My nickname as a child was brenda-bawl-baby-nuss. My middle name is Jo, but bawl-baby prevailed. Often when caught in a crying-fit, usually at the dinner table, my dad would sing out: “Bawl-baby, Brenda. Bawl-baby, Brenda.” Perhaps this was a father’s misguided attempt to humor me into a state of calmness. It never worked.
I was a crier – the sobbing-kind-of-crying that erupts into uncontrollable hiccuping accompanied by the red, swollen, blotchy face. I couldn’t help myself. I felt things deeply, especially another person’s pain.
I remember one time in particular after attending a Saturday matinee. The movie that set me off into a sobbing fit was Old Yeller! Yeah, you remember the story— boy’s best friend gets rabies. The dog must be put down!
I wept not because I’m an animal lover, nor because the dog was put down. I wailed because in an odd way I related to the brother who had to shoot Old Yeller. His pain tore at my heart. Nothing consoled me. I simply had to cry it out, alone, lying on the back seat of the car.
Years later, as a married woman and mother of four, I found myself powerless to hold back the tears that flowed during a praise service at a Christian women’s conference. When failing to hide the hot tears flowing down my face, an older woman singing next to me tenderly touched my shoulder and whispered,
“Don’t be ashamed of your tears, honey — that is the Holy Spirit working his way out through your tear ducts!”
I’ve not entirely outgrown this condition. Over my years of ministry I’ve held the hands of others – men, women, and children – who have suffered immense loss and I have wept with them. I mourn deeply when hearing stories of pain, loss, injustice, and suffering. I’ve learned to steer clear of tear-jerker movies — and to wear waterproof mascara at all times!!
I remember when I first learned that the words in John 10:35 – Jesus wept– was the shortest verse in the King James Bible. I was young. It became a bit of trivia stored away to win a score for my team at Vacation Bible School. The words spoke of hope.
A few years ago, when preparing a message on the account of Jesus’s close friend Lazarus’s death and the mourning of Martha and Mary at the tomb, it dawned on me:
If Jesus, God Incarnate, could weep unashamedly in public at the death of his dear friend, it was more than alright for me to weep as well. Maybe my childhood moniker of bawl-baby could be redeemed somehow as a blessing, that of a gift to celebrate with others rather than a weakness to remedy. Maybe it was even required!
Jesus wept! After those words sank deep into my inner being I realized this short verse was packed with profundity and rich, theological possibility.
Think on that image for awhile. Jesus wept!
Nearly every English Bible version translated the Greek words with only those two words, until 1989 when the NRSV translated edakrysen ho Iēsous, with two additional words: “Jesus began to weep.“
I still prefer Jesus wept, even though the translation committee for the NRSV decided otherwise.
This short verse comes from a gospel written later than Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels — closer to the end of the first century, around 90 A.D.
If this is accurate, many who personally walked with and bore witness to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were no longer living. Those who experienced firsthand the exhilaration of the early days of the church were either deceased or dispersed throughout the empire. It is likely that John was among the last of the living eyewitnesses to Jesus’s life.
Near the turn of the second century numerous gospels and romances were written. Everyone seemed to have a story to tell about Jesus. These often described (distorted, even) Jesus’s life and ministry in ways radically different from the earlier gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Who was this Jesus? Rumors were rampant. Some said he was simply a man. Others believed he was a god/God. Jewish followers claimed he was the long-awaited Messiah who would be King.
Some said he was dead. Others believed he had come back to life. Where did this man/god come from? If alive, where was he? How could a miracle worker be mortal and still be an immortal god? Who ever heard of gods dying!
The gods of the day were notorious for taunting and tormenting humans from a safe distance — compassionate one moment, maliciously cruel the next. Perhaps a deity temporarily inhabited Jesus’s physical, human body as a pretense of hope. Did this devious trickster return to wherever immaterial deities reside?
Be forewarned – never let your guard down when the gods are around! The accounts were all over the place. Some so preposterous, only a fool would fall for them.
How then could the ordinary person sort out which gospel presented the true picture of the historical Jesus? Hum. Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it?
Those pesky issues from yesterday still pester seekers of the real Jesus today.
John writes to correct the philosophical and religious misunderstandings about Jesus, about gods, and God, so his audience could trust and believe. One thing we discover right away when reading John’s gospel, is that John’s Jesus is nothing like the gods worshipped in that day!
Clues in the Text
John has a unique writing style. His literary structure is ingenious, inspired even, in how he crafted the text to flow. We easily miss this when studying verses lifted from their placement in the literary whole.
Remember, we are modern readers. The NT books were written without chapters and paragraphs, without verses and without spaces between the letters. All these ‘helps’ were added hundreds of years later to make it easier to manage and discuss the biblical texts. However, this convenience makes it far too easy to focus on small textual bits rather than the whole. 1
With this in mind, we seek ways the structure of John’s gospel — how he intentionally laid out the wording of the gospel text — give additional insight into the purpose and placement of two short words- Jesus wept. Did John have an agenda by situating the resurrection story of Lazarus smack dab in the middle of twenty-one chapters? I think so.
Jesus as Zōē
Immediately upon reading the prologue in the gospel we discover John’s lofty view of the one who was the Word and was God (v. 1). He was with God at creation (vs. 2). All created things that exist came into existence through him (vs. 3).
John’s talking about Jesus! And this one was God!
“In him was life (zōē) and the life (zōē) was the light of the world” (Jn 1:4). 2 This Word took on flesh and lived among us (vs. 14). In my opinion, verse four offers a key to why Jesus wept.
Apparently for John, Jesus was not an ordinary man walking upon the earth. He was, and is, God’s-son-as-God, come from above, to dwell in real flesh and blood, among real people in the historical, material world.
John, an astute theologian, esoteric at times, ponders deeply the person Jesus – a human, yet Son of God – and about Jesus, the one who is zōē!
So, when we observe how John strategically positioned the event – of Jesus weeping at the tomb of his beloved friend in John 11 between two profoundly significant verses, John 1:18 and John 20:31, that open and close the gospel, I believe we should take notice.
The first verse near the opening of the gospel, John 1:18:
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made (God) known.” (Jn 1:18, NRSV)
The last verse, John 20:31, is near the close of the gospel:
“But these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have LIFE in His NAME! (Jn 20:31, NRSV)
Both verses reveal that John is doing much more than recording a biography of Jesus’s earthly life. He wrestles with deep theological questions.
Who is God? Who is Jesus? Who are we in light of who God is?
What is life? What is death? Is there life after death? Is this Jesus – zoē – the antithesis of death?
Each of these questions can be discussed philosophically, theologically, impersonally – while sitting in a sterile environment far from the scenes of human suffering and the stench of death.
But it is after we’ve sat for weeks and months by the bed of a loved one dying from a terminal illness or trudged through the battlefield strewn with mangled flesh do we dare put words to the most soul-chilling question of all:
“Has God abandoned me!? Where is God in my greatest hour of need?”
It is important we not overlook how John draws attention to this very concern in the text. Not once, but twice, he reports how Lazarus’s sisters express their natural and human response in the face of death. If we miss this, we miss their sense of abandonment in their greatest hour of need.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (Jn 11:21, 32)
People have wrestled with these questions throughout the ages. And we’ve all wrestled with them. John, who walked with the man Jesus before his death and after his resurrection as the Christ, gives us his answer.
We yearn to see God. However, John explicitly says no one has seen God. Since no human has ever seen God, John declares that the one presently seated at the Father’s side — meaning the resurrected Jesus — is the one who made God known to humanity in history.
This God-made-known is none other than Jesus! Here is another key in understanding what John may have had in mind when he writes, “Jesus wept.”
John’s ancient community and our post-modern one have this one thing in common – the fear of death. Undoubtedly nearly every person, at one time or another, will experience distressing physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional situations in life. Each situation of incapacitation is accompanied by an inescapable fear of death.
Over and over again, we see how physical suffering leads to a deep probing into the spiritual. Each person responds differently to suffering. Non-believers respond by turning to faith and acceptance of life beyond death, while others, once believers, reject the idea of life after death, resigning themselves to a nothingness after this life is ended. 3
In the middle of John’s deeply theological treatise we encounter God. And God is weeping!
Whether John intended for those two words to be the focus in this gospel is uncertain. But, there is no doubt in my mind that Lazarus, Martha, and Mary’s story is. Regardless, those two words reveal the nature of God.
God longs to be physically present in times of loss and intense suffering. So much so, that Jesus, God’s son, stood in God’s place near a tomb, crying out in a LOUD VOICE (megalē phōnē) for Lazarus to come forth so the bondage of death could be removed!! (Jn 11:43).
Jesus stands before the tomb – his body trembling with Holy Spirit power. And while choking back emotion, he demands the stone be removed! (Jn 11:38, 39)
He calls the dead one by name – “Lazarus!!”
Then in a thundering voice, (megalē phōnē), he commands, “Come out!” (11:38, 43).
Lazarus comes forth, his wrappings unbound, and stands upright and whole before the dumbfounded and baffled mourners. At first glance it appears Death has been defeated, but in truth, Death for Lazarus was merely temporarily postponed. Death always comes.
In an artistic literary style John demonstrates in the actual text how Jesus — the One who from the Beginning was God and Zōē — was not like the gods of his day.
John’s God, is neither fickle nor impulsive.
This God is neither destructive nor irrational.
John’s God is neither distant nor deaf.
John’s God is so unlike the gods of the ancient mythological gods who cause human pain and suffering that our pain brings this God to weep.
Megalē Phōnē, a Loud Voice
In only one other instance in the gospels, in those written before John’s gospel, do we read how Jesus – when confronting the reality of his own death – cried out in a loud voice,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:45-50; Mk 15:33-37; Lk 23:44-46)
We’re familiar with these words from Psalm 22, a psalm pouring forth in the midst of suffering, in the depth of despair, a psalm daring to express out loud the raw emotions hidden deep in the gut of the one facing illness and injustice, destruction and death!
My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?!
If you’ve never experienced a level of suffering that elicits this cry from your heart, blessings to you. But, if you’ve never dared to think those words, let alone speak them, in light of the suffering in the world, well, then I wonder about your humanity and participation in the real world.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” Truer words were never spoken that reveal Jesus, the one dying on the cross, was just as human as we are.
I’ve wondered why John’s account lacks this woeful cry from the cross. In John’s account we read that when Jesus thirsts, he is given sour wine, and after uttering a few final words, says, “It is finished.” Then Jesus bows his head, gives up his spirit and dies (19:28-30). All four gospels record Jesus’s resurrection.
Why does John center the experience of two sisters and their brother in the middle of the gospel?
Not a single word comes from the mouth of Lazarus. Lazarus does not shout or rejoice, nor does he give thanks at his miraculous escape from death. Only the plaintiff words from Martha and Mary is heard – their Lord had abandoned them in their hour of need!
Our God Weeps
He stands with and weeps alongside them! There is no mocking of their tears! No reprimanding or ridiculing. He fully understands that in the presence of Death lamenting is called for and compassion required.
John’s gospel reveals the spiritual depth of WHO Jesus was while walking upon the earth. But John’s gospel goes even further. John gives insight into God’s compassionate character that is displayed by Jesus in human form:
Our God is a weeping God, and there’s no shame in that.
- According to the NET translators, “John uses ζωή (zōē) 37 times: 17 times it occurs with αἰώνιος (aiōnios), and in the remaining occurrences outside the prologue it is clear from context that “eternal” life is meant.” They go on to suggest that if the use of the word here does not mean “the uses in 1:4, if they do not refer to “eternal” life, would be the only exceptions. 1 John uses ζωή 13 times, always of “eternal” life.
- Such was the case for Dr. Francis Collins, an atheist, who after witnessing a terminal patient’s joy in the midst of intense suffering resulted in move to God and faith. On the other hand, the incomprehensible senselessness of suffering ultimately convinced Bart Ehrman to reject God and faith all together.