THE CHARACTER OF CHRIST: COMPASSION

Text: Matthew 9:36

Context: Matthew 9:18-38

The glory of God is not simply in His "natural" attributes, such as His being infinite in power and knowledge, but also and preeminently in His "moral" attributes, such as His righteousness, mercy and faithfulness. That God is not only almighty but also infinitely just and merciful makes Him glorious beyond all comparison. If a man is strong but uses his strength to bully women and children, his strength may be admired but not his use of it. If a woman is highly talented but vain and ill-tempered, her talent will be admired but not her character. God, however, unites infinite strength to infinite goodness, infinite intelligence to infinite love. Truly, God is worthy of our highest praise and deepest devotion!

As God's glory is especially found in his moral character, it is in contemplating and confiding in His infinite goodness that we are molded into His moral likeness. As Paul put it, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18) If we have even the tiniest bit of honesty or self-awareness, we will be conscious of some flaws in our character. If we come to really reckon with our actual moral condition in the sight of God we will realize that we are thoroughly bankrupt morally and in need of a radical transformation. When the prophet Isaiah saw the glory of God filling the temple, he cried out, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts." (Isaiah 6:5) When Peter obeyed Jesus' command to throw his net out into the water even though he had spent all night fishing and caught nothing, and immediately caught so many fish that the boat nearly sank, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8) The first response to seeing God's glory is often to see our own sinful wretchedness. But God's response, as with both Isaiah and Peter, is to reassure us that He can change us. The angel took a coal from the altar and brought it to the lips of Isaiah and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven." Then the Lord asks whom He should send forth with His message to the people and Isaiah immediately volunteers: "Here am I. Send me!" Likewise, Jesus tells Peter, "Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men." From being guilty sinners they are changed to become a righteous prophet and a saintly apostle.

This transformation is not the work of a moment, however. It may sometimes take giant leaps but more often than not it occurs gradually over the course of our lives as we learn to turn our minds and wills over to God in the various challenges we encounter. It is by beholding the Lord that we are gradually transformed more and more into His moral likeness. This beholding is not literal or physical but intellectual and emotional. It happens as we pay close attention to what the Spirit is revealing concerning the character and will of our Master, Jesus Christ. As we become better and better acquainted with Christ, we grow to love Him more and more. And as we love Him, we naturally tend to imitate Him, to take on His characteristics. We see this happen quite often in the phenomenon of "hero-worship". A young man greatly admires a basket-ball player. This leads him to spend long hours on the court perfecting his game, making shots and executing maneuvers that he has seen his hero perform. He even wears the kind of clothes and shoes his hero wears. A young woman greatly admires a certain female singer. She devotes much time to getting her voice to sound as much as possible like that singer's voice. She finds out all she can about this woman and imitates her as far as she is able. While no mere human being deserves to be worshiped, some unfortunately are! But when someone comes to realize that there is One who truly is worthy of their absolute love and devotion, the same phenomenon takes place, only to much greater effect and purpose.

The reason that many professing Christians show little fruit in their lives is that they have lost their "first love" for Jesus (Revelation 2:4-5). He has ceased to thrill their souls as He once did. This is not His fault. Rather, it is because they have turned their attention away from Him to worldly fascinations and pleasures. And this is not because these things are better than Him; far from it! The reason we turn our attention to other things is that our minds are naturally fickle and unstable. We suffer from spiritual attention deficit disorder. It is the steady gaze at Christ that overcomes the influence of the world, the flesh and the devil. It takes time to see clearly through the mists of this world. Only as we persevere in contemplating our glorious Savior, savoring His words and beholding the beauty of His being and character, that we grow in love and thus, into His likeness. We must not be satisfied with a superficial acquaintance with Christ. There is so much to learn of Him and about Him! That is why we are going through this series on the character of Christ. Though this series barely scratches the surface of our Lord's glorious character, I hope it will whet your appetite to "press on to know the Lord" (Hosea 6:3).

So far, we have briefly examined the patient endurance, faith and humility of Christ. Today, it is our privilege to begin an exploration of Christ's glorious compassion. In so doing, we will focus on those instances in the Gospels where the Greek verb for exercising compassion, splanknizomai, is found. Of the twelve times it is used, eight of them are used to describe Jesus, one is an appeal for Jesus to exercise compassion and the other three are used by Jesus in parables that contain an instance of showing compassion. What does compassion mean? The English word comes from the Latin "com", meaning "together" and the Latin verb "pati", to suffer. Compassion is to regard the sufferings of another as one's own. It is a necessary corollary of the duty to love one's neighbor as oneself. If you love another as you do yourself, then you will feel for their suffering as you would your own and treat them accordingly.

The Greek verb is derived from the noun, splanknon, which literally means the innards (heart, lung, liver, intestines, etc.) but figuratively, the emotions or affections. The English word, compassion and the Greek word splanknizomai, while not from the same roots, do convey the same idea: to feel with or for another. This fellow feeling, this sympathy and care for another's sufferings is, in the first place, an emotion. However, mere emotion is not a moral characteristic. Strictly speaking, moral characteristics consist exclusively in states of the will, of the intention. When feelings lead to or flow from a morally right intention or choice, the virtue can be denominated from the feeling, as is the case here.

It is quite possible, in fact, it often happens, that proper feelings do not lead to right intention, choice or action. People will experience feelings of sympathy, pity and compassion but not act upon it. They show that they know the sufferings of another are worthy of their actions to alleviate it but for selfish reasons they fail to act. On the other hand, intentions, choices or actions that are merely the result of the feelings dictating the state of the will are vice rather than virtue, even though they appear outwardly virtuous. A spasm of emotion may yield an outwardly good deed but if the will is simply chained to the emotions then it is obedience to emotion, not to the truth. If one lives to gratify ones feelings because they are one's feelings, this is not virtue but vice, even when the feelings are in some sense good. People sometimes gratify their feelings by outwardly bad behavior and sometimes by outwardly good behavior, but the principle behind both is self-gratification. Selfishness can easily parade about in the robes of righteousness!

God created mankind with what the Bible calls "natural affection". Yes, it does say that some are without such emotions, probably due to the habit of stifling these feelings as impediments to the pursuit of selfish pleasure (2 Timothy 3:3) but all people start out with such feelings. They are not virtuous in themselves but are designed to lead us into virtue as we attend to the truth correlated to those feelings: that the welfare of another is as valuable as our own. If we choose to actually treat the welfare of another as equal to our own because we truly regard their welfare as being equal to our own, then that is the virtue God and righteousness require. Thus, even when feelings of compassion wane, as they inevitably do, our will may remain obedient to the truth.

As we have already noted, the Gospels show that Christ was compassionate and was moved with compassion toward others. We are told this explicitly in several instances but we must not suppose that it was only in these instances that He was so moved. His compassion is mentioned in these instances so that we may get a glimpse into His heart, into the motivation behind everything that He did. Quite simply, He regarded the sufferings of others as His own. This motivated Him to act on their behalf. Let us then go through the several places where Jesus is explicitly said to have acted out of compassion for those who suffered. As we look into these instances, we will see that Jesus' compassion was holistic. Human compassion tends to be partial because it is tainted by selfishness. Depending upon individual temperament and inclination, people will tend to gravitate either toward a regard for the material needs of their fellows or else to the spiritual needs. Some people do not wish to see others as spiritual beings because they do not regard themselves as such. They value worldly happiness and well-being supremely and so cannot imagine that there is such a thing as spiritual need. They feel no need for a relationship with God so why should they bother about how others are faring spiritually? They fear the hard work of bringing about spiritual change. Other people would rather preach to people, talk people into believing as they do than meet their material needs. They convince themselves that people are suffering materially primarily or even solely because they are not doing the right thing, spiritually. They fear the hard work of actually bringing about societal change. Both tendencies flow out of a worldly, selfish spirit. Jesus was not so. He was balanced and holistic. Let us first see that He cared for people's spiritual sufferings.

In point of fact, human beings have tremendous spiritual needs. They are not mere animals. Those who focus primarily or exclusively in meeting the material needs, are treating people as though they were mere animals. We were made for fellowship with God. He is our supreme good, our summum bonum. All other goods flow from Him and are designed to lead us back to Him. When we are not rightly related to our Creator, we cannot do well or be well. This will lead inevitably to the worst of all miseries, eternal self-absorption. So it is not surprising that the first instance we encounter of Christ's compassion in the Gospels concerns the spiritual needs of people: "Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He *said to His disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest." (Matthew 9:35-38)

God, through the prophet Isaiah says, "All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way…" (53:6a) Jesus also compared the lost condition of mankind to that of wayward sheep (Matthew 10:6; 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7). As Jesus went about overcoming the physical sufferings of people, He also was well aware of, and deeply moved by, the terrible spiritual condition of the people. In this instance, Jesus tells His disciples that there is a great harvest to be gathered, that is, a great number of souls that may be saved if there are enough workers to go out into the world and gather people to the Lord. Jesus saw that these people were, as the Greek may literally be rendered, "harassed" and "thrown down". Sin, and their futile attempts to manage its consequences, left them in a harried and depressed condition. They were not following the true Shepherd, the guardian and overseer of their souls (1 Peter 2:25). In such a condition, they were scattered and lost.

In another place, we read, "The people saw them going, and many recognized them and ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things." (Mark 6:33-37) Again, Jesus has compassion on people because of their lost spiritual condition. This moves Him to teach them. Many today, even among Evangelical, Bible-believing Christians, have grown to disdain and disparage the ministry of the word. They will quote what they suppose was a saying of Saint Francis but in fact cannot be traced to him: "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words." The gospel may and must be accompanied by acts of mercy, kindness and compassion that help alleviate the physical and social sufferings of human beings. These are among the foremost of the gospel's credentials without which the message will ring hollow. But the gospel itself cannot be preached without words. It is a message from God. In fact, it is just as much an act of compassion to preach the gospel to the lost as it is to dig a well for their village or provide them with mosquito nets or anti-viral medications to overcome HIV-AIDS. To call such actions as "compassionate ministry" as distinct from preaching the gospel is false and misleading. All Christian ministry is, or ought to be, compassionate ministry. Jesus certainly made no such distinction between meeting the spiritual as compared to meeting the material needs of people.

That Jesus' compassion included meeting the spiritual needs of people is also found in three parables where He uses the word. First, we see it in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Jesus compares God's forgiveness of sinners who plead with Him for mercy to that of a master whose servant pled for forgiveness of a very large debt. Jesus says, "So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, 'Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.' And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt." (verses 26-27) But when that servant found a fellow servant who owed him a relative trifle, he would not do as his master had done for him; he would not forgive but mercilessly threw him into prison until he should pay his debt. When the master heard of this, he "handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him." Jesus concluded, "My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (verses 34-35) Jesus is warning us that our relationship with God is at risk if we fail to forgive others as God has forgiven us.

The next parable in which compassion is featured is that of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Of course this parable does relate to taking compassionate action toward the physical or social sufferings of people but it also relates to our spiritual condition. Remember that the parable was given in response to a lawyer's desire to "justify himself" (Luke 10:29), that is, to be just before God and thus gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is saying that our own eternal salvation is placed into jeopardy or doubt if we fail to heed the need for justice toward our fellow humans. The Samaritan's compassion toward the stranger (a Jew, an enemy of his people, from the context) is what showed that he was justified before God. If the lawyer wished to be truly justified, he must become like this Samaritan. He must help everyone in need, even foreign enemies.

The final parable is that of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Here, Jesus compares the heavenly Father to that of a Father whose son has selfishly and rebelliously gone off to squander his inheritance in vice. Finally, the son comes to his senses and sets off to return to his father, "But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him andfelt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." The compassion of the father for his wayward son mirrors God's compassion for us in our sins. Jesus had the same compassion for the lost as did His Father.

There is an increasing tendency today, however, to avoid and even disparage efforts to win the lost to Jesus through preaching, teaching and personal conversation. This is because we have lost sight of the fact that we are all sinners and justly deserve to be separated from God forever. I love the liberal/left legacy of concern for the poor and their criticism of the rich. It reminds me very much of Jesus' stance as reflected in the Gospels. Yet, what I see so often among them is a willingness to indulge in sins against their spouses and children. They are socially conscious but lacking self-control. They love charity (selfless giving) but hate chastity. On the other hand, I love the emphasis among conservatives upon self-control and family values. They also sound very Biblical as they champion the freedom and responsibility of the individual as created in the image of God. However, they fail to see how freedom and individualism can and is being abused by business and private interests to the detriment of individuals and society. In other words, both have truncated lists of virtues and vices. They do not accept the whole counsel of God. This is a very human tendency. We pick out those virtues we find easiest for us to do and overlook or even critique as evil those virtues we personally dislike or find difficult. Thus, we justify ourselves and gather fig leaves to cover our moral nakedness.

So now let us consider Jesus' compassion toward those in material need. Jesus worked incessantly at preaching and helping those in need but even He saw the need, on occasion, to get away from the crowds and rest. The arrest of John led Jesus to seek such rest for Himself and His disciples, yet His compassion for suffering humans got the upper hand: "Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself; and when the people heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick." (Matthew 14:13-14) Jesus had great compassion for those who were suffering from illness and disability. While He did not heal everyone who lived in Palestine during His earthly mission, we know of no instance where Jesus turned down anyone who applied to Him for healing. The motive of compassion in healing the sick is explicitly noted in a couple of other instances: "As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Him. And two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, 'Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!' The crowd sternly told them to be quiet, but they cried out all the more, 'Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!' And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, 'What do you want Me to do for you?' They *said to Him, 'Lord, we want our eyes to be opened.' Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him." (Matthew 20:29-34) In another instance, a leper brings out Jesus' compassion: "And a leper *came to Jesus, beseeching Him and falling on his knees before Him, and saying, 'If You are willing, You can make me clean.'Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and *said to him, 'I am willing; be cleansed.' Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed." (Mark 1:40-42)

Not only illness, but hunger also elicited a compassionate response from Jesus: "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 led to His miraculous feeding of the Four Thousand. (See alsoMark 8:1-3) All over the world there are people going hungry, some starving to death, including many children. Surely this is grievous to the heart of our Savior who showed by His example how we must do whatever we can to help them.

There is another need mentioned in the Gospels that, in a way, falls between the categories of spiritual and material suffering. I refer to the case of those who were plagued by evil spirits. The examples we find in the Gospels often led to physical and emotional torment. The distraught father appealed to Jesus' compassion (same Greek word though it is here translated as "pity") in order to get help for his demon-possessed son: "And He asked his father, 'How long has this been happening to him?' And he said, 'From childhood. It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!'"(Mark 9:21-23) While pointing out the unbelief of the father as betrayed in the words "If You can…", Jesus took prompt action, releasing this poor boy from the grip of this fearsome spirit.

Finally, Jesus was moved with compassion for those who had lost their loved ones to death: "Soon afterwards He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large crowd. Now as He approached the gate of the city, 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. When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, 'Do not weep.' And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, 'Young man, I say to you, arise!' 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother." (Luke 7:11-15) This reminds us, of course, of how Jesus wept at the grave of His friend, Lazarus, and even though the body had lain four days in the tomb, raised him from the dead and restored him to his grieving family. (John 11:1-44)

If Jesus felt so compassionate for the sick, the hungry, those beset by evil spirits and even those who grieved at the death of their loved ones, why doesn't He always miraculously intervene today to help such people? We must understand that the whole Trinity is grieved at the sufferings of humanity and that God "does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men." (Lamentations 3:33) But God is dealing with the problem of sin. He placed the material world under the curse of decay, disease and death in order to help us overcome the temptation to "worship the creature rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25). Adam and Eve chose a piece of fruit over their relationship with God! So likewise have we all done, in one way or another, but the constant reminder that the created things are passing away reminds us that we need to seek a higher good, even fellowship with the living God. In many, this leads to a repentant, seeking frame of mind which the Spirit can use to bring us to salvation.

Nevertheless, this is not God's ultimate goal for us. He is planning to make a new creation and Jesus came as the harbinger of that new creation. His miraculous acts of healing, provision, deliverance and reversals of death were intended to show what God intends to do in the future, on a far greater scale, at the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even now, from time to time, God does miracles in order to remind us of this coming kingdom in which there shall "no longer be any death…any mourning, or crying, or pain…" (Revelation 21:4) In fact, God wants us to do our level best to combat sickness, hunger, poverty, oppression (both by men and by demons), war and even death. Not that we shall totally end all of these things before Christ returns but by our so doing, we align ourselves with God's ultimate goal and give witness to the blessings of His coming kingdom, just as Jesus did during His earthly ministry.

God does not delight in suffering, but suffering has become a necessary means to the higher good. In the end, suffering, at least among the redeemed, shall come to an end. Its purpose will have been served. God is compassionate toward us in our sufferings and the greatest evidence for this is found in the mission accomplished by our blessed Lord, Jesus Christ! He who suffered for you on the cross, suffers now with you as you pass through the fiery furnace and the flood of waters. He likewise longs to help billions of others who are suffering, whether from spiritual or material afflictions. Let us join Him in seeking to end that suffering and bring in the wholeness, peace and joy He originally intended for all!