The promise of eternal life, and a reason for sufferings. These are the themes of John 11, they really deserve an entire book, and not just an online 2000 word post, but as one of my favorite chapters in the entire Bible I felt like giving it a go here.
The high point of John 11 is a conversation between Jesus and Martha, it is bookended by the story of how Lazarus died and his eventual raising. The raising of Lazarus goes beyond being just another of the signs performed by Jesus in Saint John’s gospel, it’s in the light of the conversation that takes place in the middle of the chapter that we can see the eternal significance of this momentous event and its implications for believers until the end of time.
Before I get into why I think the 11th chapter of this gospel is so important I’d like to take a moment and talk about the structure and some of the contents of the Gospel of Saint John. Saint John’s gospel is commonly broken down into four parts, these being:
- The prologue (John 1:1-1:18)
- The Book of Signs (John 1:19-12:50)
- The Book of Glory (John 13:1-20:31)
- The epilogue (John 21)
Another thing to note is that there are seven miracles, called signs by Saint John, and seven “I Am” statements. These are interlaced throughout this gospel.
Only in John 11 does a sign and an “I Am” statement appear at the same time. This is an indication of how important this encounter is in the life of Christ.
The death of Lazarus
Jesus and His disciples had been in Jerusalem for Hanukkah in John chapter 10, and had been doing some sparing with “the Jews” (a euphemism used by St. John referring to Jewish religious leaders and authorities). In verse 1 of chapter 11 Jesus gets news that His good friend Lazarus is ill, and likely to die. But instead of rushing off to heal His friend, Jesus stays where He is at (likely Jerusalem) for another two days, and because of this delay Lazarus dies.
If the story were to end there we might be tempted to say that Jesus had no compassion and that He just allowed his friend to die. With friends like Jesus who needs enemies? And this is what people still do to this day. When something bad happens it’s almost always the atheist that is first to shake their fist and heaven and scream “why?!?”.
But just like the story of Lazarus, and even our own lives today, God sometimes allows things to happen so that others might see the miracles that He brings out of it. No better example of this that the life, death, and resurrection of His only begotten Son.
Jesus says exactly this Himself:
Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
This same principle is in play with sufferings in your own life. You will never know the impact you had on all the people you came into contact with throughout your life, at least not on this side of eternity. A lot of that impact will be how you dealt with hardships, how you allowed your faith to pull you through, or how you gave into despair.
No matter what life throws at us, as Christians we must trust in God and know that it is all in His hands. Even death itself can be used by God to show the world His light and truth.
The Smiling Martyr
This reminds me of a picture I seen of a man smiling while standing in a field. He looks like he could be out on a picnic and doesn’t have a care in the world, if you look at the man next to him he has a rifle slung over his shoulder. “Maybe they are on a hunting trip” you could say to yourself, but the truth of this photo is not as innocent as a weekend hunting trip.
The man in the photo is Bl. Martinez Pascual, he was a priest in Spain during the Spanish civil war. The man to his right is one of the men who would murder him almost immediately after this photo was taken.
During the Spanish civil war left-wing militias took out their hatred for God by killings thousands of priests and nuns all over the country. Father Pascual knew what it meant when the militia unit that kidnapped him stopped in a field and lined up with their weapons, he knew that the end was near, but still he smiled.
He smiled because he knew that no matter what these men did to his body, his soul belonged to God and he would soon go to be with God. Father Pascual couldn’t have known at the time what impact this one photo would have, and neither could the photographer, but God did. Even now, some 80 years after his murder, Fr Pascual is still touching countless lives.
An act as simple as a smile is like a ripple on a still pond that reverberates through time. Put more poetically by Roman Emperor, and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius: “What we do now echoes in eternity.”
I’m sure Lazarus didn’t think anything spectacular or special would come from his death, for sure he believed in the resurrection at the last day like the vast majority of Jews did, but had you told him that his death would become a foretaste for the death and resurrection that all believers will share in Christ, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. But that’s what Lazarus’s suffering and death has given us, it’s a glimpse into the death that we all must face, and the resurrection that all believers are promised.
We have to be confident in the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans:
We know that in everything God works for goodwith those who love him,who are called according to his purpose.
This doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a cure for your cancer, or to have enough money to pay your bills, or that you won’t ever get in a car accident, or that you’ll survive whatever sickness has put you in the hospital, despite what some tv preachers will tell you. This is about our eternal good. God cares about our lives here on earth, but He cares much more deeply about our eternal wellbeing.
In Christ even death can be used for good, because it’s through death that we enter into eternity. It’s this thought that takes us to the central part of John 11. You might think of the raising of Lazarus as the main event in this chapter, but like I said before, his dying and rising become even more important in light of the conversation between Jesus and Martha.
More than condolences
Jesus speaks more than mere condolences to Martha, He tells here that her brother will rise. When she misunderstood what He was saying, He rephrased His statement and made it crystal clear.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, ” I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
I Am The Resurrection
Of the seven “I Am” statements in Saint John’s gospel, this one should give Christians the most hope.
Not only does Christ promise that those who believe in Him will rise with Him, He tells us that He is the personification of the resurrection.
The resurrection of the body, that we will all take part in at the end of time, it’s not just because of the merits of Christ, it is through Christ himself.
When we are baptized, not only does it remove the guilt of original sin, it also mystically enters us into the pascal mystery of Christ. Going down into the waters of baptism we die with Christ, and rising from the waters we are born from above. We are born of water and spirit (John 3:5).
St. Paul makes this even more clear in the 6th chapter of his letter to the Romans:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
And The Life
I’d be remiss if I failed to discuss the second half of this “I Am” statement. We see that Christ is the resurrection, but what does He mean by “and the life”?
God is life. God created everything ex-nihilo (out of nothingness) and everything that lives is because of the will of God. From the first man until today, every human being has been animated by the breath of God. He is the one that gave us life, and the life in us is a reflection of His very divine life.
Also our very existence is sustained by the will of God. This is spelled out a few places on scripture and also in the catechism.
Paragraph 301 of the Catechism of The Catholic Church talks about how God sustains the existence of the universe, and quotes the book of Wisdom in doing so:
With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence:
“For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.” Wisdom 11:24-26
Saint Paul says that God is “upholding the universe by the word of His power.”(Hebrews 1:3).
So in this we see that God is the giver of life, the sustainer of life, and the savior of life. He gave us life when we were created, he sustains our life and the entire universe through His will, and He gave His own divine life to redeem us and give us eternal life.
Do You Believe This?
“…and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Now we arrive at the climax of the conversation, the linchpin of all the gospels. Jesus finishes this last statement with a question, and the answer to this question has eternal consequences.
This same question is asked of everyone of us, both Christian and atheist, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew. If you don’t answer affirmatively in this life, you most certainly will in the next life (Philippians 2:11). Although if you reject Christ in this life, your confession of faith with the gathered masses of humanity will not be your salvation, it will be your final condemnation.
When Jesus asked Martha “Do you believe this?”, she didn’t give a tepid response, she gave a full throated endorsement of His divine identity and its saving powers.
You see it’s not enough to just believe that Jesus is the Son of God, St James tells us that the demons also believe, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe-and shudder.” (James 2:19). St James is telling us that an intellectual assent to the existence of God is not going to save anyone. The demons not only believed in God, they seen him face to face! But they rebelled and supplanted God’s will with their own.
We must not only believe, we must live like we believe. We must say “thy will be done” like the angels and saints, and not “non servium” like the devil and his demons.
If you are Catholic this question is answered every Sunday when we rise and profess the Creed together as one body. Also during Easter Season when we renew our baptismal promises together. Next time you say the creed, really pray it and think of the words you are saying and their extreme importance.
Remember that faith itself is a gift from God, if we ever find ourselves lacking faith we can ask God to increase our faith. Just pray the prayer of the man with the possessed child, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
If you do believe that Jesus is who He says He is, then you need to live like you believe it. Just having an intellectual assent to His divinity is not going to save your soul.
She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
I pray that we all will say these words to Jesus when we really meditate on who He is, and what that means to us in our lives. Because if He is who He says He is then He should be the primary focus of all that we do.