Christ’s ministry was a ministry of comfort, empowerment, liberation, and reconciliation.
Anna M. Galeniece
Christian compassion toward others should be built on a solid biblical-theological foundation if Christianity wants to witness about God and His character, which is repeatedly presented throughout the Scriptures and especially revealed in the God-person of Jesus Christ. The only way the world will ever experience this divine compassion and hear about the blessed hope in Jesus is when it practically sees and experiences the touch of the loving hearts of Christ’s followers.
True compassion, as a form of love, is an attitude of sincere care and genuine concern, which manifests itself when confronted with the suffering or vulnerable. To be compassionate means to have a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, as this quality allows one to enter sympathetically into another person’s world of sorrow and pain. Christlike compassion is ingrained in empathy, sympathy, and mercy toward others and is driven by a passionate desire to alleviate the afflictions of the sufferer. It may sound strange, but the English word passion is used as a translation for at least five different Hebrew words in the Hebrew Scriptures and eight Greek words in the New Testament.
The theological aspect of compassionate Christlike ministry and its practical application and implications are inseparable. The Scriptures speak not only about justice for others, in general, but also place special focus and emphasis on a godly attitude toward widows, orphans, and the poor. Even the eschatological holy city will be represented as a community of true justice and divine compassion. No wonder Christ’s ministry focused on comfort, empowerment, liberation, and reconciliation. Thus, Christians are called to function as healing agents and a stabilizing force in times of crisis and change. When all is tempestuous around them, Christians should provide assurance of hope that there is One who sits above the storms of this world, whose commitments are eternal, and who will ultimately prevail.
Christology and Compassion in the Hebrew Scriptures
The nature of Christology is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures, where Christ is prophesied as the coming Messiah, the Son of God. The first promise given to human beings in Genesis 3:15 discloses the compassionate nature of God, who could not remain passive or indifferent to the human dilemma. Even more, the “substitutionary mechanism of redemption”1 had been planned long before the creation of this world (Rev. 13:8). The Messiah would bruise the serpent’s head, as it is “implied in Psalm 110, which identifies the Lord Himself as the One who crushes the head in Genesis 3:15 (Ps 110:1).”2 A similar thought is repeated to David when God made a covenant with him (2 Sam. 7:11–13).
It should be noted that, in ancient times, a messianic figure could be understood as anyone who was anointed. In the Hebrew Scriptures, messianic figures were priests, kings, and prophets who were anointed for a special service to fellow human beings. Aaron was anointed to be a high priest to stand between God and the people (Lev. 8:6–12), and thus he became a type of Christ (Ex. 28:1; Hebrews 9). David was anointed to be a king (1 Sam. 16:13; 2 Sam. 2:4; 5:3) as a type of Christ, who is later described as King of kings (1 Tim. 6:15; Rev. 17:14; 19:16). Also, prophets experienced a similar anointing for special service, namely, to be God’s spokespersons (1 Kings 19:16). However, Christ was anointed for a specific function—that is, to reveal the Father’s inner being and His character (Luke 4:18). In addition to that, the Hebrew Scriptures prophetically speak of the coming of the Redeemer of Israel, who would be despised, rejected, and killed. This figure, who became known as the Messiah, is no other than God Himself (Isa. 7:14; 9:6, 7; 53).
It is obvious that human types of Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures were not fully able to mirror His character and the purpose of His coming, because of their sinful human nature (Rom. 3:23); only Christ—the true antitype—was fully able to reveal the Father and the beauty of His being. The biblically visible glimpses of God’s character disclose a number of His moral attributes—namely, His love, grace, forgiveness, patience, mercy, and compassion, among many others. These concepts intermingle and interact with one another, forming various verbal clusters, as can be seen from various contexts and instances. It is the Lord’s mercy and His compassion that compelled Him to enter into the covenant with Israel. The great declaration: “‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth’” (Ex. 34:6)3 echoes in a number of other scriptural passages (Deut. 4:31; 13:17; Hosea 2:19). His unchanging compassion, produced by His steadfast love, is manifested in action by which He sustains His covenant and repeatedly passes over the people’s sins (Deut. 13:17). When David cried for God’s mercy and pled with Him not to remember his sins (Ps. 25:6, 7), he knew God’s compassion would extend toward him in fatherly grace. The king’s hope for forgiveness relied on the “multitude of [God’s] tender mercies,” which he had experienced in the past (Ps. 51:1). The compassionate Lord forgave David his transgressions, and all those who pled with Him for mercy, because God loves to grant forgiveness. As Isaiah wrote: “‘I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins’” (43:25). Luke confirmed the same profound truth by saying that God “‘overlooked’” “these times of ignorance” (Acts 17:30; “God winked at,” KJV) for the purpose of human repentance and acceptance of His gift of life.
Jeremiah beautifully testified of this merciful and compassionate characteristic of God by stating, “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22, 23). No wonder Isaiah also joined Jeremiah by referring to the beauty of God’s character in his profound prophesy about Christ’s ministry. He presented a number of Christ’s various titles, among which there were two that contain specific nuances: “Wonderful, Counselor” (Isa. 9:6). The quality of being a wonderful counselor cannot be manifested without compassion and mercy that are based on love.
It is important to note that the one who experiences the Lord’s compassion is not worthy of it; it is given freely because it is a gift from a loving God. For example, the enslaved Israelites in Egypt received God’s mercy without any payment for it. He not only prophesied of their future freedom (Gen. 15:13, 14), but also graciously provided it, without their deserving it (Deut. 7:7, 8). Neither the people of Nineveh nor Jonah the prophet deserved life because of what they did or did not do, but God, in His mercy and compassion, extended it to them, and even to their animals (Jonah 4:2, 10, 11).
In the same way, God, being the Author and Source of true compassion, works through human instruments to extend His love and mercy to their fellow earthly dwellers. He chose the daughter of the pharaoh to rescue baby Moses, so that he would later become the deliverer of the Egyptian slaves (Ex. 2:6). Ellen G. White, describing the event, stated that, “angels directed Pharaoh’s daughter thither. Her curiosity was excited by the little basket, and as she looked upon the beautiful child within, she read the story at a glance. The tears of the babe awakened her compassion, and her sympathies went out to the unknown mother who had resorted to this means to preserve the life of her precious little one. She determined that he should be saved; she would adopt him as her own.”4
Similarly, in his defensive speech, Job told about his compassion toward other people before the multi-faceted tragedy struck him: “‘Have I not wept for him who was in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor?’” (Job 30:25). His life prior to this misery was known as “blameless and upright” (1:1). Even Job’s three friends are introduced in the Bible as the ones who “made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him” (2:11). They had a desire to commiserate with their friend in quietness; and if only they would have gone back to their own dwelling places right after their seven days of silent compassionate visit, they would never have been known in history as “‘miserable comforters’” (16:2).
Moreover, the psalmist reveals that it was the Lord who made captors have pity over the captives, as indicated in Psalm 106:46: “He also made them to be pitied by all those who carried them away captive.” This text connotes the idea that the Lord sometimes allows struggles and pain to overtake human beings, but, at the same time, His compassionate nature works on the hearts of the oppressors to have pity on the suffering ones and ease their struggles. In a similar way, in his response to the leaders of the people who were left behind after the Babylonian invasion, Jeremiah declared, “‘“Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. . . . I will show you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and cause you to return to your own land”’” (42:11, 12).
In summary, the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures clearly and repeatedly refer to the compassionate and merciful nature of the Lord, as it was revealed to Moses (Ex. 34:6, 7). The psalmist echoed the same note, exclaiming: “But You, O Lord, are a God full of compassion, and gracious, Longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth” (Ps. 86:15). The Hebrew Scriptures present God’s character by means of various exemplified types of Christ, and laid a strong Christological foundation for the future ministry of a compassionate Jesus in the New Testament era.
Immanuel: The Compassionate Christ
With the New Testament era, various types of the Hebrew Scriptures pointing to Christ’s nature and ministry became personalized in the person of Jesus, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The incarnated God (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14) personally demonstrated an unreserved compassion, mercy, and empathy, which means that He literally walked in the shoes of human beings during His entire earthly life. These were His eternal, fundamental, and distinctive qualities that He demonstrated by taking upon Himself human flesh. He fully identified Himself “with the needs and hurts of all people.”5 Moreover, He took the sins of this lost world upon Himself and died on the Cross (John 3:14–17; 1 Cor. 15:5; Gal. 1:4) to be resurrected and give hope to all who believe in Him (1 Cor. 15:20).
The authors of the New Testament spoke extensively about Christ’s compassionate ministry in the context of salvation. This theological truth with its practical application is especially highlighted in the Gospels. Salvation—by its nature, function, and purpose—is not only an eschatological doctrine that refers to the future eternal life in the kingdom of God, but it also incorporates the past and the present with all the blessings of salvation that include effective acts of compassion here and now. The three parables in Luke 15 “describe the present salvation”6 of the restoration of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In addition to His teachings, Jesus performed a number of healings with the goal of reaching human hearts. His earthly ministry was salvific by its nature in its purpose and function. As Rex Edwards notes, “Jesus did not perform a single punitive miracle, He performed only beneficial miracles.”7
The acts of Christ’s ministry of healing in a number of the New Testament texts are described with the Greek word sōzō (σῴζω). While the ultimate goal of the compassionate mission of the Messiah was to die for sinners and then fully eliminate sin with all its consequences on the eschatological judgment day, it also included the alleviation of at least some suffering in the present world. Thus, He healed a blind man (Luke 18:35–43) and a demon-possessed individual (Luke 8:26–39), restored a woman to health after 12 years of being afflicted by a hemorrhage condition (Mark 5:25–34), and even resurrected Jairus’ daughter in the same context of various healing miracles (vss. 22, 23, 35–43). These and other biblical accounts indicate that the meaning of this Greek word includes not only salvation, but also a broad restoration to a state of safety, deliverance, soundness, health, and well-being. These could not be accomplished without the compassion and love that radiated from Christ’s divine heart.
Moreover, the acts of Christ’s compassion and salvation were also extended for redemption to those who either did not fit in the Jewish framework or lived beyond their boundaries. While Jesus performed most of His works of healing among people of the Jewish nation, there were instances in which He broke down the barriers of prejudice and extended His mercy to the Gentiles. The Immanuel image of God touched the heart of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30; Matt. 15:21–28). Although Christ showed a seemingly harsh approach to and treatment of her at the beginning of their conversation, her faith “got rewarded in spite of her ethnicity.”8 His facial expressions and body language revealed His heart of love toward human beings. As Ellen G. White put it: “Beneath the apparent refusal of Jesus, she saw a compassion that He could not hide. . . . The woman departed, acknowledging her Saviour, and happy in the granting of her prayer”9 At that very moment of her faith expression, Jesus rewarded her hope and healed her daughter from demon possession (Matt. 15:28).
Thus, the incarnated God not only gave Himself for humanity in a soteriological sense (John 3:16), but also prepared the ground for the spreading of the word about His divine compassionate character among the nations. He taught His followers about true greatness and witnessed about the nature of His Father to the surrounding crowds by His example of self-sacrificial love (John 13:34, 35).
Christ’s Compassion: Eschatological Dimension
The purpose of the plan of redemption, laid before the foundation of the world, would not be completed if the compassion of the Lord would be extended only within the boundaries and realms of this world and during the lifespan of humanity. Even if all the human good and charitable deeds of mercy toward other people were done in love for Christ, the end result would still be death (Rom. 6:23). Something extraordinary had to take place from outside of this world, which the Scriptures describe as the second coming of Christ (Rev. 22:12). In other words, human “history moves relentlessly toward its rendezvous with destiny—meeting Christ rather than human improvement.”10 This is the biblical “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13); it is rooted in Christ’s soon return and His final judgment, which will be full of mercy and compassion. It is also the culmination of believers’ inward and outward preparation while living here and now.
Though various biblical texts refer to different aspects of the aecond coming of Christ—where waiting will culminate in life eternal—it should be noted that the concepts of mercy and love function as the key terms throughout various contextually apostolic salutations (1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; 2 John 3); in the motive for God’s saving actions (Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3); in the present assistance from God (Heb. 4:16); and in the context of the Day of Judgment (Matt. 5:7; 25; 2 Tim. 1:18). “Mercy is not something that we have already received, for the final judgment has not yet happened. But the image is that of coming before the Lord one has faithfully served, confident that one will receive the reward that he has promised.”11
Jeremiah points out that God does not deliberately afflict human beings (Lam. 3:31–39). When He executes His judgment on sinners, He does it in love and compassion. Judgment and compassion always go together hand in hand (Deut. 32:26; Ps. 78:38; 135:14). Divine eschatological judgment and compassion do not function as two contradictory terms mutually excluding each other. The fact is that in the final judgment, God will judge the ungodly and will prove before all the unfallen worlds that He is the God of love and compassion because the basic function and purpose of His grace is intended to save any truly repentant man or woman.
Thus, in the context of God’s compassion, the two dimensions resonate throughout the entire Scripture, fully encompassing protology and eschatology. On the one hand, God’s justice and mercy are revealed and confirmed in the context of His saving grace. He forgives and justifies a person by making him or her His child, and this is possible only because of Christ’s suffering and death, through which He took the sins of the world upon Himself (1 John 1:9; John 3:16). On the other hand, the one who rejects the invitation of the divine call to accept the gift of salvation through Christ, who ignores God’s saving grace revealed in His compassionate call to the fallen human race, and disregards His divine love manifested on Calvary, places himself or herself under the execution of the final eschatological judgment (John 3:18), which will be the final expression of God’s mercy and compassion.
Meanwhile, Christ-centered eschatology gives God’s people the courage to face the problems of agonizing grief, pain, misery, dying, and death because their “hope finds in Christ not only a consolation in suffering, but also the protest of the divine promise against suffering.”12 Eschatological theology proclaims that the future has already begun with the coming of the compassionate Messiah, and the kingdom of God has started here on earth, even though it will be fully revealed and realized only at the second coming of Christ. In spite of the fact that believers still die, they have complete assurance that they will one day live with Jesus forever (John 14:19). Biblical hope in Christ’s promises brings meaning and purpose to the suffering, persecuted, and dying, and to their family. Thus, the assurance “of both eternal life for the individual and the hope of a final consummation of the reign of God beyond earthly time and space”13 move Christians forward by faith.
Compassion Applied: Practical Reflections
While many things can be mentioned concerning various privileges of a Christian, which automatically involve certain responsibilities, one stands above all—love. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22), which reveals one of the most significant and all-encompassing attributes of God that He freely shares with humans. As William Barclay wrote, “The one thing which makes us like God is the love which never ceases to care for men, no matter what men do to it.”14 Ellen G. White wrote, “When His parting words are fulfilled, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 15:12); when we love the world as He has loved it, then for us His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven; for we have heaven in our hearts.”15 If the followers of Christ, who call themselves God’s chosen spiritual Israel, will not learn how to love not only one another, but even the world that is far and near around them, their philosophical theology is of no avail. God is free to choose other people or an instrument to fulfill His purpose, as was the case with ancient Israel.
While this sounds very harsh, it is important to remember that the more God revealed Himself to human beings, the greater was their responsibility and accountability to Him. The more elevated people’s privileges, the more solemn were their obligation and answerability. This is why Jesus told a number of parables in which responsibility and accountability go hand in hand and are the focal point. The God who knows everything “is not fooled by our pretense, by the ostentation of our worship.”16 God’s people can do many charitable things at home and throughout the world. Their good works of compassion and kindness can even be publicized on the front pages of church newsletters and secular magazines. However, all of their humanitarian endeavors, offerings, and sacrifices will mean nothing in the end unless there is an undivided heart-obedience to God and unreserved submission to His will, which are based on the principle of love on the vertical and horizontal levels.
In this connection, Jesus made a crystal-clear statement, “‘From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked’” (Luke 12:48, NIV). In the same vein, Peter also noted that judgment begins with the family of God (1 Peter 4:17). This truth had been established from the very beginning of creation, and it is re-emphasized throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The Lord revealed to the prophets Ezekiel and Amos His expectations of His people and the dangers of disobedience (Eze. 3:18, 20; 33:6, 8; Amos 3:2). Because God is not only sovereign, but also the Creator and Redeemer, all people are accountable to Him for everything they do, say, or think.
In this context, the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25–37) promotes the value of showing mercy and kindness toward others, not on an intellectual or philosophical level, but in a practical way. It “implies that it is an essential response of God’s people to his covenant.”17 Thus, mercy toward others is to be valued much more “than mere cultic acts”18 of contemporary Pharisees. After calling Matthew to follow Him and eating together with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus quoted the prophet Hosea: “‘“I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (Matt. 9:13).
Jesus’ antidote to Jewish self-righteous and self-confident behavior was the extension of mercy toward sinners; this mercy was built on the relationship between Him and His people. It is a mutually agreed-upon reinforcement on both levels, individual and collective, vertical and horizontal dimensions, because it is one of the basic responsibilities in the covenant context.
In order to reflect Jesus and be loyal to Him in everything, God’s church, first of all, must know Him in person and allow Him “to remove from her all things—secular as well as spiritual—and replace them with the Person of Christ.”19 In other words, whatever God’s people may represent or do, whether inside the church building or outside of it, the love and compassion of Jesus Christ are to be at the center. As Roy Gane indicates, “loyalty is a matter of relationship, not merely of performance.”20 The performance of good works that followers of Christ do to others, in fact, are done to Christ Himself, thus showing their attitudes and shaping the relationship with the recipients of their extended Christlikeness.
Consequently, because of the specific attributes of God’s nature, compassionate and merciful responses of Christ’s followers toward fellow human beings identify them as the ones who belong to God in the truest sense of the word, because they accept Him not only mentally, but also reflect Him by their daily lifestyle and actions. In other words, their theology and Christology are demonstrated by their application in practical life situations. Christ’s compassion sent Him among all kinds of people and all kinds of places to help the suffering (Mark 8:2, 3), and believers are privileged to respond in the same way because of the mercy shown to them.
While the purpose that drives Christians to extend Christ’s mercy and compassion toward others may still be just an outward show of charitable deeds and a challenge to other professed Christians, by itself it is the right direction to move forward because God’s covenant invites people to respond to His love and compassion. At the same time, a clear biblical statement says: “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). The words of Martin Luther King Jr. remind Christians of God’s still small voice of conscience that speaks within their heart: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”21 And it is the will of God to have deeply heartfelt compassion for others in spite of the circumstances, which sometimes may even become hostile.
The Scriptures reveal that God is “compassionate and gracious, . . . slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15, NIV), and that His compassion is infinite and eternal, because “his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam 3:22, 23, NIV). According to the New Testament, Immanuel, the reincarnated God, constantly demonstrated the essence of His Father’s godly compassion (Luke 4:18, 19).
At the same time, the Scriptures point out that compassion is not only an attribute of God, but it should also be manifested among His people. Compassion should be real, authentic, and practical. The Christological approach reveals a special kind of compassion that comes from the heart of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit. This type of compassion contains in itself much more than just to sympathize with the suffering, the poor, the lost, the hopeless, the helpless, the victims of injustice, the aliens, the sick, or the bound, as it is a primary identifier of who God is and what His character is like.
To those who are led by the Spirit of compassion, mercy, and love, who have continued the ministry of Christ in this world, the whole realm of biblical eschatological events means nothing less than the final and everlasting fulfillment of all the promises of the empathetic Christ in their life. And this future reality will become a tangible reality as soon as Christ finishes His compassionate High Priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary: “‘For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry’” (Hab. 2:3).
Anna M. Galeniece, DMin, is an Associate Professor of Chaplaincy and the Director of the Seminary Chaplaincy Study Center at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES