Angry at Death: Reading John 11

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Having been a pastor and professor for a couple of decades, I’ve heard (and spoken) my share of funeral sermons. At times, quite ironically it seems, death is almost personified and praised as the great deliverer, the one who relieves our loved ones of unbearable pain and suffering. And while I understand the “blessing” of death to cease suffering, I can’t help but think of the New Testament portrayal of death as “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26; cf. 2 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 20:14; 21:4). The story of Jesus’s response to the death of his friend Lazarus in John 11 brings not only comfort and hope but much-needed wisdom and perspective.

Jesus is most certainly saddened by Lazarus’s death: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). The incarnation means that Jesus has come fully and deeply into our pain and suffering. But there’s more. The Greek term embrimáomai in 11:33 and 38 is often translated “deeply moved” (NIV, HCSB, ESV) or something similar. Yet the use of the term elsewhere in Scripture and in the immediate context suggests a different meaning here.

The word is used in classical Greek of horses “snorting” as they prepare to charge the enemy. It also refers to “indignation” or “rage” in the Greek Old Testament (Lam. 2:6; Dan. 11:30). The word is used with a similar meaning in the Gospels: Jesus “sternly warns” other men (Mark 1:43; Matthew 9:30) and people “rebuke” and “scold” a woman (Mark 14:5). The great Johannine scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg concludes that “The word . . . indicates an outburst of anger, and any attempt to interpret it in terms of an internal emotional upset caused by grief, pain or sympathy is illegitimate.”[1] The New Living Translation captures the idea: “a deep anger welled up within him” (11:33) and “Jesus was still angry as he arrived at the tomb” (11:38).

The Gospels so rarely tell us how Jesus feels about anything, that this portrayal of his emotions is striking and significant. We have a window into how Jesus feels about the suffering and death of beloved people: a deep, complicated mixture of sadness and anger.

I sense that Jesus’s anger is directed toward death as the enemy who so brazenly robs us of our precious loved ones. His indignation is aimed at sin, sickness, suffering, and death, and what these enemies are doing to the people we love. While overwhelmed with sadness and grief (“Jesus wept”), he is also righteous with rage. He’s fighting mad and furious at these evil powers for hurting the people he loves deeply.

My reading above is supported by the string of commands that follow in the Lazarus story. In my experience, grief-stricken people don’t normally have the emotional energy to start issuing rapid-fire commands as Jesus does here (NIV):

  • 11:39 → “Take away the stone”
  • 11:40 → “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (a question that functions like a command here.)
  • 11:43 → “Lazarus, come out!”
  • 11:44 → “Take off the grave clothes and let him go!”

Martha was right (11:24): one day God will resurrect his children. Jesus is the resurrection! But Jesus is also the life—and the life starts here and now. And while we can be deeply grateful that our loved one is no longer suffering, we can also acknowledge that death is the final enemy and shouldn’t be given credit for deliverance from something for which it is ultimately to blame.

In the midst of your suffering and struggle, Jesus grieves alongside you. But your loss not only grieves Jesus, it also angers him deeply. He’s angry at sin, sickness, disease, and death for hurting his precious children. And his raising of Lazarus is merely a glimpse of what he has planned for all his children in our hopeful future.


[1] Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to St. John, 3 vols. (London: Burns & Oates, 1968–82), 2:335.