What Makes Jesus Weep?

I came across something today that I’ve never noticed, though it’s in a passage of the Bible quite familiar to those of us who frequent church. And, while it might trample on a few of our sacred cows, I think if you let the weight of it sink in, it will hit you just as squarely as it did me. So, let’s set the stage.

A man named Lazarus was sick. He lived in Bethany with his sisters, Mary and Martha. This is the Mary who later poured the expensive perfume on the Lord’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Her brother, Lazarus, was sick. So the two sisters sent a message to Jesus telling him, “Lord, your dear friend is very sick.”

But when Jesus heard about it he said, “Lazarus’s sickness will not end in death. No, it happened for the glory of God so that the Son of God will receive glory from this.” So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days. – John 11.1-6

Jesus has three dear friends, all siblings, and the sisters inform him of their brother, Lazarus’ sickness. Jesus’ response is not altogether understandable to those with him, and as is the case with much that Jesus does, it requires some time and looking back to understand what he does moving forward. That being, nothing. He chooses to stay where he is for two more days and states that the end result will not be death and that instead, the end result would be that He and the Father would receive glory. Ok, then Jesus. Not sure where you’re headed with this, but you’re the boss, so we wait along with the disciples. Finally, he decides, “Let’s go to Bethany. Lazarus is sleeping and I must go and wake him up.”

The disciples, as we would have been, were confused. “So, are you saying he’s dead? Or maybe in a dead sleep, because I heard once a fever breaks and the body can sleep naturally again, that’s a good thing. Maybe he’s out of the woods.”

Jesus takes a sidelong glance at them and says, very calmly. “He’s dead, guys. And for your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there because you still don’t get it. Now maybe you’ll finally believe.”

Cue travel music. But something somber. This is a few day’s journey to see a dead guy’s family. And a crew of people who think Jesus is already too late. Not to mention going into a region where the crowd just tried to stone him. (Yeah, I skipped over that part, but it’s pretty relevant. The disciples pretty much expected to die at any point on this trip. Maybe just cut the travel music completely and contemplate your last few days of life.)

Jesus shows up in town and is informed that Lazarus has, indeed, been dead for four days now. Let’s pick up in verse 20.

When Martha got word that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him. But Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.”

“Yes,” Martha said, “he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying.  Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”

“Yes, Lord,” she told him. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”  Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” – vv. 20-28

Martha comes out to meet Jesus and immediately lays into him. “If you had been here like a good friend, Lazarus would still be alive. Because I know God does whatever you ask of Him.”

To this, Jesus nods and agrees, “Your brother will rise again.”

“Right, got it, more platitudes like the rest. I’m sure I’ll see him again when the roll is called up yonder or some crap like that.”

Jesus clarifies, “No, there isn’t a resurrection. I’m telling you that I am the resurrection. And the life. Not only do I bring dead things back, I’m the very life that sustains them. Death isn’t a concept that troubles me. Don’t you believe that?”

Then, Martha returns with what can only be described as the Sunday-est of Sunday School answers. She’s on autopilot here and probably doesn’t even really know what she’s saying, so she spits out what she thinks Jesus wants to hear. “Yes, I believe that you’re the chosen one, the Son of God. We’ve been over this, but is now really the time?”

And with that, she turns back to the house, finds Mary, and basically says, “You deal with him.” Jesus stays put and here comes Mary, giving him the same line about not being where he was supposed to be when they needed him. Jesus hears her, all while looking around and noticing the huge crowd of people who have gathered simply to (quite literally) amplify her grief with their own wailing, he loses it.

Now, what most devotional-writing types, standard Easter-only resurrection-preaching types, and most of your accepted Bible translations will tell you is that Jesus is filled with sorrow at the scene in front of him. After all, those versions read:

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. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus wept. – vv. 33-35 (ESV)

So, clearly, his heart was filled with compassion and he was moved to tears over what was going on and at the loss of his friend. Right?

Not so fast. This is what caught my eye and made me start doing some hard searching and heart searching.

When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled.  “Where have you put him?” he asked them.  They told him, “Lord, come and see.”  Then Jesus wept.
– vv. 33-35 (NLT)

I saw that and thought, “Whoa, why was he angry? That can’t be right.” And then I looked a little further and saw it again.

Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb[…] v. 38a

So, what gives? I had to look into the words used in the Greek. (It’s not a common practice anymore, but it’s important when we want to know why things might have been translated the way that they were or if there are any better ways to phrase things without changing the meaning in a negative way. And sometimes, we get gems like this, where we realize that the way something was translated might have been to make it a little bit more palatable- or simply to fit what was translated by the previous hundreds of iterations that have come before. No sense in rocking the boat and all that.)

In this case, what I found were the following words. Indulge me just a little- I promise not to make this boring.

ἐμβριμάομαι (embrimaomai) is the word used in most translations to say that he was “deeply moved” or that he “groaned”. The word literally translates as “to snort with anger”. Elsewhere in the Bible it’s translated “to charge with earnest admonition” or even “to charge sternly”.

ταράσσω (tarassō) is the word used to say he was “greatly troubled”. A literal translation would be to stir up or agitate, like with water. It’s the word used when the crippled man was asking for help to be placed in the pool and be healed when the water was “stirred up”. Elsewhere, it shows up most often when someone is shaking with fear or anger.

These words that you keep saying, I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

Once I hit on this, the scene really started falling into place for me in a way that it never had before. See, I always had trouble with the idea that of all the things that Jesus saw and experienced- both terrible and wonderful- that this was only one of the two times that we have recorded of him crying. And yes, this was a close friend, but this just didn’t feel… right. It always felt forced. Like we needed to make Jesus more human in order to appeal to, well, us humans.

But this- oh, this was a glorious picture to me. Follow me for a minute.

Jesus Christ, chosen Son of God, sent from heaven with a singular purpose, was keen to remind people of said purpose quite often. I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not it. His purpose wasn’t to come and live a life we couldn’t live. It wasn’t to die a death we couldn’t die. His stated purpose was to bring Glory to the Father in all things. In his life, he did this. In his death, he did this. In his resurrection, he did this. But let’s not lessen his mission into one singular moment. The glory of the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb is that it all glorified God the Father and shone a light brighter than anything in the created universe could muster- focused solely on one Creator.

And it’s in this context that we are reminded by Jesus himself that “death is not the end, but I need to wait so that the Father can be glorified, and I can be glorified in Him.” Later, Jesus tells his disciples, “I’m glad I wasn’t there when he died because now maybe you’ll finally start to understand what I’ve been telling you.” But they don’t.

He meets Martha and reminds her that all life and resurrection is in his hands. He urges her to believe, and she gives him a half-hearted assent, at best. “Yeah, eventually, I guess.” She doesn’t get it.

Mary comes along. Mary, the one who broke the perfume vial over his feet and washed them with her hair. Mary, the one who sat at the feet of Jesus simply to be in his presence while Martha worked and chided her, though Jesus tells Martha that Mary chose the better thing. If anyone is to get it, it’s Mary. I can just picture the embrace he gives her, and as she looks up through tear-stained, blood-shot eyes, she says, “If only you had been here sooner, maybe you could’ve done something.”

If this were a movie scene, this would be the point where the camera would begin to swirl around Jesus and all of the other sounds in his immediate vicinity would become intensified. Mary crying, his disciples nearby murmuring “we tried to tell him”, Martha nowhere in sight, and hundreds of villagers all throwing themselves down and screaming in “solidarity” with the grieving sisters.

No. One. Gets. It.

After all this time spent with him, listening to him, and telling him that they believe- when it comes time to put their faith into action, they can’t do it. And Jesus, rightly, loses it. It’s that deep, guttural growl that you feel involuntarily rise up when you feel so frustrated that you don’t even know how to verbalize something anymore. It’s that agitation to the point of shaking. When you take that deep breath and look for some way to take action without verbally lashing out at anyone.

 “Where have you put him?” he asked them. He promised that the scene wouldn’t end in death. He’d guaranteed his power over life and the grave. Nobody wanted to be taught. And so he would show them.

It is then, that with tears in his eyes for those who were too blind to see, he followed the crowd to the place where Lazarus was buried. Surrounded by his closest friends, Jesus wasn’t experiencing grief or loss like you or I do. That would imply that some part of him was missing and now incomplete. And Jesus was complete in every way as he sought to bring glory to his Father. What brought on the tears was that after all this time, there was still no one who believed. There was no one who even had the faith of that Centurion soldier to say, “You don’t even need to be here- say the word and I know you have the authority to bring him back.”

His closest friends. And with Jesus nearing his final few weeks- knowing that the next public appearance he would make would be on a donkey riding into Jerusalem- I doubt that he had ever felt quite so alone. Tears. And still a burning anger as they walked into the village and approached the tomb.

Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb, a cave with a stone rolled across its entrance. “Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them.

But Martha, the dead man’s sister, protested, “Lord, he has been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.”

Jesus responded, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see God’s glory if you believe?” So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.” Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” -vv. 38-43

Again, here I can picture the scene. “Move the stone,” he said a bit gruffly. And there’s Martha again.

“Jesus, can’t you just leave it alone? You’re too late. You don’t have to prove anything. And besides, the stench will be unbearable.”

And with all the loving indignation that only a father could have for his children, Jesus says, “Did I stutter? I told everyone I came to bring glory to God. You just happen to get to benefit from it, so watch closely and do what I told you.”

Then he prays a prayer. We’ve all been there. That prayer we say aloud, hoping that the person sitting three chairs over is paying attention to because it’s a pretty good sermonette and they could really take it to heart. Except Jesus outright calls them out. “Father, I’m glad at least someone here listens to me. I don’t even have to say anything for you to know, but I’m saying this out loud so people will finally believe that I am who I say that I am.”

“Lazarus, come out.” Not “wake up”, not “come back to life”, not “give me a minute while I go in and touch the body. And there’s no smell. Y’know, while they were doing all the complaining and not believing because they weren’t really listening… I wonder how long Lazarus was sitting there alive, just waiting for the door to open. Jesus’ prayer never specified that God bring his friend back to life. I’d like to think that it had been a little while because while the rest of the world was busy crying about the way things look, Jesus was more fixated on the way things should be.

There’s one other time where we see Jesus weeping. As he approaches the city, during the great moment when people are saying “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus, the King of Kings, being praised finally as a King, weeps over Jerusalem.

But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep.  “How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side.  They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you. – Luke 19.41-44

At the moment of his greatest “earthly” triumph, Jesus openly weeps for the very people who are praising him. Because they still. Don’t. Get it. Praising a man for being a man instead of their Savior God sent by God.

And so that’s where everything really hits home. What makes Jesus weep? When time after time, I fail to believe and refuse to see him in all of his glory.

I wonder how often I fail to see the big picture because I’m so focused on how all of the little things affect me. I wonder how many times I say “yes Lord, I believe” and turn around simply to deny him by my lifestyle. I wonder how often I consider him my Lord, Savior, and closest friend and yet don’t believe that any of his promises could be true for me. Maybe for someone, but not for me. Maybe someday, but never today. I wonder how many times he chooses to reveal something big to me and I take it as yet another little moment for granted. And I wonder how many times God has attempted to show me his glory in the things that He says and does, but I’m too busy complaining to even notice.

We are just short-sighted people who aren’t merely fixated on mud pies or far too easily pleased. Sometimes we’re short-sighted people who’d rather stew in our own misery than see the promises of the hope laid up for us in heaven (Colossians 1.5). And it’s ok that Jesus wasn’t as miserable as the rest. It’s ok that their misery actually bothered him. Because they didn’t get it yet. But they would. And so will we.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!” – John 17.22-24

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