The Bible is communicated to us in written words, but often with enough description that in reading it, powerful mental images are formed in our minds that stay with us. There are many such pictures that come to mind when we freeze-frame various snapshots of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, this One who alongside God the Father was also God and was made flesh as a human being (John 1:1-3 John 1:1-3 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
American King James Version×, John 1:14 John 1:14And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
American King James Version×).
I picture a snapshot of a 12-year-old Jesus standing as a boy among aged teachers in the Jerusalem temple courtyard with their mouths wide open in amazement at His scriptural understanding.
A living tear streams down through time to be absorbed by every generation of those who heed the great invitation of the One who wept.
One of my favorite pictures is Jesus laughing and smiling along with family members as they celebrate a wedding in Cana. I envision an expansive picture of Jesus lifting His hands skyward in blessing the fish and loaves brought before Him as thousands of people eagerly surround Him.
I picture a zealous Jesus in righteous anger overturning the merchants’ tables in the temple area not once but twice. I linger and smile at my mental snapshot of Jesus looking down at a water-soaked Peter after the disciple’s brief moment of walking on water and lifting Him up and taking him back to the boat with a knowing glance—that there will be another walk of faith in the man’s future when he won’t sink.
Just two words says it all!
But the picture I want to consider with you is not merely embedded in my mind’s eye, but firmly lodged in my heart’s fabric. What’s encapsulated here enables us to continue on the journey in faithful response to the greatest personal invitation ever offered to humanity by our Master—“Follow Me.” This picture is discovered in the shortest verse in Scripture in John 11:35 John 11:35Jesus wept.
American King James Version×. The power does not come in the number of words, but in what the words say—the moment captured! Just two words: “Jesus wept.”
Like U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s two-minute Gettysburg Address, which captures the expansive essence of birth, death and rebirth of a nation torn asunder, in this two-word freeze-frame we are invited to contemplate and embrace that the essence of God’s heart is revealed in His Son’s emotion forever framed by a tear. Just two words says it all! A living tear never to dry up that streams down through time to be absorbed by every generation of those who heed the great invitation of the One who wept.
The context of this endearing moment is the story of the death of Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus of Bethany in Judea and His dramatic encounter with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, on the way to Lazarus’ grave. But first, let’s step back into the story before the moment of encounter on that dusty path to Lazarus’ tomb.
Days earlier, Mary and Martha had sent a messenger to Jesus to tell Him regarding their brother, “He whom You love is sick” (John 11:3 John 11:3Therefore his sisters sent to him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.
American King James Version×). He plainly stated: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4 John 11:4When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.
American King James Version×, New International Version).
The following verses clearly state Jesus’ love for Martha and Mary. But the same verses also tell us that He waits two more days to go to Bethany. Why? Christ tells His disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11 John 11:11These things said he: and after that he said to them, Our friend Lazarus sleeps; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.
American King James Version×, NIV)—by which He meant Lazarus died (John 11:14 John 11:14Then said Jesus to them plainly, Lazarus is dead.
American King James Version×). So He purposely waited for that. It was not because of His own security issues that would come from being in the environs of Jerusalem. Rather, as the Son of God, He was empowered to see things to come as if they already were—that His dear friend would be raised from the dead when He arrived to call him forth from the grave.
When the time was ripe
When the time was ripe—in God’s timing—Jesus announced, “Let us go to him” (John 11:15 John 11:15And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent you may believe; nevertheless let us go to him.
American King James Version×). He was vehemently warned not to go. It seemed suicidal, as adversaries were lying in wait. Jesus knew this and that His own time to die was very soon, but not quite yet. He also knew that as He was going to raise one man to life, His own death soon after would be for all and that He likewise would be raised from the dead that all might have life.
A foreshadowing of the power Jesus was given over death would be revealed through the raising of Lazarus, the fatal illness occurring, as we earlier saw, “that the Son of God might be glorified through it” (John 11:4 John 11:4When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.
American King James Version×).
Timing would be everything, and the master of timing was at work. He would finally arrive, approaching the outskirts of Bethany, but now four days after the death of His friend. In the Jewish culture of that day, the timing of four days roared “utter finality.”
The separation was seemingly at a place of no return. Christ was walking into the midst of utter despair and even resentment. But man’s extremities are the beginning of God’s opportunity to turn the page. He knowingly moves towards the first matter at hand to face the sisters who had put out the call that seemed ignored, especially when the family needed Him most.
Martha, ever dutiful, goes out to greet Him and in pain and upset states, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21 John 11:21Then said Martha to Jesus, Lord, if you had been here, my brother had not died.
American King James Version×). Yet she still trusts that He can call on God to do something (John 11:22 John 11:22But I know, that even now, whatever you will ask of God, God will give it you.
American King James Version×). Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23 John 11:23Jesus said to her, Your brother shall rise again.
American King James Version×). He further proclaims: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25 John 11:25Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
American King James Version×). Martha responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27 John 11:27She said to him, Yes, Lord: I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.
American King James Version×).
This was a segue into dealing with Mary who, deep in grief, was still sitting at home. Even within families we all respond differently in grief. Martha notifies Mary that their friend and teacher has come. Mary goes out to meet Jesus, and a crowd follows her, assuming she is going to mourn at her brother’s tomb (John 11:28-31 John 11:28-31 28 And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calls for you.
29 As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came to him.
30 Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met him.
31 The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goes to the grave to weep there.
American King James Version×). It’s here the story builds toward the tears that will be shed.
Falling at Christ’s feet, Mary’s statement to Him echoes Martha’s (John 11:32 John 11:32Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw him, she fell down at his feet, saying to him, Lord, if you had been here, my brother had not died.
American King James Version×). Coming down to us today, the same thought can rattle around in our hearts at times when matters don’t go according to our plans. Allow me to paraphrase: “God, where were You? If only, if only, if only!”
In their expanding dialogue of faith the sisters are coming to understand that their friend and teacher is not simply a local “Johnny-on-the-Spot” holy man, but the Son of God who transcends time and space to make the will of God known to us. And that at times He will allow even His friends to die in the here and now to magnify what our Heavenly Father purposes for all eternity. But again, Jesus the Son of God is here also the Son of Man—and His divine care and humanity are about to be triggered by those He loves.
“See how He loved him”
Jesus looks down on Mary who is weeping, as are those who are with her (John 11:33 John 11:33When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.
American King James Version×). Not simply crying but weeping, which is an agonizing experience to behold, though humanly needed. Remember, Jesus is taking this in—not only up close but personally. Seeing this, “He groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (same verse).
Then He inquires, “Where have you laid Him?” to validate Lazarus’ death (John 11:34 John 11:34And said, Where have you laid him? They said to him, Lord, come and see.
American King James Version×). John’s account next states in the briefest of terms, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35 John 11:35Jesus wept.
American King James Version×).
Before going any further allow me to share that countless sermons and pages of commentary have been written about the implication of these two words. Some express overarching theological explanations that move from Adam and Eve to beyond the events spoken here. And this can be reasonable to explore, but if one looks carefully the obvious answer as to why Jesus wept lies in the context.
Here is a woman, a dear friend, sobbing at His feet as she has collapsed on the dusty road and looking up at Him. Martha was likewise upset. The others gathered were weeping, all sad at the horrible tragedy of Lazarus dying and over the terrible sense of loss and confusion the family was going through.
The crowd surrounding Him is struck as He wept, the people commenting, “See how He loved Him.”
But they didn’t really get it. Jesus was not sorrowful here over His friend Lazarus, for He had delayed and was now come for the specific purpose of calling him back to life. Jesus wept for those who were hurting and troubled. He knew what it was like to lose a close loved one. His adoptive father Joseph had died sometime previously and Jesus would have understood and felt the loss that others were now going through.
Yet Jesus always had hope and certainty in the future. It’s likely that He also grieved here over the lack of understanding about death and God’s plan and His own mission among those mourning. If they only knew, they would not be in such dismay. It was painful for Him to see this. The people would have better concluded, “See how He loves His friends—and all of us.”
In Christ’s weeping it’s revealed that we worship a God who intimately cares about His creation. John’s Gospel is in large measure written to a Hellenistic audience in simple eloquence contrasting the God of the universe with the pantheon of false gods who never showed empathy and emotion, for to do so would have meant they were not divine.
It’s here that our Heavenly Father is revealed through His Son, whom the Father sent among us that man might be literally touched by God and God in turn through Christ might be touched by man. After all, Jesus’ prophesied name is Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23 Matthew 1:23Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
American King James Version×). Here on that dusty road in Bethany, heaven and earth come together for a moment in time to display the compassion of this One who was God and Man—One who can be overwhelmed by His love for His friends and others who are suffering. And this also represented the love of the Father.
Here the tear tells all. It doesn’t make Jesus less infallible, but this moment forever framed by a tear makes Him incredible and indispensable. Here God’s love for us is caught in flesh.
Today at the right hand of God we have a Savior and High Priest who can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15 Hebrews 4:15For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
American King James Version×) and, may I add, our humanity—our hurts, our longings, and even our despair over separation from loved ones. It’s in the same spirit that the apostle Paul, perhaps recalling Christ’s example, encouraged us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 Romans 12:15Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
American King James Version×). That too is a part of the invitation of “Follow Me.”
“God will wipe away every tear”
The ultimate snapshot offering the great hope of eternity is discovered in Revelation 21:4 Revelation 21:4And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
American King James Version×: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Again, the words express incredible intimacy in describing God’s personal touch of wiping away tears. Christ has already had practice with His own tears in Bethany, and now our Heavenly Father tenderly engages. This is ultimately where the greatest invitation ever offered to humanity of “Follow Me” leads as we pause for now and view the love of God forever framed by a tear.
As we journey forward on the great pilgrimage yet before us, always remember and hold on to the reality that God wants you present in that ultimate family picture!