We read in the New Testament that there were occasions when Jesus wept and also when He lamented. It seems a logical question to ask ourselves then, why did Jesus weep and lament? What was it that saddened the Savior? What can we learn from Christ’s sorrow?
Jesus wept because of man’s sin and the death it brought.
Jesus delayed visiting Lazarus when he was sick, knowing that Lazarus would die. Though He could have healed Lazarus (even from a distance), He told His disciples that He was glad He was not there. Jesus anticipated the Resurrection that He would perform as a sign to His disciples, that they might believe (John 11:11–15).
When we read that we are to weep with those who weep, we can clearly see that our Lord and Savior demonstrated that kind of empathy here.
But when Jesus arrived in Bethany and saw the family and friends of Lazarus grieving, why did Jesus weep (John 11:33–35)? He certainly knew that Lazarus would soon be alive again—it was for this purpose that He had come to Bethany. Clearly Jesus was affected by the grief of his close friend Mary and the rest of the Jews who were lamenting with her and Martha. When we read that we are to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15), we can clearly see that our Lord and Savior demonstrated that kind of empathy here.
But we read further in John 11:35–38 that Jesus was weeping and still groaning within Himself, this time in response to death itself and the disbelief of the people. Jesus had told Martha that Lazarus would rise again, and many of the Jews there had probably seen Jesus perform miracles, yet they questioned why He hadn’t prevented one of His dearest friends from dying. Jesus knew that some would believe on Him from this moment on, but many would still disbelieve and even report His miracle to the Pharisees. Just as in the example from Luke 16:19–31, there were some who would not believe even though they saw a man rise from the dead.
Although John 11:35 does not tell us specifically why Jesus wept, we can infer one reason from the context: Jesus was grieved over death as the result of mankind’s sin. At the beginning of creation, “
the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16–17). Because Adam directly disobeyed this command, God punished all humanity beginning with Adam: “
‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return’” (Genesis 3:19).
The Apostle Paul confirmed the correlation between sin and death: “
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Paul also clearly wrote that “
the wages of sin is death” in Romans 6:23.
As Christians, we often forget that death is an enemy. While it is true that when a fellow believer dies we do not sorrow as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), we nevertheless must remember that death is unnatural. It is not what God created, but came about because of Adam’s sin and rebellion. Let us remember and find hope in Paul’s description of a time to come when death will be no more:
For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. . . . So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:25–26, 54–56)
In raising Lazarus, Jesus showed a small glimpse of this ultimate defeat of death. Jesus had the power to raise the dead, and soon thereafter He went to the Cross to defeat death permanently. Death has been defeated (2 Timothy 1:10), and one day it will be destroyed forever (Revelation 20:14).
The account of Jesus weeping at the graveside of Lazarus is most likely another example of God’s grief over our sin. Jesus knew some would not believe. He knew that the Pharisees would now plot even harder to kill Him. He knew that everyone there (including Lazarus again) would physically die as a result of Adam’s sin and their own sin. Although He was headed to Calvary to become the sacrifice for our sin, He still knew that the consequences would continue until the time He presents “
a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).
Just a quick perusal through Scripture allows us to see other times when God was and is grieved by the actions of mankind in general and even Christians:
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. (Genesis 6:5–6)
Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the Lord all night. (1 Samuel 15:10–11)
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)
Jesus wept over Jerusalem and grieved over mankind’s hard hearts.
Jesus knew that most would reject Him, just as had been prophesied (Isaiah 53:3–4). He also knew that the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed, the Temple razed, and many people would be killed by the Romans (Matthew 24:2; Luke 21:20–24). So Jesus wept for their hardness of heart, as He did not want them to perish but desired them to come to repentance (Luke 15:7). God will judge sin, but He makes clear that He wants people to turn from their sin and live, not die (Ezekiel 33:11).
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41–44)
The Jewish leadership of that day had so distorted Scripture that they considered healing someone a violation of the Sabbath. They had neglected the weightier matters of the law, “
justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23), in an attempt to “
establish their own righteousness” (Romans 10:3):
Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. (Mark 3:4–5)
Jerusalem had heard the Word of God through the mouths of prophets time and again to warn them to repent, turn from their sins, and follow the Lord. But they would not repent, so Jesus was grieved and rebuked them:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34; cf. Matthew 23:37)
Jesus knew that His disciples and followers in the years to come would suffer persecution for His name (Matthew 23:34). But to persecute Christ’s followers is to persecute Him, so much does He identify and sympathize with us (Hebrews 4:15). Thus Jesus confronted Saul of Tarsus and said, “
Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4–5).
We should weep over our sin.
Understanding some of these things that grieve our Lord should cause us also to weep and be grieved over several things. For example, we should weep over our sin and exhibit contrition for offending a holy and just God. Paul exhibited this type of godly sorrow when he wrote the following:
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:21–24)
When we do grieve over our sin in humility, the Lord will not reject us, as the psalmist wrote: “
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16–17). And again, we read in Isaiah 66:2 that God has said, “
But on this one will I look: on him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.”
We should weep over the sin of fleshly living.
As Christians, we are to guard against our own tendency to sow to our own flesh instead of to the Spirit (Galatians 6:7–9), and we should be quick to heed the admonition in James 4:8–10 to mourn over sin:
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
In addition, we are to weep in warning others about false teachers and hedonistic imposters who claim to be Christians, when in reality they are enemies of Jesus Christ. Once again, the Apostle Paul demonstrated this response in a way we should strive to emulate:
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:18–20)
We should weep over the sin of complacency and syncretism.
God does not want us to live a life of syncretism—merging the worship of God with fleshly practices and spiritual idolatry. God wants us to worship Him in spirit and in truth, and to live a life of holiness (2 Corinthians 6:16–18). We are to set aside the weight and the sin which so easily beset us (Hebrews 12:1), and we are to cleanse and purge ourselves daily by repenting of our sin (2 Corinthians 7:1; 1 John 1:9).
We must constantly guard against complacency. After all, God threatened to “vomit out” lukewarm Christians in the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:15–16). And in keeping with this, there are times when we must endure and exhibit godly sorrow, in order to produce repentance:
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter. (2 Corinthians 7:10–11)
May we have a heart like His!
When we read John 11:35, the shortest verse in the English Bible, we are often struck with the humanity of Jesus. Perhaps we can now also view this verse in a different light and consider the deity of Jesus. Jesus, as God incarnate, was weeping at the hardness of people’s hearts and the sin around him. Jesus was weeping that mankind was still under the curse of death and that the last enemy of mankind was not yet defeated.
But Jesus was not powerless; He had the power to overcome death, and through His death, burial, and Resurrection He has likewise made believers more than conquerors over sin and death (Romans 6:9–1; 8:37). We look forward to that blessed hope (Titus 2:13) that when Christ comes, we shall be made alive with Him (1 Corinthians 15:22). Through faith in Christ, we can look forward to an eternity one day where He will wipe away all tears and there will be no more sorrow (Revelation 21:4).
But while we are still here on this earth, struggling with death and sorrow, we must lay aside every weight, and the sin that does so easily beset us, (Hebrews 12:1). Let us follow our Lord’s example and rightly weep over the things that make Him weep. May we resolve to have a contrite spirit in regard to our own sin (Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 66:2), and may we have a burden for those who are lost. May we have a heart like His!