Jesus and the Widow of Nain: On Compassion | Luke 7:11-17
Brian Hedges | May 14, 2023
Turn in your Bibles this morning to Luke 7. While you’re turning there, let me say happy Mother’s Day to all the moms in the room this morning. You know, I think when we come to this holiday of Mother’s Day there’s a variety of emotions that people feel. In fact, maybe more variety of emotions on Mother’s Day than on any other holiday, maybe with the exception of Christmas.
I was thinking through that this week, the kinds of emotions that people might feel coming to Mother’s Day. Many of us, I think, feel profound gratitude as we think about a godly mother that we had or someone who really poured into our lives and was a wonderful example for us, someone who discipled us and mentored us and taught us in so many ways. I certainly feel that towards my mom. Many of us also are married to someone who’s a good mom and feel gratitude for the women in our lives who are helping us to raise children and are partners with us in life and in ministry, and I certainly feel that towards my lovely wife, Holly.
But I think we also feel other things, other kinds of emotions, on Mother’s Day. Some of us feel grief. If you’ve lost a parent in the last year or the last couple of years, when you come to Mother’s Day you feel some of that ache. You feel some of that grief and that sense of loss in your life. Then there are also moms who have experienced profound loss. I was thinking this morning (as I was praying for the message) about all the women in our church that I know have lost a child, and there are quite a few. You feel that grief this morning. I want you to know that I was praying for you this morning.
Think about women who experience great disappointment when we come to Mother’s Day. Maybe it’s someone who wanted to be married and never had that opportunity, or maybe you are married and you’ve struggled with infertility and have not been able to have children even though that’s something you desired. So there can be a sense of disappointment on Mother’s Day.
Then, on top of all of that, I think there are also feelings of guilt. There’s a pervasive sense of guilt among people today, not least of all women and young mothers who are trying to reach a certain ideal of what a good mom is. In our culture of social media and all of the things that are said, all of the opinions that are strongly expressed about motherhood, you may feel some of that. “Am I being a good mom if I don’t do things a certain way or if I do things this way instead of this way?” Or if you depart from what your friends say, “This is the only way that you should take care of your baby,” or whatever the case may be.
There are all of these emotions that are surrounding this really profound and important role of being a mom.
There are a lot of ways to approach Mother’s Day sermons, and I’ve preached a lot of these over the years. We could take a picture of someone in Scripture, kind of a profile of a godly mom. We could talk about a Proverbs 31 woman and what it means to live in that kind of way.
But today I want to take a different approach. I want us to look not so much at a mom, but at Jesus, and how Jesus interacted with a mom; in fact, how he ministered to a grieving mother, a mother who was experiencing a deep sorrow and sadness in her life.
It’s a story that’s found in Luke 7. It fits right in with this series that we’ve been doing for the last several weeks called “Conversations with Jesus.” One of the distinctives of this series is that we’re looking at encounters people had with Jesus that are only recorded in Luke’s Gospel. This is one of them, and it is one of the greatest miracle stories that we have anywhere in the Gospels, but it’s only recorded here in Luke 7. We’re going to be reading Luke 7:11-17.
“Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’ And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.”
This is God’s word.
This is a really simple story, but a story with profound implications. I think we can take it apart by looking at the sequence of events here in this passage and note three things:
1. The Sorrow of a Mother
2. The Compassion of the Lord
3. The Power of His Word
1. The Sorrow of a Mother
The first thing we see is the sorrow of a mother. This is implied in the passage in the fact that this is a funeral scene. Jesus here journeys to this little village of Nain, about six miles from Nazareth, and as he comes to the gate of the city he comes upon a funeral procession. Here are the people, they are walking outside, they are carrying the body on a bier—it’s something like an open coffin—and they are carrying this body outside of the city to a burial ground. And Jesus comes on the funeral procession, and, of course, it’s a scene of great sadness and great sorrow.
It’s implicit when you see some of the details about this woman. Verse 12 tells us that this man who had died and was being carried out was the only son of his mother. So here was a woman who was losing her only child. That in itself would be a profound grief. But we also learn that she was a widow. She had already lost her husband. And in this culture that meant that she was not only losing her one remaining family member, her son, but she was also losing her means of financial support and help. You have to remember that in that day there was no social security, there’s no life insurance policy, there’s not a pension for her to draw from. So to lose her only son is to push her now into a life not only of loneliness but also of deep poverty. (As suggested by Dale Ralph Davis in Luke: 1-13: The Year of the Lord's Favor, Christian Focus Publications, 2021, p. 123)
And Jesus comes onto this scene of sorrow, the sorrow of this mom, of this mother, and Jesus enters into it.
I think all of us in life recognize that in certain seasons of our life we face sorrow, we face sadness, we experience grief, and we experience in particular the grief and the sadness and the sorrow that is connected with death, because we live in a world where everyone eventually dies. But it is an especially piercing grief for parents who lose their children.
Some of you have experienced that. You’ve experienced the loss of a child. Maybe it was a child that you lost when this child was still in childhood, maybe a stillborn child. Maybe it was loss through a tragic accident of some kind, or maybe an adult child that you lost through cancer or through a heart attack. You know this experience of grief. Many women in our church have experienced the grief of miscarriage, often called “the silent suffering.” And you know this sense of profound loss. Here were hopes and dreams that were bundled in the life of this child, and in just a few hours it was all lost and you were left with this sense of emptiness, this ache, this emptiness in your heart.
Many parents know a different kind of grief; you know the grief of a wayward child. Maybe the child has not experienced physical death but lives in a profound kind of spiritual death and alienation from God. You know what it is as a mom to weep over a prodigal son or a prodigal daughter.
All of us experience this to some degree, the experience of death and of loss and the sorrow attending that. As I’ve already mentioned, part of that is experiencing the loss of a parent, the loss of a mom. So maybe that’s the grief that you feel this morning.
Whatever your sorrow is, whatever your grief is, what this passage shows us is that the Lord Jesus Christ enters into the sorrow. He comes into the experience of grief and sadness, and he comes with a heart of compassion.
2. The Compassion of the Lord
So we see the compassion of the Lord—the sorrow of a mother and then the compassion of the Lord. You see it stated in verse 13. “When the Lord saw her . . .” Stop right there. Have you noticed in this series of conversations with Jesus how often the text emphasizes the Jesus saw someone? We live in a world where it’s so easy to be overlooked, to be neglected, to not be seen. But Jesus always saw, and he saw into the true needs and experiences of a person’s heart and life, and he saw this woman, this widow who has now lost her only son. He saw her.
Then it says he had compassion on her. That word “compassion” is an important word in Scripture. The root of this word, the different forms of this word, really carries the idea of a deep inward response, almost a visceral response. One of the lexicons puts it like this, that often “in the ancient world, inner body parts served as reference for psychological aspects.”
We talk like this today. We talk about someone who feels something in their gut, or they feel something in the pit of their stomach, or their heart is deeply moved. That’s the kind of idea here, that Jesus felt this visceral emotion in his very inner being, and what he felt was pity. He felt compassion. His heart went out to this woman.
One of the great passages that we read just a few weeks ago in the course of one of our worship services was Lamentations 3:22-23. Do you remember this? It says, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
I want you to know this morning that whatever your grief, whatever your sorrow, whatever loss, whatever pain, whatever suffering you are wrestling with in your life, whatever burden you carry on your shoulders, the Lord enters into your life and into your situation with a heart of compassion. If you’ve lost one of your children through some tragic accident or through some disease, the Lord Jesus understands your sadness. He feels your pain; he sympathizes with you in your sorrows. If you’ve lost a baby through miscarriage, maybe even multiple miscarriages, the compassionate heart of the Savior flows out to you in love and in mercy and in kindness. And if what you’ve experienced is some kind of disappointment in life—a dream that has never been fulfilled, and that’s the source of your sorrow—the Lord understands that as well. Whatever your heartache, whatever your loss, whatever your grief or disappointment, the Lord sees, and the Lord has compassion and he cares.
One of the poets put it like this:
In every pang that rends the heart
The Man of Sorrows has a part.
He sympathizes with our grief
And to the sufferer sends relief.
He understands, he knows. He saw her, he had compassion on her. Then notice this (also verse 13): “And he said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”
Just think about that for a minute. That is an amazing thing to say to somebody in a funeral service! I can’t imagine saying that. I can’t imagine doing a funeral for someone who has just lost a child, and here is a mother who’s weeping over the corpse of her only son that she has lost, and saying, “Don’t cry.” I mean, that’s unfeeling! That’s unsympathetic! That seems like it would be not only unkind but even cruel, to say, “Do not mourn, do not grieve, do not weep.” Yet Jesus says to this woman, “Do not weep.”
For anyone else, those words would be words not of compassion but of the very opposite; but not for Jesus. For Jesus, these are words that flow from his heart of compassion. You know why? Because of what he’s about to do. You see it in what follows.
3. The Power of His Word
That leads us to point number three, the power of his word, in verses 14-15. “Then he came up and touched the bier.” Even that in itself is astounding, because according to the Jewish laws of ritual purity you weren’t really allowed to touch a dead body or corpse or anything that had touched a corpse. To do that was to render yourself ceremonially unclean. But not for Jesus. Jesus can touch the unclean leper and, instead of being contaminated, Jesus heals the leper. And he can touch the dead body and, instead of being contaminated by death, as one commentator puts it, "the contamination runs the other way.” (See Davis, p. 125: "the contagion flows the other way"). Jesus touches the bier and the pallbearers carrying this bier stand still. Then Jesus says, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” He speaks, and this young man—dead—hears.
Look at verse 15. “And the dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him to his mother.”
This is an amazing story, and there are several ways I think we can understand this story. I think all of these are true to the text and to the broader teaching of Scripture.
(1) We can see this, first of all, as a miracle of restoration, or we might call this a miracle of resuscitation. Did you know that in the ministry of Jesus there were only three times where Jesus restored a dead person to life? Only three times that we know of. You have this story in Luke 7, the restoration and resuscitation of this son of the widow. Then you have the story of Jairus’s daughter who dies, and Jesus comes to her and says, “Little girl, arise,” and she is restored to life. You have that in Mark 5. Then the other story is the story of Lazarus. He was the brother of Mary and Martha, and in John 11 Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead. So this is one of those resuscitation stories.
Now, we have to understand that this is not resurrection in the full-fledged sense of the term resurrection. When we talk about the resurrection of Jesus or we talk about the final resurrection at the end of time, we’re talking not just about the dead coming to life but we’re talking about the dead entering into a new kind of life—into glorified life, into life where death will never touch it again, where the body itself is glorified. That’s not what happened here. This was resuscitation, someone who had really died who’s now brought back to life, but this young man would eventually experience death.
Nevertheless, it is a profound miracle, and the response from the crowds is fear and amazement, and the news spreads about Jesus, because Jesus had raised this young man out of death back into life.
It is miracles like these that are some of the greatest evidence that Jesus Christ really was the Messiah, that he really was the Son of God. You see that, actually, in the passage that follows, in Luke 7:18-22. This is a scene where there’s an interaction between the disciples of John the Baptist and Jesus. John the Baptist has been hearing about this stuff, and he sends messengers to Jesus with a question. Let’s read this, Luke 7:18. It says,
“The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And when the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”’ In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them [these are the words of Jesus now], ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.’”
This is an evidence that Jesus is the one they were looking for. Jesus is the Christ. And yet he says, “Blessed is the one who’s not offended by me. Blessed is the one who doesn’t stumble over me.” Why does he say that?
Perhaps one reason is because John the Baptist himself is soon to face death, and no resurrection. John’s not raised up. John is beheaded by King Herod, and Jesus does not raise John up.
Do you ever wonder why Jesus didn’t raise more people from the dead? If he has the power, why doesn’t he raise people from the dead now? Here’s someone on his deathbed, and you’re praying for miraculous healing—here’s someone who has cancer, and you’re praying for miraculous healing—why doesn’t he heal? Sometimes he doesn’t. Why doesn’t he restore the dead to life now if he has the power to do so? That’s an important question.
Dale Ralph Davis asks that question, and I think answers it very well, in his little commentary on Luke. He says, “Some may raise the objection, ‘Why doesn’t the Lord raise bunches of people now?’” Here’s the answer:
“For the same reason that he didn’t do it then, when he was on earth: it’s not time yet. Jesus restored some people from death to life in the days of his flesh, but he didn’t go around emptying cemeteries and putting morticians out of business. These episodes, as at Nain, were clues, pointers, previews of what is yet to come.” (Davis, p. 124)
He’s showing us here the power of the kingdom of God, that when God reigns on earth as he does in heaven, the power of God’s reign will bring an end to death, and the kingdom is present in Jesus, but it’s only partially present. It’s not fully here yet. We’re still waiting for what is yet to come.
(2) So we could say that this story, this miracle of restoration, is also, secondly, a pointer to something else: it’s a pointer to final resurrection. It points us to what is yet to come when Jesus returns and in his second coming he raises the dead to life. The Scriptures teach very clearly that all will be raised, the just and the unjust, they will all be raised, and this is the great comfort and hope of believers.
Paul, writing perhaps his first letter—one of his earliest letters—1 Thessalonians, writing to a group of believers who had been misinformed and didn’t understand the doctrine of the resurrection—Paul writes to them important words, words for them to use to comfort and encourage one another. Here’s what he says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. He says,
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep [he means those who are dead, but he calls them asleep], that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Paul says we do sorrow, we do grieve, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope, because the dead in Christ will be raised.
I want you to know this morning, if you have experienced loss, part of your comfort as a Christian is that those who have died in the Lord will be raised to glorious resurrection life, and you will be united with them.
If you’ve experienced the loss of a baby, the miscarriage of a child, I want to encourage you that I believe with all my heart, as did Charles Haddon Spurgeon—he gave a great argument for it; I could point you to it—that children who die in infancy go immediately to the presence of the Savior, that they are welcomed by Jesus with open arms. You can take comfort and take hope that you will be someday reunited with that lost child.
(3) This story is a story of restoration, a miracle, a resuscitation. It is a pointer, a preview to the final resurrection. But it is not only that, it’s also a parable of salvation. It’s a picture of something even more, something profound.
Spurgeon preached a whole sermon on this. He said, “The narrative before us records a literal fact, but the record may be used for spiritual instruction. All our Lord’s miracles were intended to be parables. They were intended to instruct as well as to impress. They are sermons to the eye, just as the spoken discourses were sermons to the ear. We see here how Jesus can deal with spiritual death and how he can impart spiritual life at his pleasure.”
Do you have a burden for a lost family member? Are you mourning, maybe not the physical death of a child, but are you mourning a son or a daughter who lives in spiritual death, alienation from God? Maybe their life is on a collision course with destruction. Maybe they’re bound up in an addiction. Maybe they are convinced intellectually that there is no God or that the Bible is not true or that Jesus was not really the Son of God. Maybe they are convinced agnostics or atheists. Maybe they’ve adopted another religion. Maybe they’re even dabbling in witchcraft or the occult. Here is a child that you grieve over, this child that is lost and is far from God, spiritually dead. You’ve tried to persuade; it hasn’t worked. Maybe you’ve almost given up in prayer.
Here’s what I want you to know this morning: the same power of the word that was able to raise this young man from physical death—Jesus just said, “Young man, rise up”—that same power is able to raise anyone from spiritual death. He has the power to raise the dead!
Don’t you remember how Paul describes the Ephesian Christians? These were believers who once had been pagans, they had worshiped the Diana, the goddess Aphrodite, this goddess of sex and fertility—there’s a whole cult of worship in the city of Ephesus, and Paul comes there and he preaches the gospel, and people believe, and people are saved. And when Paul writes the letter later he says, “You were once dead in your trespasses and in your sins, but now God has made you alive. He’s raised you up, he’s seated you in the heavenly places with Christ. God, who is rich in mercy, looked down on you and he saved you by his grace.” That same grace is able to bring to life those who are spiritually dead today.
There’s no one who is outside the reach of God’s grace. This is our hope! Our confidence is not in our ability to persuade, our confidence is not in our ability to change someone’s mind, our confidence is in the power of the living God, who can change the hardened heart.
Remember how Charles Wesley expressed this in that great hymn “And Can It Be?” He was giving us his own testimony in the form of poetry, the form of a song. He said,
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light!
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
If you’re a Christian today, you’re a Christian because that same eye looked on you and gave you life. You’re a Christian today because the word of Jesus spoke to you and said, “Live.” You came alive.
Brothers and sisters, the Lord Jesus can do that this morning. He can do that for your child, he can do that for your son or daughter or brother or sister or mom or dad, the one who is lost and far from God, and he can do that for you this morning if you’ve never believed in Jesus Christ. If you’ve never repented of your sins, if you’ve never seen your need for salvation but something is stirring in your heart right now, may I say to you, in the words of the apostle Paul, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you life!”
This story is a miracle of restoration, it is a pointer to resurrection, and it is a parable of salvation. It shows us the power of the word of Jesus.
And we see the result of it in Luke 7:16-17.
“Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’ and ‘God has visited his people!’ And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.”
It’s interesting and significant that they say, “A great prophet has risen among us,” because there are two stories in the Old Testament about prophets who prayed and the power of God through these prophets raised dead young men to life. You have the story of Elijah and this widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17, and then you also have the story of Elisha in 2 Kings 4.
One of the commentaries pointed this out. I didn’t know this before, but it pointed out that in the village of Nain the Elisha story especially would have been significant, because that resuscitation, that miracle, had occurred in a little village called Shunnim, which was a site on the south side of the hill of Moreh. The interesting thing is that Nain sits on the north side of the hill, just a few miles away. So when this happened they would have recalled their own history, eight hundred years ago, when a similar miracle had happened right over the hill.
But here’s the big difference. With Elisha and with Elijah there was only restoration to life after intense prayer, because God had to raise the dead. But isn’t it interesting that Jesus doesn’t pray? He just comes in and he says, “Young man, rise.” It’s the power of his word, and it is the power of the word of the Creator himself, the living God in the flesh, who has the power of creation. He could say, “Let there be light,” and there’s light. “Let there be life,” and there is life. He speaks, and listening to his voice / New life the dead receive. That’s what happens in this passage, because of the compassion of the Lord, who is God manifest in the flesh. (See Davis, pp. 124-135)
We’ve seen this morning the sorrow of a mother, the compassion of the Lord, the power of his word. I want to end by just asking, How is it that Jesus ultimately and finally wins the victory over death? How does he finally do this? We see his power here, but how is it that Jesus will conquer death himself and conquer death for all of us, so that we have confidence that at the end of the age all will be raised up?
I think that answer is given to us in another passage of Scripture, Hebrews 2. I want to read Hebrews 2:9 and 14-15. Listen to what it says. “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Verse 14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
How does Jesus conquer death? He does it by dying himself. He does it by tasting death for everyone. He does it by going to the cross and, in a standoff with the powers of death, he himself submits to death. It seems that it’s conquered for just those three days, but then he emerges as the victor, as he comes out of that tomb and death is defeated.
I love the way the old Puritan John Owen put it in one of his books: “The death of death in the death of Christ.” He defeated death by dying himself.
One of the lowest points in Martin Luther’s life was when his beloved daughter Magdalena died from the plague. She was fourteen years old. Luther, as any parent would be, was shattered, he was heartbroken, and when they were nailing the lid on the coffin he cried out, “Hammer away! Hammer away! On Doomsday she’ll rise again.”
Luther had a profound conviction, a deep belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the power of Christ to conquer death. As you know, Luther wrote some hymns. We sing some of his hymns occasionally. He wrote one that I didn’t even know existed until November 2020. On the night before my own mother’s funeral, a friend of mine shared these words with me, and they’ve become precious words to me since. I read those words the next day in her funeral service. I want to read them to you. This is Martin Luther reflecting on Christ’s defeat of death.
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands
For our offenses given,
But now at God’s hand he stands
And brings us life from heaven.
Therefore let us all rejoice
And sing to God with heart and voice
Loud songs of hallelujah.
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life
The reign of death is ended.
So the Scripture makes it plain
That death by death’s own sword is slain.
Its sting is lost forever; hallelujah.
We’re all going to face it, the sorrows that come from death. We’re all going to face it. Some of you have faced it already. What is your hope? I’ll tell you where the only hope is found: it’s found in the one who has slain death by taking death himself in our place and has now been raised from the dead. Let’s trust in Christ, who has conquered death for us this morning. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, we thank you this morning for the good news. Thank you for the gospel of your death on the cross for our sins and your resurrection from the dead on the third day so that death is now defeated and we have the hope of eternal life—not only reunion with you in your glorious presence, the very moment when our life departs from our physical body; but also the hope of reunion and restoration and resurrection and our bodies raised up and renewed and glorified and made like your glorious body; the hope of a world that is made new; the hope of a day when you return, Lord Jesus, and there’s no more sorrow, no more tears, no more suffering. All the tears are wiped away from our eyes. Lord, that’s what we’re counting on. That’s what we believe; that’s our hope this morning in the face of our own mortality and the losses that some of us have already experienced and all of us will face at some point.
I pray, Lord, that that hope would burn brightly in our hearts and that you would put a deep conviction of the truth and the reality of this in our hearts and in our souls; that we would embrace this good news, that we would believe this message; and that in believing we would know the power of this resurrection life working in us now, transforming us, and making us new as we live for Jesus.
Lord, as we come to the table this morning, may we come in faith, believing what you’ve done for us. As we receive the sacred emblems of your body and blood, may we receive them with faith, trusting not in ourselves, not in our works, not in the elements themselves, but looking through them and beyond them to you, the one who has given yourself for our sins. We ask you to strengthen us this morning, strengthen our faith, nourish and sustain our hope, give us joy even in the midst of our sorrows. Draw near to us as we draw near to you. We pray this in your own name and for your sake, amen.