THE LAZARUS PRINCIPLE
“This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
Picture yourself in the following situation. Your brother is sick, really sick. He’s not just feeling rotten. He is so sick that he’s in danger of dying. You see him going downhill every day. The doctor tries various things, but nothing seems to help. The illness gets worse and worse, your brother gets weaker and weaker, and you get more and more worried.
But you have at least one ray of hope. You have a friend who’s got a better record of healing people than any doctor you know. The only problem is, your friend is far away at the moment. You know roughly where he is, but you don’t know exactly where he is, and you have no way to reach him directly. You have to send somebody to look for him. It will take at least a day to get in touch with him, and another day for him to travel back to your area and see what he can do for your brother.
It might be too late already, but you’ve got to do what you can. You send somebody off to track your friend down and let him know about your brother’s sickness. However, just a few hours after the messenger leaves, your brother dies. Your heart is broken. You loved your brother very much, and now he is dead.
Two days later, the messenger comes back, alone. Nobody’s with him. You’re disappointed. You were hoping to see your friend. Even if it’s too late to help your brother, you wish your friend was at least there to comfort you and show he cares.
You ask the messenger, “What’s the matter? Where is he? Couldn’t you find him?”
The messenger says, “Sure, I found him, shortly after I got there. I told him that his dear friend, your brother, was deathly sick and needed him right away. But he acted like there was no worry and no hurry. He just said, ‘This sickness will not end in death.’ That’s good news, isn’t it?” the messenger continued, not realizing what happened while he was away. “He says your brother’s going to be okay!”
That would be pretty hard to take, wouldn’t it? You’ve got a corpse on your hands. Your brother is dead and buried. So how should you react when someone whose friendship you treasured, whose skill you trusted, sends a message that it’s all going to turn out fine? And what are you supposed to say when this person you thought loved your brother and you is taking his sweet time in coming? He’s too late to help your brother. He’s even too late for the funeral. Is your friend less capable than you thought? Does he care less than you thought he cared?
Two days after the messenger’s return, and four days after the sending of the messenger and your brother’s death, you hear that at long last your friend is coming down the road. What now? What should you say to him?
Too Late to Help?
That’s where two sisters, Mary and Martha, found themselves after their brother Lazarus died. Their good friend Jesus had been in their home many times, and they’d seen him heal people by doing amazing miracles. But when Lazarus got sick, when the family needed Jesus most, he was somewhere else. And when he was told about Lazarus’ illness, he seemed to take it lightly. He said everything would be all right, but by that point everything had already gone wrong. And then, to make matters worse, he stayed away for a while longer instead of rushing to comfort them. When the sisters heard that Jesus was finally coming up the road outside their house, Martha rushed out to meet him, while Mary stayed inside. In John chapter 11 the Bible tells what happened.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
Jesus’ words “I am the resurrection and the life” were still ringing in Martha’s ears when she went back to her sister Mary. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That’s the same thing Martha had said to Jesus a few minutes earlier. Mary and Martha had probably spent the past four days telling each other, “If only Jesus had been here, Lazarus would not have died.” So when Jesus arrived, that’s the first thing each of them said to him.
Maybe you know the feeling. Just when you need the Lord most, he seems far away. You wish he would hurry up and help. But he doesn’t show up until it’s too late. Your worst fears come true. The damage is done. The Lord’s timing was off, and now it seems too late for the Lord to do deal with the problem. Where was he when you needed him? What delayed him so long? Why didn’t he come to the rescue when there was still time? That’s how Martha and Mary were feeling when Jesus showed up only after their brother was dead and buried.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus told the sisters who grieved over their dead brother. He had power to deal even with death itself, and at the same time, he was sensitive to their sadness. When Jesus saw Mary weeping, along with the others who had come with her, he was deeply moved and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept. The people said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:38-44)
That’s the astonishing, true story of how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. And that brings us to The Lazarus Principle. The Lazarus Principle is simply this: For a friend of Jesus, death is never the final outcome.
A Happy Ending Guaranteed
Near the beginning of the story, Jesus reacted to the news of Lazarus’ sickness by saying, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Lazarus lay dying at the very moment Jesus said that, and yet the Lord insisted that death would not be the final outcome for his friend.
When Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death,” he wasn’t just talking about his friend Lazarus. He was talking about all his friends. That’s why he told Martha, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Don’t overlook that word “whoever.” It shows that this isn’t just a story about Jesus’ friend Lazarus. It’s a revelation of a basic principle that applies to every friend of Jesus–whoever believes in him. For a friend of Jesus, death is never the final outcome.
The Lazarus Principle sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? And it is simple. Jesus will not fail his friends. He won’t let death have the last word. He guarantees a happy ending. It’s as simple as that. But this simple truth isn’t always easy to see or easy to handle. The Lazarus Principle guarantees a happy ending, but it doesn’t guarantee an easy time getting there.
The simple principle that the Lord guarantees a happy ending for his friends is based on two other facts that are very simple: The first is that the Lord never stops loving his friends. He loves them to the very end. The second is that the Lord never loses control of what happens to his friends. He directs everything that happens to them in a way that fits his purpose for them. The love of Jesus and the power of Jesus–the Lazarus Principle depends on these.
But if the love and the power are there, why do we have to face so much grief and suffering? If God is so loving, wouldn’t he want his friends to be happy? And if he is so powerful, wouldn’t he be able to make them happy? So if God’s friends aren’t always happy, if they have some tough times, God must not be loving enough, or not powerful enough, or both, right? It sound like airtight logic.
But our logic is not God’s logic, and his ways are not our ways. God’s friends are not exempt from suffering. Jesus could have kept Lazarus from ever getting sick in the first place. He could have healed Lazarus before he began to suffer too much, and certainly before he died. But he let his friend suffer and die. Not only that, Jesus let his dear friends Mary and Martha go through the agony of watching their brother suffer and the grief of burying him. Whatever we think Jesus’ love ought to mean, it doesn’t guarantee us a trouble-free existence.
Sometimes, when we face hardships and disappointments and we don’t want to get angry God, we try to let him off easy and tell ourselves that God doesn’t really have much of a hand in these things. He loves us, we think, but there are a lot of events that he just doesn’t control. We tell ourselves that this is something God had nothing to do with.
But the Bible shows a different picture. God doesn’t make any of the excuses for himself that we tend to make for him. He doesn’t say disasters are beyond his control. In Isaiah 45:7 he says the exact opposite: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Sin and Satan play a role in the bad things that happen, but ultimately, nothing happens to a friend of Jesus unless God allows it and even appoints it as part of his plan for that person.
We might resent God and question his love when we hear that God includes even our disasters, diseases and disabilities in his plan, but still, God refuses to say that he has nothing to do with such things. In the Bible God says, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11)
In John chapter 9 the Bible tells of a man who was born blind. When Jesus met this man, his disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
Now, in one way, that’s a comforting answer. Not all the bad things that happen to us can be traced directly to something bad that we did. But in another way, Jesus’ answer could be very disturbing. Think about it. This man spent his entire childhood and youth and the best years of adulthood in complete darkness. And why? Not because of any particular thing he or his parents had done, but because God wanted it that way–in order to display a great work in his life.
So even if Jesus did heal the man’s blindness and give him his sight, the fact remains that he let the man suffer in darkness for many years. And even though Jesus did raise Lazarus and give him back to his sisters, the fact remains that Jesus allowed all that suffering and grieving happen in the first place. Jesus was urged to come in a hurry, but he delayed. When he finally did decide to go, he told his disciples, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad…” Doesn’t that sound awful? Jesus was glad Lazarus was dead! But that’s not all Jesus said. Here’s the rest of the sentence. Jesus said, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” The Lord had reasons for letting Lazarus get sick and die, reasons that had little to do with Lazarus. His death happened in order to bring glory to God and to nurture faith in God’s people.
Now, there’s no simple formula to explain why we suffer in every particular case. Sometimes we bring it on ourselves, sometimes we suffer from the evil and mistakes of others, and sometimes God tests us through suffering and uses it to stress and stretch and strengthen our faith. But there are also times when he calls us to suffer not for our own sake but for his sake and for the sake of others, to bring him glory and to bring others to faith. It’s not easy to sort all this out. But one way or another, God calls us to believe that he is in charge, and nothing can happen to us apart from his will.
Does this drive you to question God’s love? After all, if he has a hand in everything that happens to you, and something horrendous happens, how can you possibly believe he loves you? But when you start thinking that way, you’ve got things turned around. if you try to evaluate God’s love in terms of what’s happening to you, you’ve got it backwards. James Boice, a godly pastor who died of cancer, once said, “Learn to interpret circumstances by the love of Christ and not Christ’s love by circumstances.” Let me repeat that: “Learn to interpret circumstances by the love of Christ and not Christ’s love by circumstances.” Take it by faith that Jesus loves you, and then start seeing everything else, even the bad things, in light of the fact that God loves you and has a purpose and works all things for your good.
The love of Jesus never fails. Right after Jesus said that Lazarus’ sickness would not end in death but bring glory to God, the Bible immediately adds, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister [Mary] and Lazarus.” Jesus was putting this family through a terrible time, but he loved them as much as ever. Just because our friend Jesus might let us suffer for purposes of his own, it doesn’t mean he’s not our Friend.
And just because he has a wise plan and an overarching purpose doesn’t mean he’s beyond feeling what we feel. Indeed, when Jesus saw Mary weeping, he “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” And when he stood before the grave of his dead friend, Jesus wept. Seeing those tears of Jesus, some of the bystanders were moved to say, “See how much he loved him!”
Dying to Give Us Life
When we’re tempted to doubt Jesus’ love, we need to keep in mind how Jesus cries with us in all our suffering, and we need to remember something even more important: Jesus doesn’t just ask his friends to suffer for him; he suffered and died for his friends. He endured more than he will ever ask you or me to endure, all so that we might be free from our sins and sorrows and live forever in him.
In fact, that’s a big part of the story of Lazarus. Some of Jesus’ disciples tried to talk him out of even going to Lazarus’ home in Judea, because there were so many people there who wanted to kill Jesus. But Jesus went anyway. He went there to raise Lazarus to life and to give up his own life. And in doing so, Jesus showed the full extent of his love and his power over the future. Jesus knew exactly what effect his actions would have. The raising of Lazarus caused such a stir that Jesus’ enemies immediately began scheming to arrest and kill him. The Christ who allowed his friend Lazarus to die would now die for all his friends. The Christ who raised his friend to life would now himself rise from the dead, never to die again.
And in his own resurrection, he showed what awaits everyone who belongs to him: “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Do you? Remember, this statement is for all who believe in Jesus and only for those who believe in Jesus. The Bible says that after Jesus raised Lazarus, many people put their faith in him. But others just wanted to get rid of him all the more. What about you? The Lazarus Principle doesn’t apply to just anybody. It applies to friends of Jesus. It applies to those whom Jesus loves and who love him in return.
I knew a dear lady who had terminal cancer. There was no way she could avoid suffering and death. But Doris knew the Lazarus Principle. She was a friend of Jesus, so she knew that her sickness would not end in death. She knows this cruel disease could not touch her apart from God’s purpose, and her face shone as she recalled how the Lord loved and carried her through the good times and through the bad times of her life. She took each new day as a precious gift from God. Doris often talked about “the good Lord,” and for her, that’s wasn’t just an empty cliche. She knew Jesus is good, and she knew he is Lord. Jesus is indeed the good Lord. Jesus was using her cancer to glorify himself and increase the faith of others. Even though Doris died of her disease, she knew Jesus as the resurrection and the life, and she knew Jesus guaranteed her an eternal happy ending.
So let me say again: The Lazarus Principle guarantees not an easy journey but a glorious destination. Sickness may come, but that sickness will not end in death. The story of any friend of Jesus ends in resurrection and joy. And until we reach the end, we must simply trust in the One who loves us and works all things according to the purpose of his will.
None of us has all the answers to why God’s people have to suffer and die. But we do have the Lazarus principle: For a friend of Jesus, death is never the final outcome. If you trust Jesus, your story is guaranteed to have a happy ending. And all’s well that ends well.
Lord Jesus, you are indeed the resurrection and the life. Give us faith to trust you even when we don’t understand you. Make us confident in your love, secure in your power, and joyful in the eternal happiness you have prepared for us. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.