Death, Thou Shalt Die


Why did Jesus weep?

Actually, the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus recount different times when Jesus was moved to tears. For example, he was moved to tears over the hardness of the heart of the people of Jerusalem, despite his ministry to them (Luke 19:41). Jesus also wept at the garden of Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7-9). However, for most people, when they hear about Jesus weeping, their minds immediately go to the shortest verse in the English Bible: Jesus wept (John 11:35). Why did Jesus weep in this famous verse?

As usual, in explaining biblical narratives, the context is key. Lazarus, a friend to Jesus, had just died. What made the situation worse, in the eyes of his sisters Mary and Martha, was that they had sent word to Jesus while Lazarus was still ill before his death, but Jesus hadn’t come in time to save him. This is why both sisters repeated the same phrase when they met with Jesus: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (Verses 21 and 32).

It is hard to overstate the emotionally charged atmosphere of the passage. On the side of the sisters, they were clearly devastated both by the sense of their brother’s death and also by what they must have felt was the avoidable nature of the death. They had seen Jesus healing people with worse illnesses than Lazarus had. If only Jesus had come earlier, they must have been thinking.

Also, on the part of Jesus, his emotions were clearly heightened. Verse 33 reads: when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. The Greek word enebrimēsato translated as deeply moved, though, suggests something more intense. For example, in the Greek play Seven Against Thebes written by Aeschylus in 467 B.C., the same word enebrimēsato is used to describe an enraged warhorse about to charge into battle. Indeed, in Luther’s translation of the New Testament, he translated enebrimēsato into German as ergrimmte which means to become angry or furious.

This means that apart from crying, there was something about the situation that deeply upset Jesus and made him furious. Why did Jesus, who as the perfect man would never overreact, end up getting so angry and upset at the tomb of Lazarus that he broke down into tears?

A common reason I have heard for why Jesus wept was that he was trying to be empathetic and sympathize with his friends who were going through a difficult time. However, this explanation doesn’t make sense of the context because Jesus knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. It is like me seeing my crying son who has managed to trap his hand in a door, sit down and cry with him to empathize. Wouldn’t I simply release his arm by opening the door and then rejoice with him?

Another possibility is that Jesus was angry and crying because the sisters’ emotional outburst was forcing him to do something that he didn’t want to do. Hence his emotions were conflicted, and he became confused. We must reject this reason out of hand because not only does it paint an unflattering image of Jesus as someone who can be easily manipulated, but it also doesn’t fit with the evidence of the passage because in verse 11 Jesus already said I go to awaken him. The resurrection of Lazarus was part of his plan from the beginning.

So why did Jesus weep? Why was he upset? The answer is that Jesus was angry at the death of Lazarus and death in general. Jesus was angry at the state of the world, which Satan and sin had corrupted and made a mockery of. Jesus was sad at the grief and the pain that death is causing in the world.

You see it is like when you sit with your parents to discuss the state of Nigeria and they start describing the original vision of the founding fathers and the beauty of the country and institutions in the early years of independence. Often, they become moved and end up almost in tears. For you and I, such reactions are incomprehensible, for the Nigeria we know has always been broken and rundown. We, humans, are different from Jesus, for he was the one who created the world, and he knew how beautiful he made it before the fall of Adam and Eve, before death and sin crept in and corrupted everything.

Jesus was also sad at the unbelief of the people around him. Despite all the miracles and healings they had seen him perform, they still didn’t realize who was standing before them. They still refused to see that he was the resurrection and the life (verse 25) and that ultimately the hope of real life, that is eternal life, was found in him alone.

The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: What is your only comfort in life and death? The answer it gives says: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ… he also assures me of eternal life. It is a beautiful oft-quoted statement that explains that ultimately our hope and comfort for eternal life can be found in Christ alone.

This essay came about because I have been thinking on death recently following the unexpected passing of a beloved brother in our local church. A line from the burial liturgy in Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer particularly struck me with force: In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What made Cranmer (and us) sure of the resurrection? The answer is our Saviour Jesus is the resurrection and the life. 

Let us return to the tomb side in Bethany. Lazarus was decomposing in the tomb; he was four days dead. The possibility he could ever come back to life was zero. Yet at the sound of one man’s voice, his corpse obeyed and came forth from the tomb. Indeed, Lazarus’s soul was clearly not in that tomb, yet wherever it was, it instantly obeyed and came forth. Augustine once remarked that if Jesus hadn’t specifically named who exactly he was calling, indeed all the dead in the world could have come forth.

What kind of man could command death and make death unclench its cold claws off Lazarus? Only the creator of the world. The raising of Lazarus offers Christians a glimpse into the future where at his return, Christ will raise from the dead all who have slept in hope of his coming.

Until then, we patiently wait. The words of the English poet John Donne summaries our longing hope wonderfully:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

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Wole Akande

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