Sunday, 27 August 2017

Sent out by Jesus (Matthew 10)

In this chapter, Matthew describes the initial preaching tour that the apostles of Jesus engaged in. Much of the details were limited to that tour, such as the clothes they could take with them, and the places to where they could go within the land of Israel. It was obviously a stage in the process of eleven of them becoming leading persons in the church of Christ. 

Surprises in the list of names 

How would you describe the disciples? Peter was impulsive, Andrew was quiet, James was fiery (a son of thunder) as was John; Philip was slow to understand (as John 14:9 suggests); Bartholomew was contemplative (sitting under a fig tree in John 1); Thomas was sceptical; Matthew was diligent in keeping records; Simon the Zealot was nationalistic; Judas was deceitful. Nothing is said about the other James or Thaddeus. Yet they were the ones that Jesus chose as apostles.  

The obvious surprise in the list of names is that Jesus chose any of them to serve him. After all, each of them was a sinner and did not deserve to receive any grace from him. It is important to remember that without the grace of God this group of men would have achieved nothing for the kingdom of God.  

Another surprise that we can see is that one of them was the betrayer. On the assumption that the list is arranged according to how the pairs of disciples travelled, it looks as if Simon the Zealot was accompanied by Judas. I wonder what Simon would have thought in after years as he recalled this preaching trip. There is no suggestion that Judas did not practice what was instructed here or that his presence hindered a successful campaign. Yet Judas tells us what can happen at times.  

A third surprise is the way that Jesus could bring diverse people together. We need only select two of them to illustrate this point and they are Matthew and Simon the Zealot. Matthew had worked for the Roman authorities whereas Simon, as a Zealot, would have wanted to kill as many of the Roman occupiers as possible. Among his targets would be people like Matthew whom Simon would have regarded as a traitor. Yet here they are, now serving the Lord. It is amazing how he can bring such different, indeed hostile people together. 

Fourth, it is interesting how Matthew records his list. He mentions what two of them did: he says that Judas betrayed Jesus and he says that he himself had been a tax collector. When Mark and Luke record their list of names of the apostles they don’t mention what Matthew had been. The fact that he records himself what he was is surely an expression of gratitude to Jesus for saving him and an expression of humility as he served the one who had rescued him from the penalty due to sinners. 

Fifth, although eleven of those men were to make many more preaching trips for Jesus we are not told very much about them later on. Most of them are not mentioned individually in the Book of Acts apart from Peter and John. James, the brother of John, gets mentioned when Herod put him to death. Of course, they all worked very hard for the Saviour and church history has its own traditions about where they went. Yet, in the main, we are told very little about what they did, even with regard to more prominent ones like Peter. The lesson is obvious – it is the activities of the King that we need to know about, not the activities of the servants. 

Sixth, the eleven genuine disciples would pay a big price for following Jesus. Each of them apart from John would die as a martyr and he himself would find himself in exile as a prisoner in Patmos as an old man because of his faith in Jesus. Yet if we could ask them if they regretted the initial trip that sent them down the roads to their individual destiny they would all have said that they had been engaged in the most amazing of activities, that of serving Jesus as he commenced his church. 

Strong requirements 

They were given the role of showing to the nation as a whole that the Messiah had arrived and was sending out his agents. This is the point of them limiting their travels to places where Israelites then lived in the land. Their role had three features: they announced the kingdom of the Messiah was shortly to arrive, they had authority over demons to cast them out and they had the ability to heal the sick of whatever illnesses they had. The tour on which they went was an amazing display of divine power through a group of individuals that normally people would not notice. They would be noticed only for what Jesus said and did through them, and that is all that a preacher is meant to be. 

Jesus instructed them not to receive money from people – this may have been to prevent his disciples being regarded as being in it for personal gain. Moreover, they had to learn to trust in God to meet their needs through his people in a variety of ways. This may have been difficult for some like James and John who had a fishing business and Matthew who had a prosperous form of employment. 

They were to be conveyors of peace to those who accepted their message. He told them that they would be persecuted and brought to court, but they were not to worry about what to say because the Spirit would enable them to speak appropriately. They should not be surprised to be regarded as messengers of the devil. Even although they would receive such opposition, they were not to be afraid. Instead they were to fear God. Nevertheless, following Jesus would not be easy. 

The message of Jesus that they were to preach was that he would have priority over all other relationships. Giving such priority to Jesus was the same as a person taking up a cross and walking to the place of death. There was to be no turning back, even when families opposed Jesus and his kingdom. This must have been a surprise to the disciples to hear such a strong insistence from Jesus that he must have priority in the lives of his disciples. Yet the proof that we understand who he is will be that we conclude he is worthy of the position of Lord. 

Having said that, we must observe what Jesus says about taking up the cross in verse 38. He says that instead of being the way of death it is actually the way to life. Taking the cross is not a reference to a difficulty we might face or an indisposition that we might have. Instead, taking the cross is a reference to identification, a determination to follow Jesus. Those who heard the apostles could avoid that choice and remain on the road to eternal death whereas those who took up the way of discipleship would discover that it led to eternal glory.  

Solemnity of the second coming 

As he sends out his disciples, it is striking to observe how Jesus focuses on his second coming rather than his first coming. One consequence for us is that this causes us to take a long term view of things. 

The first item we can note is that Jesus says there will be degrees of retribution on the Day of Judgement (v. 15). I suppose it would have been the case that if people in that area had been asked the names of the worst cities in history they would have included Sodom and Gomorrah in the list. In divine providence, they had received special judgement from God at the time of Abraham. Ezekiel 16:49-50 describes the sins of Sodom: ‘Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.’ Now Jesus says to his apostles that if a city rejects their message about him it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah. There is another implication here which is that the inhabitants of those towns which had already undergone divine judgement are waiting for the future judgement of the great day. And we are not to assume that lesser judgement will somehow be tolerable in experience. Whoever receives the least retribution will find it terrible.   

The second surprising saying connected to the second coming is that on the Day of Judgement Jesus the Judge will speak to his Father about individuals. ‘So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven’ (vv. 32-33). The context is one in which Jesus speaks of fear. We can understand why he would mention the possibility of fear to those men who were about to go on their first mission, especially when he had just mentioned the likelihood of opposition and persecution.  

As we reflect on this statement, there has not been a Christian yet who used correctly every possible occasion he had for witnessing for Jesus. We have all sat beside people on a train or a bus and not spoken to them about the Saviour. Is that what Jesus has in mind here by acknowledging him or denying him? If that scenario is the case, then Jesus will have to deny all of his people. The actual situation is more definite. I suspect that what is in view here is when a professing Christian gets asked about his relationship to Jesus, perhaps in a courtroom or maybe in any public situation. Will he then affirm that Jesus is his Saviour? Hopefully he will. Many have bravely testified to their faith in Jesus. Yet sometimes, the devoutest of Christians have had their weak moments and denied their Saviour, only to regret deeply their fall and repent of their denial, usually with the result that they later were penalised for their faith. The question we face is what would we normally say when we are asked whether or not we depend on Jesus and aim to follow him.  

The third saying connected to the Day of Judgement is that of rewards. Jesus mentions three options connected to this brief ministry of the disciples, and in the process indicates who the apostles were. The three options are prophet, righteous person and disciple. We should observe the greatness of the rewards – if we receive a prophet appropriately we will receive a prophet’s reward. Imagine the reward that a famous prophet will get and then realise that the one who helped him gets the same reward. Something similar is said about the response to the righteous person or to a disciple. What is the reward? The reward is glory. 

Another aspect of reward is mentioned by Jesus and that is its certainty. It was a bigger thing in the Middle East to give a cup of cold water to someone than it is for us. To give such water implies some effort to fetch and share what was needed by the person himself. There was a degree of sacrifice in the process. Yet even such a basic act of kindness will get a special, personal reward from Jesus. 

The Presence of God (Psalm 46)  

Psalm 46 is frequently called Martin Luther’s psalm. During the initial years of the Reformation when there was much hostility to him and his colleagues, he would often suggest to his friend Melanchthon that they should sing Psalm 46 because it assured them of divine help. Luther’s hymn, based on this psalm is translated into English under the title, ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God.’ 

This psalm is about the presence of God. We can see that is the case from the refrain in verses 7 and 11. His presence is described in two ways. In verses 1-7, it is his presence among his people (note the pronouns) and in verses 8-11 it is his presence everywhere else. Of course, many things can be said about the divine presence and it would not be possible to say everything in one short psalm.

In order to show the wonder of God’s presence, the psalmist considers what would happen in the worst possible scenario. So he mentions an earthquake in verses 2 and 3. We have all seen on the television and elsewhere the devastation that an earthquake causes. Of course, there is more than one kind of earthquake: there are political earthquakes, there are economic earthquakes, and there are social earthquakes in which powerful forces bring about changes that seem so powerful and threatening. We may be going through political and economic changes at present and we are certainly going through a social one.

How should we respond? This psalm tells us how we can do so. First, we need to see what it meant for the author and his contemporaries and then we can take lessons from it for ourselves. Regarding the time when this psalm was composed, no one knows, although that does not stop people making suggestions. It was obviously a time of potential crisis, as we can see from some the things mentioned by the psalmist.

God was with his people
The first response that the psalmist mentions is the bigness of God. He does not say that God is his refuge and strength. Instead, he says that he is capable of looking after all the people of God simultaneously. We are so used to saying such comments that we fail to see the wonder of this amazing reality. Yet this is the amazing fact about God. He can treat each of his people as if he or she was the only one who needed God.

Connected to the bigness of God is the nearness of God. The psalmist points out in verse 1 that God is there in difficult situations. Indeed, the author says that his presence is very certain – he does not say that God is a present help, but a very present help. We should not be surprised at this. The psalmist knew that God was the shepherd who never left his people, but was always there.

Third, we can see that the author focuses on the graciousness of God. It would not be comforting to know that a big God was near, if he was there to punish us for our faults. The psalmist would be aware of his own faults and he would be know that all the people of God had numerous personal faults. Yet to such, the Lord is their refuge and strength. A refuge provides safety and security, and strength gives energy for the situation. God says to them at all times, ‘Come to me to hide in the storm and come to me for power to endure the situation.’ This refuge and strength is not merely physical, it is also spiritual. It is not like hiding in a cave, in darkness, hoping that the enemy cannot see us. Instead, in his presence, we come into the light and we see things as they really are, like the author of Psalm 73 who discovered how insecure the opponents of God always are.

Fourth, the psalmist urges his readers, or fellow singers, to remind themselves of the serenity of the capital city. Jerusalem did not have a major river, instead it had the stream of Siloam. Yet it was a reminder that there was an ongoing source of refreshing water. More importantly, he knew that God was present with them in a special way in the temple. As long as they remained faithful to God, they would be protected by him, even from seemingly powerful enemies. His help could be known all day long, from the dawn of any day. And he could easily deal with any who attacked them.

Fifth, the psalmist noted that God was present with them in two ways. He describes him as the Lord of hosts and as the God of Jacob. The first title reminds us that he is the powerful Commander of the heavenly armies and the second title states that he is the gracious Friend of the individual believer. Israel had known supernatural help from the heavenly armies on numerous occasions. When we think of Jacob, we see a man whom God changed from being self-centred and manipulative into a man who walked with God through many unusual circumstances and trouble. And he still was the God of Jacob when this psalm was written even although Jacob had been dead for centuries.

Sixth, we are asked to observe God’s providence throughout the world. The point that is made in verses 8 and 9 is that God is active all over the earth. Sometimes, he brings judgements and at other times he brings an end to hostilities. Of course, he does much more than those two options. It is the case that God’s people often get so wrapped up in their situations that they fail to take notice of what he is doing elsewhere. They are reminded here that their God is the Lord of the world.

Probably, news was coming to Jerusalem that powerful empires were developing in other parts of the world. For most of their history, Egypt had been a threat, and towards the north there was Syria. The Assyrian empire perhaps had come to the fore by this time. What match did little Jerusalem seem to be in comparison to those powerful alternatives? How should the inhabitants of the city deal with this? By sitting down and thinking about God. They are to think of his purpose which is that he will be exalted in the earth, and they are to remind themselves of who he is, the Commander of the heavenly armies and the God of the individual believer.

It is possible that the command to be still is addressed to the nations who are scheming things and attempting to overturn the plans of God. If that is the correct interpretation, then the words of the psalmist could be regarded as a prayer for enemies rather than an exhortation to the faithful.

God is with his people

As mentioned earlier, we are going through a time of social earthquake in our society, with numerous changes having taken place in the last couple of decades. If all we did was look at the world through the eyes of merely human commentators we would get depressed and disillusioned, fearful and afraid. But we should want to be like this unknown psalmist, and we should be thankful that he has told us what to do.

First, we are to think of the bigness of God. We thought of how the psalmist stressed that God could be with all his people simultaneously. It is still the same today except to say that there are a lot more believers on earth today that actually existed in Israel or Judah at that time. There are probably more of his people in our country today that there were in Israel in the psalmist’s time. And when we add to our total the vast number of believers all over the world, and how each of them is under the care of God, then we sense something of his bigness. Jesus knows the name of each of his sheep.

Second, there is the nearness of God. We don’t know that much about the experience of believers in Old Testament times, mainly because we have never lived as such. The psalmist affirms that God was near them. The application for us is to ask how near he can be to us. When a sinner believes in Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes and lives in that person’s inner life, in his or her heart. That is very close. Moreover, the Holy Spirit comes to bring the Father close to his children and to bring Jesus close to his people. He is never far away from any of them.

Third, the gracious God is with us as our refuge and strength. Jesus said about his disciples that no one could snatch them out of his hand, which is a very secure situation; he then said that no one could pluck them out of his Father’s hand, which means that they are doubly secure. Paul reminded the Colossians that their lives were hidden with Christ in God. Moreover, as Paul wrote, a believer can do all things through Christ who gives them strength, which he does by the Holy Spirit. One amazing feature of this divine provision is that none of those millions who benefit from it deserve it.

Fourth, every believer today is a member of the capital city, the New Jerusalem, and they receive from it heavenly sources of spiritual refreshment. From the throne of God in that city a constant supply of grace comes down from the heavenly storehouse. Of course, the means of this supply is invisible, although the effects are not. The water supply of the earthly Jerusalem brought refreshment to a few thousand. In a far greater way, the water of life reaches its membership of millions wherever they are. And other forms of help also come from the heavenly city to its members. When they obey the Lord, there is serenity and security usually for them.

Fifth, God relates to his people today in both ways mentioned by the psalmist. As the Commander of the heavenly armies he arranges for the protection of his people. People laugh at the notion of a guardian angel and I have heard Christians dismiss this as possible. The only problem I have with the suggestion is why have it in the singular. The writer to the Hebrews informs us that all the angels are ministering spirits who constantly serve God by taking care of the heirs of salvation. And part of that care is protection. In addition, they have the tender care and life-transforming experience of being handled by the God of Jacob. If we want to know how God deals with his people, we should read often the story of Jacob. It gives hope for us all as we watch the Lord changing a swindler and a deceiver into a spiritual giant.

Sixth, the people of Israel were urged to take time and consider what God was doing throughout the world. Sometimes he sent judgements and at other times he sent blessings connected to common grace. We know an amazing secret, not that it is hidden, but since people don’t read the Bible they are in ignorance about it. The secret we know is that Jesus is head over all things for the sake of his body the church.

And we know that the sovereign Lord has not changed his purpose to be exalted in the earth. At times, we are too often in a hurry to consider and reflect, to absorb into our souls the promises in the Bible and the providences we are aware of. Why is the gospel flourishing in South America and Africa? Africa used to be called the dark continent, but things have changed. God is at work to increase his glory, and when we take time to think about or read about what he is doing, it gives confidence and joy to discover what is taking place.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Millennium (Rev 20)  

The meaning of the thousand years is very much discussed today. Probably, the most popular idea about it is that it refers to a thousand-year reign of Jesus on earth. This period is regarded as commencing after Jesus returns and then reigns in Jerusalem for a millennium. Many devout believers have held and do hold to this idea. Indeed, most of the ones I have known, and I was converted in a Brethren assembly, were convinced that such an interpretation of Revelation 20 is obvious.

In addition to that premillennial interpretation, there are two other views. The post-millennial view, as the name implies, is advocated by those who believe Christ will come after the millennium. In their case, the millennium is a long period of gospel prosperity that will be followed by a brief period of worldwide departure from the gospel. This idea puts the second coming of Jesus far into the future. Many people in the past held this view, but it is not so common today.

The third view is the amillennial view and its endorsers regard the millennium as symbolic of the present age which covers the period between the two comings of Jesus.

How should we interpret the passage? Here are some suggestions.

First, we should recognise that it may be inappropriate to take the thousand years as a literal period of time. After all, many if not most of the numbers mentioned in this book are not literal. It is better to take the thousand years as representing two things. First, it refers to a long time and, second, it refers to a fixed time. Since the Lord is the controller of time, we can see in this description a reference to his patience and his sovereignty. His patience is seen in the length and his sovereignty is seen in that he decides how long the period will be.

Second, who is affected by the thousand years? The devil is affected by it and those who had died for Jesus had been affected by it. During this period, the influence of the devil is curtailed and the martyrs reign for the thousand years.

Third, it helps us to see what is happening when we realise that four different events are described in the chapter and we will focus on each of them briefly. They are (1) the binding of the devil, (2) the reign of the martyrs, (3) the defeat of God’s enemies and (4) the day of judgement.

The binding of the devil

What is meant by the curtailing of the devil? In the account, he is chained and thrown into a bottomless pit and a secure lid is placed over it. The imagery of this pit suggests that devil finds it impossible to get out of this curtailment. He is always falling down the pit, and even if he managed to reverse this he cannot get past the lid. The reason why he is placed within this pit is to prevent him from deceiving the nations for the period of the thousand years.

We should ask a couple of questions at this stage. First, when was the period when the devil deceived the nations? One answer would be that he did so during the centuries before Jesus came to the cross. Since Jesus ascended to heaven and began to build his worldwide church, it cannot be said that all the nations are deceived. So we can deduce that during that period the devil is prevented from hindering the complete spread of the gospel.

A second question concerns the nature of the binding. If the period of the church is the same as the thousand years, we can see lots of places where the devil seems to hold millions in spiritual blindness. The binding does not mean that he is inactive. Instead it means that he cannot do what he used to do. God limits the range of the devil’s influence.

It is possible that the angel who imprisons the devil is the Saviour. After all, in Jude when the archangel Michael was involved in a dispute with the devil, he won the victory with divine help and not by his angelic strength. It takes a divine being to limit the activities of the devil, and Jesus is divine. Jesus spoke in Luke 11:21-22 of binding the devil.

Here, the devil is said to be the ancient serpent mentioned in Genesis 3 as the creature who tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. On that occasion, the Lord announced that a Champion would come and defeat the serpent. That prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus defeated the devil at the cross.

There are several comforts that we can take from this reality. First, the binding is evidence that God is in control. Second, the activity of Jesus on the cross included defeating the devil and the removal of his power over the nations. Jesus did defeat the powers of darkness when he was on the cross, as Paul states in Colossians 2:15. Third, during this long period represented by the thousand years, the gospel will triumph among the nations as the kingdom of Jesus progresses.  

The experience of the martyrs

John sees thrones but we are not told where they are located. Given that the description is similar to previous descriptions of the heavenly throne room, it is likely that John was shown what was taking place in heaven at that time. He saw rulers, which may be a reference to angels, but more likely refers to believers who have died. Then he mentions those who had been martyred for the sake of Jesus (including John’s own brother James). They reign with Jesus during the thousand years. Their coming to life is said to be the first resurrection, yet what is surprising about them is that John does not see their bodies. Instead he sees their souls. This also would suggest that the location of the thrones is heaven.

Here we have information about what the righteous dead are engaged in during this period of a thousand years. In heaven, they function as priests and kings. As priests, they participate in the worship of God and of Christ, and as kings they reign with Jesus. We don’t know what or how those contributions take place. Yet we can deduce several details from the description. First, they are conscious, involved in the life of heaven. Second, they are consecrated to divine service. Third, they will experience the work of the Spirit – this is implied in their roles as kings and priests because such were anointed for their tasks. Fourth, they have communion with God and with Jesus.

After the thousand years

Earlier John had been told that the devil would be released for a little while after the period represented by the thousand years was over. Within that brief period, the devil deceives the nations and leads them in an attack on the kingdom of Jesus. The imagery is taken from the book of Ezekiel where Gog and Magog attacked the holy land and were destroyed there by God. A similar outcome occurs here, with the devil’s army destroyed, and he is given special punishment, similar to how the beast and false prophet were dealt with. This is obviously not a literal battlefield. The people of God are not located in a literal camp and city.

Yet we can learn some important truths from this description. First, God is going to have complete victory. Second, large numbers of people will be willing to join an attempt to dethrone God. Third, however bad things are today from a spiritual point of view, they can get a lot worse.

The Great White Throne

John is given an awesome description of the final judgement day. It will be a day of cosmic upheaval. The description is of an ancient trial in which a king judges his enemies. Unlike our trials, there is not a jury. Everyone who is at it is described as dead – they have experienced the first death because they are about to experience the second death. They have undergone a physical resurrection, and all will be there no matter how their lives ended. Evidence will be presented about their lives – this is the point of the books – and each is judged for his or her own actions.

Some matters to observe are these. First, there is the awesomeness of the Judge – his presence causes disturbances. This is probably a description of Jesus, although it could be a reference to the Father. Second, there is the accuracy of the book of life – only those whose names are in it will not be punished by the Judge. Third, there is the size of the assembly – all those who have defied God.

Fourth, there is the complete triumph of God – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the last enemy that will be destroyed is death and here it and the temporary place of the dead are overthrown (tossed into the lake of fire). There will be found the beast (the political opponents), the false prophet (the religious opponents), the devil (the leader of the opponents), death (the consequence of the opponents’ practices) and the place of the dead (Hades) – all of them will experience the second death forever. Jesus will have defeated them all. 

Some thoughts

It looks to me that here John uses the word resurrection to describe heaven and the word ‘death’ to describe the places where sin will abound (whether on earth today or in the lake of fire). He does not say that the first resurrection is spiritual regeneration, which is how we often use it. Instead he uses it to describe what happens to the martyrs when their souls get to heaven and are crowned. Other believers also experience the first resurrection when their souls enter heaven.

The thousand years does not refer to a literal millennium – instead it covers the length of time between when Jesus bound the devil until shortly before he returns as judge. Nor does the thousand years refer to what happens in a restored holy land – instead it covers everything that happens anywhere between the binding and the final rebellion. Today we are living somewhere in the thousand years. It is not a literal number, but a symbolic one.

As far as the binding of Satan is concerned, Jesus gave foretastes of it during his years of public ministry. He showed he could the devil during the temptations in the wilderness and every time he delivered someone from demon possession. When his disciples were used to deliver someone from demon possession, it was evidence of the Saviour’s ability to bind the devil. Paul says in Colossians 2:15 that when Jesus was on the cross he made a public display of the devil’s defeat.

I would suggest that the aim of this chapter is twofold. One is to show the completeness of the victory of God illustrated by the binding of the devil, the defeat of the rebellious army, and the verdicts from the great white throne. The other is the glory enjoyed in heaven by departed saints, whether or not they were martyrs. They are blessed beyond words. They are perfect in holiness and they function as priests and kings in the presence of Jesus.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Praying for Preachers (Matthew 9:35-38)

Verses 35-38 contain one of the best-known statements of Jesus concerning prayer for the growth of his kingdom. It reveals the place of prayer in the fulfilling of the divine purpose. Here is a reminder that everything we do should be preceded by prayer. 

The ministry of Jesus 

Obviously, Jesus was engaged in a busy preaching ministry. We are told where he preached, how he preached, and why he preached. The locations where he preached are said to be the synagogues. One reason for this would be the fact that people gathered there and he had access to speak in them because he was recognised as a rabbi. We should observe that he did not only go to prominent places, but went to the next one that came his way, whether it was in a large town or small village. 

Regarding how he preached, we are told that his sermons included two features – he taught and he proclaimed. Obviously, the teaching describes the content of his sermons – he provided information. Proclamation describes how he taught. He spoke with real authority. It is not possible to ignore a proclamation. We may not like it what is proclaimed, we may reject what is proclaimed, but we will be aware of what has been proclaimed. 

Why did Jesus have such a ministry, which in addition to teaching and proclamation also included comprehensive healing of diseases and other troubles? The basic reason was that he was showing to people that he was the promised Messiah. Those features were predicted in the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Saviour. So we can see that Jesus provided the public with plenty evidences as to who he was and why he was here. 

The theme of the preaching of Jesus was the gospel of the kingdom. He declared that another kingdom would soon appear of which he would be the king. Usually, an announcement of such a possibility would have caused trepidation because it could imply war and trouble for those the new ruler would attack. In contrast, the kingdom that Jesus was concerned with was good news for those in need of pardon, for those whose lives were without peace, and for those who did have real prospects. His kingdom would give the blessings of pardon, peace and prospect to all joined it by repenting of their sins and trusting in him. 

The heart of Jesus 

Sometimes we say of a person that he or she has a big heart. By it, we mean that they can embrace and care about a lot of people at the same time. It is obvious from this description of Jesus that he had a very big heart because his heart embraced the crowds that came to listen to him. 

The word that is used to describe the response of Jesus is compassion. There are different ways to see a crowd. Some people are attracted by a crowd, perhaps because it provides security. Others have apprehension of a crowd, perhaps because it might get out of control. Jesus’ response was to feel for them – the word translated as compassion is connected to the inner entrails of a person. He felt an overwhelming sense of love for them. After all, he perfectly loved his neighbour at all times and what else should we expect from him on any occasion but love? 

What was it about them that drew his compassion? Matthew tells us that Jesus saw they were living without care. He recognised in them the traits one would see in a flock without a shepherd. They were without direction, without provision, without protection and without restoration if hurt. We know that a sheep without such care will soon die, for one reason or another. Jesus wanted them to experience the shepherd care of his kingdom. 

Who or what was harassing those people? We can mention several reasons: one was that they were not depending on God to be their shepherd; a second was that each of them had a predator who was determined to destroy them – the devil; a third was that they were looking for spiritual provision and refreshment in the wrong places; a fourth was that the cause of God seemed weak and religion did not give them much satisfaction. 

The description of the people as being harassed and helpless is one that could apply at any period of time. After all, the various features I have just mentioned could apply as much today as it did back then. The fact that this is the case should create sympathy within our hearts for the needy people all around us. It is good that we know that Jesus still has a big heart that is full of compassion, and his big heart recognises the needs of his people.  

One is meant to ask where the shepherds are. Here we have a description of sheep who have been abandoned by their shepherds. It is not difficult to work out that the Saviour, the true Shepherd, is condemning the false shepherds who lived in Israel at that time. This is not the only occasion when Jesus did this. The false shepherds were the religious leaders, people like the Pharisees and the priests, who claimed to be serving God, but in fact were not because they way in which they would serve him would be by providing protection and provision for those who needed it. 

What would we expect the remedy from Jesus to be? After all, he has all power and all wisdom. The way he answered such a possible question is to change the imagery from shepherding to farming, and to the time of harvest.  

The challenge of Jesus 

The response of Jesus to the situation was to explain it to his disciples and then command them to pray about it. His explanation was that the harvest time had arrived and that there was the potential for a good harvest. The problem was that there were not many labourers working in the harvest field. 

A question that comes to mind is whether Jesus is only referring to that period when he says that the labourers were few. Obviously he was describing what it was like at the time he spoke because as yet he had not even sent out his chosen apostles to preach. Who else was preaching? John the Baptist had been arrested and could no longer declare his message to the crowds. But even after the twelve began to preach, it was obvious that there was a need for many more. And that is still the case today, even although there may be millions of preachers throughout the world. John Calvin made this comment about the church of his time: ‘There never was greater necessity for offering this prayer than during the fearful desolation of the church which we now see everywhere around us. 

A second question that will arise concerns the type of labourers that Jesus wants to get involved in the harvest. He knew that these men would soon be sent out by him on a first attempt at preaching, but before he sent them out he wanted them to have a prayer burden about the number of labourers that were needed. In addition to having a desire to spread the message, they had to have a prayer life that brought them into real contact with the Lord of the harvest. 

What does it mean to pray earnestly? At a basic level, it means to pray with energy. But where does spiritual energy come from? One answer is that it comes from spending time with Jesus. These disciples were able to do so in a physical way and they would have observed his attitudes about the harvest and his desire for others to get involved. What is the energy required for this kind of praying? The energy that is needed is that which comes from love in one’s heart for the glory of God and the good of man. We find that energy by spending time with Jesus in his Word.  

We should also observe the title that Jesus gives to the heavenly Father here – he is the Lord of the harvest. This title points to the Father as the one who owns the field. At that time, the field was the nation of Israel and in the next chapter Jesus sends out his disciples into that field. The owner of the people of Israel was the Father. He had made them for himself and there they were, waiting in a sense for labourers to come. 

The heavenly Father has more than that field now. There are fields ready for labourers all over the world. All the fields belong to him because he is the Creator of each person who lives in them. It changes the estimation we have of places when we realise that they are in the middle of fields ready to be harvested. 

What kind of person does Jesus want in the fields of the Father? He wants labourers. A labourer is someone that works hard and does what his Master wishes.  


We can learn several important lessons from this brief command by Jesus to his disciples. The first is that he is informing them that he will not be the one to complete the mission as far as contacting people is concerned. Obviously, historically he would be present for another year and more, and spiritually he will always be present whenever someone is converted. But he would not be there physically, as we know. 

A second lesson is that the disciples would always have to look ahead and pray to God to send more labourers. The ones to whom Jesus was speaking would receive from him incredible gifts, yet their time would pass and others would be needed to take their places. So even in the present activities they would show they had their eyes on the future as well by praying for more labourers.