Rembrandt, “The Raising of Lazarus”
“Jesus wept” (John 11:35). This is the shortest verse in the Bible. Granted, the Bible’s authors didn’t write in verses. The verses were added later as an organizational scheme. The scheme we use today was developed by Archbishop Stephen Langton between 1227 and 1248. Langton was Archbishop of Canterbury between 1207 and 1228.
With that important factoid in place, back to the question: Jesus wept, but why? As my friend and Australian Bible teacher Ray Barnett puts it, there are a couple of apparent reasons but also one deeper reason that may actually be primary. The apparent reasons are these:
- Lazarus was Jesus’ friend, and Jesus may have been grieving over his death
- Mary and the Jews with her were weeping, which may have caused Jesus to weep with them in empathy
Yet upon deeper reflection, these reasons don’t actually make sense. Before Jesus started weeping, he says to Mary, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). Mary took this to mean that her brother Lazarus would rise again on the Day of Judgment. Yet clearly Jesus knew what he intended to do. He knew that he was going to bring Lazarus back to life. Therefore, he could not have been weeping over Lazarus’s death, because he himself was about to reverse this.
If this holds, then it also seems that the weeping of the others present wouldn’t have caused Jesus to weep. Again, he knew already that everything was about to change.
Yet, Jesus wept. Why? Ray’s answer is this: Jesus also knew that by raising Lazarus from the dead he would be setting in motion the events that would lead to his own death by crucifixion. Note that the plot to kill Jesus takes shape immediately after this episode (see 11:45-57). Note also that in chapter 12 Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and refers directly to his own impending death: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (11:23).
So Jesus wept more likely because he knew he was setting in motion the events that would lead to his own death. In the fully human aspect of Jesus, there may well have been a feeling of abandonment, certainly a ready cause for weeping. Yet even deeper than this, in the fully divine aspect of Jesus, maybe the weeping was also over the profound sinfulness of humanity, a problem so deep that God Himself would have to die to overcome it.
As Christians, do we understand and appreciate our own profound sinfulness as well as that of everyone around us? We are all broken people. How much more loving and gracious would our relationships be if we could accept this about ourselves, as well as about those around us? How much greater then also would our appreciation for the grace of the gospel be? For as deep as the problem of sin runs, and it runs to our very core, the remedy of grace runs even deeper. This reality ought to engender in us a profound gratitude as well as a profound commitment to give our lives completely to bringing glory to God.
If you read this today as a Christian, do you realize that your deepest brokenness has already been made new? If not, might it make sense to take some time today to observe Jesus weeping, and to ask yourself, “Why?” If you do realize that your deepest brokenness has been made new, what would be the best expression of gratitude your life could offer up? Will you go there? Jesus is already there, extending his hands to you, and saying, “Come out from your old life and follow me.”