• 11 December 2023

Chapter 12 – The Keys of Death

The writing of the first Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle, has been a great source of help to me in my suffering. His famous expository thoughts on the Gospels have been an equal help to many others. Below are seven reflections he made on the story of Lazarus found in John’s Gospel. I’ve added my additional thoughts below each point.

1. ‘True Christians may be sick and die.’

Lazarus gets sick and dies. Why does God allow sickness and death to happen to some people and not to others? I simply don’t know. But I do know that ‘people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment’ (Heb. 9:27). Being a Christian is no ‘get out of jail free card’ we can play against suffering and death. What he promises us is not a bypass around suffering but his presence as we go through it.

2. ‘Sickness is no sign that God is displeased with us.’

Nor is there normally a link between suffering and sin. What is important is that suffering can be redemptive and have value if our hope is in Christ.

3. ‘Christ is the Christian’s best friend. The sisters brought it to his attention. He loves us as well, does ne not! None can help like him.’

How slow I am to act like the sisters. ‘None can help like him.’ Yes, the creator and ruler of the entire universe knows who we are and, if we are His, loves us with an everlasting and unbreakable love. The sisters bring it to His attention and how wise they are to do that. They don’t tell or ask Him to do ‘x’ or ‘y’. They ‘bring it to his attention’. Why? Because ‘he is the one that he loves’, and as Ryle wonderfully notes, ‘so are we’.

4. ‘Jesus doesn’t say that Lazarus will die and I will raise him again. He says enough to stir up hope and faith and prayer, but not enough so that they wouldn’t seek God.’

Suffering is always hard and sometimes it crushes us. Why doesn’t God act? Why does he give us half answers or sometimes no answers? There is final answer to these questions this side of the grave, but we may say gently that one partial answer may be because he is working his purposes out so that we may know Him better and see His glory.

5. ‘The pain of a few is for the benefit of many. Had Jesus just said the word (of healing) none of this would have happened. The pain of one, gloriously, is for the benefit of all (the cross).

’Let us always look at the cross. Whoever and wherever and whenever we are in the dark valley of suffering, the light of the cross shines out. God had a plan to rescue poor, sinful, lost and abandoned humanity and it is a plan which involves suffering. Lazarus’s suffering and death prefigures and points us to the cross in the same way that Lazarus’s resurrection prefigures and points to Jesus’s resurrection. As the master so the servant. We are all called to take up our cross daily and follow Him. God can use our suffering for his glory as he used his Son’s suffering.

6. ‘How tenderly Christ speaks of the death of believers! “Our friend Lazarus sleeps says the Lord.” Every Christian has a friend in heaven of almighty power and boundless love. Lazarus is the friend of Christ even when he is dead. Death is a solemn and miraculous change, but the Christian has nothing to fear. Let us never forget that the grave is the place where the Lord Himself lay and that as he rose again triumphant from that cold bed so also shall all his people. We can boldly say, “I will lay me down in peace and sleep for you Lord alone make me dwell in safety.”

This is simply breathtakingly true. Death is a terrible enemy, but it has been utterly defeated and it is owned by the Lord God Almighty who holds the keys of death. Then finally death itself will be emptied and death itself will be swallowed up and death, in the end, will be no more. So what about us? Shall anything separate us from the owner of life and death? No! We are as much Jesus’s friends in death as in life. In fact, far more so because in death we will be with Him and see Him face to face.

7. ‘Martha and Mary are very much like us: they had mixed emotions. Certainly they believed, but they were also troubled and needed to see Jesus more clearly. Jesus draws out these two women’s faith. He fans into flame the smouldering embers of the sisters’ faith. Martha has good theology, but it’s not enough. She needs more of Christ.’

It is promised in the Old Testament that God does not put out a smouldering and feeble flame (Is. 42:3). That is so encouraging, for that is what we are. Even as Christians we have a weak faith and labour slowly with many doubts and fears. Martha has a good theological understanding but she needs much more than that, and so do we. We need to know Christ and his resurrection power.

Excerpt from Hope in the face of suffering – 20 devotions for tough times by Jeremy Marshall

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