Leading up to Easter, we’ve been considering the events surrounding the last week of Christ before the Cross. As we’ve seen, one of the major events that occurred during this time, just days before the Holy Week began, was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. And while we read this account with the benefit of hindsight, those involved at the time — who were caught up in the moment — weren’t so fortunate. Because they didn’t yet know what we now know, they had questions—both intellectual and emotional! There are many parallels with the questions raised in this account and what many of us are asking and facing now as we come to grips with the impact of COVID-19. We can well imagine what Martha and Mary of Bethany must have been experiencing especially after the tragic death of their brother, Lazarus, and the apparent indifference of Jesus to their plight.
So, when He heard that Lazarus was ill, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was.
¶ Now when Jesus came, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
Their questions may well have included some that many are asking today- “Why did God let this happen?” “Why didn’t Jesus prevent this?” “Why didn’t God answer my prayers?” “Doesn’t God love us anymore?” “Why is Jesus taking so long to respond to our cries for help?”
Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met Him, but Mary remained seated in the house.
When Lazarus was unwell and it soon became obvious that he was dying, Martha and Mary of Bethany sent word to Jesus asking Him to come quickly. When word reached Jesus, He didn’t respond. In fact, He intentionally delayed going to them, and to make matters worse in the eyes of those trying to understand Christ’s apparent carelessness, He told His disciples that He was waiting for Lazarus to die before He went to Martha and Mary of Bethany!
Then after this He said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” After saying these things, He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He meant taking rest in sleep.
The questions that Martha and Mary of Bethany asked during their grief over the loss of their brother are questions that many of the psalmists asked as well, especially when God also seemed to them to be indifferent to their predicament and silent during their time of distress.
¶ To you, O LORD, I call;
my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit.
Why, O LORD, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Interestingly though, as we study the history of the Church, we notice that the Christians of the earliest times weren’t as inclined to ask these tough questions of God as the psalmists did or Christians of later times have (and do). Professor Glenn Sunshine (Professor of History of Central Connecticut State University) makes the point that in the 2nd century AD the Roman Empire had a plague sweep through which was killing people by the thousands. The chief medical officer of the Roman Empire, Galen, left Rome for his country estate in the hope of avoiding the deadly epidemic. He noted that most of Rome’s physicians did the same. Professor Sunshine, referring to the records of Galen, notes that not everyone fled Rome at this time though. He writes–
There was one exception to this.
Christians—an unpopular and sporadically persecuted religious minority—ran to the plague-stricken areas instead of away from them to care for and comfort the sick and dying. Galen, who found Jews and Christians interesting, though gullible, notes that Christians acted this way because they had no fear of death, believing that if they died, they would pass into a better life.
A century after Galen’s Plague, Professor Sunshine continues, there was another even deadlier epidemic sweeping across the Empire.
A century after Galen’s plague, another horrific disease spread across the Empire, known to historians as the Plague of Cyprian. It was named after a bishop who described it in detail. He explained that when people became ill, their families would take them out and throw them into the streets to die, as if by hiding their deaths the families could avoid death itself.
Once again, the exception was the Christians, who went out and ministered to those dying in the streets, once again at great risk to their own lives, once again in confidence that if they died, they would go to Heaven. One Christian noted that death was inevitable and martyrdom common, and it made little difference to him if he were martyred by the sword or by disease.
Sociologist, Professor Rodney Stark, notes that nursing traces its roots back to the times when Christians ministered to the sick and dying during Europe’s bubonic plague of the 4th century. Even the very basic nursing care provided by these caring Christians was sufficient to save many lives even when it led to these Christians laying down their own lives. Professor Sunshine notes that this Christian tradition continued through to the 14th century when Europe’s deadliest plague wiped out 48% of it population. This plague became known as The Black Death. But the highest rate of mortality occurred among Christian pastors who selflessly tended to the sick and dying.
When the Black Death arrived in Europe in 1347-51, it killed about 48% of the population based on the best current research. Plague was no respecter of persons: people died without regard for social class or standing. The only group that stands out is the clergy: they died at a greater percentage than the general population because they went to comfort the sick and dying and thus exposed themselves to the disease knowing that they could contract it themselves.
CONFUSING THEOLOGICAL QUESTIONS
Before Jesus arrived at the home of Martha and Mary of Bethany, He was met by Martha who had what might be understood as angry questions for Christ. These questions sounded like — “Where have You been!?” (Hurting and grieving people nearly always experience an anger that is often directed at God.)
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met Him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.
Professor John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, has been one of the first Christian apologists to respond to how Christians should think about COVID-19 in his book WHERE IS GOD IN A CORONAVIRUS WORLD? He refers to this episode in John 11 with Jesus meeting Martha as He approached their home in Bethany. Martha, Professor Lennox argues, seems to switch her line of questioning to a very intellectual level (as if she was almost embarrassed that she had shown any emotion to Christ). Sometimes people who raise intellectual objections about God are simply putting up a smoke-screen to hide their emotional ache.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to Him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
But when Mary of Bethany comes to Jesus, she is distraught and wearing her emotions on her sleeve.
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled.
Christ’s response to Mary of Bethany was quite different to His theological response to her sister, but no less appropriate, Professor Lennox points out. Mary came weeping, and Christ’s response to her was tender.
And He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.
Jesus ministered to Martha’s intellectual questions with profound theology. In a reflective moment, it’s worth considering the enormous implications of what Jesus said to her about the eternal state and destiny of all who put their trust in Christ as their Redeemer. No matter what intellectual questions or objections people might proffer against God’s goodness, there is always an intellectually and theologically satisfying response to be found in God’s Word. And Jesus ministered to Mary’s emotional questions (notice how similar sounding hers was to her sister’s) in a way that shows some questions don’t need answers—they need a hug and someone to weep with them. But Jesus did more than answer Martha and weep with Mary of Bethany. He did something.
But some of them said, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” ¶ Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard Me. I knew that you always hear Me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent Me.” When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” ¶ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what He did, believed in Him.
TRAGEDIES COME TO PASS BUT ETERNITY IS HERE TO STAY
What Jesus did for Martha and Mary of Bethany (and for Lazarus) was a foreshadow of what He will do for all who put their trust in Him as their Saviour. F.W. Boreham writes that Jesus wept outside of the tomb of Lazarus—not just because He was deeply moved by Mary’s tears, but because of what He was about to do to Lazarus! (Jesus knew where Lazarus really was while everyone else thought he was a corpse in a tomb.) This reveals a profoundly different perspective on suffering and even death. For those who turn from their own self-reliance to trusting in the only offer available to enter into eternal life, what was said of Lazarus to Martha is also true for them- “Your brother will rise again.” (John 11:23)
As this coronavirus kills thousands everyday around the world, we may well be asking God -“Why?” or, “How did You let this happen?” or, “What have we done to deserve this?” or, “Where are You God?” or, “When will this end?” But perhaps a better question is “What would you have me do to help others in this trying time Lord?”
This pandemic is not the first one the world had endured, and it probably won’t be the last one either. It’s natural though that we and those around us ask these why/how/when/where questions of God during such times. But as we draw strength and insight from God’s Word we are reminded that the things of this life are just “momentary light afflictions” and our ultimate destiny is to receive a body that will never perish or wear-out which will be perfectly fit for a dimension where time will always be today.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
About two weeks after Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, He, after He had suffered a horrible and humiliating treatment by the authorities which led to His execution, was also raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 1:4). But, unlike Lazarus, Christ’s resurrection was a lasting one and the “firstfruits” of all who trust in Him (Col. 1:18). Therefore, as the Apostle Paul told the Thessalonians about the resurrection that awaits all believers, “Comfort one another with these words” (First Thessalonians 4:18). This is why those who are called to heal — doctors, nurses, specialists, therapists — are ministering the grace of God in a long line and tradition of how those who have been inspired by Christ. As with previous pandemics, this current pandemic is yet another example of how Christ calls His followers to minister to the hurting, confused, suffering, and dying. (The next time you see a nurse, a doctor, a surgeon, or a specialist, thank God for them!)
Throughout all this, Christians were following the example of Jesus: He was a healer, so we too should tend the sick. Bodily health is important because this body is important, and so everywhere the Gospel has gone it has brought hospitals. But our bodily life in this world is not of ultimate importance, and so in love we are called to lay down our lives for our neighbors in need.
Professor Glenn Sunshine
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