Mary and Martha were worried about their sick brother. They sent the messenger to their friend Jesus with speed. But in John 11 we see Jesus respond unexpectedly to this request for help from his close friends. The sisters obviously assume that he will drop everything and come heal him (v21, 32, 37). Instead, Jesus stayed where he was for two more days, until he knew his friend was dead (v6, 14).
We understand here some very important and valuable lessons of discipleship, what following Jesus looks like. First, we must understand that God’s goals are not always the same as our goals. The sisters’ goal was for their brother to be healed (and so that was their “prayer request”). But God’s goal for their family was quite different. Jesus gives us a hint of God’s two goals in their situation: (1) the glory of God, seen in Jesus Christ (v4); and (2) the good of God’s people (v5). We are specifically told that Jesus’ motivation for not healing Lazarus was his love for that family (v5)! There are some good things God can only work in our lives through suffering. And so, God was at work in the lives of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, allowing his beloved people to suffer death, and to grieve the loss of their brother.
Which brings us to our second lesson: God’s goal is not to eliminate as much suffering as he can, by any means necessary. God’s purpose is not to run around the world making people’s lives easy and comfortable. But, God does not send us meaningless suffering either. God will allow Mary and Martha (and even Lazarus!) to see more of him and his glory through this painful situation. It will be worth it in the end. They must trust God in the midst of their pain and confusion.
So, what will we do when our goal is different from God’s goal? That is the crucial moment. There is a false idea of religion and Christianity that seeks to use religion/faith/prayer/good works/rituals/etc to make God accomplish our goals for us. He is the genie in the bottle and we want our wishes granted! If I believe hard enough, or do enough good, God will have to do things my way. If we are not careful, we can fall into this subtle form of the prosperity gospel. We think we have earned the right not to suffer. We are God’s children and we seek to obey him, so he should bless our goals, dreams, & wishes. But, all boiled down, this amounts to manipulation, witchcraft and idolatry. It is reducing God to a power we control to get what we want. God himself is no longer the focus or center; he is just a means to get our real treasure – whatever goal we want him to grant. In other words, we want God to give us our idols!
But that brings us to our third lesson: true Christianity seeks to replace our goals with God’s goals in humble self-denial. God is not a power we use to get what we want; he himself is what we want! Prayer is not a way to manipulate God to accomplish our goals, but an act of self-emptying and lining up our heart with God’s will. This is the essence of discipleship, the heart of what it means to follow Christ.
These lessons are emphasized again as the story in John eleven unfolds:
Let’s Go into the Fire (7-8). After waiting two days (for Lazarus to die), Jesus announces to the disciples that they are going back to Judea. The disciples can’t believe it; that’s where his enemies are…the ones who hate him and recently tried to stone him to death (10:31, 39)! This is yet another occasion where God’s goal is different from ours. The disciples have one goal in mind: self-preservation. It would be crazy to go back into the fire! But that is just where God is leading them.
Walk in God’s Light (9-10). Jesus explains that his concern is not those who want to kill him, but walking in the light of God’s will. Jesus is the perfect example, and he is teaching his disciples here by example (Keener). Jesus is not being controlled by fear, but trusting God and obeying him in faith. Jesus is willing to walk into the fire.
Dull Disciples (11-13). Jesus now shifts the conversation back to Lazarus. Speaking metaphorically, Jesus says Lazarus has died, but Jesus is going to him to wake him up. The dull disciples don’t yet know Lazarus is dead, and they protest that Jesus should let him keep sleeping so he will get better. The dull disciples are missing Jesus’ entire focus. They are nit-picking on small details, oblivious to what God is up to. This is us!!!
I’m Glad! (14-15). Jesus corrects his disciples, speaking without figures of speech: “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there…” Why is Jesus glad that he was not there to keep Lazarus from dying? For “your sake!” Jesus knows that God’s goal here is not just for the good of Lazarus and Mary and Martha; God also has something good in mind for the disciples who follow Jesus. They are being led into a scary situation – going into the hotbed of Jesus’ enemies. But God is leading them to trust him, to walk willingly into potential pain and suffering, for his glory and their good. Specifically, Jesus says he is glad this has all happened, “so that you may believe.” Jesus’ disciples will see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, and their faith will be strengthened.
Let’s Go Die With Him (16). Thomas replies to Jesus by telling his fellow disciples, “Let’s go, so that we may die with him.” “Doubting Thomas” doesn’t seem to be doubting here; Carson calls this a display of “raw devotion and courage.” This may not be full faith, but it is a start. He has no idea what God is going to do, but he is ready to go.
Lessons and Implications:
Notice that in this story, everyone’s eyes are on self-preservation, except for Jesus; his eyes are on obeying the Father in self-denying trust, no matter what the consequences.
Also notice how this affects how we pray. Everyone’s “prayer request” is being shaped by their focus! Mary and Martha’s request is to keep Lazarus healthy. The disciples are requesting that Jesus not go into a dangerous area. Their focus on self-preservation bleeds into their request of the Lord. Do our prayers ever go deeper than self-preservation? In contrast, Jesus’ focus on self-denying obedience of the Father will overflow into his prayer request before the cross (Not my will, but yours be done! Matthew 26:42)! What is the focus of our prayer requests? Self-preservation or self-denial? Eliminating suffering, no matter what? Making our lives easier? Or getting to know God more, see his glory, trust him more, and replace our goals with his goals? Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done, for his name to be glorified, for his kingdom to come (Mat 6:9-10); he taught us to pray God-focused, God-praising, God’s-goal embracing, self-denying prayers.
This embracing of self-denial for the will of God, rather than self-preservation at any cost, is the heart of discipleship. Jesus’ call to follow him was a call to come and die to self (Luke 9:23). As we take up the cross to self and embrace God’s will, our mindset is obeying God and serving others (2 Cor 4:10; Phil 2:5-8). This is what it means to follow Jesus.
Questions for Application
What did God allow in your life this past year? What scary situation did he lead you to walk through? Did you do it? In the suffering he allowed, did you embrace self-denial or fight for self-preservation? How did you pray as you went through it…for God’s will or for yours? What was God’s goal in what he allowed in your life this year? In your estimation, is God worth suffering for? Can you trust him?
- ESV Study Bible notes. ©2008 Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
- The Gospel According To John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, by D. A. Carson. © 1991. Published in the U.K. by APOLLOS (an imprint of Inter-Varsity Press), 33 De Montfort Street, Leicester, England LE1 7GP, and in the United States by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.
- The Gospel of John, A Commentary, Volumes I & II, by Craig S. Keener. ©2003. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.