It was an aneurysm that sent my strong, active grandfather to death’s door. In a matter of hours after the angry vessel in his brain burst, he died with his family around him. Minutes before he left us, I sang“It is Well” into the antiseptic hospital air, bolstering—I hoped—my grandfather’s willingness to step into real life. “Go easy,” my aunt kept whispering to him. “Go easy to Jesus.” I gripped his hand when his last breath propelled him from life to death…and to life again. I remember the tattered grief that filled the small ICU room as we absorbed that he was quickly gone from us.
There’s something oddly holy in watching a believer give up his earthly breath. Unrestrained tears poured down our cheeks at our great loss, but we knew it was his great gain to see Jesus up close. As Christians, we live in the tension of hating death, our enemy, and loving Jesus, our life. Pulled between the two, we long for the day when death is put to death for good.
Jesus was no stranger to grief while He lived on earth. In chapter 11 of his gospel, John tells us that Jesus burst into tears. Some translations even liken his outburst to the snorting of a horse, which sounds like an odd descriptor of grief to our American ears. The expression is wrapped up in a somber two-word English sentence in our Bibles, but when Jesus wept it wasn’t one grave, diplomatic tear that gently worked its way down his cheek.
I’ve always pictured it that way, though. Maybe it’s because I first read it in the KJV as a child and pictured a serious-faced Savior, stoically allowing himself the barest expression of grief lest people think he err on either the side of extemporaneous grief (making him unstable) or stolid, unfeeling insensitivity (making him harsh). Twenty-first century American English makes it difficult to pull emotion from the king’s English of my first childhood Bible, but even so, “Jesus wept” has transcended most of our modern translations. “Wept” holds the weight of heavy crying, but my familiarity with the story of Lazarus’ death and subsequent resurrection has never given me pause until my recent trip through the book of John. I came to a full stop in my reading when I saw the study notes for 11:35 which suggested that Jesus cried hard. I stopped reading the gospel narrative as story-telling in that moment and instead tried to stand there next to John as Jesus wept. The depth of Jesus’ unmissable expression of grief tells me more about the Savior than I ever expected to pull from one proper noun and one four letter verb.
I picture him assessing the situation when he walked into the outskirts of Bethany that day. He didn’t just arrive after Lazarus was dead but waited to even begin his journey until he knew Lazarus was well past sick and deep into the grave. Jesus knew what he would do about his friend’s death. He even gave his reason for it to his disciples, “I’m glad for you that I wasn’t there [when Lazarus died] so that you may believe.” (11:15, emphasis added) It’s almost as though he was making it more difficult in their eyes to perform a miracle by waiting for Lazarus to be four days dead.
It’s tempting to separate Jesus’ humanity and divinity into solitary threads here. An initial glance at this story might lead one to categorize Christ’s tears as human and his miraculous resurrecting power as divine. Neatly packaged that way, we see both facets of Christ’s persona in two disconnected manifestations. However, the threads of Jesus’ humanity and divinity cannot be so easily unraveled and separated, nor should they be. His tears here seem both human and divine, for God is compassionate and near to those who suffer. Jesus was “deeply troubled” when he saw the grief of his friends, giving a necessary insight to how he felt about his people and their despair. He wept when he came to the tomb.
Commentators disagree as to why exactly Jesus was so upset. Some say it was because the mourners were grieving without hope while the very Son of God stood in their midst. Others say that he was angry at the ravagers, sin and death, standing so boldly in his midst. D.A. Carson pulls both views together and gives helpful insight into what might have been happening that day in Bethany:
Perhaps these two interpretations are not irreconcilable. With most of us, to be angry with someone is inconsistent with being loving and empathetic toward that person. With Jesus, as with his Father, the antithesis breaks down…The one who always does what pleases the Father (8:29) is indignant when faced with attitudes that are not governed by the truths the Father has revealed. If sin, illness and death, all devastating features of this fallen world, excite his wrath, it is hard to see how unbelief is excluded. But the world that is at enmity with God is also the object of God’s love. 1
John made it abundantly clear in the opening sentences of his gospel that Jesus is the revelation of God the Father. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (1:1) So in the deeply troubled spirit of Jesus, we glimpse the compassionate, kind heart of the Father who is perfect and also concerned. No, we cannot separate Jesus’ humanity and divinity as they are gloriously and beautifully tangled together in his confrontation of grief, death, and unbelief.No, we cannot separate Jesus’ humanity and divinity as they are gloriously tangled together. Click To Tweet
I came back to chapter 11 after finishing John’s gospel, and over coffee one morning I asked my husband a barrage of questions I knew no one could answer. When Jesus saw the broken grief of his friends, did he think of how his disciples would react to his own death? When Martha cautioned Jesus about the stench of her brother’s tomb, did Jesus think about his own borrowed tomb? When he called to his decaying corpse of a friend, “Come out!” did he also think about the three words he would call out when history was split into everything that came before and after his own death-killing death? It is finished. Did those words ring in his ears when he yelled to Lazarus? Were the disciples paying attention? Could they see this foreshadowing of what was coming for their teacher? As much as I want to, I can’t psychoanalyze Jesus, but I long for heaven to fully know what I dimly see now.
When Mary and Martha explained their brother’s death we see Jesus’ compassion for their grief, his carrying of their fresh sorrows. Those tears seem to be not only for them but for the anguish of death itself, the enemy. More than just our grief, Jesus carried our death sentence to the cross. He would raise Lazarus, yes, but Lazarus would eventually die again. Maybe Jesus felt righteous indignation at death winning again in spite of the miracle that day. In his outburst of tears is a tangle of grief, compassion, and a right hatred of death.
It would be short-sighted to pause too long at Jesus’ tears, for buried in the middle of the story is the hope that will not disappoint, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die—ever.” (11:25-26) Martha cautiously considered it for what it could mean for Lazarus, and certainly it was meant for Lazarus, but doubly so. For though Lazarus would eventually die again, death will loosen it’s grip on all who believe in Christ. When Jesus returns for his bride, we will, like Lazarus, come out of the tomb and meet our death-conqueror face to face. Lazarus simply had the blessing of a dress rehearsal.
A couple of months ago, my husband visited the relative of a church member, an elderly man suffering from severe dementia. While my husband gently tried to encourage him, the man could talk of nothing besides escaping his assisted living facility. He begged my husband to get him out and rebuked him when he said he couldn’t. My husband left the facility brokenhearted for the man held captive to his diseased mind, and with tears in his eyes he remembered our conversation about Jesus’ grief in John 11. “This,” he told me later, “may have been why Jesus wept. This broken-down, fallen world where disease eats at the mind, where sin has affected every part of our humanity. This is worth weeping over.” When directly confronted with the frailty of human existence and faith, tears are merited.
But the important thing to note in Jesus’ tears is the absence of hopelessness. He spoke the hope, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and the weight of truth in that statement bears us up when we grieve the circumstances of suffering on our broken planet. He never tells us not to grieve, only to do so with the hope that is rooted in his resurrection and ours.He never tells us not to grieve, only to do so with the hope that is rooted in his resurrection and ours. Click To Tweet
The beauty of Jesus’ tears in John 11 propels us to the cross, I think. After pulling Lazarus from the clench of death, the stage was set for the God-man to kill death once and for all, and the great paradox is that he would do it by both dying and living again. Death lost its sting when Jesus, who is both beautifully relatable while also wholly other than us, was resurrected. No stoic tears. No loss of hope. This is how we grieve as believers in Christ, and how we can “go easy” to the arms of our Savior.