“Jesus wept” (John 11.35) (1). That there is the shortest verse in the Bible, and yet the depth of meaning is very rich and profound. The context of that phrase places Jesus in the village of Bethany just a few miles outside of Jerusalem in Israel. He is visiting the funeral/tomb of a dear friend of his, Lazarus. Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha two duly noted disciples of the Lord Jesus.
As readers we want to ask the question, “Why? Why was Jesus weeping? Why does the Apostle John make a note of this act of Christ?” The casual reader may assume that the Lord’s weeping was related to the death of Lazarus, and the sorrow that his family and friends surely felt. Certainly, this is plausible. We are told in Scripture that there are in fact times in life when we are called upon to weep (cf. Eccl 3.2), and to share the burdens with another (cf. Eccl 3.4; Rom 12.15). Death carries with it a sting that is hard to bear, and brings the heart much sorrows.
However, a closer inspection of the chapter as a whole reveals that Jesus knew not only that Lazarus had died, even before people reached him with the message (compare: John 11.4; 11.14-15) , but that he also purposely delayed in coming to the burial site an additional two days (John 11.6), because he knew in his heart what he had planned to do. He knew what the Father’s will was regarding the life of Lazarus—to glorify His one and only Son (John 11.4; also see John 3.16-17). Jesus knew that the grave would not hold this man, for he was coming to bring Lazarus from death-to-life.
In order to demonstrate to all present on the day he commanded them to roll the stone away from the tomb, that he and he alone is in fact “the resurrection and the life” (John 11.25). And that, “whoever believes in [him] though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11.25b-26). He purposely took his time getting there so that those present might come to know the truth that God the Father had sent him (John 11.42; cf. John 1.1-3; 14).
The real reason that Jesus seems to be weeping is because of the unbelief that the people there have. Of the dire consequences that sin has wrought in His creation, and the foolishness of the people for not seeing that He alone has the power to reverse the effects of sin’s curse, even death. In verse 33 we are told that Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” The idea in Greek seems to be related to the action a horse snorting in anger, emphasizing the fact that Jesus was sighing with indignation in order to keep his emotions in check over the unbelief of those in attendance who did not either know who He was (is) and were not confident in what He was empowered to do. This becomes more evident when we look at the comments leveled at the Lord in verse 37, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” With his response in verse 38-40 we are able to see that while Jesus no doubt wept for those who were suffering the loss that sin brings—a demonstration of his profound empathy—he also was deeply disturbed by their foolish disbelief.
I bring this up because of how death is a reality that we must all face. I’m not sure if we have become desensitized to the devastating effects of death that sin brings because we are so saturated with it in various media related outlets (news, movies, TV shows, etc.). Or, because death is so painful when it does touch our lives that we would rather blissfully ignore it. Whatever the reason may be, the fact of the matter is that we need to face death head on. Death will not go away, or touch our lives, just because we prefer to act like an ostrich hiding from danger by burying our heads. We are all going to die, and more than likely we will have people that we deeply care about who will pass on before us.
Originally, I had thought about writing this when I was on vacation with my family in Wisconsin. The idea kept coming to my mind when I thought of the brevity of our lives. It didn’t help seeing a couple movies where death to loved ones was a key theme. Ironically though, now I am faced with the reality of having lost a person who has always been very dear to me.
Just a few hours ago (May 30th), my grandpa passed away while do some work for someone. He was raised in a Christian home, but as far as I know never truly professed Christ. Over the years he had several opportunities, but his answer was normally the same. My grandpa leaned heavily upon his own goodness. And though I love him dearly, what troubles my spirit most is the unknown eternity he now faces.
How do you respond to those who are unbeliever’s who want to take comfort in a lie? If you’ve been to a funeral I’m sure you’ve heard one variation or another of what people say in order to ease their own consciences: “Oh, at least there in a better place now. They’re in heaven with ‘so-and-so,’ or They’re like one of the angels now looking down on us.” Where do people come up with such things? They are not in Scripture! And yet, people will say such things with much conviction.
How are we to respond to those statements as Christians? Do we allow them to believe the lie, so that they are temporarily comforted? Or do we tell them the truth? Do you know what the rich man said after he went to hell? He asked for permission to go back so he could warn his family of the torment they would suffer in this place, if they did not repent (Luke 16. 27-28). The man in hell was not worried about niceties, but about the truth. If we die apart from Christ there is only one place that we are destined for—eternal hell (see John 8.24).
We are told in Scripture that the truth is what sets us free, not the lie (John 8.32); For the lie enslaves. What good then is it to allow people’s hearts to be soothed with a false salve? Death is more than sorrow, death is also a reminder and a warning. Death may also serve as a moment of celebration and victory.
The question nags my own heavy heart, “where is my grandpa?” Where is he now resting in eternity? My mind leans towards the negative, not because I am judgmental as some would see it, but rather truthful in the evaluation of the fruit that hung from his proverbial life tree. Apart from Jesus Christ there is no hope. Apart from the grace of God there is only the promise of doom.
Am I then saying that my grandpa is totally without hope, that I know for certain where he now resides? By no means. For you see I do not place my hope in the works of men, but my conviction rests assured in the work of God. While, my previous experiences teach me that grandpa’s fate was sealed, the knowledge of who God is as just and merciful gives me some measure of comfort. For God declares, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom 9.15). We who are saved are not saved by our own might, will or intellect, for by those very things the people of this world do not know Christ (cf. 1Cor 1.18-31; 2.8-14). So then, we who are saved are God’s workmanship, for while we were still enemies He brought us from death to life (cf. Eph 2.1-10).
My hope, the only true comfort that I have at this moment, is that my grandpa may have been like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. That man was told that he would enjoy paradise that very day with God (Luke 23.43). You say, “how does that passage give you hope in the death of your seemingly unsaved grandpa?” Because of the fact that we have biblical evidence of a death bed repentance. When everyone else was watching and waiting for these three men’s deaths…how many do you suppose believed that all deserved the punishment they were getting? How many onlookers would be convinced that the thief next to the Lord had no hope at all whatsoever? His life was spent. He was suffering a criminal’s death that he deserved. How in the world could God show him mercy and compassion? And yet, that is precisely what happened.
I do not rest my hope on the choices of men, but on the choice of God. And if in that moment of my grandpa’s death God decided to be compassionate on him and be merciful to this lost sinner, then in that I rejoice. And in that my friends I rest my hope. No one knows for certain where we shall all reside at the moment of our demise, but the Lord Almighty. Therefore, it shall be God in whom I trust. Not the whims or wishes of people who want to soothe their own sinful consciences by claiming “he is in a better place” without truly knowing. As Jonah, the prophet said long ago, “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Jonah 2.9).
In memory of his life, I want to express my thankfulness for the lessons that he taught me: fishing, construction, work ethic, and in viewing the world. I would also like to express my heartfelt condolences to those who loved him in life and are now missing him in death. Like the Lord I weep. I weep with thankful memories that God graced me with, with this man that I affectionately called my grandpa. I weep, also for the unbelief of the many who will no doubt attend his funeral. Like Christ, I weep.
- All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).