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“Jesus, the Crowds, and Compassion, Part 1”

Mark 6:30-34, Matthew 9:35-38
Bob DeGray
July 10, 2016

Key Sentence

In compassion, Jesus ministers to our minds and hearts.


I. Compassion teaches (Mark 6:30-34)
II. Compassion prioritizes the Gospel (Matthew 9:35-38)


Our ministry plan for 2016 is focused on the concept of compassionate outreach, of showing the love of Jesus to those in need or want, sharing the Gospel in both words and deeds. In Sunday School we’ve been studying “Helping Without Hurting,” which among other things emphasizes what I call the four broken relationships. People, the authors say, were made to be in perfect relationships with God, others, self and with creation. But at the fall those relationships were broken. So people are impoverished by their lack of relationship with God, conflict and hurt with others, shame, guilt and self-misunderstanding, as well as by material poverty. So it shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus addresses all broken relationships in his words and deeds. When he compassionately confronts a crowd, he doesn’t just address their material needs, but also their lack of understanding of their lives and their lack of relationship with God.

When the elders and I parceled out the Scripture texts for this series, I claimed the four texts that I’ll be focusing on this week and next, because I love what they show. We know Jesus often felt compassion, but in these four texts he felt that compassion for a crowd of people, and each time he responded differently. It’s extraordinary. Once he fed the crowd. Once he healed. Once he taught and once he emphasized the Good News of the Gospel. We’ll look at those last two incidents today as we get to know that compassionate outreach of Jesus.

Before we do I want to introduce to one of my Puritan friends, Richard Baxter. He lived from 1615 to 1691, spanning the tumult of the English Revolution. Through all this he lived an exemplary Puritan and Christian life. If you can’t tell, I take Puritan not in its modern derogatory, legalistic sense, but in a most positive sense of a people who said “all of life is God’s” and strove to live in godliness in every aspect of every day of life, heart, soul, mind and strength. Baxter, who was hardly well a day in his adult life, nonetheless thought and labored after his own godliness and that of others to an extraordinary degree and we have in his writings Christian classics like The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, A Call to the Unconverted, and, The Reformed Pastor, his manual of instruction to preachers and shepherds which grew out of his own experience.

In 1641 Baxter was called to be the preacher at Kiddeminster, near Birmingham, England. The town was known for its focus on sports and games, its many alehouses and houses of ill repute and the lack of solid Christian preaching in all of its churches. What could an often bedridden young man like Richard Baxter do in such an environment? Well, he had Jesus as his model and so he came to Kiddeminster with a passion for the Gospel and a heart to teach.

We have Jesus as our model as well, and we can imitate his compassion, which ministers to both minds and hearts. He shows compassion by teaching in Mark 6. The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.

Although the word is not used in the first part of the text, notice that Jesus first has compassion on the disciples. Because of the success of their ministry and the popularity of Jesus, they are overwhelmed with busyness. The end of verse 31 sounds like the plight people face today: “many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat.” So many of us live with that level of busyness. So Jesus says to them, as I’m sure he says to us “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” That’s compassion, but we often miss it. I’m guilty of taking such pride in my busyness that I won’t stop even a single day to truly rest. But that is exactly what Jesus offers: “I will give you rest.”

But in this case, not through any lack of power, but through the largeness of his own compassion, it doesn’t work. Jesus and the disciples were crossing the lake in a boat, never a particularly fast form of travel. The crowds, seeing them leave and guessing where they are going, run around the lake on foot and get there first. It reminds of the famous response to the ministry of evangelist George Whitfield in colonial Connecticut “As I drew nearer it seemed like a steady stream of horses and their riders, scarcely a horse more than his length behind another, all of a lather and foam with sweat, their breath rolling out of their nostrils in the cloud of dust; every horse seemed to go with all his might to carry his rider to hear news from heaven for the saving of Souls.”

So this huge crowd runs around and confronts Jesus and his weary disciples. Jesus could have said “go away, leave us alone.” But he doesn’t. Verse 34: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The Greek word for “compassion” is splanchnizomai. It literally means ‘his bowels were moved.’ Or I like to say ‘gut wrenching.’ You know this feeling. An unexpected event, or a shocking bit of news, or the sight of someone in great need makes the pit of your stomach feel like you’ve just jumped off a cliff. This is how Jesus often felt. The word is used ten times in Matthew, Mark and Luke, including these four times when he was confronted by a crowd, even an inconvenient crowd.

What was the need that sparked this compassion? Jesus saw this crowd as “sheep without a shepherd.” That great phrase is used in both of texts we’re looking at this morning. Sheep are well known for being stupid. Without a shepherd to guide and care for them they’ll wander off, die of hunger, fall off a cliff or just fall over. They can’t care for themselves. Somehow we know that without someone to care for us, guide us and guard us, we are helpless and hopeless.

In fact, in our Matthew text, this crowd, sheep without a shepherd, is described as ‘harassed and helpless,’ or ‘distressed and dispirited.’ Literally ‘torn up and thrown down.’ They have become prey. In the Old Testament God blamed the leaders of Israel for this distress. Ezekiel 34: "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds care for the flock? . . . You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled harshly and brutally.” So God says he will remove those shepherds and himself give this care. In Micah 5, the Bethlehem prophecy, he says of the Messiah: “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they will live securely.”

Jesus claimed this prophecy for himself, “I am the good shepherd . . . I lay down my life for the sheep.” When he sees people who are abused and mistreated, who have suffered injustice, who need his care and rescue, he sees lost sheep. He wants to help them, heal them, and teach them. That’s remarkable. We expect to see compassion lead to helping and healing, but we don’t associate it with teaching. We should. Those who can’t care for themselves may not need a handout, but rather a new way of thinking for a new way of life, to see and respond to the world from God’s perspective. This is what Jesus taught people.

We see this in the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount and the parables. Jesus taught about heart religion and the nature of truth faith. He taught how to live in a fallen world while pushing back against sin, anxiety, fear and self-justification. He taught that the one who would say ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ would receive God’s grace, that prodigal sons would be welcomed.

When we think about compassionate outreach, especially to those whose brokenness isolates them from their own hearts and from deep relationships, we should find ourselves teaching these truths, as Richard Baxter did in Kiddeminster. He taught and taught the basics of Christian life and life in community. He gained so much experience teaching these things that he wrote a million word book on pastoral care, addressing such subjects as Bible study and prayer and community, but also marriage and family and parenting and characteristic sins like lust and anger, and what we would today call depression.

And he didn’t just teach from the pulpit. One of the characteristics of Puritan ministry and of Richard Baxter’s ministry in particular was that he taught ‘from house to house,’ meeting with families and individuals to woo their hearts into a more passionate and confident walk with the Lord. So when we think of compassionate outreach, we must not rule out simple things like having an open door into our small groups, and hosting Good News clubs, and maybe especially the Awana program where children are reached with the Good News about Jesus and then taught to walk with him.

What this means is you and I are called to see the needs of those around us, to act as the eyes and the voice of Jesus. We are to see how helpless people are, how lost, how trapped in lies, how firmly on a road to self-destruction. We are to tell of his love, calling people to a Spirit-given recognition of their sin and to growth as disciples. This week’s events, the tragic deaths of both men of color and police officers have shown us the depths of a broken and sinful world. We are to teach the hurting the heart of Jesus, his strength in inability, his peace in anxiety, his wisdom in perplexity. This is compassionate outreach.

But the key thing we are to teach, the heart of compassionate outreach to the mind and to the heart is the good news about Jesus, the Gospel, as our other passage shows. Matthew 9:35-38 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. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

These verses come at the end of two fast-paced chapters where Matthew balances the concentrated teaching of the Sermon on the Mount with a clear depiction of Jesus at work: celebrating faith; calming a storm; challenging the Pharisees; forgiving sin; healing the diseased and dying. Verse 35 pulls this together by reminding the reader that these activities were accompanied by the teaching of the good news, which Matthew calls the Gospel of the kingdom.’ The kingdom was a central theme of Jesus’ ministry. David Mains, in his book ‘Thy Kingship Come’ says that the kingdom is any situation in which (1) Christ is recognized as king, (2) his will is obeyed, and (3) obedient subject reap the benefits of his reign. This is good news for sinful fallen people, the Good News of a messiah who came to seek and save the lost. The kingdom is the present reign of Christ in the lives of those who trust him, the future, eternal reign of Christ when he returns to reign, and the revolutionary reign of Christ as he turns upside down the world’s self-centered brokenness.

Jesus was a radical. When he brought the good news of the kingdom, he didn’t focus it on the wealthy, powerful or outwardly pious. His focus was on the common people, the poor, the needy, the downtrodden, the oppressed, hungry, sick, broken, sinful. He introduced his ministry saying “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” Jesus had the audacity to share meals with tax collectors and sinners; he called fishermen and zealots to be his followers; he fed the hungry and cared about women and children; his Gospel was radically different than the world’s system.

But most of all, his Gospel of this kingdom was about heart change, both for salvation and for right living. And heart change means that we begin to have the same priorities and values Jesus did as we live our lives. In particular, we want to see people as Jesus saw them. Verse 36: When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. This is the same thing we saw in the last section. Jesus saw people as wandering and lost, torn and distressed, and abandoned by the all the shepherds he had appointed until he came as the good shepherd.

So when Jesus sees people he sees those in need of his care and his rescue. He sees lost sheep, those the good shepherd will go to anything length to seek and save. He sees them as harassed, helpless, distressed, dispirited, and he wants to help them, heal them, teach them and bring them the good news of the kingdom for their present, for their future. What are we supposed to see when we look at people? If we learn to see with the eyes of Jesus we will see beyond the façade, beyond the surface appearance, beyond the stereotypes, and sense real needs. The simple truth is that all people, at some time, are harassed and dispirited and discouraged and feel like lost sheep. Even those who seem to have the most confidence, the most material success, the most bravado, the thickest skin, the most anger, the greatest indifference; even those people have these needs. The secret of seeing like Jesus is to see a person you’d normally dismiss or even dislike as one who is at some level hurting and needy.

But these crowds, like most people we meet, were not made up of those hotly opposed to Jesus, but by contrast they were simply the people of the land, who had been badly served by their leaders and their conquerors, lived in a difficult time and place, and were in need of help, physical, emotion and spiritual. In other words, these were just the ordinary people you meet every day. We tend to not see such people at all, or to judge them without knowing them, but Jesus sees with compassion and wants to help, wants to meet their needs, has no thought of condemnation, wants to rescue them from their ignorance and sin.

When we see people as Jesus sees them we will have compassion because we know what it means to be dispirited, cast down, shepherdless, but we have found the shepherd. Ultimately when we see people as Jesus sees, we want for them what Jesus wants, a relationship that rescues. Verses 37 and 38: 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Jesus switches the image from a flock of lost sheep to a harvest ready to be reaped. But the harvest and the sheep are metaphors for the same thing: people who need our compassion. The description of sheep perhaps focuses our attention on the distress of the people around us, suffering and needy. But the description of the harvest focuses us on the foundation, the Gospel we teach, the core need for people to turn from sin and place their faith and trust in the Savior, to be rescued and forgiven and receive eternal life.

And Jesus says that this harvest of redeemed lives is ready, ripe, urgent. Too often we don’t see it that way. We see people as inflexibly closed to the Gospel message, unlikely to accept it, probably hostile to our attempts to share it. The question is, whose eyes will you believe, yours or his? He says the harvest is ready. Isn’t he’s the expert in this area? He sees hearts. He sees the ache and the hurt that is hidden by bravado or push back. We need to see as Jesus sees, or at least trust him to guide us where we cannot see, and believe he is still in the business of bringing in the harvest, of saving souls.

But God’s grace we can begin to see with his eyes that the harvest field is white, and begin to want what he wants: workers for the harvest field. He wants to use people to bring this harvest in, because this is a relational ministry; this is establishing Christ centered relationships with the needy so that we can love them as Jesus loves and share the only hope that lost people will ever need.

He says ‘look at those harvest fields and then pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.’ This is remarkable: Jesus does not say ‘you go harvest this field, you be the workers.’ Instead He calls on them to pray asking God to send the workers. Now we know that in the next chapter Jesus does sent his disciples into the harvest, so he’s not ruling that out, but he’s emphasizing the priority of prayerful dependence on God. Ultimately God is the Lord of this harvest.

But Jesus also knows that what we pray for we tend to seek and celebrate, so if we pray this way it is likely that we will soon see ourselves as among those thus called. Notice that he does not say ‘Pray for God to bring in this harvest,’ but rather ‘pray for God to send people out into this harvest field.’ Again, this is because Christ-centered, Christ-honoring, Christ-obeying relationships are the vehicle God uses to bring in the harvest.

Jesus could appear in a cloud in the sky and call people directly to himself. And on some very rare occasions he does that. But the vast, vast majority of believers through the centuries have been saved because some person, in relationship, shared the Bible’s Good News and the call to faith in Christ. As Paul says in Romans “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” We are sent by God so that through human relational means of sharing and hearing and believing needy people might be saved.

This was the foundational core of the ministry and teaching of Richard Baxter, his compassionate outreach. He saw the field as ripe for harvest. He wrote “When I first came, there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on His Name, and when I came away there were some streets where there was not past one family in the side of a street that did not so; and that did not by professing serious godliness, give us hopes of their sincerity.” J. I Packer writes “the key element in his success, humanly speaking, was undoubtedly the clarity, force, and skill with which he communicated the gospel itself. The content of Baxter's gospel was not in any way distinctive. It was the historic, evangelical, New Testament message of ruin, redemption, and regeneration. Baxter called for conversion from the life of thoughtless self-centeredness and sin to Jesus Christ, the crucified Savior and risen Lord, and he spelled out in great detail what this must mean in terms of repentance, faith, and new obedience. He saw the unconverted as on the road to hell, and as spiritually asleep, not recognizing their danger, so he set himself both in the pulpit and in his personal [ministry] to wake them up and persuade them to thoroughgoing Christian commitment before it was too late.”

In other words, he saw the fields white for harvest and shared the Lord’s compassion, teaching and proclaiming the Gospel to those who were like sheep without a shepherd. He once wrote “I was once wont to look but little further than England in my prayers, as not considering the state of the rest of the world ... But now, as I better understand the case of the world and the method of the Lord's Prayer ... no part of my prayers are so deeply serious as that for the conversion of the infidel and ungodly world ... " Compassionate outreach sees the lost sheep of the world and like Jesus, it teaches and proclaims the Gospel. Next week we’ll see that Jesus also saw and responded to material needs, but it’s good to know that in compassion he ministered to hearts and minds, and that he calls us to do the same.