Jesus wept. When many people think about Jesus’ raising his friend Lazarus from the dead, they focus on those tears shed shortly before Jesus called for Lazarus to come out from the tomb. Why did he weep? They wonder, and perhaps miss what else Jesus did before performing the miracle. First, however, he wept because he was “greatly disturbed” (John 11:33,38 NRSV), a term that in the text’s original Greek usually indicated anger. Something about this death made it significant for Jesus. He wept. He asked for the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb to be moved. He reminded the sister of the dead man, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And he prayed.
This prayer of Jesus strikes an unexpected note. One wonders if all the prayer has been included in the text. Some of what he says in the prayer seems to conflict with earlier teaching by him about prayer. Jesus said while teaching his disciples to pray, “…whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6). Jesus tells his disciples that prayer is not a spectator sport. Then, outside the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus prays, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11:41, 42). What had the Father heard? Did Jesus pray this prayer “to be seen of men?”
The whole episode about Lazarus dying surprises us. Jesus hears that a very close friend is ill and that the family wants him to come quickly, but he delays going for several days. Jesus weeps at the graveside. Now he prays this cryptic prayer for the benefit of the audience.
Context shapes understanding of biblical passages. Here, the larger context is the Gospel of John, whose author writes near the end of the book, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30,31). Jesus prays as he does at the tomb of Lazarus so that the witnesses of what will happen next “may come to believe…and that through believing…may have life in his name.” He also echoes the prayer of Elijah in 1 Kings 18; the Old Testament prophet prayed¸”O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be know this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:36-37). Both prayers plead that people who hear the prayer will believe that the one who prays is the messenger of God, and in both contexts, this response will result in faith and in God being glorified. The prayers focus on the faith response of the audience.
What had Jesus prayed beforehand? When had he prayed it? Had he prayed words at the graveside that were not included in the text, or had he prayed while he delayed coming to Bethany? We don’t know. We know that Jesus rejoices in his confidence that God hears his prayers and that he prays that those who hear his prayer will come to believe that he is God’s Messiah.
Jesus wept, and may have done so in anger. He prays, however, that the people who hear him may come to believe. He prays that they may understand that he is not just a miracle worker, but may understand that he is the Messiah of God, that they may comprehend that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16).” He prays for life.