Take your copies of God’s Word and turn to Matthew chapter nine. We’ll be looking at verses 35 through 39. If you don’t have a Bible with you the passage is on the back of this evening’s prayer guide. Before we read God’s Word, let’s pray again.
Our heavenly Father, we asked that we would be gripped by the truth of this passage. We ask for your Spirit’s help understand, to believe and to obey your Word. We ask all this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Hear now the Word of God:
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.”
And Amen, and that ends this reading of God’s holy Word.
Compassion or Consternation?
Some of us, some of you in this room, I know for a fact, you come alive when there is a crowd like a packed wedding reception or a tailgate in the fall or it’s just people on top of each other piled in like sardines. That’s your personality. You love a crowd. And I know there’s others in this room that you have an absolute allergic reaction to a crowd. Two’s company, and three is overwhelming for some of us in this room. And there’s times even for the introvert and the extrovert where the crowd is just overwhelming and annoying.
See, one of the great things about living here in Jackson is that we don’t always get the privilege of spending an evening in gridlock traffic. But, occasionally, someone merges onto I-55. Maybe this has happened to you recently. And there is some minor breakdown that is slowing down traffic at the exact moment when the entire metropolitan area is heading home from work. And you sit there in a sea of tail lights and your heart shrivels up and your heart is hardened toward all humanity. Alright, there are times where crowds are bothersome. Maybe it’s the parking lot at the grocery store on Saturdays where you have to park in Alabama to get a spot. Maybe it is just the line at the DMV at lunch time. You only have 45 minutes and you try to run the errand. How many of you have that recurring nightmare—the line at the DMV? The crowd can be annoying. And what’s the most annoying thing about the crowd? It’s whenever you put a group of sinners together in the same area. You are just asking for trouble. Crowds can be messy. They are filled with awkward people, weird people, people that we are uncomfortable around. They are filled with needy people. They are filled with potential criminals. Crowds are messy.
In this passage, in Matthew 9, we see Jesus’ response to the crowds. Did you pick it up? He sees the crowds and he’s moved with compassion. That is Jesus’ response to the crowd of sinful humanity. He’s not repulsed. He responds with compassion. J.C. Ryle said this, “Man who does not feel for souls of all unconverted persons surely does not have the mind of Christ.” What is he saying? He’s saying that those who belong to Christ have the same reaction as Christ has to the crowd—one of compassion.
What I hope to do tonight is look at this passage and renew that spark, that flame, for the lost in your heart tonight if you’re a saint. Because for the believer looking a passage like this is a vivid reminder of Jesus’ compassion for the lost. It becomes infectious for us. And once we’re infected with that compassion, the great thing about this passage is that it instructs us where to channel it, what to do with it. So as our hearts are stirred with compassion, those that don’t know the Savior, Jesus instructs us on what to do here in this passage.
I. A Portrait of Jesus
What I want to begin with is the portrait of Jesus. Look at verses 35 and 36 again with me. It says “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and the villages, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” There’s the portrait of Jesus. At this point in his ministry, we are given a three-fold description of what he’s doing: he’s preaching in the synagogue and he’s proclaiming the gospel and he’s healing diseases. He’s going throughout all the region doing this.
Now, Matthew, as he wrote his gospel he structured it in a certain way. He structured it around five major sections of Jesus’ teaching. And so the first major section is beginning in chapter 5 with the Sermon on the Mount through chapter 7. And in between these sections of teaching, what does Matthew do? Well, he then fills it in with narrative. So it’s action, then discourse, then action, then discourse. Then it’s—or you could say—it’s action then instruction. And we’re about to come to another section of instruction. In Matthew chapter 10 through 13, Jesus is going to call the apostles and send them out. And those three chapters going into Matthew 13 that’s filled with parables about the kingdom is instructing them on how to be his representatives for the sake of the advance of the kingdom of God. And our passage tonight, Matthew chapter 9 verses 35 through 39 is at one of the transition points between the action and the teaching of Matthew’s gospel.
A God of Compassion
The action that has occurred before this there’s plenty of popular stories in Matthew 8 and 9. Let me remind you of some of those. Jesus cleanses the leper. He heals a centurion servant. He heals Peter’s mother in law of fever. He calms a storm. He delivers men from demonic possession. He heals a paralytic. He raises a girl from her deathbed. He heals two blind men and casts out a demon out of a man who was mute. And here Jesus is demonstrating that in his person the kingdom of God has arrived. It is on the scene. He is demonstrating that he is the Messiah. And right before he is going into the commissioning of his apostles, Matthew then lets us know, okay, what is the motives behind the man of action. What is driving Jesus? What is the motive behind his teaching and the miraculous? Well, the motive behind is that he has compassion. He’s a compassionate Savior. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact imprint of his nature. Meaning that when we see Jesus, we see a revelation of God, see a revelation of the Father, and our perfect, holy, eternal, righteous God. One of his attributes is compassion. Think about that. The perfect, holy, righteous God—one of his characteristics is that he is a God of compassion. In Jesus we see a compelling picture of the Father.
Now in the original, this word “compassion” in verse 36, it’s alluding to like a visceral response; it’s a strong inward, emotional response where Jesus sees the crowd and he has a gut response. His gut response is not annoyance with the crowd. He’s not bothered by the crowd. He doesn’t look down on the crowd. But, he has compassion for the crowd. That is what is stirred up in the son of God. Commenting on verse 35, J.C. Ryle says this, in reference to where it says that Jesus was healing every disease and every affliction says, listen, “The eyes of him who is the King of Kings used to look with pity on the disease.” The eyes of the King of Kings looks with pity on their afflictions in the crowd. The Lord of All is a Lord filled with compassion. Matthew is painting a picture of the Son of Man who is the Savior, who is separate from sin. The portrait we see is that he is not separate from suffering. And before we go any further in our passage tonight, I want to remind you of that. That the God of the universe took on flesh and walked among us. So Christian, your great High Priest was a man acquainted with sorrow, a man acquainted with grief. So whatever the burden is that you brought here tonight. You have a compassionate High Priest who says, “Give me your grief.” If you in mourning tonight, you have a compassionate Savior. If you are in trouble tonight, you have a compassionate Savior. Whatever your pain may be, whatever your affliction may be, you have a compassionate Savior. If you are worried tonight, whatever the anxiety, whatever your restless heart has brought here tonight, bring it to the Savior before we leave here tonight and lay it at his feet knowing that He is compassionate.
II. The Plight of the Lost
Jesus’ compassion is stirred up because he sees the crowds of lost people before him. And that brings me to the second thing, in verse 36, the second half. Is that, in this passage, we see a description of the lost. We see a portrait of the Savior but we also see the plight of the lost. When he sees the crowd, he sees neglected lost souls. He sees the crowd as—what does the passage say? Go look there again in verse 36: “When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” The late New Testament scholar R.T. France explains that while these two participles that are translated “harassed” and “helpless” imply that the people are oppressed, that the people are exhausted, implies that they have a lack of direction.
The real meaning of the plight of the lost, the description of mankind without Jesus, is that they are “sheep without a shepherd.” It’s in that metaphor that clearly brings into focus how and why, what was it that stirred Jesus’ compassion, was seeing them as sheep without a shepherd. Neil Morris points out that, “Sheep are defenseless animals. Without a shepherd they are vulnerable to any attack. Even without predators,” listen to this, “they’re in trouble if they have no shepherd for they are not good at finding food on their own. They need a shepherd to lead them in green pastures and beside still waters. Goats manage very well by themselves, but sheep do not. Sheep without a shepherd point to people who are in great danger without the resources to escape from it.” So when Jesus sees the crowd, he sees those who are in desperate need of salvation and do not have the resources within themselves to save themselves.
And, of course, if you were here this past Sunday night, as our Pastor was looking at Zechariah chapter 10, and we were looking at the passage there about the coming shepherd we were reminded that this image of a sheep and shepherd is prevalent in the Old Testament, all throughout. It’s a picture of what God’s relationship with his people is supposed to be like. But it wasn’t just a picture of that; it was also supposed to be a picture of what the leaders of the nation were supposed to lead and serve the people of God and serve Israel as shepherds with sheep. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet condemns the shepherds of Israel for not doing their job, for taking advantage of the sheep, not protecting the sheep, not serving the sheep. And in that passage the prophet tells us that God himself will intervene, that God himself will rescue the sheep, God himself will come to their aid. He will be their Shepherd. And there is the Great Shepherd standing before the crowd and his heart goes out to them. He is moved with compassion. The people have been neglected by the shepherds of Israel and Jesus is moved with compassion.
The True Shepherd and the True Need of Man
Now this metaphor for the lost is not just for the Jews of Jesus’ day; it’s for, it’s a description of lost people of all time and all ages. So it’s a description of the lost in our day: sheep without a shepherd, helpless to save themselves, vulnerable to attack, harassed by Satan. You see many offer solutions to the plight of man, the problems of man in a fallen world. Some say the solution to man’s problems is technology. Think about it: there’s nearly an app on your phone for anything. Recently, I heard that there is a device that mothers can get for their newborns. It’s a “Smart Sock” that they can slip on the baby’s foot and it like keeps up with the blood temperature, the heartbeat, and it sends updates to the mom’s phone. Some would believe that the solution to man’s problems is found in technology. It’s not found in technology. Technology cannot offer a solution to our sin problem.
Some would say it would progress in medicine. And we have seen great progress. Thank the Lord that we live in such a day and time that through common grace there’s much benefit from doctors. We’re very thankful and appreciative. But, the solution to our problems is not going to be found in medicine. It won’t be found in education. See those are, if you put your hope in them, that’s a false shepherd. There are false shepherds that are coming, saying, “This is the solution! This is the solution!” “Socialism is the solution.” “Capitalism is the solution.” But, all those, unless it’s the True Shepherd, it’s a false shepherd. And this is the plight. And at times we need to be reminded, we need corrective lenses to put into focus the situation, to put into focus what is man’s real plight, what is the problem really facing our society, facing the world, is that sinners are lost without Christ. Sheep without a shepherd.
So when you see the crowd, ask yourself, “Have I become callous when I come across lost sheep?” Lost sheep are needy. Lost sheep can be—I mean literal sheep, but—can be smelly. They can be problemsome. They can interfere with our agenda, our calendar. And we become indifferent to the plight of those around us without Christ. We become indifferent to the lost sheep across the street from you, in your neighborhood or one cubicle over. Think and meditate on this passage tonight and ask the Lord that you would be infected again with Jesus’ compassion for the lost. Let’s never forget what it was like when we didn’t know the true Shepherd. Let’s never forget when we were part of the crowd that was lost. We need corrective lenses to see the crowds around us as those who are apart from the true Shepherd and headed to eternal destruction; that is their destiny.
III. The Plan of the Savior: Beginning with Prayer
Well, we have the portrait of Jesus. We have the plight of man apart from the Good Shepherd. We see Jesus’ compassion, but he’s not just full of compassion. He has a plan. And, sometimes, in our fervor, we get revved up with a cause or a need and we need to be reminded of God’s plan. Without direction there’s a million good causes to pour our compassion into. But when we begin with where Jesus instructs us to begin and that’s the end of our passage here. Looking at verse 37 and 38: “So 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.’” The plan of the compassionate Savior begins with prayer. The plan is to pray first. See, the metaphor from lost sheep changes in verse 37. It goes to a flock in need of a shepherd to a harvest. It goes from a flock to a field. Jesus tells us that the lost are like a massive crop of ripe grain that is ready to be harvested. God is the Lord of the harvest but the laborers are few. The Lord of the harvest has plans to send out his disciples to gather and harvest the souls. That’s the plan: to send out the church. The word here translated “send out” could also be translated “thrust out.” Now, “thrust out” has a little bit of, maybe a violent connotation and we’re not to read that people are forced out. It’s kind of like there is a fire lit under them. There is a desire. They have met the compassionate Savior and their heart’s desire is to join in his mission, in his work, in his plan.
And, “the laborers are few.” That means that action is demanded. The disciples of Jesus must act. So the first urgent action we should take, Jesus instructs us to do when we are moved with compassion, is to pray. Before we go out into the field, it’s to pray. Notice that we’re not just praying for more workers, but we’re praying that God would send more workers. We’re praying for God-sent workers. The call to prayer reinforces that it is the Lord that is sovereign over the harvest. It is God who is the Lord of the harvest. And did you notice in that verse, it says that he’s sending laborers out into his harvest. One person put it like this: “The harvest is already his, but it must be gathered in.” And, here, we’re at another intersection of God’s divine sovereignty and human responsibility. The harvest will happen and God has ordained his church to gather in souls. And the first call to action is the call to pray for laborers. Prayer is the ordained means that God has chosen to fulfill his saving purposes. Once again, J.C. Ryle is helpful here in this part of the passage. And he says this, and I quote, “Personal working for souls is good. Giving money is good. But praying is best of all. By prayer we reach him without whom money and work are in vain. We obtain the aid of the Holy Ghost.” What is he saying? He’s saying we give. We give to send laborers. We train laborers. We are willing to go ourselves. But it begins with prayer. It begins with prayer.
A Call to Prayer
So tonight and this week as you’re going through your prayer list, as you pray for each other, would you add this to the list? That you would pray that God would send out members from this church as laborers for the harvest. Would you pray for your spouse as they’re at work? Would you pray that God would use them as a laborer for his harvest at their work place? Parents, would you pray for your children, that God would send them as laborers into the harvest? And, that can be a scary prayer. Because what if He calls them to go to Timbuktu? We would love to see all our friends and family stay close to home and work in the harvest together. But, we need to be reminded that the Lord is sovereign over the harvest. He may call them to go somewhere else. And we need to entrust them and pray. But, if we’re infected with gospel compassion, you know what, we’re willing to surrender our plans for our lives and the lives of our loved ones for the sake of the harvest. When we are gripped with compassion, we will be willing to leave our comfort zones. For some that will mean going next door. For others, that means going half way around the world. We may be called to labor in different parts of God’s field. But the big idea I want to leave with you tonight is that we are all called to pray. So the next time you find yourself in traffic or a long line at the bank or a packed doctor’s office waiting room, and you feel the tension rising and you feel the patience slipping and you’re becoming aggravated with the crowd, be reminded that maybe the person sitting next to you is a lost sheep. You don’t know the state of their soul. And would you pray for them? Pray that God would ordain that their path would intersect with the preaching the gospel. Pray that God would send a laborer and that they would meet the Good Shepherd. Let’s close in prayer.
O God, Lord of the harvest, Lord, help us to see the fields. Help us to see them ripe for harvest. Let us be reminded of the condition of our neighbor who does not know Christ. Let us be reminded of the destiny of all people apart from the gospel. Let us pray earnestly for laborers, all the while being willing to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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