Why Did Jesus Weep at Lazarus’ Tomb?
One of the more well-known miracles is the account of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11). It is a profound miracle, a dramatic display of Jesus’ power and also rich with theological implications about resurrection, eternal life, and the importance of the call of Christ to life.
Nestled into this account is the shortest verse in the Bible. Verse 35 says concisely, “Jesus wept”. This statement has been used by many to illustrate the incredible empathy that our Lord had for those who were in emotional distress. Both Martha and Mary are distraught at the death of their brother, and though Christ knows that he will raise him from the dead (made plain in vs, 15, 23, and 30), he still hurts at the pain of his friends. Like Christians are commanded to do, he weeps with those who weep.
At least, that is what the majority interpret his actions to be.
I know that I am in the minority, and I do think that it is plausible that Jesus weeps in verse 35 because he is saddened by the grief that Mary and Martha are experiencing. But I tend to think that his tears are of a slightly different sort. Jesus is pained, to be sure, but not because Lazarus has died or because the sisters are grieving, but because all around him there is a serious and disturbing lack of faith.
Read the flow of the account. Jesus intends to let Lazarus die, which is why he does not come immediately when told that his friend is deathly ill. He lets Lazarus die on purpose. His intention was to go later and resurrect him. This is without doubt Jesus’ plan.
When he arrives, the first person to meet him is Martha. She declares, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (21-22). Her outlook is mixed. On one hand, she seems bothered that Jesus showed up late. He could have prevented this from happening. But she also has a glimmer of hope that Jesus can still do something about it. Jesus and Martha exchange a few more words, which reveal she believes Lazarus will indeed be raised to life, but not until a future time.
The next person Jesus greets is Mary. More dramatic than her sister, she falls at Jesus’ feet and likewise declares, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32). Unlike her sister, however, she did not follow up her remarks with any expression of faith. She simply accuses Jesus of dropping the ball.
The next verse indicates how Jesus feels about all of this. John comments, “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.” Jesus looks around and sees despair. This bothers him. But not because he is sad to see his friends sad, but because they should have greater faith than this.
The phrase translated “deeply moved” in his spirit is from the Greek word “embrimaomai”, which means “to be angry, to express indignant displeasure”. To say that Jesus was “deeply moved” is true, but it doesn’t give a clear picture of how he was moved. Jesus wasn’t depressed. He was mad!
Immediately following, Jesus is led to Lazarus’ tomb and weeps. Now at this point, it could still be up for debate if Jesus’ emotional expressions are from sorrow for Lazarus, for his friends’ grief, or from frustration. I suppose the argument at this point would be inconclusive. But what happens next is what makes me lean more towards the the interpretation that Jesus’ tears are not so much from empathy or sorrow as they are from frustration at lack of faith.
When Jesus weeps, the crowd says, “See how he loved him!” They interpret his emotional outburst the way most Christians have. But others in the crowd had different thoughts: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” At least some in the crowd, like Mary earlier, imply that Jesus is a bit of a bumbler. They insinuate that Jesus somehow mishandled the whole situation, since supposedly he should have the miracle-working power to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
Again, see what immediately follows. “Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb” (38). For effect, I might italicize the word again in that sentence. Jesus has a second bout of being “deeply moved”, embrimaomai, same word as before. In other words, he gets irritated and agitated a second time.
What I would like to point out is that both times Jesus is “deeply moved” (angry, indignant), it happens immediately after he is accused of committing some sort of gaffe. First, Martha implies that Jesus should have done something, but at least gives some effort to demonstrate that she still trusts him. Then, Mary outright says he blew it, to which Jesus is bothered. Then, a good chunk of the crowd imply that he’s made a mistake, to which again he is bothered. What this shows me is that the context of Jesus’ tears are right in the middle of a group of people who simply don’t trust him. Jesus, knowing full-well what he had planned all along, encounters hardly any faith at all from the very people who should have known better.
Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes. You have unlimited supernatural power. You have put this power on display a hundred times before. You have proven repeatedly to be good and kind and loving to others. You have shown yourself to be trustworthy over and over again. You are literally the sinless Son of God, who can do no wrong and has a divine plan and purpose for everything….and yet your closest friends all think you screwed up. Ouch!
For this reason, I tend to believe that the weeping of Jesus is at least partly a profound sorrow from the lack of faith demonstrated by those around him. Yes, perhaps, I think you can argue that Jesus experiences some legitimate sadness over Lazarus’ passing, or more likely at the sorrow experienced by others at his passing. No doubt he had empathy! I don’t doubt that for a second. But Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do. Thus, it makes more sense to me that Jesus’ emotional state is tied, at least more so, to the lack of faith from his followers. The text itself explicitly says he was indignant. What a word to use! Who gets indignant when others cry over genuine loss? I think it is fair to say that God, when accused of wrongdoing in the midst of it, might get upset about that.
A large portion of everyone involved—especially Mary and a chunk of the crowd—full-out declare that Jesus made the wrong move. This hurt Jesus. It made him mad and, I am sure, also made him sad. He was angry at their borderline blasphemy, and he was sad that their lack of faith caused them pain. All along, Jesus had the whole thing safe in his hands. How our lack of faith is like an arrow piercing the heart of God!
Friends, I don’t know what trial you are facing this day. I know that, from our own earthly perspective, it can easily seem like God is incompetent to handle the task. But such is not the case! Our Lord is good, he is powerful, and he is sovereign. He is worthy of our trust, and when we give him our faith, it not only is greatly pleasing in his sight, but gives us the rock-solid assurance that he intendeds us to have.
Let this be a lesson to us all. Even when everything is spinning out of control, and nothing seems like it is adding up, remember that when all was said and done, the dead man emerged from the tomb. Out of death, Christ can bring life. Jesus was vindicated then, and he will be in your life too. Trust him!