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Monday, April 24, 2017

John Was Not Surprised

Once in a while the force of an expression gets a little buried in translation. Take this verse, for example:

“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.”

Here are two related statements tied together with the word “so”. First, we are told that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Next, we are told that Jesus deliberately took his time going to see someone he loved who was seriously ill.

The word “so” might seem an odd way to connect these two ideas.

Er ... That Doesn’t Quite Follow

After all, the second statement does not follow naturally from the first. Genuine love usually expresses itself in concern and a sense of urgency. If I love you and hear you are ill, all things being equal I will probably get myself in gear and go see how you are doing. If I happen to have the means of curing you of your illness at my disposal, I will certainly make haste to do so.

This being the case, the natural, normal way to associate two such apparently contradictory statements would be with words like “despite this”, “but” or “yet”.

And yet this is not how the apostle John tells his story. Looking back at the circumstances surrounding the death and resurrection of Lazarus with the 20/20 spiritual hindsight available to apostles when penning the very words of God, John expresses no surprise at his Master’s actions.

If the apostle had wanted to draw attention to the incongruity between Jesus’ affection for Lazarus and his delay in going to see him, he could easily have used any number of Greek conjunctions to suggest it. After all, the word “but” occurs in John’s gospel 199 times. Just not here. This is no accident.

Here, John observes no disconnect between Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his family, and his delay in responding to their urgent need. So he uses a Greek word that really has the force of a “therefore”.

Getting All Technical-Like

Excuse me if I get technical for a moment:

The word translated “so” in my ESV is in Greek oûn, which the King James Version usually translates as “therefore” (263 times) or “then” (197 times). The particle indicates that what comes after it follows necessarily from what has come before it. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says it is “confirmatory or continuative” and that it is used in “drawing a conclusion and in connecting sentences together logically”. Vine’s calls it “a particle expressing sequence or consequence”.

(Full disclosure: the KJV New Testament does translates oûn as “but” five times, but even a cursory examination shows that in each of these five cases the words “then” or “therefore” would have given the sense as well or better.)

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that John wants us to draw here: Jesus’ love for his friends expressed itself by delaying to fix their problem. And John was not surprised.

Pain ... um ... Hurts

I hate pain. Pain hurts. Grief and loss are miserable things that exist only because of sin. In and of themselves, they have no value at all. But in the hands of the Lord Jesus, pain, grief and loss become tools to fan faith into life and exhibit it to the world; and faith is not just pleasing to God and a means of accomplishing his will, it is also of immense benefit to the person who possesses it.

That is to say, it’s worth the pain.

We should observe that Jesus did not cause Lazarus to die, illness did. Even the Lord’s two-day delay had no bearing on his death. We can see from verse 17 that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been in the grave four days already. The sisters sent word to the Lord that Lazarus was ill, but he did not receive the news until after Lazarus had already died. In order to prevent the death and the grief it caused, the Lord would have had to anticipate his illness prior to being told about it and return to Judea as much as a week earlier. Not impossible, of course, but it would have been a different sort of miracle entirely.

So the Lord was not being unkind: the two days he delayed on the other side of the Jordan River didn’t change anything for Lazarus and his sisters; they did nothing except establish beyond any doubt that Lazarus was well and truly deceased. That, and they allowed the maximum number of mourners to be on the scene to witness what he intended to do and benefit from it.

Love That Never Fails

We must remember that when John tells us that Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he is not describing mere affection. There was nothing fleeting, trivial or merely emotional about the love of Jesus Christ for anyone.

Paul’s famous description of love in 1 Corinthians is often quoted at weddings. While this is not necessarily inappropriate, I note the apostle doesn’t say that love never hurts its object. The love he describes is exceedingly robust. It is made for a sinful world, for bad times and bad outcomes. If we are to love like Paul did, we should observe that his own love was sufficiently sturdy to bounce back from stonings and all manner of physical abuse and propel him right back into the service of God. And if we are to talk about the love of Christ, we are moving to another level of love entirely.

A love of this sort is not merely interested in physical health and momentary happiness for those upon whom it has permanently and irrevocably fixed itself. It bears, believes, hopes and endures. It never fails. And it teaches others to love in precisely the same way.

What Love Produced

I think because the Lord loved Mary and Martha, he tested and stretched their faith almost-but-not-quite to the breaking point. In doing so, he shared with them his own distress over a fallen world, and a tiny fraction of the sorrow that he felt daily. He was, after all, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And Jesus wept. He wept with greater love for Lazarus than either of his sisters would ever possess, knowing more about death than they would ever know, having already done more for their brother than they themselves could ever do, and just about to do so much more. “Look and see,” says the prophet, “if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” He entered into their grief, and maybe — just maybe — for a few precious moments they entered into his.

Further, because he loved Mary and Martha, he drew their faith out where it could be seen and imitated by others. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and “Even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you,” and “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” and to top it all off, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” That’s faith, and it was exhibited to the disciples. Mary says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and she says it in front of a group of Jewish mourners who have followed her to where the Lord was. John comments, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.” Mary said less than Martha, but it was Mary’s faith that drew the crowd to the tomb.

Finally, because he loved Mary and Martha, he shared with them and with everyone present that day a little taste of the joy that is to come when his loved ones follow him in glorious resurrection. It could only be a little taste: Lazarus would go into the ground again one day, this time for more than a few days. But what a taste it was!

Tell me: should the Lord have subjected anyone BUT those he loved to such a thing? Who among the intimate acquaintances of the Lord was better equipped to respond in faith and to share in what the Lord himself was experiencing?

John Was Not Surprised

Okay, so maybe the youthful John was just a little surprised when the Lord delayed to go to Bethany despite the urgent plea of those he loved, though he doesn’t tell us that. In all probability John wrote this chapter of his gospel over 30 years after the original events. The story he tells would not be measurably enhanced had John shared more with us about his own reactions. And if we were to try reconstructing the other disciples’ reactions from the text, we’d find them more concerned about the danger of being stoned by the Jews in Judea than about Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Thomas had to rally the troops with “Let us also go, that we may die with him” in order to get the disciples on the road.

But the older, more experienced John knew Jesus well enough to know that loving someone very deeply doesn’t mean doing exactly what the world around you might expect. In this case, love delayed. And sometimes the Lord appears to delay his response when you pray, or when I do. He does so for reasons we know nothing about, but always with the very best of purposes in view, and with the goal that we might experience his love more deeply and more fully, just as Mary, Martha and Lazarus did.

You and I might find that surprising. John didn’t.

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