Jesus wept (John 11:35).
Have you been present when someone who is brilliant, strong, and thoughtful breaks down into tears? Throughout John's Gospel, Jesus interacts with all kinds of people. He interacts with the powerful, well to-dos like Nicodemus, he interacts with the lowly outcasts like the woman at the well, and he even feeds 5,000 hungry people. In all those instances, Jesus always has the right thing to say and do. Jesus always seems prepared for any question or obstacle, and yet we find him in this brief passage weeping. Why?
It would be helpful for you to read John 11 to get the full context.
Two Common Views:
1. Jesus weeps at Mary's sadness
This is probably the view that most people, including myself at one point, hold to when reading this passage. After all, Jesus is standing before a woman in deep anguish who has lost a brother and is now throwing herself at the feet of Jesus. Certainly this is why Jesus was weeping, right?
I actually think this has something to do with it, but it's not THE reason because of a few things. The context of the few verses just before read like this:
"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. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus wept" (John 11:33–35).
The verb for "deeply moved" is an expression of anger and displeasure, and "greatly troubled" carries the idea of being unsettled and disturbed. What we are seeing is that Jesus is ANGRY and DISTURBED about something, which seems to go against the idea of him being sad for sadness' sake.
Another reason I don't think this can be the final position is this is not the first encounter Jesus has with the news of Lazarus. He sets out with his disciples BECAUSE he knows Lazarus is dead (AFTER waiting two days). Then Jesus meets Martha, who is just as distraught as Mary. Why doesn't he shed any tears at these two places? Even more so, Jesus has already said that he is going to raise Lazarus from the dead, so why cry if you are about to raise Lazarus to life? Wouldn't Jesus be excited for the big reveal of God's glory through him (which is what he said Lazarus' "sickness" was leading to in verse 4)?
2. Jesus is angry at death & sin, which causes him to weep.
This view understands the verb regarding Jesus' anger, but there needs to be a reason for both Jesus' anger and his tears. It seems logical that Jesus would be both sad and angry over death as a reality for all. We were never meant to die; it's unnatural. Perhaps this is why Jesus is so angry and unsettled?
The difficulty with this view is I can't definitively say it's incorrect, but I also can't say it's correct either. The reason being is I just don't see enough in the passage to warrant this conclusion. Jesus came into the world to bring life, so I know he hated death. Even in this chapter he declares, "I am the resurrection and the life." That is a powerful statement against death!! However, I see nothing in the context of this chapter or the Gospel as a whole to believe this is best reading of the passage.
I have much more to say about these two views (and a few peripheral views as well), but I'm trying to keep this brief. Comment below if you are a glutton for punishment!
Jesus weeps because his wounded sheep are led astray
I think this is the best understanding of why Jesus weeps, and there are several factors that lead me to this conclusion. I believe that John 11 only makes sense in light of John 10. Do you recall the content of John 10? It might be helpful to read it too because it says things like:
- "The sheep hear [the shepherd's] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:2-3).
- And what happens in John 11? Jesus calls Lazarus' name and he comes out of the tomb.
- "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy [the sheep]. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).
- Lazarus is raised from the dead, he has been given life by "the good shepherd."
- "[The hired hand] flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:13–15).
If you read Ezekiel 34 (and you should...right now), it gives a whole new look on John 10. God has some hard hitting stuff to say there about the Shepherds of Israel! Things like...
- "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?'" (Ezek 34:2)
- This is what Jesus is going to charge Peter to do at the end of John's Gospel!
- "The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts" (Ezek 34:4–5).
- "For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out" (Ezek 34:11).
- "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice" (Ezek 34:15–16).
God is disgusted with the "shepherds" of Israel in Ezekiel 34 because they do not really care about the people of God, but rather they care about themselves! God in John 11 is equally disgusted with the "shepherds" of Israel, which brings to mind Matthew 9:36.
- "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt 9:36).
I think John 11 is a sort of example of John 10, which has Ezekiel 34 as a co-pilot, but how does this clear up Jesus weeping? Here are a few questions and answers that will help us think it through.
Why do the disciples in John 11:8 not want to go to Bethany and see Lazarus?
Answer: The Jews* tried to stone him at the end of John 10 and they are afraid it could happen again.
Is Jesus' initial reaction to Lazarus' death one of sadness?
Answer: In John 11:14-15 Jesus says that Lazarus has died "and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe." That may sit oddly with us, but he's "glad" that something bigger than Lazarus' death is coming for their sake.
Who has been "consoling" Mary and Martha since Jesus and the disciples were away?
Answer: The Jews* (John 11:19).
Who is with Martha when she meets Jesus with the news that her brother Lazarus is dead, and how does Jesus react?
Answer: Martha is alone, and Jesus plainly tells her the truth that Lazarus will rise again to life. He goes on to tell her, with what appears to be zero sadness, that he is the resurrection. He even asks her, in her grief, if she believes this. (John 11:21-26)
Who is with Mary when she comes to the same spot where Martha was and Jesus weeps?
Answer: The Jews came with Mary.
I believe that Jesus weeps because of a convergence of two powerful emotions. Jesus is "deeply angered and disturbed" by what he sees, as we discussed above in point #1. The "shepherds" of Israel have been caring for Mary and Martha, but Jesus knows they do not care for them truly. If they cared for the sheep of Israel they wouldn't be trying to get Jesus out of the picture, they would be pointing to him as the resurrection and the life! For crying out loud, these are the people who were mad at Jesus because he gave a blind man sight on the Sabbath (John 9)!! What kind of shepherds are mad because one of their sheep has sight restored? Answer: bad ones! They only care about their system and law keeping, not sheep.
However, Jesus has compassion for the sheep, just as we saw in Matthew 9 above. As the "good shepherd," Jesus truly and deeply loves the sheep. It pains Jesus to see Mary and Martha so distraught without shepherds who would lead them to the "living water" (John 4).
This anger and compassion merge to tears.
One time I saw a co-worker's dog pen. The dogs were too thin from lack of food, they were dirty, and they were covered in sores. Other co-workers and I were really ticked off at the owners for their mistreatment of their dogs. There is no reason those animals should have been in the shape they were. They were simply neglected. At the same time, I didn't live there (or even in the neighborhood), I couldn't bring the dogs with me, and I was about to go back to college as the summer drew to a close. I was moved to compassion for the dogs, and I was angry at those looking after them, yet there was nothing I could do. Tears welled up in my eyes.
Perhaps one other thing was in the mix of Jesus' tears? Jesus, moved to compassion for his sheep and angered at the bad shepherds, knew there was something he could do. He would reveal the glory of God by raising Lazarus from the tomb. However, this would not be enough. Jesus would have to lay down his life for the sheep. The Jews, in their blind misguidedness, get this part right at the end of John 11. Mad because Jesus is raising sheep from the dead, they say, "...it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish" (John 11:50). They're right, and Jesus would lay down his life if it meant salvation for all his sheep.
This means quite a bit for us, whether we are lay people in the church or pastors who have been tasked with shepherding a congregation.
Members of a church should want a pastor who is willing to lead and guide them to Jesus as the resurrection and the life. A pastor who is truly loving the people of God will do this regardless of the cost.
For other pastors who are reading, we need to be careful we don't become like these bad shepherds. Are we only doing ministry if it feeds our selfish ambitions? Here are some areas to take inventory:
1. Are there people who are in need, desperate, paying for bad decisions, or outcasts of society who are not welcomed in your church because it's inconvenient?
2. Are there cultural and/or theological issues you won't touch because the people with money might leave, or because it would bring difficult talks your way?
If we love the sheep we counsel, pray with, minister alongside of, and laugh with, then the answer to these two questions should always be "no." We have a good shepherd who had to die for his sheep. Shouldn't we count it all joy if we face difficult discussions or lean financial years, if it means sheep are being fed and brought to spiritual health? If my thoughts above are on the right track, then Jesus still weeps for sheep who aren't being fed.
* "Jews" here does not mean Jewish. Throughout John's Gospel it is being used as a collective term for the Jewish ruling party that wants to kill Jesus. After all, Jesus is Jewish, the disciples are Jewish, Mary & Martha are Jewish, and Lazarus is Jewish. So it can't be that John has in mind any one who is Jewish.