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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 2

The raising of the widow’s son

| Martin Charlesworth
Luke 7:11-17

Jesus performs a resurrection miracle in Nain. This recalls the resurrections performed by Elijah and Elisha and with others, prefigures the resurrection of Jesus and the final resurrection of all people. Jesus shows compassion.

Jesus performs a resurrection miracle in Nain. This recalls the resurrections performed by Elijah and Elisha and with others, prefigures the resurrection of Jesus and the final resurrection of all people. Jesus shows compassion.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 2 which describes 'the healing of the widow's son'. This story is only told in Luke 7: 11 - 17, which is our text for this episode.

Introduction and Recap

We're now in a Series 5 and we've seen a lot of very significant things happen in Jesus' life already. Series 1 described his birth and his early years; Series 2, the beginning of his ministry in Galilee; Series 3, his first tour around the whole of the northern province of Galilee; Series 4 was devoted entirely to the Sermon on the Mount and we've just begun Series 5, which is Jesus' second tour around Galilee and he's taking his Apostles with him. Remember that, at the end of Series 3, just before the time of the Sermon on the Mount  he had appointed twelve men as his Apostles and representatives and eventually he's going to send them out in pairs, preaching the message of Jesus, of the Kingdom of God, without him being present. He's training them and they're experiencing many aspects of Jesus' power and authority, his attitudes to people, his message, and his communication. They're at his side, day by day, as he travels round on the second tour of Galilee.

Luke has taken up the story and in the first episode we saw the event of the healing of the centurion's servant in Capernaum. This is described in Luke 7: 1 - 10, which is the immediately preceding passage. That was an astonishing and wonderful miracle in its own right in which this Gentile soldier, working for King Herod Antipas (or King Herod the Tetrarch) the local ruler in Galilee, was drawn to Jesus, was willing to trust him and reach out to him at a time of great crisis when his much valued servant, was critically ill and undoubtedly about to die. He sent two delegations to Jesus and Jesus healed the servant, without even having to enter the house. That was a great event that has just taken place but, as I said a moment ago, this is a tour. Jesus is travelling around Galilee. It's the second tour of the Galilean area.


This episode, takes Jesus to the very southernmost part of Galilee, to a town called Nain. It was just on the border between Galilee and the next province, which was known as Samaria, populated largely by the Samaritan people who were related to the Jewish people but a distinct ethnic group - a lot of tension between them. In the north, we have Galilee then we have Samaria and to the south we have the heartland of the Jewish people - the main province of Judea - and in Judea we also have the capital city of Jerusalem. Jesus is now still in Galilee but he's going as far south as you can go while still remaining in the province, or district of Galilee. There are crowds around - this is almost always the case with Jesus. You'll probably remember there was a crowd with him when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount and probably some of those crowds went back to Capernaum with him where he healed the centurion's servant. Now, soon after that event, Jesus heads south, about 40 kilometres, to the town of Nain and something quite extraordinary happens. This is one of the most outstanding miracles recorded in the Gospels. It often gets very little attention but it is a truly wonderful story, as you'll see as we read it. Let's read Luke 7: 11 - 17:

11Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. 12As 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. 13When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don't cry.” 14Then 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!” 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” 17This news about Jesus spread throughout Judea and the surrounding country.’

Luke 7:11-17, NIV
The Funeral Procession

We have no record of Jesus going to Nain ever before. This might have been his first visit to this town, which is right on the edge of his sphere of operations in Galilee but it was a pretty sensational event! Notice that there are two crowds here - we have the crowd following Jesus and we have a crowd coming out of the town of Nain following the dead body and the bier and moving towards the burial. Lots of people and a very intense situation which suddenly comes to light for Jesus and his followers as he, literally, walks straight towards a funeral procession that is coming straight out of the town towards him. A very dramatic scene, as you can imagine as I'm expressing it and explaining it to you. What's Jesus going to do in this situation?

Before we get to that, we need to think about how the Jews handled death and bereavement. Coffins were generally open. The burial was a community event and it was customary for people in the village or community to all share in the grieving process and to turn up for burials. Burials took place out of town, generally, hence the procession coming out of the town in this case. They were solemn, emotional and, interestingly enough, touching the dead body was forbidden under the Law of Moses. That's an interesting point. There was a risk of uncleanness. In fact, we have in Numbers 19: 16, the following statement:

‘Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.’

Numbers 19:16, NIV

Jesus touched the bier and so he's identifying with this death and this suffering - even at the risk of being seen to be ritually unclean. A funeral is always a tragedy; it's always a very sad moment. I've been to many funerals, I've participated in many. I've led quite a few. I've experienced the funerals of many of the older members of my family. It's always a very moving moment; there're always deep emotions of loss that we feel. This particular funeral was extremely intense in respect of the loss and the tragedy because the woman in question is described, first of all, as a widow and, secondly, having only one son. These things are very significant in the ancient Jewish culture because it was men who had the responsibility to provide for their families and widows were in an economically vulnerable position unless other relatives took up their cause and helped them out - which wasn't guaranteed. A widow was economically vulnerable and potentially poor and so a widow would naturally look to her children, to her sons, as providers for her in her old age, having been bereaved and lost her husband, their father. As we see in the story, not only has she lost her husband but she's lost her son and not only has she lost her son, he's the only son. The two people who could provide for her have both died. Her son has died before her, which in itself is a tremendous tragedy, something terribly hard to bear for a parent is their child dying before them. She had to bear that but she also had to bear the extreme uncertainty of knowing what her life would be like and how she would be provided for and protected in a society in which that responsibility was, overwhelmingly, given to the male members of the family. How was she going to cope with the loss of her son?

Resurrection From the Dead

What actually happens in this story is a literal, physical resurrection. This is the first time such an event is described in Jesus' ministry. In fact, there are three such events which are described - this is the first one, the son of the Widow of Nain, who is raised up from the dead. The second one is - coming up shortly in Luke 8 - the healing and the resurrection and the raising up of Jairus' daughter, a young girl who died in the family home prematurely and Jesus came and raised her from the dead. The third one is Jesus' friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, who John describes in chapter 11 as being raised from the dead after he had been buried and was in his tomb and the stone was placed in front of the tomb outside the village where he lived, which was Bethany, near Jerusalem. That was a very dramatic miracle right at the end of Jesus' ministry.

However, an interesting point about all these miracles is they all take place concerning people who have died prematurely - they have died young. This boy is young, Jairus' daughter is still in the care of her parents, Lazarus appears to be a young man, certainly not an old man. These resurrections also need to be understood as temporary resurrections because these three people (the Widow of Nain's son, Jairus' daughter and Lazarus) all ultimately died a natural death many years later. This isn't quite the same as the resurrection of Jesus, which is a physical resurrection with a permanence about it. Jesus then took on the resurrection body which is no longer prone to corruption, decay, disease or death - that's a wonderful and greater miracle. These miracles prefigure that, they point towards that, but this person takes up their physical life as it was before - with all the strengths and weaknesses of that physical life related to the age of that person. Nevertheless, it's still an outstanding miracle and a sign of something incredibly great. The astonishment of the crowd is overwhelming. No one knew that Jesus was coming, presumably; he just appeared on the edge of the village. The crowd weren't thinking about Jesus; they weren't thinking about miracles; they weren't thinking about God doing anything to save this woman from possible poverty and to give her back her cherished son. No one imagined that at all. The crowd travelling with Jesus would be absolutely fascinated to know what Jesus would do. Would he just go along and join in the funeral procession and give his condolences to the woman and pray for her to be blessed? No, he did something far more radical than that. He interrupted the funeral procession; they never got to the grave. The grave was no doubt prepared and ready to receive the body in a few minutes' time but the body never got to the grave because resurrection took place when Jesus said to the man,

‘“Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.’

Luke 7:14-15, NIV
A Great Prophet

It's astonishing! It's as if Jesus took his hand after he sat up in the funeral bier and said, “Come on, Let's get off there. Here's your mother.” Life has been restored; what a wonderful miracle! The response of the people was overwhelmingly exciting and Luke only describes it very briefly but I think you can easily imagine what Luke is saying, ‘They were all filled with awe and praised God.’ Spontaneous rejoicing broke out amongst the crowd - the crowd from the town of Nain and the crowd that came with Jesus - they all spontaneously were overwhelmed with excitement to see what he had done. It's interesting to see what they said. Luke records this statement from the crowds:

‘“A great prophet has appeared among us ... God has come to help his people.”’

Luke 7:16, NIV

These are profound sentiments and I want to think about them for a moment. ‘“A great prophet has appeared among us.”’ To the Jew, when they think about a prophet, they think about the Old Testament and if you think about the Old Testament prophets, there are prophets who give remarkable predictions about the short, long-term and medium-term future (like Jeremiah and Isaiah) but there are other types of prophets too - prophets who do miraculous signs.

I want to pause on this expression and think about it. ‘“A great prophet has appeared among us,”’ and as I think about it, it occurs to me that if I was a Jew and if I was familiar with the Old Testament (which no doubt they were; they heard it read in the synagogue every Sabbath), I would think about two particular prophets in the history of Israel: Elijah and his associate and successor Elisha. They appear in the books of 1 Kings and 2 Kings. They were prophets who operated in the northern part of the country, very close to the area that we are talking about here, and both of them are recorded as having raised up, from the dead, the sons of women who called out to them for help when their sons had died prematurely - and this seems very interesting when we compare it with the event that has just been described. For example, Elijah was staying with a widow in a place called Zarephath and in 1 Kings 17: 19 - 23, we have part of the description of the raising of the dead of the son of this widow, who became very ill and suddenly died. Just listen to this as an account that the Jews would be very familiar with. 1 Kings 17: 19 - 23:

19“Give me your son,” Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room (of the house) where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” 21Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy's life return to him!” 22The Lord heard Elijah's cry, and the boy's life returned to him, and he lived. 23Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”

1 Kings 17:19-23, NIV

Such a miracle was very rare in ancient Israel but the prophets Elijah and Elisha were known, historically, for performing some very remarkable miracles and in 2 Kings 4, Elisha raises from the dead the son of a Shunammite woman. These were prophets who came to help Israel and the raising from the dead was accepted by the Jews as a remarkable miracle that could only be performed by a great prophet or possibly even only by the Messiah - the greatest prophet of all. They said, ‘“God has come to help his people.”’ A prophet like Elijah and Elisha but, as the Gospels reveal to us, even greater than them. What a wonderful story! What a moving, human story - the sort of thing it would be wonderful to see in a movie! Do you get the feeling of how extraordinary this intervention of Jesus was, how brave and courageous it was, how culturally challenging it was and how thrilling it was for people to see this young boy. They'd known him knocking around the town. No doubt, he grew up in the area and suddenly he'd gone and now he's back again and this village, or town, of Nain would never quite be the same again - they'd always remember the day that Jesus came to town.


I want to reflect on this remarkable story. The first thing to say is that this is an extraordinary act of compassion. One of the hallmarks of Jesus in the Gospels is his great identification with human suffering. That's one of the things we worship him for and thank him for. So often, when he sees suffering, he instinctively reaches out very quickly. He wants to engage with our suffering and to bring healing and miraculous intervention into the difficulties of life. Often he expresses this by reaching out his hand, as he does here when he touches the bier in which the body is laid. He reaches out his hand to the lepers; to the prostitutes who are despised; he reaches out his hand to the tax collectors who are ostracised because they're corrupt and wealthy; he reaches out his hand to the paralysed and to the sick and he provides incredible healing. Healing isn't just a magical power; it arises out of the work of the Holy Spirit within him but also it comes through his compassion - a direct identification with humanity. You and I always have a desire for God's compassion in our lives; we want him to understand the things that we go through, and Jesus' human ministry is a reassurance to us that God does actually understand. If you're facing some great suffering or difficulty as you are studying this, can I encourage you? God is compassionate; your heavenly Father is compassionate; Jesus Christ is compassionate and, as you cry out to him, he will intervene in your life and do some wonderful things. Jesus' compassion is the first thing that I want to draw out from this story.

The second thing is that there's something in the story that points to Jesus' true identity as the Son of God. Resurrections from the dead, as we've said already, were very rare in Jewish history and these resurrections point out the amazing authority of Jesus. Certainly, we can see from this event, that Jesus could be classified as a prophet of Israel but the Jews expected not just a prophet; they expected someone who Moses called, in Deuteronomy 18, ‘The Prophet,’ the ultimate prophet - who then is linked in Jewish history with the emerging figure of the Messiah. I think it's wonderful to think that, as Jesus raised people from the dead, it prefigures the fact that he's going to bring about an eternal resurrection.

I want to turn, as we conclude this episode, to an important passage in John 5: 25 - 30, which speaks about resurrection but points out that the ultimate resurrection is not something that might miraculously happen in this life (like happened to this boy in Nain) but the ultimate resurrection is what happens after our death and is associated with entry into eternal life. Let's read John 5: 25 - 30:

25“Very truly I tell you, 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. 26For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. 28“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. 30By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.”’

John 5:25-30, NIV

Here Jesus points out the fact that, ultimately, resurrection is a universal human experience that will happen on the Day of Judgement. Events like this prefigure something much greater. On the Day of Judgement, the day that Jesus comes again to this earth, there will be a physical resurrection of all people - some to eternal life and some to face the judgement of God and to face their condemnation. We who believe, we hope for an eternal resurrection. When we look at a story like this we see this prefigures something even greater that will happen, not just to a few people, but to all who are truly saved and that is an amazing hope too.

Thanks for joining us this episode and I look forward to you joining us as we continue in Series 5.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Jesus acts out of compassion and sees with human suffering. How does that affect your relationship with him?
  • Discipleship
    1. How can the compassion of Jesus affect your heart towards others?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Why did they say prophet, not Messiah?
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