Luke 7:11-17 “Soon afterwards, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out – the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, ‘Young man, I say to you, get up!’ The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. They were all filled with awe and praised God. ‘A great prophet has appeared among us,’ they said. ‘God has come to help his people.’ This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.”
Can you picture the scene? Personally it helps me to feel its impact if I imagine its setting locally on the road down the hill into town. Of course, there’s no traffic but your eye is caught by a “large crowd” of people (v.11), mostly men, pouring over the brow of the hill and walking down into the town. They fill the road from side to side, walking purposefully down into the town, several thousand of them. It is an intimidating sight, the sounds a multitude makes, more and more of them coming towards me, engulfing me and passing on, walking along with anticipation. In the centre of the front line is Jesus who is surrounded by the twelve apostles, and then the other disciples, and behind them this crowd, a couple of thousand people.
Why are they following Jesus? They’ve heard his preaching; he has just delivered the Sermon on the Plain and they’ve never heard anything like it. They’ve marveled at his authority. “No man could ever have spoken like this man,” they’re saying to one another, conscious that they are on the spot when history is being made. “No,” their companions agree, “Nobody we’ve ever heard.” Then Jesus has also been healing the sick, quite recently at Capernaum he restored to health a servant of the well-known god-fearing centurion. The man was dying; he had hours to live, and Jesus didn’t have to touch him; he didn’t even have to see the man. A word, or even a thought from Jesus, and the man was completely well. Who is this man? Surely he is a great prophet come from God. So the crowds were following Jesus everywhere.
However, as they get towards the bottom of the hill, as it begins to level out, near the town gate, an equally “large crowd” of men and women (v.12) pour out through the archway of the town gate and they also fill the road. They are walking out of the town and up the slope, and then they notice Jesus’ large crowd walking towards them. There are no policemen to control them. The two crowds are getting nearer and nearer to one another, and those at the front of both groups are having to slow down, but not those at the back. Both crowds are getting scrunched up tightly together, and soon no one is moving anywhere. The two crowds have had to stop, and they are there standing quietly, confronting one another, wondering what to do, with the Lord Jesus Christ right in the centre.
Why is the other crowd there? It is a funeral procession, and if you asked someone who was the dead person for so many to be attending the funeral, thinking perhaps he must have been a local dignitary, then you’d be told a particularly sad story, and that is why the whole town of Nain has been stirred and out of respect and pity for one particular woman of the community are walking with her to the cemetery. The dead person being carried along on a board in front of them all is a little boy, but he is his mother’s only son; she is leading the funeral party. On top of losing her son she’s already a widow. What will be her future without a man to support and protect her as she gets increasingly infirm? So as she walks along leading hundreds of people her eyes are fixed on the shrouded body of her wee lad being carried before her. Then the whole procession has to stop by this other large crowd and, quite out of the blue, she comes face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is there, absolutely hemmed in by this crowd. He is surrounded with people. He had been the joy of heaven, had had the freedom of the Father and the Spirit in all their inter-Trinitarian delight. There were no restrictions; no confinements except his own will, and then the decision was made to create, to permit the fall, to come as the Redeemer and to begin the claustrophobic temptations, entering the confines of the virgin’s womb, living in the village of Nazareth and rarely leaving it, sharing a house and bedroom with a number of half-brothers and sisters, eating around the table in the one room with them. Then beginning his public ministry, preaching and healing and teaching his disciples and never alone, a crowd of people sitting outside your house all night waiting to see you in the morning, and followed by multitudes everywhere. Here he is, swamped with people.
One crowd has come down the hill following him, wanting more from him than they’ve already had. They know him to be an extraordinary man who is so powerful that the worst diseases known to man will do what Jesus says. What claims he makes, that if you have seen him you have seen the Father. He is the way and the truth and the life. He alone is the way to God. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” The crowd of people following him won’t let him out of their sight because of such words, and also because of his incredible signs that confirmed that he spoke the truth. “What can’t he do?” they were saying to one another, “Even the winds and the waves obey him.” Here were people to whom Jesus Christ was giving the meaning of life.
However, facing Jesus was the silent crowd of mourners who were coming out of the town of Nain following a dead body, on their way to bury it. “We all have to die,” they were thinking, “and for some folk death comes sooner than for others, and then it’s hard lines, and tough for those who are bereaved, but that’s what we’ve all got coming to us. You might as well face up to it.” This crowd going to bury a boy were like many people today who believe that there has never been a time when there has not been death, suffering and disease for millions and millions of years and that it actually led up to the emergence of man. Man survived because he was the fittest. For them death, suffering and disease are the ultimate realities. “We are here to die; that is all you can say.” They also believe that death, suffering and disease will continue on and on and on into the unknown future. That is all the cosmos can ever expect.
Are you looking down on both these groups crowding in on God the Son? One is vibrant; the other is subdued. One is full of questions, anticipation and hope. The other crowd is thinking “Death always wins.” In the first crowd people’s minds were buzzing with the teaching and claims of Jesus of Nazareth. They have known an awakening of a concern to gain eternal life. They have found a new optimism and a joy from being with Jesus and hearing him teach. What an incredible blend of power and pity our Lord had. Here was someone whom the very devils obeyed, and yet when he was asked to help someone who was a Gentile dog, a rough soldier from the occupying army and a mere servant, Jesus healed him completely and freely. “What might this Jesus do for me?” People were following him in their crowds longing for new life, a better life than they had experienced so far.
The other crowd from the city of Nain was dominated by death and despair. The grave was no respecter of age or need. It had taken from this widow her only child, and she was left without hope – you have no idea of the plight of widows in such a community. What does the crowd say? “When it’s your time to go that’s it”? “Death always has the last word”? “Make hay while the sun shines”? “Here today and gone tomorrow”? All they can do is throw clichés at death. Is that how you deal with it? Many in the crowd following the woman’s wee lad to the graveyard could only handle death that way.
Where do we all line up? Many of you are those who are following Jesus. You’ve known new life and hope through him, but others of you are still cynical. For you death is the only certainty in life, but this same Christ, I say, is in our midst too. What will he do today? What will he say now? Will he just nod his head quietly and move away? Will we disentangle ourselves in relief at the end of the service like crowds pushing their way on or off the Underground, and go off in opposite directions? Will you pass by awkwardly, squeezing through the crush of life glad to put this embarrassing incident behind you, the day you went to hear the Bible preached? Does Jesus move on and we move on too, untouched?
Everyone in this mega-crowd is quiet, watching and listening. The woman does nothing. We are told nothing about her at all. We are not told her name, her age, when she lost her husband, how her son died. She does not say a word before her son is raised or afterwards. She did not ask Jesus to raise him from the dead; Jairus didn’t, and Mary and Martha didn’t. It never dawned on them that he could do such a thing.
We are not told that after his resurrection she rejoiced – though I am sure she did. She is obviously incidental to this history even though it is her son who has died. The Bible is not a story about the religious and emotional experiences of men and women. It is a revelation of the glory of God the Son and his mission of redemption. She is Mrs. Everywoman who has lost someone dear to her. Let me say three things.
WHAT GRIEF SIN HAS BROUGHT INTO THE WORLD.
I was about eight years of age and was sitting next to my mother in High Street Baptist Church in Merthyr Tydfil and a man I’d never seen before, accompanied by two small children, came and sat in the pew in front of us. He did not stand for any of the hymns; he simply buried his face in his hands and wept throughout the hour. I whispered to Mam asking her why, and she told me his wife had died that week. I looked in awe and fear at those two children, a little younger than me. They did not have a mother! It is one of the few services I can remember at High Street; his wife’s death and his own grief have locked me into that Sunday evening service. The whole scene was of abject misery, and so it was in Nain.
The last 45 years have witnessed one assassination after another, of Airy Neave and Ross McWhirter and Earl Mountbatten and Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat and the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King and Benazir Bhutto, and so on, a horrible catalogue of death because of men’s sins. It will not end while this groaning world endures. But those killings spell out the fact that these deaths began in the sinning heart of the murderer, and when that sin was conceived it brought forth death. Yet there’s a bigger picture found in the opening chapters of the Bible that says that death itself was brought into the world by sin. Perhaps you have thought that it was always thus, that men live and men die, as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, but I tell you that God didn’t create death in the beginning when he made all things “very good.” Sin is the cause of death. Sin entered the world when our first parents fell, and death came by sin. Sin is the assassin’s bomb or bullet and sin kills us all. Listen to J.C.Ryle;
“Let us never forget this great truth. The world around us is full of sorrow. Sickness, and pain, and infirmity, and poverty, and labour, and trouble, abound on every side. From one end of the world to the other, the history of families is full of lamentation, and weeping, and mourning, and woe. And where did it all come from? Sin is the fountain and root to which all must be traced. There would neither have been tears, nor cares, nor illness, nor deaths, nor funerals in the earth, if there had been no sin. We must bear this state of things patiently. We cannot alter it. We may thank God that there is a remedy in the Gospel, and that this life is not all there is. But in the mean time, let us lay the blame at the right door. Let us lay the blame on sin. How much we ought to hate sin! Instead of loving it, cleaving to it, dallying with it, excusing it, playing with it, we ought to hate it with a deadly hatred. Sin is the great murderer, and thief, and pestilence, and nuisance of this world. Let us make no peace with it. Let us wage a ceaseless warfare against it. It is “the abominable thing which God hates.” Happy is he who is of one mind with God, and can say, I “abhor that which is evil.’” (Rom. xii. 9) (J.C.Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke Vol. 1, pp. 208&209).
HOW DEEP IS THE COMPASSION IN THE HEART OF CHRIST.
What did Jesus do when standing surrounded by his disciples and the mourners, and confronting this woman following this primitive hearse with the little body of her boy? We are first told of his feelings, of Jesus’ ‘heart’ (according to the N.I.V.). It is the only reference to Jesus’ heart in this gospel, and there is no reference at all to his heart in the gospels of Matthew and Mark (in the N.I.V.). Here the Holy Spirit led Luke to write about the inward disposition of Jesus to tell us that his heart “went out to her” (v.13).
The actual term is a long word that speaks of a turmoil of inner compassion, and this translation is splendid. Let’s stick with the translator’s choice of the word ‘heart.’ A person’s heart is what John Murray called the ‘dispositional complex’ at the very centre of our beings. It is the seat of our thinking, and of our affections, and of our conscience and of our will. Out of it come all the issues of life. A man can experience a horrific accident, and have his legs amputated, like the English pilot Douglas Bader, while his heart has lost nothing and remains unchanged in its courage and hope and strength and convictions. The heart is you. In courtship you reveal your heart to the person you love so that she truly knows you and she can answer when the proposal of marriage is made. A woman has a mighty dilemma if she says to her minister, “I still don’t really know him . . . I don’t know his heart.” The heart is everything; the heart can grow as the body shrinks with disease. God has set eternity in our hearts. Behind your manner, and your pose, and your voice, and your cosmetics, and your clothes is the real you, that is what you are in your heart, and that is known to God. That will live for ever.
When the Lord Jesus claimed that if men had seen him they had seen the Father then he was not referring to his face and stature and hair and outward appearance. In those things he was indistinguishable from other people because he too was made in the likeness of sinful flesh. The question is whether they had seen the heart of Jesus? Did they know his personality, his righteousness, his integrity, his grace, his tenderness, his patience, his love, his justice? If they had seen that – if you have seen that – then you have seen God. The heart of Jesus is the heart of God. This is God amongst us. He has certainly revealed himself to us by his servants the prophets – “Thus saith the Lord” – and so told us through them what he is like, what he hates and judges, what he loves and what he requires of us. “I am like this.” We can learn so much from the world around us of his power and greatness and deity, and psalmists and writers tell us who God is. Think of Psalm 23, “The Lord is . . . my shepherd . . .” God is someone who looks after his people like a good shepherd cares for his sheep. The record of the prophets is so helpful, but now the Son of God has become incarnate. He has taken frail flesh; he has come right into our dying world. He enters rooms where there are dead bodies. He is confronted with grieving, reproachful sisters. How does he react? How does the God who is respond to death and to those who have lost loved ones? I want to know. Who is this Creator who has made himself known to us? Luke not only tells us what happened but what went on in the heart of Jehovah Jesus. If I can get you to see this then I am showing God to you, the one living and true God.
We are told that “when Jesus saw her, his heart went out to her” (v.13). The Maker of the Milky Way and the ruler of the cosmos, the God who in the beginning made the heavens and the earth, is immeasurably compassionate. His heart goes out to mothers who weep because their sons have died. He does not sit untouched, like the Buddha. He is not unmoved like the sphinx, smiling enigmatically at us while we suffer and saying nothing. He is moved at our being moved. He doesn’t afflict willingly. He doesn’t snap the bruised reed. He doesn’t lick his forefinger and thumb and snuff out the smoking flax. He doesn’t say of the handicapped child, “No point in his living a moment longer.” He doesn’t say, “Give a cocktail of drugs to the dying woman and end it all. There is no quality of life in such a feeble existence.” He is touched with the feeling of how infirm and vulnerable we can get. He has learned that in a unique way, not simply from his omniscience but from the inside, from watching his own family and friends responding to heartache. He met Mary and her friends crying in the graveyard over the death of young Lazarus. We read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in sprit and troubled” (John 11:33). That is the God of Genesis one. That is the God we are going to meet one day soon. The heart of God the Son went out to this widow.
Then we are told that he said to her, “Don’t cry” (v.13). In other words Christ does not give wordless sympathy. He does not dispense gestures alone, or uninterpreted compassion. There is much emphasis today on body language and hugs. That was not Christ’s way. His heart was bursting within him as he looked at her, but when he spoke then his first word was, “Don’t!” It must seem so negative to the army of so-called counselors in today’s professing church. Jesus spoke to a sobbing woman and he told her to stop, and she had no grounds to plead that her heart was breaking and she couldn’t control her emotions and she had to sob. “Don’t” said Jesus. Sometimes there are outbursts in a church and the leadership have to speak and say, “Don’t!” The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.
Have you seen news pictures of women weeping in the middle east or Asia in some natural disaster in which they have lost loved ones? Have you seen how unrestrained is their wailing? They fall on their knees, or they roll in the dust; they tear their clothes and even their hair; they sob and weep at the top of their voices. You remember when Jesus enters the room where the daughter of Jairus is lying dead. There is a terrible din as all the professional wailers from the community have hurried along to the distinguished house of the ruler of the synagogue. They are putting on their best display of grief, ululating and shrieking out their sorrow (and later sharing the spoils from the pay-out of Jairus to the wailers). Christ told them that the girl was not dead but sleeping, and in a moment the wailing was turned into shrieks of mocking laughter. “Get out!” he said, and they left in silence. He told the wailers of Jerusalem, the top group in the whole country, the ‘Women of Jerusalem’, to stop their weeping. He did not want their pity, let them not sob in the streets for him but for themselves and their children and what was going to happen to Jerusalem in forty years’ time.
Jesus is telling a woman who is sobbing over the death of her only boy not to weep. It is not because he judged weeping at bereavement wrong. He himself wept at the grave of Lazarus and he wept over Jerusalem and what would be happening to its populace. There are many times when we must encourage tears of grief. Jesus told her, “Don’t cry” because of these professional wailings which had distorted all human grief amongst the children of Israel. He also told her, “Don’t weep” because he was going to do something that would bring her the most unexpected joy.
Paul tells the Thessalonians not to weep when loved ones in Christ die, as others weep who have no hope. Weep over the temporary absence of those we love. Weep at the loss; weep at the guilt; weep at the loneliness; weep from love. What is sinful is a Christian weeping theatrically, or a Christian who believes in the resurrection and eternal life weeping hopelessly. So our Lord’s heart went out to her. J.C.Ryle says again, “Our Lord Jesus Christ never changes. He is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. His heart is still as compassionate as when He was upon earth. His sympathy with sufferers is still as strong. Let us bear this in mind, and take comfort in it. There is no friend or comforter who can be compared to Christ. In all our days of darkness, which must needs be many, let us first turn for consolation to Jesus the Son of God. He will never fail us, never disappoint us, never refuse to take interest in our sorrows. He lives who made the widow’s heart sing for joy in the gate of Nain. He lives, to receive all labouring and heavy-laden ones, if they will only come to him by faith. He lives, to heal the broken-hearted, and be a Friend that sticks closer than a brother. And he lives to do greater things than these one day. He lives to come again to his people, that they may weep no more at all, and that all tears may be wiped from their eyes” (J.C.Ryle, op cit, p. 210).
CHRIST HAS SUPERNATURAL POWER EVEN TO RAISE THE DEAD
Jesus told her not to weep. If a woman is not free to weep at the death of her only son when may she weep? What a jolting remark . . . “Don’t weep? He is telling me to stop crying?” Then Jesus went up to the kind of wooden stretcher on which the body of the child lay – it was being carried by some men – and he touched it. He immediately crossed the boundary of ritual purity that the Jews had erected. He’d made himself unclean by doing this. He was in fact creating a solidarity with the little boy who lay there, and conquering defilement – had they seen that?
Then Jesus addressed the dead child, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” (v.14). He does not speak in prayer to God to revive the child as Elijah did, but directly to the corpse. He does not lay his hands on the boy. There is no jiggery-pokery, just a calm word to a dead son. Jesus can speak with authority over all those in the realm of the dead because the keys of death and the grave are his. He can open and out they come. Immediately, we are told, “the dead man sat up and began to talk” (v.15). I wonder what he talked about? I wonder to whom did he talk? To Jesus or to his mother? In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the heart, the lungs, the electrical activity in the brain, the sense of hearing and sight and smell and touch and taste all resumed their work and did what God created them and sustained them to do; “Young man, I say to you, get up” and he did.
You say, “It did not happen.” How do you know that? How can you be certain? You say, “Well, miracles don’t happen,” in other words, “There can’t be a God who does miracles.” But if there is a Creator God then there is nothing illogical at all about the possibility of miracles. As he created everything out of nothing it would hardly be an insurmountable problem for him to rearrange parts of it when and where he wishes. He appointed the dying of this boy, and the time of his leaving Nain to be taken to the burial ground and the timing of Jesus and the crowd meeting with them. None of this was chance. To be sure that this event couldn’t have occured you would have to be sure beyond a doubt that God does not exist, and that would have to be an article of your faith. I believe that God exist; he is there and he is not silent. It is a matter of trusting evidence which for me is focused in Jesus Christ and the Bible and is overwhelming. I believe in the God whose name is Jesus. When Paul defended himself before King Agrippa and the Jews he asked them, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8).
There is no question that an almighty God can raise the dead. The more interesting question is why should Jesus raise this boy from the dead, and to that there are a number of fascinating answers.
i] For attraction and identification. The billboard sign identifies a product so that we know what it is and may be attracted to it. A family in the church were staying in a house with a TV set and so the children saw advertisements for the first time. Later in the week they went to a supermarket and saw a stack of Daz washing powder cartons. “Daz washes whiter,” the little girl said to her mother. She identified the product and was attracted to it. So the signs of our Lord attract attention to Jesus as the Lord. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says and then he raises the dead. He uses the name of deity, the theophanic name, “I am.” This is who Jesus is, not just a teacher or a great healer but the Lord of life and death and creation. Don’t you want to come to him? He is full of compassion for people like a grieving widow. Doesn’t one who can raise the dead draw you to him? Aren’t you going to die? Here is the one who has more power than death.
ii] For presence and availability. The advertisement says this object is available now. You can go down to the local store or car dealer and get it. It is available now. When Jesus raised this boy from the dead in the midst of a massive crowd of people he was saying, “I am here. I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly. So come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” The new order promised by Isaiah has arrived and it is presently available.
iii] For the future and anticipation. Road signs say watch out, workmen ahead, two lanes are becoming one, bumps in the road, resurfacing, sharp bend, there is a school around the corner, and so on. A sign speaks of what is to come, and so does this sign in Nain it points forward to death and a possible victory over it. This miracle is saying that death does not have the last word. That word is spoken by Christ, and so you need him to be prepared for death. The ultimate future is not death but resurrection, but what kind of resurrection, to eternal life or eternal condemnation? In Nain we see the promise of a new creation; it is here and is available; the curse of death is going to be raised from the fallen creation. In the end there will be no more death but everlasting resurrection life. That is what this sign is saying.
Why don’t we see the dead raised today? It is not yet the time. There were only three resurrections while Jesus was on earth. The cemeteries weren’t emptied. Grave-diggers weren’t put out of business. That wasn’t the time for the dead to be raised. This was a moment of anticipation and a sign of what is still to come. What you see in Nain is a wonderful foretaste of what Jesus is going to do with his mighty power. “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28&29). There came a time when the widow of Nain died, and then her son who once was dead and almost buried died again, and he was buried near his mother. Their dust lies in Nain to this day. As he was dying he could say to his loved ones that they were not to be afraid, that he had lost his fear of death when he was a little boy and Jesus had met him and said, “Young man, I say to you, get up.” He told his tearful family, “His will be the first voice I hear, and he will be the first one I see.”
Do you see the change that took place in Nain? “They were all filled with awe and praised God” (v.16). They didn’t say, “How did he do that?” They knew it was not some trick; “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said, “God has come to help his people” (v.16). And how will men feel when they hear the trumpet of God sounding and he shall appear again and all his holy angels with him? Jesus raised the dead, and there were no cheers and applause. No one whooped. They were all filled with awe. Let me explain what that is like. An old man from Manchester named Frank Evans had been a bull fighter in Spain for some years and then he stopped, retired and had a heart bypass operation, but he announced this week that he was returning to the bull ring. Now I am very uncertain about the ethics of bull-fighting but I was struck by this comment he made on his future life in the bullring again; “You feel a big whoosh when you are standing in front of a bull. Your sense of smell, hearing and eyesight are at a maximum because the body knows it is in mortal danger.” You understand that? You are in the middle of a large arena. There is no one else there except for an angry bull, pawing the ground and looking at you. He is a ton of speed and muscle, and you have that ‘whoosh’.
These people at Nain, unable to escape from the Lord because on all sides there was the crowd pressing in to hear and see Jesus and the widow, had nowhere to run. They had just seen our Lord raise the dead. They knew that they were in the presence of the incarnate Jehovah and it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. They really did experience a fearful whoosh. That same Lord is here and he has been speaking to you. There is no escape from him. Are you ready to meet him? Are your sins forgiven? Do you have the inward witness of the Holy Spirit? Are you going to go through the valley of the shadow of death with Jesus or will you walk alone to an eternity without him?
31st August 2008 GEOFF THOMAS