I am eager to pray that passage that Jenny just read, Matthew 9:36-38, with you all, with you all on livestream, for five reasons. Let me just summarize those five reasons why I’m eager to pray this passage with you today. Number one — Each year on the second Sunday, we set aside time to pray for our leaders, our church leaders. Sometimes we ordain elders. So, we want to pray for our leaders this passage today.
Secondly, last year I listened to the podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” which at times can be frustrating, feels a little lopsided, misses some points, but overall … and can be very sad … but overall is extremely sobering. I received it as a call to humility and a mandate to pray for humble leaders, and we want to do that a little later.
Number three reason I’m eager to pray this passage with you is a few weeks ago, I was eating dinner with a man in our church, who has experienced over the years several church plants that ended painfully. And I asked him if, with his experience, he has seen any common themes or causes to these painful, tragic endings. And he, without a pause, just said “proud leaders,” leaders who are proud.
Four — Last week, we began a two-part series called “Formations” (and this is before we get to our big series at the end of the month), “Formations.” And I mentioned these are spiritual formation skills, basic discipleship skills or habits. I mentioned last week that we hope to sprinkle some of these throughout this year in between the series. We started last week and will continue this week talking about praying God’s Word. I gave seven reasons to pray the Bible, and then we practiced in Psalm 1. So, if you haven’t had a chance to watch that or listen to that, I encourage you to go back and do that. That will help you understand what we’re talking about today.
Number five — Last month, I was praying through this passage here in Matthew 9, and the Spirit gripped me with it, spoke very specifically about it. So, in a little while, I want us all to pray this passage for our leaders to have the heart, the head, and the hands of Jesus. So, first, let’s try to understand what do I mean by that — the heart, the head, and the hands of Jesus?
First of all — the heart of Jesus. Look at Matthew 9:36, “When he saw the crowds …” Just stop there for a moment and think about that. Jesus saw people. He was present in the moment. He wasn’t imagining being somewhere else. He saw people for who they were. And what makes that most astounding is to think about who is doing the seeing. Jesus is the one who spoke galaxies into existence. Astronomers tell us today with our current Hubble technology, they can observe or estimate that there are about 170 billion galaxies. You can’t even get your mind around 170 billion galaxies. And many of them believe that as the technology improves, they’re going to discover over 2 trillion galaxies. Jesus spoke galaxies into existence. You talk about an adrenaline rush. What are you going to do today? He’s experienced the ultimate of speaking galaxies into existence, and now he’s walking among people who don’t even appreciate deodorant. These are just ordinary, smelly, messed-up people like us. And you would think, even though he’s among them, he would be imagining what it was like to do something else. But he saw them, and they moved him. The one who made galaxies was moved by Galileans, ordinary people. Look at verse 36:
“When he saw them, he had compassion for them.”
That word “compassion” we’ve talked about it in the past, “splagchnizomai.” It’s such an interesting word. It comes from the word “bowels.” I know you’re not supposed to say that in church. But it literally is referring to our digestive system, and the reason for that we all know. When you experience stress in your head, it manifests itself in your body. Seems like a non sequitur, right? I’m experiencing brain anxiety, but it is manifesting itself in gastrointestinal distress. Jesus is experiencing that brain-body link here.
The author of Lamentations illustrates this in Lamentations 3:51. When he saw the suffering of God’s people, he said, “My eyes bring pain to my soul.” My eyes are seeing the pitiful condition of God’s people, and what flows through my eyes into my soul (literally, it’s my “self”) is pain. It hurts me. I feel it. And this is what Jesus is experiencing.
William Barclay points out that in the Gospels, aside from the parables, this word is only used referring to Jesus. Let me show you a few examples of what moves Jesus. Matthew 14:14, people’s sickness. Matthew 15:32, people’s hunger moved Jesus. Blindness moved Jesus. Faithlessness and demonic oppression, grief and loss, spiritual oppression. That’s the passage we’re looking at right now. He was moved with compassion when he saw their spiritual condition, and the leaders who should be helping are actually hurting. Have you noticed that theme in the Bible? God gets very animated when talking about leaders whom he has entrusted to care for his people who end up hurting his people. Some of you just finished reading through the Bible last year, and you noticed that theme. It really struck me this past year.
Let me just give you a few examples of how God responds when leaders don’t shepherd his people faithfully. Jeremiah 23:1,
“‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you.’”
Can you imagine God saying that to you? “‘You have not attended to them. I will attend to you for your evil deeds,’ declares the Lord.’” Verse 14,
“But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his evil.”
So, God is still holding the individual sinners responsible for their choices, but he’s also going after the leaders who create an environment that condones things that he has forbidden.
It’s a very similar passage in 2 Timothy 3:3, where Paul talks about teachers who have been chosen to “suit your passions.” It doesn’t matter what lifestyle you choose; you can always find a spiritual teacher who will affirm it no matter how right or wrong it is. Jeremiah 23:32,
“Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.”
Because you won’t speak my truth, you’re not benefiting the people that you claim to be serving.
In Ezekiel 34, God confronts shepherds for feeding themselves but not feeding the people. Ezekiel 34:4,
“The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered.”
One more — Zechariah 10:2,
“For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd. ‘My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders.’”
Do you see God’s intense passion against leaders who misuse their authority or responsibility, and his intense compassion for those who are hurt by them? That is the heart of Jesus, and that’s what we want to pray for.
Second — the head of Jesus. By “head,” I mean discerningly diagnosing the condition of the people who are in crisis. He gives, in verse 36, two primary descriptions and one illustration. The two descriptions are “harassed” and “helpless.” Let’s look at “harassed.” “Harassed” means literally “to flay, to skin alive.” It’s used of corpses that are mangled when it’s used literally. Here, it’s being used figuratively, meaning “to harass, trouble to the point of despair.” Jesus is moved with compassion for people he is describing as “being skinned alive spiritually” to the point that they are, second description, “helpless.” And he’s not knocking them. What he’s saying is they have been … the word means “to throw down” in exhaustion or rejection. The idea is that of a boxer who’s been fighting and has been hit so many times he can’t even lift his gloves to protect himself. You know, the boxers who at the end just want to hug each other. They can barely stand up. Or one gets knocked down. He can’t get up. He’s being pummeled. That’s the idea of this word “helpless.” Jesus is diagnosing a condition that is present in every generation: when powerful religious, business, or political leaders use their authority, their responsibility, through fear and anger and manipulation, to accomplish their agenda and then leave the people weary and wounded, discarded.
And so, at the end of verse 36, he gives us the illustration of this is that of sheep without a shepherd. So, in that day that would have been very familiar: sheep without a shepherd is the definition of supper for someone, a predator. They have no defense, no protection. It’s just like walking across a field full of landmines. It’s just a matter of when they’re going to be devoured. No one is looking out for them. And what seems to move the heart of Jesus is God has called people to look out for them. There are individuals who have been called to shepherd, even in this day, in this chapter. There are people who have been called to shepherd his people, but they’re not doing it.
Tim Keller was interviewed recently. He is a pastor from New York, basically retired, has been battling cancer, and was asked in an interview with World Magazine this month if, in his many decades of pastoring, he has ever seen what is happening today in churches. And he said “No,” which is shocking with all that he’s seen. He said this:
“I’d say that the culture is definitely more polarized than it has ever been, and I’ve seen the kind of conflicts in churches in the past that we” … or “I’ve never seen the kind of conflicts in churches in the past that we see today. In virtually every church, there is a smaller or larger body of Christians who have been radicalized to the Left or to the Right by extremely effective and completely immersive internet and social media loops, news feeds, and communities. People are being bombarded 12 hours a day with pieces that present a particular political point of view, and the main way it seeks to persuade is not through argument but through outrage. People are being formed by this immersive form of public discourse — far more than they are being formed by the Church. This is creating a crisis. No, I haven’t faced anything like this in the past.”
Now understand what he’s saying. He’s not saying we shouldn’t have strong social and political convictions. He is, I am a big fan of that. There are real bad things happening that we should be aware of and respond to. He’s talking about something different. He’s talking about a kind of discipleship, an outrage discipleship, that is having more effect on our spirit and development, our relationship with Jesus or lack thereof, our response to people who are different from us. It is disciplining us in outrage. And the reason this is so concerning is it rips apart families, it rips apart churches and communities and work environments, and it leaves people harassed and helpless, feeling frantic: “If I don’t do this right now, the future is gone” … with no ability to do what ultimately, they are told to do. Powerful media forces discipling God’s people toward causes, some even good causes, some not, but leaving people, as Jesus describes here.
So, when we say we’re praying for the head of Jesus, the mind of Christ, what we’re praying for is that ability to see through the fog and the cacophony of voices and cultural pressures and personal cravings to diagnose what is really happening, and what do we do.
And that leads us to the hands of Jesus. And by “hands,” I mean, what practically is Jesus recommending? What is the solution that he offers? And I know this is not the only one. He talks about a lot of other things, but this seems to be the preeminent one. Our first response — In light of the famine of true shepherds and the devastating condition the sheep are in (verse 37),
“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore…’”
What should we do? Say it out loud. What should we do? Pray earnestly!
“Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Isn’t that fascinating? That is so counterintuitive! In light of the fact that there are shepherds mistreating the sheep, and there are sheep left in a devastating place of being harassed and helpless, the first … I’m not saying it’s the only … the first response, what we should be doing with our hands, is not clenching them in fists of outrage, but raising them in hands of prayer, crying out to the Lord of the harvest. That’s the call of Christ. This is not a time for despair (verse 37). Jesus says the harvest is plentiful. The harvest is right now. In our community, the harvest is plentiful.
Number two — This is not a time for division. The laborers are few; so, stop shooting the ones who are part of the few. There are many of us. We need each other! Paul said to Timothy, Philippians 2:20 … This is a stunning statement:
“For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ,”
who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare, not use you for their own agenda. G. K. Chesterton wrote a book on Francis of Assisi, and he described him this way.
“He honored all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him extraordinary personal power was this: … there was never a man who looked into those brown, burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernardone was really interested in him, in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously and not merely added to the spoil of some social policy or the names of some clerical document … He treated the whole mob of men as a mob of kings.”
What a mirror of what Jesus is illustrating and calling us to! When Jesus looked on people, he didn’t see people as part of his marketing or building his brand, objects to be pursued. He was moved with compassion. Their hurts hurt him. Their pains pained him. Their joys filled him with joy. This kind of leader, what Paul was saying of Timothy, what Francis illustrated, obviously what Jesus is modeling, is rare. And that is why it’s not time to attack one another. It’s time to pray for more of these kinds of leaders.
Finally, this is not a time for detachment. Verse 38,
“Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest.”
And that may be a verbal genitive, which means it would be translated, “Pray earnestly to the Lord who is harvesting.” He is over the harvest, but don’t think of God as just passively, with a joystick, running the harvest. He is harvesting. He is rescuing, saving, healing, transforming, calling, sending … The Lord who IS harvesting.
So, if I, in whatever leadership sphere God has called me to, am hurting or hindering or not helping the people under my care, I am ultimately resisting the Lord who IS harvesting, loving, and rescuing. When I check out, when I become detached, when I throw up my hands in despair, I am ignoring the Lord who IS harvesting.
So, what is Jesus calling us to do? He’s calling us very simply to pray earnestly. Super clear. What do we do in light of this crisis? That was a crisis then, and it’s a crisis now. But the solution is clear: let’s pray earnestly.
This passage is often viewed as a missionary passage, and it is that. It’s a call to send out. But we need to view it as a missional passage in every kind of mission, not just in another country — in your work environment, the people who work for you, the students you teach, those who are on the team — that you captain as a teenager. The Lord is harvesting. Are you a part of that? He’s inviting you to be that kind of leader, to join him. And don’t miss the link here, and this is one of the things that struck me when I was praying through this. I’d never seen it before. He is concerned, Jesus is concerned about bad leaders. If you look back to verse 34, you see the Pharisees. When they saw the miracle, the healing of Jesus, they attributed it to demons. He’s casting out by demons. That’s the kind of leadership Jesus is confronting. In the end of verse 36, he describes the people as sheep without a shepherd. So, Jesus is clearly describing a leadership crisis.
But when he calls us to pray earnestly, he calls us to pray earnestly for leaders? Is that what he ask us to pray for? What did he ask us to pray for? Laborers. I’d never noticed that before. Lord, why aren’t we praying earnestly that the Lord of the harvest would send forth leaders? What if in Jesus’s economy, leaders are laborers? It’s true. Jesus is all about leadership. He knows you can’t have a ball team, you can’t run a business, you can’t have a family, you can’t build a church, you can’t do anything without leadership. But that’s why he invested so heavily in his disciples. But what he is doing is he is redefining what leadership is. We saw this last year in Mark 10:42:
“Jesus called them to him, and he said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
Jesus, the preeminent One, the One above every other one, humbles himself and comes to serve. His heart is moved with compassion, and he’s not just critiquing. He’s giving. He’s sacrificing. He’s serving. That kind of leader will change the atmosphere of a family as husbands view headship as an opportunity to be the first to humble themselves; as moms love their kids with a sacrificial, not self-serving, love; as teenagers go to school to look for the vulnerable, the kid who is mocked or sitting alone, an opportunity to serve, to build up, to model the gospel of Jesus Christ as he gave himself for us. These are the kind of leaders we’re praying for. Not an “I will crush you because I’m the leader,” leaving people harassed and helpless. So, the call for leaders IS the call for laborers, servant leaders.
So, let’s do now what Jesus is calling us to do. It’s super clear what he’s calling us to do. So, we’re going to take time right now to do it in three ways. First, like last week, I want to just set apart some time for us individually to pray through this passage. Open your Bible. Grab a Bible from a seat back near you if you need one. Have it in front of you. Keep your notes. Write, journal, whatever you want to do. Pray this passage. Ask Jesus for his heart to see as he sees, to be moved. Ask him for his head, his mind, the mind of Christ to discern what is an appropriate, helpful response to this crisis. And then lift your hands in prayer, crying out to the Lord who is harvesting.
So, we’re going to take some time to do that right now, and then I will come back up and pray this specifically for our leaders here in our church, our elders and their wives and deacons and deaconesses and life group leaders and staff and ministry leaders … praying this for us. And then we’ll be led in prayer by some people who will be coming and praying specifically for all of us as a commissioning in this new year. The Lord who is harvesting is placing people all over Greenville in schools, in work environments, in homes to enter into his harvest, not as a threat or “Oh, no! I can’t do that.” But we’re going to pray for all of us. So, let’s start individually. Let’s cry out to the Lord of the harvest now.