NT Wright commented to Justin Brierley in the 39th episode of Ask NT Wright Anything, “We live in a world in which Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, knowing that he was going to raise him from the dead.”
Jesus was able to identify with and feel the crushing sorrow and the intense grief that the family and friends of Lazarus felt. When Jesus saw Mary, the sister of Lazarus weeping, he wept too. (John 11:32-33) Jesus felt her grief, and it moved him to tears.
Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, of course, reveals his humanity, his empathy and the fact that he felt the range of human emotions that we feel in our own lives. Imagine God taking on our form and experiencing what we experience!
The most remarkable aspect of this story, for me, is that Jesus felt the grief of the loss of a loved one and was moved to tears even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. He wept with grief though he know that joy would follow the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
In this way, we see that God doesn’t minimize our grief and suffering. He is able to identify with it because he felt the crush of it as we feel it.
He felt the crush of human grief even though he knew the miracle he was about to perform.
Perhaps, Jesus was weeping for all the people who feel grief without assurance or confidence or hope. Surely, Jesus had more than merely hope. He knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, but he also realized that his friends, the friends and family of Lazarus, didn’t know or appreciate what he was about to do.
Even though Jesus told the friends of Lazarus that he was doing “to wake him up” (John 11:11), and he told Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” they didn’t fully understand or appreciate what Jesus was saying. (John 11:23) They didn’t feel the assurance or confidence or hope that Jesus had.
I imagine Jesus also thought in those moments of all the people in the world who mourn without assurance, confidence or hope in the face of death. This is the human condition, and Jesus fully embraced it. He fully felt the weight of it, and it caused him to weep with them.
Jesus weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, of course, reveals his humanity, his empathy and the fact that he suffered and felt all the human emotions that we feel in our own lives. Imagine God taking on our form and experiencing everything that we feel!
Jesus knew that Lazarus would come out of that tomb, raised miraculously from the dead to live again. He knew the joy that his friends and family would feel, but it didn’t diminish the grief that weighed down on them in the meantime. It didn’t diminish the reality of death, the reality that Lazarus, and all of his friends and family, and all of humanity would face death.
The crushing weight of grief would be felt again… and again and again…. Death awaits all of us, and every person that we know and love, which is the worst of it – the great emptiness of the loss of a loved one. Such is our fate and the fate of everyone we know.
The fact that Jesus wept allows us to see and understand that God knows what we go through. He knows from our perspective what we go through, yet God also knows what awaits us. Just as he knew the joy the friends and family of Lazarus would feel when he was raised from the dead and walked out of that tomb, God knows the joy that awaits all of us on the other side of this life.
Yet, He doesn’t minimize the struggle, the pain and the grief we experience in this life. Perhaps, this is because Jesus would experience the very worst that this life has to offer. Jesus endured the pain, the shame and the suffering of going to the cross.
Jesus not only experienced it; he knew he was going to experience it. Jesus was “grieved and distressed” in the Garden of Gethsemane as he thought about the long, cruel death he was about to experience. (Matt. 26:37 (NASB)) He was so distressed that he “fell on his face” and asked the Father to “let this cup pass from me”. (Matt. 26:38) He wasn’t just stressed; he was anguished to the point of sweating blood. (Luke 22:44)
We are told that Jesus endured the suffering, shame and pain of death on the cross “for the joy that was set before him”. (Heb. 12:2) But, Jesus didn’t just know the future joy; he knew the tortuous road he would have to endure before obtaining the joy on the other side.
We don’t know either our future pain or our future joy. Perhaps thankfully! We don’t know the joy that awaits us, but we also don’t know all the griefs, suffering and pain we might have to endure in the future before the joy comes. If we did, we might be strongly tempted to turn back, even as Jesus, knowing full well what he was about to suffer, prayed for a different path.
God, in His mercy, doesn’t allow us to see the future. We only experience the sorrow, suffering and pain of his life as it comes. We don’t have to suffer through the anticipation of if, but we also don’t fully understand or appreciate the joy that awaits us on the other side.
Even so, we have Jesus – God who emptied Himself to become man – to show us the way. Not only does He know exactly what we suffer; He knows the joy that will be ours that awaits us. He showed us that the path to that joy is through the sorrow, suffering, pain and death in his life.
Unless a grain of wheat falls in the ground and dies, it remains just a seed (John 12:24) – just a possibility. The seed doesn’t become all it is meant to be without “dying” in the ground. Paul echoes these words of Jesus when he says, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (1 Cor. 15:36)
Further, we are born of perishable seed, but God promises us that we will be raised (born again) of imperishable seed. (1 Corinthians 15:42) What Jesus did with Lazarus was but a demonstration, a hint of what is planned for us. Lazarus was raised back to life in his earthly body in which he lived only for a time before he would die and remain dead, but what God has planned for us is the clothing of the perishable with the imperishable:
“[I]n a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?’
(1 Corinthians 15:52-55) Paul quotes the Prophet, Isaiah, here, who said that God “will swallow up death forever” and will “wipe away the tears from all faces”. (Isaiah 25:8) He also quotes from the Prophet, Hosea, says God will redeem us from death, and then:
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
While we don’t know what it means that Jesus has gone before us to “to prepare a place” for us (John 14:2), and we don’t know what “better country” and city God has prepared for us (Hebrews 11:16), we can be assured, because of Jesus, that the joy set before us is indeed worth whatever we might suffer and endure in this life.
“’What no eye has seen,
what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’
the things God has prepared for those who love him….”
(1 Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4)