Not Unto Death (John 11:1-6)

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I am a medical doctor by profession, and some time ago during the winter (flu) season, I was asked by a patient, “Doc, why don’t you get sick? After all, you see patients of various ages and with various bugs, who breathe all over you, especially as you look into their throats and examine them.” My honest answer was, “It is by the grace of God.”

It was not long after that encounter that God providentially brought a severe illness to my wife and I—one that was “not unto death” (though at one stage it seemed to be), but for the glory of God. As I shared some of the lessons I learned with one of my fellow elders at the church, he asked me to share those lessons with the church in the form of a sermon. This study is the result of that sermon.

Dengue Fever

By God’s grace, my wife and I were afforded the opportunity to make a relatively brief visit to India in order to visit with and minister to our aged parents—both physically and spiritually. It was a trip that would cost us, but we had little idea just how much.

The morning after we returned to South Africa, I was admitted to a local hospital for what I thought would be day. Indeed, since I run my own practice, I pleaded with the doctor on call to ensure that I would be released the following day, a request which he wisely ignored. I came out nine days later and a good several kilograms lighter. The eventual diagnosis was Dengue Fever (also known as Bone Break disease), which is found in India, South East Asia and South America. It is transmitted by a mosquito, which not found in Southern Africa.

My wife joined me two days into my admission and came out with me seven days later. I recall, quite childishly and foolishly, being quite excited at the news that my wife was going to join me in the ward!

The illness is characterised by very high fevers, body pains, rigors, pains in the eyes, and blood counts that drop so low that bleeding is a very real possible result. It is one of the viral haemorrhagic fevers. The textbooks say you might also develop fluid collections in the lungs and abdomen, and that your liver can become very inflamed. My wife, who seemed to have contracted a more severe strain of the sickness, did develop all those symptoms and signs.

During the course of our incarceration (that’s what it felt like), we had the opportunity to spend much time in prayer and contemplation, and had much to learn from God through His Word. We had the glorious privilege of being ministered to and to experience the love of Christ in a real way. We learned patience and trust in God.

My desire or burden for this study is to give you comfort in whatever illness or trial you may be experiencing (or will experience). Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, I wish to show you the great grace of God that is available to face such trials.

Setting the Scene

At this point in John’s narrative, Jesus had already encountered a good deal of opposition from the Jewish religious leaders. They had made it no secret that they intended to kill Him if He ever found Himself back in Judea.

While He was ministering elsewhere, He received word that His friend, Lazarus, was gravely ill in Bethany. Initially, He did not go to see Lazarus. Perhaps His disciples felt that this was a wise move, for Bethany was within walking distance of Jerusalem, and He had already been warned that His life would be in danger if He returned there. After two days, however, He told His disciples that it was time to return to Judea. Though undoubtedly somewhat reluctant, they decided to accompany Him, even if it meant facing death.

The story that follows is well-known to readers of the Bible. When Jesus arrived in Bethany, He found that Lazarus had already been dead and buried for four days. In order to display His authority over death, Jesus went to the tomb, ordered that the stone be rolled away from the entrance, and called Lazarus to come out. Obediently, Lazarus rose from the dead and came out of the tomb.

A study of the entire chapter is beyond our scope here, but the important thing to notice is that Lazarus’ illness and death were ordained by God for His glory and the glory of His Son. As Jesus said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 6).

Learning the Lessons

There are several important lessons that we must learn from this narrative, and I will mention some them as we continue our study.

The Reality of Sickness

We begin with a most basic principle: Humans—even true Christians—may become sick and suffer. Lazarus was one whom Jesus loved. He was a believer. His belief did not spare him the ravages of sickness and death.

Have you ever wondered why people get sick? In particular, have you wondered why Christians get sick? Although spiritually healed by Christ’s stripes, believers get sick. In our text, we find a man who was loved by God, and whose two sisters were also known as holy women, who was gravely ill. The Lord, who is sovereign over all things, could have prevented this had He chosen to do so, but He did not. He allowed Lazarus to be sick, in pain, weary, languishing and suffering, just like any other man.

I think you will agree that even Spirit-filled believers are not exempt from physical illnesses. The Bible simply does not teach that faith will spare you from all illness in this life.

What are the reasons for health problems in the life of the Christian? There are definite reasons and I want to share with you what I believe the Bible tells us about this.

First, note that illness occurs as a result of man’s original sin. Every person who dies from “natural causes” has been affected by a type of sickness. There is always something unnatural about the death of a person who was made in the image of God.

This sorrow is explained when understood in the context of Genesis 1—3. God created everything “good.” In the Garden of Eden there was no sickness, no deteriorating aging and no death. The cause of disease, aging and physical death is the disobedience of our original parents at the dawn of history. God then pronounced His ominous verdict to Adam: “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: Cursed is the ground for your sake. . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19).

Illness should remind us of the consequences of choosing independence from God. Although we are redeemed when we receive Christ as Saviour, we are not yet transported from this sin-cursed world. Our mortal bodies groan, anticipating our future glorified state (Romans 3:24-26; 8:23). Sickness is present because of the fall.

Second, sickness occurs because of God’s great love for us. The message that came to Jesus was simple: “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” (v. 3). No doubt there was a degree of surprise in their voices as they said “Behold.” But they ought not to have been surprised, for the man whom Jesus loved was nothing more than a man. It is the nature of man to suffer bodily ailments.

Spurgeon wrote on this text, “The love of Jesus does not separate us from the common necessities and infirmities of life. Men of God are still men. The covenant of Grace is not a charter of exemption from consumption or rheumatism or asthma.”

Let us learn from this, and not be surprised when we or those we love suffer illness.

Third, sickness is God’s way—or one of His ways—of speaking to our hearts. We should not be surprised at illness for we know that it can be God’s way of speaking to our hearts and of leading us on in the Christian life. It is often used by God for our good. The psalmist understood this when he wrote, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Psalm 119:71). Sickness helped him to love and understand the Scriptures. Let’s briefly consider some of the lessons that God may teach us as He speaks to our hearts through sickness.

Chastening

Illness may indicate that God is chastening His child. The Corinthian church gives us an example of God’s discipline. The believers there were misusing the Lord’s Table and hogging the food at their agape feasts. The apostle rebuked them and then warned, “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep [i.e. have died prematurely]. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:30-32).

These symptoms were intended to prompt the Corinthians to repent and treat one another—and the Lord’s Table—with respect.

We do well to use the occasion of illness to draw near to God and ask Him to search our hearts (Psalm 139:23, 24). “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

A word of caution, however: Only God (and perhaps the one who is ill) knows if a sickness is due to chastening. We shouldn’t presume that the illness is due to disobedience. This was the logic of Job’s “comforters.” They assumed his devastating losses—including the loss of his health—were due to his evil behaviour. God knew differently: “Then the LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil?’” (Job 1:8).

Sanctification

Is it not true that illness tends to draw our affections away from this world and to direct them to God? It sends us to our Bibles and teaches us to pray better. Both my wife and I prayed much during our hospitalisation, as did many of our fellow church members. Illness helps to prove our faith and patience and shows us the real value of our hope in Christ. It reminds us that we are not immortal and helps prepare our hearts for what is to come when we face the inevitable reality of the death of our mortal bodies.

The Glory of God and the Good of Others

We ought to also note that illness in us is sometimes used by God for the good of others and ultimately for His glory. For this reason we should also not be surprised. Isn’t this what Jesus meant when He said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4)? God was glorified in the miracle of resurrection that He performed. It strengthened His deity and the faith of those who already believed, and it caused some more to believe (vv. 45-46). And as God was glorified, it was for the good of others who witnessed this demonstration of glory.

If God is glorified by a Christian’s illness, then the illness is for God’s good and for the good of all those who see this particular demonstration of His glory.

Let us truly believe that the Lord loves us no less when we are sick than when we are well.

Our Response to Sickness

So you fall ill, or someone you know and love falls ill. What do you do? What did the sisters do? They sent Word to the Lord; in other words, they prayed.

Believers in every age do well to follow this example. Undoubtedly, when those we love are sick, we use diligently every means at our disposal for their recovery. We must spare no effort to obtain the best medical advice. We take our medications to help our bodies fight (and yes, that means completing your course of antibiotics, even though you are feeling better!). But in all our doing, we must never forget that the best, ablest and wisest helper, healer, and comforter is in heaven at God’s right hand. Like afflicted Job, our first action must be to fall on our knees and worship.

Let us never forget, in the hurry, excitement and turmoil that we may experience, that none can help like Him, and that He is merciful, loving and gracious.

I said earlier that the sisters prayed. Why do I say that? They brought the matter to Him. It is always good to bring our troubles before the Lord—in fact, not just our troubles, but everything.

Psalm 46:1 says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” I ask: Do you know Him as your refuge and strength? If you don’t, is it because you don’t perhaps know Him at all? Or do you know Him but do not trust Him enough?

Remember, we have a high priest in the Lord who is touched with the feeling of our infirmity. He is full of compassion, for when He was on earth, he, too, was acquainted with grief. He sympathises deeply with His people and invites them to pour out their anguish before Him.

What was the basis of the sisters’ prayer? Was it that they loved Him, or that Lazarus loved Him? No. What does the text say? “He whom You love.” They prayed on the basis of the love of Jesus for Lazarus. And it is on that basis that we can approach God.

He loved us from the start. He loved us in our sinful state. He loved us in that, while we were yet sinners, He died for us. He loved us faithfully when we were faithless. He loves us with an everlasting love as indeed only God can love. That was the basis for the sisters’ approach to Him. It is indeed the only grounds that any of us can ever have in approaching the Almighty.

Note how the sisters also came to the Lord: They came not seeking their own will, but rather the will of Jesus. They did not actually make a request, though a request was implied. They said, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” They indicated by the form of the statement that they were seeking His will as opposed to theirs in this matter.

I must ask you: Do you do that in your prayers? It is not so much the words you use as opposed to the desire of your heart. You would definitely like the trouble removed or the sick one healed, but is that your fundamental driving desire? Or is it that God’s will may be done regardless of the outcome?

I put it to you that it is only when we pray in the latter fashion that we are enabled to make our requests so known to God that the peace of God that passes all understanding keeps our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. And we do need this peace, because God does not always act in the way we think He should act, or when we think He should act.

Is this not patently clear from the story? Perhaps when Mary and Martha informed the Lord, they may have thought, “That’s it! Lazarus will be healed!” Perhaps they expected the Lord to come immediately. But what did He do? He waited for two days. He arrived in Bethany a full four days after their brother’s death.

You see, Jesus may be informed of our trouble and yet act as though He were indifferent to it. We learn that prayer for the sick may not be answered—at least, not in the way we think it should. No, the comfort in our prayers is not in the fact that Jesus always answers them as we wish, for He does not. The comfort is that He, who made us and controls all circumstances, knows best and is able to direct even sickness and death to His glory.

Another fact from the text that emerges can be summarised as follows: Christ knows best, at what time to do anything for His people. Again, the Lord did not immediately rush off to Bethany when He heard the sisters’ report of Lazarus’ illness. He loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus, but when he heard that Lazarus was sick He stayed where He was for two days.

At first glance does this not cause some tension in you? John tells us that Jesus loved them, but in the next breath, reports that He delayed His coming. We would probably have rushed off. When I am told as a doctor that I have a sick patient to see, I hardly wait two days to see the patient? And yet our text seems to indicate that it was precisely because Jesus loved these siblings that He delayed His arrival.

Have you ever experienced God’s delay in answering your prayers, showing you the path you should take, removing a difficulty, or healing an affliction? Does God delay? Yes He does, but always for a purpose. What might those purposes be?

First, His delays are because of love. Christ’s delays are the delays of love. Jesus stayed where He was because He loved them. We can’t comprehend this for we cannot see the end from the beginning as God can; thus, we don’t see how these delays contribute to an overall plan. But remember, He knows the end.

It is also hard to see clearly through the grief that we may have, or through the tears that we bear. Though we may not know how the situation will end or why it has come upon us, we can know for certain that it flows from the love of Christ and is controlled by it. The delays are always delays of love.

Second, observe that His delays are purposeful. There are reasons for His delays. Love is the ultimate reason, and that love has a purpose.

We are right to seek purposes in God’s delays. It would be presumptuous to pretend to be able to say always and in detail what God’s purposes are for His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts, but we can look for purposes.

One such purpose would be to mould our errant wills to conform to His perfect will. Is it not the case that, when God answers us immediately, we may rush on to formulate our plans for whatever comes next? In contrast, when God delays, we are moved to ask, “Am I right in this? Is this according to God’s will? Do I have more to learn on this?” We begin to seek His will more.

Third, delays often serve to strengthen our faith. Our faith cannot grow much if we always get an immediate response, though we think it would. In fact, our faith grows when we are forced to wait, trusting that God knows what He is doing and that He will fulfil His promises to us eventually and in the proper time.

Fourth, God delays in order to glorify Himself. He uses delays to bring honour and glory to His own name and to the name of His Son. In this case He was glorified as His Son was glorified in a few different ways. The primary way in which the Son was glorified was in the resurrection of Lazarus, after being dead for four days and starting to decompose. God displayed His might. Had He gone immediately to heal Lazarus, would it have been as powerful a demonstration as raising a stinking decomposing body?

To summarise God’s delays, we might say, as someone has said, that we must “learn to interpret circumstances by the love of Christ and not Christ’s love by circumstances.” Christ’s delays are the delays of love and therefore should be interpreted by love. If we do it the other way round we will be very far from understanding the circumstances and we may even question the love of God.

Start with Christ’s love. Say, “I know that Christ loves me. He died for me. Therefore I will do my best to see His purposes in the things that are happening.” As you do that, you will begin to interpret circumstances in the light of His love, and as God gives you light, you will begin to see how He is using those circumstances in your life to perfect your will, strengthen your faith and bring glory to His wonderful name.

The Object Lessons

My wife and I learned some important object lessons during our illness.

Dependence, Faith and Trust

First, we learned dependence, faith and trust in God for various things. In this particular instance, we learned to trust him for a number of things.

In the first place, we learned to trust Him for healing. This was a good lesson for me to learn as a doctor. We do not know everything, but God does. As a doctor, I cannot heal, but God can. He can heal viral infections. He knows the diagnoses when symptoms are confusing or absent. He knows what is wrong when it is unfamiliar to us. He does not rely on tests.

My mother was also a medical doctor, and I can recall seeing her pray on numerous occasions for her patients. When I was younger, I wondered why that was the case. After all, she was a medical professions with adequate knowledge of how to treat her patients. But she understood what I back then did not: Only God can heal.

In the second place, I learned to rely on God for provision. When I went to India, I had arranged to a stand-in doctor for the duration of my brief visit. When I was unable to return to work as planned, I must admit that there was concern. I had (paying) patients to see and I had obviously not arranged for an extended stand-in. I had to trust God to provide.

Further, my wife and I learned to trust God for provision of food. Obviously, my wife was unable to prepare meals for the family, but after our release we were provided for amply by our church family. We waited with great excitement each day to see what dish the Lord would provide for us, and were treated to culinary journey that took us around the world.

Also, we learned to trust God for fellowship. The amount of visits and assurances via text message and phone call of prayer was greatly encouraging. It was much needed, and God provided it exactly when it was required.

The love of Christ

We also learned faith in the love of Christ. Once again, the phone calls, text messages and visits, both to us and to our two children at home, were a very real object lesson of the truth that the love of Christ is the tie that binds us together. We felt the myriad of prayers offered up for us. We were inundated with offers of help for the children, for help at my practice, and for transport for post-release checkups. When my blood count dropped dangerously low, there was even an offer from a church member of blood! The offers were so numerous that we and our children had to refuse many of them.

We were blessed in the hospital with a beautiful bouquet of flowers from our Grace Group. In fact, my wife was asleep when the flowers were delivered, and when she awoke to find the flowers at the foot of her bed, she later told me that she thought she had been transported to heaven! I know something of what she experienced in that moment, for one afternoon I awoke to find a hearse parked right outside my window!

In the fourth place, we learned of the glory of God revealed to others. During our time in hospital, I received the following text message from my daughter:

Dad, we are very blessed to be a part of BBC. It is amazing to be a part of a church where God’s love is displayed. I have spent a large amount of time replying to people’s messages and refusing offers of help. We are very blessed. Do not worry about your work, or even the people who are sick and who will need your help. God will provide. I love you and mom very much. Please when she comes back [she had gone for x-rays], assure her of my prayers and the prayers of others.

The recurring theme in that message is God.

Those who did see us in hospital, and even after we were discharged and were recovering at home, testified to the greatness of God in how He delivered us surely from the state that we were in.

Waiting on God

A final lesson we learned was about patience and waiting upon God. I was in a hurry to get back to work. As I said, upon admission I was already negotiating, in my delirium, with the doctor to release me the next day so that I could be at work. I was concerned about my not being there and the ramifications it would have on us financially. I run a solo practice and it is my livelihood. Further, as a doctor develops a personal relationship with his patients, they would often rather not see the locum in the doctor’s absence. But as I realised that I was not getting there in a hurry, I was infused with a sense of peace (that could only have come from the Holy Spirit), realising that I needed to—and could—trust my Father in heaven, who had allowed this to happen and whose plans for me are good and not evil. I believe He was glorified as I was able to acknowledge Him as being who He truly is. I was then truly able to say: God is good to us all the time.

And you?

I don’t know what you are going through right now—what illness, chronic or acute, what difficulty, what trial. You may be saying, “I understand from this story that the ills of this life are no accident for the one who is a true child of God, and I am pleased that God, who knows the future and who loves me, is the one who has allowed this. But it is still hard to suffer.”

Yes, it is always hard to suffer. But the Lord Jesus Christ went through it all before us. He asks us to suffer. Indeed He sometimes ordains it. But He does not ask us to do anything that He has not done first. Nor does He ask us to suffer without at the same time promising to go with us through the testing. The fact that He has done it is an encouragement. He died, yet rose again triumphantly. He suffered, for you and me, but triumphed gloriously.

And so shall those who have placed their trust in Him. Your present sickness—whatever it may be—is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it.

I leave you with this: If you do not know in your heart and have not confessed that you are a sinner before a holy God, in need of a Saviour, and have not confessed that that Saviour is the Lord Jesus Christ, you cannot know the peace and joy that can accompany you in your trials and that fact that the outcome, determined by God, is for good.

If you have not trust Christ, do so now.

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, as the One who alone has delivered you because of His person and work, then you can, in spite of whatever you are facing, say meaningfully, as Horatio Spafford wrote in the face of great tribulation, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul.’”

It is my prayer that, looking to the cross of Jesus Christ and trusting in His person and works, you will be able to say indeed, “It is well with my soul.”