Testing brings growth. We generally know this to be true. The same is true in our faith life. I had a professor when I was in Bible school who was fond of saying, “If you pray for God to make you grow, lookout because a storm is on the horizon.” We grow through testing. Certainly, we can respond the wrong way to a test, but if we respond in the right way it is because through the test we have gained valuable insight and perspective.
One story of Jesus which this truth reminds me of is found in John chapter 11. Here we find the familiar narrative of Lazarus. In the beginning of the chapter Jesus gets word that His dear friend Lazarus is on his deathbed, presumably, he is going to die immediately. The message for Jesus was that He might come and heal Lazarus. Jesus is broken up by the news. In fact, He is so broken up by it that He sits and waits for two more days after He gets the message. During the time after the messenger left and before Jesus even received the message, Lazarus had died. Jesus knew this. We can see this from His response to His own disciple’s objections to waiting when He says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” Still Jesus, for some reason that the disciples around Him couldn’t fathom, waited.
The reason for this waiting was that Jesus was testing someone’s faith. It wasn’t Lazarus’. It wasn’t His disciple’s. He was testing Martha. This becomes clear in verse 21.
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 11:20–27
Martha believes that Jesus could have saved Lazarus if He had come a little earlier, but now she thinks that she will have to wait until she sees him in heaven. Maybe she believes that Jesus is the resurrection in theory, but she doesn’t understand that Jesus is the very power of resurrection. There is, perhaps, a very overlooked detail to this narrative that helps us recognize the test of faith that Martha was experiencing. It is in verse 39.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” - John 11:39
When Jesus attempts to revive Lazarus, Martha reminds Him that Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is an oddly specific but easily overlooked detail. Still, it does have meaning in the story. In Martha’s time, there was the expectation of “reasonable” miracles. According to rabbinical thought of the time, the Israelites believed that there were three days of weeping after death. Within these three days, it was believed that the spirit of the person who recently died hovered around the sepulcher seeking an opportunity to return to its body. It was perfectly believable that someone might be revived within three days of their death. The superstition of the time was that after three days, the body would decompose and then it would be impossible to revive that person.
Martha’s confession that she would have to wait till heaven to see her brother again and her reminding Jesus of the impossibility of the miracle that she so desperately wanted, are both evidences of a deeper heart problem. She believed in Jesus, with certain caveats. She believed that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in an academic sense. This is perhaps in the sense that she believed it because Jesus said it and He seemed to make sense on most other things so it must be true. Or perhaps, she believed it in the sense that she had seen Jesus cure the sick, and if He said He was the resurrection then she was not about to argue it whether she knew what it meant or not. She believed academically, but when she was at the moment of testing, and it was asked of her whether she trusted Jesus to be taken at her word, her response was not a simple “yes”, it was an academic yes. She believed in the idea of Jesus, but she didn’t believe in the power of Jesus. This is a not so uncommon problem. Many times we come to Christ and to the gospel, and we like the sound of it. In fact, we often times think that it is quite profound. Perhaps after the passage of time or maybe the test of trials we maintain this kind of academic idea of the gospel, but we forget that it is both true and powerful. We begin to think that the message of the gospel is not worth sharing because it would never change certain people, or perhaps because we think the world is just too broken to be changed, or maybe we simply don’t have time for the familiar platitudes of our faith. We have believed in Christ academically, but we don’t comprehend the power of Jesus nor the potency of the gospel to change the world.
In the end of course, Martha was corrected in her perspective when she saw Lazarus exiting the tomb to which he had been confined for a hopeless four days. She had been saved by this test from a hopelessness of misbelief in Jesus. The reason that this story was written down and endures is because you and I face the same test on a daily basis. In every opportunity that we have to share the gospel of Jesus with those around us we choose to trust in the power of Jesus to resurrect, or, perhaps more often, we just let those opportunities float and believe in our academic Jesus who will probably sort everything out in the end. What will your answer be to the next opportunity or test you are given.
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?” - John 11:25–26