When Even Men Cry: Jesus Wept

Inspired by a series of comments made by various friends about my public tears, or rather the complete lack thereof, I have decided to write a brief series of posts on the issue of men crying.  I feel compelled to biblically defend myself against groundless charges of being emotionless or cold.  So I will.  Today we’ll talk about every time Jesus cried.  Next time we’ll talk about my personal philosophy of crying in its relation biblical teaching.  Finally, I’ll publish a list of times I cried college, because sometimes I like writing stuff people will actually read.

There are two recorded instances in the Bible of our Savior weeping.  One is more famous than the other.  We’ll talk about that one first.

The most famous tears of Jesus are recorded in John 11:35:

Jesus wept.

The verse is profound in itself, but raises an obvious question: “Why did Jesus cry?”  The answer can only be found in the context:

Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus wept.  So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!”  But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”  So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb.

John 11:32-38

A surface level reading would suggest as our answer “Lazarus died, so Jesus cried.”  However, both times the passage Jesus was “deeply moved” immediately follow the basic statement, “Lord, if You had been here, Lazarus would not have died,” implying that Jesus could do nothing now that Lazarus was dead.  Their weeping and grief displays this same hopelessness. That state of hopelessness directly caused the emotional movement behind Jesus’ tears; Jesus cried because of the unbelief of his friends.

People have offered numerous other explanations of Jesus’ tears in John 11–that Lazarus was dead, that He sympathized with the pain of Martha and Mary, etc.  While all of these explanations may have an element of truth to them (for example, that God does not afflict His beloved lightly), none are derived from the passage in the same way that the true reason is.  Not only do we have the repetition of Jesus being “deeply moved” after statements of unbelief, but the original Greek term translated “deeply moved” connotes anger and sudden outrage, not sympathy.  Jesus’ tears were thus not primarily an expression of sadness from pain but an expression of emotion over sin, here the sin of unbelief.

Other textual cues back this up.  In verse thirty-nine, when Jesus asked to have the stone removed from the grave, Martha replied, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.”  While some would attribute this statement to Martha’s notorious practicality, it is better explained by her having no idea Jesus was about to revive her brother, especially since her conversation with Jesus in verses twenty-one through twenty-seven shows she had no thought of Jesus performing a physical resurrection of Lazarus.  We can safely project this attitude onto Mary and the Jewish multitude as well.  Jesus’ words to His disciples in verses fourteen and fifteen suggest that even the twelve did not expect Jesus to raise Lazarus in the flesh.  The conclusion stands: unbelief makes Jesus cry, particularly the unbelief of those He dearly loves.

That those beloved by Jesus would fail to trust Him is particularly egregious.  Mary, Martha, and the twelve knew Jesus very well, yet all their knowledge of Jesus failed to inspire faith in Him during a trial.  The more one knows a person, the more he can be assured of that person’s character, including factors such as love, consistency, power, and faithfulness.  The character of the God-man must be undeniably benevolent, consistent, faithful, and powerful far beyond human conception.  Mary and Martha would have known that character, not only through the words of Jesus’ teaching and testimony of His public healing ministry, but also through their friendship with Him.  This should have inspired immense faith in Jesus.  After all, if I know a friend for many years and see that he has never taken anything from anyone, or perhaps better yet, when he finds lost items strives to the utmost to return them to their proper owners, I would be wrong not to trust him to safeguard anything I own.  Of course I would trust this friend as a business partner!  Anything less than complete trust would impugn the years of honesty he displayed to me.  In the same way, anyone who has had a relationship with Jesus has no excuse for unbelief or lack of faith.  Unbelief questions Jesus’ character and doubts His works in the past.  Unbelief is a profound breach of relationship.

The paradox of His friends’ intense knowledge of His character paired with their lack of faith in Him caused Jesus to weep.  What more could He show them than He already had?  There was only one more thing He could do: physically raise Lazarus. So He did.  The bottom line is that Jesus’ tears were rooted in profound emotions, including a profound anger at the sin of unbelief in those He loved and a profound breach in His relationships with them caused by that sin.

The second time we see Jesus crying in the gospels is on the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We find it in Luke 19:41-44:

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!  But now they have been hidden from your eyes.  For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”

Despite the added dimension of sadness over the coming punishment of Jerusalem, Jesus cried here for pretty much the same reason as by Lazarus’ tomb.  This is supported by the closing clause, “…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.”  If the similarities between the incidents are unclear, try reading the Old Testament.

Much of the Old Testament concerns the relationship between YHWH and His people Israel, often detailing the important aspects of and developments in the relationship.  Any strong distinction between the Old Testament YHWH and Jesus, so that the latter does not have Israel as His special people, is erroneous.  Comparing John 12:41 and Isaiah 6 reveals that Isaiah’s vision of YHWH on His throne was in reality also a vision of the pre-incarnate Christ, thus identifying the two.  Using this identity we interpret the imagery in Ezekiel 16 as detailing the relationship between Jesus in Israel.

From Ezekiel we learn that Jerusalem was nothing without God, that God rescued and wedded Jerusalem, that He prospered her and built her up in fame and virtue, that she was His special possession (symbolizing His relationship with national Israel), but despite all God’s love, she had faithlessly, flagrantly, and frequently abandoned Him for adulterous affairs.  Through the fallout we see God’s wrath and holiness, God’s mercy and grace, and most of all, God’s faithfulness to His people and future forgiveness of their sins.  Much as through their friendship with incarnate Jesus Martha and Mary knew their savior’s character intimately, so too must Jerusalem over the centuries have come to know YHWH’s character both experientially and in the Scriptures.  That they would then fail to recognize Jesus as their Messiah and as the embodiment of the divine character proves either egregious negligence, or much more consistently with the biblical depiction of religious Jews, intentional unbelief.  In the crucifixion, Jerusalem abandoned God again just as when she had slain God’s prophets and pursued idol worship.  Jerusalem exemplifies the “we” in Isaiah 53:

He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried,
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.

The rejection of Jesus and His murder on the cross were caused directly by the people of Jerusalem.  Having the Old Testament and firsthand knowledge of the incarnate Christ, they were without excuse.  This breach of their relationship with their God directly caused the destruction Jesus wept over.  It was then ultimately the unbelief of Israel, as represented in Jerusalem, that caused Jesus to weep.

From our brief study we observe the general principle that Jesus mourns the unbelief of those to whom His person has been revealed, as seen in Jesus’ tears shed over faithlessness.  Jesus cries over our unbelief and our sin (unbelief of course being at the root of all other sin).  We would learn well to do the same.  As followers of Christ it behooves us to love the things He loves, hates the things He hates, and cry over the things He cries over.  Furthermore, we should strive to the utmost to uproot every sin present in our lives, no matter how seemingly small.  It is understandable that Mary and Martha would have lost hope after Lazarus died.  To us, their unbelief seems reasonable and unoffensive.  But this unbelief deeply agitated Jesus; it is still a sin against a holy God.  These tiny sins of thought and word that we barely notice affect our relationship with our Savior.  That should help us understand the drastic weight of the littlest sins in our lives.

In preparation for Part II, note Jesus did not cry when He left His disciples at His ascension.  Jesus, therefore, does not provide us with an argument for why I should have cried at the end of my time in college and the “last goodbyes” with many friends.  But for more of those details, you will have to read the next post.


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