Read: John 11:1-46
What picture helps to image your experience as a Christian? Perhaps you think of your life as a tree; which starts as a seed and grows so large the birds nest in its branches. Or the picture of a soldier fighting the good fight; or an athlete running the race of faith; or a hardworking farmer who brings in the harvest. But this morning I want to suggest to you that your life as a Christian is like a glacier.
Floating in the Arctic Ocean, and nearly everywhere else in the world, even Africa, glaciers are massive mountains of ice. What is amazing about glaciers is not only their size, which on average is 5,500 feet tall, but also the fact that only 10 percent of the glacier is above the surface, leaving the other 90 percent entirely submerged in the icy water. Similar to the ice which floats at the top of your glass on a warm summer day, glaciers float along the surface of the deep. Imagine it: 10 percent of the ice sticking up from the water in jagged points. The waves constantly crash upon the rocky ice. The arctic storms blow across the glacier. The lightning strikes. The thunder rolls. Yet beneath the surface, the other 90 percent of the glacier is suspended in the calm underwaters, as deep as 50,000 ft below level.
The glacier pictures the Christian’s life by displaying two realities. There is the “seen” and often tumultuous reality and also a more profound and massive “unseen” reality. This is true of every Christian life, and these two realities are clearly taught throughout all Scripture. A couple examples: one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Listen to Psalm 27:10 and see if you can discern the two realities.
“My father and mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up.”
Do you hear the two realities? There is the seen reality: My father and mother have forsaken me. There is the unseen reality: the Lord will take me up. Left to itself, the seen reality is one of despair (“Who will care for me now that those closest to me have left? I am all alone. I am hopeless.”). But now, enter the unseen reality and all changes. The hope of the covenant God and His sovereign care saves the day and reinterprets all that is seen (“He will take me up.”)
Or in the same way, consider John 16:32. “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.”
About the seen reality, Jesus says all his disciples will scatter and leave Him alone, and yet according to the unseen reality, Jesus is never alone because His Father is with Him. So he doesn’t despair.
This tension between two realities (seen and unseen) rests at the heart of the Christian experience – so much so that if you wish to follow Christ with honor and faith, understanding these two realities, and how to respond to them, is paramount.
Throughout the Scriptures, especially the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is pictured as a normal man. A man who was born, who grew up, who ate and drank like everyone else, who worked hard, and even who had friends. Is there anything more humanizing than friendship? Jesus was one and was a friend to His friends. We find John 11, three of Jesus’ close friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Two sisters and a brother, from the town of Bethany. In fact, in 1873 their three names were found inscribed in tombs near the place they lived.
First there’s Mary. Marys were common in this day, as were Lazaruses. She is of course not Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is not Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus cast seven demons. Rather, John distinguishes her from the other Marys by pointing out how God led her to pour out a pound of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe it with her hair, filling the room with a lovely fragrance, symbolic of her love for Jesus. And this act of worship was well-known. The account doesn’t show up until the next chapter, but the readers are expected to know about it.
Next there’s Martha. What do you remember about Martha? Apparently, Martha was the older sister of Mary, since she acts as the hostess of a party. The house is full and active, Jesus is there talking, with Mary sitting at His feet. Remember Martha came to Jesus telling her frustration that she was having to do all the work. How close of friends do you have to be before you tell Jesus to rebuke your sister? Pretty good friends, right? Finally, there’s Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved, and he was terribly sick. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were friends of Jesus and deeply loved.
Because of Jesus’ proven love for them, the sisters sent a message to Jesus. Like a telegram, their message is simply: “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” What a testament to the friendship, love, and care of Jesus. They knew of Jesus’ healing power. He was 100 miles away, but they knew the simple fact of the sickness was enough to bring Jesus to their side. No pleading. No begging. Just a simple, ‘Jesus, we need you.’ But what happens next is entirely unexpected. John recalls, “But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was.”
Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved, is lying on his death bed. His sisters are by his side, comforting, praying, hoping. They’ve sent word to Jesus and are now waiting for His knock at the door. Lazarus has two days of life left in his body. When Jesus hears the news of his sickness, He thinks about two things: The Glory of God and His Love for His friends. And with glory and love on His mind, what does He do? He intentionally misses his train. Seems a strange way to love your friends. But there is an important truth here: Jesus ordains all of time in our lives, and He does it for love.
Not long from now, the holiday season will be upon us, and that means parties. And with every holiday party, we get to see what kind of people our friends are. Those who are intentionally early, those who are intentionally on time, and those who are accidentally late. If you are in the groups of intentionally early or intentionally on time, maybe you are also one of those people who sets the clock 15 minutes fast in order to never be late. Even if you are in the third group of people who are unintentionally late, you too likely set your clock to run fast and you’re still late. But in this text, which kind of person does Jesus appear to be? A fourth kind: intentionally late. And not just late to a simple party, but late to a funeral. How should we think about this with hope? What can we learn about our own Christian lives?
Like a glacier, there are two realities in our lives. A “seen” reality and an “unseen” reality; a surface reality and an ultimate reality; a temporal reality and an eternal reality. For Mary, Martha, and Lazarus the surface reality appears to be a dreadful one. Lazarus is deathly ill, time is short, and Jesus is nowhere to be found. But this is not the ultimate reality, for what can be seen is never ultimate. The unseen and ultimate reality is clearly revealed in vs 4. The unseen reality is Jesus Himself, who knows all about the sickness already, He is the ruler of time and space, He is ordainer of all things – even sickness and death – and He is good.
The burning question for your life is this: Which reality will you live by? Will you place your hope in the way things appear to your weak eyes, or will you place your hope in the God who rules your circumstances and ordains even the most disappointing moments for God’s glory and your good. In this sin-cursed world, the dark clouds often hang low, but for Christians the face of Christ is shining on the others side.
Listen to the words of hymn-writer, William Cowper, who faced immense suffering and uncertainty in his life.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
That sounds to some of us as an impossibility, but I want to encourage you to know that you can grow to live in the assurance of what is unseen – and you must. One way you can grow is by reading the Bible with this alert in mind. If you are going to apply this to your life, you must see it in action on the pages of Scripture and in the lives of others God has loved in this incredible way. Will you begin this discipline today; tonight when you read your Bible before bed? Note on every page you can the truth of two realities; one “seen” and one “unseen.”
Well, Jesus appeared late by Mary’s, Martha’s, and certainly Lazarus’ schedules. But according to His own unseen plans, Jesus was right on time – the time ordained – to accomplish His will. And from this we learn to trust in God’s timing alone. After staying two days longer, Jesus decided He and his disciples would go back to Judea. The disciples were appalled and stunned at this. Why they wondered would Jesus have them leave their fruitful and relatively peaceful ministry only to return to a place where they were wanted dead. They protested, and Jesus answered in a kind of riddle, saying ““Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 “But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
Like Martha and Mary, the disciples also faced a conflict of two realities: one they could see and one they could not see. On the surface a return to Judea was a death sentence, surely a stoning awaited them. The appearance of things provoked them to fear, tempted them to doubt the Lord, and inspired a hesitation to obey. To them, if they returned to Judea, all would be lost: they would die and the triumph of Jesus would die with them. Jesus had told them Lazarus was asleep and needed to be awakened, but they failed to understand Jesus’ meaning. Their outlook led them to argue with the Lord of glory: “If he’s asleep, he needs to rest.” The seen reality was a death sentence and a fool’s errand.
But their fear and doubt and argument was fueled not only by the appearance of their circumstances, but by their failure to live in submission to the One who rules and reveals the unseen. They were with the One who holds life and death in His hands. Yet they were ruled by the appearance of their circumstances. So what was the unseen reality they were missing? Jesus told them. What they failed to see was He who walks in the day does not stumble because He has the light of the world. As long as they walked with Christ, who is the light of the world, nothing could befall them. Likewise, the enemies of Jesus walk in the night, and they always stumble in their every effort to capture Jesus. But they were not seeing this ultimate reality.
There is also a warning to the unbelieving, that their surface reality appears hopeful and secure, but the ultimate is condemnation. Sin blinds the unbelieving from seeing the truth. Repent and submit to God because your ultimate reality is tied to your relationship with him. If you disbelieve, your surface reality may appear good while your ultimate reality is doom. Christ flips that script for His people. One night my wife and I were in our room, well after bedtime. She was asleep and I was working on my computer when we heard a blood-curdling scream. It was my son screaming for help. We dashed down the stairs not knowing what we would find. Was he being abducted? Was he caught in a bear trap? We found him sitting up in his bed still captive to his nightmare. All night I don’t think he ever shook free from whatever he was seeing. He even slept in our bed that night. What was he experiencing? He was trapped in a one-reality world. He could only see the fearful circumstances of his dream. What he could not see were the real circumstances: a safe reality under the loving care of parents who were holding him. He was taking his cues from his circumstances.
The disciples were taking their cues from their circumstances and it was producing in them fear, doubt over Jesus’ power and control, temptation to forgo Jesus’ plan. They were blind to the truth that Jesus controls the circumstances of their lives. Isn’t this one of the central challenges of living as a Christian? We have a God who is in absolute control, and who is absolutely good, and yet accompanies us right into suffering; right into the lion’s den where all that appears is a dreadful end. Here again is the reason we need to live by the ultimate reality of God’s care over our lives. Listen to the words of 2 Corinthian 4:16-17. Listen for the two realities and for what changes everything.
2 Corinthians 4:16-17 – 16 Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison…
Hope is found in the surpassing weight of glory produced by our sufferings in this life. No matter how big your sufferings seem, they are light and momentary compared to the weight of eternal glory. God is so very determined to produce this glory, He will spare no cost and He will spare no suffering to give you the glory of His Kingdom, using all manner of difficult circumstances to mature you in Christ.
And hear it again in vs 18.
while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
You know, it’s a good thing you and I don’t ever lose hope by looking only at what can be seen. When the pressures of life press in, we don’t ever despair under the assumption they will crush us. When your children face a season of growing pains, even a season of sin, you don’t fall for the lie that the covenant God has left you. When your family falls into the relentless cycle of seasonal illness, you don’t wish it away as something that has no value in your life. When everything seems to be going wrong, you don’t turn to self-pity, thinking God is punishing you for some hidden unconfessed sin. When a fellow believer or pastor speaks the truth in love concerning your life, you don’t respond with suspicion that it’s really a malicious attack. Of course we do this, we live by the surface reality with little thought of the ultimate reality that is ours in Christ. We choose to believe our own “wisdom” as we interpret our circumstances. This is why God doesn’t allow us to know the future. It would bury us under the weight of our false expectations.
Again, we must stop looking to our own thoughts about life, and instead exchange them for God’s…and exchange all of them. As a fallen creature, your own thoughts are never truly true and always insufficient. This is why God exhorts us in Proverbs 3:5-6 – 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your body And refreshment to your bones.
Will you begin this practice today? Agree with God that you are not a good interpreter of your life. Practice checking all your thoughts about life against God’s. This will be a grueling process at first, but over time your “ways” of thinking will align with God’s ways.
Back to the story. Bethany was about 100 miles away from where Jesus stayed two extra days. So when Jesus came, He found that Lazarus had already been wrapped in burial clothes and laid in the grave. Because Bethany was close to Jerusalem, many Jews had come to comfort Mary and Martha in the death of their brother, Lazarus. It was customary for mourners to remain seated while others comforted them. In keeping with their personalities, Martha busily rushes off to meet Jesus when she heard He was on His way, while Mary remained at the house. Martha expresses exactly what we expect: regret and disappointment over Jesus’ delay. “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha believed in Jesus’ ability to heal, and even after the fact of his delay, she still believed. But her believe did not extend so far as to expect Jesus to raise Lazarus. Martha still, like all of us, failed to see the truth. Even when Jesus tells her Lazarus will rise, she can still only agree that he will rise at the Last Day.
Now listen to how Jesus responds; He draws her attention to Himself saying, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha says, “Yes, Lord. I believe.” And then she runs to fetch Mary, and they hurry to the grave.
Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus and calls for them to remove the stone sitting in front of the opening to the tomb.This is the last and most powerful sign Jesus performed.
1. Changing water into wine in John 2:1-11
2. Healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4:46-54
3. Healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-18
4. Feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14
5. Jesus’ walk on water in John 6:16-24
6. Healing the man born blind in John 9:1-7
7. Raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-46
The most astounding miracle yet – making a dead person live. The raising of Lazarus is precious to Christians. It is a display of power to speak life into the dead, and it is a picture of what God has done for each of us. Think of Lazarus’ circumstances: dead, stinking, being mourned, no control, no authority, no life to call his own. He used to wake up in the morning and eat what he wished. If he wanted to eat wheat, he ate wheat. If he wanted some figs or fruit mixed in, he mixed them in. If he wanted to go for a walk, he walked. If he wished to visit at Martha’s house, he visited. If he was invited to a feast to hear the singers and watch the jugglers, and enjoy the wooden flutes/harps/drums…But now look at him. He’s dead. He has no freedom, no choice, no recourse. He is laying in the worst of surface realities. Can you imagine? Of course not, we cannot imagine the experience of lying in a grave.
But Martin Pistorius can. At 12 years old Martin contracted a serious form of meningitis. He began to lose motor function and then slipped into a coma for three years. Around the age of 16 he began to regain consciousness and at the age of 19 it is thought he was once again fully aware of his surroundings, and yet he had no ability to move or communicate his awakening. For nine years he was trapped in utter solitude, lying motionless in a hospital bed. But this was not the end for Martin. A nurse saw the unseen, came to his rescue, and over time he progressed to recover and even marry his wife.
As with Martin Pistorius, this was not the end for Lazarus. His unseen reality was the Triune God: a covenant Father with an eternal plan to redeem His people, who sends His Son, who hears His Son’s prayers, whose Spirit submits to His Son, and together will bring Lazarus back from the dead. In keeping with His absolute commitment to the glory of God in all things, Jesus lifted His eyes to the sky and made a public display of His power saying, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. “I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me” (John 11:41-43).
When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.”. What a wonderful turnaround! But again, if the ultimate reality is so wonderful and real, why does God ordain the trials, troubles, and sufferings of life? Why not skip the trouble and head straight for the triumph?? The Apostle Paul wrestled with this very question, and his answer holds immeasurable value for us today. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 we read,
For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
How glorious in power and marvelous in grace is Jesus Christ. He is glorious in power to call us out of the dead darkness of unbelief. And He is marvelous in grace to call out sinful people like you and I; people who had no redeeming qualities, nothing to offer, nothing to love. Oh the Power and Grace of God in the gospel of Christ! I cannot stress it enough: interpreting what we see (our circumstances), in light of the better reality in Christ is the key to living the Christian life. No matter what those surface realities are – good or bad – they are ordained for the purpose of lifting our gaze and setting our faces upon the gospel blessings of Christ.
As we close, what are some take-aways? How can we live in the light of the unseen?
1. Spend time praying more about your ultimate unseen reality, than the surface reality that you can see.
2. Discipline yourself to meditate on the many blessings Christ has brought into your life.
3. Do the diligent spade work of searching Scripture to learn how the ultimate reality of grace answers and changes what you see on the surface.