32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it.John 11.32-38
Why did Jesus weep in John 11.35? I don’t think anyone can give a conclusive answer to this question, but here are some observations:
- Jesus has not yet come to the tomb when he weeps, because v. 38 says, “then Jesus… came to the tomb…” This implies that it is not the fact that Lazarus is dead and gone that he is weeping. Besides, he knows that he is going to raise him (he hints at it in v. 15). This is the most obvious thing to me to indicate that these are not tears of grief over death that parallel Mary’s tears. I just don’t see how that could be Jesus’ emotion when he knows that Lazarus is about to be resurrected.
- It is when Jesus sees Mary weeping (v. 33) along with the Jews who are with her, that he is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is the stated context of his weeping and offers the most help in discerning the cause of his tears. However, the fact that the word “deeply moved” can also mean “indignant” makes it difficult to pin down exactly what emotional state this word is referring to.
- The fact that the Jews say “see how he loved him” could be showing the reason for his tears, but it is also possible that John is indicating a misunderstanding of Jesus’ tears.
- Everything Jesus says and does in this chapter shows that he is focused on the far more important eternal spiritual realities of life and death (see my other posts on John 11)
Based on the above (especially #1), I think it is safe to conclude that Jesus is NOT weeping because of grief over Lazarus’ death.
It is slightly more likely that he is weeping out of sympathy for the grief of Mary and the Jews weeping with her. This is a reason often stated at funerals–that Jesus sympathizes with our grief and that he is with us in our sorrows. Let me say that this is TRUE! Jesus does sympathize with us and knows our grief and is with us in it.
But because of #4 above, I think this still misses the mark. As I said at the beginning here, I don’t think we can say anything conclusively, but it seems warranted to me to say that Jesus is in a troubled emotional state (perhaps “indignant” is the right word?) that brings him even to tears because of the spiritual state of the people around him. It is spiritual death that leads to physical death, and the grief of Mary and the Jews is a vivid demonstration to Jesus of the reality of sinful mankind’s need for spiritual resurrection.
These verses show Jesus’ humanity so clearly. We see him experiencing one of the strongest of human emotions, even attended by tears. But while this is a very human emotional response, I believe that Jesus is feeling it for very different reasons from those around him. He is moved not just by the physical separation of death, but by the spiritual death that is its cause.
Grief that is caused by the spiritual death that surrounds us is something that will often come over Christians in this world. I have experienced something very much like what Jesus demonstrates here while I was attending a funeral for a non-believer that was led by his atheist father, who obviously had no real hope, and who could therefore offer no real hope to those who had come to be with him in his time of grief. As I watched the pall-bearers, who were all wearing black t-shirts with heavy metal bands featured on them, complete with pictures of demons and death, it filled me with grief and indignation that this was unfolding without any announcement or public demonstration of the hope of the gospel.
I think this is what Jesus is experiencing here. He sees the ravages of sin and its resultant death, and he doesn’t see any indication in the people around him of a true belief in him as the resurrection and the life. Therefore when he says in v. 40, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” he doesn’t just mean that they would see God’s glory manifested in the physical resurrection of Lazarus, but he also means that if they would believe, they would be spiritually resurrected themselves.
All this is not to say that Mary is unregenerate or an unbeliever, but she is acting here in the flesh. Her words, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” are not the way a believer appropriately responds to the death of a loved one. They are an accusation that Jesus has not done what he should have done. Contrasted with this is what I have heard at many Christian funerals through the years–declarations of confidence that death is not victorious and that God has promoted that Christian loved one to glory and that the promise of resurrection is certain because that one who has believed in Jesus will never die!
A further reflection is that this spiritual grief over spiritual deadness and unbelief is something that I can even feel for myself! My “new self” (Eph. 4.24) grieves over the unbelief that is present in my flesh–the “old self” (Eph. 4.22)
Jesus’ tears are a reminder to see the world around us as it really is; to grieve over its lostness and unbelief. But praise God that John 11 doesn’t end with v. 35. Jesus goes on to raise Lazarus from the dead–a picture of the authority that Jesus has to raise those who believe in him from spiritual death to a new and never-ending life!