Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 15)

July 18, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Raising the Dead (Part 1)

Having looked at Jesus’ miracles of healing of various diseases as well as His power to cast out demons, our focus in this series will now turn to Jesus’ ability to raise the dead. The Gospels tell of three instances of Jesus restoring life to those who had died,1 all of which will be covered in this and upcoming articles. The first account, the raising of a widow’s son, is found only in the Gospel of Luke.

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.2

Nain is a small Galilean town located six miles (9.6 kilometers) southeast of Nazareth. Jesus arrived there with a number of people in tow, so there were numerous witnesses to this event. Upon arrival, He encountered a funeral procession. Funerals in Israel in New Testament times were a public display of grief and emotion. Crying, weeping, and beating of the breast were common expressions of grief. Family members tore their outer clothes; some threw earth over their heads, rolled in the dust, or sat dejectedly among ashes. The mourning period lasted seven days.3

Due to the warm climate in Palestine, funerals generally occurred shortly after death, usually in the afternoon, and often on the same day the person died. The eyes of the deceased were closed, the mouth bound up, and the corpse washed and anointed. The deceased were buried either in their own clothes or wrapped in cloth prepared for this purpose. The person was carried on a bier—a wooden frame on which the corpse was placed for all to see.4 Funeral processions would conclude at family cemeteries, which were located outside of the town.

Luke tells us two important facts which make this funeral particularly tragic. The woman was a widow, and she was burying her only son. Besides grieving for her son, this woman was now alone, with no male to protect her and provide for her. This would have rendered her very vulnerable, without means of support or social status within the village, as per the customs of the time.

When the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”5 

Here we are given insight into Jesus’ character. He was a man of compassion, empathy, kindheartedness, and concern. He knew the difficulty this widow would face without her son. Elsewhere in the Gospels, we also see how Jesus manifested compassion for people.6 Jesus approached the mother and told her not to weep. And then, to give her reason to cease weeping, He approached the bier on which her dead son was being carried.

Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.”7 

Touching the bier was not the act of healing, but rather was to stop the procession. In touching the bier, Jesus crossed the bounds of ritual purity,8 something He did frequently when healing the sick. When the procession came to a halt, Jesus spoke directly to the dead son. Using His personal authority, I say to you, He commanded the young man to arise. As we’ll see, this command is also used in the two other accounts of Jesus raising the dead.9

And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.10 

At Jesus’ command, the widow’s dead son came back to life. That the man spoke adds credence to his being raised from the dead. Jesus, moved with compassion for the grieving widow, without being asked, acted in love and kindness and revived her son. Imagine the joy she must have felt! Her son coming back to life completely changed her life and future.

This miracle reflects some similarities as well as contrasts with two Old Testament accounts of people being raised from the dead. We’re told that the prophet Elijah raised a widow’s son. During a time of famine, this widow had shared her last handful of food with Elijah, and because of this she, her son, and Elijah miraculously had food to eat throughout the famine.11

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child's life come into him again.” And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”12

The second raising from the dead involved the prophet Elisha, the protégé of Elijah. A childless couple had built a room for Elisha on their roof, so that whenever he passed their way, he had somewhere to stay. The wife was barren, but Elisha told her that within a year she would have a son. She did.13 Years later, when the boy had grown, he died in his mother’s arms. She laid him on Elisha’s bed and rode a donkey about eight miles (12 kilometers) south to Mount Carmel to find Elisha. Upon hearing of the son’s death, Elisha sent his servant ahead of him to lay Elisha’s rod on the boy. This didn’t heal him.

When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out.14 

In both of these Old Testament incidents, God’s prophet raised the dead. Both Elijah and Elisha prayed for God to do a miracle, they both lay on top of the dead person, more than once, whereupon both young men were brought back to life.

The widowed mother in Luke’s Gospel received the same wonderful gift, as Jesus gave her son back to her, but there were some differences in the miracle itself. When Jesus raised the son of the widow, He simply spoke to the young man, and the man sat up and spoke. Unlike the Old Testament prophets, Jesus didn’t take any physical action, neither did He pray for His Father to raise the boy. Rather, He commanded the boy to rise with the words “Young man, I say to you, arise.” This indicates that the power of God the Father was an integral part of God the Son. Jesus was different from the great prophets of old because He was not only an instrument of God but the Son of God.

At this point in His ministry, people didn’t yet realize the significance of Jesus’ role as Messiah and Savior. However, those who witnessed this compassionate miracle considered Jesus to be a great prophet, one who was empowered by God.

Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!”15 

Jesus’ actions brought fear and awe to the people as they acknowledged that what had happened was God’s doing. Recognizing that it was by God’s hand that the young man was brought back to life, they gave glory to God. They were excited that God was moving amongst them.

This report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country.16

The end result, as with other miracles Jesus performed, was that the news of Jesus was spread throughout the land. While people didn’t understand the full significance of who Jesus was, they nevertheless spread the news that “a great prophet has arisen among us!”

In the next two articles, the two other instances of Jesus raising the dead will be covered.

As a side note, the Gospel writers didn’t refer to the times Jesus raised the dead during His ministry as resurrections. Bringing a dead person back to life is resuscitation. Someone who has been resuscitated will eventually die. Resurrection refers to bringing a dead person back to life, and that the person will never die again.

(This topic will continue in “Raising the Dead, Part Two”)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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1 Jairus’s daughter (Matthew 9:18–26; Mark 5:21–43; Luke 8:40–56), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–15), and Lazarus (John 11:1–44).

2 Luke 7:11–12.

3 T. C. Butler, Luke, Vol. 3 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 114–115.

4 Green, The Gospel of Luke, 291.

5 Luke 7:13.

6 Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34, 8:2.

7 Luke 7:14.

8 Whoever touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days (Numbers 19:11). Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days (Numbers 19:16).

9 Luke 8:54, John 11:43.

10 Luke 7:15.

11 1 Kings 17:10–16.

12 1 Kings 17:17–24.

13 2 Kings 4:8–17.

14 2 Kings 4:32–37.

15 Luke 7:16.

16 Luke 7:17.