Shepherdless Sheep

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 9:35-38 ESV

Here, Matthew provides a summary statement that outlines the subsequent activities of Jesus. In essence, Jesus continued to what He had been doing, traveling from village to village, teaching just as He had on the hillside outside Capernaum. A central part of His message was the gospel or good news of the Kingdom’s arrival. Their long-awaited Messiah had come. A new day was dawning in Israel and it was accompanied by miraculous signs and wonders. Every time Jesus exercised His Spirit-enabled power to heal, it provided further proof of His status as God’s chosen one. He had the Spirit of God upon Him, the power of God flowing out of Him, and the will of God guiding and motivating Him.

Jesus was a man on a mission. He had a job to do and nothing was going to deter or distract Him from accomplishing what His Heavenly Father had sent Him to do. But Jesus was far from a heartless, robot-like tool in the hands of God. He was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity who had willingly chosen to take on human flesh and submit Himself to leaving His rightful place at His Father’s side and taking on the nature of a mere mortal – all so He could provide the only possible solution to man’s sin problem. The apostle Paul explains the full import of Jesus’ decision to endure the incarnation and, ultimately, the crucifixion.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

Jesus came to earth, not for His own benefit, but in order to provide the only means by which sinful mankind could find restoration to a right relationship with a holy God. The law, while holy, righteous, and good, had only revealed the extent of man’s sin. It could expose guilt, but it could not remove the cause of it. Sin’s could be forgiven through the sacrificial system, but the state of sinfulness remained. Neither the law nor the sacrificial system could remove man’s sinful state. The author of Hebrews explains the amazing gift Jesus provided by His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:3-4 NLT

But the gift Jesus came to offer had to be received. He would give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), but not everyone would accept His offer of salvation by faith alone in Him alone. The apostle John sadly states, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). Jesus was born a Jew, a descendant of King David, and a member of the tribe of Judah. His coming fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah. Yet, His own people refused to acknowledge and accept Him. And Matthew reveals the pain their stubborn refusal brought to the heart of the Savior. But His pain was not based on personal feelings of rejection. He was not expressing self-pity due to the refusal of the Jews to accept Him as their Messiah. His pain was based on their loss. He hurt for them.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:36 ESV

Jesus saw the people of Israel as sheep without a shepherd. This was a common metaphor in the Old Testament, used by God to describe the spiritual state of His people due to the failure of the prophets, priests, and kings to care for those placed under their care by God.

When Moses had been informed by God that he would not be leading the people of Israel into the land of promise, he asked God to appoint a new leader.

“Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 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

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet records the stinging indictment leveled by God against the leaders of Israel.

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 23:1 NLT

God cared greatly for His chosen ones, and He expected those He had appointed to care for them to do so faithfully. They were His undershepherds. They served on His behalf. But for generations, the political and religious leaders of Israel had failed to do their job. And now, as Jesus walked among the people of Israel, He found them to be in a state of abject spiritual hunger and malnutrition. They were helpless and hopeless. And Jesus had compassion on them.

Several years later, Jesus would stand outside the walls of Jerusalem and express His heart for His people, directing His words at the capital city of Israel: Jerusalem.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.” – Matthew 23:37-38 NLT

Jesus wanted His disciples to share His passion and compassion. Sadly, they were busy dreaming about the day when He would set up His kingdom on earth and they would rule and reign alongside Him. Yet Jesus was thinking about the restoration of lives, not the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. He had come to set sin-enslaved people free from the condemnation of death and eternal separation from God. He looked at Jerusalem and saw a city filled with people in need of a Savior. The disciples looked at Jerusalem and saw a city in need of a King. They desired victory over the Romans. But Jesus had come to bring victory over sin and death.

And He knew that the day was coming when He would be required to fulfill His mission by giving His life on the cross. He would give His life as a ransom for many. But unless there were those willing to tell the good news of salvation made possible by God’s grace alone, through faith in Christ alone, the people would remain in a state of despair and living under the looming threat of death, the God-ordained penalty for sin.

So, Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for the future. Once He was gone, they were going to have work to do. They would become His undershepherds, carrying on His mission and declaring the good news concerning His offer of salvation to Jerusalem and on to Judea, Samarian, and to the uttermost parts of the world (Acts 1:8). And as we’ll see in the very next chapter. Jesus was going to give the disciples a precursor of what was to come. He was going to send them out as shepherds to the sheep of Israel. They were going to get their first taste of what it would be like to minister on behalf of Jesus. But would they share His passion and compassion? Would they be motivated by care and concern for the spiritual state of the people, or would they be driven by power and prominence?

Jesus had His eyes set on a great harvest to be reaped. He was concerned about souls to be saved. And it would be some time before the disciples shared that concern and recognized the true nature of their calling as disciples.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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