Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Sovereign, Comforting, Weeping Savior

Several of our members have either recently lost loved ones or have loved ones who are in dire health. When suffering comes our way, especially in the form of the death of a loved one, what can we find in Scripture that will help us to grieve in a way that honors the Lord?

There will always be the temptation to blame God for our pain, to think of Him simply as the unfeeling puppet-master who is moving history without a concern for those hurt in the carrying out of His sovereign plan. There is the temptation to be angry with God and to become embittered against Him.

There is one passage that calls to us in times like these, a passage that is profoundly comforting.
John 11 tells the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus. It is an account that exposes three things: God has a divine plan in our suffering, God desires to comfort us in our suffering, and God desires to mourn with us in our suffering.

Most of us are familiar with the story. Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha that Lazarus, their brother, is very ill. In v5, the writer inserts a pivotal editorial comment, Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. This one sentence provides the foundation for our understanding God’s motive for all that He does in relation to our suffering in this life. When tragedy strikes, the evil one will undoubtedly tempt us to doubt the love of God. But that thought must be taken captive and made obedient to the truth of John 11:5. God loves us. Everything that He does in the lives of the elect is motivated by His love for them.

The next verse delivers something so profound that it warrants a day or two of solid meditation: So, when he heard that Lazarus was sick He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. There is one word in that verse that blows the mind. It goes against everything that our human flesh assumes to be true. “So…” That word attaches vv5-6 together so that one verse becomes the reason for the other. Why did Jesus stay two days longer in the place where He was even after hearing about the grave illness of Lazarus? Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Of course, the understood result of Jesus’ staying where He was is that Lazarus would die. Jesus delayed so that Lazarus would die, because He loved Lazarus and his sisters.

What a monumental statement on suffering in the life of believers. God sovereignly brings suffering into our lives because He loves us. Now, our natural self-centered understanding of good tells us that if God loves us, He won’t allow us to suffer. But that is terrible theology. And if we look closely at this passage, we will see that God’s purpose in allowing us to suffer is benevolent in the truest sense.

When Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick, He replied, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” The true end of all suffering is that God would be glorified. But the question remains, in what way is that benevolent to us? We find the answer in v40, when Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” What Jesus planned to do was to glorify Himself and in doing that He was going to display the glory of God to those who were suffering. And in His estimation, that gift was well worth the suffering that they were enduring.

Suffering in the life of the believer is always an opportunity to see more of who God is. The pain may seem unbearable, but if we will focus on Him and the truth that He allows us to suffer because He loves us, we will find in that pain some of the sweetest fellowship with God Almighty that we have ever known. But we have to believe, He said. We have to believe in His goodness, believe that He loves us, and believe that He is being glorified in our suffering. We would do well to understand that there is far more opportunity for God to be glorified in our pain than in our pleasure.

Not only does this passage tell of God’s divine plan in our suffering, but it also tells of His desire to comfort us in our suffering. Jesus says to Martha in v23, “Your brother will rise again.” Why would Jesus tell her anything? Why not just say, “follow me,” take her to the tomb, and raise her brother? Why take the time to have a conversation with her? Because Jesus desired to comfort her.

And in His comforting her, Jesus gave her a peek at the ultimate reason for her suffering – He revealed more of Himself to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv25-26). He comforted her by pointing to Himself and the glory that waited on the other side of the pain. Life waited on the other side of this death – life that can only be given by the Resurrection and the Life. And notice that in the midst of her pain, Martha was given the opportunity to affirm her belief in the Savior.

I honestly believe that the only true comfort available in this life is found in God Almighty. Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

God is the God of all comfort. There is comfort nowhere else. And we find throughout the Bible, and certainly in John 11, that God is a God who desires to comfort His people.

Finally, we find here that God desires to mourn with us in our suffering. v35 is one of the most famous in the Bible: Jesus wept. There are a number of proposed interpretations of this verse. Some say that Jesus wept out of anger at what sin had done to the earth He created. Others say that Jesus wept out of disappointment that those around Him failed to believe in Him. Still others say that He wept for joy at the work He was going to do on the cross.

But these interpretations are working way too hard. The text tells us explicitly why Jesus wept. vv33: When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled. He was troubled by their weeping, their suffering, so He wept. What we see here is Jesus weeping with those who weep. He was joining them in their pain. He was mourning with them.

All this, even though He knew precisely what He intended to do – raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew the joy that awaited. He knew the blessing they would receive in beholding His glory, yet He wept in their moment of mourning.

Is there any reason to think He doesn’t do the same with us? The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psa 34:18). God loves us and empathizes with us in our pain.

God has a divine plan in our suffering, He desires to comfort us in our suffering, and He desires to mourn with us in our suffering. If in our sorrow we can turn our focus to God and His character and the things we learn of Him in John 11, it will be possible to mourn in a way that honors and glorifies Him. Suffering is universal. It touches everyone at some point in life. But for those of us who are in Christ, even in our mourning we have hope. We exult in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2).

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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