Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

July 2002
Just 15 minutes before
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column JOHN'S GOSPEL CONTAINS the magnificent story of Jesus's friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha (John 11).

Lazarus died, but Jesus told the disciples that Lazarus was sleeping and that he would go and wake him up. The disciples got very good at nodding their heads and humouring Jesus whenever he made outrageous statements like being a door or a piece of bread, so they followed along, clueless as ever.

But when Jesus got to Lazarus's grave, he prayed and called out, "Lazarus!" – who came out of the grave, alive, called back from the dead.

THE STORY IS LOVEABLE for all sorts of reasons. Growing up on the King James version, sadly what stuck in my mind first was the wording of John 11:39 – some days after Lazarus's death, Jesus ordered the grave to be opened. Martha objected, saying, "Lord, by this time he stinketh." People in the first century sure had a way with words!

Another really memorable verse, though, comes before Lazarus was revived, one of the few two-word verses in the Bible: "Jesus wept".

But wait a minute. If Jesus knew he was able to bring Lazarus back, and also knew that he was going to this, then why did he weep at the graveside? We're sometimes told that Christians shouldn't cry because they believe in the promise of the eternal resurrection at the end of time – and yet here is Jesus crying when someone will come back from the dead in less than 15 minutes' time!

Jesus had revived the dead before. There is that girl in chapter 5 of Mark, Jairus's daughter. There, too, Jesus had said to the mourners that she was only sleeping. But there we are not told that he cried.

The obvious difference between the two cases is that Jesus knew Lazarus. This was his friend; this was more personal. All his awareness that Lazarus would be revived and all his faith in the eternal resurrection did not make crying an inappropriate response to the outrage of death.

JESUS LOVED LAZARUS. And whether the effects are going to last 15 minutes until the grave is opened or 15,000 years before the resurrection of the Last Day, crying is an appropriate way to respond when death claims someone you love.

Make no mistake, where Jesus is personally involved, where there is a relationship with him, you can be sure you'll all be together again. They are but sleeping -- you'll see them in the morning.

But even when you believe with all your heart that death is only a temporary thing, it's still not inappropriate to cry. Just 15 minutes before Lazarus walked out, Jesus wept.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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