The Imperfection of Spiritual Qualities
John 11:17-27
Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.…

God made the first marriage — of the body and soul in creation, and man the first divorce — of the body and soul through sin. God allows no such second marriages as are implied in the transmigration of souls into other bodies. And because God has made this band of marriage indissoluble but by death, as far as man is immortal, his divorce is only separation. Body and soul shall come together again at the Resurrection. To establish the assurance of this God raised Lazarus and others here. Note from the text —


1. In the best things.

(1) Knowledge. What thing do we know perfectly? One philosopher thinks he has dived at the bottom when he says he knows nothing but this, that he knows nothing; and yet another thinks he has expressed more knowledge by saying that he knows not so much as that.

(2) Faith. This imperfection is seen in the apostle's prayer for an increase of faith (Luke 17:5); in Christ's upbraidings (Matthew 6:30; Matthew 8:26); in Paul's congratulations and prayer for the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:3); in the expressions "rich in faith," "abound in faith," "measure of faith." Deceive not yourselves, then, that if you have faith you need no more.

(3) That our hope is not perfect we see from James 4:3. We cannot hope constantly because we do not pray aright; and to make a prayer a right prayer there must go so many circumstances as that the best man may suspect his best prayer. Whereas, ordinarily, a fly, the opening of a door, a memory of yesterday, a fear of tomorrow, a noise in the ear, a fancy in the brain, destroy prayer.

(4) There is nothing perfect in our charity. There is no work so good as that we can look to God for thanks for it; none but has so much ill mingled with it that we need not bespeak God's mercy.

2. How this weakness appears in the action in the text. Lest we should attribute it only to weak persons, note that Martha as well as Mary comes also in the same voice of infirmity (ver. 32). Look upon —

(1) Their faith. We cannot say as much as they did to any college of physicians; but the weakness of their faith lies in this, that they said so much and no more to Christ; and regard even that power to be derived from God and not inherent (ver. 22). Again, they relied so much upon His corporal presence. It was this that Christ diverted Mary from after His resurrection (John 20:16). "Touch Me not — send thy thoughts whither I am going." Peter had another holy distemper upon this personal presence, "Depart from Me" (Luke 5:8). The sisters longed for Him, and Peter to be delivered from Him, both out of weakness and error, as do they who attribute too much or too little to Christ's presence in ordinances. To imprison Christ in opere operato, to conclude that where that action is done Christ must necessarily be is to err weakly with these sisters; but to banish Christ from those holy actions is to err with Peter.

(2) So in their hope and their manner of expressing it. For they did not go; they sent — unlike Nicodemus, who came in person for his sick soul, and the centurion for his sick servant, and Jairus and the woman with the issue. That is not enough; we must bring Christ and our necessities nearer together. Then they made no request, but left an intimation to work on Christ; but I must not wrap up my necessities in general terms, but descend to particulars. As God is an accessible God He is open to receive thy smallest petitions, and as He is an inexhaustible God He cannot be pressed too much. Pray personally, rely not upon dead or living saints, and pray frequently and earnestly.

(3) In their charity even towards their dead brother. To lament a dead friend is natural; but inordinate lamentation implies a worse state in him that is gone; and if we believe him in heaven to wish him here is uncharitable.

3. Yet for all these imperfections Christ doth not refuse or chide, but cherishes their piety. There is no form of building stronger than an arch, and yet an arch has declinations which even a flat roof has not. So our devotions do not the less bear up upright in the sight of God, because they have some declinations towards natural affections. All these infirmities of theirs multiply this consolation, that though God look upon the inscription, He looks upon the metal too; though He look that His image should be preserved in us, He looks in what earthen vessels this image is put by His own hand.

II. As in spiritual things there is nothing perfect, SO IN TEMPORAL THERE IS NOTHING PERMANENT.

1. The earth itself is in motion.

2. Consider the greatest bodies upon it — monarchies which one would think destiny might stare at and not shake; and the smallest bodies, the hairs of our head, which one would think destiny would hardly observe; and yet destiny or, to speak as a Christian, God, is no more troubled to make a monarchy ruinous than a hair grey; nay, nothing needs be done, the one will ruin and the other turn grey of itself.

3. In the elements there is no acquiescence, but a transmutation into one another; air condensed becomes water, and air rarefied becomes fire.

4. It is so in the conditions of men: a merchant condensed, packed up in a great estate, becomes a lord; and a merchant rarefied by a riotous son evaporates into nothing. And if there were anything permanent in the world, set we gain nothing, because we cannot stay with it.

5. The world is a great volume, and man its index. Even man's body is an illustration of all nature. Even in its highest estates, as the temple of the Holy Ghost, it must perish. Conclusion: But as in spiritual things there is no perfectness, and yet God accepts our religious services, so, notwithstanding that all temporal things, God's noblest piece included, decays, yet God affords this body a resurrection. The Gentiles describe the sad state of death as one everlasting night; but to a Christian it is the day of death and the day of resurrection. And looking at this we may invert the text and say, "Because Thou wast here our brother is not dead." For Christ is with the Christian in life, death, and the resurrection.

(J. Donne, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.

WEB: So when Jesus came, he found that he had been in the tomb four days already.

The Identity of the Earthly and the Heavenly Life
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