When Sunday school students are assigned to memorize Bible verses, John 11:35 is especially popular because in many translations it is the Bible’s shortest verse: “Jesus wept.” Generally it’s chosen more for novelty than theological significance, but pound-for-pound it may be the most profound statement about God’s love for us in all of scripture.
Why did Jesus weep? We must understand the context of the verse to know. Jesus was returning to Bethany because his dear friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, had died. Jesus was greatly disturbed when Mary said if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. As she showed him to the tomb, others made similar comments that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’s death. At this point Jesus became greatly disturbed again and wept.
We might think Jesus was grieving over his friend, but he had known for days that Lazarus was dead – and would be rising again. We might think he was weeping in sympathy for Mary, Martha and others. This particular interpretation may be comforting, but the original Greek phrasing suggests something else. When we read Jesus was “greatly disturbed in Spirit and deeply moved” (v 33), we need to understand the original Greek points not to sadness, but to indignation or chagrin. Jesus was upset that even those closest to him still understand neither who he was, nor the life God offered through him.
The weeping of an angry Jesus may at first seem disappointing or even unsettling. On reflection, what seemed like a humanizing, relatable moment may begin to feel like condemnation. Upon further consideration though, how can we not be touched by the idea that God deeply desires a relationship with us on a level that is so primal our inability to conceive of it frustrates Christ to tears? At one time or another all of us have been frustrated, also sometimes to tears, by a loved one who just seems lost. We want them to be whole and well. Christ loves us so much that he doesn’t just want to cry with us, but to help us understand how God’s love can lift us from this vale of tears to a place of peace.