The Suffering Servant we celebrate this week was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Jesus was born that he might die (Matt. 1:21). His knew suffering throughout his life—scourged with the whip, sweating drops of blood, and mourning in the face of death. “Jesus wept” is not just the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35), it’s one of the most profound statements of Christ’s humanity.
But the exalted Christ who cried over Lazarus is not crying at the right hand of God. Jesus does not continue to weep in heaven, and that is the good news we need.
I’ve written before on divine impassibility, the doctrine that says God is “without parts or passions” (WCF 2.1), that God as God does not suffer, does not change, and is never a passive agent acted upon by others. Of course, Jesus Christ suffered. That’s the point of the incarnation. In assuming a human nature, the God-man was able to do the most un-Godlike thing imaginable: he suffered and died. Tis mystery all, the immortal died! We must not dissolve the mystery by making God a suffering God. The gospel of Christ’s suffering is more glorious because God does not suffer.
So might it be possible, then, for Christ’s suffering to continue? After all, the incarnation is perpetual. Christ has not shed his human nature. Why wouldn’t he still share in all the experiences of our human nature? Perhaps the comfort we need in the midst of unprecedented trouble and uncertainty is to reflect upon a weeping Savior who weeps for us still.
But as attractive as that response to suffering may sound, it is theologically mistaken. Here are five significant problems with the notion that Jesus is in heaven weeping for us and why this sentimental view of Jesus is not actually the comfort we need.
First, the notion that Jesus still weeps undermines the completed nature of his atoning work. Surely, to weep is a sign of suffering. Jesus cannot cry in heaven without his anguish continuing for centuries and millennia. But Scripture tells us that Christ suffered once for sins (1 Pet. 3:18), and this suffering must not be limited to the cross. As à Brakel puts it, “This suffering in its entirety atoned for the sins of the elect—not merely His suffering on the cross during the three hours of darkness” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:585). In short, if Christ continues to weep, he continues to suffer, and if he continues to suffer, he cannot say about his atoning work “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Granted, there is a way in which we might speak of something “breaking the heart” of God. After all, Scripture sometimes speaks anthropomorphically of grieving God (Gen. 6:6; Psalm 78:40; Eph. 4:30). But this language is never used of Christ in heaven, let alone in a way that conjures up images of literal tears. Moreover, it’s striking that the language of grieving God always has to do with our sin, which is not what the proponents of a heavenly weeping Christ envision.
Second, to think of the Son of God crying in heaven confuses the state of exaltation with the state of humiliation. Theologians have historically spoken of the two states of Christ’s work—the state of humiliation in which Christ merited salvation for the elect, and the state of exaltation in which he applies this salvation to the elect. Humiliation has two parts: Christ suffering for the purpose of satisfaction, and Christ putting himself under the law for the purpose of meriting salvation. Suffering, not the incarnation itself, is at the heart of the state of humiliation.
Most evangelical Christians have a grasp on the humiliation of Christ—especially, and rightly, during Holy Week. But we often have an underdeveloped appreciation for the exaltation of Christ. The two states must go together: exaltation is made possible by prior humiliation, and the purpose of humiliation is to give way to exaltation. In the state of exaltation, we reflect upon Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and session.
If Jesus has been resurrected, he has been raised incorruptible, with a glorified body that is no longer subject to pain and suffering and the privations of the flesh.
If Jesus has ascended, he has won the right to set the captives free and give gifts to men.
And if Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, his work is completed, and he been given the right to reign.
Not everything true of Christ before glory is true of the glorified Christ now. Are we in danger of finding himself asleep? Or hungry? Or exhausted at the end of a long day? Just as an imperishable body, victory over death, and universal dominion did not belong to Christ in the state of humiliation, so the life of suffering, weeping, and death do not belong to Christ in the state of exaltation.
Third, to insist upon a crying Savior in heaven misunderstands Christ’s ongoing mediatorial work. An appeal to the tears of Jesus gets this much right: it wants to affirm that Christ is is not indifferent to our suffering and unwilling to help. But the ongoing mediatorial work of Christ is not in suffering but in intercession.
We should not confuse the sympathy of Christ with contemporary notions of sentimentality. As I wrote recently:
It is a glory beyond measure that the incarnate and perpetual God-man is able to sympathize with our weakness, but sympathy itself is not the point (interestingly, the text doesn’t say he sympathizes with us, but with our weaknesses). The point is that because of the Son’s identification with his brothers he can help us. Surely, it’s significant that the two great Christological identification passages in Hebrews—chapter 2 and chapter 4—conclude with the reassurance that our faithful high priest will help us (Heb. 2:18; 4:16). The emphasis is not on Jesus feeling the right thing in heaven. Rather, the good news is that because he has felt what we felt, he will surely come to our aid. The doctrine of our sympathetic Savior should not be construed as the triumph of sentimentality.
The point of Hebrews is not “because Jesus wept, he still weeps,” but “because Jesus wept, he can help.” This is why the New Testament makes so much of Christ’s intercession (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25; 8:1; 9:24; 1 John 2:1). The suffering and death of Christ were “preparatory and antecedent to his intercession” (Turretin, Elenctic Theology, 14.8.10). Suffering was the part of his priestly work done on earth; intercession is the part of his priesthood to be performed in heaven. Christ procured salvation by his suffering; he continues to apply it by his intercession.
Fourth, if Jesus weeps for us still, it makes heaven a world of ongoing grief. The depiction of heaven in the Bible (even in the intermediate state) is one of unceasing joy and delight. It is the longing of every believer (2 Cor. 5:1-8; Phil. 1:21). Life after death is for Jesus, and for all the elect, a paradise (Luke 23:43). It is hard to imagine how heaven can be a place of rest and reward if those there—be it a sympathetic Christ or our sympathetic loved ones—continue to suffer through the torment and anguish of earthly sorrow. The notion that Christ still suffers in heaven can be an unwitting step toward process theology, the idea that God must help us in order to be set free himself from constant grief.
Fifth, a constantly weeping Christ draws the wrong lesson from the presence of the Crucified One in glory. We must never lose sight of the wounds of Christ. Carl Henry was right: “It is into the why of Calvary that we can now focus every other me of human existence” (God, Revelation, and Authority, 6:299). Let us never stop marveling at the man-identifying, God-satisfying suffering of Christ.
And yet, our comfort is not that Christ is still bound up in our sorrow, but that because he suffered for our sake we can be caught up into his glory. Suffering itself is not sacred. Christ sanctified suffering because he suffered for a purpose. He suffered to save the lost. The aim of Christ’s ongoing priestly intercession is not for Christ to continue to participate in the life of suffering on earth, but for believers to participate in the life of God in heaven. The one who for our sake became poor, the one who took upon himself the form of a servant, the one who died as a crucified criminal has conquered death and triumphantly reigns in heaven. Christ is the first fruits of the glorious life that awaits all those who trust in him.
The good news we need is not found in bringing the exalted Son back down into our misery. The good news is that he experienced worse than we will ever experience and has purchased the right to set us free from all misery. We do not need Jesus to weep any more. We need him to reign, and we need him to return. “Keep your eye fixed upon your future felicity and look away from this world, for this is not the land of your rest” (à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:621).