It certainly isn’t as famous as John 3:16, but the trivia factor surrounding the shortest sentence in the Bible certainly makes John 11:35 a well known verse. “Jesus wept.” It is two words in English. The Greek, because of the need of a definite article, has three words, but as I re-read the well-worn story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, I find myself wondering why John 11:35 exists at all? Why did Jesus weep?
From the very beginning, the story of Lazarus’ death sounds well orchestrated by Jesus. If I was a less trusting person, looking for holes in the Gospel narrative, I might think that John worked really hard to make this story work into his theological presuppositions. For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume the details as we have them are correct. Jesus receives word that his friend, a dear friend, one whom he loved, had fallen ill. The word used throughout the first few verses is the generic word for illness. We would have no reason to think that Lazarus was on death’s door other than a) Mary and Martha sent for Jesus and b) Jesus specifically says that the illness doesn’t lead to death, which makes one think that it really could. Jesus tarries for two more days, until he knows for sure that Lazarus has died. He does so, by his own admission, so that God’s glory can be revealed and the Son of God can be glorified. That is to say, Jesus knows what’s about to happen. He knows that the death of Lazarus is a temporary thing. He knows that he will bring him back to life.
Upon arriving in Bethany, Jesus gets a guilt trip from both the sisters. “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.” In his first encounter with Martha, Jesus assures her that her brother will live again. In the repeat performance with Mary, something seems to change. The crowd that followed Mary weeping and wailing seems to have an impact on Jesus. It is here, in the midst of the guilt and the sadness that John tells us that Jesus weeps. Yet, he still knows that he is fixin’ to raise Lazarus from the dead. He knows that this pain is temporary. He knows that the glory about to be revealed will forever change his ministry. So why weep?
I can think of a few reasons why Jesus wept. First, I suspect the tears began to flow from his empathetic humanity. He was the pain in his friends Mary and Martha and he shared their sadness. Jesus was, after all, not some robotic deity who came simply to make a cosmic transaction and buy our salvation (I’m looking at you penal substitutionary atonement). Instead, Jesus came as Emmanuel, God with us, and experienced the full breadth of human emotion. Here, in the midst of pain, grief, and guilt, perhaps it all caught up with Jesus and he wept. Second, I wonder if the tears maybe came from his frustrated divinity. Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus refuses to perform miracles as a sign of his divinity. Though he is often asked to prove himself by some sort of holy magic trick, Jesus uses his power to heal sparingly. He performs signs and wonders for a larger pedagogical purpose and not as some fancy parlor trick. Yet here, in the details with which John pads this story, it seems that the raising of Lazarus is just such an event. Everything Jesus does is to ensure that people take note of how impressive a feat this really is. I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus’ tears come from his frustration that he had do to it this way. Finally, I imagine that Jesus weeps as he realizes that the end is near. The raising of Lazarus from the dead will prove to be the final straw in his ongoing theological squabble with the religious powers-that-be in Jerusalem. In that moment, Jesus felt the full weight of what was coming. Both his humanity and his divinity wished there was another way, but there, on the outskirts of Bethany, the stark reality came down upon him. The only way to defeat the corruption of the world was to offer himself as a sacrifice to it. Only in vulnerability could the cycle of violence be ended. Only on the cross could he be raised up upon the throne.
Jesus weeping is an important detail in the story of Lazarus. Indeed, Jesus weeping is a key point in John’s theology. To brush it aside, as the crowd does, and just assume he is weeping at the death of his friend, is to miss out. I wonder, what other reasons might there be for the tears of our Lord?