When we consider the ministry of the gospel, we often begin with the Great Commission. That's stated most fully at the end of Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 28:18-20), but it's found in various forms in the other three Gospels, and in Acts (Mk. 16:15; Lk. 24:46-48; Jn. 20:21; Acts 1:8).
That's our mandate. In the power of the Holy Spirit; we're to proclaim the Word of God, and take the good news of salvation to all the world. But there's a significant passage in Matthew which concerns something that comes before that. In a real sense it lays the foundation for the Commission to come. The Bible says:
"When He [Christ] saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest'" (Matt. 9:36-38).
As Christians ponder the work to which the Lord has called us, there's a great deal in these three verses that provides food for thought. Basic things that can effectively undergird and animate our service. And the first, it seems to me, is the most fundamental of all. Christ "saw the multitudes."
But we all know there's seeing, and there's seeing. Go to a shopping mall, and you'll see people, milling, jostling, pressing on their way–or sitting in the food court, chatting over coffee or a meal. It's much the same in all the marketplaces of the world.
And we can look upon them with curiosity, or with a critical eye. ("Why has he painted his hair green? It looks ridiculous!") Or perhaps we see the crowds and complain, because they get in the way of us finishing what we've come to do. I can be as guilty of this as the next person.
However, the Lord Jesus saw something different. He saw people in great need. And the motivating attitude in His heart was neither mere curiosity, nor criticism, nor selfish complaint, but compassion. He saw them as hurting and in distress, and looked upon them with infinite love and mercy. It's helpful to check on how various translators have handled the words "weary and scattered." What did Jesus see? He saw those who were:
"Bewildered and helpless" (NET); "harassed and helpless" (NIV); "distressed and dispirited" (NASB); "troubled and wandering" (BBE); "bewildered (harassed) and distressed, and dejected, and helpless" (Amplifed); "torn and thrown down" (Rotherham); "faint and cast aside" (Young).
Oh, my! And there are "multitudes" like that. See them through the eyes of Jesus. They may wear masks of unconcern, even of gaiety. Or they may be focused on the task of the moment. But inside they carry weary burdens, and wrestle with perplexing issues. They're discouraged over the mistakes of yesterday, distressed over the problems of today, and fearful of what may come tomorrow. They're looking for answers, and so often finding none that fully satisfy.
They are "like sheep having no shepherd," sheep who have gone astray, each choosing his or her own perilous path (Isa. 53:6), only to find new dangers and difficulties along the way. Jesus weeps for them (cf. Matt. 23:37), and longs to be the Shepherd they so desperately need (Jn. 10:11; cf. Ps. 23:1). In the eloquent words of hymn writer Frank Mason North:
Where cross the crowded ways of life,
Where sound the cries of race and clan
Above the noise of selfish strife,
We hear Your voice, O Son of Man.
In haunts of wretchedness and need,
On shadowed thresholds dark with fears,
From paths where hide the lures of greed,
We catch the vision of Your tears.
From tender childhood's helplessness,
From woman's grief, man's burdened toil,
From famished souls, from sorrow's stress,
Your heart has never known recoil.
Oh, see them through the eyes of Jesus! They are His creatures, seeds of God's planting. And He is "the Lord of the harvest," and "the harvest truly is plentiful." There are many, many in deep need. But not so many of us to help them. Even with all our modern tools, the task is overwhelming.
Of the many today who call themselves Christians, perhaps less than ten percent are truly born again. And of those, in the average evangelical church, sometimes only ten percent are actively engaged, using the gifts God has given them. It's an estimate, but about half a century of ministry in various venues suggests to me it's close to the truth.
Unfortunately, the answer to the need for workers is sometimes to "lay hands on [an individual] hastily" (I Tim. 5:22), without careful thought and prayer. Or to press "a novice" into a leadership position for which he or she is ill prepared (I Tim. 3:6). That approach so often creates more problems than it solves. It's the Lord who needs to do the sending (Matt. 9:38), though we do have a role in identifying and affirming His choice. Much prayer is needed there too.
We also need to be "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit" (Eph. 6:18), that God will move and motivate the other ninety percent to get involved, using the abilities and opportunities He provides. Let's pray earnestly for more labourers to take up the work. But be careful!
There's an interesting postscript to the passage in Matthew chapter 9. In the next chapter, the disciples are named. Then we read, "These twelve Jesus sent out" (vs. 5).
When we pray, the Lord may well call us to be part of the answer to our prayers! For that reason, we need to ask God to help us see the multitudes as Jesus sees them, and "catch the vision of [His] tears," as Mr. North puts it (cf. II Cor. 5:14-15). And let's pray with a submissive heart, ready to seize the opportunities to serve the Lord that He presents to us, believing Him for great things.