Hero Image

Moved by All Our Sorrows

The Tender Compassion of Christ

Have you ever paused to marvel at the compassion of Christ? What a wonder that when God himself takes our own flesh and blood, and walks among us in our fallen world, he is known for his compassion.

We might expect he would be erupting with anger and frustration at every turn. Human sin is cosmic treason against him and his Father. To purchase a people for himself, he would be brutally abused and mistreated, even to the point of an excruciating death. Make no mistake, it was fitting for the Son of God to burn with righteous anger. He did (Mark 3:5), and he will (Revelation 6:16). And yet, as God himself moved among us, in utter holiness and perfection, he gave us stunning glimpses into a heart of compassion.

The explicit mentions of Christ’s compassion in the Gospels, though precious few, are more than we might assume. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each give us at least three clear glimpses into his compassion. For one, these are priceless windows into his full humanity. As Calvin said, Christ put on our feelings as well as our flesh. In the warmth of his compassion, we see the fully human emotional life of our Savior, one of us not just in body but also in mind and heart. Jesus didn’t just perform compassionate acts; he felt compassion.

Yet these glimpses also show us his Father. They are windows into the very heart of God, sight lines into the divinity himself. Long had the God of Israel shown himself to be utterly free in divine sovereignty to bestow his grace on whom he chooses, and be compassionate toward his suffering people (Romans 9:15; Exodus 33:19). Now, as we see compassion in the God-man, we see the compassion of God in man. In each peek at his compassion, we see our Savior as both truly man and truly God.

Compassion Walked Among Us

However surprised we might be at Christ’s compassion in one sense, in another, the compassion of Christ shouldn’t surprise us, knowing what we now know. After all, he is the God of Israel come in the flesh. In that sense, as Warfield observed, we should not be startled:

The emotion which we should naturally expect to find most frequently attributed to Jesus whose whole life was a mission of mercy, and whose ministry was so marked by deeds of beneficence that it was summed up in the memory of his followers as a going through the land “doing good” (Acts 10:38), is no doubt “compassion.”

The glimpses we catch of Christ’s compassion are the incarnation itself in miniature. He came to suffer with us — and more, to do so on our behalf. The Christian gospel itself fills the gap between what we should expect from God, because of our sin, and what we receive from him, because of his Son. Christ is divine compassion himself come in the flesh. “Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners,” John Piper explains, “because he was the incarnate display of the Father’s tender compassion for sinners” (Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, 94).

Compassion on the Crowds

In the Gospels, we find ten specific mentions of his compassion, and see the kinds of people he suffers with, and what actions he takes to help.

First, Jesus had compassion on crowds. A trickle of followers would have captured his concern and heart in one way, but the sheer fact that masses assembled showed how poorly the people had been led. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The numbers demonstrated the acuteness of the needs and how many were hurting. And note that compassion in Christ corresponds to the masses being “harassed and helpless.” Any of us today who would hope to be recipients of Christ’s compassion must also be ready to own our own helplessness.

It was compassion on “a great crowd” that led him to perform healings. “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). So also was it compassion on a hungry crowd that prompted him to feed four thousand. “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; Mark 8:2).

The same compassion led to his serving the five thousand, whom he fed after a long day of teaching: “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). For those ill-taught, because of poor leadership, he has compassion, and then opens his mouth to teach.

Compassion One by One

But it’s not only hurting people in large numbers that receive his compassion. Also solitary and specific individuals. He has an ear to hear our pains one by one, swell his heart toward them, and provide his perfectly timed solution. When he drew near to the town of Nain, and came upon a funeral procession for a widow’s only son, he took notice, felt compassion, and took action.

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.” (Luke 7:13–14)

He saw her painful circumstances. Not only was she now alone but also helpless. But with a full slate of other good works, and great crowds to teach and heal, Jesus takes notice and feels compassion for a bereaved mother. Then he raised her son from the dead.

When a father with a demonized son asked, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (Mark 9:22), Jesus responded, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23). Indeed he can, and indeed his heart beats with compassion. And when Jesus has compassion, it multiplies. Just as raising the widow’s son came from compassion on her, so now casting out the evil spirit comes from compassion on the boys’ father and family (“have compassion on us and help us”).

We also hear of Jesus’s compassion in his pity. When he encountered two blind men, “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34). To a desperate leper, “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Mark 1:41). And Jesus told a parable of a master who “out of pity” for a servant “released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27). Jesus has compassion for those who cannot see, and grants sight. Compassion for the untouchable, whom he heals. Compassion for those with an unpayable debt, which he forgives.

Tender and Tough

Where was this compassion when he drove out the moneychangers with a whip (John 2:15)? Or when he pronounced the sevenfold woe on the Pharisees (Matthew 23:1–36)? Or when he turned away presumptuous crowds with offensive language (John 6:60–66)? Where was his compassion when he rebuked his own lead disciple for trying to protect his life (Matthew 16:22–23), or spoke unnervingly to a Gentile woman, likening her people to dogs (Matthew 15:26; Mark 7:27), or heard his beloved Lazarus was ill and “stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:6)?

One answer is that true compassion will, at times, take up a whip and strong words. Compassion for God’s people, and zeal for God’s house (John 2:17), might require extreme measures to disperse the obstacles and diversions to true worship and lasting joy. Compassion for God’s people might require the piercing language of rebuke to those who sat in Moses’s seat (Matthew 23:2) but “shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). Compassion for the flock demands desperate measures against its abusers.

Also part and parcel of his compassion for hurting sinners was considering the true and enduring good of the one suffering. Never did he so lose himself, and his Father, in the feelings of the hurting that he ceded a vision for their good on his Father’s terms. His surprising lack of empathy with the Gentile woman was an act of compassion, designed to elicit faith (Matthew 15:27–28; Mark 7:28–29); his delay in coming to Lazarus, designed to display the glory of God (John 11:4, 40). His compassion led him to bring true relief, not be steered by the hurting in their pain to dictate divine goodness and timing. In no instance in the Gospels does Jesus feel compassion for others and then simply suffer with them. His compassion led him to action, sometimes uncomfortably so. It “moved” him (Mark 1:41).

And so, as Jonathan Edwards observed three centuries ago, we see in Christ “an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies.” His tenderness with the humble is all the more striking because of his toughness with unbelief. His compassion for the afflicted would be undermined if not accompanied by righteous anger toward their afflicters. He emphatically did not demonstrate compassion for wicked kings, conniving priests, and self-righteous Pharisees — which makes his compassion all the more precious when he directs it toward his trusting sheep.

His Two Greatest Parables

Remarkably, the two parables which may be Jesus’s greatest, and most well-known, turn on the compassion of Christ.

In Luke 10:25–37, Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan. Verse 33 is the hinge: “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” Both priest and Levite had passed by the man lying there half dead. But when the Samaritan passed by, he — like Jesus himself — had compassion.

Compassion here, as the link to the many other compassion-of-Christ glimpses in the Gospels, is the key for seeing the heart of the parable. Compassion is his calling card in the Gospels; it is attributed to no one else. Jesus is the one who characteristically has compassion and then acts: he shows us mercy by approaching us, addressing our wounds, carrying us to safety, and making provision for our care until his return. First and foremost, the Son of God himself has been a neighbor to us sinners — stemming from his compassion. Now, having become recipients of his mercy, we then echo it in our treatment of others.

The second, of course, is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). How will the father respond to his son who has “squandered his property in reckless living” (Luke 15:13)? The turning point is verse 20: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Here again, a heart of compassion, rather than contempt, unleashes a series of merciful actions. Like the Good Samaritan, the father moves toward his half-dead son, rather than away. And he runs, showing us not only the heart of Christ himself but his Father’s heart toward us through him. The Father feels compassion for his prodigals, runs to them, embraces them, and kisses them by sending his own Son as his compassion incarnate.

Compassion of His People

The implications for Christ’s people — those who are the recipients of his compassion — are plain enough in the Gospels, but the Epistles make them even clearer. Christ not only has compassion on his people and gives them his help, but he also forms his people into instruments of his compassion on others. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Such people show compassion on fellow believers in prison, even at great cost to themselves (Hebrews 10:34). We learn to show sympathy and comfort to the hurting among us, not like Job’s three friends (Job 2:11), but like his brothers and sisters (Job 42:11). And we put on, with compassion, its accompanying virtues: “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12); “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). In other words, we become the kind of people who see others and then have compassion on them.

Both the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son may turn on compassion, but in both parables, and in Jesus’s own life and ministry, seeing preceded feeling. “When he saw him, he had compassion” (Luke 10:33). “His father saw him and felt compassion” (Luke 15:20). And Jesus himself, with the widow at Nain: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her” (Luke 7:13). As with the crowds: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them” (Matthew 9:36). “He saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them” (Matthew 14:14; Mark 6:34). Perhaps the biggest obstacle to our doing likewise is that our gaze is so often fixed on self, not others. May God give us eyes to see — and the compassion of Christ.