These two words fascinated me when I was younger. Not because Jesus performed this basic biological act (He was fully human, after all), but because it seemed so, well, unnecessary. I had to become “acquainted with grief” as He was (Isa. 53:3) before I could fully understand. For us, there’s no shortage of motivations to cry: fear, joy, anger, sadness. We weep for things large and small, and never more so than when we recognize our utter powerlessness against illness and death. But Jesus? Why would He seemingly waste time grieving over Lazarus, knowing full well He had control over mortality itself and had already proven so not once but twice? (See Mark 5:35-43 and Luke 7:11-17.) Just weeks before His crucifixion and resurrection—the most miraculous triumph over death the world would ever know—He stood outside His friend’s tomb, “deeply moved within,” and cried alongside two grieving sisters (John 11:38).
Of the four gospels, Luke’s is the one where Jesus’ humanity is most fully on display, which makes perfect sense, considering the author was a physician—a man deeply invested in understanding the intricacies of the human body. Perhaps that’s why his account contains the most comprehensive record of Jesus’ birth and early life (including His genealogy). Eleven of Christ’s 15 prayers are found in Luke’s gospel, and his is the only narrative in which Jesus prays from the cross for His murderers’ forgiveness (Luke 23:34). And even in places where the Synoptic Gospels are in agreement, Luke’s record is the most gritty and packed with detail. For instance, concerning Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, only Luke makes mention of the fact that it was so intense His sweat “became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22:44).
In His humanity, Jesus experienced pain and suffering as we do. And all the while, because His divinity was never set aside, He understood what had been lost in Eden and would one day be regained. But since our years are few and our vision shortsighted, we typically grieve what is, whereas Christ grieved for what had been, what was, and what was yet to be. Mark 7:31-37 offers proof of this, though we must dig back into the original Greek to fully grasp it. Presented with a man “who was deaf and spoke with difficulty,” the Lord healed him in a literally hands-on way: “Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ that is, ‘Be opened!’” It’s what happened in the space between these two steps that’s interesting.
Verse 34 says that Jesus spoke “looking up to heaven with a deep sigh.” The Greek word translated as “deep sigh” is stenazó, which means “to groan (within oneself).” This isn’t the noise we make when someone tells a particularly awful dad joke or when we are given a task we loathe. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is the result of “pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth)” or more figuratively because one feels “pressure from what is coming on—which can be intensely pleasant or anguishing (depending on the context).” This groaning comes from a deep place—one far beyond anything words or sounds can convey.
Stenazó also occurs elsewhere in the New Testament, perhaps most famously in Romans, when Paul says, “The whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:22-23). Here, the word seems more apropos. All is brokenness, and we, God’s greatest creation, have fallen far from our once perfect home. We are in anguish and groan under the pressure of grief. But again, why is Jesus expressing such a sentiment with the deaf man?
I am the mother of a hearing-impaired child and know full well the losses and hardships that come with such a disability. Our family often enjoys performances at the symphony, but each time we attend, I grieve because my son can never truly experience music the way the rest of us do. The coy dance between flute and piano in Sergei Prokofiev’s Flute Sonata in D is lost on him, as are the thrilling, thundering bass lines of Modest Mussorgky’s Night on Bald Mountain. Even his grasp of the English language will never be the same as that of a hearing child, for words are as much a delight for the ears as the eyes. (Don’t believe me? Stop reading for a moment and say the word mellifluous out loud. I dare you.)
Sometimes he asks me to describe certain sounds or melodies to him and explain why they move me so deeply. Though I always do my best, I know it is a poor attempt at capturing the beauty humanity has managed to create in this shattered world. In those moments, my only solace is to remember that one day “the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will shout for joy” (Isa. 35:5-6). It wasn’t always this way, I tell myself. And one day my boy, like all things, will be made whole. But until then, I—much like my very human Lord and Savior—groan and hope for what’s to come.
Jesus came to make all things new, and He began this great work one quiet miracle at a time. Every leper and demoniac He cleansed, every crippled limb He made sound, every eye He enlivened and ear He unstopped was a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth, the promise given to us in Revelation 21. And those who saw His handiwork knew in a bone-deep way that they were glimpsing something of the eternal. Why else would their words—“He has done all things well”—so closely echo God’s blessing of His work, all of which He called “very good” (Mark 7:37; Gen. 1:31)?
In the moments when pain and loss are too vast to fill, I take comfort in the risen Christ, who fully experienced everything humanity had to offer—including tears, death, and all that comes after. But He did so knowing a better day was fast approaching and suffered to make it possible.
Because Jesus groaned, I can wait.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft