The Only Son of His Mother
The next incident that Luke records is found in Luke 7:11-17.
11 And it came about soon afterwards, that He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large multitude.
The Shepherd Village of Nain
This city exists to this day under the name of Nein, but the original town farther up the hill is just a ruin. It is located southwest of the Sea of Galilee on the slope of Mount Moreh, which has been known as “Little Hermon” since the Middle Ages. Nain is a Hebrew name that means “pasture,” a place where the flocks can lie down. The root word is na’ah, “an abode, dwelling” (for shepherds and flocks).
Nain means “pleasant.” Gesenius Lexicon gives the meaning of Nain as “beauty.” Its name and location seems to indicate that this was an insignificant shepherd village, located on a beautiful hill.
Luke does not tell us why Jesus had decided to make this trip to Nain, or if indeed this was His original destination. We only know that He was led by the Spirit. The trip was about 25 miles, which was a good day’s journey. Luke says that Jesus went to Nain “soon afterwards.” Some translate it “the next day” (after healing the slave of the Roman centurion). The KJV says “the day after.” We only know that a large crowd followed Him from Capernaum and as they arrived late in the afternoon, they met another crowd at the gate of the town.
The Funeral Procession
Cemeteries were outside of town, and funerals often occurred late in the day. Luke 7:12 says,
12 Now as He approached the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her.
This widow had just one son, and so the occasion was particularly sad. No doubt she was the widow of a lowly shepherd. Since the death of her husband, she had been supported as best he could by her only son who was now dead as well.
The burial ground was about a ten-minute walk east of town, along the road to Capernaum, as Alfred Edersheim tells us (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Vol. 1, page 553). There is a more modern burial ground west of town as the road continued toward Nazareth, but Jesus was coming from Capernaum and had to pass through Endor, so it is far more likely that he met the funeral procession on the east side of town.
If the procession and funeral was according to custom in Galilee, an orator would have led the way, proclaiming the good deeds of the deceased. The bier (dargash) would have been carried by friends, all unshod, and the dead man’s mother would have preceded it, weeping for her son. Edersheim tells us (p. 555) of their custom:
“Immediately before the dead came the women, this being peculiar to Galilee, the Midrash giving this reason of it, that woman had introduced death into the world.”
Edersheim then captures the setting so eloquently on page 556, 557,
“Up from the city close by came this ‘great multitude’ that followed the dead, with lamentations… Along the road from Endor streamed the great multitude which followed the ‘Prince of Life.’ Here they met: Life and Death. The connecting link between them was the deep sorrow of the widowed mother.”
Luke 7:13-15 tells us what happened,
13 And when the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 And the dead man sat up, and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother.
This was more than just a miracle. It was a prophetic sign. Furthermore, it was directly linked to the event of the previous day, where Jesus had healed the centurion’s dying slave. In both cases Jesus showed no concern of defilement, for first He intended to enter the house of a Roman, and later He touched the bier. Of course, neither act would have actually defiled Him in the sight of God, for His very presence would have sanctified the Roman house and touching the dead brought life to him.
Secondly, in accordance with Luke’s underlying theme of repairing the breach, the first story repaired the breach between Jew and Roman, while the second repaired the breach between man and woman. Jesus “felt compassion for her,” whereas common custom (as Edersheim tells us) focused upon the idea “that woman had introduced death into the world.” For this reason, it is said that women in Galilee led the funeral processions. It was, in effect, an admission of guilt.
Such a view was cold compared with Jesus’ compassion. In healing the widow’s son out of compassion for her, Jesus elevated her to her rightful position as one who was worthy. Both the Roman centurion and the widow had been beaten down by the traditions of men, but were elevated as worthy recipients of the grace and compassion of Jesus, the Messiah.
As for the meaning of this story as a prophetic sign, it represents the two processions of earth history. The first procession of humanity is of death, led to the grave by the woman. The second procession which meets it, flowing in the opposite direction, is that of life, led by the Lord of Life. Where they meet, the power of life proves to be more powerful than the condition of death.
The Widow Represented Israel
On a secondary level, the widow is also prophetic of Israel, the “widow” in Isaiah 54:4, 5, which says,
4 Fear not, for you will not be put to shame; neither feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced; but you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. 5 For your husband is your Maker, whose name is Yahweh of Hosts; and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel; who is called the God of all the earth.
Here Israel was called a “widow” on account of the death of her Husband, who is identified as “Yahweh of Hosts” and “the God of all the earth.” This implies, of course, that the God of all the earth somehow had died. How so? This was the subject of the previous chapter, Isaiah 53, which speaks of the death of the Messiah. Though chapter 53 does not identify this Suffering Servant, He is clearly identified in the next chapter by name as “Yahweh of Hosts.”
In other words, Yahweh of Hosts became Yeshua, and when He died to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53, Israel became a widow. The widow of Nain, then, played the prophetic role of Israel, the widow described in Isaiah 54:4, 5. By extension, the widow’s son also represented Christ Himself, who was soon to be raised from the dead by the resurrection power of the Spirit of Life. Hence, by raising the widow’s son from the dead, Jesus prophesied of His own resurrection that was soon to come.
The Reaction of the People
Luke 7:16, 17 concludes the story with the people’s reaction,
16 And fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” 17 And this report concerning Him went out all over Judea, and in all the surrounding district.
The people were certainly familiar with the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, who had raised the dead in earlier times. This resurrection sign caused people to put Jesus on the level of those great prophets. The word for “visited” is from episkeptomai, which is the same word used earlier when Zacharias prophesied in Luke 1:68,
68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited [episkeptomai] us and accomplished redemption for His people, 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation [Yeshua means “salvation”] for us in the house of David His servant.
Although the people seemed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah from this miracle (as indeed they should have), it is not likely that they understood the prophetic significance of this miraculous sign. It is certain that they did not connect it with the previous miracle, whereby Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s slave.
Most of the people were blinded by hatred for the Romans and anyone that was not Jewish. It also appears that in their excitement they forgot that Jesus had touched the bier, which normally would have rendered Him unclean in their eyes. And finally, they could not possibly understand at that time how Jesus was prophesying of His own death as the Husband of Israel and as Yahweh of Hosts.
Such revelations would have to come later when they had time to contemplate these events with prayer and meditation.
Maternus in Church History
The name of the resurrected son is not given in Luke’s account, but it may well be that Luke had met him and had heard his story from his own mouth. There is no doubt that this young man and his mother became solid followers of Jesus from then on. His mother passes from historical records, but the early church remembered him by his Latin name Maternus (from the Latin word “maternal,” of his mother).
Maternus later became the assistant to Eucharius, whom Peter sent from Rome to preach the word beyond the Alps at Trier and from there to Cologne. J. W. Taylor’s book, The Coming of the Saints, page 61, says in a footnote:
“Three Saints—Eucharius, Valerius, and Maternus—all of whom had been pupils of St. Peter at Rome, were sent by him to Trier to preach the gospel of Christ. Eucharius was appointed as bishop, and Valerius and Maternus as his assistants. Maternus was of Hebrew birth, and came from the little town of Nain in Palestine, being ‘the only son of his mother,’ whom Christ had raised from the dead. But no special honour was at this time accorded him. He was the least of the three missionary disciples, one of the ‘personal witnesses’ who, as long as they lived, accompanied the other evangelists in most of their distant journeys.
“But though ready to take the lowest place among his Greek and Roman companions, Maternus appears to have been most active in his apostolic labours… Maternus alone is represented as pushing forward and reaching the farthest settlement of Tongres, where he is said to have built a little church which he dedicated to the Blessed Virgin—the first church beyond the Alps dedicated to her name and memory…
“Maternus is accordingly recognized as the first bishop of Tongres.”
Tongres was located far to the north in what is now northeast Belgium. So we see that Maternus’ resurrection brought the fruit of the gospel across the Alps into lands that had not heard the gospel of Christ. As such, he represented Jesus Christ Himself, whose death and resurrection brought victory over death and ensured the success of God’s New Covenant vow.