by Walker Haynes
Many people with a faith background will know that John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. It simply reads, “Jesus wept.” The brevity of the verse does not indicate a lack of meaning. Toward the beginning of his over 6500-word sermon on this verse, the famous preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote that “there is infinitely more in these two words than any sermonizer, or student of the Word, will ever be able to bring out of them.” Nevertheless, I would like to draw one simple point from this powerful verse: it looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s earthly ministry. To do this, I will draw expli citly from three surrounding verses (John 11: 33, 36-37), but I encourage the reader to also read the rest of John 11 to better understand the context and implications of Jesus’s tears.
We can best understand His sorrow by observing the people around Him and how they misunderstood His tears. The two verses immediately after show the reaction of the crowd of mourners to the sign of Jesus crying.
“So the Jews said, ‘See how He loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’” -John 11:36-37
Some in the crowd at the funeral question Jesus’s inaction despite His power. Mary and Martha also grieve Christ’s absence in verses 21 and 32 when they say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What they are saying is true. If Jesus had been there, He would have been able to heal Lazarus; however, it becomes evident that Christ had a greater purpose in mind: by miraculously resurrecting His friend, He foreshadows the greater purpose of His ministry.
The rest of the crowd attributes His tears to great emotion at the death of a loved one. Where we translate “He loved,” the original text reads phileo. This is the type of deep affectionate love found between close friends. While this is a true description of Jesus’s relationship with Lazarus (after all, the messenger tells Jesus that “He whom you love [phileo] is ill” in verse 3), it is an understatement of the love of Jesus in this passage. We see this in how the passage describes Jesus’s emotional state.
“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.” -John 11:33
Jesus’s emotions at this point are different from those of Mary, Martha, and the crowd. He is not merely saddened by the death of a friend. The Greek for “wept” in verse 35 is a different word than the Greek in verse 33. Verse 33 uses the Greek word klaio which indicates an act of mournful weeping. The word in verse 35 is dakruo which simply means to shed tears. This word choice indicates that Jesus’s tears are not simply tears of mourning.
Another interesting word choice is the Greek word embrimaomai which is translated “deeply moved.” This word most lite rally means to snort and is often used to indicate anger or scolding. This indicates that Jesus’s tears are not simply tears of sadness but also of anger. Additionally, note the Greek phrase that is translated as “greatly troubled” (tarasso heautou) is reflexive. This means that Jesus stirred up these emotions in Himself rather than suppressing His emotions. He makes himself feel anger and distress over the root cause of this pitiful scene, sin.
When Jesus weeps, it is not simply out of philia love for a friend, but out of agape love for the world.
Agape is another Greek word for love that indicates a deeper love, often one between unequal parties. It is sometimes translated as “charity” and this translation indicates that it has a sacrificial nature to it. This is fitting considering where Jesus is headed. In the broader narrative we find that Jesus has come to Bethany (the town of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus) from a place across the Jordan River in a region called Perea, where He was safe from hostile Jewish authorities. Bethany, on the other hand, was so close to Jerusalem that His disciples were concerned for His safety should He go there, and one even resigned Himself to death. Jesus would continue west from Bethany into Jerusalem and just a few days later be crucified.
But like Lazarus, Jesus would rise from the dead. While the resurrection of Lazarus reunited Jesus to a friend He loved (phileo), it also pointed to the work of Jesus’s death and resurrection, reuniting Jesus to the church that He loves (agapao) by resurrecting its spiritually dead members and conquering the sin for which He wept. In the end, then, we find that the tears of John 11:35 are not merely the tears of a teacher, but also the tears of a savior.