Michael Boling – Exposition of John 11:35: Jesus Wept


“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

As the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35 is likely one that most, if not all Christians have memorized. Be honest now. When you were a child in Sunday School or VBS and you were asked to select just one verse in all of the Bible to memorize for a prize, this is probably the verse you selected. Beyond its brevity, I believe these two simple words express a profound truth, a veritable treasure trove of simplistic profundity if you will. In this post, I would like to explore what John 11:35 says about Jesus and his mission and why there is more to this passage than just Jesus feeling sad over the death of a friend.

First, let’s look at what the word “wept” means in this passage. It is the Greek verb dakryō which simply means “to weep or shed tears”. Interestingly, John 11:35 is the only time this particular verb is used in the New Testament. However, the word from which dakryō is derived, namely the Greek noun dakryon or tear(s) is found ten times in the New Testament. William Mounce, in his Reverse-Interlinear New Testament translates John 11:35 as “Jesus burst into tears.”[1]

With that as a foundation, we need to then examine the context of John 11:35 to take note of why Jesus burst forth into tears and along the way, we will also compare the response of Jesus to the emotional response from the other individuals in this event, namely Mary and Martha, the sisters of the deceased Lazarus.

Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha and friend of Jesus had died. Jesus had been made aware that Lazarus was sick and closing in on death with the hope He would come and heal Lazarus. However, Jesus tarried, refraining from immediately journeying from Jerusalem to Bethany to attend to His sick friend. We know from other miracles Jesus performed that He did not have to physically touch an individual in order to heal them. One simple word could result in anyone at any location on earth being healed by Jesus. Yet Jesus chose to not do anything at that time which begs the question as to why, especially since Lazarus was such a close friend. Jesus notes his reasoning in John 11:14-15, declaring “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.”

At first glance, this seems to be a rather nonchalant approach to a sad situation. Lazarus, friend of Jesus had died. Those who heard the words of Jesus recorded in John 11:14-15 must have been taken aback given the fact that not only did Jesus decide not to journey to Bethany to heal Lazarus or to at least comfort him as he lay dying, but upon the death of Lazarus, Jesus simply states that Lazarus is dead and He is glad that happened for their sakes. That is quite a statement to make and it surely left many scratching their heads as to what the overall intention and motive of Jesus was all about.

Next, we find Jesus embarking on the two day journey from Jerusalem to Bethany. By the time Jesus arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. Martha, upon hearing of Jesus’ arrival, went out to meet Him, but Mary her sister stayed in the house. We find Martha declaring that if only Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died with Jesus providing a bit of a clue as to what His plans were in His statement “Lazarus will rise again.” Martha, seemingly clueless as to what Jesus was ultimately intending to do, responds with recognition that she did believe that in the resurrection, Lazarus would live again. Jesus responded to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live”, a pivotal verse for understanding what John 11:35 is really all about and something we will return to a bit later.

After observing Mary and those who were mourning the death of Lazarus weeping, we are told in verse 33, “He groaned in the spirit and was troubled.” Before we see how everything we have discussed thus far ties into John 11:35, we need to first look at the different word used for weeping in reference to Mary and the Jews who were there at the time. John uses the Greek verb klaiō which means “to mourn, weep, lament; of those who mourn for the dead.” This word is used 41 times in the New Testament, typically in conjunction with someone mourning for the dead as demonstrated in John 11 or those mourning over an event or a difficult situation.

We next need to examine two other important words which speak further to how Jesus felt about the death of Lazarus, that of “groaned” and “troubled” used in John 11:33. The word translated as “groaned” is the Greek verb embrimaomai which means “to charge with earnest admonition, sternly to charge, threatened to enjoin.” “Troubled” is the Greek verb tarassō which is defined as “to affect with great pain and sorrow.” So what we have is Jesus earnestly impacted with great pain and sorrow at the death of Lazarus. This means that Jesus was not devoid of passion and love for others as He took on human flesh. Jesus was saddened greatly by the physical death of Lazarus. In fact, this is why Jesus burst out in tears. Unfortunately, many tend to stop there simply believing the only reason Jesus was moved to tears was because He was saddened at the death of His friend. In reality, there is far more to the story.

As we dig a bit deeper, what needs to be noticed in the overall flow of this passage is the perspective taken by the different players in this drama. Mary, Martha, and those surrounding them mourned the fact that Lazarus had died. Even though Martha expressed a belief in the resurrection from the dead, her focus was on the immediate loss of her brother with little focus on what Jesus had declared in verse 25. Now we must not be too hard on Martha because many at that time were not aware of the mission Jesus would soon accomplish or what He was alluding to in verse 25, something we will now discuss as we move towards examining why Jesus wept in John 11:35.

We ask again why would Jesus weep at the death of Lazarus? Was it just because He was saddened at the loss of a friend or was there a greater issue this entire event speaks to that must be examined? As we noted earlier in this post, a key verse to understanding what is taking place and why Jesus did not immediately heal Lazarus is found in John 11:25 where he declared “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” What a profound statement and one that speaks to the very reason Jesus came, namely to deal with the issue of sin and death. Jesus is the one promised way back in Genesis 3:15, the One who would bruise the head of the enemy. Why did God make that prophecy at that time? It demonstrated why there was a need for a Redeemer. Since the wages of sin is death, both physical and spiritual death that impacts our relationship as the creation with our Creator, a Redeemer was needed to fix this problem. The reason why God told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the fruit, dying they would die is because physical death would now be a process of life. Additionally, our spiritual relationship with God was impacted due to sin which again required a Redeemer to come to provide a solution to both issues.

The entire movement of Scripture points to Jesus, the Redeemer. At this point in the gospel account, Jesus was slowly but surely making His way to the cross, the truly pivotal point in all of history. Jesus could have either healed Lazarus when He was notified that Lazarus was sick or Jesus could have raised Lazarus from the dead without mentioning the fact that He is THE resurrection and the life. For Jesus, raising Lazarus was not really the point of the exercise. The point of raising Lazarus from the dead was to have the opportunity to relay the fact that physical death is a part of life due to sin. While Jesus raised Lazarus back to life, Lazarus would yet again succumb to the wages of sin which is death. The good news that is found throughout Scripture is that of redemption through the cross. Jesus notes that gospel message in his statement “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” Death has no sting in the grand scheme of things for those who believe in the Redeemer because Jesus conquered death and the grave. As believers, we have the promise of the resurrection from the dead.

So why did Jesus weep? This still remains a bit of an unanswered question in our journey through John 11. We have already noted that Jesus demonstrated His compassion for Mary and Martha and the loss of their brother. This shows at least that Jesus was not some emotionless person who was not moved with compassion while He walked the earth. But why did Jesus weep? Was it just a feeling of sorrow at the death of a loved one? I think the Pulpit Commentary’s statement on this passage says it best:

“Jesus wept. The shortest verse, but one of the most suggestive in the entire Scripture. The great wrath against death is subdued now into tears of love, of sympathy, and of deep emotion. Jesus shed tears of sympathetic sorrow. This is in sacred and eternal refutation of the theory which deprives the incarnate Logos of St. John of human heart and spirit. These tears have been for all the ages a grand testimony to the fullness of his humanity, and also a Diving revelation of the very heart of God (see Isaiah 25:8).”[2]

For those not familiar with Isaiah 25:8, that passage states “He will swallow up death forever, And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces; The rebuke of His people He will take away from all the earth; For the Lord has spoken.” We know that is the very thing that will ultimately take place when Christ returns. At the cross, the penalty of death was paid on our behalf and at the resurrection of Christ, the first fruits down payment, the promise of our future resurrection from the dead and eternal life was demonstrated. So John 11:35 really speaks to the very heart of who God is and what His plan has been from before the foundation of the world to deal with this sin and death problem. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The Word wept with those who weep. The Word died on a cross in order to reconcile sinful man and a holy God. The Word of God points to the Word who brings life and who conquered the grave so that we might live. The Word wept when Lazarus died because He knows the impact sin has on our relationship with Him. John 11:35, although the shortest verse in all of Scripture, speaks a truly profound message. God loves us so much that He gave His one and only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Jesus wept. Who knew so much could be packed into such a small verse!

[1] http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+11&version=MOUNCE
[2] http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/john/11.htm

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