This month’s questions is: “Why did Jesus weep at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35)? Some say that His tears here teach us not only His humanity, but also that there was a human desire in Jesus for something that was contrary or different to the Father’s will of decree. His Father in heaven had eternally determined this event—and Jesus, being God, would have known this. But He wept. Could not this indicate that He nevertheless compassionately willed, wished or desired that these things be not so? That things would have been otherwise? The humanity or human heart of Christ desiring, willing or wishing something different to the divine determination? Even if it is small? If so, why could this not also imply that He could have elsewhere a different or contrary wish regarding the destiny of the non-elect? A desire or wish that they would be saved?”
Before I answer this question, let me thank all the readers who continue to submit their questions. I am amazed at the number of questions, at their variety and at their quality. I have not had a question that was not worth answering, though I have not yet gotten to all of them.
“Jesus wept.” This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but one of the most profound and heart-breaking. That my Saviour wept at the tomb of Lazarus makes me weep for my sins and for all that He endured on my behalf, unworthy sinner that I am, for death has come into the world as the punishment of sin.
The question is, Why did He weep? Was He weeping for a friend? Weeping over death as the punishment of sin? Was He wishing that Lazarus had not died, though He knew it to be the will of God? Was He weeping for all those who die in unbelief, wishing they could be saved?
There are important theological arguments against the view of Jesus’ weeping presented by our questioner. If His weeping reveals a will or desire contrary to the will of God regarding the death of Lazarus or the destiny of the non-elect, then Christ’s will is not in harmony with the will of God. If He did not mean what He said, “I come to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:9), then we can never be sure that what He did do was all the necessary will of God for our salvation.
If weeping Jesus desires the salvation of all and somehow that is also God’s desire, then the God of election is not in harmony with Himself, is not one in His will and desires. Then, in relation to God’s love, we are like a little girl pulling the petals off a daisy and saying, “He loves me … He loves me not.”
Some say that this desire of Jesus is only His humanity showing through. If as God He willed the death of Lazarus, as well as the damnation of the non-elect, while as man He willed otherwise, then the two natures of Christ are not in harmony with each other. Then He is not God come in the flesh, God and man in one divine Person. Then we have two Christs, the old error of Nestorianism. As one Person in two natures, He cannot want one thing as man and something else as God.
Thus the view presented by our questioner either compromises the doctrine of election (one will of God in election and another in God’s revelation of Himself in Christ) or it compromises the doctrine of God’s simplicity, that He is one in all His works and ways, always in perfect harmony with Himself, or it compromises the doctrine of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, that He is God and man united in one Person. These are the devastating theological consequences of that erroneous view.
Those who see in Jesus’ weeping a compassion for all men, perhaps especially for those who are unsaved, claim to magnify His mercy and pity, but they end up doing the opposite. If Christ’s weeping was for those who go lost, then His pity and mercy are no different from, and no more useful than, my own. I need a Saviour whose pity saves, whose mercy lifts me out of my misery, whose compassion delivers, whose tears were shed for my redemption. A saviour whose pity and compassion are helpless is of no more use to me than any other person who sympathizes with me. How shallow and unsatisfactory, then, to see in Jesus’ weeping an unfulfilled desire for the salvation of those whom the Father had not given Him or a helpless pity for the lost.
I need a Saviour who, in perfect harmony with the will of God, not only knows the hour of my death but brings it about in His sovereign government of all things, a Saviour who is ready to come for me in order to receive me to Himself at death (John 14:3). I need a Saviour who is waiting till precisely the divinely appointed moment of my death, just as I am waiting for Him.
There is, however, another side to Jesus’ weeping. His weeping is not just an emotional response to suffering and death, like our weeping at the graveside of a family member. It is not only sorrow over the breaking of earthly bonds and relationships. It is that but not only that. Lazarus was Jesus’ friend, and the thought of Lazarus rotting and stinking in his tomb must have moved Him deeply. Christ knew that He would raise Lazarus, just as we know a departed believer is in heavenly glory waiting the final resurrection, but that does not make death any less horrible.
Also He must have wept at the knowledge that death was the consequence of sin. Who would have realized that more than the Son of God? We are so inured to sin and its horrors that we seldom think of sin at the graveside, but Jesus, the holy Son of God, would have seen that in a way that we can not.
Certainly Christ also wept because the death of Lazarus reminded Him of His own impending death at Calvary. Just as He groaned and sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane, with knowledge of what His own death would be under the just wrath of God against sin, so He must have wept at the tomb of Lazarus.
Nevertheless, the most important things about Jesus’ tears at the tomb of Lazarus is that they are part of His atoning suffering, every tear more precious than diamonds. Hebrews 5:7-9 tells us this, “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.”
Weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, Christ was learning obedience in suffering, the obedience that would bring Him to the horrors of His own death on the cross. That same obedience would bring Him through death to the perfection promised. Thus He brought salvation. His tears, therefore, are described as “strong” or powerful. They accomplished what no other tears would do. “Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow, All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone.”
Instead of the theological speculation and wishful thinking involved in this month’s question, all should understand that, as Christians, we must think biblically (Isa. 8:20). John 11 states three times that Jesus loved Lazarus (3, 5, 36), as both his two sisters (3) and the Jews recognized (36). Out of His love for Lazarus, Christ prayed for him (11:41-42; 17:9) and died for his sins (and those of all His elect) just a few days later (John 13:1; Rom. 5:8; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2, 25).
John 11 states that Lazarus was Jesus’ “friend” (11). On the night of His arrest, our Lord averred, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” before adding, “Ye are my friends” (John 15:13-14), a term of endearment which includes not only the eleven disciples but also Lazarus, as well as all God’s true children.
In the chapter before the account of Christ’s weeping at the tomb of His beloved friend Lazarus—a sheep if ever there was one!—Jesus declared, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15). Later He added, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one” (27-30). These words are true not only regarding Christ’s beloved friend Lazarus but also for all who trust in Him alone as the mighty Redeemer.
A saviour who wept helplessly at the tomb of Lazarus is not the Saviour I need. I need One whose tears are strong to save and of atoning value, for nothing else can pay for my sins. Unable even to weep for my sins apart from His saving grace, I find in my Saviour’s tears the power to weep for my sins, the hope of eternal joy and the reason why all my tears will be wiped away in the future. Rev. Ron Hanko