Expressions of Grief
Today it is considered good form to weep discretely, dab tears and turn away, to be quiet and subdued. We go into a mortuary, and our voices go down to a whisper as we talk quietly. We might well consider it good taste to let the bereaved family member go to the tomb in peace and privacy. But in many cultures in the world, including the Jewish culture in the first century, that was simply not the way it was. They expressed grief with loud cries and wails, often communally. You can still see something similar in various immigrant groups today: witness many Greek Orthodox and Muslim funerals, for instance. In the first century, not only did the mourners themselves wail, but they hired professional mourners to keep the noise and tears flowing. In fact, it was customary for even the poorest family to hire a minimum of two flute players and a professional wailing woman (Mishnah Ketubbot 4:4). The flute players would play dirges in minor keys to increase the solemnity and sadness of the occasion, and the professional wailing woman would increase the volume level every time it lowered.
Lazarus’s family was not a poor one. This was a posh family with lots of money. Who knows how many musicians they hired? Certainly there was a lot of noise. John tells us that when they see Mary slipping away, they think that she is going off to the tomb, and they think, “We’ll follow along to provide her with the appropriate support.”
So a great number of people from Jerusalem are there following Mary, along with the intimates from the village of Bethany. But Mary does not go to the tomb. She heads up the road to find Jesus and approaches him with exactly the same words that Martha used: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). But this time round the conversation takes a very different turn. Who knows where it might have gone if the crowd had not been there? Perhaps Jesus’ conversation with Mary would have followed a line very similar to what ensued with Martha.
But “when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping”—this is noisy now; not quietly-dab-your-tears but first-class noise—“he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” There is no way that the original text should be rendered that way. I hate to mention two translation mistakes in one passage, but this is just a plain flat-out mistake in translation. It means “he was outraged” (not “deeply moved”). That is what this verb always means whenever it is applied to human beings. Interestingly, all the German translations I’ve checked have it right; all the English ones I’ve checked have it wrong. (That fact, I suppose, shows how often there is a controlling tradition even in our Bible translation.)
“‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept” (John 11:34–35). Probably the fact that Jesus wept is what has constrained some people to render the earlier verb “he was deeply moved.” but that is simply not what it means. Jesus was outraged? But why? And why did he weep? Why these responses? They seem so surprising. It surely was not because he was powerless and frustrated. He was only minutes from one of his most spectacular miracles. Nor is it that he feels forced into doing a miracle (although some commentators have suggested this slightly bizarre notion). This was the very reason he came down south to Bethany. Nor is it simply that he misses his friend Lazarus, as if Jesus’ tears at the loss of Lazarus are essentially analogous to our tears at the loss of a loved one.
It is impudent to try to put yourself in Jesus’ place, but so far as you can, do so in this instance. If you are crying because your friend has died when you know full well that you are going to raise him from the dead in about two minutes, how genuine would the tears be?
Remember the Context
It is important to keep reminding ourselves of the context. Jesus sees all these people weeping, crying, and wailing in the face of implacable death, and he is outraged. He is profoundly troubled, so emotionally worked up over it that he weeps. There is a compassion in these tears, but there is also outrage. Jesus is outraged not because he has lost a friend but because of death itself. Death is such an ugly enemy. It generates endless and incalculable anguish. And for anyone steeped in the entire biblical heritage, death itself is a mark of sin.
How is death introduced to the race? Death itself is nothing other than God’s insistence that human hubris will go so far and no farther. It is God’s judicial response to our warped rebellion. Whether death afflicts us at five or ten or thirty or fifty or seventy or eighty years, it comes, and it is implacable. We are sinners, and we will die. Every time there is death, it still hurts. It is still painful. It is still ugly. And it is still the result of sin. This was not the way God made the creation in the first place. Jesus is outraged by the whole thing. He is outraged by the death that has called forth this loss, by the sin that lies behind that, and by the unbelief that characterizes everyone’s response to it. There is outrage, and there is grief.
Our Stance toward Death
Christians must adopt something of this same stance toward death. There is a school of thought in Christian circles that almost views death so much as a blessing that you are not allowed to cry. Inevitably you meet some well-meaning types who will come up to you when you have just lost a spouse or a parent or a child, put their arms around you, and say, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” This can come from a mature believer who has surrounded you with support and understanding, and his quotation from the Bible sounds like a word from the Lord. But it can also come from someone who has never experienced the debilitation of terrible grief, and then the same quotation can sound like empty words or even spiritual one-upmanship. And you basically want to kick him. Then you feel guilty for wanting to kick him because you have let down the side. So why do you feel so angry?
Thank God for a Savior who could claim, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
The Bible is more brutally realistic. It dares to recognize death as the last enemy. Death is an enemy, and it can be a fierce one. Death is not normal when you look at it from the vantage point of what God created in the first place. It is normal this side of the fall, but that is not saying much. It is an enemy. It is ugly. It destroys relationships. It is to be feared. It is repulsive. There is something odious about death. Never ever pretend otherwise. But death does not have the last word. It is the last enemy, but more to be feared yet is the second death. Thank God for a Savior who could claim, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Thus when we come to grips with these things, there needs to be both outrage and pain on the one hand and trust and quiet confidence on the other. The appropriate mingling of these things together is part of a genuinely Christian response to the ugliness, shock, terror, and loss of death. We begin to understand, and we sorrow, but not as those who have no hope.
When Jesus looks at the crowd of mourners, there is both outrage and tears. Tears without outrage quickly degenerate into mere sentimentality. Outrage without tears hardens into arrogance and bad-temper irascibility and unbelief. But Jesus displays both. He begins to display his divine sovereignty over death—by tears and outrage.
“Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” (John 11:36–37). The Jews were right and wrong in both of their responses.
Yes, Jesus loved Lazarus. He loved him so much that he returned to Judea where the political climate was so much more dangerous than in the north. It was a fateful decision that would take him to the cross. But the crowds were nevertheless wrong in this assessment because they drew their conclusion from Jesus’ tears, without (as we have seen) really understanding those tears.
Yes, Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying. But then again, he could not have done so if he was going to do the Father’s will and bring about this miracle that would more greatly display the Father’s glory in the glorification of Jesus.
Superficial reactions. No real understanding.
“Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance” (John 11:38). “Deeply moved” is that same verb again that should be translated “outraged”: as Jesus comes to the tomb, once more he is frankly outraged.
“‘Take away the stone,’ he said” (John 11:39a).
“But, Lord,” Martha protests, “‘by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you will see the glory of God?’” (John 11:39b–40).
“So they took away the stone” (John 11:41a). Now Jesus prays, but John reminds his readers that this prayer of Jesus is a public prayer—and so Jesus wants people to learn something from it. Prayers in public have not only God as the ultimate hearer but also other people, people who are listening in. Though still a prayer to God, the prayer has a pedagogical function. So Jesus crafts his prayer along those lines:
“Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:41b–44)
Some wag has said that if Jesus had not stipulated “Lazarus,” all the graves in Jerusalem would have opened. At one level that is fanciful. At another level it is exactly right because on the last day, Jesus is the one who will say, “Come forth!” And they really will come forth. My father will come forth. Adolf Hitler will come forth. The friend I lost when I was twelve will come forth. Some will come forth to the resurrection of life and some to the resurrection of death (John 5:21–29). The one who cried, “Lazarus, come out!” will cry again, and the graves will open.
Christ’s Sovereignty over Death
The focus of the narrative thus rightly remains on Jesus Christ, not on Lazarus. The writer does not tell us a single thing about what Lazarus experienced during those four days. Nor does he inform us how Lazarus died (again!). For Lazarus was raised from the dead in the mortal, bodily form he had before this experience—quite unlike the resurrection of Jesus. Like Lazarus, Jesus, too, was raised from the dead, and his tomb was as empty as that of Lazarus—but Jesus was raised (as we shall see in the next chapter) with an utterly transformed body that could never taste death again, a resurrection body peculiarly suited to the glories of the new heaven and the new earth still to come, a resurrection body that anticipates what all of Christ’s redeemed people will one day enjoy. What Lazarus knew is simply not told. The silence is stunning, a silence nowhere more powerfully summarized than in four lines by the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson:
Behold a man raised up by Christ:
The rest remaineth unrevealed;
He told it not; or something seal’d
The lips of the Evangelist.
But what John does tell is of incalculably greater importance. Christ displays his sovereignty over death, daring to reverse it. Yet this is no mere display of irresistible power. It is more than that. It is the display of Jesus’ sovereignty over death within the context of tears and outrage. This sovereign Lord, so utterly powerful, so amazingly surprising, is personally engaged in the redemption of his broken, rebellious, image bearers.
This article is adapted from Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus by D. A. Carson.
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