If you could, would you turn back time to seize the opportunities you missed? Correct the mistakes you made? (oblique reference to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny) Let’s turn back time to a seemingly insignificant but pivotal detail in Lazarus’s story.
For context: A couple days earlier in Jerusalem, religious leaders had tried to stone Jesus. He and His disciples distanced themselves from danger by withdrawing to Perea, a region about twenty miles northeast of Jerusalem, on the opposite side of the Jordan River.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were so close to Jesus that they knew exactly where to dispatch a messenger to tell Jesus that Lazarus was very ill. Despite the message, Jesus waited to travel to Bethany.
Jesus wasn’t waiting for the Pharisees’ ire or His disciples’ arguments to dissipate. He wasn’t worried about Bethany’s proximity to Jerusalem. Fatigue didn’t factor into His delay (although the journey was a rugged, full-day trek on foot). And He hadn’t overbooked His schedule.
Some people settle for the math. Lazarus must have died while the messenger was en route to Perea. Jesus waited two days before heading to Bethany. Elapsed time: 1 + 2 + 1 = 4 days. Useful geography trivia, but that’s not what God wants us to glean from the four days detail.
Gone for good
Jews buried their dead as soon as possible, usually the same day someone died—but at the latest within three days of death—because they believed the soul detached from, but remained with the body for three days before moving into the afterlife. Interestingly, “soul” and “breath” are the same Hebrew word: neshama. Breath determines life, and every Jew since Genesis knows only God can give neshama. God created man with a soul; man become a living being only after God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7).
When Martha protested Jesus’s command to roll the stone away from the tomb, she was saying more than “Lazarus’s body will smell by now.” She was saying, “Lazarus is dead-dead. Doubly dead. It’s been more than three days. His soul has left his body. There is no neshama left in him. Nothing can bring him back.” This tracks with Ecclesiastes 8:8, which says, “No man has power to retain the spirit.”
Everyone at the tomb—friends, mourners, Jesus’ disciples—would have understood that. All would have been certain that Lazarus was dead and gone forever, in every sense of the word.
To the Jews, neshama as breath or soul is the same thing in a different package. Neshama is our direct link to God. Only God can give life—and infuse His breath of life.
Takeaways, then and now
Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus for the wow factor. Jesus raised Lazarus to show beyond a doubt that He was the Breath of Life. When Lazarus shuffled out of that tomb, everyone present instantly knew Jesus was God Incarnate—the only One that could breathe life into a person—and call the dead back to life.
So how do we apply this four-day detail to our lives? Here are four ways.
(1) When God shows up, our first response is typically Martha’s (John 11:21). “Why didn’t You come sooner? I needed You when ____.” (Fill in the blank with whatever triggered your latest “God, where are You” cry.)
(2) When we’re in crisis, we can’t imagine a resolution larger than the immediate. But God always does much more than handle our crisis. He draws us closer to Him, displays His glory, and furthers His Kingdom in unfathomable ways.
(3) God is in the details—and even the seemingly insignificant ones testify that He can take the “im” out of “impossible.”
(4) God can resurrect the dreams you think have died forever.
We have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. Faith and doubt can coexist there because we are humans with limited perspective. God welcomes our questions, but demanding answers from Him about His timing or goodness when bad things happen will yield only holy silence. Instead, let’s flip the script. “Where can I find God in this? Lord, what do You want me to learn from this?”
God never fails to show up. Even when we aren’t aware of Him or don’t understand His intentions. He is the great I AM. The GOD WHO IS … is capable of everything.
(For another aspect of Lazarus’s story, see my June 2021 blog about him.)
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