The Compassion of Christ
The saying is proverbial: “People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” There is a measure of truth in that.
Consider the case of Jesus Christ. He was the most forceful, demanding teacher who has ever lived. He was the one who taught that even one’s closest family members must give way to loyalty to him, and that the true disciple must be willing to “bear his cross” for the Master (Matthew 10:34-39). In view of the rigorous nature of the Savior’s requirements, how does one account for his amazing popularity?
For one thing, the evidence supporting his claims was staggering. No honest person could deny it. Beyond that, a strong case can be made that Jesus’ compassion for the lost, as a reflection of his incredible love, made him a most attractive character.
Our Sympathetic High Priest
There are several words in the Greek New Testament that reveal insights into the marvelous compassion of the Lord with reference to sinful, suffering humanity. Let us think about this for a moment.
The book of Hebrews has this exciting passage.
For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one who has been tempted like as we are, yet without sin (4:15).
Of special interest is the term “touched.” It translates the Greek sympatheo, from sun (with), and patheo (to feel). Hence, the meaning is to feel with. Our English “sympathy” is derived from this word.
Michaelis notes that the term “does not signify a sympathetic understanding that is ready to condone, but a fellow feeling that derives from full acquaintance with the seriousness of the situation as a result of successfully withstanding the temptation” (Bromiley, 802-803).
The Christian who struggles against the urgings of temptation may be sure that there is one who understands this difficulty and is sympathetic to us as we engage the battle against carnality (cf. Romans 7:14ff; 1 Corinthians 9:27).
But let us consider the compassion of Christ from two additional vantage points. First, there is the personal concern the Lord exhibited in his interaction with those among whom he moved during his sojourn on earth. Second, there was the teaching he did; he wove insights concerning divine sympathy into the fabric of his instruction.
Jesus: The Example
The Lord was in that region east of the Sea of Galilee, known as “the country of the Gerasenes” (Mark 5:1ff). There he encountered an unfortunate man whose body was possessed by unclean spirits, i.e., demons. The afflicted victim was a spectacle indeed. He wandered around the countryside unclothed, he lived among the tombs, he cut himself with stones, and though chained often, he easily broke his fetters and terrorized the neighborhood.
After some exchange with the wicked spirits, Christ purged the wretched soul of his diabolical inhabitants. What a new day that must have been for the demoniac!
The gentleman’s gratitude was obvious. In fact, he wanted to accompany the Lord. Jesus forbade that, but gave him this commission: “Go to your house unto your friends, and tell them how great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19).
Note the expression “had mercy.” It is telling. The verb (eleo) suggests the idea of helping someone out of pity for them. It reflects an action that issues from a tender heart. We will amplify this thought subsequently. For now, simply note that it is a commentary on the disposition of the Son of God.
A truly stunning case of the Master’s tender concern is observed in a circumstance recorded in Mark 3.
Jesus entered a Hebrew synagogue on the Sabbath day. There he encountered a man with a withered hand. The Jews suspiciously watched the Lord, to see whether or not he would heal the man, and thus, in their judgment, violate the sabbath by doing a good “work.” If he did, they would then “file charges.” It has always intrigued me that they anticipated the possibility of a miracle, yet had no interest in the Teacher’s message!
But Christ “knew their thoughts” (Luke 6:8), and understood the effect that sin had wrought in them, and it angered him (Mark 3:5). The Greek term for anger (orge) denotes a deliberate disposition, not an impulsive flash of wrath.
The most unusual thing about this episode, however, is the fact that Jesus was “grieved” over these hard-hearted men; hence, he healed the man’s withered hand in an attempt to soften them!
The original term that is rendered “grieved” (sunlupeo) is found only here in the entire New Testament. The noun lupeo (used 16 times in the New Testament) means sorrow or pain (either of body or mind). But the addition of the prefix sun, makes the term unique in the New Testament.
Herodotus, the Greek historian, used the word to describe the emotions of certain citizens who offered their condolences to a man whose brother had just died (6.39).
In this passage, Mark seems to be suggesting the sympathetic nature of Jesus’ grief, as he contemplates the fact that these men were their own worst enemies (Vine, 362). What an index into the loving heart of the Son of God!
Perhaps the most dramatic biblical term denoting the idea of compassion is the word splanchnon. Literally, it signifies the intestines. When Judas committed suicide by hanging himself, his body eventually fell to the earth and “his intestines gushed out” (Act 1:18, NASB).
But both the Hebrews and the Greeks came to use the term in a figurative sense, for deep feelings of tenderness and compassion — much as when we use the term “heart,” as in, “I love her with all my heart.” There are several instances of where this word is employed to describe Christ’s feelings for the unfortunate.
Christ: “moved with compassion”
Jesus had this emotion for a poor man who was afflicted with the dreaded disease, leprosy (Mark 1:41). The gentleman met Christ, kneeled before him, and begged: “If you will, you can make me clean.” What confidence he had.
The Lord, “moved with compassion,” responded, “I will.” With but a touch of the Savior’s hand the man was instantly cleansed. Someone has aptly commented that it was only on account of the Lord’s compassion that he had a “hand” with which to touch the gentleman!
The purpose of the miracle, of course, was to establish the Messiah’s credibility as a teacher “come from God” (cf. John 3:2). Nevertheless, we must not overlook the fact that Jesus had sincere feelings for this man’s horrible plight.
The Lord is not going to miraculously deliver us from the physical effects of a sin-cursed world. It is noteworthy, though, that as we suffer, we may be assured of his genuine sympathy.
Christ’s compassion for the people
The term splachnon is used to depict the concerned disposition that Jesus had for the confused Jews as they sought to find direction for their lives.
When the Savior heard the news of the murder of his friend, John the Baptizer, he took his disciples apart into a remote area near Bethsaida. But the multitudes followed after him. Mark says that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd” (6:34), and so, he “welcomed them” (Luke 9:11).
Think about it. The Lord set aside his own grief for his murdered cousin, a righteous man of God, to minister to these people who so desperately needed direction in their lives. What a man!
On a certain occasion, Christ and his disciples went to a city called Nain, some six miles south of Nazareth (see Luke 7:11ff). As they approached the gate of the city, they met a funeral procession. A young man had died and his mother, a widow, was burying her only child.
When Jesus saw this sad scene he “had compassion” on the dear lady and said, “Stop weeping.” The Lord then came near to the bier and “touched” it. The bearers stopped and Jesus said to the corpse: “Young man … arise.” The once-dead one sat up and began talking. And then, Luke tenderly says, “And he [Jesus] gave him his mother.” Never had she been given a more delightful gift!
Again we must note that the purpose of this miracle was to establish the Savior’s credentials as a divine spokesman — an effect which was produced immediately (v. 16). Be that as it may, we must not fail to note the fact that in connection with that higher goal, the Lord had “compassion.”
Jesus Teaches Compassion
In addition to his personal example, Christ also incorporated the concept of compassion into the various forms of his teaching, thereby conveying some comforting and powerful truths.
It is common knowledge to the Bible student that Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans — a mongrel race viewed as turncoats (John 4:9). Nonetheless, when an arrogant Jewish lawyer, in an attempt to justify himself, quipped: “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied by telling the parable of the traveling Samaritan who encountered a wounded Jew. The hero of the story is the despised Samaritan who was “moved with compassion” against his enemy (Luke 10:33).
A heart immersed in compassion will overcome superficial barriers.
One of the most beloved of the Savior’s parables is that of the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11ff). A foolish lad retrieved his inheritance and departed from his father into a distant land. There he surrendered himself to reckless abandon, being ultimately reduced to degradation. Finally, he resolved to return to his beloved father.
As he made his way toward the old home place, his gracious father saw him from a long way off, and being “moved with compassion,” ran and flung his arms around his neck.
The father, of course, represents God. Even when we have disgraced ourselves, he still grievously feels for us, and wants us back. Compassion can bridge the gap between deity and human debauchery — when penitence is evidenced (cf. also Matthew 18:27).
“Does Jesus care, when my heart is pained, too deeply for mirth and song? When the burdens press and the cares distress, as the day grows weary and long?”
The answer is a resounding, “Yes, he cares, I know he cares; his heart is touched with my grief.” Our knowledge of this fact is grounded in the biblical information we have just surveyed. Be comforted by it.
When we are afflicted with disease and pain, he cares. When we are grieving the loss of dear ones, he cares. When we are confused, and in a maze of misdirection, desperately needing leadership, he has compassion for us. When we are mistreated, he feels for us.
When we dredge ourselves into the mire of sin, he grieves over that disaster. When, in hardness of heart, we even hatefully oppose him, he continues to feel for us. Is this not absolutely amazing?
How can one continue to resist him in view of these wonderful truths? Can not the “goodness of God” lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4)?
And what of our need to exhibit compassion to others? Can we not exclaim: “I will show compassion to others, because my Savior first showed compassion to me” (cf. 1 John 4:19)?
How the environment of our society, our homes, and our churches would be transformed if more adorned themselves with the mantle of compassion.
- Bromiley, G. W. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament — Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Vine, W. E. 1991. Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World.