Growing up in evangelical circles, I often witnessed the odd Christian ritual of sharing your life verse. The life verse was some particular passage from Scripture that people grasped onto as a special word from the Lord for them. It would sometimes, then, help shape their lives as they sought to live according to its command or promise. Nothing about that is necessarily wrong, but such understanding of the verse usually lacked the context that actually gives the verse a meaning beyond our personal appropriation of it. Maybe that’s why there were hardly any life verses drawn from Leviticus, Lamentations, or Revelation! Instead, many people turn to passages such as Proverbs 3:5–6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” and Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you.”
As a preacher’s kid and a bit of a smart aleck, I decided to turn the life-verse idea on its head a bit and chose John 11:35 for my verse: “Jesus wept.” What was funny and clever to me as a teenager is now strangely comforting to me (dare I say it, nearly a life verse) now that I’m older. To understand why, I need to turn to the story of Lazarus.
Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, were close friends of Jesus. “He loved them” (John 11:5). Here, we have an interesting glimpse into Jesus’ private life. We’re so used to seeing Jesus in the company of his disciples that we forget he probably had seasons of his life spent outside of the public eye in the company of friends such as Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Like many people, Lazarus fell ill. Sadly, it was a terminal illness. His sisters, knowing of Jesus’ care and compassion for their family and of his power to do great things, called on him to come and heal their brother (John 11:3). But Jesus didn’t come right away, delaying so that the glory of God might be revealed in this situation (John 11:4).
What we learn from all of this is that Jesus wasn’t motivated by the same things that motivate you and me. He was on a divine schedule, and the purpose of all his teaching and miracles was to peel back another onion layer of his person and work, to explain to a watching world why God had taken on human flesh to walk among them. The miracles that changed people’s lives were wonderful, and the teaching was profound and moving. But Jesus taught and performed miracles so that he might be known by those he came to save. There’s an important insight here. Whether you are new to Jesus or a longtime disciple, you must be aware of how Jesus works and operates. Otherwise, you may become disillusioned with Jesus: his teaching becomes “old hat,” and his miracles don’t live up to their promise in your life. But all along, you’ve really been missing the real deal. Jesus didn’t come to make a guest appearance in Lazarus’s life (or your life or my life). We’re not the point. Jesus came to write Lazarus into the grand production that has Jesus in the starring role. You and I are also being written into the Jesus story. It’s not the other way around.
When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, he was met by Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary (John 11:21, 32). Understandably, the heart-wrenching question from both of them was why? Why didn’t you come earlier, Jesus? Why didn’t you show up when our need was greatest? Why didn’t you answer our call? (You thought this was an ancient story, but really it’s very modern.) Like us, Martha and Mary knew that Jesus could do great things, but they were confused, perplexed by his absence in their greatest hour of need. We need to be gentle here, but the problem with that question is its severe shortsightedness: You could have done something! That’s why Jesus in his conversation with Martha didn’t dwell on the past—no excuses, no explanation. Instead, he pointed Martha toward the future: “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23).
Now, just like today, the question of the afterlife in Jesus’ time was a hot one. Some ancient Jews believed as Christians do now, that at the end of the age God will raise people from the dead to enter into a new, eternal existence—a life with him in a new heavens and new earth. Others, however, believe that when you’re dead, you’re dead, and the only afterlife that you can speak of is the fond feelings people have of you after you die.
According to Martha’s answer, we know she believed that there was going to be a future resurrection of the dead (John 11:24). But Jesus wanted her to reevaluate the expectations she had of him—the expectations that, when unmet, led her to cry out to Jesus in anguish, “If only you had been here!” Jesus essentially said to Martha, “I’m not interested in the past (what I could have done), and for the moment, I’m not even interested in the future. I’m interested in the present. I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
As with every other “I am” statement in the Gospel of John, this statement tells us something about Jesus’ mission. Jesus will not only raise people on the last day, but he himself is the resurrection and the life. Verses 25 and 26 are two parts of the same idea, but one looks forward and one looks to the present. In verse 25, Jesus claimed to be the resurrection. He said that because of him, the hope of all people is that our own death (like Lazarus’s death) will not be the final word. Instead, we will be part of a final resurrection that leads to never-ending life. That’s the future. But verse 26 is firmly anchored in the present: Everyone who lives and believes in him shall never die. In other words, Jesus wasn’t just telling Martha to have hope for the future; he was offering her hope at that very moment. Life—heavenly life, saving life, eternal life, the life of God—is something that can be had right now through Jesus.
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asked. Martha answered, “Yes, Lord, I believe” (John 11:27). The question comes to you as well: Do you believe this? If you don’t, then nothing about the life you live or the death you will die will make sense to you. But if you do believe, then the promise of Jesus is that even in this life, you can live a resurrection life—a life animated not by the stench of death, disease, and despair, but by the very aroma of God’s own heavenly life. This life isn’t something to be had only when we are raised to eternal life with God; it is something that belongs to us today, because Jesus is the resurrection and the life; and those who are identified with Jesus, united to him by faith, share as certainly in the present promises of God as they do in the future promises of God.
I started by saying that John 11:35—“Jesus wept”—remains an important verse to me. Now I want to explain why. Jesus comes to the tomb, and even though he is about to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, to give him new life, he weeps. In fact, he does more than weep; he is deeply moved and greatly troubled (v. 33). Those English adjectives don’t quite get at the heart of Jesus’ feeling. He doesn’t just approach the tomb with furrowed brow; he is overwhelmed by anger and sorrow. He doesn’t stand silently before the tomb; he is angry, outraged, and indignant when face-to-face with death. It’s not too far-fetched to hear in these words a guttural groan of anguish.
It is important that we see this side of Jesus. It is important to see our incarnate God weep in the face of death, to know that he feels the horror of sin’s curse. I need to know and remind myself every day—when faced by the death that permeates so much of my life and my family’s life—that Jesus wept, that he is not unfeeling, uncaring, or undisturbed by what cripples me. I need to know that, if anything, Jesus feels the horror of my situation even more acutely than I can feel it, knows it more deeply than I can know it, and cares more passionately than I can ever care.
There is strange comfort in knowing that Jesus feels my pain, but even that isn’t the good news. Jesus doesn’t just stop with passion. He goes on to resurrection. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, crying out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43). The Word incarnate, the same Word that spoke creation into being, spoke life back into Lazarus and he stumbled out of the tomb (John 11:44).
Now many commentators are quick to point out that Lazarus lived only to die another day—and that’s true. Even now Lazarus does not enjoy the fullness of the resurrection life that Jesus promised then. Like us, he must wait for the last day, when the same voice that called to him in Bethany will call to all of us in our graves, reanimating our physical bodies and joining body and soul together forever in a new glorified body.
But the life Lazarus lived that day and for the rest of his days was in many ways a picture, a parable, a living object lesson of what resurrection life looks like, even for you and me right now. You see, not too many days later, Lazarus and his sisters would hear of Jesus’ death on a cross just down the road from Bethany, and the grief and fear that overtook them would be matched only by the great joy that would flood their hearts three days later when they learned he had risen again. Every day Lazarus lived after that first Easter would be lived knowing that he was living on the down payment of the everlasting life that Jesus promised. His entire life orientation would be changed, because he knew that God was present and active right now, and that all he enjoyed in this life was just a foretaste of the life to come. The life that you and I also live, though not out of reach of sin and death, is a life that is lived in anticipation of our own resurrection, because it is a life lived in the glorious light of Easter.
Do you believe this? Even though Lazarus walked out of the tomb that day in Bethany, the big news that day came when Martha said, “Yes, Lord, I believe.” Can you say that? If you can, it does not matter what awaits you in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. For if Jesus is the resurrection and the life, then nothing—not even death itself—can rob you of the very life of God that is yours today, tomorrow, and forever.
Eric Landry is executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He also serves as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Austin, Texas.