If I’m being completely honest, there are a lot of things in the Bible that I don’t understand.
I’m not necessarily talking about things that I can’t articulate, explain Biblically, or work through systematically. For example, I could define to you the Trinity – One God existing in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But I can’t fully wrap my mind around it.
One of those things I long struggled to understand comes from the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35.
The simple statement is in the middle of the story of Lazarus in John 11. Lazarus’s sisters come to Jesus because Lazarus is sick. Jesus waits around a couple days, then goes to Bethany, where Lazarus has already died and been in the tomb for four days. Then, Jesus goes to the entrance of the tomb and commands Lazarus to come out, alive, spawning the most egregious overuse of a thinly-veiled codename in all science fiction. But I digress.
Here’s what is confusing to me about John 11:35. Why does Jesus cry? Why does the Lord of the universe, who John describes just ten chapters prior as being the One through whom all things are created and by whom all life is sustained, shed tears over the death of His friend?
Why does Jesus, who will moments later raise Lazarus from the dead, weep because Lazarus has been laid in the tomb?
Furthermore, why would Jesus cry over Lazarus’s being laid in the tomb, knowing that in a short time, He will be put to death on a cross, buried, and raised to life, putting death itself to death so that Lazarus will spend eternity with Him in glory?
The passage always confused me because I thought the story was about Lazarus. But the story isn’t about Lazarus. The story is about Jesus.
Jesus isn’t weeping for Lazarus. Jesus weeps because Lazarus, Martha, Mary, you, and I were never meant for death.
Jesus weeps because the pain of separation Martha and Mary feel – the pain that is causing such deep grief and such deep mourning – is a pain that we were never meant to endure.
Jesus weeps because all men have sinned, are separated from God, and are condemned to die just as Lazarus has died.
When the people saw Jesus weeping, some asked, “Couldn’t he who healed the blind man also have kept Lazarus from dying?” They didn’t understand the story of which they were a part. Jesus had already told the disciples, “For your sake, I am glad that I wasn’t there, so that you may believe.” We see this come to fruition in verses 44 and 45 when many of the people who had come to mourn with Mary and Martha see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
A year and a half ago, Ronnie Smith, a former pastor at The Austin Stone, moved to Libya with his wife and son to teach chemistry at a local school. He loved Libya and the Libyan people deeply, and his greatest desire was to see the people of Libya know peace and prosperity and the joy of knowing God through Jesus Christ.
On December 5, Ronnie was shot and killed in the streets close to his home.
That morning, the staff at The Stone gathered together, and we prayed for Ronnie’s family, for Ronnie’s students, for Ronnie’s killers, for the people of Libya.
And we wept. We wept over the pain of separation, over having a friend who was no longer with us. We wept for Anita and Hosea who had a husband and father taken away. We wept for Ronnie’s students who loved him deeply.
But we did not weep for Ronnie, because Ronnie’s story was Jesus.
We did not weep for Ronnie because he was standing before the throne of God!
I don’t know God’s ultimate sovereign plan in Ronnie’s death. I really don’t. But I stood in a room with a hundred people who loved that man deeply, all crying out prayers to God “Save the men that murdered Ronnie! Reveal yourself to the men that killed our brother! Exalt your name in Benghazi through the death of our friend!”
That is the honest prayer of my church. And our God hears. He is making Himself known throughout Libya and America through Ronnie’s death and through Ronnie’s wife Anita as she proclaims Jesus name in English and in Arabic because her story is Jesus, too.
The final thing we did in that staff meeting the morning of Ronnie’s death was worship. We sang songs of praise to Jesus, who conquered death on the cross. We could worship in honesty and with hope because of what Jesus says of Himself to Martha in John 11:25: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
I don’t want to make The Austin Stone out to be some sort of super hero church like we have it all together and are spiritual giants because we consistently make mistake and are consistently in need of God’s grace. But I have been so deeply blessed by the witness of this church through its response to Ronnie’s death. My pastors mourned deeply. They didn’t pretend to have the answers. They were honest in tears and cracked voices.
But the story of our church is Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and His coming return. So even now, while we mourn, we can worship and look forward, expectantly, to the day when Jesus will set all things right.