Luke 7:11-17, Jesus’ Great Compassion and Power

[June 9, 2013] The story of Jesus raising the only son of a widow in the town of Nain concludes Luke’s introduction of Jesus as the Lord and Bringer of the coming Jubilee (see Luke 4:16-21). By this story Luke also transitions his auditors into the next section (7:18—9:36), which asks and answers the question, “Who is Jesus?” The liberation (the great theme of the ancient Year of Jubilee) that Jesus brings goes so far as this: He brings the dead back to life! Who is this Jesus? The story says much about Jesus, including His power over death (which is not insignificant), but the plate on which this is served is a story that shows Jesus’ great compassion.

Nain (modern Nein) is a small village in southern Galilee, overlooking the Plain of Jezreel, a few miles southwest of Nazareth between Gilboa and Mount Tabor near Endor, about twenty-five miles from Capernaum (the site of the story in 7:1-10). Nain is mentioned nowhere else in the Scriptures. The name means “Charming.” One reaches the village on a steep uphill road. West of the village are tombs cut into the rock on the flank of a mountain. The cemetery was in this area and the funeral procession Jesus met would have been making its way in this direction (http://www.seetheholyland.net/nain/).

In 1880 the Franciscans acquired the remains of an ancient church that had been built to commemorate the site. It had at one time been converted into a mosque. The Franciscans were helped by the head of the village, a Muslim, who allowed them to take stones from his land and water from a nearby source. The friars built there a simple rectangular church. (Same source as above.)

When Jesus approached the entrance to the village (compare 1 Kings 17:10), Luke tells us “a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her.” Jesus was later to raise the only daughter of a man named Jairus in 8:40-42, 49-56, and exorcize the only son of a man in 9:37-43. That the woman was already a widow meant that she was left alone, doubly bereaved and without any means of support.

“When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her.” T his is the first time Luke as the narrator calls Jesus “the Lord.” In 2:11 the angel called Him “Christ the Lord”; see also 3:4 where Luke quotes Isaiah; in 5:8 Peter calls Him Lord and in 5:12 the leper does; in 6:5 Jesus calls Himself the Lord of the Sabbath; and in His sermon in 6:46, He asks, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord’?” Hereafter Luke frequently refers to Jesus as the Lord, which is something that Matthew and later Mark do not do. The story demonstrates something about Jesus, for here Jesus demonstrates that He is the Lord of life (as before He was the Lord of the Sabbath).

Jesus is moved simply and spontaneously by His deep womb-feeling of compassion for the mother. He says to her, “Do not weep,” not because He forbids weeping and the wrenching feelings of grief but in view of what He was about to do. We recall chapter 6 where Jesus speaks of the compassion of God (verses 27-36) in contrast to the judgment of God (verses 37-49). The compassion of God (richam) derives from God’s womb or uterus (rechem)—it is the love that a mother has for her own child, and Jesus feels this towards this woman. His divine person feels this through His humanity, and in the face of human grief He feels it deeply. The loss of death is something so intolerably final that we are at once thrown into denial of it, for we cannot face it. We do not know what the woman was feeling, for she may have been numb with grief. It does not matter. Jesus knows her grief, as He knows all grief. With Lazarus’ death, John tells us that when Jesus saw Mary of Bethany weeping and the Jews with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and when He came to the tomb He wept out loud. To be moved in spirit means that He was moved in His very life-force.

“He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt.” The word for coffin (soros) means a vessel for holding the remains of a dead person, usually made of stone. But here the word probably just means a bier (as the word later came to be used).

“And He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise!” and the dead man sat up and began to speak.” In Acts 3:15 Peter calls Jesus, “The Author of Life” (Archēgos tou Zōē). Jesus speaks plainly to the dead man in the hearing of the others (with no mumbling incantations). He says the same thing that He said to the paralytic and the man with the withered hand and to the dead daughter of Jairus, “Get up!” (an imperative of egeirō, but here He uses the aorist passive—literally, “be raised”—there the present active). Like Tabitha in Acts 9:40, raised from the dead by Peter, he sat up. Luke does not tell us what he said, but that he was speaking proved that he was clearly alive.

In the preceding story the centurion’s slave was dying; here the son is dead. The centurion was a powerful gentile “who loves our nation and built us our synagogue”; the widow was a powerless and unknown Jewish woman. The centurion sent to ask Jesus to come and save the life of his slave; the widow made no request and had no expectations. In the case of the centurion, Jesus remarks how he had great faith: “Not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” In the case of the widow, no mention is made of her or anyone else’s faith. The story simply shows the compassion of Jesus, not His reaction to some condition that we fulfill (except our sorrow and grief). This speaks to the fulfillment of His promises, for they ultimately do not depend on us in any way. He will one day restore the creation, raise it from its bondage and sorrow, and transform it, glorifying and divinizing it so that it becomes like Him in His resurrection, and that “liberation of creation” from its “slavery to corruption” (Romans 8:21) will include Israel and all humanity (though not without the fires of judgment and perhaps loss).

The story recalls Elijah’s raising the only son of the gentile widow of Zarephath (mentioned by Jesus in 4:25). We also may recall Elisha’s raising of the Shunammite’s son in 2 Kings 4:18-37. In Luke 8:41-42, 49-56 Jesus will raise the daughter of Jairus, an officer of the synagogue. In John’s gospel Jesus raises Lazarus in chapter 11.In Acts 9:36-42 Peter will raise Tabitha from the dead, and in Acts 20:7-12 Paul might have raised Eutychus from the dead. These are all miracles of resuscitations rather than resurrections in the same sense as Jesus resurrected for they would all die again, but John’s gospel sees them as signs pointing forward to Jesus’ resurrection and indicative of Jesus’ life as inherently capable of overcoming death. He raises the dead with the power of His life. According to Paul, “the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,” and the Father “will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). This Spirit came upon Jesus, anointing Him at His baptism, and it is by the power of this Spirit that He taught and performed miracles and fulfilled His ministry (Luke 4:14, 18).

There were stories in the ancient gentile world of similar resuscitations (for example, in Pliny, Apuleius, and Philostratus). Flavius Philostratus wrote of one Apollonius of Tyana in Cappadocia who was a late contemporary of Jesus. Philostratus himself was born in 170 and his account of Apollonius may have been influenced by the gospel accounts, though that hardly matters. The stories are similar but there are also differences. Apollonius, for example, muttered a magical incantation over the dead woman he raised. An incantation is a magical “technology” for the manipulation of the powers of nature. Jesus exercised no technique. What He did was with simple authority (as in 7:1-10), not manipulation.

The miracle does not prove Jesus is the Messiah or uniquely the Son of God (Luke 3:22; 9:20, 35) any more than His other miracles do, for others also performed such miracles. However, as John’s gospel presents them, they witness to His uniqueness as signs. Within the context of Luke, the restoration of the widow’s son to life and to his mother is the final and conclusive sign of liberation that Jesus performs in 4:14—7:17, for after liberating a town afflicted by demons, and Peter, and the leper and paralytic and tax collector, and restoring the Sabbath and liberating the man with the withered hand, and gathering His disciples and describing them as “blessed,” and liberating a dying slave of a gentile master by the authority of His word, He now liberates a man from the bondage of death. Death is the greatest of our enemies, whose defeat of us is final, and from whose prison (Hades) no one escapes. Yet Jesus calls the dead back from Hades and restores them to their bodies again. Certainly it is a sign of our future resurrection when our bodies will be recreated and glorified (divinized) like His own was when He rose on Easter and ascended into heaven (Philippians 3:21), even if it is no proof of it. Of what it is the proof is the mastery of God over death, and the power of God’s Spirit to overcome the bonds of death.

Jesus “gave him back to his mother.” The words correspond exactly to 1 Kings 17:23, where Elijah raised another widow’s only son. The implication is that not only was life restored to the dead man but that life was also restored to the widow’s household, her living (bios) was restored. Thus the community itself was healed (recall 4:39 and 4:31-41).

“Fear (phobos) gripped them all.” Fear is the common reaction in Luke-Acts of people to heavenly interventions or manifestations of Jesus’ power (Luke 1:65; 5:26; 8:25, 37; Acts 2:43; 5:5, 11; 19:17). The word does not have to mean something like cringing with fright. In these contexts it probably means more like “humble awe.”

What follows in verses 16-17 is a “summary passage” like 4:14-15, 37 and 5:15-16.

Out of this awe the people glorified God (rather than Jesus per se), and said two things: “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited His people!” In the first of these, the prophet foremost in their mind might have been Elijah whose miracle Jesus just imitated (with some significant differences). In 4:24 Jesus refers to Himself as a prophet and compares Himself in 4:25-27 to both Elijah and Elisha. (There are some similarities between both the story of the centurion’s servant and the widow’s son to the story of Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5:1-14.) In 24:19 Cleopas (probably Jesus’ uncle) calls Jesus “a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people.” There was an expectation that Elijah would return as a messiah or the forerunner of the messiah—in which case, Jesus is being compared to John the Baptist (see the next story, Luke 7:18-30)—and there was also the belief in the Coming One (Luke 7:19-20) as a Prophet like Moses (see Deuteronomy 18:15-18). However, the people do not say “the Prophet” but “a prophet.”This is still significant, for it was a common belief that prophecy had ended hundreds of years earlier, until the rise of John the Baptist. When they say, “A great prophet has arisen among us,” the verb “arise” is the same used of the widow’s son, though in a different way; it is the same as in 3:8 and 11:31 (see Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9).

The people’s two statements refer us back to Zachariah’s prophecy in the presence of the virgin Mary in Luke 1:67-79. In verse 76 Zachariah says to the infant John the Baptist, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High.” Jesus is considered a Prophet along this line, though the question is raised in the following story, “Is He this, or is He more?” These verses (7:16-17) are transitioning us to the next section where the question is raised by the Baptist himself, “Are You the Coming One?” and is raised and answered again and again until heaven itself pronounces the answer in 9:35.

Zachariah’s prophecy began, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant,” and ends, “the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:68-69, 78b-79). Acts 15:14 also speaks of how God “visited” to take from among the gentiles a people for His Name. The word “visit” (episkeptomai) also means to notice and have a care for. We can read Genesis 50:24-25 in this connection. The patriarch Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will surely take care of (LXX: episkeptomai) you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob … God will surely take care of (episkeptomai) you, and you shall carry my bones up from here.” Here Joseph looks at his own death and thinks of God’s future “visitation” when God will fulfill His promises with respect to the land. This is strongly associated with the Messiah in the prophetic literature and in the New Testament. Jesus Himself—or rather our being “in Him”—becomes in a sense the Promised Land and its attendant beatitude (blessing), and indeed the Year of Jubilee that Jesus fulfills epitomizes this.

“This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district.” What took place in Nain, in southern Galilee, spread into the other parts of Palestine. Judea (Youdaia) can mean the district of Judea to the south or the country of the Jews. It refers to where Jesus’ reputation preceded Him.

Jesus, the divine Person who is now a ubiquitous presence in His divinized created being (the two natures fully co-inhering and sharing their properties), being the visitation of God in His revelation of Who He is, sees us in the sorrow of our lives. We are all like the widow of Nain, and so much of our lives, our hopes, our potential, our love, represented by her son, is dead. We are like widows in the world, bereft of our only “son” and left, existentially, without resources. We are like our “son,” dead. Jesus sees us. He comes to us now, and says to us in the greatest sympathy, “Do not weep.” We do not know what to expect; we cannot hope. Not in a temporal way but in a metaphorical and spiritual way, He stops the procession of our grief and touches our dead. He speaks to us, “I say to you, arise!” And suddenly we find ourselves sitting up and alive. Jesus (Who He really is) gives us a taste of life in the midst of our dying. It is a promise of where we are going, but a promise that is already present in this moment. In this moment, His presence means that time and eternity touch, what is to come is mysteriously present, here and now. His presence called forth life into existence in the universe, and called forth our life in this body of ours (His breath gave us our own), and called forth the life of our children, and will not leave us to disappear and become vanity and vapor (Abel) but is calling forth our life now into something far greater, into union with His life, a life impervious to death, a life that will swallow the whole universe (“what is mortal will be swallowed up by life,” 2 Corinthians 5:4), a life in which we will know ourselves not in isolation (like “wandering stars for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever,” Jude 13) but in lively communion with all. Let us not limit life to our dying experience of it; it is so much more. We get a sense of it when we see the awakening vitality of children (before it is knocked into the unconsciousness of adult existence). The growth and expression of life is really what it is all about, of which He is the beginning and endless telos.

There is also a typological aspect to these two stories—the story of the gentile’s faith and the widow’s son—that I have not yet touched upon. In the first story (7:1-10), Jesus heals the slave of a gentile from afar, by the power of His word alone, in response to the faith of the master. It typifies the salvation of the gentiles who believe, by the power of Jesus’ word alone, during Jesus’ manifest absence on earth, during His reign in heaven. It typifies the era of the church. In the second story (7:11-15), Jesus raises the only son of a Jewish widow, from death to life, also by the power of His word, but when there has been no demonstration of faith. This typifies the salvation of Israel which the prophet Ezekiel had portrayed as a resurrection from the dead. Israel has lost her only Son, the Lord Jesus Himself, and when they shall see Him Whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for Him, and on that day, their salvation shall come, according to the prophet Zechariah. The resurrection of the only Son and His restoration to His mother typifies the salvation of all Israel at the end of this age (when the fullness of the gentiles comes in). The salvation of Israel will take place on the Lord’s initiative, on the basis of grace (election), and not because they have previously recognized Him (though on that day they will recognize Him and will believe). This interpretation seems a fitting conclusion to the section of Luke’s gospel that began with Jesus’ proclamation in Nazareth in chapter 4.

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