"Jesus' Mercy to a Mother"
(Delivered Mother's Day Sunday, May 11, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, as we traditionally do on Mothers' Day, we'll look at the story of a particular mother from the pages of Scripture. We don't know very much about the woman we'll be considering this morning; in fact, we don't even know her name. Nevertheless, I believe her story will be a particular encouragement to the mothers in our midst. In fact, there's much encouragement to be found for each one of us in the story of this woman's encounter with Jesus.
Her story is found only in the Gospel of Luke. It occurred near the beginning of Jesus' public ministry, as the fame about Him was beginning to spread. He had already begun to demonstrate His power by performing some miracles of healing, and had demonstrated His authority by casting out demons. As a result of these great works, large crowds from Judea and Jerusalem - as well as from the coastal towns of Tyre and Sidon - were coming to hear Him teach and to be healed by Him (Luke 6:17-19).
Luke, a physician by occupation (Col. 4:14), tells us of how Jesus even demonstrated His power and authority by healing the beloved servant of a Roman centurion (7:1-10). And it's then that Luke tells us this woman's remarkable story. He writes,
Now it happened the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, "Do not weep." Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, "Young man, I say to you, arise." So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, "A great prophet has risen up among us"; and, "God has visited His people." And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region (Luke 7:11-17).
Even though this is a story of a mother's grief over a dead son, the spotlight figure in it is, of course, our Lord Jesus. He is the one who gave her dead son back to her alive, and thus proving Himself - before a whole multitude of eyewitnesses - to be the Lord of life. A situation of great sadness and tragedy was suddenly turned by Him into an occasion for great joy and worship. They went out of the city in mourning; and they all came back rejoicing - having never even made it to the cemetery at all! How good and compassionate Jesus proved to be to this poor, grieving mother. What a good story this is to consider on Mothers' Day.
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As I studied this passage of Scripture, another passage kept coming to my mind. I believe it would be important to have this other passage in our thinking; because it helps us understand why the story of this woman should be such a great encouragement to us today. It's a passage from the Gospel of John that tells us of one of Jesus' confrontations with His own countrymen, the Jews.
The unbelieving Jewish authorities were arguing that Jesus couldn't possibly be from God because He had healed people and cast out demons on the Sabbath - and they were insisting that no work of any kind should be done on the Sabbath - apparently not even works of healing or of casting out demons. But Jesus answered, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working" (John 5:17). Obviously, God worked and did good to people on the Sabbath day; and since this was so, Jesus - who did the works of His Father - said that He also did these works on the Sabbath day.
This answer, of course, outraged His opponents; because not only was He healing on the Sabbath, but now He was daring to say that God was His Father - making Himself equal with God. But listen carefully to what Jesus said in response:
"Most assuredly, I say to you the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will" (John 5:20-21).
Here, then, is one of the reasons why the story of Jesus' encounter with the grieving mother of Nain is such an important one. It gave proof to the Jewish people - and to the world - that Jesus truly did the works of the Father. All of the Jewish people who believed the Scriptures knew that God, indeed, raises the dead and gives life to them. They would affirm that God did so through the ministries of such Old Testament prophets as Elijah - who raised the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24), and Elisha - who raised the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:18-37). So here they were calling Jesus a blasphemer, and were about to kill Him, because He claimed to do the works of His Father on the Sabbath - works of healing and of casting out demons. But Jesus was letting them know that they hadn't seen anything yet! He was going to show them that He truly was the Son of God by the fact that He would even raise the dead and give life to them - just as they would readily admit that only God could do.
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But there is a second reason why I believe the story of Jesus' encounter with this mother is a significant one for us to hear about today. Jesus went on to say to the Jews;
"Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth - those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation" (John 5:25-29).
Did you listen carefully to those words? Jesus is speaking of two kinds of "death" in them. First, He said that the hour was coming when "the dead" will hear the voice of the Son of God; and that those who hear would live. The Father has life in Himself, Jesus said; and the Father also granted the Son the authority to impart that life to others. Those dead ones who heard His voice would live. But then, He went on to say that no one should marvel at this; because an hour was coming in which all who are in their graves would hear His voice and come forth - some to eternal life, and others to eternal condemnation. That second kind of death that He mentions is "physical" death - one in which those Jesus raises will literally come out of the graves. The first kind of death, however, is a "spiritual" death - a kind of death that He mentions in verse 24: "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My words and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life."
There are two kinds of death, then - a physical death and a spiritual death. Today, many who are physically alive are spiritually dead. They walk around in a body and go about their daily business and activities; but there's no life in them in terms of any relationship with God. They are dead to a life before God, stand condemned before Him because of their sins, and abide as objects of His wrath. And yet even today, many of these same spiritually dead ones are being called out of this state of spiritual death and into life by the Son of God. They hear Jesus' voice calling them through the preaching of the message of the gospel; and believing, they pass from death into life and now live.
And Jesus says that, one day, all who are physically dead and in their graves will hear His voice and be raised. Those to whom He had granted spiritual life will be raised to the resurrection of life; and those who did not believe on Him and remain under His wrath will be raised to the resurrection of condemnation. Jesus is saying that the fact that He has the ability to raise up those who have suffered physical death is proof that He is not only able to also raise up those who are spiritually dead, but will also one day raise all the physically dead from their graves.
Some may think that "dead" is a harsh word to use; but it is the right word to describe of the condition of someone before they are by saved. Just as the physically dead are helpless and cannot raise themselves up from the dead, so also the spiritually dead are helpless to raise themselves up into a spiritual life before God. They remain in a helpless state of spiritual death until God mercifully gives them life. Paul expressed this fact wonderfully in Ephesians 2:1-9;
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:1-9).
Apart from Christ, we're in a state of spiritual death; and there is nothing we could ever do to make ourselves worthy of spiritual life. There is nothing we could ever do to raise ourselves up from spiritual death. If anyone at all lives spiritually, it is because God - by an act of His own grace - first spoke life into them. And it's this that, I believe, makes the story of the poor grieving mother such a great encouragement to us today. It illustrates for us that, though spiritual death is a helpless state to be in, no one is so "dead" in spiritual death that Jesus can not suddenly, unexpectedly, burst on to the scene and call the dead one to life if He so chooses.
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I have prayed with many Christian moms and dads who were broken-hearted over a son or daughter who was living in spiritual death. It's often the case that these children had a good Christian upbringing, and that they had been taken to church, and that they had been diligently taught by their godly mother and father to believe on Jesus. But when they reached their teenage or adult years, they got in with some bad friends, or got sucked up by the culture; and they turned their back on it all. They rejected the God of their father and mother, and threw themselves headlong into sin. They were without any spiritual life before God. They were just as Paul said - as those who are "dead in trespasses and sins". And as much as an unbelieving son or daughter is a heart-break to both Christian parents, I've noticed that he or she is a particular heartbreak to the mother. A godly mother's love endures to the very end; but a godly mother's pain over a sinning child is also very, very deep. "A wise son makes a glad father," the Bible tell us; "but a foolish son is the grief of his mother" (Prov. 10:1). "The rod and rebuke give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother" (Prov. 29:15).
And yet, I've also seen it happen that an unbelieving son or daughter - one who had aggressively rejected God and lived for years in rebellious sin - can suddenly and unexpectedly come to faith, repent of sin, and live in a joyful relationship with Jesus Christ from then on. I've seen it happen in some very remarkable instances; and there's no other way to explain what happened but that the Son of God suddenly came along and spoke them into life. And again, though such a thing is a cause of unspeakable joy to both Christian parents, I've come to believe that it's a specially deep and profound joy to the mother. Moms pray for the salvation of their kids with a passion like no one else's; and when their children finally do enter into life, what a cause of rejoicing it is to them!
I believe that, to fully appreciate this Mothers' Day passage, we need to remember that no mother's son or daughter - no matter how far into spiritual deadness they have descended - is ever beyond the hope of salvation. Jesus is alive and at work today in this world; and He is fully able to suddenly and unexpectedly call any sinner from spiritual death to spiritual life - and thus show great mercy and compassion to some grieving, heart-broken mother.
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Let's look closely at this particular mother's story; and of her encounter with the Lord of life. First of all, I notice something that should be a comfort to any mother of unsaved children; and that is that ...
1. JESUS SAW HER GRIEF.
Luke says that this incident happened on "the day after"; or as it says in the NIV, "soon afterwards". As you remember, it happened soon after Jesus had performed the healing of the servant of the Roman centurion in the Galilean city of Capernaum. The centurion wouldn't think of troubling Jesus to come to his house to heal his servant, though; but instead he told Jesus, "... Say the word, and my servant will be healed." Jesus did indeed speak the word, and the man's servant was indeed healed; but before He spoke those words, He expressed amazement at the Roman soldier's faith, and turned to the crowd that followed Him and said, "I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" (7:9).
There was a crowd, then, that had been following Him and had been witnessing His miracles. And what's more, they saw that Jesus responded to the faith of those who appeal to Him - even the faith of a Gentile. But what follows is a story of even greater mercy; because in this case, no one came to Jesus in faith to ask anything of Him. No one petitioned Him to raise the young man from the dead. Not even His mother asked this of Him. And obviously the young man couldn't have made the request, because he was dead. What Jesus did in this case, then, was simply because He saw a poor mother's need. It was an unexpected and unanticipated act of great grace and mercy.
Luke tells us what Jesus saw that day:
Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her (vv. 11-12).
First, consider what Jesus might have seen of the city itself. Nain was a Galilean city about 15 miles south of Capernaum; and about 5 miles southwest of Nazareth. This city is mentioned in the Bible only in this story; but scholars tell us that remnants of this city still exists in the form of a small village called Nein. The archeological evidence around the modern village suggests that Nain was much larger in ancient times. And one of the notable features of this ancient city was its tombs. Many ancient tombs can be found just East of the city. Perhaps the sight of people carrying out their dead to these tombs was a common one in Nain.
Second, consider what Jesus might have seen of the young man. The Greek word that Luke says Jesus used toward him (neaniskos) is one that speaks of a young person in the prime of life - old enough to make a good living (Matthew 19: 22), and strong enough to do heavy labor (Acts 5:10), but still too young to be considered among the mature (1 John 2:13-14). He was just beginning life, and would have been the hopes and aspirations of his mother. But here, we find that he was cut down by death - another tragic victim of the consequences of the sin of our forefather Adam.
Third, consider what Jesus might have seen in the crowds. Two crowds met that day - the joyful crowd that was about to follow Jesus into the city, and the mournful crowd that was about to carry one of its own out to the cemetery. What a scene the meeting of these two crowds must have been! What a mix of emotions their meeting must have represented!
And what an amazing demonstration of the sovereign timing of the almighty God it was! Two crowds were brought together by God to become unexpected eyewitnesses together to the power and authority of the Son of God in their midst! Read the end of the story and see what happened - "And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region" (v. 17). Many people in these two crowds had spread the news far and wide! Could we dare to say that the meeting of these two crowds of people in Nain, who would later become witnesses of Jesus power beyond its borders, was one reason why God permitted this tragedy of death to happen in the first place? God rarely does just one thing at a time. Often, when He does something that we plainly see, we can be sure that He is, along with it, making a whole lot of other things happen that we wont even know about until much later!
And finally, consider what Jesus saw in this poor mother. Her situation was an outstandingly tragic one. First, she was a widow. Her husband had died at some point prior to this; and so she was robbed of her life companion. But second, death touched her household once again by taking away her precious son in his prime. And third, death this time left her destitute; because this young man was her only son - her only earthly provider. Death robbed her of her hopes and dreams for her son; and it robbed her of her anticipation of grandchildren and the expectation that her husband's name will be carried on to future generations. But it also robbed her of her immediate livelihood and material care; because a widowed woman in that culture was dependent upon other family members to provide for her. And now, she had no one.
This poor woman was broken-hearted and without hope for the future. She was like the mother-in-law of Ruth, whose story we read in the Old Testament. That woman's name was "Naomi", which means "pleasantness"; but death first took away her husband, and then took away her two sons - leaving her with two childless young foreign daughters-in-law for whom she could not provide. When she returned to her homeland in this condition, everyone was amazed at the tragedy that had touched her life; and she said, "Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara (which means "bitterness"), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me" (Ruth 1:20).
This poor widow of Nain could very easily have taken the name "Mara" to herself. No wonder this poor widow was accompanied by a funeral crowd befitting the occasion! No wonder Jesus found her weeping bitterly!
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And I want to stress once more that Jesus saw it all. He is not far away and aloof - unaware of the suffering and pain of those around Him. When people suffer and feel pain, when people are struck by the horrible consequences Adam's sin, and feel the touch of the dreadful enemy "death", Jesus sees and knows all about it.
And by the way; please notice that Luke uses a particular name for Jesus in expressing this. He says, "When the Lord saw her ..." Luke deliberately called Him "the Lord". Death had touched this woman's life and had taken away her beloved and only son; but it was seen by the one who is "the Lord"! Jesus was about to show to all that He truly is the one whom the Father had authorized to give life to whomever He wishes. He is about to prove that He is the Lord of life! We can have hope in any situation - no matter how grim - if we know that it's a situation that is fully seen by Him who is called "the Lord"!
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I'd like you to notice, second, that He not only saw these circumstances; but in seeing them ...
2. JESUS WAS MOVED WITH COMPASSION.
Luke writes, "When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, 'Do not weep.'"
The word Luke used to describe Jesus' response to this woman is one that comes from the Greek word splangchnon. That's the Greek words for our inward parts - our intestines. Our English word "spleen" come from it. Luke said that, when Jesus saw the woman, He was splangchnizomai - that is, moved with compassion, moved down to His inward parts - because of her. In other words, He felt for her on a very deep and visceral level because of what He saw.
The Bible tells us that Jesus often expressed very deep feelings for people and their troubles. And I make the observation that when Jesus felt so deeply for people, something happened because of it! When Jesus saw the great multitudes of people gathering around Him, the Bible says that "He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick" (Matthew 14:14). When it came time to send the hungry multitudes away, He told His disciples that He wanted to feed them; saying, "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat" (Matthew 15:32); and as a result, He multiplied the food to feed them all. When two blind men cried out to Him in the city of Jerico, "... Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes. And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him" (Matthew 20:34). A leper came kneeling before Jesus, saying, "'If You are willing, You can make me clean.' Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, 'I am willing; be cleansed.' As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed" (Mark. 1:40-42). When He beheld the multitudes gathered before Him - all weary and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd, the Bible tells us that "He was moved with compassion for them" (Matthew 9:36; also Mark 6:34); and commanded His disciples to pray that God would send workers out into the harvest.
The Bible is filled with the evidence that our Savior is a compassionate Lord - one who not only sees the pain and suffering of His people, but is moved deeply to the very core of His being by what He sees. And it is also filled with the evidence that, when He is moved in such a way, He always does something about it!
Jesus said to the woman, "Do not weep". Literally, He said, "Cease weeping." What a thing to say to a grieving woman as they carry her dead son out to the tombs! But Jesus could say it because He is the Lord of life, because He was moved with compassion for her, and because He was about to do something about it all. No one asked Him to do what He did. He did it because He is a compassionate Savior, who takes the initiative and acts in mercy on behalf of suffering and sorrowing people.
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Thirdly, then, notice how ...
3. JESUS GAVE LIFE TO HER SON.
The crowd leaving the city was carrying the dead body of the woman's son. And while most translations say that he was in a "coffin", they most likely carried his body on a bier or a cot-like hammock. Jesus brought the whole funeral procession to a halt by walking up and touching the bier on which the young man's body was placed.
We need to understand that this was a startling thing to do. The Old Testament law stated clearly that it was a ceremonially defiling thing to come into contact with a dead body (Lev. 21:10-11; Num. 19:14-22). It was something someone only did by absolute necessity - for one's own family member. But Jesus, before the eyes of everyone, reached out and touched the coffin of someone toward whom He had no obligation. What a picture that is!! - the glorious Lord of life, reaching out to touch the dead in a unmerited, gracious way, so as to bring the dead to life!! There's a spiritual lesson for us in that. The holy Son of God didn't shrink back from making contact with the dreadful consequence of sin - that is, our death. Instead, He condescended to touch us where we were - in all our sinfulness and lostness and neediness - and save us from sin's horrible consequence. The Bible tells us about Jesus "who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9). He, as it were, touched your coffin and mine so that we might live!
Jesus touched the coffin, and brought the funeral to an abrupt halt. And then He spoke; "Young man, I say to you, arise." Isn't it wonderful that Jesus didn't say, "Oh dead body, I say to you, come back to life"? He didn't speak to a dead body. He spoke to a young man. Before the young man could arise, Jesus first had to give him life; but then, having been given him life, Jesus simply spoke to the young man and said, "arise". What a Savior!
Luke tells us, "So he who was dead sat up." I love that; don't you?!! The young man didn't twitch, then slowly stir, and then blink, and then gradually display the signs of life. No one grabbed his wrist and shouted, "Hey wait!! I think I can still feel a pulse!!" No; the young man just suddenly sat up. He was instantly as alive as could be. In fact, I like the way Luke puts it the best - he who WAS dead sat up! I would have liked to have heard the collective gasp from the crowd; wouldn't you?
Luke also tells us something else that happened immediately, "... and he began to speak". I'm sure he did!! If you suddenly sat up on a bier that was being carried by a funeral procession on its way out to the cemetery, wouldn't YOU begin to speak?? And again, this was to exhibit that the young man was very much alive. He didn't lay there and groan, and then mutter incoherently, and then slowly begin to form words. He sat up and spoke. From death to life instantly!
And what Luke tells us next is wonderful: "And He presented him to his mother." What a present! Last week, many of us watched some very excited and happy mothers welcome their sons home from their time of military service. There were a lot of tears of joy shed, because those mothers were receiving their sons back from a time of danger and uncertainty. Sadly, some mothers received their sons back, but not alive. But this woman had actually watched helplessly as her son died, and then walked in horrible grief behind his body as they carried him out to the grave. There can't be words to describe the joy she must have felt at receiving him back from the dead!
There are three stories in the Bible of Jesus raising specific persons from the dead; and in each one of those stories, He did so in the context of family. He raised the little daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler, up from the dead; and then, He was able to give her over to her astonished parents to give her something to eat (Luke 8:55-56). He called His friend Lazarus to come out alive from the tomb; and then, He was able to give him over to his sisters Mary and Martha who put on a banquet in celebration (John 12:1-2). And now, we see that He raised this young man from the dead, and then hand him over to his mother. It doesn't say so, of course; but I suspect that she made him his favorite dinner that night.
And then, look at the impact this all had on the crowds who saw it. Luke says, "Then fear came upon all" - not a fear of horror, but of reverence toward God over the realization that a great miracle had just occurred before their eyes. Then, Luke says, "... and they glorified God, saying, "a great prophet has risen up among us"; and, "God has visited His people" (v. 16). This was not a miracle that turned their primary attention to the man who was raised, but rather to the one by whom he was raised. Finally, we're told, "And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region" (v. 17).
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I had the opportunity to pray with a friend of mine recently. He grew up in a godly home, and was taught about the faith by a godly father and mother; but has often told me about how he had wandered away from his Christian upbringing, and lived for many years in a life of sin. He finally placed his trust in the Lord, though; and he now claims Jesus as his Savior, and prays regularly in His name. And as we prayed together the other day, this man said that he wondered whether or not his mother and father - now in heaven - would have been amazed to see him in a church building in prayer.
My friend is an example of what is illustrated in the story of the widow of Nain. Why it is that Jesus doesn't raise physically dead children today, and give them back to their grieving mothers, is a question that I can't answer. I believe He will raise them one day. But I DO know for certain that He knows all about mothers who grieve right now over lost sons and daughters that are helpless in a state of spiritual death. I know that He Himself is moved with compassion over such grief. And I also know that He is alive and at work in this world; and that He is able to suddenly and unexpectedly call those who are hopelessly dead in sins to life, and make them into His followers. He has done it countless times.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ - and particularly dear Christian mothers; don't ever lose hope because of a son or daughter who is lost in sins. No matter how far into spiritual death someone may go, Jesus remains the Lord of life; and He is wonderfully able make them hear His voice and raise them from spiritual death - just as He did for you and me.
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