Sunday, March 7, 2010

When Jesus Wept: Two Types of Tears

Young children don't have the market cornered when it comes to shedding tears, but the sheer quantity they produce each day may make one believe otherwise. Between the mouth-wide-open-bawling-so-I-can-see-their-tonsils crocodile tears and the head-buried-in-my-arms "hurt" tears, I could probably fill a bottle per month.

Thankfully, the incessant crying seems to come in spurts. My three year old has just entered another teary phase--he falls down and skins a knee, mommy says "no," there are strangers in the room, supper isn't ready yet and he's "hungury," sister won't share a toy, not enough sleep, the twins are crying--and sometimes, he can't even give me a reason!

Scripture records Jesus shedding tears as well, but with good reason. The prophet Isaiah tells us Jesus was "a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering" (Is. 53:3). Hebrews also reveals Jesus was no stranger to tears: "In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death" (5:7).

And yet, the synoptic gospels only record two specific instances of Jesus crying, both occurring (not coincidentally, I believe) within the week before his death on the cross.

In the first instance, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to see the sisters Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus.

But before the famous verse, "Jesus wept," we see an interesting dialogue between Martha and Jesus. After Martha expresses her belief that Lazarus would not have died had Jesus been there, Jesus says, "Your brother will rise again" (John 11:23).

Martha's response indicates a heart that belongs to Jesus but that doesn't understand the wonder she is about to witness: "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day" (v. 24).

Jesus then seems to press her, perhaps testing the depth of her faith" "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (v. 25-26).

Martha responds again, this time making clear her transformed heart and faith in Jesus: "Yes, Lord," she told him, 'I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world'" (v. 27).

After this, the conversation ends abruptly as she goes to fetch her sister Mary who falls weeping at Jesus' feet: "When Jesus saw her weeping...he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 'Where have you laid him?' he asked. 'Come and see, Lord,' they replied. Jesus wept" (33-35).

The Greek word here for "wept" means "to shed tears," not to weep loudly.* As a compassionate Savior, Jesus simply felt Mary and Martha's grief, and He silently wept with them.

So how does the dialogue showing Martha as a believer connect to Jesus' empathizing tears? When one places the two together, they seem to reveal that if you are a believer in Christ, Jesus cries with your hurts. How precious should that be to those of us who believe?

Compare these quiet, restrained tears of shared grief with believers to Jesus' tears only days later when He entered Jerusalem as the passover lamb prepared for slaughter: "As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, 'If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes'" (Luke 19:41-42).

Unlike the previous text, here, the word for "wept" is much stronger, "implying not only the shedding of tears, but also every external expression of grief"* In other words, Jesus was having what we would call an emotional meltdown as He looked down on an unbelieving city filled with His people who didn't recognize Him or the eternal peace that He wanted to bring to their souls. Instead, they would reject Him as they blindly looked for a military Messiah to come and bring them earthly peace in the form of a political movement.

In this instance, Jesus' uncontrollable weeping is for those who do not know Him as Savior and Lord and for the destruction soon to come: "The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you" (v. 43-44).

Jesus' shedding of tears on earth reflects the tears I believe He still sheds today in heaven. For those who believe and confess Him as Savior and Lord, He cries with us in our sorrows. Yet, for those who do not know Him and who reject His salvation, He weeps loud, bitter tears.

If our hearts are perfectly aligned with Jesus, I believe our tears will fall the same--quietly over the fleshly hurts of fellow believers, but bitterly over the lost souls who do not have the everlasting hope and peace of Jesus in their hearts.

*Definitions from Spiros Zodhiates' The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament, 1993.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I stumbled across this blog and the title caught my eye, but as I glanced down the page the first thing that grabbed my attention was your quote of this verse: "In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death".

    That in itself started a flurry of thoughts and notes for me to study in the future, as I had never focused on this verse before and had missed some of the implications of the things that I was seeing today.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your post, as I want to see what your basis is for the two kinds of tears claim. But, for now, I just wanted to do a quick note of appreciation for calling my attention to that verse!

  2. Jennifer, thank you for sharing these beautiful truths. I did not know about the difference in the Greek words, but it is amazing and eye-opening.

    To realize Jesus' love for us and all humanity brings tears to my own eyes. I am ashamed that I do not live in realization of His love as I should. I will take this thought with me as I sleep.

    Many blessings, and much love,