An account of the Lord’s preaching and teaching now complete, Luke returns to the narrative of the Lord’s ministry with the account of two more miracles of healing.
v.3 Everyone in the area had heard of Jesus’ power to heal the sick and this centurion was no exception.
v.5 This man was apparently one of the many Gentiles, of which there were a good many in the Greco-Roman world, of that time who, attracted to Judaism’s high moral standards, was nevertheless up to this point unwilling to take the final step of receiving circumcision and becoming a Jewish proselyte. He was what was called in those days a “God-fearer,” an almost Jew. He was also a wealthy man who had funded a new synagogue in Capernaum.
v.6 This man would have been sufficiently acquainted with Jewish practice to know that Jews might shrink from entering a Gentile’s house and was courteous enough to respect their scruples.
v.8 This is a humble man. The first thing he thinks to say is not that he has men under him, but that he is a man himself who has superiors who give him orders! But as a man who obeyed orders and gave them, he knew that a man with authority did not need to be present for his commands to be obeyed and his wishes to be fulfilled.
v.9 It must have pleased Luke to be able to report the Lord’s high praise for a Gentile! The Lord marveled at this man, a remarkable statement to be sure and made just twice in the Gospels! And he turned to make sure that the crowd heard his observation about this man and his faith. It was important for him that they heard him say what great faith this Gentile had.
How much faith this man had and how informed his faith was is difficult to know, something that is true with respect to all the Lord’s disciples at this early point in the ministry. But he knew Jesus wielded supernatural power on behalf of the needy, which is a good start!
v.10 Matthew tells us that the Lord told the man that his request had been granted and that the man’s servant was healed at the very moment the Lord spoke those words; Luke leaves us to infer that.
v.11 Again and again we are reminded that everywhere Jesus went by this time he was accompanied by a great crowd. He was a phenomenon and everything he did served further to stoke the people’s enthusiasm. Luke is the only one of the Gospel writers who includes this particular episode. Nain was a town some twenty miles south-west of Capernaum. It would have taken a day to walk there, but what we are being reminded of is that the Lord didn’t simply stay in Capernaum and that particular spot on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, but was in fact walking through Galilee and visiting all of its towns and preaching and healing there.
v.12 A particularly poignant situation: a widow burying her only child, a woman who faced a future without help in a time when women alone were particularly vulnerable to economic hardship, and a woman who had to bear the burden of knowing that her family had come to an end. The large crowd suggests that the people of the town appreciated the woman’s plight. In any case, as one commentator observes: there near the gate of the town “the way of life met the way of death.” [Grundmann in Bock, i, 649]
v.13 For the first time in his Gospel Luke, with all the understanding that he now has as a second generation Christian, calls Jesus “the Lord.” It is an undeniably appropriate title for him in a narrative that will demonstrate him to be the Lord of everything, life and death included.
v.14 The Jews sometimes used coffins but often did not. Here the body was probably wrapped in a cloth and resting on an open bier or burial plank making it easy for the Lord to touch him. Touching a dead body led to ceremonial impurity, but, of course, as with the leper before, by touching him the Lord rendered the person no longer defiled and defiling. As one commentator observes: “Cleanliness is next to godliness except where compassion is required.” [Block, i, 652]
v.15 Notice the deft strokes with which Luke simply but powerfully records the miracle: the dead man sat up – something dead people do not do – then he began to talk (remember how the boy Elisha brought back to life sneezed seven times!) and, finally, the Lord gave the boy back to his mother, the wording here precisely the same used in the case of Elijah returning her dead son alive to the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs. 17:23).
v.16 The people could not have been expected to understand the incarnation at this point – the Lord’s own disciples didn’t understand – but with true insight they gathered two things. First, Jesus was wielding the same power that Elijah and Elisha had wielded long before him. That put him on the same level with the great prophets of Israel’s past. High compliment indeed! The Jews knew that there had been no such prophet in Israel for centuries, but such a miraculous occurrence proved that there was once again a prophet in Israel. You would have to be a Jew living then under the thumb of the Roman state, hoping against hope as your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had for some divine intervention on behalf of God’s people, to realize what a visceral impact this realization would have had on all who were there to see it and then on those who simply heard of it second-hand. Second, they knew that the power such men had at their disposal was not their own. It was from God himself and so they very rightly, if not with full understanding, drew the obvious conclusion. The Almighty had come among them and was working on their behalf through Jesus of Nazareth.
In the accounts of the Lord’s miracles of healing and exorcism that we have read so far the accent has fallen on 1) the Lord’s power to do what is impossible for man, 2) the faith with which men and women sought help from Jesus, 3) the way in which these wonders accredited Jesus as a man sent from God 4) and the healings as a picture of a greater and eternal spiritual deliverance, the healing of the body as an emblem of the greater thing: the forgiveness of sins and the granting of eternal life.
All of that is found again in the account of the healing of the centurion’s servant. The Lord’s authority, the recognition of Jesus’ remarkable status on the part of everyone (this man knew to send for Jesus; had it not been for the remarkable accounts that were being repeated on everyone’s lips it would never have occurred to him to suppose that his servant might be healed), and the centurion’s faith are all prominent in Luke’s account of that miracle. And the accent falls on the Gentile’s faith by which the miraculous healing was granted on his behalf. It is the man’s faith the Lord draws our attention to in conclusion.
But in the account of the first of three miracles of resuscitation that Jesus performed during his public ministry – at least the three that we know of – the accent falls on a new fact and a new theme: the Lord’s compassion.
We have said already that the Lord’s miracles not only served to accredit him as the Messiah but were themselves the embodiment of his message, the Gospel in another form, a particularly startling, memorable, and undeniable form. The healing of the man let down through the roof became a demonstration of the Lord’s authority to forgive sins. Later the feeding of the 5,000 would prove to be an enacted sermon on the subject of his being spiritual food for all hungry people. But his miracles were also a way of revealing the Lord himself, of disclosing the man, the Savior. They obviously reveal his power, his authority; but here we have a revelation of the Lord’s heart.
This incident outside Nain is not the only time, of course, when the Lord healed someone because his heart had gone out to a person in great need. One of the first recorded miracles of the Lord, we read the account in Luke 5, was the healing of a leper who cried out to him in his woe. “Lord, if you will, you can heal me.” Luke doesn’t mention the fact but Mark tells us that the Lord performed the miracle – surely a work of power equal to that of raising the dead – because he was filled with compassion for the poor man’s plight. He saw that man with his ruined skin and he felt he had to do something for him. Later Jesus fed the 5,000 a full meal with but a few scraps of food because, we read, he had compassion for the multitude. Near the end of his ministry the blind beggars outside Jericho were given their sight because the Lord had compassion for them.
But here, for the first time in Luke, a great emphasis is made of the Lord’s tender feeling for this widow who had lost her son, a woman who had been twice devastated by death. Indeed, the account makes it pretty clear that the Lord did not restore this young man’s life – maybe just an older boy, it’s hard to tell from the terms used – for the sake of the fellow himself, but for the sake of his heart-broken mother. After all, the number of those whom the Lord raised from the dead during his ministry was very small – probably just the three we know of from the four Gospels – while he healed multitudes of people who were sick in various ways or who were possessed by demons.
You see the emphasis on the mother here in that the Lord is said to have seen her not her son’s dead body and that he had compassion on her not on him. He spoke to her: “Do not weep.” And then, after he had restored life to her dead son the last thing we read that he did was to “give him to his mother.” He was acting on her behalf. This was all about the grieving widow.
Now stop and consider this. There were plenty of people dying during those three years of the Lord’s ministry and plenty of grieving mothers. But the Lord happened to have met this woman at the very moment when he could take in her tears and feel her desolation and it was that sympathy in him that prompted him to do this great thing for her. Remember we are talking about Jesus the man. He didn’t know this was going to happen when he woke up that morning. He had no idea he was going to bump into a funeral procession as he was entering the town of Nain. He was going there to preach, perhaps to heal the sick as they gathered. You can hear across the ages, can’t you, the tenderness in his voice as he says to that broken-hearted woman: “Do not weep.”
I want you to stop and think about this revelation of the Lord Jesus that we are given here. There is a great difference, we all know, between sympathy that is primarily theoretical and sympathy that is visceral and personal. It is not nearly as great a thing or as unusual to have some sense of what someone else must be suffering as it is to be so deeply moved by the feeling of someone else’s sorrows that the sorrows of another have become your own. We may know that another person is suffering, we may genuinely wish for better things for him or her, but there are no tears on our cheeks for what they are going through, no sag in our shoulders because of their spiritual weariness, and we do not struggle to fall asleep at night for the same reason they can’t sleep. There was nothing of the merely theoretical or intellectual in the Lord’s sympathy here. He felt this woman’s desolation, the pain in her heart, and his own heart went out to her.
Our Savior was a man of sorrows who knew sorrow first hand. No doubt you have thought about this, as I have. Sometime in the Lord’s later boyhood or young adulthood, it had to be some years into his life because he had a number of younger brothers and sisters, his father had died. That good man, Joseph, we suspect was a loving father and we know from what we learn of him in Luke 1 and 2 and Matthew 1 that he was a good and admirable man. He was a man Jesus would have looked up to and no doubt would have loved deeply as sons will love fathers whom they admire and who have loved them. Jesus had grown up enjoying his father’s company, had learned his trade at his father’s knee, and, no doubt, had often talked with his dad about the remarkable events that surrounded Jesus’ birth. I suspect that Joseph had a good deal to do with the astonishing expertise in Holy Scripture that Jesus demonstrated from the beginning of his ministry. He had learned the Word of God from his father, had watched and listened as Joseph had brought that word to bear on one life circumstance after another.
And then Joseph had got sick and died or, perhaps less likely, had died in an accident. Jesus knew what the woman of Nain was feeling. He had watched his own mother mourn the death of her husband; he had mourned the death of his father, and had felt the impotence that everyone feels who is suffering such a loss and can do nothing to prevent it. He knew the loneliness that it is possible to feel even in the midst of a crowd of friendly mourners. He had been part of a funeral procession like this himself. The tears had been running down his cheeks.
I must say this carefully and reverently because I am talking about truth we know only the outskirts of. But I say it confidently for Holy Scripture teaches it plainly enough in Hebrews 2 and 4. For all his omniscience as God, his perfect knowledge, God the Father does not sympathize with you in your sorrows, does not even understand your sorrows in exactly the same way and to the same degree as does the Lord Jesus, the God-Man. And, again, however mysterious, God the Son, the eternal Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth, could not understand and sympathize with you in your heartbreak in the same way that he now can and does since he became also a man. It is the incarnate Son we are viewing here in Luke 7 and it is, as we have had occasion to say more than once as we have made our way through the Gospel of Luke, Jesus the man almost exclusively who is before us in the Gospels.
Think about this as well. We are grateful for sympathy, for fellow-feeling from a person. We deeply appreciate people who want to share our burdens. But that kind of sympathy, important and precious as it is, quickly wears thin if the person who is so sympathetic could actually do something to help us but never does. The Lord, however, mixed the most genuine fellow-feeling with meaningful action. I think you will admit this. In your experience people are usually either sympathetic or strong; rarely are they both. Jesus is the both at the same time. The Lord Jesus offered this woman both company and relief. Misery loves company, to be sure, but it craves relief.
Jesus not only felt this woman’s pain of heart, he was constrained by his compassion for her to come to her aid, and having divine power at his disposal as the Messiah, with one dramatic, utterly supernatural act, he made a woman who was as sad as only a grieving widow and mother can be at that moment the happiest woman in the world!
And there is one more thing to notice here. The Lord’s compassion was utterly free. No request was made; no demand. No one was clamoring for him to do something. The procession was making its way out of the town to the nearby cemetery. No plans had been made to leave the town at the moment the Lord and the crowd following him drew near. No doubt the two groups were utterly unaware of one another until they found themselves occupying the same road traveling in opposite directions. The one thing we know for sure is that the woman had that morning absolutely no expectation that her son might or would be brought back to life. Death is always final.
Her son was already dead. Even if she had heard of the Lord’s miracles of healing, as she probably had and as the centurion certainly had, Jesus hadn’t brought back the dead and until he did I don’t suppose anyone thought he could or would. This woman wasn’t looking for the Lord. She hadn’t sent anyone to get him. I wonder if, distracted as she was in her grief, she even knew who this one was who drew near to him surrounded by a large crowd of people. Indeed, could she even tell that Jesus, among all the other men and women, was the center of all the commotion? If a movie of this scene were being made, no doubt the director would organize the extras so that it was very clear that Jesus was the center of everyone’s attention and the viewer’s focus would therefore be on him. But was it that way at that moment on the road that day? I don’t know.
No, the Lord saw what was happening and came up to this woman uninvited and did what a Jewish man ordinarily would never have done: he touched her dead son. He knew nothing of this woman except what a glance at the bier and her tears told her; perhaps someone volunteered to him the additional intelligence that she was a widow, perhaps he inferred that from the fact that there was no husband and father with her. In that moment – see it there in your mind’s eye, the Lord standing by the bier held up by several men, his hand on the dead body, looking so kindly into that woman’s eyes – the heart of the Son of God is revealed to us and we are given to see what Jesus is like. Is there anything that ought more to endear the Lord to us his people than this wonderful kindness, sympathy, fellow-feeling, and compassion for a suffering woman? And for those who are not or are not sure this morning that you are a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ you can learn here that it is not for a lack of concern or sympathy on his part that you are not saved. As Isaiah put it long before the Lord Jesus appeared in the world: “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion; blessed are all who wait for him.” [30:18]
Often in the Bible we are urged to consider the compassion and mercy of the Lord by his being likened to those in our experience who best and most powerfully represent the principle of fellow-feeling, sympathy, and practical love. He is like the mother bird who shelters her chicks under her wings, to a shepherd caring for his sheep, to a father pitying his children, and to a mother with her infant in her arms. We have been made to treasure that kind of warmth, tenderness, compassion, and love as almost nothing else. And we are made to need it as almost nothing else. Even as adults – isn’t this true, search your memory – sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of the chill and the storm of life longing for the same happy security we felt when being comforted as children by our mothers.
Backward, turn backward, O time, in your flight,
Make me a child again, just for to-night!
Mother, come back from the echo-less shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore;
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care,
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumbers your loving watch keep; –
Rock me to sleep, mother – rock me to sleep!
But human mothers must sleep themselves and then must die. And, try as they might, they cannot keep their children from death. But he who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps and watches over his people, their coming and their going, both now and forevermore.
Now the point of all of this, of the specific and emphatic description of the Lord’s compassion for this woman in Luke 7 and of my drawing it to your attention, is that what Jesus was that day outside the town of Nain, he is today. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever! His heart of compassion is the same. His compassion never fails. The same tender heart, the same tender sympathy that motivated him to take action on this widow’s behalf, he has toward you. Suppose in your trials and sorrows, suppose in your heartbreak you were able to see his face as this woman saw it, full of all of that tender sympathy; suppose you felt his touch; suppose you heard him say to you, “Do not weep.” Do you not see what a difference it would make, it must make: such compassion, such love, mixed with such power? But the fact that you cannot see him or hear him as this widow did, means nothing; nothing at all. He is just as near to you as he was to her, his heart as tender to you as it was to her, and he is as ready to act on your behalf as he was to act on hers.
I know some of you have read the Diary of Andrew Bonar, the celebrated Scot pastor and writer of the 19th century. In the Diary you come to an entry that suddenly, out of the blue, recounts the utterly unexpected death of his wife. The entry immediately before it records the birth of his daughter. How happy everyone was. Then, with terrible suddenness, the next records the death of the baby’s mother. She was taken ill very suddenly; she had been in good health and then she was ill and in a few hours she was gone. The sight of that baby girl must have made the father’s broken heart even more exquisitely sad.
A few days later, still in the throes of his terrible grief, Bonar confides to his Diary that he has received an avalanche of sympathy from his friends and loved ones. He wrote:
“The very many letters of sympathy that have come to me are so many tokens of how the Elder Brother [he means the Lord Jesus of course] has been thinking upon me, touching these hearts and saying, ‘Go speak in my name.’ The Lord’s kindness to me in many ways has been quite remarkable. … The Lord could not have done this thing more tenderly and with more alleviation.” [230-231]
What a wise man and how well Bonar knew the Savior. He knew that the Lord would be thinking about him, that this compassion would be deeply stirred on his behalf, and that he would act to send what relief he could, his plan for the Bonar family being what it was. If the wife could not be restored to her husband and her family, the Lord would console them in her loss. And so Bonar rightly gathered that it was the Lord Jesus who had dispatched these messengers to his sorrowing disciple: telling one, “Go with a comforting word,” telling another, “Keep that further sorrow away from his door,” and so on. And, of course, supremely, by sending the Holy Spirit into the good man’s heart to make the veil between this world and the next more transparent and to let him feel in the way of anticipation the joy that would be his when he was eventually reunited with his beloved but now departed wife.
Those of us who have been Christians the longest time can tell you who have been Christians for the shortest time that it has been so with us as well.
How oft in grief hath not he brought thee relief,
Spreading his wings to o’ershade thee.
The point of this text, brothers and sister, is not that the Lord Jesus was once long ago compassionate to a grieving mother. The point is that in this incident recorded for us by Luke we are given to see the Lord Jesus as he is, as he must always be. C.S. Lewis once said that the Lord’s miracles
“are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” [God in the Dock, 29]
And one large part of that greater story is Christ’s love and compassion for the world and, all the more, for his followers. When the great story is told it will be, I’m sure, a story of that love more than anything else: what that love did in the world and how that love orchestrated so much that happened in the world.
We said that the Lord’s miracles were vehicles of revelation and that which they revealed most of all was simply who and what Jesus is. Calvin called them sacramental signs and as signs they are signs first and foremost of the Lord’s love and care. He could have done any number of extraordinary things with his miraculous power. He could have moved Mt. Hermon from one place and put it down in another. That would have got everybody’s attention, and yet virtually every miracle the Lord performed was an act of love and kindness for somebody, not simply a demonstration of power. They were demonstrations of fabulous power, but always on behalf of a suffering human being. That is something we take too much for granted. Always his miracles were works of kindness, compassion, and love. Christ is holy, to be sure. The Lord Jesus Christ is holy beyond our belief, we know that. He is a judge to be feared, absolutely. He is an absolute ruler, sovereign over the world and the life of mankind down to the tiniest details of that life. He is far above us as our Maker and our Lord. We confess all of that most willingly.
But that only makes more remarkable the facts that he has a heart that is always going out to people, that he suffers when we suffer, and that he is tender to all our need. If we believe this – and it is the truth, truth confirmed in a thousand ways in both Holy Scripture and human life – and truth proved supremely at the cross – I say, if we believe this, really believe it, not one day of our life, not a single day, would remain the same. It is a life-transforming truth to know that the Lord is thinking about you and that his heart is touched with a feeling of your sorrows.
No other God but our God has wounds; and that is because no other God loves as the living God loves! It is the first thing to know about God and about the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the first truth about him to carry with you every day.