Matthew 9:35 – 10:4

35 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. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.[1]

The starting point for our text is the terrible accusation the Pharisees made against Jesus. They said, “He casts out demons by the ruler of demons;” that is, he gets his power from the devil (v. 34). But notice how Jesus answers them. Three chapters later he gives a reasoned answer, explaining that if his power to cast out demons is from the devil, then Satan would be working against himself, like a kingdom divided into warring factions, and a divided kingdom cannot stand (Matt. 12:25–32). In these verses he answers his critics simply by continuing to do good. The text says, “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matt. 9:35).

“This is an important lesson for us. There are many lessons in these short verses, as we will see, but if we get nothing else from this passage, we should learn that our best and most effective response to those who hate, criticize, or slander us is merely to keep doing the right thing. We can always answer our enemies by doing good.”[2]


As we have been working through Matthew’s Gospel, we have seen in Jesus’ teaching ministry (especially the Sermon on the Mount) and in his healing ministry, notably in chapters 8, 9, how Jesus has been like a Good Shepherd to Israel. He has healed and protected and led his flock in the way they should go. And yet as he steadily marches toward his crucifixion, he knows that he will lay down his life for the sheep, the ultimate act of compassion. He also knows that he must first provide for the flock, leaving under-shepherds to continue to care, protect, and heal.

But before Jesus provides his 12 disciples with the means of mission (9:37-11:1), he must first demonstrate to them the motive for mission. His compassion, described explicitly in 9:36, is not only the door that takes us from the previous section of the book (4:23-9:35) to the next section (9:37-11:1), but it is also the cornerstone of the mission of Christ’s Church:

35 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. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

The word translated “compassion” means literally, “to feel in the innermost parts of the body.” We have some sense of that word in English when we speak of having a “gut feeling.”

Jesus is theologically characterized here as the Messiah in whom the divine mercy is present. … [the word is] a Messianic characterization of Jesus rather than the mere depiction of an emotion. [It’s used] to describe Jesus increasingly in terms of Messianic attributes.[3]

So here in verse 36 Jesus feels for (the Greek sense of the word) and he suffers with (the Latin sense of the word) the crowd. He has mercy and compassion because they were “harassed and helpless.” They were harassed physically, as some in the crowd were surely poor, sick, and hungry. But they certainly were all harassed spiritually. This is a subtle indictment of the Jewish religious leaders. They were not only failing to properly feed and protect the flock, but they were actually harassing and oppressing the flock. They were acting like wolves (7:15; Acts 20:29). In the words of Jesus, they “tie up heavy burdens… and lay them on people’s shoulders” (23:4).

The image of shepherdless sheep has strong Old Testament roots and is fully developed in the New Testament. Numbers 27:17 tells how Moses, who was once a shepherd himself, prayed for a successor (who turned out to be Joshua) so that the people would “not be like sheep without a shepherd.” In 1 Kings 22:17, Micaiah predicted the death of King Ahab at Ramoth Gilead, saying, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd” (see 2 Chron. 18:16). Ezekiel wrote an entire chapter against the false shepherds of Israel because they “only take care of themselves” (Ezek. 34:2) and “do not take care of the flock” (v. 3), as a result of which the sheep “were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (v. 6; see vv. 1–31).

Most extensive of all are the later chapters of Zechariah in which he denounced the wicked shepherds of Israel (see Zech. 10:2–3; 11:4–17; 13:7–9) and even predicted the killing of the Good Shepherd who would come (Zech. 13:7). On the last night before his arrest, Jesus applied Zechariah’s prophecy to himself, telling his distressed disciples, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Matt. 26:31, quoting Zech. 13:7).[4]

Jesus also saw the crowd was “helpless.” They could not lift the scribal and pharisaical yoke from their shoulders. All these unbiblical man-made burdens Jesus attacked in the Sermon on the Mount and would attack throughout his ministry are the ones Jesus promised to rid them of if they would come to him for rest (11:28). As the one sent to seek the lost, to bring in those who have strayed, to bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak, Jesus here feels deeply for this crowd.

There are times in Jesus’ earthly ministry when he is grieved and upset with what he sees. Just a few chapters from now he will speak of that generation as “evil and adulterous” (12:39). But here at the end of Chapter 9 there is no loathing, only loving. He doesn’t look out at the crowd with disgusted self-righteousness. He doesn’t tell them that they put the “T” in total depravity.

Here, Jesus longs to lift away their burdens, all their guilt, and their shame. He longs to gather them as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. So, what is the motive for mission? Compassion is the cornerstone of mission. In Matthew’s Gospel, the word “mercy” defines an action. The word “compassion” defines the underlying gut feeling that drives mercy. Christian mission starts with compassion, the compassion of Christ seen and hopefully felt here.

It is easy to take this cornerstone for granted, as if we can just pull it out and the whole building won’t crumble. Or we think that other religions share the same cornerstone, the same basic structure. But that is just not true. It is normal for us to say God is love and that we love God. It is even biblical for us to speak like the apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20 of the Son of God “who loved me.

Ask an imam if “God is love” in any kind of personal way. Then ask him if the second greatest commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself,” includes loving your enemies (the infidels!) as much as you love yourself. Tell a Buddhist that benevolence has nothing to do with merit, and then watch him pretend not to have a desire to get mad at you. Tell a brahmin, a priest from the highest Hindu cast, to care for the sick and dying, those of a much, much lower, untouchable cast. Tell him to love the lonely and serve them the way Mother Teresa did for decades. And study his response.

That “God is love” and that such a God of love, “because of the great love with which he loved us” (Ephesians 2:4), would so love the world that he would send his one and only Son to live, suffer, die and then take lowly fishermen, sinful tax collectors, adulterous women, even Gentiles and spread his compassion through them to the world is remarkable. That’s uniquely Christian compassion. Don’t take such compassion for granted.[5]In this is the love, not that we have been loving God but that he himself has loved us and sent out his Son – the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to be loving one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is being perfected in us.[6]

Don’t take the root of Christian compassion for granted. The root of Christian compassion is Christ’s compassion for his people. And don’t take the fruit of it for granted. In verse 35 Jesus taught, preached, and healed. The fruit of his compassion can be seen throughout the world. Christianity gave birth to universities (teaching) and churches (preaching) and hospitals (healing).

The next time you find yourself in an emergency room thank God for Christ, and for Christ’s compassion, and for the Christian physicians and donors who long ago took that call to compassion very seriously. The next time there is an international disaster, notice the many Christian organizations that run to the rescue, and more importantly, notice who doesn’t run to the rescue. Which religions stay home?

We take the root and fruit of Christian compassion for granted, our schools, our hospitals, and our churches. Like the apostle Paul, who was compelled by the love of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14) to reach the world, the force that pushes us forward is compassion. Without compassion, we do not have Christianity. Without compassion we do not have authentic Christian mission.


The motive for our mission is compassion. The means are prayer and people. Look at verses 37,38:

37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

We see here the need for prayer and the need for people, or the need for the Lord of the harvest through our prayers to send out people – laborers, missionaries, gospel workers, and every-day people who simply perform their ordinary vocations with compassion for the lostness of the lost.

There are quite a number of formulas out there for growing a local church congregation. But the Bible gives us only one formula for growing the big “C” Church (the Church Universal): prayer + preaching + persecution = growth. We see that formula repeatedly in the book of Acts. We see it in the first three centuries of church history. In fact, that’s what we see today wherever the church is genuinely growing. That’s what we will see in our next study of Matthew 10. The Kingdom of God advances through persecution, preaching, and prayer.

If we examine the revivals recorded in the Old and New Testaments, they all began with prayer. In the Bible you might recall Acts 1:14; 4:24-31; and 13:1-3 where Christian missions sprang from prayer meetings. There are examples of this in later church history as well:

In September 1857 Jeremiah Lamphier, a New York City businessman, decided to invite people to pray during the lunch hour one day a week. The first day he prayed alone for half an hour, but then was joined by six other men. The next week there were nearly forty people. With such a good turnout, they decided to pray daily. Soon there were 100 people. In less than six months, 6,000 people in 150 different locations throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan met daily to pray. Within the year these one-hour lunchtime prayer meetings were being held in many cities, including Boston, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis, Savannah, and New Orleans. In June 1858 it was estimated that nearly 100,000 people had been converted, not through preaching or works of charity, but solely by listening to these Christians pray.[7]

Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the Holy Spirit move in that way again? Every day at noon office cafeterias and break rooms would be filled with Christians praying for gospel revival. The American evangelical church does a wonderful job with music and singing. They have and plan activities for doing. They’re good at eating together and visiting and Bible studies and home groups. But true revival doesn’t come by attracting other Christians from other churches, it begins with prayer (private and corporate), and it explodes exponentially with persecution. How many of us pray, “Lord, raise up workers for the harvest. Raise even me up for the harvest.


So the motive for Christian mission is compassion, and the means are prayer and people. As you look at these famous verses, 37, 38, you might see some things you’ve never seen before. There is a big harvest. But there’s a problem. There are not enough harvesters. Jesus’ solution is to pray for more people. In chapters 8 and 9 we have watched Jesus’ exercise authority over everything visible and invisible – demons, diseases, sin. If you can name it, Jesus has power over it. So why wouldn’t God just cut out the middleman? Why ask for more people to reach all these people? Why doesn’t the Lord the harvest just do all the harvesting?

There are three answers to those questions. First, God is a God of means. Because he is transcendent from us and yet compassionate, desiring to be near us, he uses people and prayers. He even uses his own Son. God does not sit on the edge of a thundercloud and zap all our sins and infirmities away. He sent his Son, in our very flesh, to touch blind eyes, crippled legs, dead bodies, and sin-stained souls. So, it’s an attribute of God thing. It is part of who God is and how he has decided to work in this world.

Second, the plan of God involves means. Jesus’ mission is to live, suffer, die, rise again, ascend to heaven, give the Holy Spirit, and rule from his heavenly throne until he returns. In the meantime he will build his church up “on the foundation of the apostles” (Ephesians 2:20). Think of it as engineering. Jesus builds a bridge from his ministry to the ministry that will continue after him in his name, and right here in 10:1-4 is that bridge’s foundation. Those disciples who’ve been sitting on the sidelines watching the first string do his thing now get some playing time, because shortly they will teach and heal and lead God’s sheep.

Third, the work of God involves means. Whenever I hear this harvest text preached or taught, the message usually has either a self-aggrandizing sense to it (“If it’s going to happen, it’s up to me!”) or a negative, guilt-ridden weight attached to it (“If you won’t pray for missionaries, if you won’t go yourself, then God’s hands are tied, and guess who’s responsible for this huge harvest that’s going to spoil and rot? You are!”).

This passage is preached like it’s all about the church. It’s about us getting our missionary act together. But look again at the text. Who is doing the work here? The first laborers will get out into the field in chapter 10, but in our text, it is “the Lord of the harvest.” This is the same Jesus who will call himself “Lord of the Sabbath” in 12:8 and who will describe himself as the one in charge of the gathering angels in the Parable of the Soils (13:41). Isn’t the Lord of the harvest, the one who has “all authority in heaven and on earth” and the one who will commission the 12 at the end of our Gospel and the beginning of Acts, who is the main worker here in our text?

In 9:38 Jesus commands his people to pray. But before anyone has lifted a prayer, he gets to work. We see that in 10:1, “And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction,” which is exactly what he just asked to be done and over which to be prayed. So it is Jesus who sends, instructs, and commands (10:5). Before they were at work or at prayer Jesus was already at work. That’s the case here in our text, and that’s the case always.

This text is preached as if Jesus wasn’t at work, as if we were in the same position as these 12 men. But I think it’s fair to say that the mustard seed has already grown into a tree, the Pearl has been found, the good fish caught, and the fields with hidden treasures bought many times over. The harvest is huge indeed! In the last 2000 years Jesus, through his Church, has harvested millions of people. This prayer has been answered, is being answered, and will continue to be answered until the last hour.

In the apostles’ day there was a giant mission field and hardly any workers, just 12 guys to bring in the harvest. By the end of the book of Acts there was still a huge mission field, but a few thousand workers had spread out their harvesting hands from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and even all the way to Rome. Today there is still a huge mission field, but perhaps a million workers and counting, reaching the ends of the earth. Jesus has been quite busy, hasn’t he?

When we get to chapter 13, we will begin to look at Jesus’ parables. His parables unlock this theme of mission. They teach us that the church will grow despite serious opposition from the world, and harvesting doesn’t mean everyone everywhere at all times will trust into Christ. The harvest is huge and universal, but it is not universalistic. There will be wheat and weeds, good soil, and bad soil. But from the good soil will be fruit worth harvesting.

Even though the Lord of the harvest has harvested, is harvesting, and will continue to harvest, this doesn’t mean that prayer and people aren’t the means by which he harvests. The Lord of the harvest has chosen to use prayer and people to harvest the fields. There is no reason to feel overwhelmed that the harvest is too hard, too big, and too impossible for us. Trust the Lord and into the power of his might. But if you are feeling guilty about not praying and not being a gospel worker in this world, then you should feel that way. Our mission is to pray and go. So feel guilty, confess, repent, and start praying, or start going and pray as you go.

Jesus has built his church, is building his church, and will build his church, and all the powers of hell shall not prevail against it. Jesus is at work. I strongly encourage you to join the winning team, for the full and final harvest celebration is at hand. The bottles of new wine and fine barrel-aged bourbon are being filled, the tapas are being plaited, the fattened calf is being prepared, the daughters of Miriam are already waiting to shake their tambourines, the band is tuning up for that one final, eternal happy hour and victory dance.

17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. [8]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 9:35–10:4.

[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 161–162.

[3] Helmut Köster, “Σπλάγχνον, Σπλαγχνίζομαι, Εὔσπλαγχνος, Πολύσπλαγχνος, Ἄσπλαγχνος,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 554–555.

[4] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 163–164.

[5] O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Preaching the Word) (p. 276). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[6] The Holy Bible: translation mine, 1 Jn 4:10–12.

[7] O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. Matthew: All Authority in Heaven and on Earth (Preaching the Word) (pp. 277-278). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 22:17.