Those who have read my blogs over the years know that I semi-frequently make references to my university professor, Stan Harstine, a Gospel of John scholar who profoundly shaped my way of interpreting scripture. A number of his teachings and various theories he presented for us to mull over have made their way into my posts, and even more linger around in my brain. My favorite of these theories is that the beloved disciple who wrote John is, in fact, Lazarus, not John. This, then, would account for why, in John 21, Peter turns back and shows odd concern about how the beloved disciple would die. It could just be that he was having normal feelings of comparison toward John, knowing him to be beloved, but it just makes so much more sense to me that he and the disciples would have had extra curiosity about what would happen to those like Lazarus who were raised from the dead.
But one thing that Harstine suggested to us has become an absolute burr under my saddle, so to speak. It is that, when Jesus wept, it was not because he was mourning for Lazarus. It wasn’t even because he was entering into Mary and Martha’s grief and empathizing with them.
It was because of the Jews.
(A bit of housekeeping before we start: I should just say that I am by no means purporting that this is the only valid interpretation of this story. It well could be that Jesus was feeling empathy for Mary and Martha, or that he was feeling real human grief for his friend, or even that he was troubled by the crowd’s unbelief. But I’m probably going to sound pretty assertive as I make my point, because, well, I just get fired up about it, and I really like this interpretation. So have fun with it, read different interpretations, and see what the Holy Spirit might have to tell you about Jesus.)
A bit of background will be necessary here. The Gospel of John was written sometime around AD 70, the final form being completed sometime between AD 90 and 110. The impetus for writing this book was the destruction of the second temple. At that time, the Jews were thrown into despair, because their only place to meet with God and the center of their culture was taken from them. The author of John then wrote this book in order to plead with the Jews that it did not matter that the temple was destroyed. That is because Jesus is where they could meet with God, and God was calling them into a new kind of culture.
Thus, the Gospel of John is structured like a court case. The person on trial is Jesus, and the verdict will be whether or not he is God. The author, our defense attorney, calls up seven witnesses, those witnesses being seven carefully selected miracles which Jesus performed, and he presents them in increasing order of undeniability. These are the miracles in John:
- Turning water into wine; John 2
- Healing the Royal Official's Son; John 4
- Healing the paralytic at the pool; John 5
- Feeding over 5,000 with fish and loaves; John 6
- Walking on the water; John 6
- Healing a man born blind; John 9
- Raising Lazarus from the dead; John 11
Along with the increasing attention that these miracles garnered came increasing hostility from the Jews. Now, in the case of the Gospel of John, various individuals and groups of people are presented archetypally, so you know what to expect from them whenever they show up “on stage.” Women and those with disabilities are generally presented as more spiritually perceptive and accepting of Jesus than able-bodied men. The disciples follow Jesus with gusto, but are often shown to lack understanding and staying-power. The reversal of this is that men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who were initially weak in following Jesus and feared man’s disapproval, were actually the ones who were willing to identify with him publicly after his execution, even going so far as claiming his body from the authorities and giving him a proper burial.
Which brings us to the Jews. In the Gospel of John, the term “the Jews” is meant to represent an archetype of person, not the historical reality of every Jewish person. The term represents those who thought they were right with God because of their ethnicity, their tradition, and, ultimately, their self-made righteousness. These were the people who were supposed to know God, but, instead, they willfully blinded themselves to the works and person of God when he rolled onto the scene. Thus, nearly any time the Gospel of John uses the term “the Jews”, we can know that these are people who are actively opposing and misreading Jesus.
So as the works of Jesus become more and more undeniable throughout the book, the Jews become more and more hostile toward him. We can trace the evolution of this hostility with a few verses:
John 2:18: So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?”
John 5:18: This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
John 7:1: After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.
John 10:31: The Jews picked up stones again to stone him.
Which brings us to John 11.
Mary and Martha send word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, is sick. After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go to Judea, to Lazarus. And the disciples immediately reply, Jesus, what are you thinking? They want to kill you. But Jesus is determined. Why? Because he knows that they will not believe that he is God unless he demonstrates his power over death (John 11:14-15).
This is important. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus raises people to life earlier on in his ministry, and not much is made of it. But in the Gospel of John, the structure of events is crucial (pun intended). All of these events are building up the case for why Jesus, in the eyes of the Jews, had to go to the cross. At this point in the story, Jesus has not yet demonstrated his power over death. And if, as he says, his raising of Lazarus is going to be the thing that leads his disciples into belief, it is also going to be the thing that pushes the Jews over the edge of their unbelief and ignite their plot to kill him.
And, even if the disciples don’t understand all the reasons behind it, they still pick up on this. Jesus says, Let's go, and Thomas turns to the other disciples and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Going to raise Lazarus is a suicide mission.
So we see Jesus arrive in Bethany, and he meets with Martha. Martha says, “If you had come, my brother would not have died,” and Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. Then, Jesus calls Mary to himself, and the Jews who had been consoling her follow her out to him. Mary says to Jesus the same thing that Martha did. And then Jesus sees Mary weeping and the Jews weeping, and we’re told he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
Now then, this is where we’re given a few important details, and a concordance is of great use. Let’s look at these terms, “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled.”
If you’re reading in your ESV (I’m not sure about in other versions), you will see a footnote on the term “deeply moved,” indicating that the term could also be “indignant.” The Greek word used is embrimaomai, which Strong’s Concordance says literally means to snort with anger. The other uses of the word in the NT generally involve Jesus becoming very stern. It’s also used to describe those who scolded the woman for anointing Jesus. This suggests that the underlying emotion Jesus is feeling at this point is anger, not grief or empathy.
Then we have “greatly troubled,” this word, tarasso, means to become agitated, distressed, restless, etc. Elsewhere in the NT it is used to describe how Herod felt when the magi show up asking for the king of the Jews, the Jews troubling gentile Christians over circumcision, and, most importantly, it is used to describe two other times in John how Jesus is feeling leading up to his betrayal and crucifixion. Once again, does this sound like someone who is overwhelmed by emotion because of his dead friend or those who are hurting, or does this sound like someone who is starting to feel a certain dread rising in his spirit?
At this point, Jesus asks, “Where have you laid him?” And they tell him to come and see. It is then that Jesus weeps.
Why? It’s not because of empathy for those who are grieving. We just saw that seeing them weep made Jesus angry and anxious, not moved to pity.
And it’s not because he was grieving for Lazarus. How do we know that? Well, for one thing, Jesus knew he was just about to raise Lazarus, and had referred to him as having only “fallen asleep.” At no point before now has Jesus seemed troubled on Lazarus’ behalf. And if you needed a nail in the coffin of that theory, when Jesus weeps, the Jews look on him and exclaim, “See how he loved him!” The Jews say that. The archetype of people who, in this story, can always be relied upon to miss the point.
So why does Jesus weep?
Because he knows the significance of what he’s about to do. This is the act that will push people off the fence. He knows that, as John 11 goes on to say, many of the Jews will believe in him because of it, but that other Jews will report this to the Pharisees, and they will gather together to set the plan to kill him in motion. It is at that time that Caiaphas, the high priest, unwittingly prophesies that Jesus will die on behalf of the nation. And not just the nation, but in order to bring all of God’s children who are far off into one family (John 11:52). We are then told that Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, and that the Passover was at hand. And we all know what happened at the Passover.
So, at that moment, Jesus asks where Lazarus has been laid, and the Jews tell him to come and see. He looks to the Jews, he looks in the distance toward the tomb, and the significance of what he’s about to do washes over him. It’s a suicide mission.
And he weeps.
Now then, why is this a burr under my saddle? Why does it bug me so much when people use this story to illustrate how Jesus grieves with those who grieve?
Well, for one thing, it annoys me because I think it’s just plain inaccurate. I care a lot about biblical literacy and also just about literacy. It’s important to know how to read well! And it’s important to know when you’re bringing your own biases into the text, rather than mining its significance to see what it has to say for itself. I don’t think I would be so annoyed if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion that a lot of people who think this is a passage about Jesus empathizing think that's the case because they just read their English version at face-value and assume that their first associations with those words are what is meant.
I want us to guard against this haphazard way of interpreting scripture. If you want to study the passage with excellence and end up with a different conclusion than mine - great! Please do! I would be foolish to completely discount the expositions of teachers like Matthew Henry (you can read his alternative interpretations of Jesus’ actions and emotions here), who obviously know more about the scriptures than I do. I admit there are a number of potentially valid interpretations, some of which are that Jesus was just empathizing or grieving. But what I am trying to say is let’s not have our default for interpreting Roman-era Greek scriptures be our face-value, culturally and personally biased understandings of a modern English translation, especially when there are so many tools easily at our disposal (I often use Blue Letter Bible) that can help illuminate the difference between what words mean to us versus what words meant to biblical authors. Let's handle the scriptures well, and do the work to "keep a close watch over the teaching" (1 Timothy 4:16).
For another thing, I think when we do these face-value interpretations we sell ourselves short on what scripture has to offer. If you want a passage about Jesus empathizing with our struggles, there are several you could point to: the number of times that Jesus had compassion on the crowds, when he raises the widow’s son in Luke 7, his defense of the disabled woman in Luke 13, his anger toward those who might cause children to stumble in Matthew 18, Jesus as high priest in Hebrews 4, and just, like, all of Matthew 11. Furthermore, you could point to all of the Old Testament prophetic literature talking about God’s tenderness toward his people.
But John 11 might not be the passage to talk about that. Instead, it could be the passage to point out that Jesus faced very real fear and anxiety. It could be the passage to say, look, Jesus got annoyed too! But, more importantly, I think that John 11 fits into the theme emphasized throughout John: at every instance, Jesus was in control, and he chose to go to the cross. He didn’t have to get baptized and accept God’s commission. He didn’t have to let the soldiers arrest him. He (hilariously, in my opinion) knocks them flat on their bottoms with a word before saying he won’t resist arrest. He does nothing to defend himself before the High Priest or Pilate. He even gives up his own spirit on the cross. Nothing that happened was beyond his control. He could have stopped it all. He could have walked away. But he felt all of that fear and anxiety, he set his face as a flint (Isaiah 50), and he chose to go.
Maybe I have a burr under my saddle because I want to invite us into something. Maybe, instead of comforting ourselves with the idea that Jesus empathizes with us, I desperately want us to take some time to empathize with him. Who is this Jesus that we follow? Why do we love him? What did our Savior feel?
So I want you to imagine this with me again: Jesus standing there, Mary in front of him, weeping. The Jews, whom he knows the hearts of, weeping. The tomb lying some ways off. And he gets agitated, maybe because of their unbelief, maybe because he knows what’s going to happen next. But he asks them where friend is laid, and they tell him to come and see. And he pauses. He draws in a breath. He thinks about how everything he’s done so far has led up to this moment. His nerves tense, already anticipating the pain to come. He thinks about how one friend will betray him, and most of the others will abandon him. Images flash across his mind of being stripped, beaten, mocked. His lungs grow tight. He sees what his mother’s face will look like, looking at her son hanging on a cross. He thinks about that moment, when he will give up his spirit and commit himself to his Father’s hands. This is it. The point of no return. If he goes to the tomb, it’s all over. This was always going to be a suicide mission.
He exhales, and his body begins to shake. The tears start to flow, and he weeps.
This is our Jesus.