One of the central things about the miracles of Jesus, the things that most New Testament writers try to point out, is that what Jesus was doing, was about something bigger than what Jesus was doing.
It was for this reasons that John calls Jesus’ miracles signs.
Signs that point away from what is currently happening to a larger reality. For example, when Jesus heals people in the gospels, the majority of the time they are people who were not just sick or hurting, they were suffering from a specific kind of sickness or hurt. One that would exclude them from being a part of the community i.e. leprosy, or bleeding diseases, or even blindness or paralysis.
But what about death? Did you ever wonder why the gospels (every one of them) make sure and tell us that Jesus raised people from the dead?
It would seem, according to popular Christian theology that raising someone from the dead is the last thing that God would want to do. If what God is really up to is about escaping this current reality to a place with pearly gates manned by a picky St. Peter, than why would Jesus care at all about bringing people back to this place?
In John 11, Jesus is a bit too late to heal his good friend Lazarus. A tardiness that he explains later as a God-ordained opportunity to show these people something about what God is up to. Lazarus has passed away and has been wrapped and buried for four days. Jesus, the consummate funeral-wrecker, pays no attention to the etiquette of burial and requests that the stone of his tomb be rolled away.
Now I don’t care how popular of a preacher/minister you are, try going up to a hurting family days after their loved one is gone and asking for him to be unburied…it’s not going to end well. And Martha, ever the pragmatist, points out to Jesus that her brother Lazarus by this point will stink.
But Jesus insists. The stone is rolled away. Lazarus is called forth, and he comes out grave clothes and all. But what is missing from the end of this story?
The very thing that they were worried about no one mentions.
Lazarus doesn’t smell.
I think Jesus not only has the power over death, but over the effects of death. The sign is pointing us toward the truth that death and it’s symptoms have to bow to the voice of God. The decomposition of Lazarus was stayed, or reversed, but however it happened it was eliminated.
When we talk about the hope that the New Testament holds out, for us to talk about Heaven as the final place is to miss out on the beautiful truth of the power of God over the effects of death.
That every inch of the cosmos is still God’s.
That from the oak trees to Saturn’s rings, from Montana to Bombay every aspect of this Creation belongs to Him. And while she may groan for now, waiting to be set free, there is not a single part of this world that will not be liberated from her grave clothes.
The sign that Jesus points to isn’t away from this creation but toward a new and liberated version of it. One that has been emptied from the effects of death.
That’s why I think the stories of Jesus raising people from the dead are so significant. If Jesus would have acted like what many Christians tend to think about death, he would have simply eulogized the dead, he might of had stood in front of the tomb and spoke about a “better place” or talked of a distant day when we rejoined Lazarus in the sweet by and by.
But he didn’t. He called him back to this place.
But, you may say, Lazarus still died. He eventually had to go through that whole process again, and maybe that’s why Jesus wept. Because for now it was just a sign. One that pointed beyond the current state of the world to another day.
A day where all things are set right.
A day where nothing stinks.
A day in which death itself, will die.