Sabbath School Commentary for Sabbath, June 20, 2015
Luke chapter 19 memorably relates how Jesus, riding on “a young donkey” towards the city of Zion, accompanied by His disciples, “came near the path down the Mount of Olives, and the whole crowd . . . began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the miracles they had seen”(19: 30, 37-38). The excited onlookers “kept shouting: “Hosanna!He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One—the King of Israel!” (John 12:12). But as they came to a rise in the ground, and a panoramic vista of Jerusalem unfolded before them, Jesus “saw the city, and He wept over it,” before foretelling doom to come. But the moment passed and the Messiah and His followers moved onto the Temple.
It’s a dramatic moment—the triumphal entrance of the “king of the Jews”, the Son of David, into the city of David; but then the pause, that becomes prolonged, and then the tears and the prophecy of destruction. But what we often miss is the significance of those words, “He wept over it”.
Frequently in the gospels, events come in threes. And Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem are the central episode in a trilogy of lachrymose stories: Christ cried over Lazarus, and over Zion; and then His piercing gaze upon Peter after he denied his Lord prompted Simon, “the stone” as Jesus had nicknamed him, to weep in his turn.
Only days before, Jesus had gone to Bethany to the tomb of Lazarus. This itself was the third in a series of resurrections: each more dramatic, more significant, and a more telling witness to the Savior’s power, than the last. In the first year of His ministry, having exorcised demons near Gerasa, Jesus brought back to life the daughter of Jairus, patron of a Galilean synagogue. She was only newly deceased; in fact her body was still in the house. In the second year of ministry, Christ raised to life the widow's son in Nain. He was only recently dead, for his body was being removed to the cemetery. But in Bethany, Lazarus was long dead, buried, and in all probability, putrefied after four days in the tomb.
In all three cases, Jesus seems to have been genuinely moved by the grief of the family members. This certainly prompted him to help Jairus. At Nain, Jesus met the widow and the funeral procession of her son and we are explicitly told: “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’” (Luke 7:13). The greatest emotion, though, came at Bethany. Mary threw herself at His feet and fell into tears, reproaching the Messiah for not miraculously curing her brother. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Famously, “Jesus wept.” (John 15:33, 35).
There was, though, another element to the resurrection of Lazarus. The Sadducees and other skeptics attacked the possibility of resurrection by various nit-picking arguments. One recorded in ancient literature is: “If a fish eats a man, and another man eats that fish,how can both men be raised again?” This was based on the presumption that the form a man or woman’s body takes at death is the form in which it will be resurrected—this prompted some early Seventh-day Adventists to refuse cremation! In its extreme form, the argument was that once a human body had begun to dissolve, resurrection was impossible. To doubters, Christ’s raising of the Galilean girl and the boy at Nain would have been remarkable but not seemed impossibly miraculous, because of the relative freshness of the corpses. Even apart from the query skeptics still pose, as to whether they were really dead (so that “all” Christ would have done would be to cure a mortal illness), the cynics of the day would have said that such an immediate restoration, while miraculous, was at least possible. Whereas resurrection of a cadaver that had begun to putrefy was simply impossible—it would defy even divine intervention.
Thus, the resurrection of Lazarus was of a miraculous order of magnitude that left Sadducees and other skeptics deeply abashed—perhaps we might say mortified! The nature of what had happened also could not be doubted, since Lazarus’ death and his interment had been widely witnessed, and he had been in the tomb for several days. For His disciples, there was proof that even a ruined corpse could be restored (preemptive comfort for a few days hence, when they would watch His broken body interred in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden tomb). But more immediately it undoubtedly prompted the thought: Who could work such wonders? Surely only the Anointed One! And what’s more, there is no doubt that people in Judea got the point.
John’s gospel alone records the connection between the resurrection at Bethany and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. The beloved disciple wrote of “the great crowd of the Jews” who came, day-trippers, out from Jerusalem to Bethany, and “came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead” (John 12:9). Moreover, the multitude of people who “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him,” as He rode on the “young donkey” and greeted Him with hosannas, were moved by knowledge of His miraculous power and motivated by belief that this meant He was the Messiah. “So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.” (John 12: 13-14, 17-18)
Jesus Christ had wept in compassion for His friend, Lazarus, and for the grief of the latter’s family. Now He wept in compassion and out of pity for the great city: Israel’s capital, site of the temple, the Holy City of the Hebrews and of the Lord God who was about to abandon it. He foresaw its destruction and the untold suffering that would accompany it, as Roman soldiers slaughtered all through the streets where Solomon had once stepped and David had danced before the Lord. But the hardness of its inhabitants’ hearts—the fickleness of the very crowd that was even then adulating Him as their king—meant that no miracle could be worked on behalf of the Hebrew nation. By His death, however, Jesus would offer revitalization and life after death to all, Jew or gentile, who would believe in Him—a greater miracle even than that worked for Lazarus.
First, however, had to come His disciples’ infidelity and abandonment of the one they called “master”. The ultimate point in the story of Christ’s passion is, of course, His death, interment, and resurrection. But in the gospels, a key turning point in the passion narratives is Peter’s repudiation of Jesus. Peter had just declared that he would remain faithful even when all the other disciples were faithless—and, we often forget, Simon, the stone, initially walked the walk, as well as talked the talk. He had drawn his sword to protect his friend and master, cutting off the ear of one of the arresting party; the miracle that followed was not the blinding of the temple guards and the perfidious Judas, as Peter doubtless hoped, but the healing of the man he had just wounded. Then he had not totally abandoned Jesus, but rather, with John, had ventured as far as the high priest’s house. But here his courage abandons him, when, surrounded by enemies, he was challenged. His bluster did not entirely vanish, but boasts of fealty were replaced by cursing and vehement denials of Jesus.
But then the rooster crowed—“And”, we are told, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said,” and his heart was filled with guilt and remorse. “So Peter went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:60, 62)
I want to suggest that just as Jesus had compassion on Jairus and his family, on the widow and her son, and on Mary, Martha and Lazarus, so too He had compassion on Peter. For Jesus’s gaze pierced Peter’s heart; and as Christ’s tears in the cemetery at Bethany presaged corporeal revitalization, so Peter’s tears, prompted by the look in Our Lord’s eyes, led to spiritual revitalization. And while Jesus wept at His inability to save Jerusalem, He took, I think, courage for the terrible ordeal that awaited Him by knowing that it would offer the prospect of salvation to all peoples, instead of a chosen people. Our Lord’s time in and around Jerusalem immediately before the first Easter was a crucial moment, when He demonstrated His compassion for dying humanity. His tears, and those He provoked, resulted in transformation. May it be so for us, today.