Updated: Feb 24
Matthew 9:36 – 38
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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Before the apostles are commissioned by Christ, the disciples have witnessed firsthand the authority of Christ and His kingdom in action. They’ve witnessed the cleansing of lepers (8:1-2), the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8:14), the healing of the demon-possessed (Matt 8:15), and the restoration of a girl to life (Matt 8:18-26). In blazing technicolor, they’ve seen Jesus overrule a world taken captive by the tyranny of Satan and the effects of sin. Christ will soon authorize them to do the same (Matt 10:1).
Sandwiched between the miracles and authority of Jesus and the commission of the twelve apostles is a glimpse into the inner life of Jesus (v. 36). The Bible tells us that for the needy and the spiritually impoverished, Jesus had “compassion.” If I were to ask you for a one-word summary of the ministry of our Lord, what would come to mind? Perhaps power or authority since Christ holds authority over the demonic realm, over sickness and disease, which is true, of course.
May I suggest that the word that best encapsulates the ministry of Jesus is compassion? I am not alone in that suggestion but stand on the soldiers of Princeton Theologian B.B. Warfield who once wrote, “The emotion that we should naturally expect to find most frequently attributed to Jesus whose who life was a mission of mercy, and whose ministry was marked by deeds of beneficence that it was summed up in the memory of His follows as going through the land ‘doing good’ (Acts 10:38) is no doubt compassion.”
In our polarizing society, compassion is an often neglected and unbefitting attribute. Yet, in the ministry of Jesus, it is what characterizes His ministry and catalyzes Him toward action (cf. Matt 14:14, 15:32). In this passage, He is inwardly moved at the sight of those who are harassed and helpless. Compassion is not merely an emotion that lingers in the bosom of a man’s soul. It doesn’t merely say “You poor thing. I hope you get better.” Biblical compassion turns to action. This is our God! This is our Christ! He is the friend of sinners, whose compassionate words perfectly match His compassionate deeds. Friends, let us ask ourselves: does compassion mark our own ministry to those oppressed by the misery of this world? Do we reflect the ministry of our Lord?
As we move to verses 37-38, we see the great need before Jesus and His disciples. Knowing that the leaders of Israel have failed them, Jesus compares the crowds before Him to sheep without a shepherd. What likely lies behind the shepherd imagery here is Ezekiel 34:5, where the shepherds of Israel failed God’s covenant people. Many of us are familiar with the idea that the Old and New Testament likens God’s relationship to His people like that of a shepherd and sheep (Ps 23, Ezekiel 34, 1 King 22:17, 1 Peter 2:25). In this passage, however, it is the very absence of this relationship that motivates Jesus to tell His disciples to make the overwhelming needs of humanity a matter of spiritual priority. In a word, Jesus tells them to “pray for more laborers.” Prayer is an instrumental means through which God accomplishes His redemptive purposes in the world. So, we pray with earnestness, according to the command of Christ. We pray the Lord would give us laborers so that they can then be sent out into a lost and dying world!
Now, how does this relate to our everyday work? Consider momentarily that compassion and prayer are ordinary, though necessary, ingredients for effective ministry. It must undergird everything that we do because it was the basis for everything Christ accomplished. In and through the ordinary, Christ accomplishes much. It could have been the case Christ sent out his angelic messengers to accomplish His will. But He has appointed us—ordinary and imperfect people—with an overwhelming spiritual task! But the Church has been given these tools, so that the world may come to know Christ. Therefore, exercise the muscles of compassion—clothe the stranger, feed the poor, show exceptional kindness, speak the gospel of the Kingdom, and pray that many people would be sent to bless the world with faith in Christ. These are some of the wonderful marks of faithful ministry.
Lastly, as Christ gathers His sheep through our missional endeavors, let us never forget that the Chief Shepherd was, in the fullness of time, the lamb slain. His life was given, so that through the power of His sacrifice scoundrels would become sheep and rebels would become His precious lambs, including you and me. Now ascended to the place of honor and glory, Jesus our High Priest, prays for us earnestly, even as we labor for the harvest.
-David Fernandez, Community Outreach Manager
1 B.B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of our Lord, 33.
2 B.B. Warfield discusses the close relationship between love and compassion. On which see, B.B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of our Lord, 40-41. Biblical charity, as 1 John 3:18 reminds us, knows nothing about lip service. Biblical charity does something. It acts. It’s where your walk and your talk align.
3 G.K. Beale, Commentary on the NT Use of the Old, 35.
4 This insight is credited to O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Consummation, 111.