by Phil Garner
The question, “Why does John show us a weeping Jesus?” is an interesting one. It’s true that John does not directly tell us why, but I wonder if John didn’t leave some clues.
Let it be noted that the question I’m addressing is not “Why did Jesus weep?” That question, no doubt, could be answered from various levels with a minimum of speculation and guesswork. The question I am addressing is “Why does John show us a weeping Jesus?” This is a very different question. It gets to what the Holy Spirit intended for us to see in this text from a far broader perspective.
This text is one of the most remarkable moments in the whole gospel story. There can be no doubt of its historical truth. Nobody in the early church, venerating Jesus and celebrating his own victory over death, would have invented such a thing. But we shouldn’t miss the levels of meaning that John intends us to see within it.
To begin with, we should not rest content, as some older writers did, with treating Jesus’ tears as evidence that He was a real human being, not just a divine being “playing” at being human. That is no doubt true; but nobody in Jesus’ world imagined He was anything other than a real, flesh-and-blood human being, with emotions like everyone else’s.
Rather, throughout the gospel John is telling us something much more striking; that when we look at Jesus, not least when we look at Jesus weeping, we are seeing not just a flesh-and-blood human but the Word made flesh (John 1:1-14). The Word, through whom the worlds were made, weeps at the grave of His friend. Only when we stop and ponder this will we understand the full mystery of John’s gospel. Only when we put away our high-and-dry pictures of who God is and replace them with pictures in which the Word, who is God, can cry with the world’s crying will we discover what the word “God” really means.
Jesus wept at the moment when He sees Mary, and all the Judeans with her, in tears. “He has borne our grief and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53.4). Jesus doesn’t sweep into the scene (as we might have supposed, and as later Christians inventing such a story would almost certainly have told us) and declare that tears are beside the point, that Lazarus is not dead, only asleep (see Mark 5.39). Even though, as His actions and words will shortly make clear, Jesus has no doubt what He will do, and what His Father will do through Him, there is no sense of triumphalism, of someone coming in smugly with the secret formula that will show how clever he is. There is, rather, the man of sorrows, acquainted with our grief and pain, sharing and bearing it to the point of tears.
What grief within Jesus’ own heart was stirred by the tears of Mary and the crowd? We can only guess. Some guesses include His own grief for the loss of His friend or His own grief over the sorrow felt by Mary and Martha. I see no reason to doubt that Jesus experienced grief in both of these ways. In this I think we truly see part of the reason “why Jesus wept”. On the other hand, this sort of grief is ordinary. It’s to be expected as a result of events like Lazarus’ death. Simply put, there is something far greater going on here than ordinary grief over the loss of a friend. So we are left still looking for answers to the question, “Why did John show us a weeping Jesus?”
Let’s explore one possible answer to that question.
"So when Jesus came, He found that he had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem , about two miles off; and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother. Martha therefore, when she heard that Jesus was coming, went to meet Him, but Mary stayed at the house. Martha then said to Jesus, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. "Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to Him, "Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world" (John 11:17-27).
Martha’s faith was impressive from one perspective and weak from another perspective. She understood that Jesus could have prevented the death of Lazarus, but only if He had been there in Bethany before Lazarus died. Martha’s faith was also weak in that she didn’t see a great deal of hope for Lazarus now that he was dead, even though Jesus was there in Bethany. “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” gives way to “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Her hope for Lazarus does not appear to be in the present tense at all, but rather limited to the resurrection of the last day. Jesus’ encouragement, “I am the resurrection and the life” meets with, “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ”. Still yet Martha does not get it with regard to the glory and power of God which was about to be manifested before her eyes. Martha went and called for Mary, and what followed were normal events for people who were sharing grief over the loss of a dear friend. There was no evidence that Martha fully understood Jesus’ words “I am the resurrection and the life” and how that would affect her life in a very short time.
Martha just doesn’t get it. She doesn’t see resurrection power in Jesus. Jesus almost certainly had to be disappointed with Martha’s weak faith, with her failure to grasp the truth of His statement, “I am the resurrection and the life”. Is this our answer to the question “Why does John show us a weeping Jesus?” It may be, partially if not totally.
Let’s explore another possible answer to that question based on other clues in John’s text.
Let it be noted that Jesus stayed two days longer before responding to the report that Lazarus was sick. Jesus was glad when He heard that Lazarus had died. Then He expressed a purpose that Lazarus’ death would lead to greater faith by the disciples (John 11:14-15). When Jesus raised Lazarus it did cause many to believe ( John 11:45). Lazarus’ sickness was for the glory of God (John 11:4). Jesus’ death was for the glory of God (John 12:23-27). There is a connection that John wants us to see between Lazarus’ death and resurrection and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both were for God’s glory and both produced faith.
Now let’s develop this connection between Lazarus’ death and resurrection and Jesus’ death and resurrection a bit more. Consider that Jesus’ sadness at Lazarus’ tomb may have been a grief not for other deaths in the past, but a grief for a death still to come: His own. This passage points us forward to the questions that will be asked at Jesus’ own death. Couldn’t the man who did so many signs have brought it about that He Himself didn’t have to die? Couldn’t the One who saved so many have in the end saved Himself? John is telling us the answer by a thousand hints and images throughout his book. It is only through His death, it is only through His own sharing of the common fate of humanity, that the world can be saved. There is a straight line from Jesus’ tears in verse 35 to the death in which Jesus will share, not only the grief, but also the doom of the world.
Consider what John tells us at John 11:33, that Jesus was “troubled”. Troubled?! That’s hardly the sort of emotion you would expect of One who was in grief and sharing grief over the loss of a close friend. That He was “deeply moved” is both understandable and expected. But what caused Jesus to be “troubled”? Let’s follow John’s clues and see. John tells us again that Jesus was “troubled” at John 12:27, an occasion where Jesus foretells His death. Then again at John 13:21 John tells us that Jesus is “troubled” as He predicts His betrayal. Do you get it? Do you see where John is pointing? In this trilogy of times that Jesus is “troubled”, John is pointing directly from Lazarus’ death to Jesus’ own death.
But there is also a hint of what will then follow. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks Mary and the others. “They have taken away my master”, says Mary Magdalene just a week or two later, “and I don’t know where they have laid Him” (John 20:13). Listen to the echoes between the story of Lazarus and that of Jesus Himself. That’s a part of the reason John has told the story at all. (The other gospels don’t have it; some have suggested that they were anxious to protect Lazarus from the sort of unwelcome attention indicated in John 12:9-11. Presumably this danger was past by the time John was writing.)
“Come and see”, they respond, as Jesus had responded to the early disciples’ inquiry as to where He was staying (John 1:46). It is the simplest of invitations, and yet it goes to the heart of Christian faith. “Come and see”, we say to Jesus, as we lead Him, all tears, to the place of our deepest grief and sorrow. “Come and see”, He says to us in reply, as He leads us through the sorrow to the place where He now dwells in light and love and resurrection glory. And, even more evocative (John 21:12), “come and have breakfast”. It’s time to wake up! A new day of new creation is dawning; and though where we live the night can be very dark and the tears very bitter, there is light and joy waiting not far away.
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
One of the first things John tells us about Jesus is that He became one of us and lived among us. That’s the humanity of Jesus. Then John says that “we saw His glory”. That’s the deity of Jesus. John shows us His glory, not least in seven signs ranging from the opening of blind eyes to the raising of dead bodies. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is second in magnitude only to His raising of Himself with regard to revealing His glory.
Jesus weeping with His friends may well be the crowning moment in John’s gospel with regard to revealing both the humanity and the deity of Jesus in a single event. Jesus did not merely cure our sorrows. He also shared them. He shared them to the point of tears as He looked ahead to His death, the ultimate cure for our ultimate need. Dare I suggest that in this we see the most likely reason why “John shows us a weeping Jesus”?