You therefore, beloved...take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18)
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go” (John 11:43-44).
The story of Lazarus’ death, and how Jesus raised him from the dead, is one of the most striking stories recorded in the New Testament. I'm not, however, going to dwell on whether or not it's possible or probable. I'm not going to try to prove that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life. This is one of those things that you either believe, or you don't. No one, except for the Holy Spirit, can convince someone that this - or anything else - is true. It all depends on what you think about Holy Scripture; either it is the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God, or it isn't. It is either truth, or a lie. The Lutheran Confessions to which we subscribe profess that God's word is truth - divinely inspired, and without error - and not simply a collection of myths, parables, and morality tales. With that in mind, let us examine what I believe is the absolute essential message of the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.
Every day we read about doctors and paramedics bringing people back from the brink of death. Sometimes they use sophisticated medical equipment, such as a defibrillator; sometimes they use only their hands and mouth to perform CPR. These dedicated medical professionals are not always successful. With each minute that passes after a grave medical emergency, the odds against a successful revival become greater and greater.
What is so amazing about this person Jesus is that, without any medical equipment of any kind – with only his words – Jesus brought a man back from death to life. Lazarus had been dead and in his grave for four days, and Jesus simply commanded him to come out – and he did! In one amazing instance, Jesus uses the tragedy of Lazarus’ death to bring glory to the Father in heaven, confirm and strengthen the faith of his followers, show his own power and intimate relationship with the Father, and prove that he was who he said he was – the divine Son of God, the Messiah. And, we are told, many Jews put their faith in Jesus because of what they saw.
All of those things are important parts of John 11, and we could spend an hour discussing each of them. There is, however, another aspect to this story which, while it may not be as theologically lofty as a discussion of Jesus' dependence on God the Father while in the state of humiliation, hits much closer to home for the average person:
We are Lazarus.
Or, rather, we all can put ourselves in Lazarus’ place. Because of sin, we were all as dead to God as Lazarus was when he was lying in his tomb. St. Paul tells the Ephesians this very thing:
"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Ephesians 2: 1-3).
And, just as there was nothing that Lazarus could do to raise himself from the dead and leave his grave, there is nothing we can do to “reanimate” ourselves to God. St. Paul dashes all human hopes of self-righteousness by quoting the Psalms in his letter to the Romans:
“As it is Written: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; There is no one who does good not even one…For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast,” (Romans 3:10-12; Ephesians 2:8-9).
While we can do nothing, Jesus can - and has - done everything for us. By his death and resurrection, Jesus became the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He now calls us with a loud voice, as he called Lazarus, to come out of our graves, through his word. He gives us the full forgiveness and salvation that he won for mankind through his word and the sacraments of holy baptism and the Lord’s Supper. By the power of the Holy Spirit living in us, God daily strips away the stinking grave clothes of sin that stick to us, and he keeps us steadfast in the faith. “But if Christ is in you," Paul tells the Romans, "although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness" (Romans 8:10).
God has made us alive in Christ, and has given us forgiveness freely as a gift - the same way Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus didn't decide he wanted to be alive again, he didn't ask Jesus to save him, and he certainly did not assist in his resurrection. Jesus loved Lazarus, as he loves us; Jesus called Lazarus, as he calls us, from death to life.
The question is now what shall we do with our new gift of life? We have two options: 1) Live as we always have, according to our sinful nature, satisfying our every carnal desire or 2) By the power of the Holy Spirit, live according to our new spiritual nature that God has created within us. Paul gives us our answer:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6: 1-14).
When we live according to the Holy Spirit and by His power, using God's Law as our guide to that which is God-pleasing, we glorify God. When people see the new creation we have become, they cannot help but be evangelized by God himself, seeing Christ in us. God’s evangelism is much more effective than anything we could ever “do” for ourselves.