What does compassion mean in the Bible?

In Koine Greek, the word  σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomal) is translated as to have compassion or to pity. More literally, it means “to be moved to one’s bowels” (Strongs NT 4697). You know that knot you get in your stomach when emotions get high, well in Biblical times the bowels were thought to be the place of love and pity.

Over and over again, we see Jesus look into the crowds that follow Him, the ones that accepted His invitation to simply show up, and He is moved to compassion. He sees each one of them in their curiosity and pain. He identifies with their story, and He is moved in His inward parts. The knot in His stomach tightens, and He must act. 

Compassion in the Bible is about more than simply seeing a person in need and recognizing that need. That would be awareness. Compassion is the next step. 

Seeing a crowd, Jesus….

Jesus sees the crowds and yearns for more workers to meet their needs (Matthew 9:36-38). In the midst of His own grief following His cousin’s death, He understands the needs of the crowd that follows Him and offers both healing and food (Matthew 14:13-21). Again, He felt compassion and fed them (Matthew 18:27) and, again, moved by compassion, healed the blind (Matthew 20:34). 

The above examples are all from the book of Matthew, but the New Testament is full of examples of Jesus seeing those in need, being moved and then meeting that need. Most telling is that before any of these examples Jesus gives the Pharisees a task. 

See, Matthew was a tax collector. He wasn’t just any sinner; the sinners wouldn’t even let him in their category. Tax collectors had a classification all their own.  When Jesus called Matthew to follow Him, well some of the Pharisees’ feathers got ruffled. In fact, they were so disturbed they simply had to ask, “Why is this Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus response? It was simple. He charged the Pharisees to go and learn what the words found in Hosea 6:6, I desire compassion/mercy/lovingkindness, and not sacrifice, meant. Then Matthew spends the rest of his book laying it out for us, showing us how Jesus practiced compassion. 

The prodigal son and his father

When words and actions are not enough, Jesus has also left us with stories that illustrate the lessons He wanted so desperately for us to understand. 

In Luke 15, Jesus is telling a story to the sinners, tax collectors and Pharisees. He’s grabbed their attention and told them of a son who has basically shot his dad the middle finger, went to live life on his own terms, lost everything and then comes crawling back in desperation. Now those listening are leaning in, waiting to hear that moment when the father really gives it to the son. Imagine their surprise when Jesus flips the narrative. 

The dad sees his son far off and is filled with compassion. He sees his son coming home and runs to him. He doesn’t wait to find out if he has changed or repented, he merely sees his child and runs to him because once he was lost but now, now he is headed home. 

When the Bible speaks of compassion the burden is 100% on the giver. There are no requirements on the receiver. Through words, deeds and parables the Bible defines compassion as a gift. Jesus, and the father in Luke 15, simply see and then go towards the one who needs their love. You and I are called to do likewise.