You Raised Him to Life

By David Ney

Lazarus died. No. No. I don’t mean that. He got sick. I know. Mary and Martha sent for Jesus. Jesus tarried. Lazarus died. I know he died. But that’s not what I’m talking about. He died. Do you know how I know he died? I know he died because he’s no longer with us. The oldest person in the world has made it a few years past 100. Lazarus lived 2,000 years ago. He died.

I met a man once, in my church. And he died. No. No. That’s not the point. Let me explain. He was a missionary who got sick while he was in the field. Real sick. Cancer. So he came home from the mission field. And then one day they did some tests on him. And the cancer was gone. A miracle. God had saved him from the power of death. And he came to my church and he testified about how God had saved him from the power of death. It was a miracle. Then a few months later he got sick again, cancer; and he died.

So the problem with miracles is that death remains. It continues to kill. It continues to kill even those whom Jesus has already miraculously healed; even those he has miraculously raised from the dead. Why, Jesus? Why did you bother to heal at all? I mean, when you healed, you knew didn’t you? You knew that you were just postponing the inevitable. I mean, you healed them this time round. But what about next time? What about next time, when they get sick and you aren’t around? And neither is anyone else with your gift of healing. And they die. But you haven’t solved the problem, just by healing them.

Yes, Jesus. I know. It was your compassion. When you saw Mary weeping, “and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:32). And then you asked them where they had laid Lazarus to rest, and they asked you to come and see. You wept. And you were deeply moved, and you went to the tomb. And you raised Lazarus from the dead. And in so doing you spared Mary and Martha and the others sorrow upon sorrow. But within a matter of weeks, Lazarus’s life was again on the line. The chief priests began to conspire about how they could put him to death. And maybe they even succeeded in putting him to death. I don’t know. But even if they didn’t, Lazarus only had a matter of time before he slipped away, one final time. Yes, Jesus, I know it was your compassion. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure they appreciated the extra time they had together with Lazarus, even if it was just a few months. But if it was your compassion, then why didn’t you just raise Lazarus to immortality? Why did you have to let him die again? The sorrow you took from Mary and Martha you gave back to them. Lazarus died. A second time. And when he died a second time you weren’t there to raise him. You took death from him, but then you gave it back. So why take it away in the first place? Why did you bother to raise Lazarus from the dead?

All of this is true. True, that is, if what we have in John chapter 11 is a miracle. A miracle is a blip on the radar, a moment when the regular course of nature is suspended for a moment or two, but only a moment or two before it falls back in place. It is appropriate to ask the simple question: “Why?” “To what end?” Immediate respite, of course. There’s a problem and the miracle fixes it. God, out of his abundant compassion, is pleased to fix it. Granted. But the miracle doesn’t eradicate the problem. The cancer that was healed may one day come back. The heart that starts beating again will one day stop.

Every miracle seems to us to be an isolated incident. And as an isolated incident is extremely limited in what it can accomplish. It is bounded, constrained, and it disappoints. But its boundedness is an uneasy boundedness. It is a boundedness that fights against itself. The miracle wants to stretch out its hands. It wants to reach outside of itself, send tentacles out into the world in search of answers. If you see a miracle, you can acknowledge it, and then go about your business as you did before. Unfazed, as it were. How many people actually experience miracles? And how many are actually transformed by these experiences? I get worried about this. Because I think this may, in fact, be the most common human response to miracles. Common, but odd. Because if you stop to think about the miracle for only a moment you will be confronted by the miracle. You will not be able to avoid the fact that the miracle is asking you questions. It is placing demands on you. And if you listen for only a moment, the questions will become your questions. “Was it real? What was it? Who caused it? What does it mean?” “What kind of man is this, even the winds and the waves obey him?”

The person who refuses to acknowledge these questions is doing all they can either to deny the miracle or to make sure that the miracle stays a miracle. He or she has therefore decided to live with the disappointment. The disappointment of knowing that that remarkable thing that happened was only a blip on the radar. The disappointment of knowing that the illness will one day return. The disappointment of knowing that death will one day have the final say.

But the person who acknowledges the miracle will be led by the miracle in search of answers. The miracle doesn’t possess these answers, or if it does, it doesn’t have the ability to vocalize them. That’s why you can see a miracle and continue on with life as usual. That’s why many have seen miracles and continued on with life as usual. That’s why so many saw Jesus’ miracles and yet continued in their unbelief. They refused to pause to consider the questions the miracle raised. They saw the miracle but they refused to be led by the miracle. And so, for them, the miracles were just miracles. And Jesus became for them just another miracle worker. Something shifts, though, when you let the miracle lead you where it wants you to go. You are forced to acknowledge that it isn’t just a miracle. Rather it is a sign. It is a sign, and that means it is in search of signification.

“I did one miracle (ergon, work),” Jesus said to them, “and you were all amazed” (John 7:21). The people saw the miracle, and they were impressed; but they did not see the miracle for what it was, they refused to be led by the miracle to ask the questions, and Jesus rebukes them for it. He rebukes them for their unbelief. For the unbelieving, Jesus’ works are just miracles. John, though, the authorized theological interpreter of the life of Jesus, doesn’t call the works of Jesus miracles. He calls them signs. And depending on which modern interpreter you go with, you might say that there are seven, or eight, great signs that Jesus performs in the book of John. One of which is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. According to John the theologian, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead was not a miracle; it was a sign; but what does it signify?

“Lord, to whom shall we go?” asks Peter (John 6:68). But that is just it. We don’t need to go anywhere. The signification of the sign is there, right there, in the one who performed the sign. The answer is there, right in front of our eyes. Your miracles, Jesus, are signs, signs that lead us to you. The sign is not the light. It came to testify to the light. And it says, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). “Even though you do not believe me,” Jesus says, “believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38). I see the man stumble out of the tomb. Wrapped in burial clothes. But I’m not looking at that man. I’m looking at you. And I’m compelled to ask, with your disciples, “What kind of man is this?” “We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him” (John 12:10-11).

John Chrysostom often complained that the people coming into his congregation were spiritually immature; he’s the only pastor to have ever complained in this way. But he did. He complained they were bogged down by fleshly attachment to physical things. And he believed that the root of the problem was the manner in which they came to the Christian faith. They had come to faith as witnesses of miracles that had been wrought in their midst. In other words, Chrysostom believed that a carnal conversion experience leads to a carnal Christian life. It seems to me, though, that when you come to Christ on the basis of his works you are doing exactly what the works are asking you to do. You are acknowledging them as what they are. Signs that find their signification in Christ, the Word made flesh.

“The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). But that’s not what words do. Words denotate, they connotate, they speak. They don’t become anything. And they certainly don’t become flesh. That is, unless they speak by becoming flesh. “In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” You spoke, Jesus, when you came and dwelt among us. You spoke when you changed the water into wine at Cana, the first sign. You spoke when you healed the royal official’s son at Capernaum, the second sign. You spoke when you healed the paralytic in Bethesda, the third sign. You spoke when you fed the 5,000 in the wilderness, the fourth sign. You spoke when you walked on the Sea of Galilee, the fifth sign. You spoke when you healed the man blind, the sixth sign. And you spoke when you raised Lazarus from the dead, the seventh sign. Because you are the incarnate Word.

“All your works praise you, O Lord.” And they do not all praise you in the same way in the brute fact of created existence. They praise you and testify to you by speaking different words. Your work of raising Lazarus from the dead speaks, and it speaks in its own way. It is a sign. And it finds its signification in you, O Lord. And your word written is what guides us to understand how it finds its specific signification in you. Some have thought that your raising of Lazarus from the dead speaks in its own way as sign number seven and that it completes the seventh day of creation in what it speaks. “A man,” says Augustine, “was raised up by the one who made humankind. He is the only one of the Father by whom, as you know, all things were made. And if all things were made by him, why is anyone amazed that one was raised by him when so many are daily brought into the world by his power? It is a greater deed to create men and women than to raise them again from the dead. Yet he decided both to create and to raise again” (Augustine, Tractate 21).

So, for Augustine, the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead is a sign because it signifies Jesus’ identity as creator, and it signifies that he has, as creator, the power to redeem creation from death. But what does it mean for Jesus to have power over death? Lazarus died. Jesus may well have shown his power over death this once, but death would again have the upper hand. The signification of the sign is right there, in the one who performed the sign. But what does it mean, Jesus, for me, to say that you have power over death when I know full well that death will one day show its power over me? “Take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).

Answers. We must search the Scriptures for answers. And when we search the Scriptures we cannot help but be led by you into Jerusalem. Into the temple. To the table. Up the mountain. To the trial. To the crucifixion. But that’s just it. You said, in your work of raising Lazarus from the dead, that you have power over death. Why, then, did you allow death to show its power over you? If you had conquered death, why did death conquer you? Led by the Scriptures into Jerusalem. Into the temple. To the table. Up the mountain. To the trial. To the crucifixion. Into death. And to the resurrection. On the mountain, you prayed, “Father if you are willing, take this cup from me.” But God was not willing. He did not take the cup from you. Because there was no other way. You had to descend to the dead in order to conquer death. And in order to be raised to life. So that we too might be raised to life. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death.”

“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you”; “‘till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood” (Psalm 73). I had been looking your raising of Lazarus from the dead as a miracle, as a brute fact which signifies nothing. But when I was led by you to Jerusalem. Into the temple. To the table. Up the mountain. To the trial. To the crucifixion. Into death. And to the resurrection. I entered into your sanctuary, and I saw that your raising of Lazarus from the dead is a sign that finds its signification in you. And you are the resurrected one. And your resurrection speaks.

It tells us that though we ask God to take this cup from us he is not willing to do so. For we too must enter into death in order to find new life. It also tells us that as we enter into it we have no reason to fear death, for death holds no power over us. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55-57). “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).

Lazarus died. He lived a few more months, or years, or even decades. And then he died. By the mercy of God, he died. By his mercy, God said, “He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). For if he had lived forever he would have lived forever in a unregenerate state; without God; and without hope in the world. God asked Lazarus to take the same journey he asks all of us to take. Because he loves us. And because there is no other way. I see now, Jesus. It was your compassion that raised Lazarus to life. And it was this same compassion that allowed him to experience death. Because for him, in you, and in your resurrection, his death was his path to you. You raised him to life. And you let him die. All of your works praise you, O Lord. Not just some. All.

When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart.
and my portion forever (Ps. 73).

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada.

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