The story of Jesus’s raising from the dead of Lazarus of Bethany, as recorded in John 11, is one of the great miracle stories in the New Testament, and a favorite text of Eastertide. The entire story is framed around three surprising, unexpected actions that Jesus took, each of which poses a question about who Jesus was and the kind of God he came to reveal. Jesus waited (11:6): Why the delay? Jesus wailed or raged (11:33): Why the anger? And Jesus wept (11:35): Why the grief? I dealt with the first question in my article “Waiting For And With Jesus.” Here I want to consider his other two reactions revealed in the miracle of John 11: Jesus’s outburst in verse 33, and his weeping in verse 35.
In his John commentary, the great Baptist New Testament scholar, George Beasley-Murray, points out a major disagreement between the English and German traditions of biblical scholarship on how to translate the Greek word embrimâsthai in 11:33. The NIV’s “deeply moved in spirit,” the Good News Bible’s “his heart was touched,” or the New English Bible’s “sighed heavily,” are all softened versions of the KJV’s “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled.” However, at the Reformation both Luther and the Zurich Bible used a German word, ergrimmte, to render this unusual Greek word. Ergrimmte comes into English as “he became angry, disgusted, enraged.” This translation reflects the usage of this word in classical Greek where it depicts a warhorse on the field of battle, the snorting of a stallion about to charge the enemy.
But can God get mad? Can Jesus, the Son of God, become as angry as this Greek verb seems to imply that he did? Among those who have shrunk from entertaining such a possibility is none other than the great Augustine—with whom John Calvin (who quotes Augustine more than 1,000 times in his Institutes, usually quite favorably) respectfully disagrees at this point. But if we allow the text to mean what it seems to say, Jesus did experience indignation and outrage as he prepared to raise Lazarus from the dead. The question remains: at what or whom was Jesus angry?
Philip F. Esler and Ronald Piper, in their book Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, summarize five major views among various scholars as to why exactly Jesus might have become angry at this point. I shall list these five views not in the order that Esler and Piper present them but on a scale of what I consider least to most likely. First, there is Cullen Story’s idea that Jesus might have been angry with himself because, after all, his delay in coming to Bethany had precipitated the crisis. Second, some have suggested that Jesus was angry at the thought of his own impending death (Sprosten North). Third, he might have been angry at those among the Judeans, especially the Pharisees, who were already conspiring to have him killed. Fourth, other commentators have suggested that the focus of Jesus’s anger was the lack of faith on the part of Mary and those among the mourners who refused to believe (Bultmann). However, it is best, I think, to regard Jesus’s anger as directed against Satan, the Evil One himself, who presides over the realm of death, wreaking havoc throughout God’s good creation.
In John’s gospel, Satan works behind the scenes, in the shadows. Unlike the synoptics, John does not present Jesus as an exorcist who directly confronts Satan and expels demons. But in John 11, this encounter takes place in the arena where Satan is deemed to be strongest, at his most unassailable fortress, in the realm of death. The British New Testament scholar Barnabas Lindars published an essay, “Rebuking the Spirit: A New Analysis of the Lazarus Story of John 11.” There he argued that behind the Lazarus story as we have it in John 11 are the “traces of an earlier raising story in which exorcism plays a role.” Whatever one makes of Lindars’s source-critical theory (and it seems far-fetched to me), he is not wrong to associate the anger expressed by Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus as directed against Satan and his pomp. It is clear that Jesus is the aggressor, not the victim, in this scene. What we have here is not so much a sudden upset as an “undying hostility to the forces of evil, coming to the surface at the very sight of them.” Calvin’s comment on this text is telling: “Christ does not come to the sepulcher as an idle spectator, but like a wrestler preparing for the contest. Therefore, no wonder that he groans again, for the violent tyranny of death that he had to overcome stands before his eyes.”
The first surviving commentary we have on the Gospel of John is by Heracleon, a disciple of the gnostic Valentinus. The work of Elaine Pagels and others has highlighted the popularity of John within the gnostic communities. For this reason, the canonicity of John, along with the Book of Revelation, which was believed to be written by the same author, was questioned by some in the early church. The battle for the Johannine part of the Bible has continued down to our own day, with Ernst Käsemann famously criticizing John’s “naïve docetism” and declaring that “the Church committed an error when it declared the Gospel to be orthodox” since “neither apostolic authorship nor apostolic content can be affirmed for it.” Does John give us a genuinely human Christ at all? Käsemann, among others, thinks not and explains those features in John where Jesus’s humanity is on display—the mention of his parents and brothers (2:1-11; 6:42; 7:3, 10), his asking for a drink of water at the well in Samaria (4:6), and his weeping at the grave of Lazarus (11:35)—as either interpolations by a later editor trying to make John more “orthodox” than he really was or, in the case of Käsemann, a newly constructed portrayal of Jesus made from whole cloth.
But the declaration of Jesus’s weeping in the text as it stands challenges all docetic and gnostic readings of the Gospel. The Greek word dakruō, given here in the aorist tense, is found nowhere else in the New Testament, although the cognate noun dákruon occurs ten times in other places. As used of Jesus in this setting, dákrusen means more than to shed a few tears. It means something like “he burst out crying” or, as Dale Bruner has put it, “Jesus bawled.” The anger Jesus displayed in verse 33 is still simmering inside Christ, as the repetition of the word embrimâsthai indicates. However, as Rudolf Schnackenburg argues, something other than anger is on display in Jesus’s tears. The tears of Jesus in verse 35 show his deep identification with those who are grief-stricken. It reveals the breaking of his heart for others whose own hearts are broken. Here Jesus weeps with those who weep, even as he learned obedience through what he suffered. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the One who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7). Calvin warned against our treating Christ as a stern Stoic, a savior impervious to the sighs and groans of his brothers and sisters. On display at the tomb of Lazarus is not only the divine authority of Jesus but also his deep human involvement in the death of his friend and its effects on those who mourned his loss.
Though much has been made of the so-called “realized eschatology” in the Gospel of John, Jesus’s “I am the Resurrection” statement in John 11:25 does not cancel out the earlier statement of Jesus in John 5:28-29, “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out.” Jesus stands at the grave of Lazarus and shouts out his name: “Lazarus, come forth!” “My sheep hear my voice and know my name,” he has already said in chapter 10, and now he calls one of his sheep by name and does so with a loud voice (ekraugasen, 11:45). As Bruner says, it was “the roar heard round the world.” Spurgeon wrote that if Jesus had not specified Lazarus by name, then the general resurrection foretold in John 5 would have happened right there on the spot! So John 11 is about both the sharing of new life in Christ here and now— “he that believes in the Son has life already”—and also about the radical disturbance of the present order of things by the awesome in-breaking of apocalyptic.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky wrote:
I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they have shed; and that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.
Such a view of time and eternity, of the setting right of accounts gone horribly wrong, can make sense only in light of the God revealed by what we have seen in John 11 through the purposeful delay of Jesus, his anger in the face of radical evil, and his weeping with those who weep.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Adapted from “God Who Raises the Dead: John 11:1-44” in The Gospel of John: Theological-Ecumenical Readings, ed. Charles Raith II (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2017).