The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” But for all its grammatical simplicity, it’s packed with unfathomable complexity.
Jesus wept after speaking with Lazarus’ grieving sisters, Martha and Mary, and seeing all the mourners. That seems natural enough. Most of us would have wept too.
Except that Jesus had come to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. He knew that in a few short minutes all this weeping would turn to astonished joy, and then tearful laughter, and then worship. He had come to Bethany to bring these mourners the best news they could have imagined.
So one would think that Jesus would be a confident, joyful calm in that storm of sorrow. But he was “greatly troubled” (John 11:33) and he wept. Why?
One reason is simply the deep compassion that Jesus felt for those who were suffering. It is true that by not speaking healing from a distance like he did for the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:13) or by his delay in coming (John 11:6) he had let Lazarus die. He had really good and merciful and glorious reasons for doing that. But this did not mean Jesus took the suffering it caused lightly. “For he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). Even though Jesus always chooses what will ultimately bring his Father the most glory (John 11:4)—and sometimes, as in Lazarus’ case, it requires affliction and grief—he does not take delight in the affliction and grief itself. No, Jesus is sympathetic (Hebrews 4:15). And as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), in Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus we get a glimpse of how the Father feels over the affliction and grief his children experience.
Another reason Jesus wept was over the calamity of sin. As God the Son who had come into the world to destroy the devil’s works (1 John 3:8), Jesus was about to deliver death its deathblow (1 Corinthians 15:26). But sin grieves God deeply and so do the wages of sin: death (Romans 6:23). And ever since the fall of Adam and Eve he had endured sin’s horrific destruction. Death had consumed almost every human being he had created [Enoch and Elijah are the only exceptions in the biblical record.]. It had taken Lazarus, and it would take him again before it was all over. Tears of anger and longing were mixed with Jesus’ tears of grief.
A third reason for weeping was the cost that he was about to pay to purchase not only Lazarus’ short-term resurrection, but his everlasting life. The cross was just days away and no one really knew the inner distress (Luke 12:50) Jesus was experiencing. No one really understood yet what he was about to do. Lazarus’ resurrection that day would look free and be experienced by Lazarus and everyone else as a gift of grace. But oh, it was not free. Jesus was going to die a horrific death to purchase it. And the most horrific part was not crucifixion, as unimaginable as that alone would have been. He was dreading his Father’s wrath. Jesus, who had never known sin, was about to become Lazarus’ sin, and the sin of all who had or would believe in him, so that in him they would all become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was looking to the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12:2). But the reality of what lay between was weighing heavily.
A fourth possible reason for Jesus’ tears was that he knew that raising Lazarus would actually cause the religious leaders to finally take action to put him to death (John 11:45-53). In this account, most of us probably marvel at Jesus’ incredible trust that his Father would answer him. We have such little faith. If Jesus had any struggle that day would not have been whether his Father would answer, but what would result when his Father answered. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb would have taken a different kind of resolve for Jesus than we might have imagined. Giving Lazarus life was sealing Jesus’ own death.
Just these few reasons for Jesus’ weeping at Lazarus’ tomb give us a glimpse into how God views our suffering and death. His reasons for not sparing us these things are righteous and glorious. But in them he is full of compassion (Psalms 103:13), he hates the calamity sin brings, and he himself has suffered more than we ever will ever know in order to pay the full cost of our eternal resurrection.