In the gospel of John (chapter 11), right before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus weeps. It is a bit of an enigmatic event, because no explicit explanation is given for it. The verse which reports it (John 11:35) is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible. As a result, there is a good deal of content out there trying to explain the event. Why did Jesus weep? One explanation that is often proposed is that Jesus wept in grief for the death of Lazarus ( someone who is identified as a friend of Jesus) and in empathy with the people who were pained by his death. While this may be part of the explanation, I will offer a couple of reasons why I don’t think this explanation makes good sense of John 11 and why it may not be the primary reason. It is necessary to point out that because the text does not explicitly offer an explanation and does not clearly imply any particular explanation, any explanation of it is somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, I think a more plausible interpretation is that Jesus wept because of the unbelief of the people. This interpretation was first taught to me by an old pastor of mine.
I will start with a few contextual elements in the story that make it seem implausible that Jesus was grieving here. First, why would Jesus mourn Lazarus’s death when he knows that Lazarus will be raised from the dead in just a few moments? Did Jesus not have faith in his own power to resurrect Lazarus? If you had the power to resurrect a loved one, would you grieve their death? That seems strange. You would not be disturbed by their death at all and if you did show any emotion, you would be rejoicing, not mourning. Similarly, would Jesus weep for the grief of Mary and the other people there, if he knew that their grief would be taken away in just a few moments? Again, this explanation doesn’t seem to cohere with the context, with Jesus’s identity and power, and his self-understanding. If you knew you’d be able to do something that would take away the grief of people you cared about, would you grieve for their pain? That doesn’t seem to make sense. You would not waste time grieving, but would immediately get to work doing that thing. And if you expressed any emotion, it would be joy. We also have to bear in mind that Jesus deliberately allowed this situation to occur. John 11:1-7 says:
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
After Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he delayed two more days, saying specifically that this situation will bring glory to him and that the sickness of Lazarus will not end in death. When he says to his disciples that they will go to Lazarus, he already knows that Lazarus is dead, because he tells the disciples this explicitly (verse 14). Also, he tells the disciples that he was glad that he was not there “for their sake.” John 11:11:
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
So Jesus already knows that Lazarus is dead, but he does not grieve, because he knows, as he said in verse 4, that “this sickness will not end in death.” In addition, he tells the disciples that he is glad that he was not there for the sake of their faith. Already, we see where Jesus’s priority is: on the peoples’ faith. He knew what would be the effect of delaying his arrival, but he does so anyway. Jesus is showing here, as in so many other contexts, an overriding concern of his is that people believe in him. This is another reason why the reason for Jesus weeping cannot be the grief of the people or the death of Lazarus, because that seems to imply that Jesus is regretting his deliberate delay.
The theme of faith and belief is repeated throughout the account of Lazarus’s death and resurrection. When Jesus arrives, Martha tells him (John 11:21):
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Here we see the belief theme coming up again. It doesn’t even occur to Martha that Jesus means that Lazarus will rise now, and not at the end of the world. This prompts Jesus to tell her that he is the resurrection and the life and puts the question to her about whether she believes this. Why does Jesus ask her if she believes it? The most natural interpretation is that he asks her whether she believes as a result of the fact that she didn’t understand what he meant by saying that Lazarus will rise. She only said she believed what all Jews believed, that everybody will rise at the end of the world. In other words, she located the power of resurrection in the Jewish teaching that she was taught, not in the one standing right before her. She reverted back to a Jewish teaching without Jesus and his power. This does not mean that the teaching is wrong, but only that it didn’t take Jesus into account, and didn’t place the emphasis on the correct place, namely Jesus and his power. This is like having God himself show up in order to talk to you, and you say, “Sorry, I’d love to talk, but I have to go to church.” So Jesus responds: “I am the resurrection and the life.” In other words, he’s saying “It’s me! The power of resurrection is standing right in front of you. Don’t look to the end of the world for your hope. Look at me for your hope. Believe in me for your hope of resurrection.” It may look like she does believe Jesus has the power to resurrect, because she tells Jesus when he arrives: “I know that even now God will give you what you ask.” But then, as soon as Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise, it doesn’t occur to her that Jesus is indeed confirming what she has just said, that God will give him what he asks and he will ask for Lazarus to be raised.
Also, notice Martha’s response to the question of whether she believes that he is the resurrection and the life. She doesn’t say that she believes he is the resurrection and the life, but that he is the messiah, the Son of God. So, she doesn’t (explicitly) affirm her belief in his power over death, even though that was the question put to her. This is important, because after this confrontation, when Jesus orders for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus’s tomb ( in verse 38), Martha responds (11:39):
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So Martha does not seem to believe that Jesus is going to raise Lazarus ( although it’s not clear whether she is doubting his capability or willingness). She says this even though he has just told her he has the power over death. If she did, she would not oppose him. Jesus responds by admonishing her for her lack of belief. So, there is a strange ambivalence that is revealed in Martha’s belief (that I’m sure we can identify with). At first, she seems to affirm that Jesus would be able to raise Lazarus, but her comments afterward seems to suggest that she is not confident at all about it, or does not really believe it, especially because Jesus specifically implies that she does not believe in verse 40.
He was deeply moved
There are two instances, apart from Jesus weeping in verse 35, that give us insight into the emotional state of Jesus. These two instances report that Jesus was “deeply moved”, once before Jesus weeping (in verse 33) and once afterward (in verse 38):
Let’s look at the first instance:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
There are three possible interpretations here. One is that Jesus was “troubled” just because of her grief, or he was deeply moved by the sight of her grief and pain, i.e. “moved with compassion”. The second interpretation is that he was troubled by the unbelief implicit in their grief. She tells him that if he had been here, Lazarus would not have died. Mary says what Martha said when she met Jesus in verse 21, but without Martha’s suggestion that it may not be too late. We know what Jesus’s response to Martha was. He affirmed his identity and power as the one with power over death and asked her whether she believes this. Mary’s comment to him assumes that Jesus is only able to heal but not able to resurrect. In other words, Mary’s comment seems to imply that she doesn’t believe he is the resurrection and the life. She thinks it is too late and the fact that Jesus is there now doesn’t mean anything. However, this time he doesn’t say anything in response, but simply asks to be taken to Lazarus. Another fact that gives strength to the second interpretation, is that the Greek word for “deeply moved” here (embrimaomai) normally means “to be moved with anger, to admonish sternly.” In Matthew 9:36, Jesus is “moved with compassion” (splagchnizomai) for the crowds. But that word is not used in John 11. The third interpretation is a combination of the the first and second interpretations. In that interpretation, Jesus is troubled by their lack of belief and the consequence of their lack of belief ( their pain and grief). In other words, Jesus is moved and later weeps for “the whole package” both for their unbelief and for the consequence of their unbelief. For example, Jesus may perhaps weep for our sin and our hardness of heart ( and all the suffering that happens as a consequence). I think the second interpretation makes more sense, especially given the vocabulary used.
The second instance in which Jesus is deeply moved is as follows (from verse 35):
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
The report of Jesus being deeply moved ( the same word: embrimaomai) comes directly after an expression of unbelief from some of the Jews who were with Mary and Martha. Once again, the comment implies that they don’t believe Jesus is capable of resurrecting Lazarus, and it appears they don’t trust Jesus’s judgment in delaying two days. They may even be questioning his ability to have healed Lazarus’s sickness even before he died. Jesus again emphasizes faith when he prays to the Father before calling out to Lazarus.
And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”
So here he again shows his concern is that people believe in him. Almost every time Jesus speaks in this account, from verse 14 onward, he emphasizes belief. He doesn’t once speak about grief.
Some of Jesus’s most stinging rebukes are in response to unbelief and his praise to people is also usually as a result of faith. For example, when his disciples could not cast out a demon from a boy, Jesus responds ( Matthew 17:17):
“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.”
When Jesus is on his way to heal a Roman centurion’s servant, the centurion sends men to inform Jesus that he doesn’t even need to come, and that he should just say the word and his servant will be healed. This is Jesus’s response:
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
It says that Jesus is “amazed” and some translations say that he “marveled”. I don’t think there is any other place in the gospels where Jesus is so impressed with someone, and it is in response to great faith, not a good deed. Also, it is clear that the faith here is the degree of confidence the centurion has in Jesus’s power and authority, not by his “commitment” or “allegiance”, or other redefinitions of faith in modern theology.