Jesus’ ministry was expansive and comprehensive. Men and women turned to Him in faith, and their lives were dramatically changed. Matthew 9:35 tells us He “went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” By His works and the power of His words, He brought the kingdom of God to the people of Israel.
But as we learn in the following verses, this was not a task for Him alone. Before He ascended to right hand of the Father, Jesus commissioned His disciples to continue the work that He had begun (Matt. 28:19–20) with the same heart that He had brought to the task.
In Matthew 9:36–38, we find that there are four dimensions involved in imitating Jesus’ ministry of Gospel declaration. As Jesus spoke directly to His disciples about the waiting crowds, He told all of us what ought to be part and parcel of our lives as we seek to take seriously the privileges and responsibilities of making the good news of Jesus known. If we would proclaim the Gospel as He did, we must see clearly, care deeply, think properly, and pray earnestly.
When he saw the crowds… (Matt. 9:36)
Jesus saw the crowds because He was looking. To see, we have to look. But it is possible to live our lives without looking. We walk with our heads down to the ground, we fix our eyes on our phone screens, and we gaze past people to avoid their eyes and so avoid seeing them.
Yet it may happen sometimes that as we’re driving in the car, walking down the street, or waiting in the grocery line that we suddenly have this amazing sense of asking, “Who are all these people here? What are they doing? Where are they going in their lives?” We can be so immunized to any concern for others that when we do notice them, it’s almost shocking to realize there are all these people in the world with all their countless concerns.
The reality is that for each person we meet, there is a broad road that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life. Many are on the broad road that leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13). That’s where we begin by nature. Yet God wants people on the narrow road that leads to life. And God’s plan for moving people from the broad road to the narrow road involves His people who are already on that path.
To play such a role in God’s plan, we need our vision to be transformed so that we no longer see the lost as we once did. “From now on,” Paul writes, “we regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16)—that is, in terms of their social status, their business acumen, their appearance, or whatever else. Instead, as Christ has changed us, we begin to see people as either sheep under the care of the Good Shepherd or sheep still in need of Him.
For each person we meet, there is a broad road that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life.
We ought not to be like the crowd with blind Bartimaeus. As he cried out for the Lord’s mercy, they “rebuked him, telling him to be silent” (Mark 10:48). In other words, they say, “We don’t want to be bothered with you. Jesus has more important concerns.” But they were ashamed to hear Jesus contradict their order: “Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him’” (v. 49). The onlookers thought they saw, but they were blind to what Christ was doing. They didn’t see because they weren’t looking.
… he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matt 9:36)
There’s nothing superficial about the response of Jesus to the scene that meets Him. The Greek word for “had compassion,” splanchnizomai, describes a reaction at the gut level. When Jesus saw the crowds, He was moved right to the very core of His being. He felt deeply, and He cared deeply. He had compassion on them.
The compassionate reaction stems from the way Jesus’ eyes saw. He saw them as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” It’s a sad and wonderful picture: crowds and crowds of people, and Jesus is personally interested in their state of lostness.
We should be alarmed if we can see the crowds that live in such a condition and yet are not moved to our core. We may convince ourselves that good, orthodox theology would have us sit back and let God have the compassion, let God do the work of evangelism. May it never be! Christ’s earnestness for these people is to be ours too. If we would show ourselves to be His, we should overflow with the love with which He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Jesus saw the crowd clearly, and he cared deeply. He is the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep (John 10:11). When we see them now as sheep without a Shepherd, we should want to go and win them, woo them, and bring them into safety. That’s exactly what Jesus sought to do, and it’s exactly what He commissioned His disciples to do.
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” (Matt. 9:37)
Did the disciples have a mistaken notion as they looked at the same crowds as Jesus? Did they say, “There are a lot of us, and there are pretty slim pickings out there”? Jesus had to tell the disciples, “Look!”
He had had to do the same thing in John 4, when they had returned from getting food only to find Jesus talking to the woman at the well. All they had been able to think about was lunch. They hadn’t asked him what He was doing or why He was talking to a woman. Presumably, they had only caught on to what was happening when she led the crowd out of the town to hear the Gospel. The disciples hadn’t been thinking properly. And, of course, we often think—or fail to think—just like they did.
There’s a vast opportunity for evangelism in our world. CEOs and investment firms see similar opportunities so clearly when it comes to money: they’ll invest in the far reaches of the world because there is growth opportunity there, because the harvest is plentiful. But where are the Christians? Can we see the harvest of souls that awaits us? Can we envision the innumerable company around the throne (Rev. 7:9), the family promised to Abraham (Gen. 13:16; 15:5)? The riches for us are greater, longer lasting, yet pitifully untapped, not only in the far reaches but sometimes even in our own neighborhoods.
If we would show ourselves to be Christ’s, we should overflow with the love with which He first loved us.
The church today needs to ask itself what opportunities it is letting drive by its doors while it trusts that those who are interested will simply wander in. “Lift up your eyes,” Jesus says, “and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35). There is a great inflow to the kingdom of God that only awaits the workers to reap it. Have we left aside the opportunity to proclaim the good news to our family, our friends, and our neighbors because it is easier to let someone else do it? Because it seems too much like what the cults do? Whatever our reasons, the Lord has not left us with the excuse that there are none to win. The harvest is plentiful.
“Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:38)
The direction to “pray” in this verse is not so difficult an assignment. It’s the “earnestly” that’s the real challenge. We’ll need to come God to ask for help in praying like this even before we seek His help for the task of evangelism itself.
But of course, it is entirely appropriate that we should seek God’s help from the very beginning. As Matthew’s Gospel progresses into chapter 10, we realize that the people who make such prayers are actually their own prayers’ answer: “He called to him his twelve disciples,” and “these twelve Jesus sent out” (10:1, 5). They prayed, “Lord, send out more laborers into the harvest,” and before they knew where they were, they were out in the harvest.
Maybe that’s one reason we don’t want to pray about evangelism opportunities: because we are afraid that God will answer! And that’s all the more reason to seek God’s help as we begin praying. We can see clearly what God has commissioned us to, and so we need to plead with Him to help us see the lost crowds of sheep, to give us His heart of compassion, and to help us understand what awaits.
Not all will go to Africa, to Asia, or even beyond the streets of their own neighborhood. But God calls all of us to share in the work of proclaiming His Gospel. The truth is that the harvest, for many of us, is within or own households or right outside our doors. We are at great risk in our time and place of making church buildings and Bible studies little enclaves out of which the Gospel never emerges. There is a whole vast crowd of humanity in our cities and towns, on the streets of our neighborhoods, that desperately need a Shepherd to guide them. Do we see them? Do we care? Do we understand that the field is white for harvest?
Whatever our answer to those questions is today, let us pray. And then let us trust that God will answer our prayers by opening our eyes, softening our hearts, renewing our minds, and sending us out to His work.