Was Jesus “deeply moved” or “furious” at the tomb of Lazarus?

Q. In Nancy Pearcey’s new book Love Thy Body, she states that though many English translations say that Jesus was “deeply moved and troubled” at the tomb of Lazarus, the original Greek actually means that he expressed “furious indignation.” Pearcey then quotes Os Guinness as saying that Jesus was outraged because “evil is not normal” and that the death of Lazarus was contrary to the good and beautiful world God had originally created. What are your thoughts on this?

I have not yet read Love Thy Body, and I also have not yet read The Dust of Death, which is the book by Os Guiness that she is quoting from, so nothing I say here should be taken as an informed comment on the overall argument of either of those books. I can, however, offer my thoughts about the translation of the Greek expression that’s used to describe Jesus’ reaction at the tomb of Lazarus.

First let me quote Pearcey more fully, relying on a citation I have found online: “Why did Jesus weep at the tomb of Lazarus even though he knew he was about to raise him from the dead? Because ‘the beautiful body was split apart.’ The text says twice that Jesus was ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33, 38). In the original Greek, this phrase actually means furious indignation. It was used, for example, of war horses rearing up just before charging into battle. Os Guinness, formerly at L’Abri, explains that standing before the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus ‘is outraged. Why? Evil is not normal.’ The world was created good and beautiful, but now ‘he’d entered his Father’s world that had become ruined and broken. And his reaction? He was furious.’ Jesus wept at the pain and sorrow caused by the enemy invasion that had devastated his beautiful creation. Christians are never admonished to accept death as a natural part of creation.”

To assess these claims, let us explore the use of the Greek verb embrimáomai, which is the term that Pearcey says indicates “furious indignation.” It is true that it has a literal meaning of “snort”; it’s used in plays by Aeschylus and Lucian to describe the snorting of horses. However, we need to recognize that words have figurative as well as literal meanings. In linguistics it’s known as the “root fallacy” to hold that words carry their original, literal meanings with them everywhere they go. They don’t.

For example, this same verb is used in the two following accounts:

Two blind men call out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” He touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” (Matthew 9:29–30)

A leper comes to Jesus and asks to be made clean. He reached out his hand and touched the man. … Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. (Mark 1:41–44)

Clearly the meaning in these two passages is not that Jesus was feeling furious indignation. Rather, he was “admonishing urgently,” which Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon lists as another, figurative meaning of embrimáomai.

Another use of the verb in the gospels, however, does come closer to the meaning of anger:

A woman anoints Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. (Mark 14:4–5)

So we see that the term can have the meaning of anger and indignation, but that this has to be determined from the context. So what about the context at the tomb of Lazarus? Two things there indicate that Jesus probably was not “furious,” but “deeply moved” (as many English versions put it; Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament lists this as a further meaning of the word). First, Jesus wept. And second, the text says that the strong emotion being reported was internal, “in his spirit.” One would expect “furious indignation” to have primarily an external expression instead.

So I think we need to conclude that embrimáomai is used figuratively in the gospels to indicate strong emotion, but that we need to determine from the context whether this is anger, urgency, or grief. One further observation is that even if Jesus actually was “furious” at the tomb of Lazarus (and the context suggests otherwise), the text itself would not be telling us why this was the case. Pearcey and Guiness would be supplying their own theological rationale for this, but many other explanations could also be offered. Nothing in the account intrinsically rules out death having a place in how God works in the world.

Personally I find that the following quotation, taken from a longer meditation that has been making the rounds recently on social media, captures very well what Jesus was actually doing at the tomb of Lazarus:

”He cried. He knew Lazarus was dead before he got the news, but still, he cried. He knew Lazarus would be alive again in moments, but still, he cried. … He wept because knowing the end of the story doesn’t mean you can’t cry at the sad parts.”

James Tissot, “Jesus Wept” (Brooklyn Museum)

Will the earth be “destroyed by fire” or “found”?

Q. I recently heard someone say, in order to support the idea that we need to care for creation, that the statement in 2 Peter often translated as “the earth and everything in it will be burned up” would be much better translated “the earth will be found.” Do you agree with that? I was always under the impression that the Biblical teaching was that the earth would ultimately be destroyed, which seems consistent with Revelation 21 when it talks about a new heaven and a new earth “coming down” to replace (?) the first heaven and the first earth after they have passed away.

Is this the fate the Bible predicts for the earth?

The issue in the 2 Peter passage is not actually one of translation, but of textual criticism. This is one of the many places where the ancient manuscripts we have of the Bible differ in what they say, and so we need to try to figure out what the original reading was.

One principle of textual criticism is that the reading that best explains the origins of the others is most likely to be the original. And while there is actual a much wider variety of readings than usual in this case, there is one reading that does seem to account for all the others. But this is only because that reading seems to make so little sense in the context that it appears to have generated a variety of attempts to account for it.

Many ancient manuscripts do indeed read, “The earth will be found.” This would mean, on the face of it, that if you look for it, it will still be there. But this seems to contradict the other things Peter says will happen on the “day of the Lord”: “the heavens will disappear with a roar, and the elements will melt and disintegrate.” So we would actually expect Peter to say just the opposite, that the earth will no longer be found. He seems to be offering a Hebrew-style poetic parallelism, with the three-fold repetition that was used for finality and emphasis. Creation is being depicted in three parts, and so we would indeed expect something like, “The heavens will disappear, the elements will melt, and the earth will be gone.”

As Bruce Metzger helpfully documents in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, ancient copyists dealt with this apparent problem in a variety of ways. Some added a negative: “The earth will not be found.” Others added an extra term to create readings such as, “The earth will be found dissolved.” And still others changed the verb: “The earth will disappear,” or, “The earth will be burned up.”

Modern scholars, Metzger continues, have made their own proposals. One has suggested that arga, “useless,” dropped out after erga, “works,” because of the similarity between the two words, and that the original reading was, “The earth and the things in it will be found useless.” Other scholars have proposed Greek terms that are similar in sound and spelling to “will be found” and that seem to accord better with the context: “will flow,” “will flow together,” “will burn to ashes,” “will be taken away,” etc. (If I had to choose one of these, I’d choose arthesetai, “taken away,” because it’s the most similar to eurethesetai, “found.”)

Finally, I would add, Bible translations, if they don’t choose one of the alternatives (“burned up” is most common), offer their own interpretations of what “will be found” might mean. But these are uniformly negative, in keeping with the general sense of the passage, rather than positive in the sense of the earth being preserved: “the earth and the works on it will be disclosed” or “exposed” or “seen for what they are” or “laid bare” or “exposed to the scrutiny of judgment.” So there really isn’t a mandate for creation care in those translations.

I personally think that if “found” is the original reading, it most likely has a sense of “laid bare” or “exposed,” that is, of everything being stripped away. But even if this is a description of the destruction of the physical creation, and even if the passage you cite from Revelation does depict the present heavens and earth ultimately being replaced, I still think there is a mandate for us to take good care of the creation while it’s here and while we are living on it.

As I say in another recent post on this blog, “We express our faith in what we believe Jesus will do when he returns by the way we live as we are expecting him. Under the reign of Jesus, the physical creation [whether new or renewed] will be healthy and beautiful. And because we believe that, we should do everything we can to help it be as healthy and beautiful as possible even now. Otherwise, Jesus would have every right to ask us, ‘If you knew that this was what I was going to do when I came back, why didn’t you get started on it while you were waiting for me?'”

So I think it’s actually helpful to point out that there likely isn’t a direct statement in 2 Peter to the effect that “the earth and everything in it will be burned up.” I think it’s helpful to observe that this statement rather says, more cryptically, that the earth will be “found.” As we’re trying to puzzle out what that means, we might end up thinking a little more carefully about how we can take good care of this earth while we still have it. And I believe that would be a good thing.

Why does God allow religious wars and persecutions?

Q. I firmly believe that God created Heaven and Earth, and is still in control! It troubles me, however, when you look back through history and see all of the people unjustly killed and persecuted in the name of religion. Not only do these wars and persecutions seem unbiblical, they have done harm in promoting the kingdom and bringing people to Christ. Why has God allowed these events when in fact they seem counterproductive, in our eyes anyway, to His plans? Thank you.

This question is another specific case of a general issue that I address in an earlier post on this blog entitled, “Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?” In that post I suggest that “without freedom there can be no love. But freedom creates the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of suffering, as freedom can be, and is, misused. I believe that God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world with both love and suffering is infinitely better than a world with neither love nor suffering, and that those are the only two possibilities.”

Religious wars and persecutions are a very disturbing example of the misuse of freedom, since, as you note, in the name of Christ they actually undermine the cause and reputation of Christ (when they are carried out by Christian people). When we see the devastation that they bring, it can be a real challenge for us to continue to affirm the things I say just above. Those things can seem abstract, while the pain of the world is very real. But I think that if we respond to that pain through persistent faith in God and love for others, then we fill find that this response is just as real. If there is to be love in the world at the price of suffering, then let us do all that we can to overcome that suffering through love.

How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven?

Q. How can I know for certain that I will go to heaven? I have of course recognized my sin and asked the Lord into my life to take control of all of it.

What you’re asking about is sometimes known as “assurance of salvation.” It’s one of the main themes of the biblical book of First John, so I’ll answer your question from that book. What we find there is that there isn’t one single means by which we get assurance; rather, it comes through a combination of things.

One thing that John writes in this letter is, “We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.” He adds, “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” This is sometimes put this way: “Progress in sanctification is necessary for assurance of salvation.” That is, as we find ourselves, as a result of the Holy Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives, living more and more in the way God intends, this assures us that we truly  do belong to Him.

Right after this, John says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness, but anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light.” So another sign that God has saved us is that our relationships are transformed. We become more and more able to love others; we live out this love by helping and serving and forgiving them.

A bit later John speaks of those who “went out from us, but did not really belong to us, for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” In other words, remaining within the community of Jesus’ followers,  persevering in the faith, is another sign of genuine belief. “Continue in him,” John says, “so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” God wants us to receive this confidence, this assurance, through the way we see our faith persevere over time and despite difficulties.

Further on John says, “This is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” So our awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives is something that gives us further assurance of salvation.

John does also say, near the end of his letter, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” So there is indeed an aspect of putting our faith and trust in Jesus as our Savior, as you describe. But the practical themes of living as God commands, loving others, persevering in the faith, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work are woven through the entire letter, like the different themes of a musical composition. So we see that this belief is meant to be manifested in practical ways, and this is what really gives us assurance.

John concludes, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So assurance of salvation is clearly something that God wants each believer to have. But it comes from reflecting on our own lives, from recognizing the progress we are making under the influence of God’s Spirit. Confessing our sin and turning our lives over to God is a necessary start. But it’s what God does with our lives from there that gives us the confidence that we truly do belong to Him.

So how about you? Are you finding that, by God’s grace and with His help, you’re more and more able to live as He wishes? Do you have greater love for others, expressed in greater patience, forgiveness, and practical compassion in dealing with them? Are you persevering in your commitment to Jesus, “no turning back, no turning back”? Are you discovering that the Holy Spirit is very much living inside you and bringing about transformation? Then all of these things, building on your initial confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior, should indeed give you confidence that you have “eternal life.”

And that phrase actually means more than going to heaven when you die. It’s not just a quantitative term (life of infinite duration), it’s a qualitative one—it means life that is better and greater because it’s lived in relationship and fellowship with God. And we are meant to enjoy that even in this life.

Why will there still be sacrifices in the future millennial kingdom?

Q. When Jesus died on the cross God split the veil of the temple giving access to himself thru Christ. Making that system no longer valid. Why then does it talk about in the future millennial kingdom that the sacrifices will continue?

I believe you are referring to the way the restored temple in Ezekiel’s vision still has facilities for preparing and offering “burnt offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.” Interpreters who understand this vision to depict the future millennial kingdom of Christ explain that these sacrifices will be offered in honor and memory of what Jesus did on the cross. The sacrifices under the old covenant looked forward to the death of Jesus; these future sacrifices will look back upon the death of Jesus, just as every time we take the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” “in remembrance of him.”

Should the Bible’s inspiration be described as “verbal plenary”?

Q. I have been taught that the correct description of how the Bible was inspired is “verbal plenary.” Is that supported by what the Bible actually says about itself, or is there a more accurate description? Is “verbal plenary inspiration” what orthodox Christians (a majority? a minority? a fringe?) have held to throughout history? Thanks!

Those who hold to the “verbal plenary inspiration” of Scripture believe that every  word throughout the Bible was individually inspired by God. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the Bible’s inspiration was first described this way by Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield in their article “Inspiration,” which appeared in The Presbyterian Review in April 1881. In that article, they stated their conviction that “the divine superintendence, which we call Inspiration, extended to the verbal expression [i.e. words] of the thoughts of the sacred writers, as well as to the thoughts themselves.”

So to answer the last part of your question first, this is not a belief that orthodox Christians have held to throughout history, at least not under that name. Rather, Christians in all times and places have held more generally to the belief that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “all Scripture is inspired by God.” Many translations now render this phrase as “all Scripture is God-breathed” or “all Scripture is breathed out by God,” reflecting the Greek term theopneustos. (The English word “inspired” is itself based on the root for “breathe.”)

So Christians believe that in some way the Scriptures are the “breath of God,” that is, something that emanates directly from Him. But they have always held various views about on what level inspiration actually resides. Some indeed believe that it is effective on the level of the words of Scripture (verbal plenary), while others believe that it’s the biblical authors intended meaning that is inspired. Still others say that the story of God’s saving actions in human history is what is inspired within the Bible. There are other views as well.

So the specifics of where inspiration resides seem to me to be a matter on which Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, can legitimately differ. As a result, I think any Christian would be well advised to be “fully convinced in their own mind” on the matter, but at the same time to be charitable towards those who hold different views that nevertheless respect the Bible as “breathed out by God.”

Why should we recycle plastics if Jesus is coming back soon?

Q. A Christian friend of mine goes to a lot of trouble to recycle plastics because, he says, he doesn’t want them “sitting in a landfill for centuries.” But wouldn’t Jesus have come back long before then?

Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers have had the lively expectation that he could return at any time, and they have been right to have that expectation. But where would we be today if people living many centuries ago had said, “It’s all right if we do things that could permanently damage the environment, because Jesus could return at any time”? In the same way, we need to be concerned about the generations that will come after us if Jesus doesn’t return soon.

Beyond that, we express our faith in what we believe Jesus will do when he returns by the way we live as we are expecting him. Under the reign of Jesus, the physical creation will be healthy and beautiful. And because we believe that, we should everything we can to help it be as healthy and beautiful as possible even now. Otherwise, Jesus would have every right to ask us, “If you knew that this was what I was going to do when I came back, why didn’t you get started on it while you were waiting for me?”

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” That means, among other things, “Lord Jesus, please come back soon and deliver this world from everything that’s wrong with it.” I personally hope that Jesus will answer that prayer and come back very soon. But whether it’s ultimately a long time or a short time, we should be cooperating now with what we recognize his program will be when he does return.