Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.…
1. It is only from great inspired natures that we get such contradictory words as these. In one breath Christ says that if a man dies and believes in Him, he shall live; and in the next breath He says that whosoever lives and believes in Him shall not die. Yet every docile reader feels that it contains a truth too subtle to be grasped with words. When the strata of rocks are twisted and upturned, the miner looks for gold, deeming that in the convulsions that so disposed them, a vein of precious metal may have been thrown up from the lower deep.
2. In order to get at their meaning, we must keep in mind that Christ was drawing comfort for these afflicted friends, not from the old sources, but Himself. Martha has expressed her faith in the common doctrine, but Christ passes over it as though it had little power to console. It is a far off event and hardly touches the present fact of death. So little power had it that Martha did not think of it till led to it by Christ's question. God's love may wait patient through ages, because ages are nothing to Him, but human love is impatient, because it is under finite conditions. Our children, that we could hardly bear out of our sight, die, and it is small comfort that ages hence they and we shall live again; and so, instead of dwelling on that, we cling to the form and mementos spared by death, and keep alive the past instead of making alive the present. Christ strove to give more substantial comfort.
I. His first purpose was TO GET THEIR MINDS AWAY FROM DEATH. There is but one natural fact to which Christ showed antipathy. He set the whole weight of His thought and speech against what was known as death. There is a fine significance in His indisposition to use the word. He said that the daughter of Jairus was asleep, and said the same about Lazarus till the dulness of the disciples forced Him to use the ordinary word. The early believers, fully taught by the resurrection of Christ, caught at once the remembered hints, and said that Stephen "fell asleep." So St. Paul many times over, and St. Peter, and the Christians in the Catacombs. If Christ had done nothing more than give this word, He would have been the greatest of benefactors. To that which seems the worst thing He has given the best name, and the name is true. Amongst the profoundest words of Shakespeare are those in which he speaks of sleep as "great Nature's second course." In a profounder sense the sleep of death ushers in the "second course" of nature, even the life that shall never know death nor sleep.
II. His next purpose is TO GET THEM TO IDENTIFY HIMSELF WITH THE RESURRECTION. Martha has spoken of a general resurrection — not necessarily a spiritual fact — a mere matter of destiny. Christ draws it near, vitalizes it, puts it into the category of faith, and connects it with Himself. Faith in Him works away from death towards life. To believe in a person is to be like him. Christ is Life, and could not be holden of death; faith in Him works towards the same freedom. The assimilating power of faith is a recognized principle. We meet men in whose faces we see imprinted avarice, lust, or conceit. They have so long thought and felt under the power of those qualities that they are made over into their image. The Hindu who worships Brahma, sleeping in the stars in immovable calm, gets to wear a fixed impression. So Christ brings men to believe in Him in order to become like Him, and if like Him, then one with Him, sharers of His nature and destiny, and if one with Him then His life is theirs. And yet the fact and process of death remain. Yes, man needs for his supreme development to undergo the supreme experience, which is death. But in Christ this is to die to some purpose, to lay down life to take it again. It is of unspeakable moment that the whole matter of Christian believing and living is summed up as life — existence in the perfect fulfilment and enjoyment of all relations. We transport the matter into some future world; Christ puts it into the hour that now is. And so life is the single theme of Christ. We can so conceive one as so one with Christ as to have little sense of yesterday and tomorrow, to care little for one world above another, to heed death as little as sleep, because filled with the life of God. It is towards this high state that Christ conducts us, sowing in our hearts day by day the seed of eternal life — truth, and love, and purity.
III. THE SUBJECT LEAVES US WITH TWO LEADING EXPRESSIONS.
1. Comfort in view of the change called death. Christ does not strive to annihilate Martha's grief, but to infuse it with another spirit. As Jesus wept, so we would not have love shed one tear less; but there are tears too bitter for human eyes — tears of despair; and there are tears which reflect heaven's light and promise as they fall — tears of hope. Christ takes away from death its sting by taking away the sin of which it is the shadow. Aside from this we may approach death as sleep, a grateful ordinance of nature, not dreading it, not longing for it, but accepting it as God's good way — a step in life.
2. A new sense of the value of faith in Christ. It is no small thing to be delivered from false views of death. Consider the hopeless views of the heathen, and the vague hope of the Jews. There is no certainty till we come to Christ, and no deliverance from fear except through faith in Him.
(T. T. Munger.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.