I once heard a country preacher say that, in life, some things are better felt than tell’t. Unusual grammar aside, his point was that life is not a theoretical exercise. It needs to be experienced, and there is no substitute for that real-world experience, as first time participants in the Super Bowl can attest. Nothing can prepare you for the three-ring circus of media scrutiny, 24/7 exposure to the public, or the extraordinary pressure of playing in the biggest game of your life before a global television audience numbering in the millions or even billions. Repeat Super Bowl participants speak openly of the advantage there is to having experienced all of that before. It is something better felt than tell’t.
This is part of what makes the incarnation of Jesus so remarkable. He did not simply come in human flesh to be a spectator. The Christ came to fully and completely engage life. Jesus did not come into this world to merely observe life in a broken world, but to experience it. And what He experienced included some of life’s most difficult moments.
Sorrow Over Rejection. All of us have experienced rejection of some kind. For some this rejection was a broken relationship. For others, it was an unexpected job termination. For still others, it could include being cut from a sports team or being voted off of the latest and greatest televised talent show (or whatever its equivalent would be in normal life).
Why is rejection so personal? Rejection silently (or, at times, loudly) communicates to us we are unwanted, unneeded, or unvalued—and all of those signals create within us a deep sense of unworthiness. The larger question, however, is this: If rejection can make us feel unworthy, what does it tell us when the most thoroughly worthy person in the history of the world also experienced rejection? We see that happen on two levels in Luke 13:
31 Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, “Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You.” 32And He said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal.’ 33 Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem. 34O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it! 35 Behold, your house is left to you desolate; and I say to you, you will not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord!’” (luke 13:31–35)
Consider that this story of Jesus’s rejection by Jerusalem begins with a smaller, more personal rejection. Herod Antipas was a son of Herod the Great and the sub-regent king of Judea under Rome. Later, Luke tells us that Herod will want to be entertained by Jesus following the Master’s arrest (luke 23:6–12). Here, however, Herod sees Jesus as a threat and wants to kill Him. Why? Luke 9:7–9 may give the reason. Herod seems to think that Jesus is John the Baptizer returned from the dead. And since Herod had killed John, he now wants to kill Jesus as well. Extreme rejection, indeed!
Surprisingly, it is the Pharisees— normally Jesus’s adversaries—who warn Him of the danger. Why? The Bible Knowledge Commentary offers this possibility:
Why would the Pharisees have wanted to protect Jesus in this instance? It seems best to understand the incident as the Pharisees’ pretext to get rid of Jesus. Jesus had publicly stated that His goal was to reach Jerusalem, and He was well on His way. Thus the Pharisees were apparently trying to deter Him from His task, to scare Him into setting aside His goal.
But, the key to Luke 13 is that, although Jerusalem was Jesus’s goal and destination, He already knew that Jerusalem had rejected Him. In spite of the yet-to-come “triumphal” entry, Jesus laments that He had longed to gather them to Himself like a mother hen gathers her chicks (v. 34), but they refused to come to Him. Bible teacher Warren W. Wiersbe wrote:
“The people had been given many opportunities to repent and be saved, but they had refused to heed His call. ‘House’ refers both to the ‘family’ of Jacob (‘the house of Israel’) and to the temple (‘the house of God’), both of which would be ‘left desolate.’ The city and temple were destroyed and the people were scattered.”
Jerusalem rejected Jesus, to their great harm. Make no mistake; Jesus felt this rejection deeply, as is clearly seen in the depth of His lament.
Sorrow Over Grief. The first close death I ever experienced was the sudden passing of one of my best friends in college, Macauley Rivera. Mac and his girlfriend, Sharon, were killed in a tragic accident. The sense of loss I felt was deep and intense. Four years later, I lost my Dad, and my personal sense of loss intensified even further. The grief that travels with death can be suffocating—and Jesus experienced it in John’s well-known account of the death of our Lord’s dear friend, Lazarus.
It seems unlikely that this is the first time Jesus had ever faced the death of a loved one. By this time in His life, Jesus appears to have already lost His earthly stepfather, Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. Still, John 11 records the primary time in the gospels where we see Jesus in a situation of personal grief and loss.
The context tells us that Lazarus’s sisters sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was dying—but our Lord failed to respond immediately, because He knew what He would do. Notice:
But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” (john 11:4)
11 This He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” 12 The disciples then said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. 14 So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” (john 11:11–14)
Without question, Jesus knew what He was going to do, yet He still grieved when He arrived at the gravesite and encountered Lazarus’s brokenhearted sisters (Martha and Mary) and their grieving community. See how intensely Jesus grieves in response to the death of His friend:
33 When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” 38 So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. (john 11:33–38, emphasis added)
The vocabulary John used to describe Jesus’s grief is powerful. In addition to describing the Savior as “troubled” and weeping, John says that Jesus was “deeply moved” at the death of His friend.
Jesus knew that He would use the power of God to raise Lazarus to life again, yet still He grieved. And with great intensity. That is telling. Jesus came to do battle with death—and this was the face of His enemy. So, He grieves over the power and impact of that enemy that He had come to destroy. As Paul would later write, “The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 corinthians 15:26). Death is not a small thing—and it isn’t to our God either, for Psalm 116:15 reminds us:
Precious in the sight of the lord
Is the death of His godly ones.
In fact, God is even moved by the death of evil people. The prophet Ezekiel tells us:
“Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,” declares the lord god,
“rather than that he should turn from his ways and live? (ezekiel 18:23)
“As I live!” declares the lord god, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked,
but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from
your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?” (33:11)
Sorrow of Anticipated Suffering. My first time leading a study group to Israel was a breathtaking experience. We spent our first night in that tiny nation in a hotel on Mount Carmel. From there we went on to see places of great biblical significance (Megiddo, the Sea of Galilee, and more) or historical import (Masada, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial). The trip was a whirlwind of immersive learning and growth.
There was one spot, however, that transcended the rest—a place that seemed to fit the definition of a “holy” place. It was the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus’s suffering began. My own experience there was sobering as I contemplated Jesus’s agony in prayer in that sacred space. Gospel writers Matthew and Mark described Jesus’s experience in that garden with similar language:
38 Then He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” 39 And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (matthew 26:38–39, emphasis added)
32 They came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” 33 And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. 34 And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” (mark 14:32–33, emphasis added)
Here we see Jesus’s sorrow in anticipation of the cross—a sorrow that seems defined by dread. That sorrow had already been expressed in two different moments. The first moment came when a request from the Gentiles to see Jesus is brought to Him in the temple. As if to indicate the larger scope of the Father’s plans, Jesus reacted:
“Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.” (john 12:27, emphasis added)
Then, the second moment occurred in the upper room with Judas’s betrayal of Christ.
When Jesus had said this, He became troubled in spirit, and testified and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, that one of you will betray Me.” (john 13:21, emphasis added)
In these moments, John described Jesus as troubled. This word pictures someone who is agitated, distressed, stirred up, or anxious. In spite of who Jesus was and why He had come, anguish filled His heart over what awaited Him.
These moments of sorrow prepared the way for Jesus’s time in Gethsemane, where He would wrestle with the absolute reality of what awaited Him on the cross. Jesus went from being troubled to being “deeply grieved” and “very distressed” as well. Now, in Gethsemane, that anguish bubbles to the surface.
The weight of what is coming lands fully on Jesus in Gethsemane—the place of the olive press. The crushing of olives under the weight of the millstone in an olive press forms an appropriate picture of the crushing that prompts Jesus’s prayer for release from this responsibility. How intense is the troubling of heart that He feels? So intense that He prays for this release three times. Still, Jesus would submit to the Father’s purposes and to our needs—and bear our griefs and sorrows on the cross.
This brings us to the cross itself.
Sorrow in Experiencing the Cross. Have you ever had a moment where you suddenly felt you understood the weightiness of the cross and what Jesus endured there in a fresh, new way? For me it was in 1978 as I sat in a recording studio in Nashville working on our college musical group’s new album. The engineer, Travis Turk, said he wanted me to hear something that, to that point, no one had heard. He turned down the lights, started a tape, and left me alone in the studio—listening to the opening chords of Phil Johnson’s haunting song of the cross The Day He Wore My Crown. It was a stunning moment as I considered all that Jesus had endured for the world, and for me.
Now, we arrive at the cross—and we witness how the Man of sorrows experienced it.
45 Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?” (matthew 27:45–46, emphasis added)
This brings us back to where we began. We started by seeing Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Savior, specifically where he said:
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
(isaiah 53:3–4, emphasis added)
The sorrows Isaiah specifically described are the sufferings that Jesus fully and finally experienced on the cross. Now, that sorrow is in focus as Jesus takes the words of David from Psalm 22—His cry of abandonment in the darkness of Calvary. The amazing consequence of Jesus’s sorrow, however, is that it would ultimately fuel His joy:
Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (hebrews 12:2, emphasis added)
Just as Jesus bore our grief and carried our sorrows, His sacrifice on the cross was the ultimate expression of His love for us. There, He not only bore our griefs and sorrows, He bore the sin and failure that causes those burdens and all the pain produced by them. It is His comprehensive victory over the brokenness of our world, yet it stirred Him to cry out in grief.
That cry of grief would lead to an ultimate cry of victory. Jesus’ declaration, “It is finished!” (john 19:30) is the victory born out of His personal experience of sorrow and over the array of sorrows He carried on our behalf.