"(5) Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. (6) So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days" (John 11:5-6, NIV).
The small words are often times the most important ones. Ever notice that little word so there at the beginning of verse 6? It's easy to fly right over it without giving it much thought. Yet there it is. And the way that little word works just might change your entire perspective of what it means to say that Jesus loves you.
Jesus had just gotten word that Lazarus was sick, and verse 5 tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and his family. In light of that, how would you expect verse 6 to read? I would have expected something like, "So without a moment's hesitation, Jesus told his disciples to pack up because they were going to Bethany right away so Jesus could heal Lazarus from his sickness."
That's not what verse 6 says. The apostle John wrote, "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So [i.e., therefore, because of that fact!] he stayed where he was two more days." Shockingly, precisely because Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, he chose to linger where he was instead of hurrying off to Bethany in time to heal Lazarus before his sickness took him.
The text could not be clearer that Jesus truly loved this man and his family. Mary and Martha's message to Jesus was, "Lord, the one you love is sick" (John 11:3). John tells us explicitly that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters in verse 5: "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." When Jesus stood before his tomb, he was overcome with emotion and wept (verse 35). The conclusion of those who saw his outpouring of emotion was "See how he loved him!" (verse 36). There's simply no question as to Jesus's deep and genuine affection for this man and his family.
What are we going to do, then, with that pesky little word so?
We might need to redefine what it means to say that Jesus loves you. The world's definition of love goes something like this: "If you love me, you will make much of me. You will remove all struggle and sickness and suffering from my life. And you'll do everything within your power at a moment's notice for the sake of my immediate good."
Based on the context of John 11, we might venture to guess that Jesus's definition of love is more like, "Because I, Jesus, love you, I will do whatever it takes so that you will see my greatness and therefore be able to make much of me. I might let struggles and sicknesses and suffering persist if that's what's needed for you to trust me and experience my glorious grace. And because I'm not content with your immediate, short-run good only, there are times in which I won't do what I am very capable and even willing to do if it means that I can thereby accomplish your ultimate, eternal good."
What could be more loving than for Jesus to reveal to these dear friends, to his disciples, to the other witnesses present, and to us today that he is the resurrection and the life (verse 25)? It's not merely that Jesus holds out to mankind the offer of life after death. He himself is that life. Jesus is to the world what a tree trunk is to one of its branches (see John 15:5). The branch's only hope of life is to maintain its intimate connection to the tree trunk. Separation from the trunk is the branch's sure death. Jesus would be unloving not to reveal that truth to us. Even if it comes at the cost of a man's life. Even if it comes at the cost of my life. Even if it comes at the cost of his own life.
That's why Jesus could say to his disciples before they arrived in Bethany, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there [to heal him before he died], so that you may believe" (John 11:15).
Only when we see that Jesus is humanity's only hope will we believe in him—receive him, embrace him, trust his offer of himself as our life. Therefore, when Jesus says that he's glad he didn't heal Lazarus "so that you may believe," it is a very loving thing for him to say! He didn't do a lesser loving thing—heal Lazarus from his sickness—in order to accomplish a much more loving thing: reveal his glory as humanity's only hope for eternal life so that Mary, Martha, his disciples, and we "may believe" in him and cling to him and thereby glorify him.
This is why Jesus was born: that he might be shown to the world as the resurrection and the life and that we—separated from him, dry, and dead—might find new life in relationship with him. There could be no greater act of love than to make that truth known so that others might believe it and receive something better than healing from sickness: healing from sin and death in the presence of God for all eternity, and Jesus himself is that better healing.
May our definition of love this Christmas look a little bit more like Jesus's definition of love.
Praying for this miracle right along with you,
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