God Uses Illness
To Heal Us
In Different Ways
Mention John chapter 11 and most people think of Resurrection. No surprise there. The chapter records Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and most sermons on that chapter focus mostly on that event. It’s the dominant topic. It’s hard to study the chapter and not think about resurrection but it’s also obvious. Maybe there is something else in the chapter we should look for.
If we poke the context a little, other lessons might surface.
The Story Line
The chapter begins by stating that Lazarus is sick and it’s a seriously bad illness. His sisters, Martha and Mary, are so concerned they immediately send for Jesus. Their initial message doesn’t request a healing but their statements to Jesus on His arrival – after Lazarus’ death – indicate that’s what they expected.
Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. (Martha v. 21, Mary v. 32)
After meeting with Martha and Mary separately, Jesus goes to the tomb, followed by a the large crowd who came to mourn with the sisters, and raises Lazarus from the dead.
Those are the obvious bits. As I said, there are undercurrents. For now, you might classify the story as a tragedy with an unusual twist at the end.
A Few Observations About Jesus
His first response to the sisters’ message seems hard, insensitive and uncaring. Instead of immediately preparing to leave for Bethany, He waits two days, v. 6. His response raises an important question. Would a caring person do that? Why wait so long when someone is so seriously ill?
That question is actually answered before we can ask. The Bible plainly says that Jesus loved these siblings, not as a group, but He loved each one individually: Martha AND Mary AND Lazarus.
What is being said is, whatever Jesus’ response He was doing the most loving thing He could do and in this case He was loving all three, not just Lazarus. That adds a new dimension to the way we measure love. What you do to love one person might not be good for another but in this case, His actions are aimed at all three.
Jesus also makes several cryptic remarks as to the meaning of these events, any one of which could be the topic of a single essay. For example:
This sickness is not unto death. v. 4
. . . When Lazarus clearly died. That isn’t to say Jesus made an incorrect statement or the Gospel writer made a mistake. It means we need to put our thinking cap on before jumping to shallow conclusions.
A Few Observations About Martha, Mary and Lazarus
The primary characters are Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
These siblings were apparently well known and respected. Many of the Jews in Jerusalem visited their home when Lazarus died.
The siblings were probably wealthy.
- Their home was apparently big enough to entertain Jesus, His disciples and several of His followers (Luke 10, John 12).
- They had a family tomb, the one in which Lazarus was briefly buried.
A bigger than usual house and a family tomb were symbols of status. They had means.
Also, there is no indication the siblings were married. No spouses were mentioned.
Their parents were never mentioned so it is likely they were deceased. They are never featured in the scenes at the family home or in the drama surrounding the death of Lazarus. Surely if they had been alive they would have had something to say.
Martha was the dominant sister and that may mean she was the older of the two girls. Apart from birth-order, though, Martha seems to be a type-A personality. She was the get-things-done-my-way type and Mary was more type-B, who could enjoy the moment and was interested in people.
Martha showed more initiative and was definitely more outspoken than Mary or Lazarus. She displayed a manager’s sense of her surroundings and a leaders tendency to take charge.
- She was the first to meet Jesus when He arrived near Bethany.
- She was the one who told Mary to go and see Jesus as if she were commanding her to do so. She even said Jesus requested Mary to meet Him, although the text doesn’t mention it.
- Even at the tomb, when Jesus requested the stone be rolled away, she couldn’t help but warn Him that Lazarus stank, as if Jesus and every other person there wouldn’t know that.
- On a previous occasion, Luke 10, she complained to Jesus about Mary not helping with hosting responsibilities (serving and cleaning), vs. 38-42.
The friction apparent in that last observation probably characterized Martha’s relationship with people generally and particularly with Mary. No doubt if Jesus hadn’t been there, Lazarus would have been the sounding board for Martha’s invective.
Martha reads like a commanding, insistent type of person who says exactly what she thinks and usually gets what she wants. Mary says very little, seems to be subject to her sister’s commands and Lazarus seems like the strong but quiet type. Nothing he says is recorded in the Bible. Not a word but he was important to both sisters. Why?
The Real Problem
The real issue wasn’t the illness or death of Lazarus but the hole his absence would leave in the family unit.
That is always an issue. Every person’s life introduces an emotional charge for good or bad, positive or negative, in those around them. With positive connections, death brings grief. Negative ones bring relief.
The connection between Martha and Mary was probably more negative than positive and the loss of Lazarus would magnify that.
Lazarus Was The Buffer
Lazarus reads like a peacekeeper, the one Martha and Mary deferred to when friction arose between them. How would things go should he die an early death.
Lazarus Was The Protective Male Figure
If neither lady was married yet, Lazarus was the only protective male figure for both. His death would leave them somewhat vulnerable.
I need to say a word about culture here. Culture has always afforded men a higher status, more respect and recognition, than women. Equality has never been the social rule, even when it is the law, and it was worse for these ladies.
If they were to get married, the engagement would have been negotiated by the nearest responsible male relative. For both that was Lazarus. His death would leave them desperate, in a sense and that surely had them worried.
Disclaimer. The Bible neither teaches nor endorses the culturally stimulated idea that men and women are unequal. And there is one example that illustrates the point well.
Zelophehad had four daughters and no sons (Numbers 27) and he died at the end of Exodus, just before they reached Canaan, leaving his daughters with no male protector. The girl’s weren’t daunted by this. They approached Moses and the leaders at the Tabernacle – I visualize them with head held high and a respectful but determined gaze – and made their claim for their father’s land. Not having an immediate answer, Moses asked God what he should. The answer? Allow the daughters to inherit their father’s land.
Moses was confused by cultural practices. God’s response clarified the issue for him and all succeeding generations. The culture may not allow it but as far as God is concerned, women have equal rights to men.
Classic Case Of Unintentional Enabling
I’m sure Lazarus didn’t intend it but being the continual buffer for Martha and Mary only encouraged their inability to work together. That is one reason they became so worried when he fell deathly ill.
I wouldn’t say God caused this sickness but He did use it to force the issue. Shortly after Lazarus was raised (John 12) Jesus visited their home once again and this time there was no fussing or disagreement. Martha and Mary served but in very different ways. Martha served the table, Mary served Jesus.
Mary used a very expensive perfume to anoint the feet of Jesus and the only one who complained was Judas. The sisters got along. Lazarus sat peacefully at the table with Jesus and the disciples.
Sickness Can Build Character
Sickness is a game changer. Death doesn’t always follow directly but when someone gets sick, plans are halted, schedules rearranged and sometimes lives are changed forever.
Sickness gets in the way and it’s costly. WHO reported that the USA’s annual cost for just the Flu ranges between $71-$167 billion per year. Anger and anxiety are natural responses to sickness but getting over these emotions and responding differently is character building.
The opening statement, “Now a certain man was sick . . .” resonates with all of us. It’s universal. We should avoid it when we can – and there’s a lot we can do to avoid it – but learn to use it when it happens.