The Death of Death

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 2, 2021.

Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 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. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:30–37).[1]

When Jesus learned of Lazarus’s illness, he was not ready to return to Judea, nor did the news lead him to move quickly. From Jesus’s perspective, contrary to his disciples’, Lazarus’s illness was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Jesus did eventually return; his love for Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, compelled him. But when he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was no longer ill; he was dead. In fact, he had been dead and buried for four days. In that moment, Jesus the healer became Jesus the mourner. What had been possible in Lazarus’s life now seemed impossible in his death.

Lamenting her brother’s death and overcome with emotion, Mary falls at Jesus’s feet, crying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). It is a cry of despair, a lost opportunity coupled with the loss of a loved one. Mary weeps. Those around her weep. Jesus weeps. We see his compassion for those he loves and heart-felt empathy with their loss. Death had stolen their beloved brother.

But Jesus’s tears are not alone. There is something else: He is angry. According to the ESV translation, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit” (John 11:33). “Deeply moved” sounds nice, but it doesn’t quite capture it. Better, the King James translates it, “he groaned.” That gets closer. Translated literally, Jesus “snorted.” He’s not merely “moved”; he’s indignant.

Perhaps more important than what the word means is the question why: Why is Jesus angry? It is death. As John Calvin puts it, it is the “violent tyranny” of death. It is not a natural aspect of living but an unnatural evil thrust upon humankind through sin. B.B. Warfield said that when Jesus sees Lazarus’s grave, with “irrepressible anger,” he “burns with rage against the oppressor of men…Fury seizes upon him; his whole being is discomposed and perturbed…It is death that is the object of his wrath, and behind death him who has the power of death, and whom he has come into the world to destroy.”[2] Make no mistake about it: death is no more your friend than the devil.

Every human being knows this innately. There is a will to live, even among the suffering. It is utter hopelessness when this will is repressed, when the heart and mind are conjoined in despair. But it was not in despair that Jesus walked willingly into death. In fact, Scripture says, “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). Ironically, Jesus looked at the death of his friend with anger but his own death with joy, but why?

In the beginning we were created to live. In the image of God, we were created eternal beings, to live and move and have our being, forever. Sin introduced by the devil became sin committed by our earthly father, warranting not what was promised by the serpent but by God: death. Death is the inherited curse realized by every human being since Adam, to the delight of the devil and the mourning of man. Even Mary’s brother, Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus, eventually died, like every person before him. But the inevitability of death doesn’t make it right.

We were made to live forever, but death prevents it. Our only hope is the death of death. Which is why Jesus could be angry in witnessing death and joyful in pursuing it. In the words of John Owen, “He underwent death, that we might be delivered from death.”[3] The death of death in the death of Christ.

Because of Jesus’s death our death is not the victor. By faith in Christ, we then cross over from death to life (John 5:24). Through his atoning death and victorious resurrection to life Christ put our death to death and gave us eternal life. Or, as Jesus said to Mary’s sister, Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet he shall live” (John 11:25).

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Quoted in John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 124.

[3] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 10

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