I should start with some honesty; the passing season hasn’t been the easiest for me. It’s been one of those seasons where you’re only too aware of your failings and the enemy is keen to manufacture a few more to feed into the mix. In worship there are moments when I’ll find my self looking ahead and above and, being as we’re now meeting in a beautiful old building, my eyes will fix on the cross. I love that for hundreds of years architects have built in this focus on the cross to the very way the designed the bricks and mortar of a church building. You see, the cross reminds me of how Jesus looks upon me when I arrive with my little bundle of failings and self doubt. He sees me with compassion. I may get fed up of myself, but he doesn’t. Some how while I’m angry at turning up with my junk to drop once again at the foot of the cross, He is looking not with disgust but with compassion. I don’t understand that, sometimes I don’t fully feel that, but yet at the same time I know that to be true. One of the defining things we learn about Jesus in the gospels is that when He sees need He feels compassion. As Spurgeon put it:
“If you would sum up the whole character of Christ in reference to ourselves, it might be gathered into this one sentence: He was moved with compassion.”
– Charles Haddon Spurgeon
There are many translations of the bible and many different ways that this feeling is phrased, but I think that the King James Version catches it best when it says “He was moved with compassion”. It’s not talking about a mere thought, a whim of pity or an instinct of sympathy; Christ’s compassion is a real, powerful and physical feeling. The Greek word splagxnízomai has deeper meaning than the English compassion; it was coined specifically by the gospel writers to sum up the way that Jesus felt and it comes from the word for the inward parts, the bowels. That may seem strange to us but it skillfully melds both Greek and Hebrew perceptions into a word that tells us so much about Jesus. For the ancient Greeks the bowels were regarded as the seat of violent passions like anger and love, while in Hebrew culture they were the spring of tenderness, affection and compassion. How amazing and beautiful is it that these men had observed such an intensely compassionate reaction in Jesus towards the broken, the hurting and the lost that they had to create a new word just to describe it? There were already words for acts of pity, mercy and compassion, but there was nothing to sum up the intensity of what Jesus felt.
We could study Christ for a lifetime and still not get to the depths of what is going on here but given the shortness of a blog entry, I just want to draw out three important points. As with any of our studies of Christ, each point is relevant both for looking at how Christ is to us and also in how we should be to others.
The compassion of the Christ changes circumstances.
Whenever we read that Christ was moved with compassion, change is coming. It’s another reason I love the KJV’s ‘moved with compassion’ – movement denotes action. This is one of the things that marks his compassion as something more than sympathy and sorrow for another’s suffering; when Christ feels compassion He does not just walk by wishing there was something He could have done. There are many great examples of this in the gospels. He heals the sick, feeds the hungry, comforts the mourning and raises the dead. Anyone who encounters the compassion of Jesus does not go away the same.
“Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”
– Luke 7:11-3 (ESV)
There is a pattern established that we see often with Jesus; He sees the need, He feels compassion, He acts to bring change. Are we doing the same in our lives? If we walk around with our eyes closed, we’ll never even get past the starting line because we won’t see the needs around us, let alone act to meet them. An encounter with Christ left people changed by His compassion and love, how do people feel after an encounter with us, His followers?
The compassion of the Christ sees the future need.
“Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.””
– Matthew 15:32 (ESV)
I love the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. It demonstrates an amazing thing about the way Christ looks at need; He doesn’t just look at the present circumstance but at what the present circumstance could mean for people’s future. Christ is moved with compassion because the crowd have followed Him and not eaten, their hunger is a present need that he wants to address but if we look at the final part of the verse we see that He is also addressing a very real future need; He feeds them lest leaving Him they faint on the way. Christ is not just looking to meet our needs temporarily but to ensure that we have enough to continue. In this example it is lest they physically faint but the example carries over to the spiritual as well. He doesn’t just give us salvation, redeeming us by his blood, but He fills us with the Holy Spirit lest we faint on the way. He sees our future need and builds into us the very thing that will meet that need.
It’s part of the culture of church to set people up for a win. When we’re doing something are we watching for how we can help people to succeed and for ways that we can build into their lives resilience and perseverance lest they faint on the way?
The compassion of the Christ brings an urgency to reach the lost.
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.”
– Mark 6:34 (ESV)
The sight of a large group of lost people produces an immediate response of teaching them. We see here that Jesus’ teaching isn’t driven by a program or a process but by people. This is crucial to the way Jesus views those who are lost, He doesn’t look on them with feelings of disgust or revulsion but rather sees people who were created to be in relationship with the father and who are living in the pain of separation. He loves them and through that love reaches them.
We see this urgency demonstrated in the parable of the prodigal son. In the culture of the day the son had wished his father dead; if he had been seen by the elders of the village they would not have hesitated to stone him to death. So what does the father do? He watches and waits. He knows that, should he see the lost son, time is of the essence. When the son does come into view the father does what is unthinkable for a Jewish man of his day. He runs. He will not leave anything to chance but, stirred with a sense of urgency, runs to His son and in doing so saves him.
“And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”
– Luke 15:20 (ESV)
This is the compassion of Christ. When we were lost Jesus sought us out and devised a way to bring us home; He did not sit and wait for us to make our own way but runs to us and brings us back to Him. How are we when we see the lost? Is our gut response judgment or compassion? As Henry Ward Beecher said, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation”.
It’s this that brings us to the ultimate act of compassion when Jesus hung on a cross and suffered death so that He could reach not just the lost in Galilee, Judah, Jerusalem, but those in Gateshead, Newcastle, Teesside, Mwanza. If Jesus could have saved everyone, past, present and future, by walking through first century Palestine then I’m pretty sure He would have taken that route, but He could not. The only outlet for the compassion that Jesus had on humanity was for Him to offer up His life as a sacrifice. Doing so not only enables us to find salvation and an eternal future but to become followers of Him and carry on His work on earth through the Holy Spirit, reaching others with the same compassion and love that he felt. The Passion of the Christ is a direct result of the Compassion of the Christ. The two are inseparable.