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Before we look at this week’s scripture, we need to remember:
The Bible was not originally divided into chapters, verses, or sections, nor did it have section headings or titles. In fact, if you looked at the original text, you would see that it was simply one enormously long string of letters, without so much as a single punctuation mark or space between words!
Why is this important? Most publishers split todays’ scripture into three parts—two chapters and three sections. If we take the publisher’s organization to be God’s divine structure, then we miss the continuity across the whole passage—and thus we miss the point of it, too. We might conclude, as many artists have over the centuries, that the selection and sending of the apostles was a formal and self-contained occasion—rather than (as the scripture shows us) a revelation of a particularly deep and recurring theme in God’s character.
With that in mind, and with our finger blotting out the section titles and chapter divisions, our scripture for the week is:
If we read all three parts together as one episode, we understand that Jesus sent out the twelve disciples specifically because he had compassion on the crowds who were always trailing after him. Matthew 9:36 says that Jesus saw the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd”—a phrase which reveals much about God’s character.
First, it reveals that Jesus is God. Why? Because throughout the Old Testament, God keeps bringing up this very point again and again and again: The people whom God appoints to watch over his sheep are either asleep or running away at the first sign of danger. This lament can be found as early as Numbers 27:17 and continuing on in Kings 22:17 and Ezekiel 34:5. God keeps bringing it up.
Remember, the Bible was not written to be a series of stories. The Bible was inspired by God to be a continuous revelation of God’s character. So just because Numbers ends does not mean that the story ends with it. When Jesus looks upon the crowds and sees them as sheep without a shepherd, it is not an isolated event but the continuation of a millennia-old divine beef. Jesus’ compassion is built upon the anguish and compassion that God has always felt about the poor shepherding of his people—and which God will always feel about his people.
If sheep are left alone, they wander. Wandering sheep are a danger to themselves: they can fall into deep chasms or be eaten by wild beasts. A wandering sheep is never safe.
Thus, God turns to his appointed shepherds. He appointed them, but they are not looking after his people. This is one of God’s deepest ongoing concerns: not that his people be “happy” but that they be properly shepherded.
If you have ever watched a shepherd at work, you know that keeping a sheep safe does not mean keeping the sheep happy or in love with the shepherd. Shepherds even use dogs to frighten sheep into staying in a safe area. They use staves or crooks to yank the sheep back into place. If a sheep repeatedly wanders away, a shepherd may break the sheep’s leg. The shepherd will then keep the sheep close to him as it heals, so that the sheep may become accustomed to his presence.
In many cases, the sheep he watches over might not belong to him. Despite this, he will constantly put himself in harm’s way to ensure the sheep’s safety.
In the Old Testament, we read that King David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Part of the reason for this is because King David began life as a shepherd. In 1 Samuel 17:34-35, David tells Saul about his life as a shepherd:
I used to keep sheep for my father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.
Whenever a wild animal attacked the sheep, David would come between the creature and his sheep. He would hazard his own life to save his father’s sheep. This was why when God saw David, he said, “This is the man I want in charge of my people.” This was why the Bible says that David has God’s own heart.
How do we know? Because when God became man, this was exactly what he did for us.
This is God’s leadership standard for anyone: the pastor, the youth leader, the politician, the mother, and even the friend. Over our lifetime, God entrusts a myriad of people—his people—to our care. He gives us family members, friends, and co-workers. He does not give us these people to benefit us. We are not supposed to use them to please ourselves or submit ourselves to please them. They were given to us to shepherd: God wants us to keep them on the narrow path to him.
If they wander, we are expected to grab our shepherd’s crook and drag them back. “The Lord holds me accountable for your wellbeing,” we need to tell them. “And I’m willing to lay down my life for that.”
This highest standard of care arises from God’s heart. In fact, in Ezekiel 34:25, God becomes so frustrated with human leaders that he promises, “I myself will tend to my sheep and have them lie down.”
Then Jesus comes.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says (John 10:11). When Jesus says this, he isn’t just painting a pretty metaphor: he’s revealing that he is God.
In the Old Testament, God promised that he would shepherd over Israel. Now he is here—in the form of a man—and this is exactly what he is doing in our scripture this week.
Immediately before the scripture this week, Jesus was teaching in the Synagogue. The religious leaders had seen him strengthen the legs of a paralyzed man, raise a girl from the dead, give sight to two blind men, and, most recently, heal a demon-oppressed man. Yet they muttered, “He does this through the devil” (Matthew 9:34).
The religious leaders, who God had charged with leading people to him, could not recognize God—even when he stood right in front of them. They even said he was in league with the devil!
Yet wherever Jesus went, God’s people followed.
When Jesus saw these people, he was “moved with compassion” (Matthew 9:34). The original Greek is much more graphic: When Jesus saw the crowds, his guts twisted in pain. What Jesus felt was much deeper than compassion. Because of this gut-wrenching instinct, he ordered his twelve closest followers out on the road.
The “Sending of the Twelve” was not a glorious and formal affair. There was no ceremony on the mountaintop. It was instead an event birthed in the deep, biting pain that Christ felt upon seeing his lost sheep. It was more like an emergency than a graduation ceremony. Jesus barked out rapid-fire instructions: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8).
Then Jesus reminds us of a crucial truth: “You received without paying; give without pay” (Matthew 10:8). In other words, never forget that everything you have came from me. If God tells us to go out—if God entrusts us with people—it does not mean that we have special standing or that we should be treated well, or that we should expect anything (like sheep-gratitude) in return.
More than anyone, we leaders should be humble. We should know that everything that is given to us comes from Christ and that Christ is the shepherd—not us. We are sheep. Sheep who have travelled with the shepherd long enough to recognize his voice, but sheep first and last.
If we are only sheep, how can we possibly lead other sheep?
Think about cows that live on a farm. Every morning, a bell is rung and the cows are released into the grazing lands. Without the urging of the rancher, the cows walk out to the pasture in a long and tidy line. Why? Because the cows leading the line have followed the rancher to the pasture so many times that they know where the pasture is and why they are headed there.
Notice, the lead cow does not snap orders at the other cows. He does not have a special costume or live in a special barn. He does not demand that other cows bow down to him. He simply knows where he is going and why. As Christian leaders, all we are is the lead cow. We are in front because we have travelled this path for so long, not because we are more worthy or holy.
Christ has returned to shepherd his people. He has reached out to us and walked with us. Because he has walked with us, he expects us to lead others along this path as well. However, we should know that leading others along this path will cost us everything—just as it cost Christ everything to lead us.