It’s one of my favorite responses to Jesus recorded in the gospels: “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NRSV). We want to believe. We want to trust in Jesus’ ability to meet us in our moment of need. And to some extent, we do believe.
But we still have our doubts, our questions. We know that Jesus is the only one to whom we can turn, but our faith in him is not yet complete.
And Lord, have mercy — the Lord has mercy.
So it is with Martha of Bethany. As we’ve seen in a previous post, Martha gives one of the most marvelous confessions of faith we see in any of the gospels. She calls Jesus both Messiah and Son of God, and declares that he is “the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).
But she doesn’t understand what Jesus means when he tells her that her brother will rise again, or that he is the resurrection and the life (vss. 23, 25). And when Jesus commands that the stone sealing the entrance to her brother’s tomb be removed, she balks (vs. 39): Um, Lord, he’s been dead four days. If you do that, it’s going to stink. Badly.
Jesus’ response is instructive: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (vs. 40). John, in fact, doesn’t record Jesus ever saying this to her. But it’s easy to imagine it as part of their earlier conversation, perhaps just before Martha left Jesus to summon Mary.
Before we try to understand what Jesus is saying, it’s important to note what he’s not saying. He’s not saying, “If you’d just show a little more faith, I’d bring back your brother.” There’s no contingency here; Jesus isn’t doing this to reward anybody for anything. And he’s not saying, “Only those who believe get to see miracles.” Many times in the gospels, the opposite seems to be true: Jesus does miracles, people still refuse to believe in him, and he chastises them for their lack of faith (e.g., Matt 11:21).
What he says is that if she has faith, she’ll see God’s glory. In John’s gospel, Jesus has already done a number of signs that witness to who he is and from whom he has come; the raising of Lazarus is the last and most climactic sign. Everyone will see it, and be amazed. But such signs don’t compel faith. It’s convenient to say, “Well, if God would just do this miracle for me, then I would believe.” But John’s story tells us that this is self-deception. As we’ll see in the remaining part of the chapter, even the most stupendous of miracles can fall on blind eyes.
Thus, Martha will see the miracle whether she believes or not. The question is whether she will see the glory of God in the miracle.
It’s one thing to ask, “Do you believe in miracles?” Martha believes in miracles; she’s seen enough of them. But it’s another thing to ask what Martha or anyone else in the vicinity will come to know and believe through the miracle.
Because what Jesus wants her to see is the glory of the God who is greater than death, who is the author of life, and who has a plan to bring life to those who believe.