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In New Testament culture, emotions were generally considered to arise not from the heart but from the gut. The words most commonly used to refer to compassion are built on the word splagchnon – ‘bowels’. Sometimes, older English versions use the words ‘pity’, ‘merciful’ or ‘tender-hearted’ rather than ‘compassion’ to translate this reference to deep-seated, over-whelming tender emotions.

Here in 1Peter 3:8, Peter tells us ‘be compassionate’. This translates eusplagchnos. The ‘eu’ at the front adds emphasis, as it, in itself, means ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’. So Peter is telling us to have this good, beautiful, tender, gut-wrenching feeling towards each other: compassion.

The Old Testament instructs us that God is a God of compassion. For example:

‘Yet he was merciful (compassionate);

he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them.

Time after time he restrained his anger

and did not stir up his full wrath’ – Psalm 78:38.

‘But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,

slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’-  Psalm 86:15 (read Exodus 34:6).

‘No one looked on you with pity or had compassion ... then I passed by ... and I said to you “Live!”’ – Ezekiel 16:5,6.

In the gospels, we see ‘compassion’ reported of Jesus himself, and in his parables. Jesus sets the bench mark for what compassion looks like.

He had compassion on the crowds, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd [Matthew 9:36].

He had compassion on those who were sick, and healed them [Matthew 14:14].

He told a parable explaining God’s compassion to us in cancelling our immense sin debt [Matthew 18:27; read 18:15-35].

He had compassion on two blind men, restoring their sight [Matthew 20:34].

Out of his deep compassion he both touched and healed a leper [Mark 1:41].

Out of his deep compassion he healed a heavily demon-possessed man [Mark 5:19; read 5:1-20].

Out of his deep compassion he restored a widow’s only son to life [Luke 7:13].

He told a parable about the compassion of a Samaritan [Luke 10:33-35] as an example of what real love looks like.

He told a story of a father’s compassion towards his wayward son [Luke 15:20], to illustrate our heavenly Father’s deep, persistent love.

This is the compassion of God towards us – both in our physical needs and our spiritual needs. And it is this compassion that God expects us to exercise towards each other.

‘Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ [Matthew 18:33]

‘Go and do likewise’ [Luke 9:37], a command to imitate the good Samaritan in his selfless compassion.

‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you’ [Ephesians 5:32].

‘If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? [1John 3:17].

This compassion, this tender-heartedness, this gut-wrenching love goes hand in hand with Peter’s ‘be sympathetic’. ‘Be sympathetic’ feels with others in their pain. ‘Be compassionate’ adds action: it moves to do something to remedy or relieve the spiritual or physical suffering of others.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2018