Chapter 4

The Power of Compassion

Power is an interesting concept. We might think in terms of political power, exercised in ruling over others. Perhaps we could think of financial power, where a person has the clout to buy and sell to their heart’s desire. Or possibly we might be referring to physical power, where one person’s strength and/or size positions them to intimidate or control others (the basketball term power forward comes to mind).

Most of the time when we think of power we think of strength, not the softer qualities of humility or gentleness. Or, for our purposes, compassion. Power and compassion just don’t seem like they would travel together, yet the most powerful person who ever walked this earth in human flesh exercised His immense power in harmony with and in response to His compassion.

That is why, as we consider the compassion of Jesus, it’s important to remember Hebrews 4:15. He experienced the same things we do. He experienced them personally and profoundly in ways we cannot imagine. He truly knows how we feel.

Add to that experience the fact that Jesus was not merely an emotionally detached observer or a person holding life at arm’s length. He entered into the human experience deeply, feeling with people as they endured hardships and heartaches of life. In response, Jesus exercised the power of the Godhead in order to express His deep compassion for the people He encountered.

To see how thoroughly Jesus felt the challenges of this life with us, it may be helpful to take a closer look at five of the twelve times the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) use the verb to have compassion to describe Jesus’s responses to specific parts of the human experience that He encountered in His incarnation.

For the sick: As is true in our day, illness and disease were ubiquitous in the first century. Some of this was due to the lack of what we might consider proper medical care and some of it was due to the lack of sanitary conditions. In Matthew 14, Jesus had just heard about the execution of His friend, cousin, and forerunner, John the Baptizer. Seeking a time of seclusion Jesus goes to a quiet place—likely to grieve and reflect.

This pursuit of solitude, however, was short-lived. The desperate needs of desperate people drove them to pursue Him and, in spite of His own grief and personal needs, Jesus responded to those crowds by healing them.

When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick. (matthew 14:14)

As we saw with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus saw them and felt compassion for them, prompting Him to act on their behalf. This becomes a clear example of Jesus’s refusal to be a disengaged, distant observer. When He saw suffering, the compassion of His heart would not allow Him to stand idly by and ignore it. He was moved with compassion that drove Him to action, even during a time when He could easily have focused on His own grief and pain. Compassion caused Him to feel with them, and to work on their behalf.

When He saw suffering, the compassion of His heart would not allow Him to stand idly by and ignore it.

For the needy: In our day, many differentiate between “spiritual” ministry and “social” outreaches, often swinging to one extreme or the other. Some say that eternity is more important than this life, so obviously the priority is to give people the gospel so that they can receive eternal life. Others, meanwhile, say that when people are dying we should be concerned and involved in coming to their aid.

I suspect that Jesus would say that both groups are right. The volume of teaching Jesus gave on the kingdom is massive; yet He exhibited daily concern for the temporal needs of those who surrounded Him.

For many of the common people, life in first-century Israel was nearly a subsistence level existence. For most people and most families, there was rarely little extra. As a result, when Jesus arrived offering a new kind of satisfaction and a radically different fullness, people were drawn to Him. Yet, as the people pursued Jesus the realities of their challenging times were evidenced when the multitudes followed Him even to the point of physical hunger.

And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, “I feel compassion for the people, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” (matthew 15:32)

This again was part of His own experience as well for Jesus also experienced hunger, thirst, and homelessness during His years of ministry. Jesus’s compassion for the poor, needy, and hungry is a vital element of His earthly ministry—and all of it was fueled by His compassion.

The product of that compassion for the needy was not one but two miraculous feedings. The first was the feeding of five thousand men (which might mean 15,000 or more when including women and children). This is the only miracle of Jesus that is found in all four gospel records (matthew 14, mark 6, luke 9, john 6), and it shows Jesus’s response to the physical needs of the crowds that followed Him.

The second is found here in Matthew 15:32–38, where the motivation of compassion is the driving force in the account. This time it is four thousand men (v. 38), “besides women and children.” There can be no doubt that Jesus had great concern for the spiritual well-being of the people who made up the crowds, but that in no way hindered Him from tangibly caring for their physical needs as well.

For the blind: As the Light of the world, Jesus came to penetrate the darkness of this world with His own perfect light. One of His ways of displaying this provision of light was by His dealings with blind men. Like disease, blindness was widespread in the first century and Jesus had multiple encounters with the blind, restoring their sight and making them whole.

In one such case, Jesus and His disciples were traveling to Jerusalem where Jesus would ultimately experience the cross. Approaching the oasis city of Jericho, Matthew tells us that the Master encountered two blind men (Mark and Luke focus on only one of these two men, Bartimaeus; mark 10:46–52; luke 18:35–43) and Jesus’s response to their cries for help were fueled by His compassion.

Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him. (matthew 20:34)

Throughout the gospels, Jesus encountered many blind men. Always, He cared for them and relieved their blindness because He was moved with compassion. These miracles in which Jesus gave sight to the blind, though addressing legitimate physical needs, also became a metaphor for the spiritual work of providing salvation to those in spiritual need.

This theme was picked up by former slave trader John Newton as, in 1779, he penned arguably the most beloved hymn in history, Amazing Grace:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Paul described it this way:

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son. (colossians 1:13)

Giving sight to the blind was a living parable of bringing people out darkness and into light—all pictured and practiced within the compassion of Jesus.

For the terminally ill: There is something sacred about being in the presence of someone who is leaving this life and entering the next. The reality of death and dying is the great common denominator in the human experience, and no one escapes it. Paupers and kings, intellectuals and uneducated, wealthy and poverty-stricken, all eventually experience death. It is life’s great inevitability.

In Jesus’s day, however, there were times when a person’s appointment with death was postponed because the Prince of life was on hand to forestall the impending or recent death of a person who was otherwise beyond hope. One such case was one of our Lord’s miracles found in the very beginnings of His public ministry in Mark 1:40–45.

In the first century, leprosy was incurable, so when Jesus is approached by a leper it is not surprising to see the Lord’s response to the man’s request for healing:

Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” (mark 1:41)

I’m not sure we appreciate the wonder of this as fully as Jesus’s first-century audience might have. Luke, the physician, tells us that this man was “covered with leprosy” (luke 5:12), meaning the disease was in its advanced stages. The man was dying, yet Jesus’s compassion for the man was stronger than any fear of the leper. Jesus touched the man. (This would have shocked the watching crowd who avoided any and all contact with lepers.) And He restored him to full health.

The compassion of Jesus responded to a man with a terminal illness and defeated death. What amazing power!

For the grieving: As we have just seen, death is life’s great leveler. No one is untouched by it. Not only does this mean we will all eventually die, it also means we will all eventually be touched and broken by the deaths of those we love. Grief is such a profound experience that Israel’s King David, upon hearing of the death of his son Absalom, is described in the depths of grief:

The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And thus he said as he walked, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 samuel 18:33)

Most parents can appreciate that level of grief. The loss of a child was overwhelming in David’s day and it is in our day as well. And in Jesus’s day, when He encountered a woman grieving the death of her son, it was out of His compassion that He comforted her.

When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” (luke 7:13)

This woman was a victim of grief not once, but twice. She is described as a widow (luke 7:12), so this is now at least the second time she has walked to the place of burial with a broken heart. But this journey to the tomb would be cut short as death is interrupted by life.

Here, Jesus performed one of three “resuscitation” miracles (see also the raisings of Jairus’s daughter in mark 5 and Lazarus in john 11). Scholars distinguish between resuscitation and resurrection because in resurrection the dead are raised never to experience death again, while in resuscitation miracles the dead are restored to life in the present, but eventually still face death.

These miracles, born out of compassion for the grieving foreshadowed the resurrection of Jesus. His power to restore life to the death, and to conquer death Himself, would lead to Paul’s triumphant declaration:

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 corinthians 15:55–57)

Jesus’s compassion responded with power to the condition of fallen humanity so that every aspect of life was addressed. Illness, hunger, blindness, terminal illnesses, and grief were all the target of Jesus’s compassion. His power created a new normal out those experiences of deep pain and heartache.