WHAT JESUS SAYS – AND DOES – ABOUT DEATH
Sermon Text, St. John 11:17-27, 32-35, 41-53 (v. 21-27). Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
Lord, this is Your Word and these are Your words. Sanctify us by the truth. Your Word is truth. Lord Jesus, You are the Resurrection and the Life. Because we fail to keep this comfort and certainty, we need for You to ask us, “Do you believe this?” and to give us the faith in Your resurrection and Your word to say: “Yes!” Amen!
Fellow redeemed in Christ, who weeps with us at the grave, but even more, who died to redeem us from death, and is risen for us so that we live in Him:
It’s amazing how many people want to deal with death apart from Christ. Recently I read about one of our favorite actors, who has cancer, and still says he has no religion. There are various reasons people have for this, often they’re running from something. But all these attempts to escape it will fail. People imagine that death, or thinking about it, is painful. And it is. It stings. But what’s truly painful is to deal with it apart from Jesus. He’s the one who removes the sting of death.
Jesus has something to say about death. Jesus has something to say to death. In John 11, we see that Jesus says and does something about death.
In the first part of John 11, Lazarus dies. He was the brother of Mary and Martha and they lived in the town of Bethany. They were Jesus’ friends. At first Jesus heard that Lazarus was very sick. Jesus waited two days, and Lazarus died. By the time He arrived Lazarus had been dead four days.
Jesus faces people who are confused, and in deep grief. They wonder why Jesus didn’t prevent Lazarus’ death. Martha and Mary both say, separately, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” The people at the grave say, “Could not He have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus’ death causes them to blame Jesus for their misery. “Why did He not prevent this death?” is the same as when we ask, “God, why did You take him/her from me?” It hurts so much. We wonder why God would let us hurt this much.
One thing Jesus says about death in John 11 is that death was not God’s will for His creation. He shows this when it says: “Jesus wept.” He also shows this when it says that “He was deeply moved in His spirit,” or as some versions say, that “He groaned in the spirit.” Jesus outwardly exhibited an intense emotion of anger or agitation. He was responding to the power death had over the people around Him. And then He Himself was crying.
By His actions Jesus is saying that death wasn’t God’s will for His creation. The devil brought sin into the world by leading Adam and Eve to sin, and so death came into the world as the consequence of sin, as Romans 5:12 says: “Death came into the world through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” Death wasn’t what God wanted for anyone.
When Jesus groaned and wept at Lazarus’ grave, it showed that He enters into your pain over death. He shares in the sorrow, it grieves Him. He’s even angered by what it does to you, what it did to Mary and Martha. Good thing Jesus didn’t ignore death! His emotions over death sanctify our emotions. What’s sinful or selfish in our grieving is purged, forgiven, by Him.
The other thing Jesus says about death in John 11 is: death doesn’t conquer the one who believes in Jesus. The one who believes in Jesus will conquer death and rise from the dead. Jesus says that for the believer there is no death.
What does Jesus say to Martha about her brother’s death? It isn’t fluff. It isn’t, “Let’s talk about our memories of him.” It’s what no therapist can give. Jesus says: “Your brother will rise again.” This is what you need to hear about death. Martha needed to hear if her brother had eternal life and if she would see him again. Jesus says she will see him again. He says Lazarus will rise from the dead. Jesus speaks this truth to you too.
Then Jesus said the words we love and treasure: “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.”
We don’t want to act as if death isn’t real. Jesus says: “though he die.” A person dies, the body dies and waits to be raised on the last day. The body does experience death and fights against this separation of body and soul. From our end, for those who remain, death is what we experience.
But Jesus says that for each and every Christian, (as He says) “whoever lives and believes in Me,” that person doesn’t experience a moment of death: “he shall never die.” This is what He’s saying about your moment of death. This is what He’s saying about your loved one’s moment of death. Although the body dies and “awaits its raising,” the soul is taken to heaven instantly and “continues praising” (ELH 246:5).
There’s a little more to this teaching, which involves the subject of faith.
It’s the person who believes in Jesus who will never die. The person who doesn’t believe in Jesus; who isn’t repentant; who doesn’t believe the forgiveness God offers, or spurns it; who doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Son of God doesn’t believe in the only God, the Triune God; who resists a life of faith in God and the Bible; or who thinks they’ll just take their chances – that person will die eternally, their soul goes to hell, and on the last day their body will be raised only to be sent into everlasting torment.
Jesus teaches this so that we won’t fear or be consumed with avoiding physical death. We are to be absolutely consumed with avoiding spiritual and eternal death. The way to do this is to believe in Him, to take care of your faith, to not miss an opportunity to hear His Word through which He brings you to repent and gives you faith to believe in your Savior.
We should be afraid of being separated from God and from our loved ones who believe in Him. That’s what we should fear, and it should make our faith and God’s Word a priority for us. We should be consumed with the salvation of our loved ones and people around us, that they have this faith by which they will never die but will rise again and live everlastingly with us in heaven. That’s what we should want most for them.
But this statement – “whoever believes in Me shall never die” – should be what gives you comfort and certainty, and it should give you confidence. Do you believe in Him? You will never die. Do you believe He died for you and that He is risen? You will never die but you shall live, with Him, forever!
Now, Jesus doesn’t only speak about death. He also speaks to death. We heard the part where Jesus came to Lazarus’ grave and said: “Lazarus, come out.” Then Lazarus came walking out of the grave. We can assume that even the decomposing of his body was reversed by Jesus’ word.
In His command to Lazarus, Jesus was powerfully commanding death to release its hold on Lazarus. Death had to obey. In your case too, and in the case of your believing loved one, Jesus speaks powerfully to death and commands it to release you. He’ll do this at the moment of death. He’ll say, “No, no, no, death, I’m here.” But He also says this during your life. Every time God’s forgiveness is spoken to you, and you believe it – when you come to the Lord’s Supper and receive Jesus’ body and blood, with faith in His words, “for forgiveness of sins, LIFE, and salvation” – death must release its hold on you. Because you have no sins, you have life everlasting.
There’s one more thing to cover in John 11. It’s not only what Jesus says about death, but what He does about death, that matters. The last part of our reading tells how Lazarus’ raising was the last straw for the Jewish leaders. They said: “If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him.” Then Caiaphas said: “It is better that one Man should die for the people.” Caiaphas was speaking God’s truth! But in a very different way than he meant it or even knew.
Jesus is the one Man, not whom Caiaphas decided must die, but whom God sent to die, not only for the Jewish people but for Jews and Gentiles, for all people in the world. Caiaphas was only God’s instrument to bring Jesus to the cross. God sent Jesus to die for you. He died your death.
The death you dread so much, Jesus died. He went and met death, in order to conquer it. He was the Death of death. We learn to say: “I believe that He redeemed me … from death.” He killed its power. On His third day in the grave, He didn’t need someone to say: “Come out!” He came to life by His own power, and came out of the tomb before the stone was rolled away, because He conquered death for us. “Its sting is lost forever” (ELH 343:3).
This is why we don’t fear death and it doesn’t defeat us. We believe in Jesus. We believe He died for us and rose from the dead for us.
As Martin Luther said: “They threaten us with death. If there were wise they would threaten us with life. It is a ridiculous, laughable threat to frighten Christ and His Christians with death when they are lords and victors over death. We are defiant and fearless, knowing that He is risen and death is nothing more than an end of sin and of death itself.” (Quoted in The Joy of Eternal Life by P. Nicolai, 101-102)
He is our Resurrection and He is our Life. We believe in Him; we will never die. Believe this! Amen!