December 12, 2017

Christ at the Tomb of Lazarus

Gary Reimers

“When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, And said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept” (John 11:33–35).

In this passage John presents the response of Jesus Christ to the anguish of human sorrow. His friend Lazarus had died. Christ arrived in Bethany four days later while the mourning of family and friends was still going on. After an extended conversation with Martha along the roadside about resurrection, Christ awaited the arrival of Mary. Although Mary’s initial words to Him (v. 32) are virtually identical to Martha’s first statement (v. 21), Christ’s response was quite different. As verse 33 indicates, the sight of Mary weeping with uncontrollable grief (along with the weeping of the Jews who followed her) provoked a highly unusual and somewhat surprising emotional reaction from Christ.

John portrays that reaction with three verbs: Christ “groaned,” “was troubled,” and “wept.” The last is both the most familiar and the least troublesome. It is understandable that Christ would weep in sympathy when others weep. Indeed, He wept on at least one other occasion (Luke 19:41–44). The other two verbs, however, go beyond mere sympathy and seem to attribute to Christ elements of weakness, distress, and even helplessness. Is it possible that the Son of God was so moved by the profound expression of grief that He was overcome with emotion and joined in the loud, bitter wailing of public mourning? Did He fall victim to the confusion and sorrow of the moment, momentarily losing control of His emotions and giving way to despair Himself? Surely such suggestions are incompatible with what we know about our Savior, but how can we reconcile these puzzling descriptions with Christ’s usual calm control in every circumstance?

The key to understanding this problem is a closer look at the words themselves. The first verb (“groaned”) translates a form of the Greek word embrimaomai, a strong term that elsewhere consistently conveys anger, indignation, or outrage. In some extrabiblical literature it is even used for the snorting of a horse about to charge into battle. In John 11, however, there does not seem to be any audible sound associated with Christ’s anger. The phrase “in the spirit” (dative of sphere) indicates that something happened internally (that is, within Himself). Rather than experiencing anything like weakness or fear, Christ became enraged (ingressive aorist). But what prompted this sudden wrath? Certainly He was not angry with Mary and her friends. Their faith was lacking, but indignation toward bereaved mourners in their time of grief is unthinkable. A more likely object of Christ’s rage is the cause of their deep sorrow: sin, death, and ultimately Satan himself, who was “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Christ was filled with anger that these terrible enemies had brought such pain and loss to those He loved.

This leads us to the next verb in verse 33: Christ “was troubled” (literally, He troubled or agitated Himself). This is not something that happened to Christ, but something He did as a result of His rage (the Greek verb is active, not passive). Rather than indicating an additional emotional experience, this word describes a firm resolve to do something. Having seen firsthand the devastation caused by sin, Christ stirred Himself to action. The enemy has had his way long enough. Christ uttered His next words (“Where have ye laid him?”) with a voice not weakened by despair but strengthened with a fierce determination to engage the enemy in battle.

This brings us to the third verb, which reveals that while He marched toward the battleground, “Jesus wept.” Here again the vocabulary word is significant. Mary and the other mourners are also said to weep, but they were wailing with loud sobs over an extended period of time (present tense of klaio). John uses a different word to portray Christ’s weeping (dakruo), which simply means to shed tears. Christ did not stop along the road to participate in their mourning with sobs and bitter cries. For Him, mourning would have been entirely inappropriate, especially since He already knew Lazarus’ death would be temporary. Instead, filled with rage as He marched toward the tomb, tears trickled down His cheeks. The Jews were correct to conclude that the tears pointed to His love for Lazarus (and his family). John, however, tells us that as Christ approached the tomb He was once again “groaning in himself.” That is, the same wrath that earlier had moved Christ to action was still the driving force leading Him to battle and on to victory.

Rather than portraying weakness and distress, John presents Christ as confident, powerful, and in full control of both His emotions and the situation. B. B. Warfield provides an excellent summary (The Person and Work of Christ, p. 117):

Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage: and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin’s words again, “as a champion who prepares for conflict.” The raising of Lazarus thus becomes, not an isolated marvel, but . . . a decisive instance and open symbol of Jesus’ conquest of death and hell. What John does for us in this particular statement is to uncover to us the heart of Jesus, as he wins for us our salvation. Not in cold unconcern, but in flaming wrath against the foe, Jesus smites in our behalf.

Dr. Gary Reimers teaches expository preaching, theology, and Greek at Bob Jones University Seminary and pastors Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • July/August 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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