Oct 14, 2012

The Widow's Son

Luke 7:11–17

When a widow lost her only son in first-century Israel, she wasn’t only left in grief—she was left destitute. Today, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke to consider Jesus’ compassion for a woman who had lost everything.


This morning, we’re going to continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading this morning from 7:11–17:

Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother.

Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.” And this report about Him went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region.

The Apostles declared to us that they did not proclaim cleverly devised myths or fables but rather what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears. That proclamation is preserved for us even to this day by the superintendence and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth and only of truth. I urge you, therefore, to receive this divine Word as your own this morning. Let us pray.

Again, our Father, we look to You as fountain of all truth, goodness, and meaning in our lives. Today, as we contemplate this episode in the ministry of our Lord, take the scales from our eyes that we may see the One who does this marvelous thing. Take the hardness out of our hearts that they may beat with a holy passion of devotion and adoration for Him. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

An Episode of Christ’s Power

All the New Testament gospel writers had to be selective. They chose from a large list of episodes from the life of Jesus. John told us that if everything Jesus did was reported in the Apostolic works, there would not be a book big enough to contain them all. So, sometimes we wonder, Why did Luke, Mark, Matthew, or John select this episode?

When we come to the text in front of us this morning, we don’t have to think long about why this episode in the ministry of Jesus is included in sacred writ. If this were the only passage that survived from the life of Jesus, there is enough in it to reveal His sweetness, excellency, person, power, and saviorhood. We can live the rest of our lives trusting just this much information about the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an incredible episode to which we must listen closely.

Luke begins by telling us when this episode occurs. He said that it happened “the day after.” The day after what? The day after Jesus healed the centurion’s servant. We looked at that in the previous sermon. You might recall how astonishing it was that this servant was at the point of death, and Jesus didn’t even make it all the way to the centurion’s house. Rather, the centurion said, “Just say the word,” and He did.

By the power of Jesus’ word, the centurion’s servant was brought back from the very threshold and brink of death itself. The next day, what we see is not a consideration of somebody sick unto death, but rather somebody who has already died, and the process of burial is underway.

A Jewish Funeral Procession

I don’t know if you have seen a classic traditional Southern African American funeral procession. Epcot used to have a panoramic movie of the United States that included footage of such a funeral procession in New Orleans, done in New Orleans style, with a marching band. I have seen one of those in person in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and it is a sight to behold.

As the coffin is carried through the streets, the musicians play their saxophones, trombones, clarinets, and trumpets, and they use a particular tempo called “the stride” for this procession. “The stride” is a languid, mournful motion as the marchers play to a certain beat and tempo, and then suddenly the tempo changes to an upbeat celebration. If you ever have an opportunity to witness such a funeral procession, don’t miss it. I have seen this both in the movies and in reality, and I think this is the closest approximation we have of the funeral processions experienced by the Jewish people in antiquity.

In a Jewish funeral, there was always a burial procession because, by law, those who died as Jewish people had to be buried outside of the city. They didn’t have hearses or police escorts to take you outside the city. Rather, they would come through in a procession, where the person who had died would be carried not in a coffin as we have today, but in an open bier. This couch-like structure was heavier, bigger, and more substantial than a stretcher. The corpse would be placed on the bier, and people would carry the bier to the burial plot. This was usually done within twenty-four hours after death had occurred.

The Widow’s Devastating Loss

Imagine the Lord Jesus coming upon a funeral procession and, presumably without any invitation, interjecting Himself into this solemn ceremony. We know that in ancient Israel, when funeral processions were undertaken, professional mourners were hired to make sure that the funeral procession was significant. Musicians would also play, just as they do in the African American community in certain places in the South.

We are told that Jesus had just left Capernaum, where He healed the centurion’s servant, and He was followed by His disciples and a large crowd. A large crowd followed Jesus, and a large crowd came out of the city of Nain as part of the funeral procession.

What do we know about the people involved in the funeral procession? We know that the woman whose son had died was a widow. She had already buried her husband. We don’t know how old she was, but her son was called “a young man,” and he was her only son. So, this is a woman who lost her husband and then, sometime later, her only son.

This was significant for a woman in ancient Israel. The Bible places a priority on the Christian community giving care to widows and orphans because, in many cases, the only support that a widow could expect to gain in the ancient world was from her children, particularly her sons. This woman only had one son, and now he had died, and the mourners were accompanying her in a funeral procession on the way to the cemetery to bury her only son.

The Lord Saw Her

Of all people on the planet, the One who came along was Jesus. In verse 13, Luke gives us these words: “When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” This is the first time in Luke’s gospel that Luke calls Jesus kyrios, Lord.

Kyrios translates the Old Testament title Adonai, which is the highest title given to God in the Old Testament. When the psalmist writes, “O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth,” and, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit thou at My right hand,’” the words are, “Yahweh said to my Adonai.” The meaning of Adonai is the Sovereign One, the One who rules over all things with all authority and power. The title which had been reserved for God was now given to the Son of God, God incarnate. Before Jesus displayed this awesome power of the Son of God, Luke says, “And the Lord”—the kyrios, the Adonai, the Sovereign One—saw her.

The first thing Luke tells us is that the Lord saw her. He saw her in her grief, in the depths of her sorrow, amid her mourning. This woman was not unknown to Jesus. This woman did not escape the notice of the Son of God.

I find that extremely comforting for anyone who goes to the house of mourning. The Lord Jesus Christ sees us when we weep, when we suffer, and when we die, just as He saw the pitiable woman from the city of Nain in Galilee.

The Compassion of Christ

The first thing Jesus did was see the mourning woman. Luke tells us that when He saw her, He had compassion on her. Is there anyone whose compassion we need more than the Son of God, who was like us in every respect except sin, who understands our feelings? I love that word “compassion” because it’s made of the prefix com which means “with,” and passio, “with feeling.”

To describe somebody who is compassionate, we flippantly say, “I feel your pain.” But true compassion enters another person’s sorrow or pain. This One whom Luke calls Lord is also called “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” As He saw the woman, He saw her heartbreak. Surely, she was on the rim of despair. He saw her tears flowing down her cheeks, and He was not unfeeling. He felt it in His own soul.

You can’t read the next portion without understanding that He saw her, immediately had compassion, and then spoke. The first words He said to her were these: “Weep not.” You can imagine her thinking: “What? Who is this man who comes out of nowhere, walks up to me, and tells me to stop crying? Who does He think He is? Of course I’m weeping—my heart is broken.”

Don’t you wish you could’ve been there and heard the tone Jesus used when He said to her, “Stop weeping”? I think there was a hint in the very sound of His voice that He was not rebuking her for a public spectacle of grief, nor was He asking her to be stoic. There had to be something tender, something comforting, something that gave a hint of power over grief and mourning when Jesus said to her, “Stop weeping.”

Total Authority Over Death

Next, Jesus came and touched the open bier, which meant that He risked becoming impure because it was forbidden for Jews in the ancient world to touch the dead. Jesus, however, had authority over death, and He came and touched the bier. He touched this open coffin.

The pallbearers carrying the bier stopped, amazed and stunned, just as the woman was. They stood there, holding the stretcher, and watched what was taking place in front of their very eyes. When Jesus spoke again, it wasn’t to the pallbearers, and it wasn’t to the mother. This time, the Lord spoke to the young man who was dead. He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”

Three times in the New Testament, we see our Lord raise people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, who had been in the tomb, and now the widow of Nain’s son. When Jesus raises people from the dead, all He needs is the same power He displayed the day before this episode, when He healed the centurion’s servant.

All it took from Jesus was a word out of His mouth: “Young man, I’m talking to you. I know you’re dead.” The pallbearers couldn’t believe what they were watching. He said: “I say to you, young man, get up. Arise.” Then, he who was dead sat up and began to speak, and Jesus presented him to his mother: “Mother, behold your son. Your son who was dead is now alive. That is why I told you to stop weeping. Look at him. Listen to him speak to you.”

Terrifying Power and Glory

Why is it significant that our Lord presented the son who had been dead but was now alive to his mother? He is the same One who said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me shall not die” (John 11:25). On the last day, in the twinkle of an eye, Christ is going to say to all who were dead in Him, “Arise,” and we will join Him in the power and glory of His resurrection. Children will be presented to parents, husbands to wives, and parents to children in the great resurrection.

Why did Luke include this episode in his account of Jesus? If for no other reason, Luke had a burning passion to communicate who this Jesus is, this “Lord.” Notice that all the eyewitnesses were suddenly afraid. That was the normal response of the crowds when Jesus performed a miracle. They were thinking: “What kind of a man is this? We were on the way to bury this man, and he is over there talking to his mother because this Jesus, out of nowhere, came over and said, ‘Young man, get up.’”

They were terrified, yet they glorified God. Why? Because they knew they had just witnessed something that only God could do. So, they glorified God and said, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Indeed He was a great prophet, and more than a great prophet.

The Bishop of Our Souls

The people went on to say, “God has visited His people.” Do you recognize that line? If you remember back to the early chapters of Luke, when we looked at the infancy narratives and songs, we saw this phrase celebrated in the incarnation, the day of God’s visitation to His people.

In that sermon, I mentioned that the idea behind the divine visitation is wrapped up in the Greek verb and consequent noun episkopos because the visitor is the Bishop of our souls. This is the term from which we get the word episcopal or episcopalian. A bishop is an episkopos. A scope is something you look through. Epi is an intensifying prefix, so an episkopos is a supervisor, a “super looker,” who sees everything that takes place.

The point of the incarnation was like the Old Testament act of redemption when God heard the cries of His people in bondage in Egypt and issued the command, “Let My people go.” The Lord God omnipotent visited His people in the form of His Son. Peter says, “He is the Bishop and the Shepherd of our souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).

It’s one thing to have a pastor, but another when the Bishop comes. This is not the bishop of the local diocese, but the Bishop from heaven Himself, the great Shepherd of the sheep. He is the Good Shepherd who calls you His sheep, who cares for you as a good shepherd cares for his lambs, and who watches over you like the Bishop of heaven.

The people understood that the spectacle that unfolded during this funeral procession was a visitation from the supernatural, an intrusion from the transcendental realm, a visit of God Himself into the midst of His people.

Do you see why I say that if these were the only verses we had in the whole New Testament, they would be enough to cause us to dance the rest of our days, even into our graves? The same Bishop who saw this woman sees you, sees me, and is moved by compassion. But He doesn’t just feel sorry for us, He acts for us, bringing life out of death and joy out of sorrow. Beloved, it doesn’t get any better than this. Let’s pray.

Thank you, Lord, for this remarkable event and what it shows us about our Lord Jesus, whom we embrace with our hearts and confess with our lips. Thank you that You have raised Him from the dead, not as an isolated incident, but as the firstborn of many brethren. We too look forward to that day when we will hear Him say to us, “Arise.” Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.