Funerals are among the most vulnerable times in people’s lives. As shepherds, we must do our best under God to comfort those who are grieving without compromising the truth. Sadly, I have attended many funerals where ministers fed the false hopes of unbelieving people. When preaching the funeral of an unbeliever, we need to keep several things in mind:
1. We must not dilute the gospel. Any message which does not require confession of sins, repentance, and sincere faith is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is why Paul says with unparalleled seriousness, “If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9).
2. We must give a clear message. Mixed signals only entangle an audience in a deeper web of misconception. It is dangerous to mention heaven at all in the funeral of an unbeliever; whatever context you give, the audience almost always hears, “that’s where my loved one is.” Giving people a glimmer of false hope is not a loving thing to do.
If someone dies without a clear testimony of being born again, the minister should avoid mentioning heaven at his or her funeral.
3. We must be sensitive, speaking the truth in love. Just as tragic as preaching another gospel is making the real gospel look like bad news instead of good news. Our purpose in a funeral sermon is not to convince the audience that their unbelieving loved one is in hell, but to lead those who are still living to a personal encounter with Jesus. Funerals are times when people are unusually sensitive; the Holy Spirit uses people’s brokenness to draw them to the God of all comfort. These are wonderful opportunities to glorify God by glorifying the Son, that many may believe.
4. We must stay radically rooted in the Scriptures. It is unfortunate how many funeral sermons avoid the Scriptures. Sadly, there is more topical preaching at funerals than in almost any other venue. When we draw our funeral sermon thoughts from the text of Scripture, people are confronted with the Word of God which stands forever instead of a preacher’s best attempt to sneak in the gospel.
A good funeral sermon is considerate of the grief of those attending, affirms the lovingkindness of God, considers the question “why,” and points to Jesus as the Lord of life and death. There are few Biblical texts that cover all of these bases as well as that of Jesus raising Lazarus. Here is an example of a simple sermon to illustrate how we can show sensitivity and gospel faithfulness at the funeral of an unbeliever.
The Text (John 11:1-44)
Of all the places that we could turn to in times of grief, it is especially precious to read about Jesus. One of the followers of Jesus—a man named John—wrote about Jesus’ life. It is in The Gospel According to John that we read the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
One of the many stories that John records in his gospel tells us about a man named Lazarus, who was a dear friend of Jesus. In John chapter 11, we read:
Jesus and his disciples heard that Lazarus, who lived in a town called Bethany, was very sick. Now Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. And after two days, Jesus told his disciples: ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.
By the time that Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead in his tomb for four days. Lazarus’s sister Martha ran out to meet Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.’
Then Lazarus’s other sister, Mary, came out to meet Jesus.
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Then, Jesus prayed to His Father and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ (John 11, paraphrase)
The story of Lazarus teaches us several important lessons for facing times of grief. First, we need to take time to grieve. Second, Jesus understands our grief. Third, God has a purpose in mind. Finally, Jesus is the Lord of life and death.
Take Time to Grieve
First, the story of Lazarus reminds us that we need to take time to grieve. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that what we need to do is “be strong” and “press on” for the sake of those around us. But when Jesus came to Bethany to comfort the family of Lazarus, he did not brace himself and hold back his tears. He wept.
When we love someone very dearly, as Jesus loved Lazarus, it is natural to cry. It is part of God’s plan that we go through a grieving process when we experience loss. The Bible says, “There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:4).
Holding back tears does not mean that we are strong, it means that we are weak — scared to accept how we feel. Some people never allow themselves to grieve properly, and it only hurts them in the long run. It’s okay to cry. It’s important to grieve. It’s good to remember the precious times we have spent with a loved one, even though it hurts.
When Jesus saw the tomb of Lazarus, he faced what had happened. He likely reflected on the memories he shared with Lazarus when they reclined at the dinner table and laughed while enjoying Martha’s famous home-cooked meals.
Even though Jesus had the power to resurrect Lazarus immediately, He paused and took time to grieve. We live in a demanding world that tries to push us along to the next activity. But when tragedy strikes in our family, we need to pause.
You have many memories with your loved one, and they are very precious. Take time to remember. Take time to grieve. It is okay to cry. Remember, Jesus wept.
Second, the story of Lazarus reminds us that Jesus understands our grief. In the dark times, we sometimes feel like God is very far away and doesn’t understand how we feel. But Hebrews 4:15 confirms that God is able to sympathize with our weaknesses because he came to earth and lived as a man named Jesus. He endured the worst kinds of sufferings, from grief over his lost friend Lazarus, to a painful death on the cross. Whatever we are going through, Jesus really does understand.
The Bible reassures us that when we pray to God in hard times, He hears us: “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1-2).
God Has a Purpose
Third, the story of Lazarus reminds us that God has a purpose. Both Mary and Martha said to Jesus, “If you had been here, you could have healed Lazarus from his sickness and prevented him from dying!” So, why didn’t Jesus come earlier and heal Lazarus?
Jesus explained the reason to his disciples: “Lazarus became sick and died for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it…for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”
God saw the bigger picture. The eternal destinies of Lazarus’s family and the crowds that gathered at the funeral were at stake.
When we experience a tragedy, we often ask, “Why?” Romans 8:28 is a precious promise: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” If you love God, you can be confident that He will take the worst possible circumstances and use them to accomplish something good. If you do not love God, you can come to know him.
In the case of Lazarus, God’s purpose was to show that Jesus is the Son of God so people would believe and be saved from their sins.
Jesus is Lord of Life and Death
Finally, the story of Lazarus reminds us that Jesus is the Lord of life and death. Jesus proved to everyone that He was truly God by the incredible miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.
Now, you might think, “my loved one will not be raised from the dead.” But the Bible tells us that someday everyone will be raised from the dead, and we will stand before God.
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life…everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
What would your answer be? Would you say to Jesus, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God”?
Receive the Lord of Life
The Bible teaches that we have all sinned. We have all disobeyed God’s law. We have all ignored God and lived our own way on our own terms. Romans 3:23 says that the penalty of sin is death.
But God is very loving. He showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners, He sent His Son Jesus to pay the penalty for us. What should have happened to us, happened to Jesus. Jesus died.
The wonderful news is that Jesus did not stay dead! On the third day, He rose again! Just as Lazarus, God raised him from the dead.
Today, Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father in heaven praying for us. He wants us all to be reunited with Him some day. He is not willing that anyone should perish. He expects that we confess our sins, turn away from our sins, and look to Him as our only hope for salvation.
Romans 10:9 promises that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Although death is a solemn reminder, it also points us to the most wonderful, hope-filled message of all! Jesus is the Lord of life and death. Whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life!