How has the Covid pandemic tested you? Are you someone who loves being at home and has gotten so comfortable there that you have stopped visiting with your friends, even on your phone? Or, has staying home caused you anxiety and stress, interrupting your sleep and affecting your relationships? One way or the other, we have all been tested for far longer than we imagined. But some of us have been weathered longer periods in different ways, with chronic pain, relationship conflicts, work issues, or economic difficulties, to name a few problems. For us, an eight-month pandemic may add to our challenges or stimulate us to invoke familiar coping mechanisms. But, tests of faithfulness in Christ are different, in that the only coping strategy is to lean on him, trusting his plans and the Spirit’s guidance. For this last devotion on the spiritual fruit of faithfulness, I will concentrate on the way God tests our faithfulness to strengthen it, bring others to faith, and glorify himself. May we willingly submit to God’s trials to strengthen our faith in Christ, for his glory and the benefit of others.
The passage today is very familiar to Christians and many who have only skimmed the Bible. However, the story of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus can be confusing for those who do not know the heart of God in Jesus Christ. After receiving the message that Lazarus was seriously ill from women that he loved dearly, Jesus chose to remain in Bethany for two days. Let’s focus on the three elements in the account: when Jesus received a message but chose to wait, when he spoke to his disciples about waiting, and when he told Martha to move the stone from Lazarus’s tomb. Jesus received a message that Lazarus was very ill. “But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’ Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was… Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him…Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb…Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’” (John 11:4-6, 14-15, 38-40) “[Jesus] was glad because he knew that he would raise Lazarus. He was glad because he knew that the resurrection would result in a strengthening of the faith of many…The faith of the disciples was to be strengthened…The faith of Martha and Mary was to be strengthened…Indeed, many who at that time did not even have faith were to come to it as a result of this dramatic resurrection.” (1)
“…when Jesus…said, ‘This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it…’” we would expect him to find Lazarus recovering. But instead, Lazarus was dead and buried in his tomb by the time Jesus met Mary and Martha. However, we who know the end of the story know that Lazarus was dead for only a short period. By his supernatural physical resurrection, Jesus was most certainly glorified. (2) Then he made this bold statement to his disciples, apparently after the two-day wait, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” And it seems that he may have waited to tell them this after the two-day wait (see v. 14). What a test of faith this must have been for his disciples! They questioned him and seemed to believe that Lazarus was in a coma of some type. (See vs. 12-13.) Wouldn’t we think the same if our mentor said the man wouldn’t die and then said he did die? (And how did Jesus know that he died? Did he receive a message or use his omniscience?) Putting ourselves in the disciples’ place, wouldn’t we also question Jesus’s love for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha?
James Boice brings us a biblical viewpoint on Jesus’s delay. “Christ’s delays are the delays of love, then they are not the delays of indifference. He does not delay because he does not care…they are [also] not the product of a preoccupation on Christ’s part. That is, he does not delay his answer because he is too busy to deal with our problem…His delays are purposeful. Love has a purpose. Therefore, we are right to seek purposes in God’s delays…For instance, one of the goals reached by God through his delays is that of molding our errant wills to conform to his perfect will. When God answers us immediately, it often is the case that we then rush on to formulate our own plans for whatever comes next. When God delays, by contrast, we are forced to ask, ‘Am I right in what I am trying to do? Do I have the will of the Lord on this matter? Does he have more to teach or tell me than I have heard?’…Another of God’s purposes in delays is to strengthen faith. Our faith does not grow much if we always get an immediate response…rather, our faith grows when we are forced to wait, trusting that God knows what he is doing and that he will fulfill his promises toward us eventually and in the proper time.” (3)
Having all of Scripture in our arsenal, we can appreciate Boice’s comments that “Death could not exist in the presence of Jesus. There is no indication anywhere in Scripture that Jesus ever met a dead person and failed to raise him…Jesus never met a funeral that he did not stop. In fact, I would be willing to state that he never came across an illness of any kind without making the situation right. So he was always glad. As here, he could rejoice at the outcome.” (4) But, that was when Jesus was proving his identity as the Son of God through these signs, so we cannot assume that Jesus will continue to heal everyone physically today. However, he does heal spiritually, through reconciliation with God, when he calls us to have faith in him. Our faithfulness is the fruit of this regeneration and grows as we mature. God tests us to strengthen it and bring others to faith, as he did with his disciples, Martha, Mary, most certainly Lazarus, along with “Many of the Jews…who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, [and] believed in him.” (John 11:45) When we submit to God’s trials and tests, when our faith is strengthened to trust him in unfamiliar circumstances, he is glorified, and others are spiritually affected.
Perhaps we have serious doubts about God doing the impossible. Maybe we are like Martha, who said, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” (John 11:39) Although we know Christ as the sovereign God of all creation, our trust in him is shaky. Oswald Chambers wrote: “Every time you venture out in your life of faith, you will find something in your circumstances that, from a commonsense standpoint, will flatly contradict your faith. But common sense is not faith, and faith is not common sense. In fact, they are as different as the natural life and the spiritual. Can you trust Jesus Christ where your common sense cannot trust Him?…When my strength runs dry and my vision is blinded, will I endure this trial of my faith victoriously or will I turn back in defeat? Faith must be tested, because it can only become your intimate possession through conflict. What is challenging your faith right now? The test will either prove your faith right, or it will kill it…There is continual testing in the life of faith up to the point of our physical death, which is the last great test.” (5) “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’” (Hebrews 3:14-15)
- Boice, James, Boice Expositional Commentary Series, John 11:38-44, Baker Books, Software version, 1998.
- Boice, Ibid—For further study of how Jesus was glorified through Lazarus’s resurrection, see Boice’s commentary on John 11:4, titled “A Sickness Not Unto Death.”
- Boice, Ibid.
- Boice, Ibid.
- Chambers, Oswald, “My Utmost for His Highest: The Unsurpassed Intimacy of Tested Faith,” 8/29, https://utmost.org
October 30, 2020