Question: "What does it mean to groan in the spirit (John 11:33)?"
Answer: One of the most heart-wrenching experiences in Jesus Christ’s life was the death of His friend Lazarus. Scripture says that, when Jesus saw Lazarus’ sister Mary and those around her weeping in grief, He “groaned in the spirit and was troubled” (John 11:33, NKJV).
Some Bible translators render the phrase “groaned in the spirit” as “deeply moved in spirit” (NIV, NASB). In the original language, the terminology suggests that the Lord experienced such a profound emotional response that He was forcefully restraining Himself. The New Living Translation says, “A deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled.” Moments later, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
The Greek word for “groaned in the spirit” (embrimaomai) is used in four other places in the New Testament, each time of Jesus (Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43; 14:5; John 11:38). It expresses outrage and indignation. Bible commentators suggest that Christ’s deep emotional turmoil was a reaction to sin and death, which had evoked anguish in Mary, Martha, and the friends of Lazarus. The Greek term translated as “troubled” (etaraxen) stresses agitation, possibly concentrating on the Lord’s heartache at seeing the sisters’ grief.
Reference to “the spirit” here in John 11:33 does not indicate the Holy Spirit but the Lord’s inner being. Jesus groaned within His spirit, struggling to keep all the emotional upheaval inside. But, when He stood before the tomb, He could no longer restrain Himself, and He wept.
John used one word to define the Lord’s weeping and a different one to describe the weeping of Mary and the other Jews in Bethany. Jesus knew Lazarus would soon be resurrected from the dead and, in the end, spend eternity with Him in heaven. The people grieved over the loss of Lazarus, but Jesus’ anguish welled up for a different reason.
Revealing His humanity, Jesus wept with deep compassion and empathy for the hurting (Isaiah 53:3). Our good and loving Shepherd stands with us in our pain and weakness (Hebrews 4:14–16). He comes alongside us in our sorrow (Psalm 34:18). Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were among Jesus’ dearest friends. He had enjoyed close fellowship with them, rejoiced with them, and in their grief He would shed tears with them (Romans 12:15).
But Jesus groaned in His spirit, roiling with emotion, for a second reason, as mentioned above. He was grieved by the curse of sin, sickness, and death that had inflicted chaos and sorrow upon humanity in this fallen world. As Jesus prepared to raise His friend Lazarus from the dead, His distress over the people’s spiritual blindness and unbelief intensified (John 11:37–38). He was frustrated to see their weakness of faith that would only believe in Him after seeing Him perform a mighty miracle (John 4:48; 6:30–31; 11:40–42). Jesus, the One who always did and said what would please His Father (John 8:28–29), was grieved to see the rebellious attitudes of people not yielded to the Father’s will as He was (John 5:19, 30; 6:38).
When Lazarus was called back to life from the grave, many people believed in Jesus. But, sadly, some did not. Instead, they went to the Pharisees and reported what Jesus had done (John 11:45–46). Jesus likely groaned in His spirit most for these hard-hearted informants. They had come so near to the kingdom of heaven, yet, because of their darkened hearts, they failed to see the truth and receive the grace of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.