John 11:1-40 New Living Translation
A man named Lazarus was sick. He lived in Bethany with his sisters, Mary and Martha. 2 This is the Mary who later poured the expensive perfume on the Lord’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Her brother, Lazarus, was sick. 3 So the two sisters sent a message to Jesus telling him, “Lord, your dear friend is very sick.”
4 But when Jesus heard about it he said, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” 5 So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, 6 he stayed where he was for the next two days. 7 Finally, he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”
8 But his disciples objected. “Rabbi,” they said, “only a few days ago the people in Judea were trying to stone you. Are you going there again?”
9 Jesus replied, “There are twelve hours of daylight every day. During the day people can walk safely. They can see because they have the light of this world. 10 But at night there is danger of stumbling because they have no light.” 11 Then he said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up.”
12 The disciples said, “Lord, if he is sleeping, he will soon get better!” 13 They thought Jesus meant Lazarus was simply sleeping, but Jesus meant Lazarus had died.
14 So he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 And for your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there, for now you will really believe. Come, let’s go see him.”
16 Thomas, nicknamed the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go, too—and die with Jesus.”
17 When Jesus arrived at Bethany, he was told that Lazarus had already been in his grave for four days. 18 Bethany was only a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, 19 and many of the people had come to console Martha and Mary in their loss. 20 When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 “Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”
25 Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. 26 Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.” 28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
30 Jesus had stayed outside the village, at the place where Martha met him. 31 When the people who were at the house consoling Mary saw her leave so hastily, they assumed she was going to Lazarus’s grave to weep. So they followed her there. 32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him,[f] and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. 36 The people who were standing nearby said, “See how much he loved him!” 37 But some said, “This man healed a blind man. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?”
38 Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance. 39 “Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.
But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”
40 Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?”
Seventeen-year-old Ashley called me late one Saturday night. “Pastor Weiss, Aaron’s been in a car accident. He went through the windshield.” My heart whooshed as I bolted from my bed. “They don’t think he’s gonna make it,” she said with remarkable calm. The accident had occurred in another state and their father was on the way there.
I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night, my prayers uttered frequently for Aaron and his family as I wondered what to say to the congregation about it the next morning at worship. Aaron was only 19, a recent high school graduate. He was smart and funny. Kids in the youth group liked him. He and his three sisters were part of a tight family. His recent performance in a play had charmed the congregation. He was one of the sound system techs for the worship services. It was a tragedy.
Sadly, Aaron did indeed die. Yet, during that grieving time as his family and I prepared for his funeral a well-meaning person told me, “God must have needed another angel, so God took Aaron.” Yikes!
It is one of those Christian clichés that is often said when the speaker does not know what else to say. I think it is meant to convey comfort and a good opinion of the deceased. Aaron’s family likely did not find it comforting. It is an emotionally loaded cliché. It seems to imply that God does not have enough angels in heaven so God “recruits” children and adults while they are in the prime of life.
We surely do not know many things about heaven and the afterlife. As Christians, we believe such an experience exists.
However, since we know so little about that alternate reality people fill in the blanks from folklore. How often have you heard a story about St. Peter at the pearly gates? Was there some sort of entrance exam in that story? Or maybe you’ve learned of people getting wings like Clarence the once human now wannabe angel in the beloved Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. You remember, “Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings.”
However quaint or uplifting these stories may be, none of it is in the Bible.
There is not one word in scripture that implies that humans become angels after death. When people use this cliché, God needed another angel, do they even believe what they are saying?
Bonnie Engstrom has a blog called A Knotted Life. She is a Catholic mother of eight who also experienced the death of a child. After the Sandy Hook massacre when a gunman killed little children and teachers in their school classrooms Bonnie had seen on Facebook that people were “comforting” the Sandy Hook parents by using this cliché. Bonnie asked people not to use it as it would hurt and further wound those parents with its implication that God had orchestrated the attack to get more angels.
More than one person told her, “I feel sad so thinking about those children as angels make us feel better. So I don’t care if it makes a grieving parent feel worse!” Bonnie decided to write about it on her blog.
“On the more basic level “god needs another angel” implies that is was God’s will that the child died. It was God’s actual, active will that sent a shooter into the school, church, grocery store, movie theater, shopping mall to kill innocent children. It was God’s actual, active will – it was what God wanted and needed to happen—for my baby to die in my womb, for another’s to suffocate on the umbilical cord, for another’s to develop in such a way that he could not live outside of the womb, for another’s to be killed in a house fire or by a drunk driver.
What kind of crappy god is that?! What kind of pathetic god needs to send down severe pain and anguish so he can populate heaven with more angels to worship him?! When people make that statement they denote god into someone horrible and evil, unintentionally chipping away at whatever hope the parents have. Please don’t do that to us. Please don’t chip away at our hope in an all-good and all-powerful God. It is already shaky because of what we’re living through.
So it seems that this cliché is just wrong. It is not comforting and it is not Biblical. Angels are, by the way, separate creatures from humans whose job in the Bible is to be messengers for God.
(And they don’t have wings. There is nothing in the Bible about wings on an angel. Artists painted wings on angels, likely due to the Nativity story when the angels appeared in the sky singing praises for the newborn baby.)
In the story of Lazarus, Jesus had the perfect opportunity to use this cliché.
“Mary, Martha, his death is good news because God needed another angel. Oh sure, you are left without a man to take care of you both and you may lose your home and Lazarus’s property since women can’t own such things, but God has that new angel.”
He, of course, did not say anything like that. Instead, Jesus wept. He was heartbroken that death had taken his friend from him. This story tells us something important about the character of God. God is sad and distressed about untimely death. Eventually, Lazarus wore his grave clothes again. Death after a long life is certainly different and at that point we are pleased to know that God welcomed him to his eternal home. But God is never about taking life away unexpectedly, accidentally, or through violence or tragedy.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. 26 Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.” God’s response to death is the resurrection of Jesus. Death’s sting loses its power.
John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation understood what that meant. Whatever the afterlife is, we are assured that God is there. Revelation 21:3-4 says, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
This passage gives us a hopeful image. God does not take us “up” to God and make us into angels. God comes “down” to us and pitches God’s tent (dwelling place, home) with us—human beings worthy of God—just as we are. This is the culmination of Christ’s work. God among us having healed all things.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.