Jesus and Grief – John 11

  1. Why did Jesus wait four days before visiting Lazarus?

When a loved one or a friend is on their deathbed, the usual response is to go immediately to them and be with them in their final hours. When Jesus received word that his dear friend Lazarus was sick (11:3), he delayed going to visit him.  By this time in his ministry, Jesus must have healed hundreds (thousands?) of people.  Intuitively, most would think that he would go right away, but he didn’t.  Jesus even told his disciples that Lazarus was going to die and not fall asleep (11:13). Taking two days to stay and minister where he was (11:6), Jesus then made the long trip on foot to Bethany.  He delayed while Lazarus’ body stayed in the tomb for four days (11:17).  Why four days?

The reason for four days lies in the rabbinic tradition of death.  In Jesus’ time the rabbinic tradition was that when a body died, the spirit hovered around the body for three days before it departed.[1]  On the fourth day, because the corpse was disfigured from decay, the soul left.[2]  In the eyes of all who witnessed the death of Lazarus, those first three days he wasn’t “all dead, just mostly dead.”[3]

For this miracle, and for Jesus to fully demonstrate his power over death itself, there needed to be no question in anyone’s mind that Lazarus was dead.  Even Martha responded that the body was now decaying would have a foul stench (11:39).  But Jesus’ message through this particular miracle was bigger than previous healings and resurrections.  In a foreshadowing of his own resurrection, Jesus stated that the resurrection was not a future event, but present within himself (11:24-25). As the once fully dead Lazarus walked out of the tomb fully alive (11:43), the disciples and those at the event witnessed Jesus’ power over death that would be entirely realized in his own resurrection.

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  1. Why did Jesus weep at the gravesite?

In this story, there is an emotionally charged moment when Mary comes to Jesus, in all of her grief, and states “’Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!’” (11:32). Jesus then asks where they have laid Lazarus (11:34a) and they led him to the tomb (11:34b).  It was there that Jesus wept (11:35).  The question is, why would Jesus have such sorrow?  He knew that he was going to perform a great miracle (11:14, 23), so it could not be the same human grief that is felt when a loved one dies.  Noted in the text is a contrast with the weeping of the mourners and the weeping of Jesus.  For Mary and the mourners, John uses the words κλαιουσαν and κλαιουτασ  which is loud and sorrowful weeping and wailing.[4]  However, the word that is used for Jesus’ emotion is δακρυω which is a more personal shedding of tears.[5]  John even indicates that “…he was deeply moved in his spirit and troubled.” (11:33). The emotional grief of those people caused a deep well of emotion in Jesus as he understood the pain of separation caused by death.  Jesus understood sin.  Jesus forgave sin.  But the penalty of sin is not only spiritual death but physical death. (Rom. 6:23; Gen. 3:3).  Death is a separation that causes pain for those left behind, and Jesus became acutely aware of that pain and mourning.

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Application

            January 14, 2014, my father passed into eternity.  I was asked to speak at his memorial service, and the pastor challenged me to write down what I was going to say.  He told me that the words I present should be remembered. So I went to a coffee shop with my computer, and in my grief, started typing.  I prayed that God would use this time for me to display the love of Jesus to those hearing the words, as most of my family were not Christ followers.  God brought to mind John 11.  Stopping my writing to read that chapter, I realized that grief and suffering is something our God personally understands.  Jesus wept because he understood the pain of the separation of death.  God is not a distant, determinist force.  God is personal and emotional.

lazarus

       When we are in grief, we have a God who will comfort us.  Mary and Martha approached Jesus with their tears and their sorrow.  Jesus was about to do a profound miracle, but he paused to recognize their grief and empathetically comfort them.  As I gave my talk at his service, I recounted how my father was an alcoholic most of his life.  However, God got a hold of him when he was 63 years old.  He entered sobriety and a relationship with God through Jesus.  I was able to tie in our mourning for him with the hope of the resurrection.  As Lazarus was a type for Jesus’ resurrection, we also have hope that death is not the end.   Jesus empathizes with our grief and then provides profound hope that there will be a day when sorrow will be a distant memory.

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed. Vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006-©2012), 317.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “He’s Only Mostly Dead- Princess Bride” (video). August 4, 2009. Accessed November 6, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbE8E1ez97M.

[4] The Zondervan Greek and English Interlinear New Testament (Nasb-Niv) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2008), 1079.

[5] Ibid, 1037.

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