Jesus Weeps

It was a sad day in the village of Bethany. Four days earlier a popular young man named Lazarus died an untimely death and had been placed in his tomb. The mourning for him was still continuing, including even Jews from Jerusalem who had come to comfort Mary and Martha.

When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived at Bethany, she went out to meet him. This was not to invite him to come to the wake at her home but to find out why he had not come sooner when he could have healed Lazarus. At this point in the story we should stop and consider Martha’s faith in Jesus. Personally, I find it mind boggling considering the probable limits to her understanding of who Jesus was.

First, she believed that Jesus could have healed her brother had he been there. Second, she knew that Jesus would receive whatever he asked of God. Third, she believed her brother would come to life again at the resurrection that would take place on the last day. Finally, she said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world” (John 11:27, English Standard Version).

After this conversation, Martha went to tell Mary that Jesus was there. When Martha returned to Jesus with Mary, she said what Martha had said about Jesus not being there to heal Lazarus and then fell at his feet weeping. It was then that Jesus wept, being deeply touched by their grief and that of the other mourners. In addition to his sympathy for the sisters, there was another reason Jesus experienced deep sorrow.

Martha and Mary were right. Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death. However, Lazarus’ death had to happen so Jesus would be glorified by his return to life (11:4). Another reason for the event was that the disciples might learn that someone could rise from the dead (11:15). Last, it would, as Thomas rightly understood, lead to Jesus’ death (11:16).

There are several reasons for Jesus’ grief. Perhaps the deepest motivation for Jesus’ tears was the understanding that doing his Father’s will would hurt the friends he loved. Jesus also had to foresee that his agony at Gethsemane and his death on the Cross would cause enormous pain to him and to those who had believed in him. However, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, his grief then turned into great joy.

In order to obey what God has intended for us to do, it may also be required of us to hurt the people we love. If that happens, let us remember Jesus weeping with his friends and then rejoicing with them, and so be able to both obey and then find hope in the larger purposes of God. Like Jesus, we too must place the Father’s will above all personal desires and yet remember, as we are faithful, the short term may be hard but the long term is eternal glory.

 

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What Did the Disciples Doubt?

Matthew 28:16-20 tells us of Jesus giving the eleven disciples what we call the Great Commission. It is a familiar and much cited passage and yet there is something in it that our adult Sunday school discussion class skipped over that seemed to me of interest. This was the phrase in verse 17 “but some doubted.”

The complete verse 17 (NIV) reads “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Apparently Matthew was the only gospel writer to make this statement as no cross references are given in the NIV for this verse nor does the Oxford Study Bible provide any. As far as commenting on it, the Life Application Study Bible does not refer to it. This is not an extensive survey of possible aids to understanding what Matthew had in mind but it seems our class was not the only people willing to just let it sit there without attempting to understand how it could be true.

Another Matthew, Matthew Henry did not omit a comment on this verse. He writes “All that see the Lord Jesus with an eye of faith will worship him. Yet the faith of the sincere may be very weak and wavering. But Christ gave such convincing proofs of his resurrection, as made their faith to triumph over doubts.” What Henry writes is true in the large view but does not deal with why there were doubts among the disciples, on that mountain, on that day, with the risen Jesus present with them.

The doubt may have arisen from the fact that it was evident by then that the messianic kingdom of Jewish anticipation was not what Jesus had described when he spoke to them in his prior teaching of the kingdom of God/heaven. What was it to be and what was their role in it going to be? This seems to me at the root of their uncertainty and why it can be said that some doubted.

Jesus, as always, was aware of their concerns and, as was typical, gave them a task they had not foreseen. They were to use his kingly authority on earth to make disciples from all nations. They were to make them citizens of the kingdom of God by baptizing them in the names of the Trinity. Then they were to teach them be good subjects of their Lord, that is they would be shown how to obey the commandments Jesus had taught the disciples, love God and love your neighbor.

The disciples were only the first of many Christians who have had uncertainty about the nature of the kingdom of God and their participation in it. These doubts have often been resolved by placing the kingdom in another time or place and envisioning Christians as reigning in it. This is another version of the Jewish expectation and not at all what Jesus taught the eleven disciples gathered that day on a mountain.

Christians have also been distracted from the focus on the kingdom of God that was central the Christ’s teaching by confusing the church with the kingdom. It is clear, though, that the kingdom of God exists both on earth and in heaven while the church is an institution whose purpose is to support the spread of the kingdom and the growth in maturity of all believers. The church is both flawed and temporary, as are all the things of earth. At the end of time it will cease to exist while the kingdom of heaven, and those who belong to it, will endure forever.

Our Problems with Jesus

I think that before I narrow my discussion down to the problems present-day American Christians have with Jesus I will do a broad survey of the subject. The Jews were told by the prophet Isaiah (8:14) that their God would be a stone that caused people to stumble and fall. The apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:6-8) applied this prophecy to Jesus. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:23) wrote that the crucifixion of Christ was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” In Paul’s categories, all of humanity was contained in the two categories: Jews and Gentiles.

The situation now is much like it was in Paul’s time, only there are more categories of people with problems with Jesus and not just with his crucifixion. His claim to deity, that is to be of the same nature in his divinity as God the Father, is a difficulty for non-Christians. Atheists, Buddhists, and followers of the teachings of Confucius have no deity in the Christian sense and so have a problem with Jesus’s claim to be like God the Father in one part of his person and like us in the other part. Jews and Muslims are monotheists who have no acceptance of a triune God. New Agers, Hindus, Shintoists, animists, and pagans have room for many gods in their religious systems but no place for the Christian understanding.

It is not hard at all to see why people who believe other things than Christianity would have a problem with accepting Jesus. However, why do Christians have such problems with him that they have in many ways turned away from him in their understanding of Christianity? One problem is, as with the rest of humanity, his deity. God coming to earth, living as a human, and then returning to heaven does not fit the secular, materialist understanding of reality. Many contemporary Christians are willing to strip Jesus of his divinity, search for the historical Jesus, and proclaim him a great ethical teacher. This seems a solution to the deity difficulty but if what he said, as recorded in the gospels, is true then he was not a wise human being but nutty as a fruitcake (to use an old expression).

Beyond the problem of his deity there are major difficulties with his coming to earth and his exit from it. Let me begin with his birth from a virgin. This became a problem for Christians during the nineteenth century when materialists began to attack Christianity. However, we who live in the twenty-first century when microbiologists can create mice that glow in the dark may have less of a problem with it. There appear to be only three necessary steps for it to happen, all of them never likely to happen except for the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s body. The first step was the failure of meiosis to occur in one of Mary’s egg cells so that it contained two strands of DNA rather than the normal one strand. The second step was for one of the X chromosomes to be converted into a Y chromosome. The third step was the initiation of the normal development of an embryo.

There are theological reasons for Jesus’ virgin birth which lead us into two other problems. One problem, for some people, is the original sin that Jesus needed to be free of so he could be a blameless sacrifice. This first problem leads into all kinds of theological thickets which I will not get into but have caused a lot of people problems. The second problem is that at Jesus’ conception his divinity was bonded to his humanity in an absolutely unique way. It took the early church over 300 years of thinking, discussion, debate, and actual conflict to arrive at what is now the traditional understanding of his two natures.

Jesus’ resurrection three days after his crucifixion, and then his ascension into heaven forty days later, create problems for Christians. The people who live in a closed universe simply deny the resurrection and invent ways it did not occur. The unacknowledged problem for many other Christians is “What is Christ doing in history and human culture until he returns?” There is a wide range of opinions among Christians on this question and many Christians think Jesus has left culture and history in their hands. The result is divisions among Christians and so a lack of ability to do what we should if history and culture were actually given to us to control.

There would not be as much problem with knowing what Jesus is doing in history and culture if he would speak to us in the present. Prophets, though, are problematical. There are false prophets now just as there were in Old Testament times. So this problem with Jesus not sending word of his larger purposes is part of the larger problem of communication with him in general. We are told in the Bible and in churches to pray. Yet prayer as we know it consists mostly of tossing words and thoughts into heaven and hoping something happens. Sometimes we think we see results, but we are not told by Jesus that what happened was the result of our prayer and that is a problem for us.

If we are to hear from Jesus, we need to rediscover our spirituality (see previous post). When we become aware of the Holy Spirit within us and Jesus beside us, we are able to have the communication we were intended to have. Achieving this state of awareness is not easy for us because we are not yet aligned completely with God’s will. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “your will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” Our tendency is to think of the earth as someplace else and that this phrase does not have anything to do with our lives. Another one of our problems with Jesus is that it is not easy to keep him close to us. This is because we are still beta versions of what we were intended to be.

Our society tells us that almost everyone, given education and opportunity, can be OK. So we are encouraged to tell others they are OK and to think the same of ourselves. We can do this if we lower our standards enough. Our problem with Jesus in this regard is that his standard is perfection and if we are honest, neither ourselves or anybody else measures up. Some Christians think they are all right because God created them. It is true that God gives us our present existence, but we are not in our final configuration. After this life we will be changed into the persons God intended, from before the universe was created, for us to be.

We have a problem with Jesus because he did not give his disciples clear information concerning what was going to happen to get us to this eternal version of ourselves. I think that, just as the Jews did not get the Messiah they expected, we will not find eternity, whatever it is like, what we anticipate. The best we can do is have faith that Jesus will provide us the dwellings he promised to us who believe he is the unique Son of God.