This post is part three in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. You can read part one and two here and here. Part four is here.
So far in John 11 we have seen how Jesus says no to the good request to heal his friend, instead remaining where he is and allowing Lazarus to die. We have also seen how Jesus acts out of love for his friends and says that these events will result somehow in greater glory and greater faith. For each point of observation made about Jesus in John 11, and indeed throughout the whole Bible, we must remember that the role of the Son is to explain the Father to us, to make him known (John 1:18). By his words and conduct, Jesus the god-man makes the eternal and infinite God truly, though not wholly, understandable for us. This means that if Jesus can say no to his friends good requests and it somehow be from love and result in greater glory and faith, then God the Father also does this as he interacts with his people throughout the ages. The same principle applies to the point we will look at today, that Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering.
The conversation between Jesus and his disciples in John 11 tells us that Jesus’ decision to visit Bethany was a risky one. It put his life and the lives of his disciples in danger.
 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.  But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”  After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”  The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”  Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.  Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died,  and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”  So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”John 11:7-16, ESV
The last time Jesus was in Judea, the Jews were ready to stone him because they rightly understood him to be claiming equality with God (John 10:33). So, by Jesus going back there, his disciples are not wrong to be somewhat alarmed. You can hear the incredulity present in their question, “are you going there again?” Jesus’ answer about light and darkness amounts to basically, “Yep, I got work to do.” Then he gives us a tantalizing hint about the nature of his work. Lazarus is asleep (dead), and he is going to wake him up. The disciples seem to completely miss this stunning phrase, and Thomas serves as their mouthpiece, uttering a resigned “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” This is hardly bravery. It is much more likely a sarcastic remark made by those who feel that their leader is making a very bad decision. The key point to notice in all this is that Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering of his friends, despite the risk to his life.
Drawing near to the suffering in this context wouldn’t only be risking physical safety, however. By showing up two days late in Bethany, Jesus would be taking the brunt of his friends’ disoriented questions, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, 32). In other words, “Why weren’t you here when we needed you? We know you love us, but why…?” Along with this risk is also the scoffing he would have to endure from the crowds of mourners who take a more cynical approach to the events. “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37). Finally, by drawing near to the suffering, Jesus would be coming face to face with the horror of death in general, and the horror of the death of a loved one in particular. The weeping, the mourners, the tomb would all force him to engage with the darkness and wrongness of death, now personified in the lifeless body of his dear friend and in his weeping sisters. This would spur his soul to anger, and to deep grief (11:33, 35). Facing these kinds of risks, others would have chosen to keep their distance.
Jesus doesn’t keep his distance. He boldly comes close to the suffering, scorning the risks. In doing so he demonstrates that he is strong enough to face these risks, and he is strong enough to endure them faithfully. He moves into the storm like a mighty vessel expertly captained, steady in spite of the howling wind and driving rain, ready to throw lifelines to others who are floundering in the waves.
In his humanity Jesus shows great courage by going to Bethany. In his divinity he shows us that God is never hesitant to draw close to those who suffer, and to even take suffering upon himself. In the Old Testament, we see God covenant in steadfast love to an unfaithful people, even when he knows they will betray him again and again. Then in the New Testament we see him send his only Son, knowing that he will be rejected and murdered unjustly. Jesus will not only risk suffering and death, he will experience it himself and embrace it. He will endure the cross, “despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). He will thus become our great high priest who is able to sympathize with his suffering people in every way (Heb 4:15). Our God is not afraid to draw close to us when we are suffering. He has suffered once for all, and he is not afraid of the costs.
I worry sometimes that my flawed responses to suffering will scare God off. This week marked thirty years since my dad died of an asthma attack in Melanesia. Growing up without a dad after the age of four has often felt like living with a gaping hole in my chest that is dry, wheezy, and full sharp spikes. There is a certain painful loneliness that never quite goes away. As I navigate different seasons of life and struggle in various ways, I constantly endure the thought that things wouldn’t be this bad if I still had a dad, or if I had one for more years growing up. I would be more disciplined, wiser, less ignorant, more confident, holier, a better husband and dad, etc. I have at times had it out with God over this gaping absence in my life. I have flung questions and accusations at him that make those in John 11 look quite tame by comparison. I have tried to ignore him, tried to explain things away, and dared him to prove that he really means the things he has promised. In short, when I am honest in my suffering, I am not necessarily balanced and safe. None of us are. It is a great comfort then to know that he does not keep me at arms length when I am disoriented in my suffering. I cannot scare him off. He comes close, steady, strong, and kind. Like he does with his friends in John 11, he may not have spelled everything out yet, but he has not left me alone in my pain. He has come, in spite of the risk. And that is a mighty comfort – even when it feels like he is late.
Ours is the only God who enters into suffering with us. He does not remain aloof and untouched by the pain of this world, like the god of Islam or other religions. This truth is revolutionary for a world of sufferers. While there is more meaning to our suffering to be revealed in John 11 and in the rest of the Bible, it would almost be enough to simply know that we are not alone in our grief. Our God will stay with us all the way through the darkness. We know echoes of this whenever another human joins us in our grief, sacrificing their own comfort out of love for us, and offering us a measure of healing. What other believers do for us in a limited way, God offers us in fullness and forever.
Jesus boldly draws near to the suffering. He boldly draws near to us. May we find comfort in his presence, even when we don’t yet understand his plans.
5 thoughts on “Jesus in John 11: He Boldly Draws Near to the Suffering”
I am so sorry you lost your father at such a young age. I did not know that. However, I can certainly say that you are a shining example of God being a father to the fatherless. Acts 4:13 cones to mind. It is very recognizable that you have been with Jesus.
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