What Was Jesus Thinking?: His visceral compassion

This piece is excerpted and adapted from Frank Stirk’s new book, What Was Jesus Thinking?: Insights from Archaeology, History, Geography and the Gospels (Wipf & Stock, June 2023). It is followed by (the very positive) Foreword, written by Darrell Johnson.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” – Mark 6:34

“Do you know where the word ‘compassion’ comes from?” asks Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest, professor and theologian.

 “It comes from the Latin com, which means ‘with,’ and passio, ‘to suffer.’ ‘To suffer with’ is compassion. Jesus manifests to us that God is a God who suffers with all of us. There is no human suffering in you or anyone else in the world that has not been suffered by God. Consolation begins with this knowing, God is suffering all human suffering. . . . He felt the agony of the people in his guts, in his viscera, in his interior organs.”

“Compassion,” Nouwen adds, “is such a deep, central and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. There all the divine tenderness and gentleness lies hidden. There, God is father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter. There, all feelings, emotions and passions are one in divine love.”

“[Jesus’s] compassion,” says Brennan Manning, a former Franciscan priest, “surges from the bowels of his being, revealing a depth that defies human understanding and operating on a level that escapes human imitation. The numerous physical healings performed by Jesus to alleviate human misery only hint at the anguish in the heart of God’s Son for suffering humanity.”

At the Wall in Jerusalem built by Herod the Great as part of his expanded Temple complex. It is the most sacred site in Judaism and is open 24 hours a day for prayer and Torah study.

Philologist and gospels translator Sarah Ruden sees the same deep emotion in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35). Jesus, she says, uses “a fairly rare verb [to describe] the Samaritan’s feelings when he sees the alien traveler lying naked, bruised and bleeding by the side of the road: pretty much literally ‘he felt it in his guts’ (Luke 10:33).

There is no reason for him to stop – on the contrary; he is nevertheless overcome by his sense of what it would be like to be that man. He experiences a raw physical sensation that he simply follows up on: in verse 34, he nurses the man and takes him to an inn.”

Perhaps the best illustration of Jesus’s heart of compassion was his intense reaction at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:33-38). Almost all the English translations of verses 35 and 38 say that Jesus was “deeply moved” by Mary’s weeping over the death of her brother.

Yet Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian, says this completely fails to convey the fierce intensity of Jesus’s emotions based on the Greek text: “Jesus is absolutely furious. He’s bellowing with rage – he is roaring. Who or what is he angry at? . . . Jesus is raging against death. . . . Jesus is looking squarely at our greatest nightmare – loss of life, the loss of loved ones and of love – and he’s incensed.”

Jesus’s visceral compassion drove him to grieve in a way that went infinitely deeper than anything we can even begin to grasp.

Frank R. Stirk, who lives in North Vancouver, is a retired journalist with close to 50 years’ experience in various Canadian and American media formats. He travelled to Israel twice as he prepared to write What Was Jesus Thinking? He is also the author of Streams in the Negev (2019) – go here and here for articles about that book on Church for Vancouver.


Darrell Johnson is very glad he agreed to read ‘What Was Jesus Thinking?’

Well known author, preacher and scholar Darrell Johnson wrote the Foreword to What Was Jesus Thinking?:

After preaching a sermon for one of the growing congregations in Metro Vancouver, while visiting with a handful of worshippers, I spotted a man who clearly wanted to have a more substantive conversation with me. I had seen him before at other occasions at which I had spoken, as he is one of the most trusted journalists in our part of the world.

He reintroduced himself to me. “Darrell, I am Frank Stirk. We have met a number of times over the past years.” “Yes, I remember. Good to see you again.” And then without any further small talk, he began to tell me of a book on had just finished writing, and wondered if I would be willing to read it and give him constructive feedback.

My first reaction was, internally, to find a kind way to say something like, “I would like to, but I am so tightly scheduled that I do not think I have time to do so.” But something in me nudged me to say, “Yes, I would love to read it. Tell me what it is about.”

“Jesus,” he said. How could I possibly turn down reading a manuscript of a new book on Jesus? Especially written by such a thoughtful, gentle, very bright journalist? “Well, yes, of course.” And I was eager to hear more.

Frank knew that I had recently led a study tour to the Holy Land for Regent College. He shared with me that he had taken a trip there a number of years ago, and was deeply moved, and had since been trying to pull his insights, impressions, discoveries together, both for himself and for others, mostly for those who have not had the privilege of making such a journey. I was eager to hear even more.

In that brief conversation, Frank mentioned the title: What Was Jesus Thinking? He mentioned that he was seeking to answer the question informed by geography, archaeology, history, sociology, politics, and, of course, the Four Gospels. I was hooked.

A day later, Frank sent me the manuscript. I opened the file, began to read, and could not stop reading! I would like to say, “I could not put the book down,” but at that time was working with the electronic version. In any case, I was now really hooked.

At the time of the completion of the book, Frank had served as a journalist for 46 years. And so, understandably, he decided to write on Jesus as a journalist would. Frank is a bit apologetic about this, but need not be. Not at all! It is because he writes as a journalist that the book is so immediately accessible and so freshly compelling.

As Frank will tell us in the book, a journalist is essentially a ‘storyteller.’ How appropriate that a storyteller should write about the greatest of all ‘storytellers.’ As he puts it in the Introduction, the journalist’s task is “gathering fragments of information and insight that together become a narrative that’s larger than the sum of its parts.”

The hull of a fishing boat from the time of Jesus found in the mud of the Sea of Galilee in 1986. It took scientists over a decade to salvage and preserve it.

So, as a journalist ‘storyteller,’ Frank is seeking to grasp the person of Jesus from what he had learned over the years before making two trips to the Holy Land, from what he learned during those trips, and from what he learned after those trips. He has learned a lot! And he has put it all together for us in this marvelous book.

“What was Jesus thinking?” When He said what He said and did what He did in all the various places He spoke and acted, what was He thinking?

Well, it was a function of the context. A function of the interplay of the needs of the people in those various places and the issues they were particularly raising. And a function of the facts of their geographical location. And a function of the archeology of their cities, and the history of their cities, the socio-political dynamics at work in their cities (and in the larger Roman Empire). And a function of the religious and philosophical dynamics at work where they lived and worked.

Once we know more about the specific context, we find ourselves, with Frank’s help, saying, “Of course! Now that makes sense.” And we want to keep reading.

A good journalist comes at his or her subject committed to a number of values. Find out all the facts, or, at least, as many as are possible to find. No ‘Fake News.’ Find out what others are thinking about the facts. Run down the possible explanations of the facts. Try to keep one’s own biases at bay, even being open to having one’s initial “insights” modified, even corrected. And then weaving it all together into a story that makes the facts come alive. In the case of the facts with which Frank is working, weaving it all together in a way that makes the historical Jesus come alive!

Towards the end of this book, Frank shares that he worked for a season as a radio news reporter. He learned “how to craft a story that lasted fifty seconds or less. That forced me to learn how to write conversationally, using as few words as possible without sacrificing content, and preferably in the active voice.” Frank learned well. Really well. And we who read what he has written benefit in ways that make us want to know his subject better.

What was Jesus thinking? Read on, and you will find yourself before a Jesus Who is at once earthy and irresistibly glorious.

Once I began to read, I could not stop. Neither will you.

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