Lazarus and the Three Commands

Morning devotion delivered to IGL Pastors’ Conference, Pune, Maharashtra, India, 21 February 2014, with some minor editing for clarity.

I said yesterday that we would be discussing the “fear of the Lord” today. God changed my mind. After hearing about your work yesterday, a different message seemed appropriate. (I will save the “fear of the Lord” message for the next time I am in India.)

Our text today:

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

John 11:38-44

In this familiar story we can discern a pattern for the gospel ministry. IGL is a gospel-centered work; everything is attuned to bring people to Christ. And so any work that does not lead people to Christ is not to be done. What do we see in the story? What is the pattern?

In the story, Jesus gives three distinct commands. These three commands provide a framework for gospel ministry. The first of these commands is this:

TAKE AWAY THE STONE.

The stone is the barrier that blocks the entrance to the tomb. More precisely, the stone blocks the exit from the tomb. The stone blocks Lazarus’s path out of that place.

In our gospel ministry, very often our priority must be to prepare the soil, to lay groundwork. We often must eliminate obstacles to a person coming to faith in Jesus, before we can bring the gospel to them. Remember, at this point Lazarus still dead! Many of those we minister to are still dead in their trespasses and sins; they are not yet believers.

What are the obstacles? In the West the obstacles are intellectual. The work of apologetics is important in “removing the stone” for unbelievers. One of the greatest apologists of our generation is an Indian man, Dr. Ravi Zacharias. Ravi speaks to university students helping to dispel their false ideas about Jesus.

Here in India the obstacles are mainly spiritual. I was amazed to hear many of your stories yesterday. God is moving in mighty ways here. The main work of stone removal here is not apologetics, but rather deliverance. People resist the gospel because of spiritual bondage. By miracles, by healings, by casting out evil spirits, that stone is removed for them. And when the stone is taken away, the path is clear for the dead man.

The dead man now hears the second command:

LAZARUS, COME OUT!

This is the gospel call; this is evangelism. This is Jesus Christ calling a dead man to himself. “Come out of your old life! Come out of the tomb!”

This is the specific call of Christ on an individual. It is not simply “Come out!” I like to think that if Jesus had not specified “Lazarus, come out!” then they all would have come out.

And it’s not “Lazarus, if you want to, if you feel good about it, come out.” No this is the life-giving, effective call of Christ. Paul says in Romans 8:28 that we have been “called according to his purpose.” When Jesus calls a person to life that person comes to life. His word is sovereign. But his call comes through people:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Romans 10:14-15

We have seen that the work of the gospel can entail stone removal, or evangelism: the call of Jesus. We may be tempted to think that once we have delivered the gospel and people have responded, our work is done. But Jesus’ Great Commission did not stop there:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”

Matthew 28:19

If we have removed the stone and have faithfully delivered the call of Jesus, our work is not yet complete. Our commission is to make disciples. Simply removing obstacles and preaching the gospel is not enough. Bringing people into the kingdom is only part of the task. Here we see the third command:

TAKE OFF THE GRAVE CLOTHES AND LET HIM GO.

When Lazarus came out of the tomb, his hands and feet were bound. He did not jump or dance. He had the smell of the grave clothes on him. He was now a living man wearing dead man’s clothes.

This is the work of discipleship: to remove the grave clothes. People who have responded to the call of Christ still carry old habits with them. They still retain patterns of thinking from their old nature. They must be taught to understand their new identity in Christ. A living man or woman must not continue to wear grave clothes.

My friends, this is personal to me. I was saved in 1982, but by 1994 I was in trouble. I was serving God, but I was weary, miserable, unhappy. Like John Wesley, I was ready to give up. But God did not let me give up. I received some good counsel at that time. Through the Scriptures I saw that “by the grace of God I am what I am.” I had been very prideful, very self-sufficient. Westerners especially have this problem of being self-sufficient. All those attitudes came from my old life. And praise God, that old man was dead. His grave clothes had to be removed. People must be instructed, after they come to Christ, to shed their old ways and to see their new life in Christ.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24

Notice that this is a two-part command. Jesus said, “Take off the grave clothes,” followed by “Let him go.” The objective of discipleship is liberty. Once the grave clothes are removed, I am free to live a new life. Lazarus was alive, but he began to dance only after he was unwrapped. As for me, my life is completely changed since 1994. I have joy that cannot be contained. This is because someone took the time to help me out of my grave clothes.

The full ministry of the Gospel encompasses all these commands:

  • TAKE AWAY THE STONE.
  • LAZARUS, COME OUT!
  • TAKE OFF THE GRAVE CLOTHES AND LET HIM GO.

This is what the angel meant when he told Peter,

“Go, stand in the temple courts, and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

Acts 5:20

The full message means “every word.” We are to tell every word of this new life. We must be sure that our work fulfills the intent of our Lord.

In conclusion: Be faithful to the commands of Jesus. Remove obstacles, preach the call of Jesus, and do not neglect the task of helping people to get out of their grave clothes.

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