The Bible plainly declares that God is love (1 John 4:8). How true! But this truth is governed by God and his word rather than our vain imaginations and unbridled expectations. God is love in the way he means rather than the way we think. The sickness and death of Lazarus recorded in John chapter 11 is an apt illustration of God and his love, and how he deigns to operate in that love.
The Bible plainly declares that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus (John 11:5). How true! But the behaviour of that love is deliberate and startling. This behavior should inform our expectations and overhaul our presumptions. Lazarus fell deathly sick. Martha and Mary sent Jesus a message to let him know. Jesus did nothing.* Lazarus died. If Jesus really loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, why did he not respond to their message and let Lazarus die of the sickness he had?
1. For God so loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus that He stayed where He was and tarried even longer. When Jesus received the message of Lazarus’s sickness “he abode two days still in the same place where he was”(John 11:6), tarrying so that by the time he arrived in Bethany Lazarus was buried and “had lain in the grave four days already” (John 11:17).
Our time is not God’s time. God exists outside of time and is unencumbered by it. Time is man’s master, not God’s. “…be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8) Though God exists outside of time he manages it, operates within its events, and interacts with man who is servant of it. “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), even “a time to die” with which Lazarus would soon met. Because “therefore will the Lord wait…blessed are all they that wait for him.” (Isaiah 30:18) The day that Jesus received the message from Martha and Mary was not “when the fulness of the time was come” according to God’s calendar to hasten to Bethany.
2. For God so loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus that he didn’t fulfill their desire. The message sent to Jesus was “he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:3), and it was a desire of Lazarus’s sisters that he be healed. They could hope for it and believed that “if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died” (John 11: 21,32). Not only did the sisters believe, but others thought this man Jesus could “have caused that even this man should not have died” (John 11:37). Though we are taught to believe we will receive what we ask God for (Mark 11:22-25), God’s will is the decisive factor. Prayer is no blank check to purchase every man’s whim. “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” (1 John 5:14-15) Lazarus’s sickness was not about sickness and death, but about the glory of God. And, frankly, often our expectations are too low when dealing with “him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us” (Ephesians 3:20).
3. For God so loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus that He raised Lazarus from the dead. Glory! This sickness of Lazarus was “not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby” (John 11:4). Clearly there is something much larger operating than the mere sickness and death of Lazarus – an event designed for the glory of God and “to the intent ye may believe” (John 11:15). But wait! While focusing on the glory of a resurrection from the dead, we might forget to consider some practical ramifications. To raise Lazarus from the dead means he had to return from a better place – a place where he gained relief from all present sickness and absence of any future pain. This raising meant Lazarus became something of a “side show”, with people trekking to Bethany “that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead” (John 12:9). Further this miraculous event put a target on Lazarus’s back so that “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death” (John 12:10) because he was a visible testimony of the glory of God and power of Jesus Christ and “by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.” (John 12:11)
“Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” (John 11:39).
“he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth” (John 11:43-44).
“For God is love” and “for God so loved” are wonderful words, but words of love interpreted “according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). By man’s reckoning of time, Jesus seemed to be four days late. By God’s schedule he was right on time!
* We cannot mean to say or believe that Jesus actually “did nothing” – but that from the human perception of the initial events, he appeared to be doing nothing to rectify the problem.