Sorrow is that dark feeling of distress that comes after experiencing loss or tragedy. Such an experience can be consuming and cumbersome. As the people of God, our hearts ought to be filled with a genuine sense of compassion and care for our troubled brother or sister. We ought to love them (Rom. 12:10), cry with them (Rom. 12:15) and pray for them (James 5:13).
In this next section in John 11, we see a demonstration of the care Jesus showed toward Mary and Martha in the midst of their grief. When it comes to the death of God’s people the Bible says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15). What happens when a believer dies? It is the clear teaching of Scripture that the moment this takes place their soul is instantly with the Lord in Heaven (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23). That is to say, when a believer dies they are home in Heaven with their Saviour Jesus Christ. This is an exciting reality but it is not easy for those left behind to deal with. Death truly is a bittersweet experience. To know on one hand that a loved one is with the Lord in Heaven is a joy, yet on the other to know they are not with you is difficult. This is bittersweet.
A normal and natural response to the loss of a loved one in death is grief. As mentioned earlier on, grief is that process in which an individual displays sorrow and anguish as a result of loss. It is important to understand that when it comes to grief, people will grieve differently. God makes us all different. For some the process will be private, others it will be more public. For some it may appear brief, for others it may take longer. The point is we all have different temperaments and we deal with these hardships in different ways.
In the passage before us we are going to be introduced to two grieving women. They were sisters and they have just lost their brother Lazarus. Mary and Martha are portrayed as two very different ladies in the Bible. Martha appears to be spirited and energetic, whereas Mary seems to be sensitive and emotional. On an earlier occasion Jesus was teaching and Mary sat at His feet listening while Martha was distracted and busy in the kitchen preparing. She complained to the Lord about her sister not helping and Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).
Even in this passage Martha is the one who meets with Jesus in public, whereas Mary remained mourning in private. Jesus is going to approach them and He is going to display His care toward them in the midst of grief. I want you to notice how He does this. Being fully aware of their different temperaments, Jesus provides hope and shows compassion in the midst of their grief.
HOPE IN THE MIDST OF GRIEF (John 11:17-27)
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, “Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days” (11:17). Bethany was a little less than 3 kilometers from Jerusalem (11:18), and John adds, “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother” (11:19). Once Martha heard the news that Jesus had arrived “she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house” (11:20). Here we see a difference in their temperaments.
Martha understood that Jesus is the Son of God, and she was aware of His ability to heal. As soon as she saw Jesus, mixed with confidence and grief she uttered the following words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (11:21-22).
Listen to the interaction that takes place between the Lord and Martha,
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
After Jesus told Martha that her brother “will rise again” (11:23) she understood this to be a reference to the future resurrection by saying “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”. Martha was right, the OT does promise the future bodily resurrection on the last day (Ps. 16:9-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24, 26; Job 19:25-27; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2).
In this interaction, Jesus proceeds to show great care to Martha by providing her with hope in the midst of her grief. It is great that she has a good eschatology (doctrine of last things). But a cold and concrete understanding of theology is not comforting in a time of grief. Jesus wants her to turn this great doctrine into something that is present and practical. He does this by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25a). This is the fifth of the seven “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. Here Jesus wants Martha to understand that hope for future glory is found exclusively in Him. He continues,
“Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25b-26a).
By means of believing in Christ we enter into the certainty of future bodily resurrection and we take hold of eternal life. Though we will die, we will be raised because we right now possess eternal life. Jesus is providing Martha with the greatest of hope in the midst of grief, and that is blessing of knowing Christ. He asks her, “Do you believe this?” (11:26b), and she responds, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27). The greatest hope to give someone in the midst of grief is the Person of Jesus Christ, because only in Him is the guarantee of eternal life.
COMPASSION IN THE MIDST OF GRIEF (John 11:28-37)
After this conversation ended, Martha privately spoke to her sister Mary informing her that “the Teacher is here and is calling for you” (11:28). With haste, Mary goes to speak with Jesus at the same location He spoke with Martha (11:29-30). Those who were consoling her saw her leave, and thinking that she was heading to the tomb followed her (11:31). As Mary approached Jesus “she fell at His feet” (11:32). It is very interesting that whenever we read of Mary being in the presence of Jesus she is at His feet. When He was teaching, she sat there listening (Luke 10:39). In the next chapter we read of her worshiping Him by anointing His feet with perfume and washing them with her hair (John 12:3). She was a woman who understood who Jesus was and delighted in worshipping Him.
She repeats what her sister had said earlier on, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). It is likely that over the last few days the two of them had discussed this point. John describes the rest of the scene as follows,
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
As Jesus looks on to see dear sensitive and delicate Mary weeping, accompanied by a group of mourners, “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (11:33). Some have understood the words “deeply moved” to be a reference to His anger. If that is the meaning here, His anger would be directed at death itself as the consequence of sin. I think it best to understand this an internal sorrow and emotion that Jesus displayed. As a man, Jesus had all the emotions and affections of a human, but unlike us they never controlled Him.
After requesting to see where Lazarus lay we read, “Jesus wept” (11:35). This short verse is so profound. The word for weeping back in verse 33 refers to a loud wail, but the word for “wept” here means a shedding of tears. This is genuine compassion. Mary and Martha are grieving, and in the midst of their trouble, the Lord Jesus weeps with those who weep. This reminds us that we have a Saviour who loves His people and is compassionate toward us. The writer to the Hebrews said,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).
Jesus is not some dead idol or a confused prophet. He is The Sovereign Saviour who loves His people.
JC Ryle said,
“Let us strive to be men and women of a tender heart and a sympathizing spirit. Let us never be ashamed to weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice. Well would it be for the Church and the world if there were more Christians of this stamp and character! The Church would be far more beautiful, and the world be far more happy”