How Jesus Dealt with Tragedy
Americans are reeling yet again following another senseless tragedy. As always, good-hearted people are responding with compassion, and in this benevolence many find strength and hope. Many others, though, are increasingly confused and bewildered by the endless stream of natural disasters and human violence that incessantly assault us. Instead of succumbing to fear and fatalism, these situations present us with an opportunity to gain perspective, find answers, and discover comfort in God’s word.
We will never comprehend these events unless we understand the bondage that this world and all of humanity came under due to original sin. Scripture is not mythology or a fairy tale. Paul writes, “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned” (Rom 5:12, NLT). God’s perfect creation was marred and corrupted by man’s rebellion. The perfect peace and life God intended was exchanged for fear, shame, guilt, condemnation, and death.
Hatred and violence soon emerged as Adam’s first-born son, Cain, killed his brother (Gen 4:8). Man’s nature had changed when his relationship with God was severed, and this sin nature continued to produce evil. Within several generations, we read, “The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the LORD was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart” (Gen 6:5-6, NLT).
It is not just humans who were affected by the fall; Paul writes of the bondage of creation itself, and how it travails even today under the weight of sin. He writes, “Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens. All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs” (Rom 8:20-22, MSG).
The message of the Bible is that God himself came into this world of suffering to show us his love and to redeem a sin-sick, fallen world. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was born into a world full of hatred and violence, and he was not unaffected by it. Hundreds of years before his birth, the prophet Isaiah spoke of Jesus, “He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care” (Isa 53:3, NLT). What kind of grief, and what kind of pain did Jesus know?
- Jesus grew up with the knowledge that King Herod had “sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under” (Matt 2:16, NLT).
- Under threat of death as a young child, Jesus lived in Egypt as a refugee with His family (Matt 2:13-21).
- Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist was viciously murdered by a corrupt king.
- Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35).
- Not only did Jesus face intense rejection throughout his ministry, he was often maligned (Matt 12:24, John 10:19-20, 31-33) and lived under the threat of death (John 5:16, 18; 7:1). Instead of pitying himself, he was moved with compassion even for those who rejected him. Luke 19:41 states, “Now as he drew near, he saw the city and wept over it.”
- Jesus was falsely charged and handed over to torture and crucifixion. He willingly accepted all of this so that he could die as our substitute, taking away our sin and securing forgiveness and eternal life for us. Even in his darkest hour, his thoughts and care were for others. Luke describes Jesus’ journey to Golgotha, the place of his crucifixion: “A large crowd trailed behind, including many grief-stricken women. But Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (Luke 23:27-28, NLT). As he hung upon the cross, he gave instructions to ensure that his mother was cared for (John 19:26-27).
All of this communicates and reinforces the fact that Jesus knew tragedy, heartache, and trauma, yet he overcame it all. He conquered sin and death, and he lives to offer help to us. Hebrews 4:15 (NLT) states, “This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin.” Jesus’ attitude toward confused, hurting, and grieving people is beautifully summed up in three very powerful passages.
Isaiah 61:3 (NKJV)
To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.”
Matthew 5:4 (NLT)
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Luke 4:18 (NKJV)
The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
The book of Revelation reveals the consummation of all things, and even though we live in a world filled with much heartache, believers find hope in the prospect of what is to come. John the Revelator writes:
Revelation 7:17 (NLT)
For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd. He will lead them to springs of life-giving water. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
Revelation 21:4 (NLT)
He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”
While these verses in the book of Revelation speak of a future hope, Jesus addressed some tragedies that happened in his own day. Much insight is available in his response.
Luke 13:1-5 (NLT)
About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. “Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?” Jesus asked. “Is that why they suffered? Not at all! And you will perish, too, unless you repent of your sins and turn to God. And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No, and I tell you again that unless you repent, you will perish, too.”
Jesus’ remarks might seem harsh to us upon an initial reading, but when we understand the eternal perspective he brought to the situation, we can greatly appreciate his words. Jesus made it clear that the victims of these tragedies had not necessarily died because of any specific sin in their life, and neither were they worse than other people. In addition, Jesus looks beyond the immediate tragedy and sees a bigger picture; he presents an eternal perspective. Jesus communicates here that every single person has sinned, and that in reality, all people are headed toward tragedy unless they repent. Of course, not everyone is going to die in a tragic manner, but it is indeed a tragedy when any person dies without repentance and faith—without coming to know God’s love.
I would never minimize the tragic loss of life in any shooting, bombing, hurricane, or flood. But every life is precious to God—those who die in situations that make headlines, AND those who pass into eternity quietly with no headlines or media attention. Every life matters to God, and while many of us wish that Jesus would just come back, take us to heaven, and wipe away all of our tears right now, we need to remember why the Lord has not yet returned. Peter sums it up simply: “The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Pet 3:9, NLT).
Nothing would please me more than to tell you the world is going to become a nicer, safer place. The truth is that problems will persist until Jesus returns. Paul warned Timothy that the last days would be dangerous times. He writes, “For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly (2 Tim 3:2-5, NLT). A few verses later, still speaking of the end times, Paul says, “evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived” (2 Tim 3:13, NLT).
In spite of these seemingly negative statements, it is important to remember that Jesus never taught his disciples to be intimidated or fearful. Instead, he encouraged them to be positive and bold. Consider this conversation Jesus had with the twelve:
Matthew 24:3-14 (NLT)
His disciples came to him privately and said, “Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?” Jesus told them, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come. “Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.
Certainly, our hearts always go out to people who are personally and deeply affected in the aftermath of a great tragedy. Paul admonishes that believers should “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15, NLT). But our ultimate and compelling purpose must be to preach the gospel. The world must hear that “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NLT).
When Jesus received news that John the Baptist (his own cousin) had been senselessly murdered by an evil king, he wanted to be alone. Scripture says, “As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone” (Matt 14:13). It is understandable that Jesus wanted to be alone. Many people desire solitude when they feel a deep sense of loss. Things took an interesting turn, though. Scripture continues, “But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns. Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matt 14:13-14). Not only did Jesus heal their sick but he also proceeded to feed a great multitude of people (Matt 14:15-21).
There is a great lesson here. Jesus was not exempt from disappointment and heartache, and yet he stayed on mission. It’s not wrong to take some time to grieve and receive solace from the Holy Spirit, but we must remember and fulfill our prime directive. We must never let darkness keep us from shining our light. Hate must never overcome love, and evil must never prevail over good. We may feel the pain of an earth filled with hatred and violence, and we may sense that we are on a planet that itself is reeling from the effects of sin, but let’s remember the admonition that came from Paul’s pen nearly 2,000 years ago: “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good” (Rom 12:21, NLT).