In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, Jesus gets word from two sisters that his friend Lazarus has become ill. The Scripture gives us a little hint at the friendship Jesus had with Lazarus when it quotes the messengers of Lazarus’ sisters as saying, “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” So, it seems that Lazarus is a close friend of Jesus. It would stand to reason then that Jesus would leave the place he was (beyond the Jordan River) and head back to Judea to be with His close friend who was sick enough that the sisters sent messengers. Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that Lazarus’ “sickness is not unto death.” And then, after Lazarus kicks the proverbial bucket, Jesus and the disciples head back to Judea to see him and the sisters.
Why did Jesus wait until Lazarus died? And why did Lazarus die after Jesus said that his sickness would not end that way? Why did Jesus not do what you or I would likely do and simply head back to see Lazarus (and presumably heal him, or at the very least visit with him on his deathbed)? Why? Because Jesus is God. Look at this from John 11:
14 Then Jesus said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.”
So, Jesus and the twelve head back to Judea to find - guess what - that Lazarus is indeed dead. Lazarus is so dead that, when Jesus arrived at the grave of Lazarus 4 days after he died and instructed that the tomb be rolled away, Martha (the ever-practical sister of Lazarus) protests. “Lord, don’t do that! He stinks by now because he has been dead for 4 days!”
John indicates a couple of times in his re-telling of the events that Jesus “groaned in His spirit and was troubled.” And then, the favorite memory verse of all-time for Sunday School children everywhere occurs in the Scriptures:
John 11: 35 Jesus wept.
Why would Jesus - God in the flesh, the second entity of the Trinity, the very Son of God - weep over a dead man that He was going to raise to life in just moments? Why does the Scripture indicate that Jesus was deeply troubled in response to just seeing Mary and the Jews so distraught over the death of Lazarus? Some commentators would have you believe that Jesus was deeply troubled and wept because of the unbelief of Mary and the others. I call BS. John 11: 36 debunks that:
36 Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”
And then Jesus goes on to correct them and tell them that He really is troubled and weeping because they are spiritual midgets and don’t understand the sovereignty of God in Lazarus’ death. Umm… NO! This is actually what Jesus does:
38 Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
And then Jesus, after again “groaning in Himself” (if you noticed it again above) goes on to raise Lazarus from the dead (which He knew He would do before He and the disciples came back from the other side of the Jordan).
And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. 42 And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” 43 Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” 44 And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.”
Why does this matter? Because there are some Bible teachers who are saying that empathy is a sin. To make matters worse, these Bible teachers are fairly prominent and often have good and Biblical things to say. So, we need some discernment to sort out what they have to say that is helpful and what is not. Truth mixed with error is never good! In this case, they are harmful in their teaching. These teachers are equating actual, healthy (dare-I-say Biblical) empathy with a willy-nilly acceptance of the feelings of others as valid and truthful. Really, empathy, in the Biblical and emotionally intelligent sense, is as RC Sproul said, “set[ting] ourselves aside and focus[ing] our attention on the other.” Sproul adds, “It takes real grace, discipline, and sensitivity to stop being self-centered, to watch for the moods of others, to express empathy.” It is one thing to validate as true the experience of others; it is quite a different (and Biblical) thing to validate the experience of others as simply their experience. The first is not true validation in the Christian or emotionally intelligent sense. The second is a necessary tool for any of us (Christian or not) to live and have relationships - I cannot change your perception of your experience, but I sure can try not to be so dang self-centered and should attempt to understand how you see your experience, how you feel your experience, and how the balm of the Gospel can be good for your soul.
Jesus did that. He “groaned” within Himself and was troubled to the point of weeping because He hurt for those around Him who were hurting over the death of a loved one - A loved one whom Jesus KNEW HE WAS GOING TO RAISE FROM THE DEAD WITHIN MINUTES. This is empathy as incarnation. In fact, when you get down to it, one might say that empathy IS incarnation.
In life, Jesus - God incarnate, the Lord of ALL with skin on, fully God and fully man - lived the perfect life in our place. He did everything right, even and especially where we each have done wrong. This includes expressing a PERFECT empathy for the feelings of others, even when He knew the end result of the situation was resurrection for Lazarus. He has had empathy for me and you, too. The Scriptures say in Hebrews 4:
14 Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
I see some sympathy in there. Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are.” That is sympathy for sure. He has lived our experience. But, JESUS DID NOT SIN. He did not give into those temptations. And, even in being “in all points tempted as we are,” He did not live every specific situation in which we live. For example, a widow once said to me that Jesus never experienced widowhood. So true! He did have temptations that are common with widows in some sense (at least from a heart-root-cause), but Jesus never had or lost a spouse. So how would Jesus Christ, our High Priest understand the weaknesses of the widow or widower? According to the Greek in the New Testament, “we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympatheō with our weaknesses…” The definition for sympatheō means “be touched with the feeling.” In other words, we don’t have a High Priest in Jesus who cannot feel with us, even if He has not experienced identical circumstances. Why? Because His heart has felt the same root causes of all our temptations, even though different circumstances in different peoples lives reveal those root causes and feelings. In His incarnation, our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, both sympathizes and empathizes with us. One might even be able to go as far as to say that empathy is primary in the case of Jesus because, though He was touched with the feeling of our weaknesses and in all points tempted as we are, He was “yet without sin.”
Ultimately, this is where we find our hope. Jesus, without sin, died for our sins and took God’s wrath so we didn’t have to do so. In His mercy, He got up out of the grave on the third day, defeating sin and death. By faith in Him ALONE, we may do the same. This is why these things matter. People who teach the Truth of the Gospel should not teach less truth in regard to the life of Jesus and the implications thereof. God made flesh for us in Christ is Good News for all of life. Thanks be to God that He was “touched with feeling” for us. And that He acted upon it. Empathy incarnate.
May we, by God’s grace, seek to do the same for others. And when we fail, Lord, have mercy!