A Mission of Mercy
The emotion that we should naturally expect to find most frequently attributed to that 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.” In point of fact, this is the emotion that is most frequently attributed to him. The term employed to express it was unknown to the Greek classics and was perhaps a coinage of the Jewish dispersion. It first appears in common use in this sense, indeed, in the Synoptic Gospels, where it takes the place of the most inward classical word of this connotation. The divine mercy has been defined as that essential perfection in God “whereby he pities and relieves the miseries of his creatures”: it includes, that is to say, the two parts of an internal movement of pity and an external act of beneficence. It is the internal movement of pity that is emphasized when our Lord is said to be “moved with compassion” as the term is sometimes excellently rendered in the English versions. In the appeals made to his mercy, a more external word is used; but it is this more internal word that is employed to express our Lord’s response to these appeals: the petitioners besought him to take pity on them; his heart responded with a profound feeling of pity for them. His compassion fulfilled itself in the outward act; but what is emphasized by the term employed to express our Lord’s response is, in accordance with its very derivation, the profound internal movement of his emotional nature.
This emotional movement was aroused in our Lord as well by the sight of individual distress (Mark 1:41; Matt. 20:34; Luke 7:13) as by the spectacle of man’s universal misery (Mark 6:34; 8:2; Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). The appeal of two blind men that their eyes might be opened (Matt. 20:34), the appeal of a leper for cleansing (Mark 1:41)— though there may have been circumstances in his case that called out Jesus’s reprobation (Mark 1:43)—set our Lord’s heart throbbing with pity, as did also the mere sight of a bereaved widow, wailing by the bier of her only son as they bore him forth to burial, though no appeal was made for relief (Luke 7:13). The ready spontaneity of Jesus’s pity is even more plainly shown when he intervenes by a great miracle to relieve temporary pangs of hunger: “I have compassion on”—or better, “I feel pity for”—“the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and if I send them away fasting to their home, they will faint in the way; and some of them are come from far” (Mark 8:2–3; Matt. 15:32)—the only occasion on which Jesus is recorded as testifying to his own feeling of pity. It was not merely the physical ills of life, however—want and disease and death—that called out our Lord’s compassion. These ills were rather looked upon by him as themselves rooted in spiritual destitution. And it was this spiritual destitution that most deeply moved his pity.
The cause and the effects are indeed very closely linked together in the narrative, and it is not always easy to separate them. Thus, we read in Mark 6:34: “And he came forth and saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on them”—better, “he felt pity for them”—“because they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and he taught them many things.” But in the parallel passage in Matthew 14:14, we read: “And he came forth and saw a great multitude, and he had compassion on [felt pity for] them, and he healed their sick.” We must put the two passages together to get a complete account: their fatal ignorance of spiritual things, their evil case under the dominion of Satan in all the effects of his terrible tyranny, are alike the object of our Lord’s compassion. In another passage (Matt. 9:36), the emphasis is thrown very distinctly on the spiritual destitution of the people as the cause of his compassionate regard: “But when he saw the multitude, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd.” This description of the spiritual destitution of the people is cast in very strong language. They are compared to sheep that have been worn out and torn by running hither and thither through the thorns with none to direct them, and have now fallen helpless and hopeless to the ground. The sight of their desperate plight awakens our Lord’s pity and moves him to provide the remedy.
Jesus’s Reaction to Suffering
No other term is employed by the New Testament writers directly to express our Lord’s compassion. But we read elsewhere of its manifestation in tears and sighs. The tears that wet his cheeks when, looking upon the uncontrolled grief of Mary and her companions, he advanced, with heart swelling with indignation at the outrage of death, to the conquest of the destroyer (John 11:35) were distinctly tears of sympathy. Even more clearly, his own unrestrained wailing over Jerusalem and its stubborn unbelief was the expression of the most poignant pity: “O that thou hadst known in this day, even thou, the things which belong unto peace” (Luke 19:42)! The sight of suffering drew tears from his eyes; obstinate unbelief convulsed him with uncontrollable grief. Similarly, when a man afflicted with dumbness and deafness was brought to him for healing, we are only told that he “sighed” (Mark 7:34); but when the malignant unbelief of the Pharisees was brought home to him, he “sighed from the bottom of his heart” (Mark 8:12). “Obstinate sin,” comments Swete appropriately, “drew from Christ a deeper sigh than the sight of suffering (Luke 7:34; cf. John 13:20), a sigh in which anger and sorrow both had a part (Mark 3:4).”1 We may, at any rate, place the loud wailing over the stubborn unbelief of Jerusalem and the deep sighing over the Pharisees’ determined opposition side by side as exhibitions of the profound pain given to our Lord’s sympathetic heart, by those whose persistent rejection of him required at his hands his sternest reprobation. He “sighed from the bottom of his heart” when he declared, “There shall no sign be given this generation”; he wailed aloud when he announced, “The days shall come upon thee when thine enemies shall dash thee to the ground.” It hurt Jesus to hand over even hardened sinners to their doom.
It hurt Jesus—because Jesus’s prime characteristic was love, and love is the foundation of compassion. How close to one another the two emotions of love and compassion lie may be taught us by the only instance in which the emotion of love is attributed to Jesus in the Synoptics (Mark 10:21). Here we are told that Jesus, looking upon the rich young ruler, “loved” him, and said to him, “One thing thou lackest.” It is not the “love of complacency” that is intended, but the “love of benevolence”; that is to say, it is the love, not so much that finds good, as that intends good—though we may no doubt allow that “love of compassion is never.” Let us rather say, “seldom”—“absolutely separated from love of appreciation”;2 that is to say, there is ordinarily some good to be found already in those upon whom we fix our benevolent regard. The heart of our Savior turned yearningly to the rich young man and longed to do him good; and this is an emotion, we say, that, especially in the circumstances depicted, is not far from simple compassion.
At the Bottom of Compassion
It is characteristic of John’s Gospel that it goes with simple directness always to the bottom of things. Love lies at the bottom of compassion. And love is attributed to Jesus only once in the Synoptics, but compassion often; while with John the contrary is true: compassion is attributed to Jesus not even once, but love often. This love is commonly the love of compassion, or, rather, let us broaden it now and say, the love of benevolence; but sometimes it is the love of sheer delight in its object. Love to God is, of course, the love of pure complacency. We are surprised to note that Jesus’s love to God is only once explicitly mentioned (John 14:31); but in this single mention, it is set before us as the motive of his entire saving work and particularly of his offering of himself up.
He had come to do the will of the Father; and because he loved the Father, his will he will do, up to the bitter end.
The time of his offering is at hand, and Jesus explains, “I will no more speak much with you, for the prince of this world cometh; and he hath nothing in me; but [I yield myself to him] that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do” (John 14:30–31). The motive of Jesus’s earthly life and death is more commonly presented as love for sinful men; here it is presented as loving obedience to God. He had come to do the will of the Father; and because he loved the Father, his will he will do, up to the bitter end. He declares his purpose to be, under the impulse of love, “obedience up to death, yea, the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).
The love for man that moved Jesus to come to his succor in his sin and misery was, of course, the love of benevolence. It finds its culminating expression in the great words of John 15:13–14: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends: ye are my friends, if ye do the things which I command you”—rather an illuminating definition of “friends,” by the way, especially when it is followed by “ye did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you that ye should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). “Friends,” it is clear, in this definition, are rather those who are loved than those who love. This culminating expression of his love for his own, by which he was sustained in his great mission of humiliation for them, is supported, however, by repeated declarations of it in the immediate and wider context. In the immediately preceding verses, for example, it is urged as the motive and norm of the love—spring of obedience—that he seeks from his disciples:
“Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; and so shall ye be my disciples. Even as my Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be fulfilled. This is my commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you.” (John 15:8–12)
- Henry Barclay Swete, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 1898; repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015), 158
- James Morrison, A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1892), 285.
This article is adapted from The Emotional Life of Our Lord by B. B. Warfield.
We all long for the restoration that will come when God gives us new, resurrected bodies. But we don’t have those bodies yet.
We are inclined to give our attention to and serve those with influence and power, to praise those who wield influence in the world, but every person is made in God’s image and every person is significant.
When Jesus, the Clean One, touched an unclean sinner, Christ did not become unclean. The sinner became clean.
Kathryn Butler discusses her work as a trauma surgeon working in the ICU, sharing what it was like to be inundated with life and death situations day in and day out.