35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:35-37 ESV
Jesus was a man on a mission. He knew that His days on this earth were limited and that He had much to accomplish before He would be required to lay down His life on behalf of sinful mankind. And a big part of Jesus’ earthly ministry was to prepare His disciples for His eventual departure and their assumption of that ministry. As Matthew prepares to transition to Jesus’ sending out the 12 disciples, as recorded in chapter 10, he provides us with a glimpse into Jesus’ daily ministry agenda and the heart behind His ministry. He was a busy man and anything but lazy. But His activity was motivated by compassion and a desire to touch the lives of those with whom He came in contact and for whom He would be giving His life. Jesus traveled extensively and relentlessly, proclaiming the good news to any and all who would listen. He validated His claim to be the Son of God by continuing to perform miracles. When Matthew indicates that Jesus healed “every disease and every affliction,” he is not saying that Jesus healed each and every disease, but every kind of disease presented to Him. In other words, Jesus didn’t heal every single person who suffered from an afflication, but His power was manifested over every imaginable human condition or ailment. There was no disease too great or difficult for Him to handle. It is a statement regarding His power and authority.
But more telling than Matthew’s statement regarding Jesus’ power over disease is his description of Jesus’ heart for those who flocked to hear Him speak and to watch Him perform His miracles. There were so many hurting people, and they were marked by a sadness and helplessness. In fact, Matthew describes tham as “harassed and helpless.” The two Greek words Matthew used are eklyō and rhiptō, and they refer to weakness as the result of exhaustion and a lack of care. To better explain their dire condition, Matthew described the people as “sheep without a shepherd.” They were like defenseless sheep, who shepherd had abandoned them, leaving them to feed and fend for themselves.
In the agrarian culture in which the disciples lived, this comparison would have made all the sense in the world. Sheep were herd animals that were essentially defenseless. They required the care of a shepherd in order to stay alive. They had plenty of natural enemies and virtually no built-in self-defense mechanism. So, they were, in essence, helpless and hopeless without the care of a shepherd. And this is the way Jesus viewed the people to whom He ministered. His perspective was reflective of God’s view of Israel. In fact, even Moses had seen Israel in the same light, asking God to provide them with a new shepherd when he was gone.
16 “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 17 who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” – Numbers 27:16-17 ESV
And God had some very strong words for the those men to whom He had given the responsibility of caring for the His people. He indicted the shepherds of the flock of Israel for their lack of care for and protection of the sheep under their care. He describe the situation in not-so-flattering terms:
5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 ESV
But God also indicated that He would do what the shepherds had failed to do.
11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. – Ezekiel 34:11-12 ESV
And Jesus was simply doing the will of His Father, acting as His earthly representative and extending to the people of Israel the same compassion and care His Father had for those He called His own. But Jesus was not going to be a one-man show for long. His God-ordained destiny would require that He suffer and die on behalf of the sheep. As Jesus would later tell His disciples, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11 ESV). Jesus was aware that His calling by God included the sacrifice of His life. He would be required to die on behalf of sinful mankind.
With His eventual departure, He would pass on His earthly ministry to His disciples. So, He began to prepare them for the role they would play. And He did so by exposing them to the incredible opportunity facing them, but also the tremendous need.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few… – Matthew 9:37 ESV
There were more than enough helpless, hopeless sheep out there in need of shepherding, but there was a lack of qualified shepherds to care for them. And that is where they would come in. Jesus wanted the disciples to share His heart for the sheep. He was the Good Shepherd and would one day die for the sheep, and they were to emulate His example. They were not to treat their role as that of an employee, but as the owner of the sheep, with a investment in the well-being of their flock.
12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. – John 10:12-13 ESV
Jesus looked at the crowds and saw the tremendous hurt and heartache among the people. The sickness, disease and demonic possessions were simply the external symptoms of the much darker condition facing the people to whom Jesus spoke and among whom He ministered. They were living in darkness and wandering like lost sheep with no one to guide or protect them. Healing from disease was not going to solve their problem. Restored eyesight was not going to cure their spiritual blindness. Exorcism would not end their captivity to sin and death. And Jesus was beginning the slow, but steady process of preparing His disciples for the role they would play after His departure. And He told them, “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38 ESV).
It is not clear whether the disciples understood the import of Jesus’ words. They were probably left shaking their heads in confusion over what He had to say. And there is no indication they understood what Jesus had meant by the either the harvest or laborers. But in time, they would. The need was great, but so was the opportunity. There were more than enough lost sheep to find and care for, and that meant there was the tremendous need for more shepherds. So, they were to pray. They were to remember that the work to which Jesus was about to assign them was ultimately God’s work. These were His people, His sheep. He would need to raise up additional shepherds to care for those for whom His Son would die.
When the Good Shepherd eventually laid down His life for the sheep, He would need undershederds to gather in all those for whom He died. They would need to be gathered in to the fold. And that would be a role the disciples would eventually inherit from their Master.
14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. – John 10:14-16 ESV
And there are still lost sheep, wandering helplesslly and hopelessly, in need of a shepherd. Jesus laid down His life for them, but they need to be found and restored to the safety and security of the sheepfold. And like the 12 disciples, we have a responsibility to serve the Good Shepherd by acting as His faithful undershepherds. The words Jesus spoke to Peter apply to us.
“Do you love me? … Feed my sheep.” – John 21:17 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.