It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, and it’s often quoted as a reminder that the Son of God wasn’t some emotionless stoic devoid of compassion. He felt things. He was human. He shed tears.
But why was He weeping in this particular verse?
The Jews thought they knew. Lazarus, a close friend of Christ, was dead. And Jesus loved Lazarus; the Bible spells that out for us (John 11:5). So when Jesus stood before the tomb of His friend and wept, the Jews came to the obvious conclusion:
“See how He loved him!” (John 11:36).
* * *
Again, they weren’t wrong. Jesus loved Lazarus. He loved Lazarus’s whole family, and it must have been hard to see Mary and Martha in pain.
But is that why He wept?
I think context is important here-and not just the context of whose tomb Christ was standing in front of, but what was happening around Him, too.
Back up a few verses. Just before Jesus asked to see Lazarus, Mary “fell down at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, He groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:32-33).
Jump forward a few verses. Just after the Jews remarked on how much Christ loved Lazarus, “some of them said, ‘Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb” (John 11:37-38).
Why? Twice—right before and right after weeping—Jesus groaned in Himself. Both times, it was immediately after people failed to understand who He was and what He was capable of doing. Mary told Him that if He had just been there in time, He could have saved her brother. The Jews wondered aloud why He wasn’t able to keep Lazarus from dying. After all His traveling, preaching, and miracle-working, Jesus was surrounded by fellow countrymen who couldn’t wrap their heads around the same truth that a Roman centurion had grasped intuitively: “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8).
Jesus didn’t need to be there to save Lazarus. He could have rescued His friend from death with a word from halfway across the world. When Mary and Martha sent word that Lazarus was sick, how did Jesus reply? “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
Translation: “There’s a purpose for this. Lazarus is going to be okay when it’s all said and done.”
And then what does He do? He waits two more days before He even starts traveling to the town where Lazarus lived (John 11:6). He didn’t just know Lazarus would be dead when He got there; He intentionally waited for Lazarus to die before He got there (John 11:14-15).
Everything that was about to happen was for the glory of God. Christ was about to show everyone what the limitless power of God was capable of accomplishing, and all around Him, He kept hearing, “If you had made it in time, this wouldn’t have happened,” and, “I thought He would have been able to stop this.”
* * *
I think Jesus wept because He was surrounded by misunderstanding and disbelief. He groaned in the spirit twice after encountering that lack of understanding. Even when He gave the command to roll back the stone from the tomb, Martha objected that there would be a stench (John 11:39)—Lazarus had been dead so long; at this point, was there really anything left to be done?
“Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?'” (John 11:40). And when He prayed, He said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me” (John 11:41-42).
Jesus wept. It’s true. And it’s an important verse. But I think that verse has important layers we’re going to overlook if we come to the same conclusion that the Jews did. With all the context in mind, it seems to me that Jesus was weeping about the spiritual shortsightedness of those around Him, not about the dear friend He was moments from resurrecting.
And if that’s the case, it leaves us with a question.
What arbitrary limits am I placing on God the Father and Jesus Christ?
If the friends Christ loved could do it, so can we. In fact, it’s not just possible—it’s probable. It’s easy to convince ourselves, “If God doesn’t answer my prayer at this time and in this way, it just isn’t ever going to happen.”
Martha expressed the most faith of anyone in this whole story. She believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (John 11:27), she understood that Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (John 11:24), and she confessed to Christ, “even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 11:22). But even then, she seems to have been wrestling with doubt. She must have wondered if the window for Lazarus returning to life in the here-and-now had already passed. As the stone rolled back, her focus appears to have been on the stench of death, not the possibility that Christ was about to perform a miracle. Her brother was dead; his body was already decomposing. Was it really possible?
Then the shout: “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11:43).
That’s where the story ends—with Lazarus walking out of the tomb. Living. Breathing. Defying every law of nature simply by existing.
* * *
We serve a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways, and whose limitations are not our limitations. There are a lot of lessons to draw from Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, but I think the primary one is the lesson Christ spent His entire ministry instilling in the disciples: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
The people who were mourning Lazarus had trouble seeing who Christ was and what He was capable of doing. If we’re going to follow in Christ’s footsteps, we can’t afford to do the same.
Until next time,
Join the Sabbath Thinkers!
Sabbath Thoughts, right to your inbox, every Friday evening!
(Unless something goes wrong.)
(Which it frequently does.)