Well I don’t want to pass up the opportunity to recognize and express appreciation to our musicians for tonight. We are so blessed to have our own brass, our in-house brass group, and Jamie Peipon has done a wonderful job and these are fine musicians. I also always appreciate our string players too, who are often with us. So thank you all for you all’s ministry to us tonight. I must tell you that I love this pulpit. I was so glad when we rebuilt the church that we retained the pulpit that was over there. And I love it because I’ve heard so many sermons that have meant so much to me from this pulpit, starting with Dr. John Reed Miller. I was here about seven years under his ministry and then we had Don Patterson for fourteen years; wonderful sermons there. And in the evenings, we had Bruce Wideman, Dr. Bruce Wideman, who preached heartwarming sermons, for sure. And then of course we had Dr. Baird. And I think Dr. Baird was here more than fourteen years as well. And what a difference he made to the men especially of our church, but to the state as a whole through preaching to men. And then, of course, we had Dr. Duncan for seventeen years, and what wonderful sermons I heard from him. And then, there were other ministers who were here, some scholars – F.F. Bruce, for instance, the very famous British New Testament scholar preached from this pulpit and others; a whole litany I could give you of those scholars. And then now we have our own Dr. Strain whose sermons have been touching our hearts and sermons of other brother pastors here. So I love this pulpit and I count it a privilege and an honor to be here tonight to preach to you.
Now I’m sort of interrupting the Christmas theme because you’ve had excellent sermons so far about Christmas and you will have more. But as I was reading my personal devotions not over two weeks ago, I read this passage that we are going to be talking about tonight and it really moved my heart when I realized the implications of it. So I thought, “Well that’s what I would like to share with you all tonight,” as I talk about “The Plot to Kill Lazarus.”
I remember every November 22 – November 22, 1963. It was about one o’clock in the afternoon and I had been accompanying the Belhaven concert choir in their noon rehearsal and I remember we did a version of Psalm 84 – “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” by Brahams from his requiem. And I went into the cafeteria and I was in the cafeteria line when this fellow came up and he said to us, “Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.” And at first we didn’t really believe it and there were even a couple of people who cracked some jokes because they didn’t believe it. And then suddenly we realized he was serious, and so we all scattered and went to our radios and our TVs. Back in those days there were only three major channels and all three of them gave wall to wall coverage to this assassination attempt for Kennedy. And they already had the person who had shot him, Lee Harvey Oswald, but there was all sorts of speculation about who may have been involved in a plot to kill Kennedy. But that weekend is just burned in my memory.
And I remember that was on a Friday, so on Sunday as we were having church – and we were on television at that time – I found out that our television broadcast had been interrupted because of the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. So this was just something that took over our minds and our thoughts for days and days. And actually, the question of, “Who was involved in the plot to kill Kennedy?” went on for years and years. I think they’ve more or less settled that question, but for years and years this was a question.
So it was all consuming to us at that time, but plots to kill leaders are really not all that uncommon. Perhaps the most familiar is the plot to kill Julius Caesar. Remember, some senators, including Brutus, killed him on the Ides of March, March 15 in 44 BC. And then in medieval days it was Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed in Canterbury Cathedral. King Henry II had said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and four of his knights got together and killed Thomas Becket there in the cathedral. And during the fifteen year reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England there were at least four plots to kill her by Catholic conspirators because they wanted a Catholic queen on the throne. More recently, of course, the plot to kill Lincoln. Then there was a plot to kill the archduke of Sarajevo who was going to succeed his father as the king or the emperor of the Austria-Hungary Empire and that started World War I. Plots to kill Hitler and plots against leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and so on and so on.
What’s interesting to me about all of these plots is that they were plots against some bad men and some good men, but all of these people were leaders in one way or the other. All of these people were powerful people. But tonight we’re looking at this plot to kill Lazarus. Lazarus was a man who was not a leader. Lazarus didn’t have any kind of power and he wasn’t resented for what he did but he was resented for what was done to him. And so I want us to look in the Scriptures and see what that’s all about. But before we look at the Scriptures, let’s have a word of prayer.
Our heavenly Father, we turn to You because You are the only one who does have the wonderful words of life. And I pray that You would speak to us tonight through the Bible. I pray that You would send the Spirit to help us to understand it. Help us to see what You are saying to us here and help us not only to hear but to believe You. And I pray that You would do this for the glory of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
So now I’m going to read from John 12, beginning with the ninth verse:
“When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’ And Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, just as it is written,
‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt!’
His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the whole world has gone after him.’”
I love that last little bit there! “The whole world has gone after him.” So first, let me talk about the background of this plot. All of you know the story of the raising of Lazarus. It’s in the chapter just before this one, in the eleventh chapter, and it’s a wonderful story. It really is a heartwarming story. It’s an amazing story. But also it can be unsettling to us as we see some of the details of the story. There are really two puzzling things here that I want to point out. And the first puzzling thing is Jesus’ reaction when He is told that His dear friend is mortally ill. Jesus just doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get to his bedside. In fact, Jesus waits two whole days before going. Now how strange this is because Lazarus and his sisters are both very close and beloved friends of Jesus. Jesus loved them, in fact, John tells us. And Martha and Mary, when they sent for Jesus to come and help them, said, “Tell Jesus, ‘He whom You love is ill.’” And yet Jesus delayed.
And when Jesus finally got there, Martha questions Him about His delay. In fact, both sisters, independent of each other, say to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!” And then other friends of the family said, “Could not this one who opened the eyes of the blind also have kept this man from dying?” So it’s a curious thing that Jesus delayed going. Jesus, who knew everything, knew that His friend was going to die. So why did He not rush to the bedside? This delay of Jesus, puzzling as it is to friends and family, actually has an important purpose that I will talk about in just a minute.
But first, let me talk about the second puzzle. Why did Jesus express such grief at this time? When He saw the grief of Mary and the friends of Lazarus, He was so upset that He wept. You know that the shortest sentence in the Bible is John 11:35 – “Jesus wept.” And He did weep. And people saw Him, people saw Him weeping and they thought, “How much He must have loved Lazarus!” But other people were puzzled by His weeping for another reason. They said in effect,
“Why does He weep? It’s really His fault. If He had just come, then Lazarus would still be alive.” So what about this weeping of Jesus? Since He knew He was raising His friend eventually from the dead, why, again, is He weeping?
There is a wonderful essay written by the scholar, B.B. Warfield who was a 19th century Presbyterian theologian at Princeton Theological Seminary. And it’s entitled, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord.” And in his essay, Warfield says that Jesus, the God-Man, had real emotions. They were good emotions, used properly, but nevertheless, He had real emotions. And chief amongst those emotions was compassion. That’s mentioned more than any other emotion in the Bible. And Jesus had compassion about two things in particular. The first was, the effect that sin that had come into the world and disrupted our universe, the effect that sin had on men and women in regard to illnesses – blindness, lameness, mental illness, other kinds of illnesses. Jesus was moved to compassion by the sin that caused these things to happen in this world. So He did many healings. He even raised other people from the dead other than Lazarus himself. So that’s the first thing He had compassion about.
The second thing He had compassion about was “obstinate sin.” That’s the phrase that Warfield uses. Obstinate sin is really the ongoing refusal to believe. It’s what I would call stubborn sin – stubbornness that refuses to believe Jesus and refuses to believe the Gospel. You remember that on one occasion Jesus, in a very note of compassion and pathos, says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets. I would have gathered you under my wing.” He is lamenting the fact that Jerusalem is just not believing, not only Him but the prophets who came before Him. So this is why Jesus is weeping.
Jesus gives us a clue as to why He delayed coming to see Lazarus when He says this. “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 think about that. Jesus is saying to His disciples, “This illness will glorify God and I will be glorified by it.” I was thinking to myself, “What would it be to have been created, as was Lazarus, for this particular purpose?” I mean, what an honor, in a sense, to have an illness that God would use to glorify Jesus in such a wonderful way. And then Jesus also says to His disciples about this, “Lazarus our friend has fallen asleep, and for your sake I am glad that you were not there so you may believe.” Now when He says that Lazarus “fell asleep,” He doesn’t mean that he was just in a coma or something like that. He really meant that he was dead. You know sometimes you can go out in these old cemeteries and you’ll see on the tombstone, “Asleep in Jesus.” Well that implies the fact that the person is dead but they are alive with Jesus in heaven, waiting for the return of Jesus. But Lazarus was dead. And this, He said, “is for your benefit, disciples, that you may believe.” That’s kind of a key word here.
So Jesus was not indifferent to this illness of His friend. He had a calculated delay. He had a plan, calculated, so that people would know that Lazarus was truly dead. And this is sort of underscored by that unusual verse where, when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away and Lazarus’ sister says, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor for he has been dead for four days.” So nobody doubted. The King James says, “For he stinketh,” and when I was a boy I was a little amused by that! But nevertheless, the point is, the man was definitely dead!
When I was about eighteen years old and had just graduated from high school, I got a summer job working over at the University Hospital. It was considerably smaller than it is now, but I was going to be an orderly on a private floor. It was kind of an experiment to have somebody close by so that the private patients could get help quicker. And so I had been at the hospital doing this for about two weeks and the head of the nursing service, a lady named Mrs. Werner – she was a nurse of the old school – called me down to her office and she said, “I’ve got a special job for you.” She said, “Our man who is in charge of the breathing machines,” which were called Bennett machines, “he is going on vacation for two weeks and we don’t have anybody to fill his shoes. So I want you to go and get lessons on how to clean these machines and then instructions on what you are supposed to do with them.” Well mainly I was to take them to the floors so that the nurses could use them for oxygen treatments, and so on – breathing treatments. This was back before the specialty of a therapist; oxygen and respiratory therapists that they now have.
And so I had my new job and there were four machines and I was always to know where those machines were in the hospital in case there was a cardiac arrest. I felt very important! I was a part of the cardiac arrest team. And so during those two weeks I just hoped they would call for one of those so I could be part of the heroic group going to help resuscitate a patient! So I was sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch and there came this announcement: “Cardiac arrest team. To West. Stat.” So I wanted to be mature and cool, and yet very professional, so I got up, and I didn’t run, but I hastily went and got the nearest machine and took it up to this room. And in the room was a young African-American lady, perhaps in her late teens. And she was on the floor, as they do, and they were doing all these kinds of things that they do to resuscitate her. And all of us who were not immediately needed were allowed to leave the room so they would have room. I didn’t know what happened to her.
So the next day, I came back just to check up on her and on the machine and she was sitting up in bed just watching television, nonchalantly. And I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect her just to be so cool after what had happened to her! And I said, “Well how are you doing?” And she said, “Fine,” just like that – nothing in particular! And I kept thinking to myself, “Look, if I had just died, I think I would be saying, ‘I am doing great! And I am so happy to be able to watch this television program!’” But of course she really wasn’t dead. Her heart had stopped, but she was getting treatment fast enough that we couldn’t say she was brought back from the dead.
But even in the days of Lazarus, there were many people who thought that people actually would seem to be dead but then would be revived in some way or the other – that they had just fainted or they were having some sort of a spell or something like that. And so because of that, Jesus wanted to be very careful to make sure that nobody could float that particular kind of theory. There is a thing now in medical science called a “Lazarus Syndrome.” And about thirty-eight cases of that have been recorded in the medical journals since 1982. And what that is, is someone who has been worked on by the cardiac team and they are resuscitating them, and so on, and finally they declare them dead, brain dead, and so after a while they will take them off the machines. Well there is a lady in West Virginia who holds the record. She was declared brain dead and she was on machines for about seventeen hours and then they took her off and they had already started planning her funeral and everything and they took her off the machine and lo and behold, after about ten minutes, she started breathing and her heart started pumping again and they actually revived her and she lives to this particular day! So even in our time – and I’m way overtalking this – even in our time there are people who think that people can be out, look like they’re dead, and then come back to life, never having really been dead. Well all of this I say, again, Jesus must have had in mind because He wanted to make sure that everyone knew that Lazarus truly was dead.
After having raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus came back to Bethany and He was feeded in a supper by Lazarus and Martha and Mary. And we read in the text – and this is part of our main emphasis – “When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came not only on account of Him but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death because, on account of him, many Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” And then a little bit farther it says, “The crowd that had been with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.” And so, the Jewish council plots now to kill Lazarus. Again, Lazarus was not preaching against them. He was not trying to lead some kind of revolution. He was a man of no importance, but he was alive. He was a threat because he was alive. He was irrefutable evidence that Jesus was telling the truth about resurrection and the reality of His resurrection and the resurrection of the dead. Jesus had said to Martha before He raised Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” Earlier in His ministry Jesus had said, “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice and come out. Those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
So here is this man, Lazarus, this trophy of grace, this irrefutable evidence that Jesus really can raise somebody from the dead. And so if it is true that He can be believed because of this miracle that everybody has seen, then we all are in the best of all words. Jesus’ truthfulness is affirmed by the fact that Lazarus is alive. But by being alive, Lazarus threatened the grip of the Pharisees on the people because the people were believing Jesus and His message, they could see this living man here, and they were deserting the Pharisees. So by being alive, Lazarus made the council fear that they were in danger of losing their power and their position. They said in a council meeting, “What are we to do, for this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him and the Romans will come and take away our place and our nation.” So they had a growing desperation over the effect of Jesus’ miracles. And remember there was an accumulation of miracles. Jesus had healed many people – blind people, other people. He had raised other people from the dead. But this was the most visible and most dramatic miracle like that that He had done. So they did an end-run around the legal system, they manipulated the Romans, worked with Judas, and they got Jesus hung on the cross as a result of this.
What about the plot to kill Lazarus? After they got their hands on Jesus and crucified Him, what happened to Lazarus? Well, the plot went away because they had gotten their man. They wanted to get Jesus. The plot against Lazarus went away. In fact, Lazarus, supposedly, lived. There are many stories, some may be apocryphal, but nevertheless, about Lazarus it is said that he was forced to leave Judea and to go to Cyprus where he was made a leader of the church there and lived maybe thirty more years. So Lazarus lived on in spite of this plot. But I do want to say that although he had not done anything himself as far as the miracle is concerned, Lazarus did pay a price for being raised from the dead.
And C.S. Lewis has a very interesting poem that he writes about this. He says, “This is a poem from Stephen” – remember the first martyr – “Stephen to Lazarus.” And in effect the poem says this. “I, Stephen, was the first martyr and I gave up my life once. But you, Lazarus, who were at peace after having been delivered from death were brought back to this life and must have to go through death again.” Lewis talked about this in connection with his own wife, Joy’s death. He, as you know, wrote extensively about her suffering and about his spiritual experiences during that time and he said this in his kind of language, Lewis language – “Even if I had made the insane call to her, ‘Come back!’ that would only have all been for my sake. Could I have wished her anything worse having gone once through death to come back, and then at some later date, have all her dying to do over again?” So here it is. Between Stephen the martyr and Lazarus, Lewis says, “Lazarus got the rawer deal.” Lazarus got the rawer deal because he was brought back from the dead.
That’s something to think about. When we are mourning those whom we love, oftentimes we do wish that they could be back and we could enjoy wonderful experiences with them again. But then we must remind ourselves that for them, it wouldn’t be a blessing. For them, being in the presence of the Lord Jesus and seeing His face and enjoying not having illness and sin and enjoying not having sin in their life is the only place to be. So I think that’s just kind of an interesting side thought.
As we conclude this sermon, let me just ask you this. So what does Lazarus’ death and resurrection teach us? Jesus wants us to know that He raises the dead and that He will raise you and me from the dead. And He uses this dramatic miracle as proof of that. So let’s don’t miss the blessing and the encouragement that we can get from this. We say in our creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” That belief ought to make a difference in our lives because Jesus’ death and resurrection shows us that He has defeated Satan and sin and death and then our resurrection also shows that we are His and that He has defeated sin and death for us too.
So as we commit to the grave those who are nearest and dearest to us, we think about heaven, don’t we? And so often as a minister I will recount what the revelation has to say about the blessings of being in the presence of Christ. I said a few of them just a minute ago – all the wonderful joys of being in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. But I don’t want us to stop at that as a source of blessing because that’s not the end of the story. That’s the beginning of the end of the story. The end of the story is that some day, all of us in Christ will be raised again from the grave and we will have bodies again. We will have glorified bodies. We, our souls and our bodies, will be reunited forever to be with the Lord. And that body of those whom we commit to the grave will be a vigorous body. It will be a better body than we ever had or they ever had on earth. And they and we will all be rejoicing about this wonderful, new final estate that we are in as resurrected believers, living in the new heavens and the new earth.
So I encourage you not to stop with thinking of the joys of heaven for those whom you love who have died, or if death itself is intimidating to you, think about this. Not only will we enjoy the blessings of heaven but we will actually be reunited with our bodies, soul and body together again, will be recognizable. It will be wonderful! That’s where, I think, the greatest reunions will take place. I will tell you this, every time I do a funeral in a cemetery I look out over at the graves and I think, without fail, I think about those graves opening. And I think about people coming out of the graves and the marvelous reunions that will be as we are all gathered together with our Savior in the air. What an encouragement for that, and we give glory to Jesus for planning this miracle and executing this miracle and using it to teach us about the blessings of resurrection.
Our heavenly Father, I thank You for raising Lazarus. I thank You for the sermon that this miracle preaches to us. And I pray that by it You will comfort our brothers and sisters who may be in mourning now, and I pray that You will encourage those of us who love Jesus by the joy that awaits us on the other side, soon in heaven and in the resurrection to come. So I pray that You will glorify Your Son by the retelling of this miracle and I pray that You will glorify Him by the resurrections that He will bring about in all of our lives. For I ask this in His name, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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