of our Lord Jesus.  We have to speak about who he is and what he’s done.  We’re called to tell everyone that Jesus is almighty God who raises people from the dead.  He’s raised us to spiritual life with his Holy Spirit, he’s made us truly alive.  As such, don’t you want what was said of Lazarus to be said of you:  on account of him many were going away and believing in Jesus? 

Brothers and sisters, let’s desire to be such disciples who witness for their Master.  Let’s desire to be such disciples who are instruments in God’s hand to bring others to faith.  And let’s not only desire that in our hearts, but also pray it with our words.  Pray that God would help you to tell the glorious truth of who Jesus is and what he does for sinners.

As raised disciples challenge unbelief, the enemies of our Saviour get increasingly irritated.  We see that happening in our text as well.  Why do the enemies of our Saviour get annoyed with someone like Lazarus?  Because he’s challenging their narrative.  Their narrative is that Jesus is a false teacher, a heretic.  The Jewish religious leaders hold that Jesus is a dangerous man leading the people astray.  He’s certainly not the Christ promised in the Old Testament.  They say that if he has any power to do signs, he gets that power from Satan and not from God.  Lazarus challenges that narrative, with both his life and his words.  That peeves them right off.  They can’t handle this. 

But that irritation doesn’t just stay internal.  It boils over into plans for action.  In chapter 11, the religious leaders made plans to put Jesus to death.  But now they also make plans to put Jesus’ star witness to death.  Lazarus also ends up with a target on him.  His only crime is that he witnesses for Jesus as one of his disciples.  That’s enough to earn him the death penalty.   

Later in John, in what we read from John 15, Jesus says that all his disciples should expect this kind of treatment.  We should expect hatred.  Hatred is the root of murder.  Jesus says that his disciples will be hated because they follow him:  “But all these things they will do to you on account of my name…”  People hated Jesus when he was on earth and their hatred led them to murder.  People hate the disciples of Jesus because they follow Jesus and that hatred too can and sometimes does lead to murder.  You could literally lose your life for following Jesus.

That happened in the book of Acts.  For example, Stephen was martyred for following Christ and witnessing about him.  When that happened, a young up-and-coming religious leader was there approving.  Saul reappears in Acts 9, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord….”  Saul hated Christ and he hated the disciples of Christ.  Saul wanted to rid the earth of them.  Until Jesus confronted him directly on the road to Damascus.  And the first thing Jesus said to Saul was, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  Take careful note of that.  By persecuting Christ’s disciples, Saul was persecuting Christ.  But there’s more.  Saul was persecuting the almighty God.  He was resisting the irresistible power of God.  That’s actually what we call a fool’s errand.  Pointless.

Have you ever heard of Sisyphus?  In Greek mythology, Sisyphus had tricked one of the gods.  As a punishment in the afterlife, he was condemned to roll a massive boulder up a steep hill endlessly.  As soon as Sisyphus would get near the top, the boulder would roll back down and he’d have to start all over again.  He’d try and try, but never succeed.

It was like that with Saul.  Later in Acts, Saul (who’s now known as Paul) recounted his conversion to King Agrippa.  Paul mentioned that Jesus told him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”  Goads were sharp sticks used to prod oxen and move them along.  It would be vain for oxen to kick against them – they’d never succeed.  So it was with Paul – he could never successfully resist God’s almighty power in the person of Jesus Christ.  His resistance was futile. 

And so it was with the religious leaders in our passage too.  They made their plans to put Lazarus to death – there’s no indication they ever carried those plans out.  But they did carry out their plans to kill Jesus.  They put him on the cross.  But did that stop people from believing in him?  Did that stop the work of the Holy Spirit in this world?  They thought the death of Jesus would mean the death of his following.  But they didn’t reckon with the fact that they were opposing almighty God.  They were making their plans against the omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth.  We sang Psalm 2 before the sermon and it speaks of how crazy that is:  “Though proudly now they raise their battle cry, how vain is all their frenzied opposition!”  No one can resist God, no one can resist the gospel God would have proclaimed in this world.

Loved ones, Jesus has raised us, his disciples, from the dead.  He’s done that for a purpose.  Jesus has done that to challenge the unbelieving world around us.  That unbelieving world has plans to rid the world of Christianity.  Biblical Christianity is regarded as a threat today.  What the Bible calls vice, the world calls virtue.  What God in his Word calls wickedness, the world calls wonderful.  The world doesn’t like to be contradicted.  The world doesn’t want to be told of the need for dead human beings to be raised by Jesus with his Holy Spirit.  The world doesn’t want to hear our witness about who Jesus is and what he does, or about the need for repentance and faith in Christ.  The world is irritated and annoyed with us, just like the Jewish religious leaders were irritated and annoyed with Lazarus, and even more so with Jesus.  Just like in times gone by, the enemies of our Lord Jesus make their plans.  Those plans might cost us something.  Those plans might make it really challenging to be a Christian.  You could lose your job.  You might lose your business.  We might lose our Christian schools.  Your kids could be taken away.  You could end up in prison or worse.  Discipleship might well come with a high cost in this world.        

But here’s what’s encouraging:  all those wicked plans will never ultimately succeed.  They’ll never destroy Christianity.  Christ will always preserve his Church.  The gospel will always remain here on this earth and it’ll continue to be shared by Christ’s disciples.  Dead people will continue to be raised to spiritual life until the day Christ returns victorious.  Because he is almighty God, no one can stop our Lord Jesus.

His purposes will stand.  His purpose is to take disciples who’ve been raised from the dead and work through them in this dark world to challenge unbelief and make more disciples.  Our Lord Jesus has been doing it for 2000 years and he’ll continue to do so until the end of the age.  Even when the church is being persecuted, even when she suffers, our God continues to be triumphant in all the earth.  No one can stop the advance of the kingdom of God.  In the end, it’ll all be worth it as we gather round the throne of our victorious King with joy inexpressible.  AMEN. 


Almighty God,

Thank you for that wonderful gospel truth of resurrection.  We praise you for Jesus who rose from the dead on the first day of the week.  Thank you for his victory over death.  We thank you that all believers share in that victory.  We worship you for showing that victory in the life of Lazarus too, and also in us.  We bring you our praise for raising us up from spiritual death by the power of your Holy Spirit.  We once were dead, but are now alive in Christ and we rejoice in you for that truth.  Please help us all to live as disciples of Christ and as part of that, to be witnesses to who he is and what he’s done. Father God, we ask you to give us opportunities to witness in our daily lives.  We ask for open doors to share the good news about our Lord Jesus, and not only open doors, but also bold hearts.  We thank you that encourage us too that all the opposition of the world can’t stop your kingdom.  Help us always to trust that you have things well and truly under control, that no one can thwart your purposes.

* 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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