Death seemed like a rare occurrence until the coronavirus pandemic. I live in New York City, and at the virus's height last spring, hundreds of lives were claimed every day here. Every morning, my phone was inundated with news notifications...700 lives, 800 lives, 1000 lives. It was clear that what was happening in the hospitals had a ripple effect throughout the city. Despair from the frequent and numerous deaths hung in the air. The city's vibrancy and drive had now gone lifeless. After the immediate shock, I mourned with friends and community members who had suddenly lost loved ones.
Death seemed like a stranger until my grandmother passed away. In September, I traveled to Kentucky for her funeral. Imogene laid peacefully in the casket. She was dressed beautifully in her favorite, mahogany outfit and pearl jewelry. I admired her and cried, remembering her life as the matriarch of the family. This should not be. I thought. The grief sent my body into a flight or fight response. I began to overheat and sweat. My mouth turned dry. I froze like prey when a dangerous predator is present. Death stood beside me like an uninvited visitor as I looked on my grandmother.
In this season of sorrow, I had to lean on Jesus and His Word for truth and comfort. Chapter 11 in the book of John helped me to make sense of death while giving me peace. Scripture reveals God's compassion toward the grieving, empathy as the true sufferer, and power to defeat death for good.
A Means for God's Glory
In John 11, Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, becomes sick in the town of Bethany. Though He has healed many in His ministry, Jesus does not go to cure him. Rather, He remains where He is for two more days. His disciples find this strange, but Jesus assures them that death will not have the final say over Lazarus's sickness. Instead, the Son of God will receive the glory. Jesus is stating that He, fully God and fully Man, has authority and power over death. To Him, death is not an uncontrollable or frightening occurrence. Jesus does not take matters into his own hands and rush to Lazarus' side to heal his sickness, but Jesus remains obedient to the will of the Father. Eventually, God allows the sickness to weaken Lazarus's body, and he dies. Jesus calls Lazarus's death sleep. When one sleeps, there is an expectation of waking and rising. When one sleeps, without any conscious effort, the body restores itself. Similarly, through Lazarus's sleep, Jesus would exercise His life-giving and restorative power to resurrect him. Like our Savior, we can look at death as sleep and trust that He will wake us again.
A Result of Sin
When he has already been buried for four days, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus in Bethany. The Son of God stands in the midst of the people's sorrow and feels the weight of sin. Martha, one of Lazarus's sisters, confronts Jesus about His tardiness. Seeing the grief on her face, Jesus comforts her. He responds, "I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live" (John 11:25 CSB). Jesus brings her hope in her distress. Then, Lazarus's other sister, Mary, comes to the tomb. As soon as she sees Jesus, she falls to His feet in mourning. Her soul cries out in agony. Jesus sees the tears fall down her face, and He is deeply troubled. Grieving with Mary, He weeps. Jesus too mourns the consequence of sin: suffering and death. As Creator, He knows this was not God's original plan for His creation. Jesus' compassion moves Him to divine action. In front of the open tomb, Jesus calls Lazarus to come out. Miraculously, the dead man rises and walks out of the grave. Like Mary and Martha, we can come to Jesus with our tears and know that we do not sorrow alone.
Necessary for Salvation
Because of this miracle, the priests have concern over Jesus' authority and influence. They plot to sentence Jesus to death. Under the Holy Spirit, one of the priests prophesizes that His death will actually be the means through which God's people are saved from sin. This verse foreshadows the death by crucifixion that Jesus would undertake to reconcile God's people to the Father. Though innocent, He died a criminal's punishment. In this way, Jesus, God in flesh, experienced the ultimate suffering as His body broke and blood was shed. Through the severe pain, Jesus accomplished salvation by paying for our sins and breaking the yoke of evil.
Through the death of our Savior, death is conquered. But, praise be to God that Jesus is also our resurrected Savior who gloriously broke through the dark tomb with His light. Because He was the only One to live without sin, He won the reward of eternal life from God, the Father. God did not leave His Son in death but gave Him victory over it. When we believed in the saving work of Jesus, we too rose spiritually, as the Holy Spirit resurrected our souls from spiritual darkness. And, though our bodies waste away in sickness and we mourn death, we can look forward to the physical resurrection. When Jesus returns to bring His eternal kingdom, we will rise from the grave, radiate our Savior's glory, and reunite with our loved ones in Christ. Death, pain, and grief will be like distant memories and something so foreign to eternal paradise. They will be so faint compared to the joy, wonder, and pleasure experienced in the abundant life in Christ.