Great Texts of the Bible
The Tears of Jesus
Jesus wept.—John 11:35.
In this text, containing only the two words “Jesus wept,” we have not before us the whole character of Jesus Christ; we have but one aspect of His many-sidedness, but one point in His very complex character. Yet the text is worth separate and careful study, for it is only by studying the seemingly small points that we shall in time arrive at any just appreciation of the wonder of Christ.
The subject divides itself into three branches—
I. The Causes of Christ’s tears.
II. Their Nature.
III. Their Lesson to us.
The Causes of Christ’s Tears
1. Christ’s humanity.—It is difficult to realize the fact of our Lord’s true humanity. It fades away from our view in the splendour of His divinity, so close was the union of man with God. But it was nevertheless a distinct manhood, as perfect in itself as that worn by any of our race. The entire record of Christ’s life proves the assertion. He was born as the children are born—a partaker of their “flesh and blood”; and He was nursed as the children are nursed—growing “in wisdom and stature.” He was hungry, and He ate; He was thirsty, and He drank; He was weary, and He lay down: He was fatigued, and He slept; He was smitten, and He died. Still it is no easy task to picture to ourselves the merely human sensations and tendencies which characterized the man Jesus. We believe that His human nature, sin excepted, was as ours; but it is scarcely possible for us to feel it and imagine it, from the overshadowing glory of His higher essence. In consequence of this failure, we are apt to miss no little instruction and comfort as we read the incidents and travel over the scenes of His life. We invest the man with attributes belonging to the God, and unconsciously deify His humanity.
But the Evangelist, from the first, lays down the principle: The word was made flesh. “It is not with a heart of stone that the dead are raised,” says Hengstenberg; and Hebrews 2:17 teaches us that he who would help the unhappy must first of all surrender his heart to feel that very suffering from which he desires to deliver them. It is a remarkable thing that the very Gospel in which the Deity of Jesus is most clearly asserted is also that which makes us best acquainted with the profoundly human side of His life.
At first sight, it seems a profane absurdity to talk of God being ignorant, or in sorrow; in pain, or in sickness. Yet we are told that there was no human emotion, in itself sinless, which Jesus could not feel. Hunger, thirst, weariness; the daily discomforts of life, as well as the anguish of the passion and the cross, were as real to Him as to any one of us. Thus there were, no doubt, moments when the manhood asserted itself so strongly as for a little while to dominate, if the word be permissible, over the Godhead. We may find a parallel, though but faint and imperfect, in our own experiences. It occasionally happens that though we are intensely interested in some piece of work, we are compelled to lay it aside, because we are exhausted by hunger. Our intellectual, our real self, chafes and frets at desisting from the fascinating task, but the exhausted body refuses to continue; the brain itself even shows signs of flagging.1 [Note: Canon Bonney.]
2. Christ’s pity.—Why did the Son of God become Son of man? Among other reasons, that He might be in perfect sympathy with us; that, as Bone of our bone, and Flesh of our flesh, He might be able to feel, not merely for us but with us, in all our difficulties and sorrows and pains. Christ’s tears do not mean here what His tears meant when He wept over Jerusalem. He wept then as foreseeing what calamities their hardness of heart would bring upon the people whom He had sought to save; as thinking what might have been, had they known, in their day of grace, the things which belonged to their peace. There would be no such thought in His mind as He drew near to the grave of His faithful servant. What drew those silent tears from Jesus was His sympathy with the mourning sisters. His tears were the answer of His human heart to the appeal of their sorrow.
More helpful than all wisdom is one draught of simple human pity that will not forsake us.1 [Note: George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss.]
Jesus wept not merely from the deep thoughts of His understanding, but from spontaneous tenderness; from the gentleness and mercy, the encompassing loving-kindness and exuberant fostering affection of the Son of God for His own work, the race of man. Their tears touched Him at once, as their miseries had brought Him down from heaven. His ear was open to them, and the sound of weeping went at once to His heart.2 [Note: J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, iii. 133.]
3. Christ’s sorrow.—Christ’s sorrow was twofold.
(1) To begin with, may we not say that Jesus wept here for pity of the frailty of man, and the victory of death? Of course He does not stand alone in this feeling; all serious men share it with Him more or less, and the profoundest souls feel it deeply. The great literatures of the world are all shadowed by the sense of the shortness of man’s life on earth, and the most moving poetry in particular vibrates to this deep undertone. And naturally so; for the fact goes deep into human existence, and shapes and colours it all through. Even the most unthinking of us feels it in his own commonplace way.
(a) The tears of Jesus were then in part caused by the thought of all the humiliation and suffering which sin had brought into His once so happy world, as exemplified in the death of Lazarus, and the bereaved and desolate home. We know that sin did cause “The Holy One of God” deep pain, though we can never tell how deep; and we may be quite sure that what He saw of its effects here did touch, and wring, His loving heart.
(b) He saw visibly displayed the victory of death. Here was the Creator of the world at a scene of death, seeing the issue of His gracious handiwork. Would He not revert in thought to the hour of creation, when He went forth from the bosom of the Father to bring all things into existence? There had been a day when He had looked upon the work of His love, and seen that it was “very good.” Whence had the good been turned to evil, the fine gold become dim? “An enemy hath done this.”
Weep not for broad lands lost;
Weep not for fair hopes crost;
Weep not when limbs wax old;
Weep not when friends grow cold;
Weep not that Death must part
Thine and the best-loved heart;
Yet weep, weep all thou can—
Weep, weep, because thou art
A sin-defilèd Man 1:1 [Note: Trench, Poems, 145.]
(2) But there was still another thought to call forth Christ’s tears. This marvellous benefit to the forlorn sisters, how was it to be attained?—At His own cost. Joseph knew he could bring joy to his brethren, and at no sacrifice of his own. Christ was bringing life to the dead by His own death. His disciples would have dissuaded Him from going into Judæa, lest the Jews should kill Him. Their apprehension was fulfilled. He went to raise Lazarus, and the fame of that miracle was the immediate cause of His seizure and crucifixion. He felt that Lazarus was wakening to life at His own sacrifice; that He was descending into the grave which Lazarus left. He felt that Lazarus was to live and He to die; the appearance of things was to be reversed; the feast was to be kept in Martha’s house, but the last passover of sorrow remained for Him.
Is it impossible to think that Christ may have felt the shadow of His own great Passion reflected in some small degree in the scene before Him? “Jesus wept”; but are the tears any less real that they are shed perhaps to some extent for His own sorrow? He is rather by that very fact enabled to sympathize more truly with the griefs of others.
Pain is a mere word to the being that never felt pain. “Have you ever been laid up yourself, sir?” a young man on his death-bed asked another young man who visited him by way of comfort. It revealed a longing for exact appreciation of the situation, and an instinct that true sympathy could come only from actual knowledge.2 [Note: H. Black, Comfort, 108.]
The Nature of Christ’s Tears
1. Jesus wept calmly.—In Gethsemane, Christ’s own anguish, endured indeed for us, wrung the bitter drops from His eyes. On Olivet, He wept for foes resolved and doomed to perish. Near the grave of Lazarus, He wept in sympathy with loved friends. In approaching the sepulchre, He felt a tender sympathy for the grief which had possessed the heart of His friend at the moment of separation, and that which the two sisters were at that very moment feeling. The word (δακρύειν) to weep, does not (like κλαίειν) indicate sobs, but tears; it is the expression for a calm and gentle sorrow.
But His calmness was not attained without an effort. We read that He “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” and the words indicate a physical commotion, a bodily trembling which might be perceived by the witnesses of this scene. Such grief would have been excusable in view of all that the present scene meant to Jesus, but He mastered His most bitter grief. “Jesus wept,” but the tears have nothing in them of weak or unreasonable anguish; Jesus by the grave of a dead friend, amidst the sorrow of the world, in the shadow of His Passion, could still weep calmly.
Grief should be
Like joy, majestic, equable, sedate;
Confirming, cleansing, raising, making free;
Strong to consume small troubles; to commend
Great thoughts, grave thoughts, thoughts lasting to the end.1 [Note: Aubrey de Vere.]
2. Jesus wept reservedly.—In the sorrow of our Lord there was no ostentation. It was necessary that our Lord’s grief should be manifested for the comfort of the mourners, and for the trial of the hearts of the spectators; but beyond this He had no wish to exhibit His sorrow. The affectation and vain-glory which court applause for any quality whatever, were utter strangers to His meek and lowly mind.
St. Francis is said to have shed so many tears that they affected his power of vision. Of a certain St. Abraham it is recorded that no day passed after his conversion without his shedding tears. Bishop Andrewes’s Devotions were so blistered with tears that his editors could scarcely read them. Of an old Scotswoman, turned from a life of great sin, it is told that she actually “wept her eyes out.” From all such tears, of course, our Saviour was free.1 [Note: T. Marjoribanks, In the Likeness of Men, 41.]
3. Jesus wept unashamedly.—Jesus wept and was not ashamed of His human weakness. He could have repressed His tears—many men do so habitually. No doubt there may be great sorrow, very great sorrow, where there is no open expression of it. The Saviour could doubtless, if so He wished, have hidden His grief; but He did not choose to do so, for He was never unnatural. Jesus wept, as the mourners about Him wept. The sight of such sorrow overpowered Him, and He could not refrain. That was a true manhood which felt this touch of nature, and broke into tears. There was no stoicism in His constitution. There was no attempt to restrain His sympathies, and educate Himself into a hard and inhuman indifference. Neither was He ashamed of possessing our ordinary sensibilities. He felt it no weakness to weep in public with them that wept.
It is no part of heroism to affect insensibility to suffering. The strongest manhood has its roots in tender feeling. The ideal man’s emotional nature is as quick, powerful, urgent, undeniable as his intellect is lofty and his will unbending. The patriarchs are all represented as men of tender feeling. “Abraham came to weep.” “Jacob lifted up his voice, and wept.” “Joseph fell upon his father’s face, and wept.”2 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, i. 176.]
The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight.3 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.]
The Lesson of Christ’s Tears
1. They are a pledge.—Christ’s tears speak about the future, and show us what Jesus will always be. Everything done by Christ on earth was done for all time. The meaning of His actions was not confined to the persons and the places of the hour. They stand out as parables to teach the world. When Jesus wept with Martha and Mary, His tears promised that all His suffering followers to the end of time should have His pitying regard.
Job’s rebellion came from the thought that God, as a sovereign, is far off, and that, for His pleasure, His creature suffers. Our own theory comes to the mourner with the assurance, “Your suffering, just as it is in you, is God’s suffering. No chasm divides you from God. He is not remote from you even in His eternity. He is here. His eternity means merely the completeness of His experience. But that experience is inclusive. Your sorrow is one of the included facts.” I do not say, “God sympathizes with you from without, would spare you if He could, pities you with helpless external pity merely as a father pities his children.” I say, “God here sorrows, not with but in your sorrow. Your grief is identically His grief, and what you know as your loss, God knows as His loss just in and through the very moment when you grieve.”1 [Note: J. Royce.]
It is our great mistake, I think, to set Divine suffering in a bare fact of history come and gone, an episode of once and no more, and to preach our sharing of it only as an emotional transaction and an effort of the good will. It is this, but more, far more. I share all my pain with God, and He bears our griefs whether we see Him or are blind. Not over against me, holding back a hand which might help, but side by side, nay, “closer than breathing,” within the inmost hiding-place of my suffering self, He suffers too and bears all pain with me. Therefore, if I will, His strength may be my strength, His love may succour me; new life and light may arise within me to be and to remain my own, and to turn even suffering into joy.2 [Note: A Modern Mystic’s Way.]
2. They are an example.
(1) The following of Christ does not free us from suffering. It often leads to it. Not only are we liable to the ills which press upon humanity, but special chastenings are set apart for us. Believers have sufferings in common with others; but they have also trials adapted particularly to themselves. The object of Christianity is to train the soul; and it takes advantage of suffering to aid it in the process of tuition. It works in the sphere of experience.
Genuine grief will have genuine vent; it demands expression. It is right to grieve, and even deeply grieve, over the sorrows that befall us as we go through the world. It is an inhuman spirit that says, “I will not grieve,” whether the determination springs from a proud defiance of fate, or from an exaggerated view of the nothingness of the creature before the Creator, or from an impossible attempt to ignore the bitterness of the means He uses in the great worthiness of the ends He is bringing about. On the contrary, grief is natural and right for the human spirit. It is the confession of the subordination of our lives to the heavenly will, and, at the same time, of the existence in us of those strange capacities of pain and anguish, through which the perfecting of our nature is so largely brought about.
Christ, the model of manhood, the mirror of all that was noble and dignified, did not deny Himself the relief of tears; and shall men be looked upon as effeminate, as falling from the dignity of their sex, if, with emotions like Christ, they shed tears like Him? No. He who would aspire to a transcendental apathy that man was not made for, and which Jesus despised, he who would do such violence to his nature insults his Creator, and would foolishly set himself above the example of his Redeemer. Instead of raising himself above humanity, he sinks beneath its level. The brow that never wore a smile, is not more unnatural than the eye that never glistened with a tear.1 [Note: J. Eadie, The Divine Love, 294.]
(2) Once more the tears of Jesus bid us sympathize with all sad hearts, and seek to comfort them. For here, as always, He is an example to the sons of God. Our sympathy is, indeed, a weak thing, compared with the sympathy of Jesus; yet it can do something to help others. We are made for one another. We have a common root. Life is the whole of life. There is a circulation of the blood of the race as well as of the body. We have no exclusive rights to our sorrows, nor has any trouble exclusive rights over us. That which Christ did He bids us do. He bids us follow Him in His sympathy. He bids us have sympathy with man; not in the way of condescension; not as angels stooping to condole; not as the pure mourning over the impure, but as men touching to heal; as men not loving the sin yet loving the sinner; not as breathing by choice infected air, but as infected men nursing, cherishing, giving ourselves for the infected.
The practical weakness of the vast mass of modern pity for the poor and the oppressed is precisely that it is merely pity; the pity is pitiful, but not respectful. Men feel that the cruelty to the poor is a kind of cruelty to animals. They never feel that it is injustice to equals; nay, it is treachery to comrades. This dark, scientific pity, this brutal pity, has an elemental sincerity of its own, but it is entirely useless for all ends of social reform.1 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens.]
The Tears of Jesus
Arnot (W.), Roots and Fruits of the Christian Life, 224.
Banks (L. A.), Christ and His Friends, 310.
Belfrage (H.), Sacramental Addresses, 241.
Eadie (J.), The Divine Love, 268.
Fry (J. H.), Tears, 21.
Gibbon (J. M.), Evangelical Heterodoxy, 53.
Knight (G. H.), In the Cloudy and Dark Day, 149.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: John ix.–xiv., 91.
Marjoribanks (T.), In the Likeness of Men, 39.
Martin (A.), Winning the Soul, 265.
Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, iii. 128.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, i. 89.
Roberts (A.), Sermons on Gospel Miracles, 247.
Robertson (F. W.), The Human Race, 108.
Smith (D.), Man’s Need of God, 79.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxxv. (1889) No. 2091.
Swing (D.), in The American Pulpit of the Day, i. 271.
Vaughan (C. J.), Christ and Human Instincts, 111.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), ix. (1874) No. 874.
Wood (G. R. H.), Miracle Messages, 63.
Christian World Pulpit, xii. 217 (Skinner); xiii. 67 (Heard); xxxvi. 15 (Spurgeon); l. 199 (Thomas); lxx. 93 (Swanson).
Church of England Pulpit, li. 85 (Bonney).