Jesus Weeping at Lazarus' Tomb Isn't Remarkable—It's Human
If it’s allowed, I think John’s Gospel is my favourite of the four. Though many literary characteristics and peculiar stories distinguish John from the Synoptics, what draws me to it are the extended narratives—or pericopes. One of the most famous among these is undoubtedly John 11, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It’s a brilliantly crafted narrative, but the focus of this short post is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” My question is this: should we really make a fuss about the fact that Jesus cried, even if it’s one of only three recorded occasions in the Gospels?
Jesus: Mostly God, Only Marginally Man?
If you’ve heard a sermon or sat through a Bible study on John 11 then you’ve likely witnessed a poignant pause, emphasising this remarkable moment in Jesus’ life: ‘Jesus wept. Only two words. The shortest verse in the Bible.’ Only, is it really that remarkable? Judging by pulpits one would almost have to conclude that it is, yes. But similarly to C. S. Lewis’ “he’s not safe, but he’s good,” despite regularly having heard its startling significance declared, I’ve never been able to track with those teaching it. Upon reflection, I’ve wondered if this is in part owing to my theological tradition’s poorly formed Christology.
Without going into the details, one of the biggest controversies in the early church pertained to Christ’s divinity. As you might have guessed, for most the issue was not whether Christ was a man, but whether he was truly God. This controversy resulted in the Nicene Creed. In it one can find crisp, timeless theological language that will likely sound very familiar: “Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made.”
My point in raising this controversy and the Nicene Creed is simply to note the early church never really had to defend or codify, and therefore carefully develop, its understanding of Christ’s human nature. His humanity. The implications of this have always been assumed, and sometimes largely overlooked. I believe that this deficiency is evident in our reading of John 11:35.
Death: An Incomprehensible Human Reality
Early on in John 11 we read that Jesus loved Lazarus (John 11:3, 5). And immediately after we’re see Jesus weeping at the tomb (John 11:35), those standing nearby remark, “See how he loved him” (John 11:36). Three times then, to help even the most lazy reader: Jesus loved Lazarus. Considering this together with how much he loved Lazarus’ sisters, it would be exceptionally strange if he hadn’t wept at Lazarus’ tomb. His dear friend was dead, long laid underground. Standing around were the bereaved, whom Jesus deeply loved as well. It’s a scene heaving with human aches and agony. And we make a big deal about Jesus crying?
I’m convinced that one of the reasons we tend to handle John 11:35 in a ham-fisted way can be ascribed to our underemphasis on Jesus’ humanity, an underdeveloped Christology. Put anyone else in Jesus’ situation and we would not highlight the fact that they wept. Of course Jesus wept! What did you expect? This isn’t ‘wild at heart Jesus.’ Nor is he merely some dispassionate deity, striding across the earth, pausing to shed some crocodile tears. In John 11:35 we meet a heartbroken man, despairing as he confronts the stark realities of death and loss.
Consider this passage from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, as the protagonist realises his fate: “He tried to understand that. But that didn’t work either. In spite of having lived with death all these years, in spite of having walked a tightrope of bare existence across an endless maw of death—in spite of that he couldn’t understand it. Personal death still was a thing beyond comprehension.” Likewise, Jesus was overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of death. So Jesus wept. This isn’t remarkable. It’s not exceptional. When we read and preach it with incredulity we only reveal a deficient Christology, a malformed and only marginally human Christ.
John 11: The Reassurance of Jesus’ Humanity
For me, the most striking feature of the John 11 narrative further proves my point: Jesus went to Lazarus intending to raise him from the dead. Before leaving for Bethany Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). This is why he waits two more days (John 11:5). Jesus, “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), knew he would raise Lazarus. Yet he was “deeply moved,” standing outside the tomb (John 11:38). He still wept. This is Jesus, the man who loved and lost, who felt acutely the pain of grief. Isn’t it wonderful to see him weep, knowing that he weeps both for us and with us—as one of us.
Listen to these lines from Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, in conclusion: “Let the heart of Jesus be something that is not only gentle toward you but lovely to you. If I may put it this way: romance the heart of Jesus. All I mean is, ponder him through his heart. Allow yourself to be allured. Why not build int to your life unhurried quiet, where, among other disciplines, you consider the radiance of who he actually is, what animates him, what his deepest delight is? Why not give your soul room to be re-enchanted with Christ time and again?”