Compassion didn’t come out of nowhere. It came to the world from God and His incarnate Son. Mercy is not to be found in Christless world. The standards of a fallen humanity include hardness of heart, cruelty, and malice.
The Bible, on the other hand, is a treasure of compassion, as we have already seen: (Compassion, the Noun That Used to be a Verb and Mom’s Compassion is Like God … and So is Dad’s and A LOVE Better than Life). In this final in the series we will examine two further New Testament families of words translated “compassion.” The first refers to the compassion of Christ, the second to the suffering servant.
Compassion is of Jesus
The first family of Greek words characterize the compassion of Christ. One term is splagchnizomai, a verb meaning to “feel compassion for, have pity on, have one’s heart go out to [someone].” This word is used twelve times. It is derived from splagchnon: “desires, compassion, tender mercies, affection.”
The gospel writers tell the story of a man with a dreaded skin disease who approached Jesus. If you are willing, you can make me clean, he expressed in bold belief (Mar 1:40 NIV). I am willing, Jesus said. And he did more than speak. He had healed with words only (see Luke 5:24-25). He had healed from a distance (see Luke 7:1-10). Yet his compassion for this social outcast, the leper whose condition isolated him from the community, moved Jesus to go beyond what was necessary. The scripture says, Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” (Mark 1:41)
Three parables tell the story of God’s unlimited compassion bound up in the person of Jesus. We find the compassion of Christ in the parable of:
- The unforgiving servant – Matthew 18:23-35 (26-27): At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
- The prodigal son – Luke 15:11-32 (20): So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
- The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:30-37 (33): But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.
How is the compassion of Christ to be seen today? In the lives of his followers: If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (I John 3:17)
Compassion Means Servants Who Suffer
The second family of words relates to the nature of suffering servants. This compassion describes both the suffering of Christ and the cost to Christians of following him. We understand that compassion is to join together in another’s passion to suffer together with another. This family is found primarily in the synoptic gospels, Acts and Hebrews.
The root of the family is paschō, a verb meaning to suffer, to undergo an experience implying suffering and is used 42 times. Included in this family are the adjective, sumpathēs (sympathetic) and two verbs. The first, sumpatheō, means “to have a fellow feeling with,” i.e. “sympathize with.” The second verb, sumpaschō, means “to suffer with.”
The Bible declares Jesus as the ultimate suffering servant. He suffered:
- As atonement for our sins (Hebrews 13:12). And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own
- To sympathize with our affliction (Hebrews 4:15). For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without
- As an example for us (1 Peter 2:21). To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
Note also that Jesus did not suffer for “our deliverance from earthly suffering, but [for our] deliverance for earthly suffering“ :
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:14-18)
Christ suffered not to set us free from suffering but to set us free for suffering. Christ tells us that this is our calling: Then he said to them all, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).
Suffering and fellowship go hand in hand. We witness the radical call of the cross in Philippians 1:29: For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him. And again in 1 Peter 4:12-13: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
A Christian’s suffering is not an indication that something is wrong. Suffering is a normal part of a Christian’s life as we identify with a broken world and come alongside those who are bleeding. Christians suffer for the advancement of Kingdom. We see this in the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11:35-40:
Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes:
Jesus in his solidarity with the marginal ones is moved to compassion. Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. In the arrangement of ‘lawfulness’ in Jesus’ time, as in the ancient empire of Pharaoh, the one unpermitted quality of relation was compassion. Empires are never built or maintained on the basis of compassion. The norms of law (social control) are never accommodated to persons, but persons are accommodated to the norms. Otherwise the norms will collapse and with them the whole power arrangement. Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.
What have we seen in this four-part series about The Treasure of Biblical Compassion?
- Compassion springs from the heart of God.
- It manifests itself in His steadfast love and in the incarnation, Christ suffering together with us and for our salvation.
- It shows itself today through God’s people … a unique people who participate in Christ’s suffering, and come alongside and suffer together with others, sharing life, time, talent and treasure
- Darrow Miller with Gary Brumbelow