Key passage

Jesus continued going around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to sent out workers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:35-38

Quotes from Chapter 2

And he had compassion on them.

Matthew 14:14

What Jesus is, he does. His life proves his heart.

“and he had compassion on them and healed their sick,” (Matt. 14:14); “I have compassion on the crows because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat,” (Matt. 15:32); “and he had compassion on them… and he began to teach them many things,” (Mark 6:34); “and he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep,'” (Luke 7:13)

The Greek word for “compassion” is the same in all these texts and refers most literally to the bowels or guts of a person—it’s an ancient way of referring to what rises up from one’s innermost core. This compassion reflects the deepest heart of Christ.

What was Jesus’ deepest anguish? The anguish of others. What drew his heart out to the point of tears? The tears of others.

Time and again it is the morally disgusting, the socially reviled, the inexcusable and undeserving, who do not simply receive Christ’s mercy but to whom Christ most naturally gravitates. He is, by his enemies’ testimony, the “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34).

The dominant note left ringing in our ears after reading the Gospels, the most vivid and arresting element of the portrait, is the way the Holy Son of God moves toward, touches, heals, embraces, and forgives those who least deserve it yet truly desire it.

The Jesus given to us in the Gospels is not simply one who loves, but one who is love; merciful affections stream from his innermost heart as rays from the sun.

The wrath of Christ and the mercy of Christ are not at odds with one another. The more robust one’s felt understanding of the just wrath of Christ against all that is evil both around us and within us, the more robust our felt understanding of his mercy.

In speaking specifically of the heart of Christ we are not really on the wrath-mercy spectrum. His heart is his heart.

We are seeking to follow the biblical witness in speaking of Christ’s heart of affection toward sinners and sufferers. If there appears to be some sense of disproportion in the Bible’s portrait of Christ, then let us be accordingly disproportionate. Better to be biblical than artificially “balanced.”

It is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be overcelebrated, made too much of, exaggerated.

We are not leaving behind the harsher side of Jesus as we speak of his very heart. Our sole aim is to follow the Bible’s own testimony as we tunnel in to who Jesus most surprisingly is. If the actions of Jesus are reflective of who he most deeply is, we cannot avoid the conclusion that is the very fallenness which he came to undo that is most irresistibly attractive to him.

This is deeper than saying Jesus is loving or merciful or gracious. The cumulative testimony of the four Gospels is that when Jesus Christ sees the fallenness of the world all about him, his deepest impulse, his most natural instinct, is to move toward that sin and suffering, not away from it.

In the Old Testament, when an unclean person comes into contact with a clean person, that clean person then becomes unclean. Moral dirtiness is contagious.

Consider Jesus. In Levitical categories, he is the cleanest person to ever walk the face of the earth. He was the Clean One. Whatever horrors cause us to cringe—we who are naturally unclean and fallen—would cause Jesus to cringe all the more. We cannot fathom the sheer purity, holiness, cleanness, of his mind and heart. The simplicity, the innocence, the loveliness.

What did he do when he saw the unclean? He moved toward them. Pity flooded his heart, the longing of true compassion. He spent time with them. He touched them.

Jesus was reversing the Jewish system. When Jesus, the Clean One, touched an unclean sinner, Christ did not become unclean. The sinner became clean.

We tend to think of the miracles of the Gospels as interruptions in the natural order. Miracles are not an interruption of the natural order but the restoration of the natural order. We are so used to a fallen world that sickness, disease, pain, and death seem natural. In fact, they are the interruption.

When Jesus expels demons and heals the sick, he is driving out of creation the powers of destruction, and is healing and restoring created beings who are hurt and sick. The lordship of God to which the healings witness, restores creation to health. Jesus’ healings are not supernatural miracles in a natural world. They are the only truly “natural” thing in a world that is unnatural, demonized and wounded.1

Jürgen Moltmann

Jesus walked the earth rehumanizing the dehumanized and cleansing the unclean. Wherever he went, whenever he was confronted with pain and longing, he spread the good contagion of his cleansing mercy. Thomas Goodwin said, “Christ is love covered in flesh.”2 Pull back the flesh on Christ and you find love.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

The Jesus who reached out and cleansed messy sinners reaches into our souls and answers our half-hearted plea for mercy with the mighty invincible cleansing of one who cannot bear to do otherwise.

Christ’s heart is not far off despite his presence now in heaven, for he does all this by his own Spirit. Through the Spirit, Christ himself not only touches us but lives within us.

Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.

1 Corinthians 6:15-17

Jesus Christ is closer to you today than he was to the sinners and sufferers he spoke with and touched in his earthly ministry. Through his Spirit, Christ’s own heart envelops his people with an embrace nearer and tighter than any physical embrace could ever achieve. His actions on earth in a body reflected his heart; the same heart now acts in the same ways toward us, for we are now his body.


  1. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, trans. M. Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 98. Similarly Graeme Goldsworthy, The Son of God and the New Creation, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 43.
  2. Thomas Goodwin, The Heart of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 61.

Questions

  • What does the Greek word for “compassion” refer to? What does it reflect?
  • What is the difference between Christ’s love and Christ is love?
  • How do you maintain a healthy, balanced view of who Christ is?
  • Christians frequently divide the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. But how are they connected?
  • What does Christ’s compassion look like in your life?

This article is adapted from: Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund and Gentle and Lowly Study Guide by Robert Zink.

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