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July 24 lesson: The Word Resurrects

July 17, 2022
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The Word Resurrects

Summer Quarter: Partners in a New Creation
Unit 2: The Word: The Agent of Creation


Sunday school lesson for the week of July 24, 2022
By Dr. Jay Harris


Lesson Scripture: John 11:17-27, 38-44

Jesus Prepares for His Seventh and Final Sign

In this unit we have been seeking a deeper understanding of the Word as “the agent of creation.” Each lesson has been uncovering another layer of who the Word is and what the Word does. Today’s lesson is entitled “The Word Resurrects.” Remember that John’s gospel is the gospel that presents the miracles of Jesus as a series of seven signs – each sign pointing to the Word made flesh and revealing an aspect of his nature. The presentations of these signs have been building as a crescendo. Today’s lesson presents the seventh and final sign.

Our scripture lesson begins:

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

This scripture begins with Jesus’ arrival to the tomb of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. The three were close friends of Jesus. It is Jesus’ first contact with a member of the family since he first heard that Lazarus was so gravely ill. The real beginning of the story happened four days earlier when Jesus was located a good distance away from Bethany and heard the news that Lazarus was ill and near death. Mary and Martha had sent word to him to come and heal Lazarus.

The problem was that Bethany was only two miles away from Jerusalem. When Jesus told the disciples that they were being summoned to Bethany, the disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus and the disciples had gotten a good distance away from Jerusalem because of the antagonism of the religious leaders. They were plotting to arrest him and put an end to him. Jerusalem represented extreme danger. None of this was lost on Jesus.

The strange thing was that 1) Jesus was committed to go to Bethany, and 2) he was in no hurry to get there. He, of course, was not simply procrastinating. He was not simply being cold and unfeeling toward his friends. In fact, John is careful to tell us how much Jesus loved this family. So, the question is, if Jesus loved Lazarus, and loved Mary and Martha, why did Jesus delay? Jesus was waiting for Lazarus to die – and to be dead long enough to be beyond any hope of resuscitating him. The delay was designed to give Lazarus time to die, for the mourners to gather, and the stench of death to surround the tomb. Jesus intended to perform his greatest sign to date: to bring the dead to life.

This sign would reveal Jesus’ divine glory as no other sign had before, but it would also bring the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus to a head. Jesus could see the very near future when there would be no effort or means to escape his death as he had numerous times before. Going to Bethany, only two miles from Jerusalem, was to go to the center of the Jewish world, where his actions would have the greatest effect. It was also a very dangerous place. Thomas felt the impending doom of the moment when he said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) Jesus knew there was no going back after Bethany. Jesus was committed to perform this last sign.

Jesus Explained What He Was About to Do

When Jesus arrived, the first thing he had to hear was Martha’s disappointment, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died…

22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha was clearly disappointed that Jesus had not come to heal her brother, but she still held out hope that Jesus could pray and God would give him whatever he asked. Jesus told her that her brother would rise again. Martha said that she knew her brother would rise again in the resurrection at the end of time, which was a widely held Jewish belief at the time. (Matthew, Mark, and Luke confirm this belief by telling of a sect of Sadducees who came to Jesus to test him about the resurrection, which this particular Sadducee sect did not believe.) Martha believed Lazarus would be raised in a resurrection at the end of time, but that’s not what Jesus meant when Jesus said that her brother would rise again. Jesus meant that Lazarus would rise again that day.

This is how Jesus began to communicate this truth to Martha. Jesus said to Martha: “I AM the resurrection and the life.” In other words, resurrection is not some distant hope. Jesus himself was and is life and resurrection. Jesus held the keys to life and resurrection. This is one of seven “I AM” sayings in John’s gospel. Below are the seven “I AM” sayings:
  1. I AM the bread of life.
  2. I AM the light of the world.
  3. I AM the door.
  4. I AM the good shepherd.
  5. I AM the resurrection and the life.
  6. I AM the way, the truth, and the life.
  7. I AM the true vine.
Just as John presents seven signs, he also presents seven “I AM” sayings. Seven is the Jewish numerical symbol for perfection. In John’s gospel, when Jesus says “I AM,” there is an emphasis in the original Greek (ego eimi). Jesus is saying the words “I AM” when it was not necessary because the first-person singular would normally be understood. To emphasize “I AM” in this way connects the reader to the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14 – God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” Jesus connected himself to the “I AM” who spoke through the burning bush. Every metaphor connected with these sayings reveals something about the great “I AM.”

So, when Jesus tells Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life,” he wants her to put her trust in Jesus as the divine One who himself wields the power of resurrection and of life. This power belongs to him, and it is therefore his to give as lovingly and generously as he desires. Notice that Jesus is not just applying this power in the case of Lazarus. Here, Jesus is saying that all those who believe in him, even though they die, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die.

Jesus asked Martha if she believed all this. She professed, right then and there, her belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the promised One. Notice that everything Jesus does, he does so to bring about belief, because all who believe in him become children of God, experience spiritual rebirth, and are ushered into eternal life.

Knowing what we know in the story, Jesus’ offer of eternal life comes at the cost of Jesus’ life. It is ironic to recall that when Jesus made the decision to go to Bethany to raise Lazarus to life, Jesus had consciously moved toward his own imminent arrest and death – death by crucifixion. As Jesus prepared to call Lazarus out from the tomb, Jesus was setting in motion the chain of events that would put Jesus in a tomb. None of this was lost on Jesus.

In John 11:28-37, we’re told that Mary, the other sister, came to Jesus weeping for her brother and lamenting that Jesus had not come earlier to heal her brother before he died. When Jesus saw Mary weeping and the community weeping with her, Jesus was profoundly moved, even disturbed in his spirit. When they approached the tomb, Jesus began to weep openly. Even though Jesus knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, the reality of death and grief and mourning hit him hard. He was greatly disturbed again when he drew near to the tomb and smelled the stench of death. Why wouldn’t he? In short time, Jesus would be taking the place of Lazarus, in a sense, when his own body would be placed in a tomb.

When we take in all this, we see the stark contrast between life and death. Jesus accepted the inevitability of his own death so that not only Lazarus could live, but we also, those who believe in Jesus, could live.

Jesus Raises the Dead to Life

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

John’s gospel takes us to the tomb of Lazarus and describes the cave, the stone lying against it, and the smell of death. When Jesus ordered the stone to be removed, Martha reacted as anyone would. Jesus reassured her that she was about to see the glory of God. Jesus was just as capable as we are of praying silently, but Jesus prayed aloud so his audience would know that the power about to be displayed was coming from the unity of the Father and the Son expressed in prayer. Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” With these words, Jesus commanded Lazarus back to life. The Word made flesh is the Word that resurrects. Lazarus came out still wrapped in the cloths used to prepare a body for burial. Jesus then commanded the bystanders to unwrap Lazarus to release this man who was now alive.

This was Jesus’ seventh sign. The resurrection of Lazarus did bring things to a head with the religious leaders just as Jesus knew it would. Jesus and the disciples went to a town on the edge of the desert wilderness to wait until the Passover festival which was near. With the Passover of the Jews being near, many went up from the country to Jerusalem to the temple to prepare themselves. John’s gospel tells us that everyone was wondering where Jesus was. They were looking for Jesus. They were asking one another whether or not Jesus would dare step into Jerusalem: “Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Common sense told them that Jesus would stay away from the festival. Little did they know that Jesus was committed to his mission and destiny in Jerusalem. We’re also told that the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him. (John 11:55-57)

Everything about the raising of Lazarus and the aftermath underscores the fact that this seventh sign of Jesus was to be his last. The raising of Lazarus was his climactic sign. This sign was a defining moment. With this being a sign, we need to consider where the sign points. A sign always points outside itself to a larger reality. We know that the raising of Lazarus pointed to none other than Jesus’ own resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is the larger reality that changed everything. The story of resurrection in the 11th chapter of John was intended to be a preview of the resurrection story that will come in the 20th chapter – Jesus’ own resurrection.

Resurrection is essential to understanding the gospel. This cannot be emphasized enough. The gospel story without the resurrection is not just a story without its final chapter – it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ at all. Believing in the Word means embracing the resurrection as an essential truth. If we are to answer the call to be partners in a new creation, we must incorporate the truth of the resurrection into our theological view of life.

We are Easter people. We are people of hope and divine possibilities. We can die to self, and sin, and all short-term gratification because we take the long view. We live not for rewards on earth, but for rewards in heaven. We live for eternity because it has been promised to us by the Resurrection and the Life that believers, when they die, shall live again. So, in a way, believers never die, because they go on to live in eternity with God.

Eternity does not begin the moment we die. It begins the moment we become believers in Christ. In John’s gospel, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and does not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24) Eternal life becomes a present reality for believers in terms of their hope and in terms of their priorities.

The Apostle Paul said it another way in the 2nd chapter of Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” He could imagine his life being crucified with Christ, nevertheless understanding that he gets to go on living. He lives, but it is no longer he who goes on living, it is Christ living in him. Therefore, the life he now lives in his flesh, he lives by faith in the Son of God who loves him and who gave himself for him. The one who gave himself on the cross was raised to life, so that he could die and be raised to new life – not just in the hereafter, but in the here and now.

Do you have an Easter perspective? Is Easter a distant hope for you, or is it the starting point of your faith journey? Try reflecting on this question each day in this next week. When you are feeling despair, come back to this question.

Prayer

Lord God | Jesus announced that he is the resurrection and the life and that he holds the keys to life | Help us to believe in life as a gift – Jesus’ gift to give – and the importance of a relationship with Jesus | That we may put all of ourselves into this relationship and live into this reality | Through Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, Amen.

Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at jharris@sgaumc.com. Find his plot-driven guide to reading the Bible, the “Layered Bible Journey,” at www.layeredbiblejourney.com.  

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