OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND:
The Old Testament background for the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son is miracles wrought by Elijah (1 Kings 17:10-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-37). Most Jews (and possibly Gentile Christians) of Jesus’ day would know the stories of Elijah and Elisha in detail and would quickly understand how they relate to the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son.
• Elijah invoked God’s help to restore life to the dead son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:10-24). The parallels between this story and the story of Jesus and the widow of Nain are striking. Both Elijah and Jesus come to a gate (1 Kings 17:10, 17; Luke 7:12). Both involve a widow whose only son has died (1 Kings 17:17-18; Luke 7:12). Elijah cries out to the Lord, and Jesus has compassion (1 Kings 17:20-21; Luke 7:13). Elijah stretches himself upon the child, and Jesus touches the bier (1 Kings 17:21; Luke 7:14). “The soul of the child came into him again” and “He who was dead sat up, and began to speak” (1 Kings 17:22; Luke 7:15). Both Elijah and Jesus “gave him to his mother”—the wording in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament is exactly the same (1 King 17:23; Luke 7:15). The mother said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth,” and the crowd said of Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen among us” (1 Kings 17:24 and Luke 7:16) (see Culpepper, 157).
A major difference between the two stories has to do with the comparative ease with which Jesus raises the man from the dead. While Elijah stretched himself out over the boy three times and prayed to God for the boy’s life (1 Kings 17:20-22), Jesus simply touches the bier and commands the young man to rise (Luke 7:14).
• Elisha raised the only son of a Shunammite woman from the dead (2 Kings 4:18-37). Shunem was located 7 miles (11 km) south of Nazareth, and Nain was located 5.5 miles (9 km) southeast of Nazareth—so the place where Jesus raises the widow’s son is geographically quite near the place where Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son (Myers, 747, 946; Gilmour, 132). There are few other parallels, however, between the Elisha story and the Jesus story.
Another difference between the Elijah-Elisha stories and the Jesus story is that both Elijah and Elisha had benefited from the hospitality of the respective mothers and were, in a sense, indebted—but there is no indication that Jesus ever saw the widow of Nain prior to this occasion where he raises her son from the dead.
These parallels between the Old Testament prophets and Jesus help the people to understand that Jesus is a prophet (v. 16).
LUKE 7:1-23. THE CONTEXT
The story of Jesus raising the widow’s son is related to the stories that immediately precede and follow it:
• It is a companion story to the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant (7:1-10). Luke often pairs a story of a man with a story of a woman, and that is the case here with the male centurion and the female widow. In both stories, Jesus’ word has great power—power to heal, even at a distance, and power to raise the dead.
• It anticipates Jesus’ response to messengers sent by John (7:18-23). First, Jesus raises the dead son of the widow, and then he says to the messengers from John, “Go and tell John the things which you have seen and heard: that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (7:22).
LUKE 7:11-12. HE WAS THE ONLY SON OF HIS MOTHER
11It happened soon afterwards, that he went to a city called Nain. Many of his disciples, along with a great multitude, went with him. 12Now when he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, one who was dead was carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. Many people of the city were with her.
“It happened soon afterwards, that he went to a city called Nain. Many of his disciples, along with a great multitude, went with him” (v. 11). As noted above, Nain is located 5.5 miles (9 km) southeast of Nazareth—near where Jesus was raised and not far from Capernaum, where he makes his home as an adult and where he said the word that healed the centurion’s servant.
“Now when he drew near to the gate of the city, behold, one who was dead was carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. Many people of the city were with her” (v. 12). Luke spells out the dire circumstances. The woman was already a widow, and now her only son has died. This would be terrible for any woman in any time and place, but doubly so for a woman living in a patriarchal society. Not only is this a personal tragedy, but it is also an economic catastrophe, leaving the woman with no means of support.
LUKE 7:13-15. THE LORD HAD COMPASSION FOR HER
13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said to her, “Don’t cry.” 14He came near and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I tell you, arise!” 15He who was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her” (v. 13a). Luke seldom speaks of Jesus’ emotions, but he speaks of Jesus’ compassion here. Jesus’ purpose is not to call attention to himself—although that is one of the practical effects of his actions—but to help a woman in need.
“Don’t cry” (v. 13b). Fitzmyer notes that a literal translation would be “Do not go on crying”(Fitzmyer, 659). These words imply that Jesus has some way to address the problem of her son’s death. He raises expectations that he must meet or he will only add to the burden of this woman’s grief.
“He came near and touched the coffin, and the bearers stood still” (v. 14). Touching the bier seems to be a signal to the bearers to stop, which they do. To touch a dead body makes a person ritually unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11, 16). Jesus apparently touches only the bier and not the body, but he showed disregard for a similar prohibition earlier when he touched a leper as part of the healing process (5:13). Touch is an important part of his ministry (8:44-46; 18:15; 22:51; 24:39).
“He said, ‘Young man, I tell you, arise!'” (v. 14). Jesus does not pray that God will restore life to the man, but instead speaks directly to the dead man. He engages in no histrionics. He simply issues a brief command. That is all that is required.
“He who was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he gave him to his mother” (v. 15). There has been no mention of faith. The mother has not asked Jesus for help—has not demonstrated faith in Jesus. The action here is solely at Jesus’ initiative, and depends solely on his power. When he speaks, things happen.
LUKE 7:16-17. A GREAT PROPHET HAS ARISEN AMONG US!
16Fear took hold of all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited his people (Greek: kai hoti episkepsato ho theos ton laon autou—literally “and visited God the people of him)!” 17This report went out concerning him in the whole of Judea, and in all the surrounding region.
“Fear took hold of all “ (v. 16). Fear is a natural response to the inbreaking of God’s power (1:12, 30, 50, 65; 2:9; 5:10, 26; 8:25, 35-37; 21:26).
“and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!'” (v. 16). Earlier, God promised Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command” (Deuteronomy 18:18)—a promise that pointed forward to the coming of the Christ (Acts 3:22-23; 7:35-37). The crowd (while probably not realizing the full significance of their words) proclaims that the promise has been fulfilled.
It troubles some scholars that the people did not go even further, because Jesus is more than a prophet—but it is early in Jesus ministry and he is not yet ready to fully reveal his identity.
“and ‘God has visited (Greek: episkepsato) his people!’ “ (v. 16). The verb episkepsato is related to skeptomai, which means to look. Episkepsato can mean to look with mercy or to look with judgment—or to visit (see Acts 7:23). In this case, it means that God has looked with mercy on God’s people.
“This report went out concerning him in the whole of Judea, and in all the surrounding region” (v. 17). It seems odd that Luke would mention Judea here, given that this miracle takes place in Galilee. It seems likely that he intends us to understand “Judea” to mean “the land of the Jewish people”—in which case “all the surrounding country” would refer to Gentile lands.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press,(1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Culpepper, R. Alan, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1995)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
Fitzmyer, Joseph A., S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke I-IX (New York: Doubleday, 1970)
Gilmour, S. MacLean & Knox, John, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8. (Nashville: Abingdon , 1952)
Green, Joel B., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Johnson, Luke Timothy, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Nolland, John, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1—9:20, Vol. 35A (Dallas: Word Books, 1989)
Stein, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Luke (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Tannehill, Robert C., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)
Copyright 2007, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan