Such Faith! John 11.17-37
Imagine the scene! The little village of Bethany is under two miles away from Jerusalem, an easy walk. So, when Lazarus died and was buried, crowds of people from Jerusalem came out to Bethany and crowded round his grieving sisters, Martha and Mary. It is into this situation of much wailing and tears that Jesus comes.
Having somehow heard that Jesus was coming (in the Greek it is a present tense – “Jesus is coming” – which may convey a sense of anticipation and excitement), Martha goes out of the village to meet him. She greets him with the words, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11.21), repeated by Mary when she meets Jesus (11.32). Had Martha and Mary been discussing with some criticism Jesus’ delay in coming? But any sense of criticism quickly gives way to an expression of Martha’s faith (11.22).
1. “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (11.22). Martha has that assurance that Jesus in his oneness with the Father has immediate access. Such perfect love and unity of spirit exists between Jesus and his Father that he can ask his Father for whatever he wants and the Father so trusts him that he will certainly grant it. So Martha still has the faith to believe that even now Jesus can do something wonderful to help.
We too can have that same confidence. Still today Jesus is “at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8.34). In this passage Paul assures us that God will “graciously give us all things” (Romans 8.32). How amazing it is to know that Jesus brings our needs to his Father, prays to the Father for us and the Father will assuredly grant his requests! These brilliant words of Paul match the constant promises of God in John’s Gospel that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name will be granted to us (e.g. John 14.13/14) – of course our prayers must be “in Jesus’ name”, suited to his character and will.
2. Jesus follows Martha’s words of faith by assuring her that “your brother will rise again” (11.23). Although in those days belief in the final resurrection was highly controversial, Martha boldly affirms her confidence that Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day”. In his wonderful response Jesus gives us the tremendous “I am” statement, “I am the resurrection and the life”. In the context we might have expected “I am the resurrection”, but once again (as so often in John’s Gospel) Jesus also affirms that he is “the life”. Jesus has the fullness of life and also eternal life in himself. So he declares that all who “believe in him will live”. In the stark context of Lazarus’ death no wonder that Jesus feels the need to ask Martha whether she really believes this (11.26).
3. Martha’s reply challenges us too. What sure faith she had in Jesus! 11.27 almost sounds like a credal statement.
a) “I believe (the Greek perfect tense means a past action that is still on-going) that you are the Christ”. Throughout Israel’s history the promise of a coming liberator remained in the hearts of God’s people. Then in the days of suffering under the oppressive and pagan rule of Rome this hope rose to the surface with a strong political interpretation. False messiahs dogged the history of Israel at that time. But Martha’s confession of faith in Jesus as Messiah comes in the context of him being the Resurrection and the Life. He is God’s anointed servant who brings his followers both into resurrection life here on earth and that eternal life in which “whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (11.26).
b) “The Son of God”. Already in the New Testament this title for Jesus was beginning to express the divine nature of Jesus as God incarnate. But in the Old Testament it had not yet developed this understanding. The expression “Son of God” did not yet express divinity. Thus Israel was known as God’s children, but there was no thought of Israel as somehow divine. So what did it imply? In those days it was expected that a son should be like the father and should bring honour to the father. Adam and Eve were created to be in the very image and likeness of God, but sadly their sin negated God’s purpose for them as his children. They no longer showed forth the likeness of their Father in heaven, nor did they bring honour to him. So God called Abraham and his children to fulfil that calling. Thus Israel as God’s children should reflect the perfect holy nature of the Creator and their national and family lives should bring him honour among the nations. Sadly Israel has failed, but Jesus as the perfect Israelite and perfect son of Abraham has fully lived as the perfect and only true son of God. In his life he reflects the very image of God, being perfectly like his Father in heaven. He also brings glory and honour to his Father. Jesus alone actually is truly and gloriously the Son of God, demonstrating this by perfectly fulfilling a son’s calling.
United with Jesus as his children we are now called to live the life of Jesus as the adopted children of God. Both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus are now called to be true children of God (John 1.12/13). Sadly the history of God’s church and our own personal lives move us to confession of our failure to live as God’s children, showing forth the very character of our Father in the holiness of our lives and so living that people around us honour and glorify our God.
A right understanding of the title “Son of . . . ” has become vitally important in our times because of our Muslim neighbours’ strong rejection of Jesus as the Son of God. It is perhaps helpful to them to explain that the title “Son of . . . ” does not necessarily signify literally a baby born physically. Thus in the Indonesian language the digit of a finger is literally “the son of a finger”, an arrow is “the son of a bow”, a key is “the son of a lock”, the crew of a ship or plane is literally “the son of a ship or plane”. No Indonesian would ever think of taking these words literally! Unfortunately, the only English equivalent is the old defamatory accusation “you son of a bitch!” Of course this was never meant literally! So we need to explain the background understanding of the title “Son of God” in the Christian faith.
c) “who was to come into the world”. In John’s Gospel Jesus repeatedly underlines the fact that he had been with the Father, came down into the world and would return to the presence of his Father in glory. Martha has come to understand that Jesus fulfils the calling of the Christ/Messiah in coming into the world. From all eternity he was with the Father in glory, but now has condescended to come down to this world as a human being.
We may notice yet again the word “world” which is so characteristic of John’s Gospel. Already in John 1.9/10 it is repeated four times to underline its absolute central importance in the message of this Gospel.
As we saw in our blog on the Prologue in John 1, the word “world” comes in the context of Jesus giving light to”all people” who believe, to “everybody”. He has come not only for his own Jewish people, but for “all” who receive him and believe in his name (John 1.12). Even in those early days, Martha’s faith has widened to include the fact that Jesus as the Messiah had come not only for her Jewish people, but also for “the world”. What a rebuke for those of us whose gaze is firmly fixed on our own country and people only!