The Difference Between Eternal Life And Eternal Breath

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John 11:17-27

At first, John 11 seems to be a simple—but miraculous—passage that needs little explanation: Jesus visits an old friend whom he loves and raises him from the dead. What is there to be confused about?

Well, first, when Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha that “the one [he] loves is sick,” he waits for two days before travelling to them. Why? The scripture tells us he waits because “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. But if Jesus loved them, why would he wait two days? Wouldn’t he go right away?

Then, in John 11:33 we are told that Jesus’ spirit was deeply troubled when he saw Mary and her comforters crying. Why would Jesus become troubled? The crowds believe Jesus is troubled because of his love for Lazarus.  But Jesus had told the disciples that Lazarus’ “sickness [would] not end in death.” So he knew that Lazarus would be raised from the dead. Yet as soon as they reached the tomb, Jesus began to weep. Why?

Next, Jesus tells Martha that he is “the resurrection and the life.” Typically each word means something in the gospel of John—Jesus doesn’t repeat himself. But what’s the difference between resurrection and life?

Finally, when Jesus orders the stone of Lazarus’ tomb to be rolled away, Martha resists. She worries that opening the tomb will release a terrible smell. Yet in this same chapter, Martha confesses that Jesus is the Christ. Given this faith, why would she doubt him after such a great show of faith?

Suddenly, we see that this story has become more complex. We know that Jesus loved Lazarus—the scripture tells us that—and we know that Jesus raised him from the dead—the scripture tells us that as well—but we do not know why. To learn the answer to this one question, we must answer the four other questions noted above. And to answer these four questions, we must first understand the context behind the story.

Lazarus’ resurrection is actually more than a miracle—it is a sign. What is the difference? A miracle draws attention to itself; a sign redirects attention to something greater and deeper than itself.

In John, there are seven signs:

[John 2:1-11] Jesus turns water into wine

[John 4:43-54] Jesus heals the son of an official

❸ [John 5:1-14] Jesus helps the paralyzed man walk

[John 6:1-14] Jesus feeds the 5,000

[John 6:16-21] Jesus walks on water

[John 9:1-12] Jesus restores the sight of a blind man

The seventh sign is Lazarus’ resurrection—a sign which foreshadows Christ’s own death and resurrection. Several of the phrases within this passage are shared with the scriptural account of Christ’s own death and resurrection. For example, Jesus asks Mary, “Where have you laid him?” This is echoed in Mary Magdalene’s question to Jesus on Easter morning: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

Furthermore, the story of Lazarus rests in the very middle of John. The center of John would be verse 27: ‘Yes, Lord,’ she replied, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.’” This is Martha’s response when Jesus says, in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Do you believe this? Are you able to affirm with Martha that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world?” This is the ideal Christian response; a response that many of the characters in the gospel of John do not make due to their blindness.

Blindness is a common theme in the gospel of John. In John, everyone says what they think is true, but they are almost always wrong. Nicodemus, for example, tells Jesus that he and several other teachers of Israel have concluded that he must have come from God. Jesus rebukes him, saying essentially:

“You can’t know that! Only the one who has been reborn can know the kingdom of God!”

The disciples show that they are blind when they speak with Jesus about Lazarus.

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up,” Jesus said.

Like something out of a comedy sketch, the disciples completely misunderstand.

“Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better,” the disciples say.

Jesus has to explain that Lazarus is dead. Even then, the disciples are confused. They mention that Jesus was recently almost stoned to death in Judea. Why would he wish to return? Does he wish to risk being stoned again? Thomas resolves, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Not only are the disciples deaf to Jesus’ words, but they are deaf to their own hearts: they do not know that they will abandon Christ when the time comes to die with him.

We are also blind; witness how Jesus’ decision to wait before visiting Mary and Martha puzzles us. We do not yet fully understand that love is not the decision to do what people ask of us as soon as they ask it! Love is to do the will of God in every situation rather than the will of human beings. God has created (and continuously supports) every human being; he knows what ails them and how to cure this ailment.

Jesus waits because he “only does what he sees his father doing.” If God tells him to wait, then Jesus waits. He knows that this will not end in death; it will end in glory.

Glory is another word that we don’t understand.

When we think about glory, we often think about people in a contemporary worship service with their eyes closed and their hands waving in the air as their bodies sway back and forth. But this isn’t glory. Glory is the character of God being revealed in Christ’s victory over death through death. Scripture does not say that Christ overcomes death by being resurrected; he overcomes it by dying.

Glory is not a worship session; it is Christ on the cross.

When we mirror Christ into the world by dying to ourselves in Christ; when we care in his name for those who can offer us nothing; when we share our bread with those who have none, with him as our host; when we visit those who are in prison because we long to see him; we are revealing the glory of God. We are performing the one duty God has created us to do.

God directs Jesus to visit Mary and Martha four days after Lazarus was buried—so he did.

He arrives on the fourth day. Any Jewish person in Jesus’ day could tell you that the soul leaves the body after three days. The fourth day would be the day of no hope. If Jesus returned even on the third day, Lazarus’ soul would still be in his body; a resuscitation, while miraculous, might be conceivable. Yet Jesus arrives on the day when any recovery is impossible.

“If you had been here,” Martha insists, “my brother would not have died!”

Jesus does not reply to her immediate question. Rather, he answers a deeper question that Martha had not even considered.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says.

“Resurrection” and “life.” Aren’t these words the same? Well, it depends on the speaker.

When we say “life”, we think of Genesis 2:7 (where “God forms man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”) or Ezekiel 37:9-10 (where God instructs Ezekiel to prophesy the restoration of breath to dry bones). Life, for us, is the ability to breathe: if we cannot breathe, then we are not alive. In other words, when we say “life,” then, we actually mean “breath”.

Most of us who come to Jesus are seeking eternal breath. The Roman Centurion asks Jesus to restore his slave’s breath. Mary and Martha beg Jesus to restore Lazarus’ breath. Even today, most of us turn to Jesus when we are faced with the possibility of no longer breathing.

But when Jesus says “life”, he means more than just “breath”.

Just as the restoration of the blind man’s sight pointed to something greater than seeing (spiritual sight) and the feeding of the 5,000 pointed to something greater than bread (Christ as the bread of life), the resurrection of Lazarus is intended to point to something greater than “breath”—but what?

Jesus says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

For Jesus, “life” always means his life—the life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Divine life.

This is why Jesus refers to breathing people as already being dead. Although they have breath, they do not have life, and without life, they are already dead. The proof of this comes when we cease breathing: we die. If our life was in Christ, this wouldn’t be the case. After all, “whoever believes in [Jesus], though he die, yet shall he live.”

When Jesus cries, the crowd mistakenly believes he is crying over Lazarus’ loss of breath.

“See how he loved him!” The crowds exclaim. But, as we have already learned, the crowds in John are always mistaken. Jesus is not crying over the loss of Lazarus’ breath, but the spiritual blindness he sees in Mary and the wailing crowd.

Although Martha and Mary address Jesus exactly the same way (“Lord, if you had been here…”), Martha goes on to confesses that Christ is the resurrection and the life. But Mary gives herself over to sorrow immediately after her interaction with Christ. Despite being in the presence of the author of all life, Mary decides to worship death with her tears. Jesus is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” by this. So he weeps.

So far, we have answered the first three questions—but what about the fourth? Why does Martha doubt Jesus, despite admitting that he is the life and the resurrection a few passages before this? We also see this pattern in Peter who confesses that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” but then tries to separate Christ from his cross—all in the same chapter of scripture. But why?

Until the Holy Spirit comes to live within us, we will always be blind. We might obtain occasional flashes of spiritual sight, but these often fade away quickly. Even after our baptism, the development of spiritual sight takes time. We must listen for his voice in order to learn to see the world around us as it actually is, as we learned in the lesson from last week [link to Fourth Sunday in Lent blogpost].

When we ascend from the waters of baptism, we are filled with new life—not new breath.

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