Actual Tomb of Lazarus of Bethany | Picture from MadainProject

By: Frank Tunstall. D. Min.

Lazarus was deathly sick, and he was Martha’s and Mary’s only brother. The sisters could see his life slowly slipping away and they knew they needed a man in the house. Jesus was their only hope. They sent a passionate appeal to Him, “Come heal our brother!” But Jesus delayed His walk back to Bethany for four days.

Many people through the centuries have recognized Jesus as their only hope.

One is left to wonder how many times these grief-stricken women looked out the window to see if Jesus was coming. Jesus did make the journey but not on their timeline.

Four days after Lazarus died “Martha heard Jesus was coming and she went out to meet Him, but Mary stayed at home” (John 11:20 NIV). Mary was probably too grieved, in part because Jesus had not come when they needed Him.

Have you, dear reader, ever known a person too grieved to turn to Jesus for help?

Grief is an emotion that strikes everyone sooner or later. It can become controlling and paralyzing as people give up hope. Grief can walk a person down into the lonely valley of the mind, stopping at the deep well of depression. In this state, a person can easily believe even prayer is useless and might stop attending worship services, for example. This reality often embraces very painful thoughts like, “I know God doesn’t care about me, so why go to church?”

Please think about it: suffering can be our friend when it shows us the condition of our hearts, and especially the unbelief we might be carrying.

Were Mary’s expectations of Jesus, “come heal our brother,” too crushed for her to go with her sister to meet Jesus?

Has Jesus ever offended you, my reader, when He did not answer your prayers by giving you what you were sure was a right and proper request? (Luke 7:23 KJV). Jesus purposefully arrived four days later. For their brother, it was too late.

 “Whatever You Ask!”

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus when they met on the outskirts of Bethany, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:21-22).

This is the sad language of disappointed faith colored by deep grief and wrapped with a sliver of hope. Martha’s statement, which Mary would also repeat in her own words a short while later, was obviously an expression of faith, although enclosed in a cocoon of disillusionment. Her reasoning went like this: Jesus, I’m sure God will answer your prayers; He will do ‘whatever you ask,’ but He didn’t answer mine (John 11:32).

So many people in the extremities of life have felt similar emotions, some asking questions in faith and others in unbelief.

I prayed earnestly; so why didn’t Jesus hear me?
Jesus had the power to intervene; why didn’t He?
Can I depend on God to be there when I need Him?

Those who express these thoughts in faith do it out of the struggle of their own hearts, and in time almost invariably they draw closer to the Lord. Those who ask them in unbelief usually use the questions to challenge the love of God, “the great love wherewith he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4). These people are often hardened further in their doubt and unbelief.

In the late 1940s, Charles Templeton (1915 – 2001) was a close friend and preaching associate of Billy Graham. He effectively proclaimed the gospel to large crowds in major arenas. Intellectual doubts, however, began to nag at him. He questioned the authority and accuracy of the Scriptures and other core Christian beliefs. Templeton finally abandoned his faith and made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade young Billy Graham to do the same. Templeton said he felt sorry for Billy and commented, “He committed intellectual suicide by closing his mind.” Templeton resigned from the ministry and became a novelist and news commentator. He also wrote a critique of Jesus and His gospel: Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.

Martha spoke out of friendship love (phileo). She believed she had the right to expect their friend Jesus to return a favor; after all, they had fed Jesus and His disciples many meals and they knew Jesus loved Lazarus (John 11:36). When Jesus did not come on their timeline, she was disappointed and perhaps even offended, but she did not reject Jesus. Instead, she confessed Him as the Messiah and the Son of God (John 11:27). Templeton made the choice to discard Jesus.

Yes, moving from friendship love to agape love, God’s kind of love, for Martha and Mary was a journey wrapped with the black ribbons of deep disappointment and even depression. But Jesus was operating in the realm of agape, God’s love. It is the love of God that acts in our best interests as only Jesus knows what is best for us, and He does it with no strings attached.

In Mary and Martha’s case, Jesus had a higher purpose. After Jesus called Lazarus out of his tomb these sisters’ grief mushroomed into elated faith as they came to understand Jesus had their best interests in mind all along. They even discovered what Jesus meant when He described Himself as the resurrection and the life.

Yes, it all made sense at their brother’s empty tomb. Lazarus had been dead for four days; his body was already beginning to decompose. Seeing Lazarus walk out of that tomb was surely a far greater blessing to the sisters and their many friends than healing their brother’s terminal illness would have been.

In a few short weeks up the road Jesus Himself would be crucified, but God would raise Jesus from the dead on the third day. The story of Jesus and Lazarus has lived for two thousand years as proof there will come a resurrection day when each of the Lord’s followers will come out of their graves and be with the Lord for all eternity, living in a glorified body.

Oh! That glorious day. They figured it all out at their brother’s tomb.

“Come heal our brother” was the message they sent to Jesus. He did come but on His schedule and with His purpose in mind. And after He arrived His ministry showed far more power and redemptive purpose than Mary and Martha could have ever imagined. Ah! We are to trust Jesus when His answer is delayed, and even if we do not get the answer in our lifetime.

C.S. Lewis had it right when he wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962, p. 93).

I could not go on without Him I know,
The world would o’erwhelm my soul;
For I could not see the right way to go,
When temptations o’er me roll.
Chorus: He whispers sweet peace to me.
He whispers sweet peace to me.
When I am cast down in spirit and soul,
He whispers sweet peace to me.

By: William M. Ramsay

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