When our kids were children, we had to move, taking them away from their schools and friends. One night, I was out shopping and found the largest stuffed animals I had ever seen. These floppy-eared dogs were more than twice as long as my oldest was tall.
Because I wanted each child to enjoy this special gift with me, I planned to give them one at a time. Sarah came outside when she heard me drive up, and I brought out her dog! Her eyes were never so big, her joy EXACTLY what I had expected. Before I knew it, she ran inside, floppy-dog flopping even more and trailing behind her as she ran. Bethany and Jesse met her, coming the other way, and as only a child could in that instant, each must have assumed that I loved Sarah more than they. Their expressions of sadness and disbelief as they came out the door fully powered by their lack of floppy-dog.
One look at their faces and I wept. I fell to the ground with sadness. I didn’t just sniffle, rather, there were big tears best described by the term “weep”. I was so sad because they were sad. It hurt deeply that they believed I had let them down. It didn’t matter that I knew I had the same great gift for both to them. It didn’t matter that I knew that their response was that of a child, ignorant of the unseen and unknown around them. All that mattered at that moment was that I felt sad because they felt sad.
I simply pulled their floppy-dogs from the trunk of the car, and there were smiles all around. Hero. Strong emotions. Happy ending.
But Jesus did weep. Unfortunately, the scripture doesn’t directly tell us why. Our experience tells us that he was sad because Lazarus’ friends and family were sad, that his friend had died.
The scripture tells us:
- He was reprimanded by Mary – “…if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 32).
- He was moved in spirit and troubled by her weeping, and that of the Jews with her (v. 33)
- He was escorted to the tomb (v.34)
And we are then told that He wept. (v.35)
But we’re also told in the broader passage:
- As soon as He heard that Lazarus was sick, He announced that the story would not end in death. (vs. 4)
- The entire episode from sickness, to death, to raised from death was planned to give God glory (vs. 4)
- He chose to delay his departure to see Lazarus for two days, ensuring that Lazarus would die, even though John notes that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. (vs. 7)
- He knew that Lazarus had died before he left (vs. 11)
- He clearly states that He is glad that Lazarus has died, because of the faith that would develop in this God-glorifying experience (vs. 14-15)
And because it is important to us, especially at this time in our culture, that Jesus empathize with us, we conclude that the spirit moved in Him and He was troubled by what He had allowed to happen. That’s right, He had purposely allowed Lazarus to die. And therefore, based on these two verses, we must conclude that this is why He wept. (*See Haha above.)
When one reads this for the first time, they often filter this response through their own experiences. We can think of all the reasons why we would weep, and it doesn’t take long to find one that resonates.
However, this is a common mistake – for one to ascribe to Jesus motivations that resonate with one’s own heart will at best be close, and at worst be naught. Our answer to a “Why” question is almost always less: less sufficient, less correct, less in alignment with His will, less to His glory and more to ours.
I don’t believe that Jesus wept for this reason. He was not sad because they were sad. It did not hurt Him deeply because He had not let them down. It mattered that He knew He had a great gift for them all. It mattered that He knew that their response was because they were ignorant of the unseen and unknown around them. And, of all that mattered in that moment, the least of what mattered was how they felt.
Ok, then. Why do you think He wept?
I don’t think that Jesus just ambled around the planet looking for good things to do while He was here. I believe He was the God-man on purpose. Every place He went, every conversation He had, every person He touched, every lesson He taught, and the way He taught every lesson were all by design. His three years of ministry were designed to prepare the world as a farmer would prepare the soil, as well as a small cadre of followers to how to farm. He wasted no time on this effort, as He had none to waste. It was critical to my salvation and yours, and to all those who came before, and all those that will follow, that this small cadre be forever committed to bear fruit from the Gospel.
As Jesus approached the grave of Lazarus, there were at least three things He knew. We can only be sure of two of them.
1. He knew Lazarus was dead.
Doornail dead. Dead and buried. And the scripture here informs us very well.
“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Hebrews 9:27 ESV (cf Rev 20:12, 15)
There is no third option for mankind. Our eternal existence will either a celebration in the presence of the Father or a desperate desolation absent the presence of the Father. Heaven or Hell. Eternal Life or Eternal Death. We either live once and die twice, or we live twice and die once.
Because Lazarus was dead, he was in one place or the other.
Many would say Heaven. After all, Jesus loved him and he loved Jesus. He was a follower. But, based on everything Mary and Martha said to Jesus at the funeral, did He really understand salvation?
Some might say Hell. Not because Lazarus was a bad guy (that’s not why people are separated from God), but because Jesus had not yet resurrected; He had not yet paid the price for the sin of all the world. It was not possible to be saved by faith because the grave still had its victory and death still had its sting. (1 Cor 15:55).
For the sake of this conversation, it matters little which one was true. Because the question is, Why did Jesus weep?
Let’s say that it was the latter. That Lazarus was separated from God. Standing across from that grave, Jesus would have known the price that Lazarus paid for this lesson to be taught. Jesus would have known the foreshadowing of His own forsakenness on the cross yet to come (see The Cross vs the Grave). I believe that His knowing what his friend had had to endure for days would have caused him enough duress to weep.
On the other hand, let’s say it was the former. That Lazarus was in the presence of God. Standing across from that grave, Jesus would have known the price that Lazarus was about to pay for this lesson to be taught. Jesus knew full well what it was like to leave perfection to walk among sinful mankind. He knew the glory of the Father and joy of His presence like no other. And He would know that to call Lazarus from the grave would be to call Him away – to call him back to sin, sorrow, and death once more. I believe this, too, would be cause enough for Jesus to weep.
2. He knew the Cross was next.
Two things of note happened after Lazarus came forth.
First, while many of the Jews that were there believed in Him (v.45), others ran to the Pharisees to tattle on Jesus. This act of raising Lazarus was the last straw for the Pharisees. Verse 53 summarizes the result of their conversation: “So, from that day on, they made plans to put Him to death.”
Secondly, because of this very real threat, Jesus went into hiding. But He wasn’t hiding out of fear. We know that He was able to walk through violent crowds without receiving even a scratch (Luke 4:28-30).
He was hiding because it was not yet His time. Passover was His time, and it was fast approaching. In fact, John reports nothing in his Gospel account between the Lazarus event and Passover preparation except Jesus going into hiding. Jesus knew the Cross – His time – was next.
3. He knew His Followers Still Did Not Get It.
Just consider the following comments from his followers in this passage. This is not an attempt to belittle those closest to Jesus. Neither you nor I would have gotten it at this point either.
vs 16: Upon hearing that Jesus would not be deterred from going to Lazarus, Thomas “knew” that they were all going to die. (His followers’ early death was not at all part of His plan.)
vss 21-27: Martha’s first words to Jesus were of complaint and blame. You can just hear her cry, “This is all your fault!”
Then she turned to a request only He could fulfill, but she really didn’t believe it. She says that “…even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Sounds like faith. But when Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, she repeats the promise of the resurrection in the distant last days. She was really speaking out of her pain and loss, and wanted Jesus to cure that pain and loss. (Nowhere is it in God’s plan that those who are called by His name will be absent pain and loss. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The world is not our home. The world system is not our friend. Christians are belittled, maligned, mistreated, ostracized, and/or murdered in places all over the world because of Christ.)
vss 28-36: Now it’s Mary’s turn to blame Him, repeating what she and Martha must surely have repeated to one another time and again while they waited for Jesus to come. “If only he had been here….”
vss 38-40: He had told them that God would be glorified, but they argued with Him!
Jesus: Remove the stone.
Crowd: That can’t be right! Don’t you know the dead body will stink by now?
Jesus knew Lazarus was paying a high price.
He knew that the Cross was next.
And He knew that His closest followers still did not yet get it. And this living parable was the last opportunity to correct that.
I would have wept, too.
How is it possible that we have the faith to believe that Jesus is in control, and yet argue with Him and blame Him when things don’t go our way?
How is it possible that we can believe that Jesus suffered, bled, and died so that the whole world through all generations to come would have the opportunity to know Him, while at the same time believing that Jesus is most interested in our feelings?
Sometimes, we don’t get it either.