This is Daniel Bonnell’s Jesus Wept, (2008. Oil on canvas, 48 × 36 in.).
The title phrase is the shortest verse in the Bible and is found in John 11, in the acount of the raising of Lazarus. The picture shows the encounter between Jesus and Mary (or Martha, I guess), immediately prior to that resurrection.
Everything is pared down to this encounter. The woman’s face is buried in Jesus’ chest in a paroxysm of grief. Jesus’ face too is distorted with emotion and shining with tears. His eyes are tight shut in a total sympathy with the grief of the woman he holds for the loss of the man whom they both love.
And there’s the mystery. Right there in the very human grief of Jesus.
One might understand the tears of Churchill as he inspected Blitz damage in 1940 (and a woman calling out “Look! He really does care!” and the crowd breaking into cheers!) as a real sympathy for people with whom the man shared a fear of dreadful conditions and uncontrollable circumstances in common. But wasn’t Jesus just about to prove that he was beyond all that with a supernatural display of power that was stronger than death itself?
Why did he cry? One would think that Jesus would be a confident, joyful calm in that storm of sorrow. But he was “greatly troubled” (John 11:33), and he wept. Why?
1. Compassion for Suffering
One reason is simply the deep compassion that Jesus felt for those who were suffering. It is true that Jesus allowed the death of Lazarus to happen. He delayed coming, and he did not speak healing from a distance like he did for the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:13). But this did not mean Jesus took the suffering it caused lightly. “For he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lam 3:33).
Even though Jesus always chooses what will ultimately bring his Father the most glory (John 11:4) — and sometimes, as in Lazarus’ case, the way is necessarily through affliction and grief — he does not take delight in the affliction and grief itself. No, his sympathy is paramount (Hebrew 4:15) and in Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus we get a glimpse of how the Father feels over the affliction and grief his children experience.
2. The Calamity of Sin
Another reason Jesus wept was over the calamity of sin. As God the Son who had come into the world to destroy the devil’s works (1 Jn 3:8), Jesus was about to deliver death its deathblow. But sin grieves God deeply and ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, he had endured sin’s horrific destruction. Death had consumed and destroyed throughout history, and now it had taken Lazarus. Tears of anger and longing were mixed with those tears of grief.
3. The Cost of Redemption
A third reason for weeping was the cost that he was about to pay to purchase not only Lazarus’s short-term resurrection, but his everlasting life. The cross was just days away and no one really knew the inner distress Jesus was experiencing (Luke 12:50). Lazarus’s resurrection would look and be experienced by Lazarus and everyone else as a gift of grace. But, oh, it was not free. Jesus was going to die a horrific death to purchase it.
He was looking to the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12:2). But the reality of what lay between was weighing heavily.
4. The Cause of His Own Death
A fourth possible reason for Jesus’ tears was that he knew that raising Lazarus would actually cause the religious leaders to finally take action to put him to death (John 11:45-53). In this account, most of us probably marvel at Jesus’s incredible trust that his Father would answer him. We have such little faith. If Jesus had any struggle that day, it would not have been whether his Father would answer, but what would result when his Father answered. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb would have taken a different kind of resolve for Jesus than we might have imagined. Giving Lazarus life was sealing Jesus’s own death.
Just these few reasons for Jesus’s weeping at Lazarus’s tomb give us a glimpse into how God views our suffering and death. He hates the calamity sin brings, and he himself has suffered more than we will ever know in order to pay the full cost of our eternal redemption.
“Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5). And when that morning comes, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev 22).
But for now, when things become unbearable, he takes us in his arms, buries our face in his chest, and weeps with us.
Thanks to John Piper [again] for wonderful insights 🙂