I was meditating on John 11, for personal Bible Study earlier today. It is the story of the raising of Lazarus. And I was struck by the following lines:
[Martha and Mary] sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Therefore, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days…..[Later. Jesus] told [his disciples] plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
One of the harder truths of life is that our life is not about us. Neither are we the most important thing or person in the world. Rather we exist in and for the glory of God and our ultimate glory in to be caught up in and be part of God’s glory and his Kingdom. Further, we also exist, not only for our own sake but also for the sake of others.
And we see some of this in this story of Lazarus. Jesus speaks of Lazarus’ grave illness as “for the glory of God.” He further indicates that it is also so that He (Jesus) may be glorified. Further, Lazarus’ illness is also for others, that they may come to believe.
And even more stunning than his words are the actions of Jesus, who, hearing of the grave condition of Lazarus, delays his departure to see him for two whole days. His delay means that Lazarus dies! Jesus then says to his disciples that he is “glad for their sakes that he was not there (for Lazarus)!
Now, few of us can failed to be shocked by some or all of this. But our shock is largely based on a premise that this story should be largely about Lazarus and his physical condition. But, it is not, in the first place about Lazarus or about his health. It is about Jesus, it is about God’s glory, and it is about our faith in God.
Jesus’ first concern is not about Lazarus’ physical life, his condition, or about the distress of Mary and Martha who see their brother sick and then die. His first concern is for the faith of all involved and he is willing to allow a crisis to unfold in order to finally strengthen the faith of the many, even if this means the distress of the few.
Your life is not about you. We are each part of a bigger picture, a picture that God sees far better than we. This concept shocks us, I suspect for at least two reasons:
First, we live in an age that strongly emphasizes the dignity, rights and importance of the individual. Of itself this is not bad and is one of the things that distinguishes our age and its concern for human rights. However, the importance and needs of the individual must be balanced against the common good, and the needs of other individuals and groups. It must also be seen in the light of God’s glory, God’s plan and the mysterious interplay of the individual, others and God. God alone knows all this and what is best for all involved, not just me.
Second, we live in an age that strongly emphasizes physical health and comfort, as well as emotional happiness. While these things are truly good, there are greater good. And the greatest good is our spiritual well being, our faith and holiness. God is far more concerned with our eternal destiny that our present comfort. Jesus says for example, it is better to cut off a hand, a foot or pluck out our eye than to sin seriously. And while he may be using hyperbole, the teaching remains that it a more serious thing to sin seriously than to loose even very precious parts of our body. We don’t think this way. We tend to value our bodies and physical well-being more than spiritual matters. Not so with God.
Hence we see that Jesus is willing to rank faith and spiritual well-being above physical and emotional comfort. He is also willing to act for the good of many, even if that means some difficulty for the few or the one. This many rankle our “self-esteem culture,” but, to some extent we are a little to “precious” these days, and it is good to be reminded we are not the only one who is important, and that we don’t exist only for our own sake, but also for others and for the glory of God.
Another example of this whole principle is the surprising and “inconclusive” ending of the Acts of the Apostles.
Fully the last two-thirds of Acts is focused on the Evangelical Mission of St. Paul as he made four journeys into Asia Minor and then into Greece. The final chapters of Acts deal with Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and appearance before Roman officials such as Felix and Festus, as well as Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem and Caesarea.
Paul appeals his case to Rome and is sent there on ill fated journey that shipwrecks at Malta. Finally making it to Rome, Paul is imprisoned and awaits the trial that will either vindicate him or seal his fate. The story seems to be building to a climactic conclusion and we, the readers, are ready to see Paul through his final trial. But then something astonishing happens: the story just ends. Here is the concluding line of the Acts of the Apostles:
[Paul] remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28:30-31)
But Luke! Don’t just leave us hanging! Did Paul go on trial? We he acquitted as some traditions assert and then made his way to Spain as he wanted? Or did he loose his appeal and suffer beheading right away? What was the outcome? We have seen Paul so far and now the story just ends?!
How can we answer this exasperating and unsatisfying end?
The simplest answer is that the Acts of the Apostles is not about Paul. It is about the going forth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. Luke has, to be sure, personified this going forth of the Gospel to the nations by focusing on Paul. And once Paul reaches Rome and, though under house arrest, is able to freely preach the Gospel there (for there is chaining the Word of God (2 Tim 2:9)), the story reaches its natural conclusion. From Rome the Gospel will go forth to every part of the Empire, for every road led to Rome and away from it. Now that the Gospel has reached the center hub and is being freely preached, it will radiate outward in all directions by the grace of God.
It never WAS about Paul. It was about the Gospel. Paul himself testified to this when he said, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24)
We are often focused on personalities and frequently we loose track about what is most important. And, frankly the personality we are most focused on is very often ourselves. Acts never really was about Paul. And your life is not about you. It is about what the Lord is doing for you and through you. We often want things to revolve around us, around what we think, and what we want. But, truth be told, you are not that important, neither am I. We must decrease and the Lord must increase (Jn 3:30).
Here’s the classic song about modern vanity couched in very tricky logic.