John 11:35 is, famously, the shortest verse in the Bible. It simply says:
Jesus wept. | John 11:35
(In some modern versions, Job 3:2 is shorter. But in most Bibles, John 11:35 is shortest.)
Last fall, I led a Bible study to investigate this verse and figure out why Jesus wept. Why do you think John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recorded that detail in his book? Remember, John was a young man during Jesus’ earthly ministry but he was old and gray when he wrote his gospel account. So why did he, all those years later, not only remember that Jesus wept but also mention that seemingly minor detail in his writings?
There must be something significant about it.
A quick examination of the scriptures shows that Jesus was not a very weepy person. Actually, there’s only one other instance where we’re told that He shed tears, and that’s when He wept over Jerusalem:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” | Luke 19:41-44
To me, Jesus’ crying here in Luke 19 makes sense. He knew that horrible destruction was coming to Jerusalem, and that moved Him to tears. The Jews were oblivious to the impending calamity, and Jesus, thinking of this, wept. It was a tragic, heart-wrenching situation.
But the John 11 story is more curious. In that passage, Lazarus had died. And although that was certainly sad, Jesus had been in very similar situations. He had witnessed death before. For example, He once encountered a funeral procession for a widow’s son (Luke 7). There was also the time when Jairus’s young daughter passed away (Luke 8). Both times Jesus raised the dead back to life, and both times Jesus didn’t weep. In fact, on both occasions He told the bystanders, “Do not weep.”
So what’s going on in John 11? Why did Jesus tear up at the death of Lazarus? Was there something different about that event? Jesus wept. Why?
Here’s a radical thought. What if Jesus wept out of sympathy for his good friend Lazarus?
David Pawson, in his book A Commentary on the Gospel of John, says this about Lazarus’s death:
We look at it from a human point of view. We think it must be lovely to call someone back from the grave into their family’s circle, that it must be good to complete what has been broken. We want this to happen at every funeral. But let’s consider it from the point of view of the Son of God. He is going to call back a person into this world to die again. He is going to call back a person into this world of sin, sickness and suffering. … I think he’s weeping for Lazarus.
Whoa. What if that is why Jesus wept? What if that’s why He was “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled” (John 11:33)? Not just because He felt sorry for Mary and Martha. But because He felt sorry for Lazarus.
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb… | John 11:38
Lazarus was in paradise. But Jesus was about to bring him back. Maybe that broke His heart.
Here’s how Ruth Bell Graham put it in her poem “The Savior’s Tears”:
Knowing what lay ahead
moments away …
Was it because
He had not come,
had waited when He heard
Lazarus might die?
Lazarus was dead!
Was it in sympathy
with their raw grief,
Or could it be
had to bring him
Yes, it’s always tragic when we lose a loved one. Grief in those situations is natural and healthy and good, and we should “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). But let’s not lose sight of the big picture. For those who believe in Jesus, death is the doorway to paradise. After all, to escape the clutches of this sin-stained world and be forever with Christ “is far better” than anything this world has to offer (Philippians 1:23), because “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).