By Craig St. John

As a father of four young children, I would do anything for them. One thing you don’t appreciate until you’re a parent is how when your child feels pain, you feel it too, and in a far more profound way than the empathy we would generally have for someone less connected to us. When your daughter scrapes her knee, you feel her pain. When a mother says to her son before spanking him (this is not a post on the virtues, or lack thereof, of spanking), “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you”—something I heard many times as a child—she really means it. This level of empathy includes sincere compassion and a degree of connection far deeper than what we feel toward someone involved in a tragedy that we only heard of or read about in the news.

This past Saturday, my youngest son, Weston, after observing his older sister Emery jumping off the couch onto the floor, did the same. However, rather than landing gracefully as his nearly four-year-old sister did, his nearly two-year-old self managed to bust open his upper lip on the sharp corner of our coffee table. He had a decent laceration, which led to my wife Jess’ and my first trip to the ER for one of our children in nearly six and a half years of parenting. As Weston is my son—a little person Jess and I conceived together—a big part of me was in agony as he shrieked out of pain and fear. Looking upon his reaction as well as the blood pouring out of his mouth drove me to perhaps the most visceral level of empathy and compassion one can feel, at least only third to what God himself felt, and second to what Jess, as his mother, experienced. Either of us would have done anything for him in that moment, and certainly would have switched places, if only possible.

Much more significant than my look upon my son’s agony was Jesus’ gaze toward those suffering as he encountered them over the course of his earthly ministry. Yesterday, Riccardo preached on the story of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–17). This sermon kicked off our Love Walked Among Us series, based on the book by our friend Paul Miller. Riccardo explained in a brief post last week, introducing the series, that we would be zooming in on the person of Jesus, seeing his perception, actions, and emotions. Yesterday’s sermon, as well as the next two, specifically look at Jesus’ compassion depicted in the gospels. The story of the raising of the widow’s son particularly emphasizes Jesus’ look of compassion. Not only is Jesus’ level of compassion exponentially greater than mine, but also, the situation in this story involves not a laceration, but a loss of life. Luke tells us that the widow of Nain lost her only son (v. 12). Backing up, we see Jesus healing a centurion’s servant (vv. 1–10). The servant was “sick and at the point of death” (v. 2), but he did not, in fact, die. In our present story, Jesus kicked it up a notch. He actually resuscitated a dead person. But, before we get to the exciting part, let’s walk through the narrative a bit and examine a few elements.

We see that, after leaving Capernaum (v. 1), Jesus traveled with his disciples and “a great crowd” (v. 11) to Nain, which is considered by scholars to be the modern Arab village of Nein, on the northern slopes of the Hill of Moreh, in northern Israel, about six miles southeast of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown in southern Galilee.[1] While Nain perhaps had only five hundred residents in the first century,[2] this “great crowd” was likely double that, as suggested by the Greek.[3] Jesus and his entourage joined a funeral procession (v. 12), which perhaps included most of the five hundred residents, and, while surrounded by roughly fifteen hundred others, his eyes were drawn to the mother of the deceased (v. 13). We don’t know the age of her son[4], his cause of death, or any other detail along those lines, but we do know that, having already lost her husband and now her only son, she, as a Jewish woman, could only expect to face a life of poverty and loss of status—not to mention the crowds’ assumption that she met such a sorry state of affairs due to some sin she must have committed.[5] But Jesus didn’t see her sin, her status, her poverty. He only saw someone for whom he had a great deal of love, affection, and compassion. Using an imperative, he commanded her not to weep (v. 13). As the context suggests, this is not in a manner suggesting that she should get over the death of her only son. Instead, Jesus gave the command because he had the situation under control.

Then, Jesus did what was otherwise considered unspeakable. He touched the bier (think open coffin), something that was considered unclean by Jewish people (see Numbers 19:11, 16). Luke then tells us that “the bearers stood still” (v. 14). One can probably assume that they were utterly stunned by Jesus’ actions. What in the world is this man doing?! Jesus then spoke to the man, using another imperative to command him to “arise.” Think of yourself as one of the pallbearers. You’re already freaked out, and then this random guy starts talking to a dead man. This must have unfolded for them in slow motion. I imagine it was only a moment until something actually happened, but it must have seemed like an hour. As you’re standing there, still holding a corner of the coffin, the dead guy suddenly sits up, and then begins to speak (v. 15)! And indeed, Luke tells us fear seized everyone present. The Greek word for fear here, φόβος (phobos), can mean the full range, from “terror,” to “fright,” to “the fear of God.” And it probably went through that full spectrum in a matter of milliseconds. Indeed, they were completely disturbed, but then, “they glorified God” (v. 16).

This story begins with the crowd, zeros in on the widow, and then concludes with the reaction of the crowd. But we’re focusing on the climax here and what moved Jesus to perform this miraculous action that showed each observer that “God has visited his people!” (v. 16). It was Jesus’ compassion, beginning with what he observed. While most would be lost in the crowd, he stopped to see the widow. He saw her grief, her pain, her agony. He perceived what others were thinking, as they wondered to what degree she must have sinned in order to lose her husband, her son, and her livelihood. But instead, much to everyone’s surprise, God himself “visited his people” and chose to bring this man to life and return to this woman her son and status. She very well may have been in sin—we all are—but none of that mattered to Jesus. And any suspicion the crowd might have felt with regard to the woman must have completely vanished.

This is not the first time in the boarder biblical story that God, using his immense power and compassion, restored a dead man to life. This story actually parallels two stories from the Old Testament. By the power of God, both Elijah and Elisha accomplished resuscitations (see 1 Kings 17:8–24; 2 Kings 4:18–37). Comparing our present passage in Luke to the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, the parallel is unmistakable. Each includes healers approaching the gate of the respective municipality, widows whose sons had died, healers approaching the deceased and then speaking to either God or the deceased, the deceased rising, the healers returning the revived sons to their mothers, and the observers declaring God’s work in the resuscitations.[6] While the Lukan narrative and the story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman don’t have as many literary parallels, one striking similarity is that the setting of the story in 2 Kings, Shunem, like Nain, is on the slopes of the Hill of Moreh, overlooking Jezreel Valley.[7] Many of Jesus’ onlookers in Nain, as well as Luke’s readers—Jews, knowing these passages from the two books of Kings—must of made these connections.

As amazing as all three of these stories are—and they are nothing short of that—none involve actual resurrection, only resuscitation. Each of these men eventually died again. While Jesus commanded the widow’s son to “arise,” toward the end of Luke’s book, two angels proclaimed to the women coming to prepare Jesus’ dead body with spices and ointments that Jesus “has risen” (Luke 24:6). And this was far more than resuscitation like that of the only son of the widow; Jesus, the only son of God the Father, was resurrected in a new, yet similar, body that would never again die. And one day, each of us who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ “will be raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:52)—we will never die. The miracles of Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus were only foretastes of the complete renewal that is yet to come. The ultimate miracle in the Lukan narrative, therefore, is not that Jesus raised a dead man to life, but that the one who did the raising would one day conquer death, once and for all.

And all of this is because of Jesus’ compassion—the compassion of our triune God, in fact. We are all deserving of ultimate death, but, as Paul wrote, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Out of God’s compassion, and forgiveness, Christ came to reverse the curse of the fall, and gave us life with him for all eternity. He looked upon us, saw our pain, our suffering, our grief, our agony, took it all upon himself, and gave us abundant life. As I saw my son’s pain on Saturday, I was moved to compassion, and wished I could switch places with him. But so much more is the fact that Christ looked upon me with compassion, took my sin upon himself, bled far more than my son did, and gave me life everlasting.

The incident involving Weston on Saturday was only one element that made our week terrible. On Monday, my dad sent me a text informing me that a dear, longtime family friend who had been suffering from depression took his life the night before. And then, on Wednesday morning, my wife found out that her grandfather had died—eight months after she lost her father. Death sucks. It wasn’t supposed to be. But mercifully, Jesus looks upon us, sees our agony, and commands us to “arise,” as he restores all things to the way our triune God initially intended. One day, Weston will never bleed again, and we’ll all be reunited with our family friend and my grandfather-in-law. But in the meantime, let’s slow down and look around like Jesus did. Let’s see the pain in our midst and act in love and compassion. Love may have once walked among us, but that verb shouldn’t remain in the past tense.

[1] Barry J. Beitzel, ed., Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[2] Paul E. Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Spring, CO: NavPress, 2014).

[3] The Greek word for “crowd,” also translated as “multitude,” in Luke 7:11 is ὄχλος (ochlos). Modified by the adjective πολύς (polus), it can be translated as “great” or “large,” suggesting that the group contained at least one thousand members [contrasted with πόλεως ἱκανὸς (poleōs hikanos), “considerable crowd,” in v. 12].

[4] The Greek word for “young man” (v. 14), νεανίσκος (neaniskos), only tells us that he was under forty.

[5] Miller, Love Walked Among Us.

[6] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, Luke—John, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015).

[7] Beitzel, Lexham Geographic Commentary.

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