It is not news, and yet at the same time we hear each day in the news, that we live in a hurting world. In the past several weeks we have heard about bombings in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ireland. There is continuing tension in the Middle East and between India and Pakistan. There is civil war in the Congo, which just went through civil war in the past year. The list could go on and on.
Moving from the global to the personal realm does not eliminate the problems. We’ve all heard about the tragic domestic violence in our community in the last few years. We all know families that are breaking apart and parents who are heartbroken over their rebellious children. Many, even in Christian circles, struggle with severe personal problems. Nineteenth century British preacher Joseph Parker said, “Preach to the suffering, and you will never lack a congregation. There is a broken heart in every pew.”
In such a world, there is a desperate need for a message of true hope to overcome the despair and of real power to overcome our weakness. Sometimes we feel like the guy who saw some light at the end of the tunnel, but then he realized that it was a train coming at him. That is false hope! We need true hope.
The gospel of Jesus Christ offers that true hope and real power to this hurting world. This is graphically portrayed in Luke 7:11-17. There are three recorded miracles where Jesus raised a dead person back to life: Jairus’ daughter (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke); Lazarus (only in John); and the raising of this widow’s only son (only in Luke). All of Jesus’ miracles go beyond the literal fact in that there are great spiritual lessons to be learned from them. John referred to them as “signs,” meaning that they have significance beyond the outward. They point us to something deeper. Spurgeon said, “They are sermons to the eye just as His spoken discourses were sermons to the ear” (12 Sermons on Conversion [Baker], p. 80). Even so, this account of Jesus raising this young man to life and giving him back to his mother is saying something beyond the actual facts of the matter. It shows us that …
The life-giving word of Christ is a message of hope and power in a world of despair and weakness.
This woman who had lost her husband was now in despair over the loss of her only son. And, of course, she was powerless in the face of death. But Christ’s life-giving word brought hope and power into that dismal scene.
This miracle is a parable of the task we face as witnesses of the gospel. Evangelism is not the job of a salesman who persuades people to believe in Christ. Evangelism is nothing less than the raising of those who are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). When we share the gospel with them, God must use it to raise the sinner from death to life just as Jesus raised this man from physical death to physical life. And the result is no less powerful.
Note how Luke paints the scene: Two large crowds converge. The one crowd was grieving and hopeless. Hired professional mourners would have been wailing loudly. The bereaved mother, wearing torn clothes, would have been walking, probably upon the arms of comforters, in front of the open stretcher bearing the shrouded corpse. It was a hopeless scene.
Enter the second crowd, coming from the opposite direction, following Jesus, the Messiah, who was performing great miracles. The lively chatter and the bright faces would have shown that this crowd had hope. What a sharp contrast between these two crowds! Wherever the Lord Jesus is absent, there is despair in the face of death. Wherever He is present, there is hope. The hope that Christ gives shines through in three ways:
The Lord felt compassion for her (7:13). The word literally is related to the word “bowels” and describes feelings that come from deep inside. In other words, it was not just an intellectual sympathy. Jesus felt deeply for this hurting woman.
Whenever the Lord Jesus confronts human sorrow and need, He feels compassion. He did then, when He was upon earth. He does now, as our sympathetic High Priest in the heavenlies. He is not a stoic Savior. That kind of compassion brings hope. In our despair, we are prone to feel like nobody understands. Our loneliness intensifies the despair. But to know that someone else feels with us brings a ray of hope. We are not alone! Jesus understands and cares!
Jesus’ words, “Do not weep,” would have been insensitive if He had not been able to do something about her problem. Christ never calls upon people to stop their tears when those tears are wholesome. But in this instance, He is lovingly calling upon this woman for a spark of trust in Himself. He is tenderly saying, “Look to Me! I can do something about the cause of your grief.”
If we want to be effective witnesses for Christ, then we must ask Him to deepen our compassion for the lost. It has truly been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. When we show people the compassion of Christ, it often opens their hearts to hear the truth of the gospel.
The hope that Christ gives shines through in a second way:
God’s unmerited favor gives us hope. This woman did nothing to merit this miracle. Unlike the centurion in the miracle just preceding (7:4), no one said to Jesus, “This woman is worthy for you to grant this to her.” She did not even ask the Lord to do it. There is no trace of faith or expectation on her part. And there was nothing in the dead young man to merit this miracle. Jesus didn’t say, “What a good looking corpse! I’ve never seen such a fine corpse! I’m going to raise him from the dead.” I don’t care how nicely you dress them up, corpses do not have any merit. This miracle came totally from Christ’s great compassion and love. It was all of grace.
The gospel is all of grace, not at all of works. It is not, “Try a little harder! Clean up your life! Do these good works so that you can receive God’s salvation.” That is the message of man’s religions, and it only increases despair, because the already despairing sinner thinks, “What if I can’t measure up?”
But the message of grace brings hope. It says, “Even when we were dead in our transgressions, [He] made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). God does not save anyone because they have worked hard to get their corpse in pretty good condition. When we were dead He made us alive so that “He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). Evangelism is the work of seeing Christ raise the dead. Since it is totally of His grace, it does not depend at all on what sinners do. Thus it brings hope to the hopeless.
Our text reveals the hope that comes through Christ’s compassion and through His grace. Also,
Christ performed His miracles in a variety of ways. It is significant, therefore, that each time He raised the dead, He did it the same way: by speaking to the dead person and calling him or her back to life. It was His bare word that quickened the dead.
There is great power in God’s word. He spoke the universe into existence through His word. The centurion said to Jesus, “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (7:7). We have in the Scriptures that same powerful Word, “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Isaiah 55:10-11 promises, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”
The power of God’s Word gives us great hope, because it is able to bring change to our hopeless situations. Just as Christ spoke personally to this dead young man, so He speaks personally to the hearts of dead sinners today. Just as this young man who could not arise, because he was dead, did so instantly in response to Christ’s word, so now those who are dead in their sins can respond instantly and receive new life when the Lord speaks the gospel through His servants and through His written Word.
As witnesses, we need to direct people into the Word of God. If you want to see your children solidly converted, read the Word of God to them and when they are able, encourage them to read it on their own. As you talk to people about their need of Christ, quote Scripture and challenge them to read it for themselves.
Gaylord Kambarami was the General Secretary of the Bible Society of Zimbabwe. Once when he offered a man a New Testament, the man responded, “If you give me that Bible, I will roll the pages and use them to make cigarettes!” Gaylord replied, “At least promise me that you will read the page before you smoke it.” The man agreed, so he gave him the New Testament and went his way.
Fifteen years later, Gaylord was attending a convention when the speaker on the platform suddenly spotted him, pointed him out to the audience, and said, “This man doesn’t remember me, but 15 years ago he tried to sell me a New Testament. When I refused to buy it he gave it to me, even though I told him I would use the pages to roll cigarettes. He made me promise to read the pages before I smoked them. Well, I smoked Matthew and I smoked Mark and I smoked Luke. But when I got to John 3:16, I couldn’t smoke any more. My life was changed from that moment.” He had become a full-time evangelist, pointing others to the powerful message of God’s Word.
Thus in the gospel of Christ we have a word of hope for a despairing world. But hope is useless unless it can deliver the goods. An impotent hope is no hope at all, but only wishful thinking. Thus the importance of my second point:
Modern man boasts of his power, but he is impotent against that great leveler, death. Bertrand Russell called it “omnipotent death.” If you remove God from the picture, as Russell did, he is right, because no one can stand against it. Although Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Diana had all the money they needed, they could not stave off death. None are exempt.
But Jesus is Lord over death. When He spoke His life-giving word, the corpse came alive, sat up, and began to speak. Even so today there are powerful effects when Christ speaks His life-giving word to the hearts of those dead in their sins. Note, first:
He was transformed from death to life! There is an unmistakable difference between a dead person and a live one. One summer during seminary, I worked as Charlie Chaplin at the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park. The museum is filled with life-like wax figures of famous movie stars. But no matter how much those figures looked alive they were really dead—except for me, of course! I would pose in a frozen position as some unsuspecting person would approach. Sometimes another worker would tell them, “You can touch this one!” As they reached for me, I would reach out toward them, grab their hand and say, “Hello!” These people suddenly realized that there is a huge difference between a dead wax statue and a living person!
Even so, there is a great difference between religious people who are all dressed up with their good works to look alive and those who really have received spiritual life through the power of Christ. The former may fool some for a while, but if you look carefully you can tell that they do not have His life in them. Those truly born of God have many vital signs that reveal that He has given new life to them. We may not see it all at once, but we will see a difference. In this case, the dead man sat up and began to speak (7:15). We don’t know what he said, but those who have received the life of Christ normally will speak much of Him. They will have a new interest in the things of God. Spurgeon points out that whatever this man said, his mother did not criticize it. She did not say, “That sentence was ungrammatical.” She was too excited about the fact that he was alive. Sometimes new Christians say wrong things, but we must be careful not to criticize them too severely and instead rejoice in the signs of new life.
If we keep in mind the fact that evangelism involves raising spiritually dead people, we will avoid two dangers. First, we will not look at outwardly good people and assume that they do not need what we have to offer them in Christ. Look again! They are just lifeless corpses who need the life that only Christ can give. Salvation is always the act of God imparting life, never of man imitating life. Second, we will not despair that some cases are too hard for the Lord. Whether the corpse looks alive or looks dead, it is in fact dead, and it takes the power of God to impart life in either case.
“Jesus gave him back to his mother.” There was an emotional reunion of mother and son. Her tears of grief and sorrow were changed to tears of joy. The fellowship that had ended with his death was restored by his life. The help and support that her son had formerly given was now reinstated. It must have given the Lord Jesus great joy to present this young man alive to his mother.
One of the most powerful witnesses to the fact that a formerly dead sinner has received new life in Christ is that of restored family relationships. There is not so much a generation gap as there is a spiritual gap between young people and their parents. If both the parents and the young person truly have experienced new life in Christ, then there will be joy and fellowship where formerly there was anger and alienation.
I remember the first time I went to hear the Christian music group, “Love Song.” This was at the beginning of the “hippie” movement, when parents were shocked and angry with their kids for growing their hair long and wearing grungy clothes. Kids were alienated from their parents because of what they saw as hypocrisy. But at this concert, there was a long-haired, hippie-looking boy sitting there with his very straight-looking mom. It was obvious that he had become a Christian and had brought her to the concert. As Love Song gave the invitation to receive Jesus, the mom got up, went forward and knelt down. The boy went down, knelt beside her, and put his arm around her. It was a touching scene. Christ delights to give new life to sons and daughters and to parents and watch the joyful reunion. But the effects don’t stop there:
They feared and glorified God (7:16). While their estimate of Christ as a “great prophet” was not as high as it should have been, they nonetheless recognized the hand of God at work through Jesus: “God has visited His people” (Luke. 1:68).
Whenever Christ imparts new life to dead sinners, there will be powerful effects upon the observers. This is especially the case when the dead sinner really looked dead (when he wasn’t all dressed up in good works before). The genuine conversion of a drunkard or drug addict or immoral person or criminal can have a great impact for Jesus Christ. People cannot deny the transformation. They must acknowledge the reality of God. I would add in this connection that it is important for those who have been raised from the dead to live like it so that the name of Christ is not scoffed at through your poor testimony. It is a mistake to parade new believers in front of crowds before they have learned to walk in a manner pleasing to the Lord.
Perhaps as with Lazarus, some flocked to Nain to meet this young man who had been raised. The report went all over (7:17). It was a ripple effect, spreading ever wider.
Who can ever tell of the powerful effects of the conversion of one soul? The results may not be known for years and years, but they can be mighty. In the fall of 1934, a fiery Southern evangelist named Mordecai Ham, preached for eleven weeks in Charlotte, North Carolina. There a 16 year-old, outwardly religious but inwardly spiritually dead, boy came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and received new life in Christ. Who can tell of the impact that that boy, Billy Graham, has had for the cause of Christ?
In 1929 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the 17 year-old son of a steel worker became a Christian on his own through reading the Bible. For him, it was a transforming reality that changed his whole outlook, but he thought that he was alone in his experience. He knew no others who believed as he did. A year later, as he walked down the street, he came to a large tent. Wondering what was happening, he entered and heard an Italian-American man tell of his conversion out of crime and drugs and of how Christ not only freed him from prison, but from sin. When the invitation was given, the young man went forward. He entered in his diary that night, August 19, 1930, “have decided to give my whole life to Christ unconditionally.” That young man was Francis Schaeffer, whose writing, speaking, and films have had an untold world-wide impact for Christ.
You never know what can come from God imparting life to a single sinner through your witness! This should be a great motivation for us to take advantage of those seemingly “chance” encounters which we have with the spiritually dead. Jesus just “happened“ to walk into town at the moment this funeral procession was heading out. It was one of those divine appointments. Jesus was always ready, and so He raised this young man to life.
Even so, God gives us providential, but seemingly “chance” encounters with those who are dead in their sins. So often, I confess, I am spiritually dull and miss the opportunity. Later I think, “I could have said such and such!” If we would raise the dead as Jesus did, we must realize that we are always to be about our Father’s business, even as He was. The gospel is the life-giving word of Christ, a message of hope in a world of despair, a message of power in a world of weakness. Even through this sermon, the Lord may be saying to someone, “Arise from your spiritual death and sin and follow Me!”
At age twelve, Robert Louis Stevenson was looking out into the dark from his upstairs window watching a man light the street lanterns. Stevenson’s governess came into the room and asked what he was doing. He replied, “I am watching a man cut holes in the darkness.” That describes our job as witnesses—to cut holes in the darkness of this hopeless, hurting world with the good news that Jesus came to raise dead sinners to new life through His Word.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation