The Confusing and Perfect Love of Christ
From Gospel Translations
My toddler has a little stuffed lamb. When you squeeze him, the lamb sings, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Jesus loves me. Words simple enough for my son to understand. Jesus loves me. Words that, according to Paul, surpass all human knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). So unfathomable is the love of Jesus that we need Spirit-wrought strength to comprehend its length and width and height and depth.
That’s one reason the story of Lazarus in John 11 is so precious. In one story, we see both the simplicity of the love of Jesus and its incomprehensibility. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5). He loved them. And he loves us. And this story shows us just how surprising and unfathomable that love can be.
When Jesus Is Confusing
To refresh the story, Lazarus is ill. His sisters send word to Jesus, and Jesus decisively declares, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God” (John 11:4). This prepares us for something big. As readers, we’re primed for a sign — for a public supernatural act that demonstrates who Jesus is, like turning water into wine, or feeding five thousand, or healing a crippled man, or making a blind man see.
But then confusion sets in. When the sisters send word — “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3) — they clearly expect him to come. And yet Jesus delays. “So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:6). He waits two more days after getting the news. It’s confusing.
When Jesus tells his disciples, he seems to speak in riddles. “Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). If he’s asleep, Jesus, he’ll wake up. “No, Lazarus has died.” Is Jesus talking about sleep or death? It’s confusing.
All along, Jesus’s emotional responses are puzzling. To his disciples, he says, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there” (John 11:14–15). Really? Our friend has died, and you’re glad? That’s confusing. But when he arrives, he is troubled and weeps (John 11:33–35). If he’s glad, why is he weeping? If he’s weeping, why did he say he was glad? It’s confusing.
At the tomb, Jesus tells them to remove the stone (John 11:38–39). But Lazarus has been dead for four days. He is dead-dead. Soul-has-left-the-body-and-gone-to-Sheol dead. Body-is-decaying-in-the-tomb dead. Why remove the stone now? It’s confusing.
And hanging over the entire story is one confusing thought. Both sisters give voice to it.
Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).
Mary: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).
The repetition is telling, isn’t it? What have Mary and Martha been talking about for the last four days? What have they been saying to each other over and over again in the face of this tragedy? “If only he had been here.”
Finally the mourners explicitly raise the question that haunts this whole story: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37).
And so, while Jesus’s words at the beginning prepare us for something big — for signs that display the glory of Jesus — the people in the story are living in confusion. This whole episode doesn’t make sense. And the confusion matters because it’s where most of us live.
Where We Live
Every one of us faces hardships, trials, suffering, affliction. And for Christians who believe that Jesus is all-powerful, all-wise, and all-good, the worst part is often this confusion. Whether it’s illness (cancer, stroke, unexplained sickness, chronic pain); whether it’s the death of someone we love (parent, child, sibling, friend); whether it’s persecution, opposition, or enmity; whether it’s anxiety, doubt, depression — here’s what we know:
- Jesus is able to fix this. He’s omnipotent. We know he could fix anything, if he so chose.
- In his compassion, Jesus has fixed these sorts of things for others. He did heal the blind man. He did heal the official’s son. That’s what Mary and Martha want. And that’s what we want too.
- Jesus loves me.
- And yet, the illness is still here, the death still happened, the persecution has intensified, and the darkness has not lifted.
We’re constantly saying, “Couldn’t you have prevented this, Jesus?” Like the sisters, we repeat over and over, “If only you had been here . . .”
This is where we live. In the dark, in the confusion, in the frustrated hopes and unfulfilled desires, in the riddles and questions and the doubts. We live in the long days between our message to Jesus — “The one whom you love is ill” — and his confusing arrival later on. And that’s where Martha and Mary lived. And yet John insists from the beginning, “Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus.” So where is the love of Jesus in this story? We see the love of Jesus in six key words.
The Love of Jesus Waits
The first word is “so” (John 11:6). It’s the most shocking word in the whole story. Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. So, when he heard about the illness, he stayed two days longer. He loved them; therefore he stayed. The love of Jesus kept him from going to heal Lazarus and sparing them the longest week of their lives.
Some Bible translators can’t handle that word. They say, “Jesus loved them, and yet, when he heard, he stayed two days longer.” In other words, despite the fact that he loved them, he waited. But that’s not what John wrote. John said, He loved them; therefore he waited. He loved them; therefore he let Lazarus die. He let Mary and Martha sit in their grief, their tears, their confusion, their questions. If Jesus would have been here. . . . Why wasn’t he here? Why didn’t he come right away?
Because he loves you, Martha. Because he loves you, Mary. Because he loves you, Lazarus. The word “so” teaches us that the love of Jesus waits.
The Love of Jesus Weeps
Second, two more words: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). This too is love. The crowds recognize it immediately. When Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus, they say, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36). And in this, we see the amazingly complex and righteous emotional life of our Lord.
On the one hand, he tells the disciples, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I’m glad that I wasn’t there” (see John 11:14–15). He’s glad that he waited, because he loves them. And then, when he gets there, he weeps, because he loves them. More than that, he is deeply moved; literally, he’s angry and indignant (John 11:33). Jesus meets Mary and Martha in their weeping. He sees them weeping, and he is indignant at sin and death and the way that it ravages those he loves.
This is so important to remember. Yes, the love of Jesus waits. It even rejoices in waiting. But that doesn’t mean he does not meet us in our weeping. When we come to him with our confusion and our questions — Where were you? Why didn’t you do something? — he doesn’t rebuke us. He says, “I know. Grief is great. I’m with you and for you. Bring your confusion. Yes, I waited. And I’m still with you, because I love you.”
The Love of Jesus Raises the Dead
Finally, three more words: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). This too is love; it’s the love of Jesus that raises the dead. Jesus doesn’t just wait, and he doesn’t just weep. He acts. He performs a sign that reveals the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified in it. After he waits, and after he weeps, he tells them to roll away the stone, and he prays out loud so that everyone knows what is happening (John 11:41–42). And then he looks at the tomb and calls out, “Lazarus, come forth!”
And Lazarus comes forth. The church fathers noted how important it was that Jesus said the name Lazarus. Had he not, they speculated — had he simply said, “Come forth” — all the tombs would have emptied and the general resurrection would have happened right then and there. That’s how powerful he is. But instead, he calls forth one man, by name, and that man comes forth, hobbling out of the tomb, wrapped in graveclothes. And in the face of everyone’s astonishment, Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44).
Do You Believe This?
This deep, radical, often counterintuitive love is what the whole confusing story has been about. The waiting, the riddles, the confusion, the weeping, the raising: all of them are designed to take us deeper, so that we know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge — not just that he cares for us, not just that he can do all things, not even just that he can raise the dead, but that he is the resurrection and the life.
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? (John 11:25–26)
This is where Jesus has been taking Martha. “Do you believe this? With your brother lying in a tomb, knowing that I could have prevented it — Martha, do you believe this?”
And so Jesus stands before us today. And as we sit with Martha in our confusion, because he loves us, he says to us, “Do you believe this?” When the cancer is still there. When the illness is still unexplained. When the headaches won’t stop. When the pain is still oppressive. When the opposition won’t let up. When the darkness hasn’t lifted. When the doubts still weigh us down. When the body is still in the grave. When Jesus is not yet here. At that moment, before he raises the dead, he says to us, “Do you believe this?”
Because He Loves You
Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. And he loves you. And because he loves you, he may wait. He may take you through unimaginable suffering and loss and pain. And when he does, because he loves you, he will still be with you. And someday, because he loves you, he will raise the dead. He will right every wrong and wipe away every tear.
And in the meantime, because he loves you, he is taking you deeper into his love. He is revealing his glory to you in the waiting and the weeping.
Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Do you believe this?