God cares for His people.
In Jeremiah 31:3, the Lord says:
Long ago the LORD said to Israel: "I have loved you, my people, with an everlasting love. With unfailing love I have drawn you to myself.” NLT[i]
In Deuteronomy 7:7-8, He says:
7The LORD did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! 8Rather, it was simply that the LORD loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the LORD rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. NLT
The Earth and all it contains is the Lord’s, and yet He has called out a people for Himself.
There are those who say everyone will be saved, but then what do we say about Egypt or Canaan? Acts 4:26 says:
The kings of the earth prepared for battle; the rulers gathered together against the LORD and against his Messiah. NLT
Many have set themselves against the Lord, and although God reaches out to them with mercy and forgiveness, they reject Him.
The incident from the life of Jesus that we are looking at today shows us an example of the compassion which God has for His people in the midst of a world that has set itself against the Lord and His Messiah. The central part of the account is found in Matthew 14:13-21. However, there was a lot happening at that time that is not included in this passage.
Immediately preceding this account is the story of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist.
This was a time of political upheaval and trouble for the nation of Israel. The people thought John the Baptist was a prophet, and were troubled that Herod killed John. Josephus was a historian from that time and he says that the Israelites attributed the troubles Herod suffered subsequent to the execution of John to the judgment of God. In other words, the death of John dealt a heavy blow to the morale and psyche of the nation.
In addition to this national crisis, Jesus and His disciples were personally affected. According to Mark 6, around the time of Herod’s execution of John, Jesus sent out the twelve in pairs. The twelve were given authority over unclean spirits and they anointed many with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:13) This got the attention of Herod, and is what is behind the statement of Matthew 14:1-2:
1At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” ESV[ii]
The political upheaval and miracles of Jesus were all part of the motivation for the crowd to seek out Jesus. Herod’s murderous tendencies and paranoia about Jesus were also good reason for Jesus to go to a desolate place. If we place this account as the same one mentioned in John 6, we know that it was also near the time for the Jewish Passover. Everything would have been gearing up for the annual trip to Jerusalem and therefore an unusual number of people would have been available to seek out Jesus.
It was as if a storm was brewing around Jesus. As quoted before, the world and its leaders were raging against the Lord and His Messiah.
If you want to live godly in Christ Jesus, the world and the prince of this world will rage against you. 2 Timothy 3:12 says:
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted… ESV
In addition, 1 Peter 5:8 says:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. ESV
We need not be surprised by the fiery trial that surrounds us. (Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 1 Peter 4:12, ESV) However, we can take comfort in the compassion of the Lord.
Matthew 14:13 tells us that when Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, He withdrew by boat to a desolate place by Himself. Mark 6:30-31 adds detail by telling us:
30The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31And he 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. ESV
While Jesus led His disciples away, the crowds, having heard about it, raced around the lake and arrived at the landing before Jesus and His disciples got there. (Matthew 14:13-14, Mark 6:33) When Jesus saw the huge crowd that waited for Him, the text tells us he had compassion on them. Again, Mark 6 gives us some extra detail when it says, “…they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6:34, ESV)
This idea of the crowd being like sheep without a shepherd is repeated in the gospels. Matthew 9 tells us that Jesus traveled through the towns and villages of Judea, teaching in their synagogues and healing the sick. Matthew 9:36 tells us:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. ESV
This word harassed is worth noting. Traveling through the towns and villages meant that Jesus was seeing them in their everyday lives, and they were harassed. This word harassed in the original is “skullo” and has as its root meaning to flay. It consequently means to skin alive and thus carries the meaning to annoy in the extreme.
God judged the leaders of His people for not shepherding His sheep. Through Jeremiah the prophet, He said:
"My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray and turned them loose in the mountains. They have lost their way and can't remember how to get back to the sheepfold.” (Jeremiah 50:6, NLT)
Jesus found the crowd on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day in this condition. This is the condition of so many of the people in the world even to this day. It is helpful for us to see how Jesus showed compassion for these harassed sheep.
First, He taught them.
When 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. ESV
He taught them many things. When God sent His Son to walk among us, His principal ministry was teaching. When God established His Church, He also made teaching its principal ministry.
What is the principal job of a parent?
While there is not going to be agreement on this, it could be argued that one of the main jobs of parenting is teaching.
One of the gifts that God has given the Church is teachers. Ephesians 4:11 says:
Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers… NLT
In Jeremiah 3:15, God promises His people:
And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. ESV
In the midst of the fiery ordeal that assaults us, it is essential that we feed regularly on the Word of God.
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17, ESV)
Along with teaching the crowds, Jesus also healed them.
This is still part of the ministry of the Church. We are to pray for each other and bear each other’s burdens:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16, ESV)
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ESV)
This ministry of healing is also why James 5:14 says:
Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. ESV
Finally, along with teaching and healing, Jesus fed the crowd.
He saw their physical condition and ministered to it with what God provided. A whole book could be written on how God can take what little we have and make it into an abundance of provision if we only give it to Him and let Him bless it.
Every one of us will find ourselves in a desolate place with no visible means of sustenance, and yet God is faithful and provides. Just as He sustained the children of Israel for 40 years in the wilderness, feeding them with Manna, God has promised to meet all of our needs.
Jesus’s compassion made Him aware of the conditions affecting the crowds, their condition and their circumstances, and it also moved Him to address their needs by teaching, healing and feeding them.
He has passed on His mission to us. He has left us to make disciples. As the Word of God says:
18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20, ESV)
This ministry of reconciliation is what true compassion is about. Teaching, healing and feeding have no meaning apart from bringing lost sheep to the safety of the sheepfold. Again, as the Scriptures say, “For the love of Christ controls us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14, ESV) This is why we make an appeal to all to be reconciled to God. Without the message of the gospel, the world leaves people harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. The battle for the hearts and souls of people is not fought in the political arena. It is fought on the streets and corners of our villages and towns. It is fought in the desolate places both literally and figuratively.
Let the compassion of Christ control you. Feed on and offer people the Word of God. Pray for, encourage and help those who are sick. And finally, give what little you have to God and allow Him to bless it to the meeting of many needs.
[i] Scripture quotations marked NLT are from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation. Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Steam, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
[ii] Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version) copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.