by Rev. Jeremiah Cheung
The Gospel of John records seven miracles. Today we will be studying the last of these seven miracles: Jesus’ raising Lazarus, who had already been dead for four days, back to life. This can be called the greatest miracle, because this miracle defeated death and sin. The Bible says: “It is destined for man to die once.” From history’s beginning till now, no one had been able to overcome death by his own power. Even in China’s thousand years of history, many had sought to find the elixir of life.
During Qin Shi-Wang’s era, he sent 3000 young boys and girls to seek the elixir of life, but in the end, he still died. Some people said it well – death is like a pair of invisible hands, when it has caught you, you cannot escape it no matter how you try. Death is frightening. But this miracle tells us death and sin had been overcome. The Bible says: “For the wages of sin is death.” Death is the result of sin, thus all men are destined to die once, because all men have sinned.
However, this miracle brought forth a man, four-days dead, back to life. This miracle not only proves that death has been defeated, but sin has also been defeated. No one has ever defeated sin and death except the Lord of Life, He proved that death and sin can be defeated.
Today, I want us to study this great miracle from another perspective – how to resurrect the spiritually dead. The Book of Ephesians tells us we are all dead in our sins, we are all spiritually dead. But the Lord Jesus made us alive, that is, we were born again. How do we become born again?
In this miracle, Jesus spoke three commands:
1st: Take away the stone;
2nd: Lazarus, come out;
3rd: Take off the grave clothes and let him go.
These three commands resurrected the 4-day dead man.
By the same principle, these three commands can bring a spiritually dead person back to life:
I. Take Away the Stone – Preparatory Gospel Work
This is the first step towards the resurrection of a dead man. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” This can be called preparatory gospel work. This is a very important step although the gospel is not directly preached. If the stone is not taken away, the dead cannot come out even if he returns back to life. The longer a non-believer lives in this world, the deeper the influence the world will have had upon him, including cultural and religious ones. It would not be easy for us to make him believe in the Lord. The younger a man is, the easier it is for him to come to Christ; the older he gets, the harder it is for him to become a believer.
E.D. Starbuck, the founder of Religious Psychology in the United States, pointed out an alarming statistical finding: “The earliest age a person becomes a believer is at about 7 years old; from 7- 11 years old, the number increases, while the number peaks during the period from 11 to 16 years of age. From 16 -20 years of age, the number begins to decline, by 30 years and above, the number who turn to the Lord continue to decrease.” The reason is simple, the stone that obstructs their way to believing in the Lord gets bigger and bigger! So, on one hand, the sooner we lead a child to the Lord the better. On the other hand, we must learn to take away the stone that obstructs men from coming to the Lord.
Today, we would like to specifically take away two pieces of big stones that obstruct the Chinese people from believing in the Lord:
1. Ancestral Stones – Many people don’t want to believe in the Lord because they know they can no longer worship their ancestors after they accept the Lord. If they do not worship their ancestors, they will be called un-filial. Failure to exercise filial piety is a great offense especially for many traditional Chinese families. To resolve this issue, we need to tackle it from its origin.
Ancestral worship originated from teachings on filial duty. Therefore, we must begin our pre-evangelism work by addressing the aspect of filial piety. We must honour our parents, respect our ancestors; we must not make people feel that Christians are un-filial and do not respect their ancestors. However, what is true filial piety, what does it mean to truly honour our parents? Truly honouring our parents is to honour them while they are still living, not after they are dead. Isn’t it so much better to bring your parents out to eat more siomai’s while they are alive than offering a whole roasted pig before their tombs? Nowadays, many parents are more open, they are beginning to understand this simple principle. So, if we want our parents to come to know the Lord, we must begin by honouring them now. Regarding ancestors, we don’t worship our ancestors (because our ancestors are not gods); but we remember them. On special days, we can bring flowers in order to show that we remember them. Do not make people feel that we renounce our ancestors after we become Christians. To put it simply: the way we honour and respect our family is our best pre-evangelism work.
2. Stone Idols – The Chinese have so many gods and deities. Before many of us became Christians, it was a normal thing to have many different idols in our houses, the most common of which are the ` tho ti kong, kuan kong, kuan im’,etc. My parents had also been idol-worshippers before they became Christians. In our house, we used to have `tho ti kong’ and `kuan kong’ . Some people don’t want to believe in Jesus because they are afraid that the idols will be displeased if they do so. Actually, idols are not anything. We must help them understand this concept: “The true God created man, and man created the false gods.” Idols, which are made by the hands of men are false gods, they do not have any power at all.
Psalm 115 describes the powerlessness of idols –“They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”
Idols are made from gold, silver or wood, they don’t have life in them at all. But sometimes, evil spirits may enter into them and deceive people. However, we need not be afraid, because the spirit that is in us (that is the Holy Spirit) is greater than all other spirits. 1John 4:4 “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” Our God is a great God, He is greater than all idols, He is greater than any evil spirit. I have already been a pastor for more than twenty years, I have helped many people get rid of their idols. Idols are nothing, we don’t need to be afraid of them, because greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world. Our God is the only true God, the greatest, most awesome, glorious and true God!
Of course there are other stones that need to be taken away. But the principle is: if we are to bring people to Jesus’ saving grace step by step, we must take away the stones that hinder them from coming to Christ, one by one. However, I discovered a strange thing: when Jesus said take away the stone, someone opposed it. This person was Martha. She told the Lord, “But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” I believe that among all the people there, Mary and Martha were the ones who would have wished most intensely for Lazarus to return to life. But now, one of them is opposing the act that can bring him back to life again. We, who serve the Lord, must be careful not to allow our experiences, our actions, our views, our testimonies to become stones that keep people from believing in the Lord.
II. Lazarus, come out – The Power of the Gospel
When the men took away the stone, Jesus approached the tomb and did two things:
1. First, Jesus prayed. Jesus didn’t pray in all the other miracles he performed before. This is where Jesus and the prophet’s miracles differ primarily. Jesus is God, so he didn’t need to pray for power to perform miracles, because power was within him. The prophets had to pray first before they performed miracles, they had to draw power from above. The greatest prophet in the Old Testament, Elijah, had once called down fire as well as rain from heaven, but every time he performed a miracle, he prayed first. He needed to draw power from God above to perform miracles. But Jesus didn’t have to. But with this one, why did Jesus pray first? Jesus said, “…for the benefit of the people standing here…” so that they may believe that He has been sent from God. So, this is not a request, this is a testimonial prayer.
2. Jesus called for Lazarus to come out. After Jesus prayed, he called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” This was a very simple command – `Lazarus, come out.’ The Bible says, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.” Probably, Lazarus must not have come out by stepping out, he must have jumped out. Lazarus had been dead for four days; his body had begun to smell due to decomposition, he couldn’t have come out. Try calling out the dead in the funeral parlors, see if they will stand up; even if you shout till you are hoarse, no dead man will rise up. But this amazing thing happened, Lazarus came out. Although he could not walk because his whole body was wrapped in burial cloths, because the Lord’s words are full of power, he came out!
The Book of Genesis records that the Lord created everything in six days. All things were created by his word. The Lord said let there be light, and there was light; the Lord said let there be the heavens and there was the heavens; the Lord said let there be land and there was land. The Lord said let there be birds in the air, fish in the sea, and there were birds in the air and fish in the sea. God said let there be animals on the ground and there were animals on the ground. Not one word of the Lord is spoken in vain. Every word of the Lord is true for God’s word is powerful.
The Lord Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out.” When Jesus said this, the power of resurrection came upon Lazarus’ body, the power of resurrection overcame death and caused Lazarus’ spirit to return to his body and his decomposing body to return to life again. 2Kings 5 tells the story of a commander of an army, Naaman. He was a very powerful man, but he became afflicted with leprosy. When he came to Elisha for healing, the prophet told him to wash himself in the Jordan River seven times. When Naaman did so, he was healed of his leprosy. And not only so, the Bible says, “…his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.” What is flesh like that of a young boy – beautiful smooth skin, just like what all women desire. If there is such a river in this world, where if a 50 year old dips in it, her skin would become like that of a baby’s, then all the women in the world would be there. Actually, not only women, even the men will rush to that river. The skin of Japanese and Korean men are said to be as fine as the ladies’ nowadays, because men today seek cosmetic surgery too.
Lazarus had been dead for four days, his skin had already decayed, but when resurrection power came upon him, not only did he rise back to life, his skin was restored like that of a baby’s. If I had been there, I would have tried to touch him and see his skin texture. Resurrection is being born again. Jesus told the Jewish rabbi, Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” The Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes. We are all dead in our sins, we are in bondage to sin, we are not free, but when resurrection power comes upon us, we find true freedom. This is not the work of man, it is the work of God. The only thing we can do is believe and accept. O Church! We must spread the Good News, tell the world to believe and they can be like Lazarus, they can come out from their bondage to sin, rise from the dead. The Gospel is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.
III. Take off the grave clothes and let him go – This is Follow-up Gospel Work
Taking away the stone is preparatory work, Lazarus coming out is the power of the gospel at work; taking off the grave clothes and letting him go is follow-up gospel work. Probably, this is the aspect that many churches tend to neglect the most. We share the gospel, but we do not do follow-up work. After accepting the Lord, many do not receive nurture; thus, many do not grow spiritually; many do not know have a sound knowledge of the truth. If you tell these believers to open the Bible to the Book of Zephaniah, they will stare at you blankly, because they don’t even know that there is such a book in the Bible. Their spiritual life failed to grow. When Lazarus came out, his whole body was wrapped in cloths, he couldn’t walk at all; so Jesus said, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
A baby can’t walk; it is the same with a spiritual baby. We need to walk beside them, care for them, support them, so that they will grow up into maturity. In 1999, we began holding Classes 101 to104, later on we added Classes 201-203. Our purpose was that we will have a curriculum that will equip our brothers and sisters to grow spiritually and in the knowledge of the truth. This year, on Thursday nights, we started “Equipping Nights”. The purpose is the same, we want all brothers and sisters to grow in their knowledge of the truth, and not remain spiritually immature. Many problems in the church happen because of spiritually immature believers. As decades-old believers, old Christians presume they already know everything, because they have been listening to sermons for 30 to 40 years long. They are full of knowledge (actually they only know half of it) and as a result they do nothing but criticize and complain endlessly. These people only grew old but not into maturity.
Many years ago, I heard a seminary president state in one of her messages, “Many churches only fulfill half of the Great Commission. They neglect the other half of the Great Commission.” She said, “When Jesus issued the Great Commission, there was only one goal and that is to make disciples of all nations for the Lord. To fulfill this Great Commission, we need to divide it into two parts: first, make believers of all nations – baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; second – turn believers into disciples, teaching them to obey everything the Lord have commanded. And this second part, we have neglected to do.”
When I heard her message, I felt that the Church had indeed neglected this part, so I decided to do my best to educate the brethren in the truth. Four years ago, I began in the Friday night bible study class a chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse study of the Book of Genesis. When I finished Genesis, I proceeded to Exodus. After four years, we have already gone through ten books, now we are in 1& 2 Kings. I hope to be able to do that with the whole Old Testament. But I feel this is still not enough. So, this year, we started the `Equipping Nights’ classes. I have already taught the Pentateuch and 1&2 Thessalonians in these classes. Ptr. Danny Balete had also taught many truths from the Bible. I hope you will build yourself up in the truth, grow in your knowledge of God. This is the follow-up work of the gospel.
Lastly, I want to point out a special principle. When Lazarus came out, he couldn’t even walk, because his whole body was wrapped in cloths. A newly born-again person is like a new-born baby. He doesn’t know anything at the start, just like a baby. A baby only knows to sleep and eat; later on, he sits up, crawls, stands, and much later on, he learns to walk. In this whole process, how do his parents help him? By encouragement. When he says his first words, his parents are thrilled, they tell everyone “He can say papa/mama now!” When he first learns to sit up, they are ecstatic. With his first step, we applaud him endlessly. When he falls, not only do they pick him up, they encourage him and tell him, “Don’t be afraid, you can do it.” By this, he is encouraged to stand up again. As a result not only does he learn to take a few steps, he learns to walk. But what is strange is that the more the child grows up, the less we encourage him. We tend to replace encouragements with rebukes. If our parents had endlessly rebuked us when we were babies, we probably wouldn’t have learned to walk at all, because we would have been afraid to stand back up! With new believers, we should rebuke less, encourage more; criticize less, help them more. Give them time to grow up. Take off the grave cloths that are binding them, let them go.