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14th October 2001
THE TWICE BORN DIE ONLY ONCE!
So our national Rugby League team, the Kangaroos, have cancelled their international tour because of the current terrorist crisis. Men who are proud to be men of beef and brawn have felt that travel is too dangerous at this time, and a tour might separate them from their families at a time when the world fears death from terrorists. It was made quite clear that half the team were fearful of death from terrorists. I have never known a time when so many people in the community are fearful about death by the hand of some unknown assailant. The vivid scenes on television after the September 11th attack on New York, the outbreak of hostilities in Afghanistan, the anthrax sabotage in a news magazine office in Florida, and the revelation of one hundred Osama Bin Laden's supporters in Sydney's Western Suburbs has many people in a sweat of fear of death.
For those people who have suffered real trauma in life - older people who have survived previous wars, Vietnam veterans who are not coping well, people who have lost loved ones in tragic accidents - I have nothing but deep sympathy and concern. But for the rest of us, we need to take a good look at ourselves. Is your life being dominated by fear, or do you choose to live by faith? There are only two options. I listen to people who call me on talk-back radio and I am amazed to find so many people in the community who are living by fear. Especially fear of death - their death. The committed Christian however, chooses to live by faith. We trust God to care for us, to protect us, to hold us in His hand. So we live boldly without fear. And if He chooses not to protect us? We are even more secure in His love and protective care!
1. THE VILLAGE OF BETHANY. v. 1-16
After you exit through the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and follow the Jericho Road for 3 kilometres over the Mount of Olives passing the churches in the Garden of Gethsemane, you come to Bethany. It is a small Christian and Arab village with a population of 3,600. The most amazing miracle Jesus performed was in the village of Bethany. Here He raised Lazarus from the dead. This took place shortly before Jesus Himself was to die and be buried. This climaxed the growing opposition towards Jesus. After what happened in Bethany, witnesses immediately went into Jerusalem and reported to the Chief Priest and his cronies of this Man who was making news and putting at risk their relationship with the Roman government.
Bethany in the time of Jesus was a settlement of people who had come from Galilee to live by Jerusalem. The Galilean names on the little stone bone boxes by the tombs explain why Jesus and the disciples found it convenient to stay here with their own countrymen. The deep rock cut tomb is reached today by steps cut in the 16th century. Twenty four uneven steps take you to a small antechamber and then down further into the tomb with benches where bodies were laid. This tomb was there in the time of Jesus and is the place of the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus is venerated by both Christians and Muslims and today a large convent and church, built on the ruins of a fourth century church share his burial site with a Moslem mosque. Bethany was where Jesus started the journey into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Here Jesus visited the house of Simon the Pharisee and was anointed by Mary who wept over his feet and poured sweet perfume on them. v.2
Bethany was also the home of the sisters Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus. He often stayed at their home. On this occasion, He was down in the Jordan Valley at Jericho. The sisters sent a message saying His friend whom He loved was very ill. They did not have to even mention the name of Lazarus. v.3 Jesus would know. There is something beautiful in the friendship of Jesus. He knows our need, even if our name is not mentioned.
Jesus recognised that the sickness of Lazarus would not mean death permanently, but was an opportunity that would bring glory to God and be the forerunner of His own death and resurrection. v.4-7 There was no hurry. It had taken a messenger a whole day to reach Him with the news. Jesus continued what He was doing for two more days. Then it took another day to travel to Bethany. When He arrived He discovered Lazarus had been dead four days. When people wanted Jesus to come to the feast of Tabernacles He came at a time He determined. At the wedding at Galilee, His mother urged Him to take action, but He moved when He was ready. He made it clear that it was God's timing that was important. So, "after this", the completion of His work in Jericho, Jesus went to Bethany. His disciples were reluctant to go with Him. They recognised the danger. Bethany was three kilometres from the very people who had tried to stone Jesus to death not long before. Now again they could kill Him. v8-16
Peter usually expresses the mind of the disciples but he is apparently not there. There is no mention of Peter between the end of chapter 6 and the beginning of chapter 13. Peter apparently stayed in Galilee when Jesus and the other disciples journeyed down to Pereia and Jericho.
Peter was not an eyewitness of the resurrection of Lazarus. So he does not mention this in his record of the life of Jesus written down as Mark's Gospel. As Matthew follows Mark's account, he does not mention it either. John was there, so he mentions the raising of Lazarus. Without Peter, it is Thomas who says "Let us also go, that we may die with him." The disciples go, even at risk to their own lives.
2. DEATH IN NEW TESTAMENT TIMES. v.17-37
For most of the world, death is the last enemy. People live in fear of death. They are bound by the finality of it and despair because of the futility of it. Jesus is now faced by the death of His close friend. Jesus had arrived four days after Lazarus had been buried. The detail of the burial of Lazarus is authentic. Dr. J.A. Thompson, lectured me in archaeology at Melbourne University. He was director of The Australian Institute of Archaeology. He said: "Death in Bible times was never hushed up. There was an open and public demonstration of grief by the close family, friends and neighbours. People would cry, moan and beat their breasts. Some would tear their outer clothes and then don sackcloth, a coarse material worn next to the skin. They threw earth over their heads, rolled in dust or sat among ashes. They gave up wearing perfumes or even washing; they fasted, and some shaved their hair. The interval between death and burial was quite short. Bodies decomposed quickly in the heat. Wealthy people had burial chambers cut into soft rock, big enough to accommodate several corpses as family tombs. Later the bones were places in a stone ossuary. When bodies were buried in tombs they were embalmed with linen cloth, spices, myrrh and aloes."
3. THE RAISING OF LAZARUS. v.38-45
Jesus had to fulfill His prediction to the disciples that the outcome of Lazarus's death would be the glory of God. He also promised Martha her brother would rise again. Jesus ordered: "Take away the stone." "But, Lord," said Martha, "by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." 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." Martha protested it was improper to expose a decaying corpse. Jesus did not ask God to raise Lazarus; He thanked God for having done it.
Jesus once said a time would come when all who were in their graves would hear His voice. John 5:28 "The words spoken were brief, direct, and imperative, "Lazarus! This way out!" as if Jesus were directing someone lost in a gloomy dungeon. The creative power of God reversed the process of corruption and quickened the corpse into life. The effect was startling. The dead man appeared at the entrance to the tomb, still bound by the grave clothes that had been wound around him. Jesus then ordered that he be released from the wrappings and returned to normal life. It was a supreme demonstration of the power of eternal life that triumphed over death, corruption, and hopelessness." Gaebelein p121
4. THE NECESSITY OF THE DEATH OF JESUS. v.46-52
The raising of Lazarus created such public acclaim about Jesus, that His enemies knew they had to get rid of Him permanently! One great insight from this moving account of the raising of Lazarus lies in the thought that through the death of Jesus He would bring all who would believe in Him to life. "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die." John 11:25-26 Whoever lives and believes in Jesus will share in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus through faith. It is witnessed in our baptism. His triumph over death will ensure our triumph over death also.
The other insight came from an unlikely source: the very man who plotted the death of Jesus: Caiaphas. v46-48 He said that for the sake of their own position it was expedient that one man, Jesus, should die. With scorn he said to his fellow councillors: "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." Caiaphas did not realise what he was saying! As John put it, "as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one." Political expediency, not justice, condemned Jesus to death. But through His death and resurrection believers everywhere would find life. Death for the Christian is not bad when that death puts us immediately into the presence of God. Living boldly by faith enables us to think more clearly, move more freely and plan more confidently, because we are not bound by our fears of death.
In uncertain times like these we face just now with the threat of terrorism, the Christian moves with the certainty of God's presence and the comfort of His love. "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no evil for Thou art with me." Psalm 23 If we believe that Jesus died for our sins, we will be born again. Spiritually reborn. If we are not born again, we will spiritually die as well as physically die. Here is the Christian equation: those who are born once, will die twice - physically and spiritually. But those who are born twice, born physically then reborn spiritually, will die only once. For spiritually they shall live forever. The twice born die only once!
Jesus said, in one of the greatest statements ever: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even though He dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." John 11:25-26 Do you respond affirmatively to the words of Jesus when He says: "Do you believe this?" v.26 Perhaps He calls you from your tomb of spiritual death by name: "Come out!". You respond in obedience shuffling forward knowing that your spiritual body of death and decay is about to be left behind forever as you enter the life He offers. Your life has been bound in grave clothes. You have been living among the tombs close bound by "sin and nature's night." The fear of death has held you fast. The finality of death has bound your mind. But Jesus commands: "Come out! Untie him and let him go!" And obeying Him, you walk free! The twice born die only once!
Dr. J.A. Thompson, "Handbook of Life in Bible Times". p.92-3.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol 9 F E Gaebelein Ed. 1981.
Rev Dr Gordon Moyes
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