THE LAZARUS LIFE
True Transformation Demands Intimacy
Early in the book of John, we read about Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding celebration. He transforms water. Later, John shows Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish to feed the thousands. He transforms loaves and fish. These miracles drew people to God. But when we come to John 11, we leave water and fish and loaves behind, and transformation takes place in flesh and blood —when Jesus raised an ordinary man named Lazarus from death to life.
When we leave John 11:44, we see Lazarus walking out of the tomb in his grave clothes. But his story does not end there. Neither does the influence of what God did through his life.
As the news spread about this transformed life—this resurrected life—many people who heard of Lazarus put their faith in Jesus. The lingering, the tomb, the smell, and the grave clothes all served to bring glory to God. But with the glory always comes danger. Always. And this is what happened to Lazarus. A transformed life can be threatening—the chief priests and the Pharisees saw Jesus’ power and plotted to kill both Jesus and Lazarus (12:10). As a result Jesus “no longer moved about publicly among the Jews” (11:54).
It wasn’t until six days before the Passover that Jesus returned to Bethany and the fellowship of his friends. Perhaps He arrived in the secrecy of the night. Can you feel the excitement of seeing Jesus again, of embracing the One who had brought new life to your family? “A dinner was given in Jesus’ honor” to welcome Him (John 12:2).
In John 12 we’re given a stunning glimpse into this dinner—and into what it means to live as a transformed person. Since this family at Bethany was ordinary, the house must have been ordinary as well, but still large enough to accommodate the disciples, Jesus, and the siblings. The five senses of each guest awakened that night and became “ministers to the soul,” as Leonardo DaVinci once said. Tantalizing aromas filled the air. They had good food and great wine—perhaps the quality of the wine at the wedding feast John told us about earlier in his book. Mary and Martha offered the hospitality we show when someone special comes to our house for a visit. Sandals stayed at the door and bare feet felt the holiness of this dirt-floor home where Jesus would find refuge for an evening, just as He had many times before. Mary even poured an expensive container of perfume over Jesus’ feet and then slowly wiped His feet clean with her hair, filling the room with fragrance.
Through all this, Jesus knew that His own tomb awaited Him in just a few days. This dinner party was less than a week away from Jesus’ own death. Imagine if you knew you only had one week to live. What would you do? Jesus chose to have a night of fellowship with His closest friends. This was not a night with an agenda. This was not a night to teach about evangelism. This was not a night of learning about heaven or hell. This was a night of intimacy. Companionship. This was a night of experiencing what life looks like in the presence of a God Who transforms.
A Life of Intimacy
We don’t have many details of Lazarus’s life after he was raised from the dead. But through John’s eyes, we do not see Lazarus sharing his experience on a preaching tour. The first thing we read about Lazarus’s actions after that day at the tomb is that he “was among those reclining at the table” with Jesus (12:2). The man once dead relaxes, fully alive in the presence of the God Who brought him back to life.
When people ate meals in the first century, they did not sit in chairs around a table. They reclined on the floor around a small, short table a few inches high and rested on cushions. Just as they do to this day in some Mideastern cultures, they leaned on their left arm and ate with their right hand. This was close communion! I can imagine Lazarus scooting up right next to Jesus that night and staying beside Him. There was no sense of a lingering Jesus here. God was present. This was a home of joy. Imagine a dinner with the people you most love in life and you’ll be close to experiencing what that night must have been like.
When I picture this scene, the first word that comes to mind is intimacy. It helps me to break that word down phonetically to gain an even deeper picture of what might have been happening: “into-me-see.” Jesus would allow His friends to see His own heart. In return He would look deeply into theirs. Mary would wipe dripping oil from between the toes of God. Jesus would look into her face and love her for she was the beloved as well. We do not know much about the conversation at the table that night. We do know that these friends were basking in the simple presence of being together.
Alone with God
Intimacy with Jesus is a mark of transformed life. Busyness is not. This truth calls us to swim against the forceful currents of the Christian culture that says: Do more! Be more involved! As Oswald Chambers reminds us, “the greatest competitor to our devotion to Jesus Christ is our service for Him.”
When I became a Christian in college, well-meaning older Christians advised me to “go out and talk about Jesus” to others right away. In other words, act, do, perform to solidify my relationship with Jesus. I see the rationale behind their advice, but in retrospect it would have been more meaningful to me—and therefore led to deeper relationships with others in the end—if I had been encouraged to “withdraw” with God for a while, just as Paul did after his conversion, just as Jesus did Himself many times.
In fact, immediately after Lazarus’s resurrection, Jesus “withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples” (11:54). In a remote place Jesus gathered His followers in a circle of love—another time of “into-me-see.” He needed a safe place, as we all do at times.
It’s taken me decades to realize that transformation does not always result in immediate action. Transformation might first lead to simply enjoying the presence of Jesus, a time that prepares us for the good work God calls us to do.
A time will come for action and engagement. We have no greater cause than sharing our faith with others—indeed, many people came to faith in Jesus because of the news of Lazarus’s resurrection. But without times of joyful intimacy with Jesus, we will lose our way on the long path of transformation. We simply cannot endure this journey without frequent and meaningful times of fellowship with God, times when we’re not doing anything but praying, listening, and simply being in the presence of the One who loves us for who we are.
Leaning in to Jesus
A life of intimacy with Jesus is not a passive life. At the same time, it’s not necessarily a life of calm and quiet. In the rush of our days, we get the idea that calm is all we need to be closer to God. But the person seeking transformation cannot seek a life in a monastery unless he or she is called to do just that. Grave clothes follow us to monasteries, too. Having a day without a full schedule will not bring peace; an ongoing, intimate relationship with Jesus on busy and quiet days will bring peace. The rhythm of Jesus’ life is the rhythm of a transformed life; a time of activity followed by a time of reflection. Both are vitally needed.
As Thomas R. Kelly writes in his spiritual classic, A Testament of Devotion:
Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.
The Lazarus life is a life of “unhurried existence.” We can be busy when we look calm, and we can also know a deep peace in the busiest moments of our day. The most important thing Lazarus did after his transformation was to lean next to Jesus. We must do the same.
©2008 Cook Communications Ministries. The Lazarus Life by Stephen W. Smith. Reprinted with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.