Quite often we have preconceived notions of how God can and cannot answer our prayers. Of course, we may not verbalize such ideas—the boundaries of time, method, and venue in which God must work. But those ideas are still firmly fixed in our brains. And if God should deviate these narrow parameters, then we rush to judgment and conclude, “God has failed us.” When we do this, however, we overlook a far greater miracle that God is performing before our eyes.
I recently read the story of Lazarus’ death in John chapter eleven. In this passage, Lazarus’ two sisters—Martha and Mary—had very definite ideas about how Jesus should answer their cries for help. Jesus must come to their town of Bethany immediately and heal their brother before he dies.
But it didn’t happen that way. Jesus did not come to Bethany within the time they allotted Him. Lazarus died before Jesus arrived. And now, all those two women can think or talk about is, “If Jesus had been here when we needed Him, our brother would not have died” (John 11: 21, 32).
What these two women did not yet understand is that, had Jesus been there, the outcome would have been no different. Lazarus still would have died. For reasons we do not fully understand, Jesus chose to delay his response. You see, Jesus was holding out for a far greater demonstration of His power and glory than what a mere cure could provide. Jesus would wait until the situation with Lazarus became utterly hopeless and irredeemable before He worked His miracles.
A Test of Faith
Now this, of course, tested the faith of Mary and Martha. Their faith in Jesus was badly shaken—especially Mary, who was closest to Jesus. And it was her nearness to Christ which made her most vulnerable to being hurt. But we are assured, in the text that Jesus deeply loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary (John 11:5). He is not playing with their feelings, their faith, or their lives. He has every intention of intervening—but in a way that exceeds their wildest expectations.
In the biblical account, Jesus finally shows up in Bethany. And it couldn’t have been at the worst time. For, we read, it is now “the fourth day” since Lazarus died (John 11:17). And in accordance with the rabbinical notions of the day, Mary and Martha believe that the fourth day marked the time when decomposition set into the body. They believed that the spirit of the deceased departed into the netherworld. Now, on the fourth day, nothing short of the Resurrection at the end of the age could bring Lazarus back.
Oh sure, Jesus had raised people from “clinical death” before, but always within a few hours after their hearts stopped beating (e.g. Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5:21–43; the widow’s son in Luke 7:11–17). But Lazarus’ death was on a totally different level, far beyond Jesus’ power to remedy. Or, so Mary and Martha must have thought. Only the Almighty Himself could bring Lazarus back, and that would not take place until the Day of Judgment (John 11:23–24).
But in those times, when we’re most convinced that Jesus has let us down, He does something very wonderful, something beyond all expectation.
Do you remember the great American businessman and entrepreneur, Sam Walton? Walton died in 1992, after having amassed a personal net worth of $8.6 billion and having become the largest private employer in the world. But let’s go back in time. Imagine that Sam Walton is alive and in his prime. And he has befriended you. Now he’s giving you a tour in one of his Sam’s Club stores. As he shows you around, he asks you if there’s anything you need.
You reply that your car needs new tires. So he immediately tells the tire salesmen to put four new tires on your car. In fact, he asks you if the car you drive is adequate. When he finds out you drive an old jalopy, he hands you the keys to the new display model car at the entrance of the store. “Here are the keys to the car,” he says. “Take them. The car is yours!”
Your face gets red with embarrassment. You politely tell Mr. Walton, “Sir, I can’t take these tires and this car. They belong to Sam’s Club.”
He stares back at you and sternly answers, “I am Sam’s Club. I own every new car in every Sam’s Club store and they’re all mine to give to whomever I choose.”
The Great I AM
And when Jesus tells the grieving Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” she also answered him politely. “Yes, Lord. I know he will rise–in the Resurrection on the last day.” Jesus stared at her and sternly replied, “I Am the Resurrection” (John 11:26). “Whose voice do you think it will be on Resurrection Day when all who are in the graves shall come forth? It will be My voice that calls them” (John 5:28–29).
And to demonstrate His point, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he–who was dead, corrupted, beyond all hope, and bound up in linen wrappings like a mummy–came out of the tomb—perfectly alive and well.
When Jesus answered their prayers in His own time and in His own way, He revealed His glory in such a way that it forever strengthened the tottering faith of Mary, Martha, and all His disciples. We should never place limits upon the way God must answer us. God always has the best idea on how to answer our prayers, supply our needs, and bring ultimate healing to our bodies.
Dear Father in heaven, I trust in Your power, love, and wisdom to bring about the best possible outcome in the best possible way. Thank You, Father, that You always encourage me to pray and to cast my burdens upon You. But You reserve the right to answer them in Your own timing and manner. Amen.
In article photos in order of appearance: Marching to honor by DVIDSHUB licensed under CC BY 2.0
A Sailor stands watch on the port bridge wing aboard USS Carney (DDG 64), Jan. 7, 2020. by US Navy licensed under CC BY 2.0
Information from: Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p. 546
Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, p. 424
James M. Freeman, Manners & Customs of the Bible, p. 431