The Church is to Revitalize, Not Overburden

What do you think it means for people to be like sheep without a shepherd? Do you think people today are like sheep without a shepherd? Is our response condescension of or compassion toward people?

Matthew 9:35-38

Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Jesus’s ministry as a shepherd (v. 35)

Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

As we have already seen in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s ministry is defined primarily by teaching. The content of His teaching is the explicit Old Testament text (5:17-20). Notice, here, that Jesus is teaching in “their” (those belonging to the cities and villages) synagogues. This means that He is teaching the content that is taught in their synagogues, the Old Testament text. Matthew clarifies, here, that Jesus is proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom as He teaches (cf. 4:17), correctly explaining and rightly applying the Old Testament text.

Secondarily, Jesus is healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. We saw that these signs are a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4. Matthew records these signs as evidence that Jesus is really the Messiah and the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecy. We must remember that Matthew’s Gospel is an apologetic work, not chronological and not merely his own testimony concerning Christ.

Sheep without a shepherd (v. 36)

Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus sees the people He is ministering to, primarily by the expository teaching of the Old Testament text and secondarily by healing, and He has compassion, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. What might it mean that the people are like sheep without a shepherd?

Matthew uses two descriptors, which he illustrates using the image of sheep without a shepherd. He states that the people were distressed and dispirited. What do you think Matthew is getting at when he describes the people in this way?

Distressed

The Greek word “σκυλλω” is a passive verb that means to “be tired out by hunting,” “be distressed,” “be worried,” or “be troubled.” This term refers to a weariness of living caused by life’s circumstances or necessary activities. Since this verb is passive, not active, it is not used to refer to anyone’s willful worrying about something or choosing to be overburdened by life’s circumstances or the necessities of living. There was something about the requirements placed on people by society, by religion, and by the basic need to survive that forced people to be wearied by the necessary busyness and “have-to’s” of life.

Things have not changed. We live in a world which we must work to provide for ourselves and for our families, make sure we and our children do well in school, take care of our homes and properties, teach our children and grandchildren how to be adults, keep up with local and national and world events, make it to church, keep up with popular culture, make sure we give sufficient time to each of the people in our lives, make sure we tithe, make sure we practice good religion, and make sure we are doing something productive. Weariness is compounded by the expectations of others, illness, injury, unexpected problems, and so on. 

There are all of these things and expectations we feel are necessary to do and meet that pull us in so many directions at once when we can only physically and logically walk in a single direction at one time. Like the Pharisees and scribes, many teachers in our day are still trying to teach people how to get better at doing all this stuff. Jesus taught something different (cf. 6:25-34). In chapter 11, verse 28, Jesus will even say, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” The way of Christ is different from the way of the world. It is not wearisome, but revitalizing. Sadly, there are many people who claim to be pastors who are not shepherding God’s people by directing them in a way that is revitalizing for their lives. Instead, they perpetuate the unreasonable burdens and expectations of the world. The people in many places and churches, even though they have those who claim to be pastors, are like sheep without a shepherd.

Dispirited

This verb, “ριπτω,” is also passive and indicates that one has been thrown down, degraded, dehumanized, sunken, or made powerless. We also live in a society which this is normative. Worldly politics, religion, academics, workplaces, and relationships all work at making some or many people out to be and feel inferior. This happens on both conservative and liberal sides. The way of Christ is different. It offers life, vitality, and worth to those who are seen as worthless. Not only do we resolve to guide people in the way that is revitalizing but also guard people from being devalued no matter their outlooks on life, beliefs about the Bible, or anything else. All human life is sacred and meaningful.

It profits us not to demean anyone or force dependence, so encouraging some inferiority complex. Yet, as with the Pharisees and scribes, there are many “pastors” and teachers of our day are demeaning and devaluing others instead of shepherding them. Here are some ways they are doing this, and we need to be aware because it is common.

  1. False pastors will force dependance on them by doing everything and neglecting to train the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).
  2. False pastors will provide someone’s needs and make that person feel obligated to sit under their teaching instead of humbling themselves and serving unconditionally.
  3. False pastors will make people feel obligated to them by visiting or calling them often. It is not the visiting or calling that is wrong, here, but the motivation and the tendency many have to replace the ministry of the word and prayer with something they refer to as ‘pastoral care,’ which is a misnomer.

This is precisely the method used by cults to draw in a following, and much human religion, even groups that refer to themselves as Christian, operate in this way. The true shepherd’s goal as a follower of Christ is to guide and guard people by sincerely teaching the word of God and serving people’s good as Jesus exemplifies in this passage, not to weary or demean people in any way. Matthew alludes to several verses in the Old Testament as he mentions sheep without a shepherd and what we see above is what the Scriptures get at in these allusions. These verses include 1 Kings 22:17, Zechariah 10:2, Ezekiel 34:5, Isaiah 53:6, and 2 Chronicles 18:16.

There was no one guiding or guarding the people, teaching God’s explicit word and serving the people for their good as Christ exemplifies in His own ministry. This declaration in Matthew’s Gospel affirms that the reason Jesus’s teaching had authority is because He was teaching the explicit word of God and the reason the teaching of the scribes did not have authority is because they were tainting and hiding God’s word (cf. 5:17-20, 7:29). The people were like sheep without a shepherd because no one was really teaching like Christ is teaching in this passage or was teaching in His Sermon on the Mount.

When there are no true shepherds, sheep are scattered, each going his or her own direction according to his or her own will. The sheep are drawn to every distraction and dangerous cliff. Without a shepherd, sheep have no clear direction and no real protection or rest. They are focused on the next blade of grass, only doing and busying themselves with what they think is necessary for life. Shepherds work for the good of the sheep, directing them and guarding them according to God’s explicit word and giving them rest for their souls in Christ alone.

What people were to be shepherding the people of God and why weren’t they succeeding?

According to the Law, it was the positional priest who gave the offerings on behalf of the people. It was the positional priest who represented God’s redemptive work to the kingdom of priests. This was done through the giving of offerings, through the judging of the people (Deuteronomy 17:8-13), and through the teaching of the whole Law (Deuteronomy 33:10). The single and simple role of the positional priest was that he represented God’s redemptive work to the people. The Levites were to be the shepherds. This role carries over to the elders (bishops, overseers, pastors) of the New Testament church. 

Why weren’t the Levites, or any other group, succeeding? Why were the people like sheep without shepherds? Like today, those who held the office or the high positions were not teaching the whole counsel of Scripture correctly or applying it rightly (cf. 7:29).

Workers in God’s harvest (v. 37-38)

Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Jesus describes what He sees, sheep without a shepherd, as a plentiful harvest with few workers, or shepherds in the context of v. 36. For this reason, indicated by the word, “Therefore,” Jesus instructs His disciples to beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers, or shepherds, into His harvest.

Who is it that sends shepherds into God’s harvest? Not everyone who refers to himself (or herself) as a pastor is actually a shepherd. A shepherd is not explicitly one who is called by a church or who plants a church or who inherits his role to preach from someone who came before him. This text isn’t an explicit call for people to step up and be shepherds. This role is not for every Christian or even every person who aspires to preach or pastor or who has gone to seminary or who has a doctorate. It is an honorable calling, but impossible for those who are not explicitly sent by God. This is why Christ instructs His disciples to beseech God to send workers into God’s harvest. While this text can be applied to evangelism when quoted alongside the Great Commission, it is a text specifically concerning those who would work in God’s harvest as shepherds. God must be the one sending His own shepherds out. This calling is according to God’s will, not ours. This means much regarding the way in which local churches seek pastors or promote elders. In Acts 20:28, it is clarified that the Holy Spirit makes the elders (pastors) of the church overseers, not people and not institutions. So, we seek to be shepherded by those who are called and qualified by the Holy Spirit and who work hard at preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God. I think, in many ways, the modern church has lost sight of, or never had sight of, the calling of the shepherd as an unconditional guide and guard of people. 

As we look out, we notice the same thing that Jesus does, here. People, even those in most local churches, are like sheep without a shepherd. Those who claim to be shepherds are not shepherding people. In our midst, people should primarily receive the explicit teaching of God’s Bible and, secondarily find rest- not be distressed or dispirited. Let us, like Jesus, respond with compassion toward, not condescension of. Let us beseech the Lord of the harvest to send workers into His harvest.

Questions:

  1. What does it mean that people are like sheep without a shepherd?
  2. Why are shepherds necessary not only for the local church but for all people?
  3. Who is it that sends shepherds?
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