A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 13, 2019.
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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:35–38).
The Word of the Lord came to the prophet Ezekiel saying,
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 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; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34:2–6).
This tragic prophetic word reveals that Israel’s kings had enjoyed their self-promotion and self-preservation at the expense of their citizens, the sheep of their flock. As a result, God promised judgment upon them, for they were more wolves than shepherds.
God also promised that He would search for and seek out His sheep, rescuing them from scattered places, gathering them back together (Ezek. 34:11-13). He promised to restore their souls on green pastures, still waters, and tables of bounty. What Israel’s kings had failed to do, the Lord would do Himself, declaring, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice” (Ezek. 34:16). What God prophesied He would do. But, when and how would He do it? God said, “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd” (Ezek. 37:24a).
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1), and from Abraham to David to “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (Matt. 1:16), we are introduced to the Shepherd of the kingdom of heaven. He came, unlike the evil kings before Him, as the Good Shepherd (John 10:14), showing compassion for His sheep, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Therefore, we see the Shepherd of the kingdom’s ministry to the lost sheep in His kingdom message, kingdom miracles, and kingdom mission.
Matt. 9:35-38 serves as a summary of Jesus’ ministry up to this point as well as a transition to His mission revealed in the following chapters. So, this passage is pivotal within Matthew’s Gospel in the continuity of the historical narrative. The first message heard from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is short and sweet: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), which Jesus consistently carried “throughout all the cities and villages” of the region. Into the synagogues He went to worship but also to teach the scriptures, and to preach “the gospel of the kingdom.”
What specifically is “the gospel of the kingdom”? What is this kingdom message? The word translated “gospel” means “good news.” This message of good news was not open-ended optimism but was specifically attached to “the kingdom,” the kingdom of heaven (as Matthew often refers to it) or the kingdom of God. What is so good about the kingdom of heaven, or that it is “at hand”? The phrase “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God,” or as Matthew abbreviates it here simply as “kingdom,” is a New Testament turn of the Old Testament phrase “YHWH reigns” (or “the LORD reigns”). The Lord is the King of His kingdom, and as such He reigns over it.
Matthew helpfully describes it often as the “kingdom of heaven,” revealing the distinction between the earthly and heavenly kingdom, and of course God reigns over both but in differing ways. The good news, or gospel of Jesus’ kingdom message is that His coming is the commencement of what had been prophesied through Zechariah: “the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one” (Zech. 14:9). The King had come in the lowly form of Jesus of Nazareth. The King had come as a Shepherd for His sheep. In fact, as Jesus entered the synagogues teaching and preaching this kingdom message, the synagogue liturgy of His day would have concluded with the “Kaddish prayer”: “May God let his kingship rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the whole lifetime of the house of Israel, speedily and soon” (R. T. France, 103). Jesus’ kingdom message simply echoes such a prophetic benediction.
Jesus’ kingdom message announced the reign of God from heaven to earth, yet not as the Jews expected. While the final consummation of the kingdom of heaven will include a literal, physical reign of Christ upon the Davidic throne, the Good Shepherd came first to gather His flock. As Ezekiel described them as scattered throughout the nations, the Good Shepherd said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14). And so He did: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8); “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Per. 2:25). This indeed is good news, the best news, for lost sheep.
The kingdom message is that the Lord’s reign begins in the hearts of His flock through faith in their Shepherd. But as Jesus originally preached this gospel of the kingdom of heaven, it was accompanied by signs of validation. Throughout the scriptures, God used miracles as validation of His prophetic Word.
In a modern zeal for the experiential, moderns have sought to replicate the miracles of Jesus as a substantiation of authentic Christianity. Unfortunately, this misguided zeal misses the point of biblical miracles. For us the validation of Christianity is not in working the miracles of Jesus but in the miracle of a complete canon of Scripture, the Bible. Miracles in the bible are directly attached to periods and persons of God’s special revelation. In other words, kingdom miracles support the kingdom message of the King, and His apostles.
As we witness in the passages preceding this summary, Jesus healed diseases and afflictions throughout the Galilean region. So also, we witness that Matthew conveys a theme or message within each miracle worked. We are not to separate the two: the kingdom message is preached and validated by the kingdom miracles.
Jesus’ miracles also reveal the shepherding attribute of compassion. To the sick and suffering He brought healing and comfort. To the oppressed He brought liberty. To the harassed and helpless he brought hope. Revealing His true identity to John’s disciples, Jesus said, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matt. 11:5-6).
Who could be offended by the One who was “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction…[having] compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless”? The offended could only be those who do not believe the gospel of the kingdom or the validating miracles. The offended could only be those who have no need for compassion, finding themselves neither harassed nor helpless. In short, they have no need of the Shepherd of the kingdom. But, His true sheep do.
Jesus said, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4). In His coming, the great shepherd of the sheep began gathering His sheep, and through His kingdom message and miracles, He established His kingdom mission.
Shifting metaphors from green pastures to golden fields, Jesus says to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Mixing metaphors, we could say that there are many lost sheep in need of their Shepherd; the harvest is indeed plentiful. If this is the case, how will the lost sheep be found? How will the harvest be gathered? Or, as the Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? Answering his own questions, Paul explains: as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ …faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14-15, 17). The lost sheep are found and the harvest gathered through the preaching of the gospel.
Commenced by our Lord and commissioned to His Church, Christ has given His kingdom message, validated by His kingdom miracles recorded in His Word, with His kingdom mission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). This is the Great Commission of Christ’s Church, a kingdom mission, a mission in need of laborers.
How is this kingdom mission accomplished? Jesus says that it begins first not by praying for the harvest but for the laborers into the harvest. As our Lord is the Lord of the harvest, we are to pray to Him that the gospel of the heavenly kingdom be advanced to every inch of the earthly kingdom. And, while we are always to be prepared “to make a defense to anyone who asks [us] for a reason for the hope that is in [us]” (1 Pet. 3:15), we are also to diligently pray for those whom God calls as laborers into His harvest. Do you believe that everyone you know has heard the gospel? What about everyone in this country? What about everyone in this world? “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
Let me encourage you, if you are not already, to pray for the gospel ministry of this church. Add to your prayer list the specific names of our national and international missionaries. Do you know their names? Pray that the Lord of the harvest would raise up more church planters and missionaries, even in our midst, for the harvest is plentiful indeed. And so pray, “For you [too]were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25)