By Jackina Stark
When I was a young girl, I would swing high into the blue sky on summer afternoons, singing over and over the first verse of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I sang of a truth that I barely understood but a truth that became the foundation of my life: the holy God is both “merciful and mighty.”
I learned that song at the church where my parents sent us children on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t too many years before this merciful and mighty God saved my parents from a second divorce for each of them and a variety of heartaches. When they came to him with sincere and grateful hearts, I could hardly believe my eyes at the transformation in our lives.
Soon I began my journey into God’s Word, and I came to realize that God’s attributes of mercy and might are celebrated from Genesis to Revelation. No single passage provides a better example than John 11.
What happened in the little village of Bethany made all the difference in the lives of those who believed. It was recorded so that we, too, can believe and experience the same kind of physical, emotional, and spiritual help. For me, John 11 is the culmination of Jesus’ teachings and his miracles. And short of the crucifixion and resurrection, it is the culmination of his mercy and might.
His Love Covered Her
Those closest to Jesus, so sure of his love for them, anticipated his mercy. During this crisis, the love of Christ is mentioned several times. When Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that their brother was very ill, they said it this way: “Lord, the one you love is sick” (11:3).
This is the same phrase John used to speak of himself in his Gospel. I wonder if those who knew Jesus well referred to themselves as “the one Jesus loved” because they trusted in his love so much and because the fact they were loved by him was more important to them than their own names. John mentions that Jesus waited two days to head for Judea (he has his good reasons, of course), but John doesn’t seem able to say Jesus waited without also observing “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (v. 5).
By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. But from the moment Jesus saw Martha on the roadside where she had gone out to meet him, his love covered her and his might helped her.
She knew he would want to help and that he could. “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died”(v. 21). Given Martha’s secure understanding of the love Jesus has for her and her siblings, and given her extraordinary faith in him and respect for him seen in everything we know about the woman, it seems reasonable this was not a statement of condemnation but a fact. Later Mary said the same thing. They had this much faith in the power of God in Christ. In fact, Martha went on to say, “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (v. 22).
Jesus Himself Wept
Martha knew what Jesus could do. She was sure to have heard what he had done for Jairus and the widow of Nain (Luke 8:49-56; 7:11-17). Their children had been raised from the dead! She was a strong believer.
So when Jesus told her Lazarus would rise again, she was sure he would “in the resurrection at the last day.” How could even Martha have guessed that Lazarus, dead four days, was about to be called from his hillside grave, brought back from the dead?
Now Jesus, standing on a roadside with Martha, made his greatest “I Am” statement of all: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Looking into her eyes, he asked, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25, 26).
And in her exhausted grief, Martha, woman of faith, with all the understanding she could muster, made the good confession. “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (v. 27).
Then Martha called Mary, and Mary came to him and fell at his feet weeping. Mercy is defined as “a refraining from punishing” and also as “kindness in excess of what might be expected.” Both definitions have been components of God and commands of God from the beginning. Of all the merciful images in Scripture, perhaps this is the most touching. In the presence of Mary’s pain and helplessness, Jesus was deeply moved and troubled. And after asking where they had laid Lazarus, Jesus himself wept.
I have heard good sermons that speculate about why Jesus wept. But I think the crowd may have been right when they said, “See how he loved him!” Maybe our loving Lord looked at a vulnerability that represented mankind’s perpetual helplessness in the face of such loss and could not help but weep.
His Presence Brings Joy
It seems so much of our pain, helplessness, and tears are associated with some type of loss. Nothing is so devastating to us as the loss that comes with the death of someone we love. We can hardly bear to be left behind.
I remember coming back to my mother-in-law’s modest four-room house after we buried her on a frozen January afternoon. Her three sons, three daughters-in-law (loved like daughters by her), and her nine grandchildren slumped nearly catatonic among her things and wanted in that season of grief only one thing: for her to be there.
There are other losses that leave us helpless and in tears. I have seen students hurting and crying because their parents are getting a divorce. They weep for their own loss and because at least one of their parents is experiencing a loss some call greater than death itself.
Some cry simply because someone they love has moved far away.
Some mourn a vanished dream. When my daughter went through a season of infertility, we came to understand the numbing sorrow that accompanies the death of the sweetest of dreams.
Some mourn the loss of their beauty or their youth or their vitality. Some face new physical limitations or handicaps so devastating they mourn the person they will never be again.
Some mourn a job they have lost, a job they loved and needed.
And then there is the wide spectrum of emotional pain that comes with a variety of inner losses: the loss of innocence in all its many forms, the loss of self-respect, the loss of confidence.
Did Jesus weep because he saw the tears that flow from all this pain?
Or did he, in the face of such need, weep in gratitude?
For though he was “deeply moved” and “troubled” because of what the “prince of this world” had done, he had come to drive him out (John 12:31). He was there, and he would make all the difference! I wonder if his tears might have been an overflow of the joy from knowing what his presence in our lives would mean.
Where there is no hope, he is here, merciful—but also mighty to save us—all of us, out of every distress. In this moment he takes on the greatest enemy of all and shows us that whatever our need, he will meet it.
After asking where they had laid Lazarus, he went to the tomb and told Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” Then giving thanks to his Father (for the benefit of those standing there), he called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
He Has Power, Even Over Death
But his power over everything, including death itself, is a truth that takes even believers a long time to comprehend. A few weeks later, Jesus was crucified, his body laid in a borrowed tomb. And all those who loved him could only mourn, forgetting completely a hillside in Bethany.
Mary Magdalene represents their tears. She stood outside the tomb where Jesus had been buried, crying because she believed someone had taken his body away. When she turned around, she did not know the man standing there was her merciful and mighty Lord. She had forgotten his words, “I am the life.”
Jesus must have been moved again when he said to this woman who loved him and needed him so much, “Woman, why are you crying?” And he must have smiled when he said, “Mary,” and she drew in her breath and turned to him in joyous recognition.
This world is not our home, but a merciful and mighty God will most definitely help us in our pilgrimage here and bring us safely to the place he has prepared for us. Remember this twofold truth about Jesus. See his mercy when Jesus saw the widow of Nain grieving for her son: “His heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry’” (Luke 7:13). See his might, alluded to in the prophetic words of the townspeople of Nain who said, “God has come to help his people” (v. 16).
These ideas are paralleled in John 11. The name Bethany, the village of Mary and Martha, means “house of suffering.” And the name Lazarus is derived from the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God assists.” I do not believe that to be an amazing coincidence. I think, instead, that it is an astonishing image of hope: Jesus has come to “the house of suffering” to “assist” those in need.
This article first appeared in the April 16, 2006, issue of CHRISTIAN STANDARD.
Jackina Stark is a retired English professor who taught at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri.