Jesus in John 11: He Invites Focus and Faith in His Character

This post is part four in a series on Jesus and the suffering of his people from John 11. Here you can read part one, part two, and part three.

As we continue our trek through John 11, we have come to the point in the story where Jesus is now in person in Bethany, interacting face to face with those who are suffering. We have seen how he has said no to their good request, has hinted at his purposes of love, faith, and glory, and has boldly drawn near to the suffering. In all of this, we should continue to keep in mind that Jesus reveals the Father to us (John 1:18). His conduct toward his suffering friends in this chapter is a window for us into how God relates to his suffering people.

In this post we’ll focus on how in the midst of suffering, Jesus invites focus and faith in his character. Here is the relevant portion of John 11, where Jesus interacts with the grieving Martha:

[17] Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. [21] Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” [23] Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [25] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” [27] She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

John 11:17-27, ESV

This conversation between Jesus and Martha is remarkable. Martha, often viewed as the busy earthly-minded one compared to her more spiritual sister, truly shines in this interaction as a genuine believer of deep faith. She begins by being brutally honest with Jesus, bringing him the question that has been tormenting her soul. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). In other words, “Where were you? This doesn’t make sense to me given what we know, what at least we thought we knew of your love for us.” This kind of honesty might seem disrespectfully forward to some, but it shows the presence of trust even in the midst of severe trial. That desperate trust is communicated by her second statement. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (11:22). The disorientation of Jesus not agreeing to heal her brother means Martha’s faith in Jesus is under assault. Her circumstances do not fit with the loving and powerful Jesus that she knows. But she is still holding on, confessing that she knows something truer than what her experience and feelings may be preaching to her. There is a lot present in those words, “even now…” True faith has been put into the fire, and though it is painfully tested it is glowing white hot, genuine.

Jesus responds to Martha with a statement of double meaning, or a prophecy with a double fulfillment, one near and one far. He says that Lazarus will rise again, speaking seemingly of both the miracle he is about to perform as well as the future resurrection of the just, in which Lazarus will be a participant. Martha seems to understand only the latter part about the final resurrection of God’s people. Or perhaps she is afraid to risk hoping that Jesus might be speaking of the present. Her statement about God granting whatever Jesus asks hints that she may harbor a secret hope that this is indeed what will take place. But if it’s there, she doesn’t risk asking it directly. Instead, Martha focuses on the ultimate hope of the suffering faithful – that one day resurrection is coming and suffering and death will be forever reversed. Even in the midst of crushing grief and disappointment, she reaffirms her belief that God will on that final day raise her brother from the dead, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24).

But Jesus does not leave things here, satisfied that Martha has remained orthodox even in the face of death. He pivots, directing her focus to his own character, and uttering one of the most important statements in the gospel of John, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26). In the midst of her suffering, Jesus invites Martha to focus on his identity and to reaffirm her faith in who he is. Jesus is revealing to Martha that he not only has power to give resurrection and life, he is the resurrection and the life. He is the source of all life, and he is the source of not only the created life we know now that ultimately leads to death, but also of the coming new creation life that reverses the order of things, bursting out of death and lasting forever. This fifth of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements in the book of John communicates his divinity, for only God is the source of life itself. Whoever believes in Jesus will be united with him who is life, and therefore will not only have life after death, but because of this, will in a real sense never really die.

Resurrection and the reality of eternal life really do transform the nature of death for believers. While still painful and grievous, the ultimate sign that things are not the way they’re supposed to be, death has been gutted of its deepest darkness, it has been robbed of its ultimate weapon – eternal death in separation from God. As I have shared countless times with believers in Central Asia, death for believers is now merely the door to God’s presence, a temporary state of our bodies being entrusted to the dirt, knowing that the dirt will one day give its charge back, new and shining with eternal glory.

By asking Martha to focus on who he is, Jesus is not yet explaining all of his purposes to her. There are some very big pieces that do not yet make sense. But by calling her to believe in his character, in his identity, he is helping her to have assurance that the one who is life will somehow bring life out of even this. To do otherwise would be to go against his very nature. Wherever Jesus is, ultimately, will also be life and resurrection – no matter how much suffering and death we currently see around us.

Martha responds by courageously confessing her faith in Jesus’ character and identity, “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world’” (11:27).

The words of Jesus to Martha help us understand what God’s purposes are so often in the progression of our own suffering. He will often invite us to first remember who he is, and to fight to believe yet again in his character, before he will show us how he is working all things for good. Like Martha, this sequence is painful and yet revelatory – it reveals the presence of genuine faith in a way few other things can. Consider the logic of 1st Peter 1:6-7:

[6] In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, [7] so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

There are kinds of necessary suffering we must encounter. Why? So that our faith can be proved as genuine, just as Martha’s was. And so that when this happens, Jesus will receive more praise and honor and glory – just as he does when Martha confesses him as Christ and Son of God.

Why doesn’t God just get on with it and explain what he is doing? Why does he leave us confused in extended seasons of suffering? Well, in part so that we will wrestle with the messages preached by our circumstances and find grounding once again in a settled faith in his character and identity. True faith in God’s character does not fail based on our temporary, visible circumstances. Rather, it is fixed on what is unseen and eternal, it is based on faith in God’s word and character (2 Cor 4:16-18). Suffering is often God’s servant by which he reveals which kind of faith we have. And it is his means of helping us find the only thing solid enough to carry us through the darkness.

This past autumn it became increasingly clear that our family would have to come back to the US for an extended season of medical leave. I remember eventually feeling settled that it was necessary, but wrestling greatly to feel at all that it was good. So many things didn’t make sense given all that we had invested, and I wrestled greatly with the costs my family, my team, and our little church plant would incur if we stepped away. The uncertainty of our return also introduced a level of grieving into our departure that I wasn’t prepared for. Now, three months into our medical leave, we still don’t have very much clarity on our future. But my wrestling in the season of our departure did lead to a greater measure of peace in the midst of the fog. It came while learning about the patron-client logic baked into the book of Hebrews. So many of the arguments for perseverance made in that book could be summarized as, “Consider what a superior and trustworthy patron you have in Jesus Christ. And he graciously has even more in store for you, so how could you even think of leaving him and shamefully falling away? Keep going!” Somehow, the book of Hebrews brought me back to once again focus on the trustworthiness of my God. And my faith in his character was renewed. This has held me fast in the greatest season of uncertainty we’ve had for many years.

In John 11, Jesus invites his friends to focus and faith in his character. He is the resurrection and the life, even when we can’t yet square how this fits with the death we see around us. As we lean into his revealed character and identity we will find that our faith is proved to be genuine, and that this vision of him will be enough for us. It will help us to persevere until the coming resurrection – no matter how long that takes.

Photo by Gaia Armellin on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Jesus in John 11: He Invites Focus and Faith in His Character

  1. Wow…. I’m overwhelmed right now with the great value of this post that I can’t even comment on the things I thought I would be say when I started reading it. I’ll probably be back later to comment, but I will definitely read this again before I do. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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