Jesus' Compassion for the Multitudes

by Spiro Zodhiates

Spiros ZodhiatesDr. Zodhiates continues his exegesis of the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew 9:35-38

[Verse 35] Jesus' itinerary is described here as it was in Matthew 4:23-25. He traveled to all the "cities (from polis [4172]) and villages (from komeē [2968])." Generally, He first taught in synagogues, because He knew that the people assembled there had come to learn more about God. Here He proclaimed the "gospel (euaggelion [2098], good news) of the kingdom (from basileia [932])." While this Gentile-dominated area had many evils, He focused on the good news (kainos [2537], qualitatively good as in Acts 17:19) that the King had come to live among them, bringing the kingdom of God (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Luke 17:20, 21).

Preaching (from kerusso ō[2784]) did not exhaust Jesus' compassion for the whole person (1 Thess. 5:23). Closely following preaching was His healing (from therapeuo ō[2323], to heal with tenderness). The text says that His authority to heal extended to "every (from pas [3956]) disease (from nosos [3554]) and weakness (malakia [3119], softness, bodily weakness) among the people (from laos [2992])" (a.t.).

[36] As Jesus looked (from eido  [1492], to perceive) on the people, He understood their problems. This was an unorganized multitude (from ochlos [3793]) in contrast to organized groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. All kinds of people were gathered, but they had no leader. Jesus was moved with compassion for them, seeing them as "sheep (from probaton [4263]) having no shepherd."

Jesus' unique authority was obvious. At the same time, His compassion reached far beyond that of any person. This is expressed in the verb "was moved with compassion," which translates from splagchnizomai ([4697] bowel, intestine). This is the strongest verb for compassion in the Greek language and was used only of Jesus, as a rule (see also Matt. 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13, except Matt. 18:27; Luke 10:33; 15:20). The word reflects the sick feeling we get in our stomachs when we are exposed to extreme or prolonged suffering.

All Jesus did flowed out of His compassion. His preaching was a compassionate concern for the dreadful judgment on unrepentance and unbelief, which is destruction. Preaching without compassion is ineffective. He also healed out of compassion.

An interesting textual variant occurs here concerning how our Lord saw the multitudes. The King James Version and New King James Version follow the Textus Receptus in characterizing these sheep as "fainted" or "weary" (from ekluo  [1590], to be loose, exhausted, faint). But the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, and other versions characterize them as "harassed" or "distressed" (from skullo  [4660], to skin, flay, lacerate). This is how Christ generally saw the masses, as sheep without a shepherd, wounded and abandoned.

Furthermore, Jesus saw the people "scattered abroad" (from rhipto  [4496], to throw, hurl, dispense). Jesus the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14) longed to lead them, feed them, and give them rest. Because the people were weary and oppressed, He challenged His disciples to the same tasks (vv. 37, 38). He probably gave this challenge to more than the Twelve.

[37] Jesus used the term "harvest" (therismos [2326]), one of His favorite similes, earlier at Jacob's well (John 4:35 ff.) and again when He sent out the seventy (Luke 10:2). Here He contrasted the abundance of the harvest with the scarcity of workers. Food must be harvested at a precise time or the opportunity is lost. "On the one hand (men [3303]), the harvest is abundant, but on the other hand (de [1161]) the workers (from ergates [2040]) are few" (a.t.). Christ pleaded for His disciples to become workers to reap the fields.

The explicit promise is that when we do what Jesus did-proclaim that the kingdom of God has come, teach the Word of God, and show the same loving concern for people's needs-we will reap an abundant harvest. It is tragic not to have enough reapers. Implied is the idea that God will ripen the grain with His Holy Spirit.

The word "laborers" or "workers" are people the Lord of the harvest uses to reap souls and heal bodies as He continues His work. Consider how hard our Lord worked. Sometimes, it seems He never rested! Paul admonished us also to work, not to merit salvation (Eph. 2:8) but to demonstrate our love for Christ and our faith in Him (v. 9). Workers use their hands to care for the sick as well as to benefit others (Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:10 ff.). We must not only teach, preach, and heal, but also care for the sick.

[38] The word for "pray" is deeathete, the aorist imperative of deomai (1189), to pray for a specific work of God. Here the particular request is that the Lord will "thrust out (from ekblloō[1544], cast out) workers into his harvest" (a.t.). Believers ought not to be lazy and easygoing but energetic and fast-paced, because the Lord told us the harvest is great-"a great multitude, which no man could number" (Rev. 7:9).

Yet we must take seriously the implication here that apart from prayer we will not be motivated, and souls will not be saved.

Dr. Zodhiates is president emeritus of AMG International and publisher emeritus of Pulpit Helps.

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