06 March, 2016

Matthew 9:36—Christ’s “Compassion on the Multitude”



But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd (Matt. 9:36 KJV).

 And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick (Matt. 14:14 KJV) 

Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way (Matt. 15:32). 

So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him (Matt. 20:34).


(I)

Prof. Herman Hanko

[Source: http://www.cprf.co.uk/crnews/crndecember2007.htm#compassion]

A reader writes, "In Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32 and elsewhere, we read that the Lord Jesus had ‘compassion on the multitude,’ even that He was ‘moved with compassion,’ suggesting deeply felt emotion. Quite often such passages are used to teach a general compassion and love in God for everyone without exception. One widely read periodical in evangelical circles in the UK tells us that the portrayal of Jesus in Matthew 9:35-36 ‘reveals something of the motivation that drove [Him] to teach, preach and heal in all the cities and villages of Galilee ... When He saw people weary and scattered like sheep without a shepherd—struggling with sin and the difficulties of life—His heart went out to them. He was touched with the feelings of their infirmities. He was concerned for their souls and it moved Him to act.’" The questioner makes some application: "This is a quality of Christ’s ministry that we should imitate but seldom do ... As followers of Christ, we ought to have a heartfelt desire to see men and women brought out of their spiritual darkness to a knowledge of Christ. We ought to be moved with compassion for others whatever their needs, but most of all for their eternal souls."

The reader brings sharply before us this question: Is Christ’s compassion (love, longsuffering, mercy, grace) for every man to whom the gospel comes? Is Christ’s compassion to be interpreted as if He desired to save all head for head? This is an important issue, because a general compassion or love of Christ for all men that expresses a desire to save everybody is the heresy of the well-meant gospel offer which constitutes the heart of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism and Amyraldianism which always plague the church. All these heresies are condemned by the creeds of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Standards.

First, I ought to state that the quotation from an evangelical periodical is correct: compassion is an emotion, and it is indeed a "deeply felt emotion." While we must be careful that we do not identify our emotions with God’s (or Christ’s) emotions, and while any reference to divine emotions (of which Scripture is full) is an anthropomorphism, Christ reflects divine and human emotions as the Mediator who united in Himself the divine and human natures. After all, Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, for He was grieved at the loss of a dear friend—and at the reality of death itself as the terrible consequence of sin. He grieved, even though He knew He would raise Lazarus from the dead. The death of a friend hurt Him.

Compassion is the "motivation that drove [Jesus] to teach, preach and heal." His heart went out to those who struggled with sin and the difficulties of life. He was touched with the feelings of their infirmities and concerned for their souls.

It is also true that "we ought to have a heartfelt desire to see men and women brought out of their spiritual darkness to a knowledge of Christ. We ought to be moved with compassion for others whatever their needs, but most of all for their eternal souls." Paul states this forcibly in Romans 9:1-5, and Moses expresses the same deeply felt emotion for Israel in Exodus 32:31-32.

Nevertheless, the questioner is also correct when he says, "Quite often passages such as these are used to teach a general compassion and love in God for everyone without exception"—and this is heresy and not an explanation of the text. Nor is the explanation difficult.

I know the word "organic" is frequently misunderstood, and I know that many people in the church today fail to understand the importance of the concept. But it is crucial to an understanding of the text, for it shows us how we are to understand and apply Jesus’ compassion correctly, in the light of particular grace, sovereign love (cf. Rom. 9:15) and the justice of God.

A farmer is very sad (and can have compassion) on his cornfield after a hailstorm has destroyed every plant in it—including the weeds. He has no compassion for the weeds, of course, but the field is one organism and its purpose is the growth of corn.

A man may have compassion on a Christian family in which the father is a drunkard who beats his wife and children mercilessly. Such a man does not have compassion on the drunk father, but on the family because of what they suffer, for God’s dear children are in that family. When the Netherlands, the land of my forebears, was overrun and cruelly ruled by Nazi Germany, I had compassion on the country—not on everyone head for head, surely not for those who betrayed their countrymen by collaborating with the enemy, but I knew God’s people were in that country and suffered cruelly. And I am but a man who does not know who are God’s people and who are not. I had compassion on the "organism" of the Netherlands because God’s people were in it. God had compassion on Israel, for the nation was God’s people; not head for head, but the elect were there and they suffered under wicked prophets, priests and kings. So Christ had compassion on the multitudes for there were many who were His suffering people whom He had come to save.

Calvin, in his commentary on Matthew 9:36, interprets the whole passage as referring to the elect: 

But we must listen to the voice of Christ, who declares that where there are no labourers there are no shepherds, and that those sheep [i.e., the elect] are wandering and scattered which are not collected into the fold of God by the doctrine of the gospel. His being moved with compassion proves him to be the faithful servant of the Father in promoting the salvation of his people, for whose sake he had clothed himself with our flesh. Now that he has been received into heaven, he does not retain the same feelings to which he chose to be liable in this mortal life: yet he has not left off the care of his church, but looks after his wandering sheep, or rather, he gathers his flock which had been cruelly chased and torn by the wolves. [emphasis mine].


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(II)

More to come! (DV)

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