About Jesus Christ: Chapter 5
TWO SONS BROUGHT BACK TO LIFE
On a number of occasions, the four gospels report that when Jesus did something miraculous, people would say, “No one can open a blind man’s eyes unless God were with him,” or words to that effect. There were other healings with differing comments as well. Along with these miracles, what Jesus subsequently said was considered to be words from God.
Two Old Testament prophets had similar experiences—a word from God was either preceded or followed by a miraculous event. Both Elijah and Elisha, who was Elijah’s “understudy,” were outspoken in what they said and what they did. Through the years, Israelites of all ages undoubtedly have been fascinated by the stories about these two prophets–stories they put to memory. Perhaps to them, it was a further sign that they were indeed God’s chosen people. Our first story, from the Old Testament, features Elisha.
This account is about a woman who had everything—she was wealthy, her husband had land and servants. She was respected in the community because when the great prophet Elisha came to their region, he stayed at her home. Yes, she had everything but did not have children, or at least a son. She and her husband added a small apartment to their home so that when Elisha came on his annual visits to that region, he would have a quiet, comfortable place to stay.
The Prophet Elisha was grateful for the kindness shown to him by this family (we are not given their names). So he sent his servant, Gehazi, to find out if there is anything he could do for the family. Gehazi reported back to Elisha that her only concern was that “she did not have a son and her husband was old.” The Prophet then assured her that when he returned the following year, she would be holding her son in her arms! Sure enough, she became pregnant and the following year, she gave birth to her son. Her life was now complete.
We’ll fast forward a number of years and pick up the story from II Kings 4:
18 The child grew, and one day during harvest time, he went out to his father who was with the reapers. 19 He said to his father, “My head! My head!” His father told a servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20 After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died. 21 She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, then shut the door and went out. 22 She called her husband and said, “Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.” 23 “Why go to him today?” he asked. “It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.” “That’s all right,” she said. 24 She saddled the donkey and said to her servant, “Lead on; don’t slow down for me unless I tell you.” 25 So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel.
Mt. Carmel, where Elisha had a home and where years earlier, Elijah had defeated the priests of Baal, was about 15 miles away from the town of Shunem. What we find in the text is that after she had laid her son on the bed in the prophet’s room and closed the door, she didn’t tell anyone that her son was dead. She wanted to deliver that news personally and directly to the Prophet Elisha, the one who had promised her the son. Thus, none of the household servants, her husband or Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, knew what had happened. She understood that any discussion about the wisdom of what she was doing would only delay her mission.
Elisha, like the father of the prodigal son who went home to plead for mercy, sees the Shunammite woman riding towards him in great haste. (If you can find a picture of Rembrandt’s painting, The Departure of the Shunammite, it may help visualize the scene.) She is on her way and she arrives to give Elisha the sad news and remind him of his promise to give her a son. We return to II Kings 4, to pick up her conversation with Elisha:
28 “Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?” 29 Elisha said to Gehazi, “Tuck your cloak into your belt, take my staff in your hand and run. Don’t greet anyone you meet, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff on the boy’s face.” 30 But the child’s mother said, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So he got up and followed her. 31 Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the boy’s face, but there was no sound or response. So Gehazi went back to meet Elisha and told him, “The boy has not awakened.”
The staff in Elisha’s hand, doing God’s bidding was a powerful tool. However, in the case of the dead child, Elisha’s role was to be personal and immediate. No intermediary method was going to work as we learn from the text:
32 When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. 33 He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the LORD. 34 Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. 35 Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. 36 Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” 37 She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.
Those recording this event did so without identifying the Shunammite’s family by name. It would appear they were memorializing Elisha’s ministry to Israel. There was a request from a distressed mother that reached the courts of heaven. God responded in this case through his prophet Elisha. It illustrated God’s power in behalf of those who love him. As we saw in an earlier chapter about Elisha, God’s mercy was extended to those who are not from his chosen people Israel.
Let’s now turn to Luke’s gospel in the New Testament to read about a similar event. While Elisha’s miracle work was done in the quiet of an upstairs apartment, we see Jesus being jostled around by two crowds. He had been in Capernaum, a town where he once lived, teaching and healing and was now headed to Nain. By coincidence, Nain is south of the ancient town of Shunem by less than ten miles, which would place it about 20 miles or so from Mt. Carmel.
So there was a large group of people surrounding Jesus and, as they were entering Nain, they ran into another crowd. Now, people are mingling between the two groups. In the middle of this confusion, Jesus, who learns that this was a large funeral procession, identified the center of the commotion–the coffin of the deceased and that person’s mother.
To pick up this story, we read from Luke chapter 7:
11 Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” 14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17 This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.
You will notice the remarkable similarities of the stories in both Testaments. Jesus responds to the appeal from the mother. No, there is no indication of conversation except Jesus’ comforting words to the mother, “Don’t cry.” He might have said, “In just a moment, everything will be alright!” We don’t know. But the words, “Don’t cry,” are often used when a parent is soothing the hurt of a child. Jesus’ hands touched the coffin; his words then brought the mother’s son back to life.
Imagine, if you will, the affect on the two groups of people who witnessed this miracle. For the sorrowing, the funeral was over! From that moment, there were no more tears—only gratitude and joy. For those accompanying Jesus, it was an affirmation that he was what he said he was. For all of us, we see God’s power to bring life out of death, peace out of chaos. It brings cohesion to God’s revelation of himself to humanity—he brings life where there is death and restoration where there is ruin.
What happened in Shunem and just outside Nain is a sample of what Jesus said will happen again in the future. To a different crowd on another day he said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” (John 5:24, 25).
Yes, the deceased son of the sorrowing widow heard Jesus’ voice and he was restored to his family and his friends. It is a mirror image of Elisha’s activities in Nain.
- What connection do you see in the location, events, or features of these two stories?
- What similarities do you find in the two events? What differences?
- With the first century Israelite’s knowledge of Old Testament history and heroes, what might they have recognized in Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son?
- What differing opinions might you see in the two different crowds—those traveling with Jesus and those going to the funeral?
- What kind of responses can you imagine coming from each mother?
- For additional discussion, see Mark 5:21-24, 35-43.