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Lesson 62: The Teacher’s Tears (John 11:28-37)

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July 20, 2014

Several years ago a young couple that visited our church wanted to talk with me after the service. They had moved here from out of state because the wife had landed a good job. But after a short time on the job, she was terminated, from her perspective, without cause. She was angry and bitter towards God because they thought that they had followed Him in moving here. Now they were without work and without funds to move back home.

I shared with them that the Lord was in control of their difficult situation and that He had many lessons to teach them if they would trust Him. The husband had a good attitude and seemed teachable, but the wife wouldn’t listen. She kept insisting that God had let them down. Later the husband came for further counsel because she angrily left him to return to their former location.

That woman was a sad example of how we as Christians should not respond when sudden trials come into our lives. The Bible gives us another option: Rather than growing angry and withdrawing from the Lord, we can draw near to Him in submission to His sovereign hand, knowing that He cares for us. It’s okay to draw near to Him with tears of grief and confusion. The main thing is to draw near with a submissive heart, trusting in His sovereign love and care for you.

Mary, the sister of Martha, did that when Jesus came to Bethany after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Martha first went to the Lord as He came into their village, but Mary stayed in the house. Then after her interview with Jesus, Martha came and whispered to Mary (11:28), “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” Mary did not say, “I’m too angry right now even to talk to Him!” Rather, she did what we should do in our times of trouble: She got up quickly and went to Jesus (11:29). She fell at His feet weeping and repeated what Martha had said (11:32), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The significant thing is that Jesus did not rebuke her for her tears or her lack of faith. Rather, we read in the shortest verse in the English Bible (11:35), “Jesus wept.” While commentators differ in interpreting Jesus’ emotions here, as I’ll explain, I believe that John wants us to see Christ’s compassion for these sisters in their loss. This story pictures what Hebrews 4:15-16 declares,

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Our text teaches us that …

The call and compassion of the Teacher should cause us to draw near to Him in our trials.

In difficult times, John wants us personally to apply Martha’s words (11:28), “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

1. Christ is the Teacher and He calls you to come to Him and learn from Him in your trials.

A. We learn the most in the school of Christ when we draw near to Him in our trials.

Martha did not say, as she easily could have, “Jesus is here and is calling for you.” Rather, she calls Him, “The Teacher.” Jesus is the Teacher par excellence and His most effective lessons are often when we’re hurting the most. We all tend to be rather self-sufficient. Many years ago there was a TV commercial (I can’t remember what it was advertising) where mother was trying to give advice to her young adult daughter and the daughter would reply in frustration, “Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!” We’re often like that with the Lord—we think that we can do it by ourselves, without His help.

But then trials hit and we realize the truth of Jesus’ words (John 15:5), “apart from Me you can do nothing.” It’s at these overwhelming times that we can learn the most about Christ’s all-sufficiency, if we draw near to Him.

Dr. William Coltman, the pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church in Michigan from 1914-1956, wrote (source unknown):

Until I learned to trust, I never learned to pray;
And I did not learn to fully trust ’til sorrows came my way.

Until I felt my weakness, His strength I never knew;
Nor dreamed ’til I was stricken that He could see me through.

Who deepest drinks of sorrow, drinks deepest, too, of grace;
He sends the storm so He Himself can be our hiding place.

His heart that seeks our highest good, knows well when things annoy;
We would not long for heaven if earth held only joy.

And so, in a time of trials or grief, realize that you’re enrolled in the school of Christ and He has just given you a great opportunity to learn more about His all-sufficiency.

B. Christ tailors His lessons for each student according to the student’s needs.

Martha was the take-charge, get things done, sister. She was the one (Luke 10:38-42) who was busy getting the meal prepared when Jesus visited their home, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach. She scolded the Lord on that occasion because He didn’t tell Mary to get up and help her. But the Lord gently rebuked Martha for being worried and bothered about so many things, while Mary had chosen the better part.

In John 11, when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she got up and went to Him. Jesus dealt with her on a doctrinal level, claiming to be the resurrection and the life, and then challenging her (11:26), “Do you believe this?” He knew that she needed this doctrinal foundation so that she would glorify Him in this trial.

But when Mary fell at Jesus’ feet in tears, He sympathized with her and wept, without any discussion of biblical truth. He knew that she needed to feel His compassion and that she later would glorify Him because He entered into her sorrow.

Two applications: First, recognize that the Lord always deals with you according to your personality to teach you what you need to grow in every trial. All parents who have more than one child know that each child is different. You can’t deal with them in exactly the same way because they are wired differently and they learn differently. The Teacher does that with His children. He tutors you individually, in a way that you can best learn the lessons. But you need to try to understand, through prayer and the Word, “What does the Teacher want me to learn through this trial?”

Second, we should be sensitive to the unique personalities of others when we try to comfort or help them in difficult situations. Some may need a word of encouragement, whereas others don’t need any words, but just for you to be with them and cry with them. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to helping others in their time of need. So pray for sensitivity and wisdom as you try to help.

But for us to trust Jesus as our Teacher in times of trial, we have to know Him. The more we know who He is, the easier it is to trust Him. Thus John shows us that…

2. The Teacher who calls us to Himself is fully God and fully man; thus He can help us in our trials.

This chapter shows us both Jesus’ humanity and His deity. We see His humanity very plainly in 11:34-35, where Jesus asks the location of the tomb and then He weeps. But we see His deity earlier in the chapter, when He knows that Lazarus is dead and that He is going to raise him from the dead (11:11, 14); and when He tells Martha that He is the resurrection and the life and that whoever believes in Him will live even if he dies and will never die (11:25-26). Many years ago, I read this paragraph by Alfred Edersheim, (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Eerdmans] 1:198), and I’ve always remembered it as I read the gospels:

It has been observed, that by the side of every humiliation connected with the Humanity of the Messiah, the glory of His Divinity was also made to shine forth. The coincidences are manifestly undesigned on the part of the Evangelic writers, and hence all the more striking. Thus, if he was born of the humble Maiden of Nazareth, an Angel announced His birth; if the Infant-Saviour was cradled in a manger, the shining host of heaven hymned His Advent. And so afterwards—if He hungered and was tempted in the wilderness, Angels ministered to Him, even as an Angel strengthened Him in the agony of the garden. If He submitted to baptism, the Voice and vision from heaven attested His Sonship; if enemies threatened, He could miraculously pass through them; if the Jews assailed, there was the Voice of God to glorify Him; if He was nailed to the cross, the sun craped his brightness, and earth quaked; if He was laid in the tomb, Angels kept its watches, and heralded His rising.

The fact that Jesus is fully man means that He can identify and sympathize with our problems. The fact that He is fully God means that He is sovereign over and can help with them. (Of course, the God who made us completely understands us and is full of compassion towards us; Ps. 103:13-14. But Jesus’ humanity especially qualifies Him to sympathize with us; Heb. 4:15.) Three aspects of Jesus’ humanity shine from our text (I’m drawing these headings from James Boice, John [Zondervan], one-vol. ed., pp. 749-753, who seems to be following C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 35:338-346):

A. Jesus experienced grief and deep feelings, just as we do.

Isaiah (53:3) prophesied that Jesus would be “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” The fact that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus shows that whatever our grief may be, Jesus knows it and He enters into it with us.

But at this point, we encounter some difficult interpretive matters. The world translated “deeply moved” (11:33 & 38, NASB, ESV, NIV; “groaned, NJKV) is difficult to understand. It’s only used three other times in the New Testament and in those places it has a meaning that does not seem to fit here. In Matthew 9:30 & Mark 1:43, it means, “strictly charged” or “sternly warned.” In Mark 14:5, it refers to the scolding of the woman (Mary) who anointed Christ with expensive ointment. The parallel (Matt. 26:8) uses a different word to say that they were indignant with her. In the LXX, the word refers to anger or being indignant (Dan. 11:30; noun in Lam. 2:6). Thus many commentators think that in John 11:33 & 38, Jesus was angry or indignant (The New Living Translation). Some think that He was indignant with the unbelief expressed by Mary and the others (11:32, 37); or He was angry with the death that God decreed because of man’s fall into sin.

But S. Lewis Johnson (sermon on this text, online at sljinstitute.net) mentions a Professor Black from the University of St. Andrews who studied this word thoroughly and concluded that it does not have the nuance of anger. And since anger does not seem to fit the context here, some argue that the word can refer to being deeply moved (as the NASB, ESV, & NIV translate it). The word was used in extra-biblical Greek to refer to the snorting of a horse preparing for battle. Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 442) views it as Jesus gearing up for the conflict as our champion in the battle against sin and death.

One other suggestion is worth considering. F. Godet (Commentary on the Gospel of John [Zondervan], 2:184) questions why Jesus didn’t feel the same emotion towards death at the other two resurrections that He performed. He says that here Jesus realizes that raising Lazarus will precipitate the hostility of His enemies that will lead to His own death on the cross. The accompanying verb (11:33, “troubled Himself”) is also used as Jesus contemplates His impending death in John 12:27 & 13:21. Thus perhaps Jesus is deeply moved both by the sisters’ grief and by what He knows will happen after He raises Lazarus. R. H. Lightfoot (cited by Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 557, n. 69) commented, “The expression used here implies that He now voluntarily and deliberately accepts and makes His own the emotion and the experience from which it is His purpose to deliver men.”

So while we cannot be certain of the exact meaning of John’s word, we can know that our Savior was not a Stoic. Even though He knew that He was going to raise Lazarus, it didn’t prevent Him from entering into the sisters’ grief. He experienced deep feelings and grief, just as we do. And even though He knows that one day He will wipe away all of our tears (Rev. 21:4) He still sympathizes with us in all of our sorrows.

B. Jesus was not ashamed to display human emotions.

Jesus could have restrained His tears. After all, He knew that He would soon raise Lazarus. Besides, His tears could be misinterpreted as weakness or frustration on His part, as some of the Jews surmised (11:37). But Jesus did not worry about that. He was completely human (without a sin nature) and His tears show that it’s not wrong to express our feelings as long as our hearts are submissive to God. The NT states three times that Jesus wept (here; Luke 19:41, over Jerusalem’s unbelief; and Heb. 5:7, in the Garden of Gethsemane), but never that He laughed (but, see Luke 10:21).

It’s worth noting that John uses a different word (11:33) for weeping to describe the loud wailing of Mary and the mourners than the word in 11:35, which could be translated, “Jesus burst into tears.” Jesus wept, but He was not wailing in despair. In the words of Paul (1 Thess. 4:13), believers are to grieve, but not as those who have no hope. It’s interesting, also, that while the shortest verse in the English Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” the shortest verse in the Greek NT is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice always!” Those verses are not contradictory! As Paul put it (Rom. 12:15), “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Jesus entered into the sorrow of these sisters. As we become more like our Savior, we should not become more stoical, but rather people who express godly emotions.

C. Jesus’ love underlies all His actions.

In 11:36 we read in response to Jesus’ weeping, “So the Jews were saying, ‘See how He loved him!” And they were right, because John has previously underscored Jesus’ love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (11:3, 5). In fact, Jesus’ love for these dear friends was the reason He stayed two days longer where He was, allowing Lazarus to die (11:6). Love always seeks the highest good for the one loved, and the highest good for anyone is that he or she gets a greater vision of God’s glory and thus grows in faith. Both of these aims were behind Jesus’ delay in going to Bethany (11:4, 15, 40).

But some of the Jews questioned both Jesus’ love and His power when they said (11:37), “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” They couldn’t reconcile Jesus’ love and power with Lazarus’ death. And in a time of severe trials, the enemy may whisper to you, “God must not love you or He isn’t able to prevent trials like you’re going through. You shouldn’t trust Him!”

But at such times, never interpret God’s love by your difficult circumstances, but rather interpret your circumstances by His love (modified from, C. H. Mackintosh, Miscellaneous Writings [Loizeaux Brothers], vol. 6, “Bethany,” pp. 17-18). He could have prevented your trial. But as H. E. Hayhoe wrote (“Sentence Sermons,” exact source unknown), “He will never allow a trial in your life without a needs be on your part and a purpose of love on His part.”

Thus, Christ is the Teacher and He calls you to come to Him and learn from Him in your trials. And, the Teacher who calls us to Himself is fully God and fully man; thus He can help us in our trials. Finally,

3. In your trials, come to the Teacher just as you are, quickly and submissively.

Martha’s words to Mary (11:28) are the Lord’s words for us when we’re hurting: “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

A. Jesus is always present and is waiting for you to come to Him in your trials.

Jesus was there, but Mary had to get up and go to Him. And even though you may not feel His presence, He is always present and available to give grace if you go to Him in your trials.

B. Come to Jesus just as you are and share your feelings with Him.

Mary went immediately when she heard that the Teacher was there and calling for her. She didn’t say, “I’ve been crying for four days. My mascara is streaked, my eyes are red and swollen. I can’t go to Jesus like this! I need to go and make myself presentable!”

But we often do that with the Lord. We’re in the midst of a trial or problem and we think, “I can’t go to the Lord until I get myself more together. I’ll wait until I’m calmer and more in control of my emotions.” But grace is for the undeserving, not for the deserving. Go to Jesus with your tears and He will weep with you.

If you’ve never come to Christ for salvation, the only way that you can come is just as you are. If you try to clean up your life or make yourself more presentable to Him, you don’t understand His grace. As the old hymn (by Charlotte Elliott) goes,

Just as I am, without one plea,

But that Thy blood was shed for me,

And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come! I come.!

C. Come to Jesus quickly.

Mary “got up quickly and was coming to Him” (11:29). She had friends at her side who were consoling her. She could have thought, “What will they think if I leave them and go to Jesus?” Or, she could have thought that their consolations were enough. But as comforting as our friends may be, they are no substitute for the Teacher who calls us to Himself. Don’t delay: Go to Jesus quickly! The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll experience His comfort and compassion.

D. Come to Jesus’ feet.

Mary went and fell at Jesus’ feet (11:32). Every time we encounter Mary in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet. In Luke 10:39, she was “seated at The Lord’s feet, listening to His word.” In our text, she pours out her grief at Jesus’ feet. In John 12:3, she anointed Jesus’ feet with the expensive ointment and dried them with her hair, as she prepared Him for His burial. In this, she is an example for us: First, learn God’s word about Jesus. Then you’ll know Him so that you can take your sorrows to Him in a time of grief. That will lead you to worship Him as the one who died for your sins.

Conclusion

A mission executive from the United States was visiting a school in Kenya where he was listening as teenage girls shared how they had been blessed by hearing the Bible in their own language. One girl testified that the verse that had the greatest impact on her was Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Another said that the verse that had the greatest impact on her was John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” She said that when she wept in the night, she knew that Jesus was weeping with her.

The mission executive wondered why these two girls were mourning and weeping. He thought that maybe they had chosen these verses to share because they were short and easy to remember. But the school’s teacher leaned over and whispered to him that both of these girls had lost their parents to AIDS. Jesus’ compassion comforted them in their losses. In the same way, the Teacher calls you to come to Him with your tears. He cares for you and He will cry with you. Come to Him!

Application Questions

  1. Which trials has God used to teach you the most? What lessons have you learned through them?
  2. Most men find it difficult to cry. How can we grow in tenderness and godly sympathy?
  3. The Psalms show us that there is a right way to complain to the Lord. What is it? Was Mary sinning here with her complaint (in 11:32)? Why/why not?
  4. Are emotions neutral or are they sometimes sinful? Support your answer with Scripture.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Suffering, Trials, Persecution