So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short time ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” (John 11:3-8)
When we urgently “send word” to Jesus in prayer, we look for a response that matches our urgency. A dying brother calls for immediate action; there is no other loving response that we can imagine. But our imagination seriously limits our expectations of the God who “is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” (Eph 3:20)
In this conversation with His disciples, Jesus reveals several truths we do well to take into account when we pray. The first is that in all things, God knows the end from the beginning, and so often that end will not be what we assume or anticipate. Jesus knew that He would raise Lazarus from the dead — not an outcome most people would contemplate.
The second truth is that God alone knows the purposes of everything that happens to us, whether good, bad or indifferent. The sisters could only see the life-threatening illness. They must have been hard-pressed to understand when Jesus didn’t respond immediately. But God matches His timing with His purposes. One of God’s purposes here was to demonstrate that He could go far beyond healing illness; He could destroy death itself. Jesus could have gone immediately to Lazarus and healed him, but that would have had far less impact for His kingdom. As it was, Lazarus had been dead four days, removing any argument that he had merely been resuscitated. His resurrection was a miracle no one who witnessed it could refute. And because many people had come to comfort the sisters after his death, there were plenty of witnesses. The timing was perfect.
The third truth is that God’s move in response to our call may seem incomprehensible to others. The disciples couldn’t understand why Jesus would put himself in danger to go back to Judea. He could merely have spoken the word and healed Lazarus without going to Bethany, as he did with the Centurion’s servant, but that would not have fulfilled the greater purposes.
“So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (v. 14-15)
The fourth truth is that God is working on many levels in His answers to our prayers. His purpose was not just to raise Lazarus from the dead — surely the ultimate healing — but to empower others to believe in Jesus and to witness to their belief. The impact on Lazarus would be great, but the impact for the kingdom of God even greater:
“. . .many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. . . . So from that day on they plotted to take his life.” (v. 45-6; 53)
A clear move of God in answer to prayer will bring one of two responses. In some, it will build or solidify faith. In others, it will be seen as a threat. Those determined to run things themselves will try to destroy God’s work.
Both of these outcomes were in line with God’s purposes. The first is obvious. The second, the plotting of the religious establishment who were threatened by Jesus, was necessary to bring Him to the cross. His death and resurrection were essential if we were to be redeemed and given new life. God is able to turn dark motives to His purpose — to work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called to His purpose. (Rom 8:28)
Verse 35 is the shortest in the Bible, and one of the most profound: “Jesus wept.” This underlines the truth that God is far from indifferent to our suffering. Even though Jesus knew how this part of the story would end, He was deeply affected by the grief of Mary and Martha. He is with us in our suffering, as He is in our rejoicing. And in this, his response is timeless.