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Matthew 9:35-38 “Transition from Authority to Agenda”

We have come to a transition in Matthew’s gospel. The first evangelist arranged his gospel broadly around five major discourses of Jesus’ teaching (Ch. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25). Each of these discourses are preceded by short narratives that provide the reader with the proper context (4:23-25; 9:35-38; 12:46-50; 17:24-27; 22:15-46) and are followed by longer narratives that interact with the discourse by recording the reaction of the crowds and Jesus’ opponents. All of that to say, the manner in which Matthew structures his account is intelligent, purposeful, and helpful to the reader. The key to each major section (Ch. 5-9, 10-12, 13-17, 18-22, 23-27)[1] is found in their discourses.

The over-arching theme of the previous section is Jesus’ authority. This authority was proclaimed in the discourse section (5-7) and then robustly proven in the following narrative (8-9). The section in front of us does not abandon the theme of Jesus’ authority, but advances upon it. Matthew here presents the purpose of Jesus’ authority, that is, he announces Jesus’ agenda.

This section outlining Jesus’ agenda begins with a two-point introduction which (1) sets the contextual stage for the section (9:35-38) and then (2) specifies Jesus’ audience for the following discourse (10:1-4). The discourse itself (10:5-42) is roughly broken into three sections, each of which concludes in a “truly” statement (vv. 5-15, 6-23, 24-42).[2] The following narrative (11:1-12:45) records Jesus’ work alone which is met with doubt and unbelief (11:1-27) and with His disciples which is met with overt rejection and unbelief (12:1-45). The whole narrative describes Jesus and His disciples as they go about the King’s agenda of teaching, preaching, and healing in order to save His people from their sins (1:21). This agenda is opposed from all sides and thus will lead quite naturally into the next section of the king’s adversaries (12:46-17:23). A basic sketch of The King’s Agenda might be illustrated as follows:

  • Introduction (9:35-10:4)

    • Context (9:35-38)

    • Audience (10:1-4)

  • Discourse (10:5-11:1)

    • Introduction (10:5a)

    • Body (10:5b-42)

      • Point 1 (10:5b-15)

      • Point 2 (10:16-23)

      • Point 3 (10:24-42)

    • Conclusion (11:1)

  • Narrative (11:2-12:45)

    • Unbelief and Impatience (11:2-30)

    • Unbelief and Rejection (12:1-45)


Matthew’s record of Jesus’ authority concluded with a mixture of uncommitted awe on the part of the populace and hard-hearted rejection from the religious influencers (9:32-34). Not that any but His disciples presently stand with Jesus, but two distinct groups have been identified: the crowds and the religious elite as best represented by the Pharisees. The Pharisees are not alone in their opposition to Jesus, yet they seem to be the spearhead of antagonism. That conclusion sets up these introductory verses which first broadly paint Jesus’ agenda for the crowds (9:35-38) and then specify those whom Jesus sends out into the harvest (10:1-4).


“And Jesus was going through all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease. Now, seeing the crowds, He felt pity concerning them, because they were harassed and cast down like sheep not having a shepherd. Then, He said to His disciples, ‘On the one hand the harvest is plentiful, but on the other hand the workers are few. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest so that He might send out workers into His harvest.”


These verses jumpstart Matthew’s description of Jesus’ agenda. After the previous of non-commitment and rejection but before the twelve are selected for specific service, Matthew provides the reader with insight into Jesus’ manner of thinking as well as the agenda of His mission.


Insight Into Jesus’ Mind (vv. 35-36)

There is much more going on than might at first meet the eye. These verses not only reveal what Jesus did as in the way He conducted ministry, but Matthew here provides us with a look inside Jesus’ mind. We see here not only Jesus’ motivation (why He did what He did) but also Jesus’ objective (why He plans to do what He will do).


Comprehensive Overview of Perseverance (v. 35)

And Jesus was going through all the cities and villages teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease.


That this verse reminds us of 4:23 goes without saying. Not only are the two verses nearly identical, but they also serve similar functions of introducing a new major section. Yet, it would be a mistake to note the syntactical significance of this verse and then move on, thinking that there is nothing new here to glean. In this vein of thought, there are several observations to be made.

First, this is not a simple restatement of 4:23. The similarities between these two verses are explained by their function as section markers. Yet, their differences indicate that they present new information. 4:23 states that Jesus was going through all Galilee while 9:35 is more specific stating that Jesus was going through all the cities and villages. Already we see that this statement is more precise. Likewise, 4:23 states that Jesus’ healing ministry eradicated sickness and disease from among the people while 9:35 leaves the statement open. While it might be stretching things too far to suggest that Jesus was eradicating sickness and disease from animals, plants, and even the soil, the statement nonetheless is left open and implies a wide execution of Jesus’ authoritative healing power. In other words, this statement is more specific than 4:23 while also providing a wider scope.

Second, there is a new emphasis on Jesus’ faithful perseverance. It should be remembered that Matthew has only just finished describing the Pharisees’ blasphemous rejection of Jesus. Yet, Here Jesus is continuing to traverse Galilee through every city and village teaching, preaching, and healing as He did before. The imperfect περιῆγεν (He was going) indicates that this is a continuing action. This is what Jesus did and kept doing.[3] He did not necessarily keep teaching, preaching, and healing because people were believing in Him (all evidence points to the contrary) but because this is what He came to do. It did not matter that opposition was rising. Jesus continued to persevere in faithful submission to His mission and agenda.

Third, Jesus’ ministry is again defined by Matthew as threefold: teaching, preaching, and healing.[4] This point was made before in the discussion of 4:23 but is worth repeating here in brief. To teach (διδάσκω) is to instruct and here points to a formal setting (in their synagogues[5]). Jesus is taking on the role of Israel’s teacher and all that comes with it (Deut. 4:1; 5:31; 6:1; 18:15; 31:19, 22; Joel 2:23; Hos. 10:12). As He preached (κηρύσσω) the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus continues to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom and thus the need to repent (4:17). The gospel (εὐαγγέλιον) or good news is a message that demands a response: repentance. This is not a message to simply be acknowledged, accepted, or set aside to be processed later but a demand to join the king and turn away from the rebel side. As Jesus healed (θεραπεύω) He not only validates His ministry of teaching and preaching but also identifies Himself as the healer of the nation (Hos. 6:1-3).  These actions were the foundation of Jesus’ ministry because these were the actions prophesied of Messiah. This is what the king does.


Compassion for the People’s Predicament (v. 36)

Now, seeing the crowds, He felt pity concerning them, because they were harassed and cast down like sheep not having a shepherd.


Matthew’s choice of words seems to be an echo of 5:1.[6] When Jesus saw the crowds there, He ascended the mountain to teach His disciples. Here, Jesus sees the crowds and is moved with pity or compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) for them. This scene will also launch a teaching moment with His disciples.

This pity/compassion describes an emotional response from the gut.[7] It would not be an overstatement to say that Jesus’ heart was stirred, or even broken. This is a strong response from Jesus, yet we cannot become consumed with His deep emotions to the point that we lose sight of what triggered it. He was heartbroken on their account because (ὅτι) they were harassed and cast down.

Jesus saw the crowds as only Jesus could see them. The language here is quite vivid, violent, and vicious. “Harassed” (σκύλλω) literally means to be stripped, torn, or ripped open.[8] “Cast down” (ῥίιπτω/ῥιπτέω) is an accurate translation of a term that describes a forceful and perhaps violent casting something or someone to the ground. The description is therefore of the people being waylaid, ambushed, attacked, and left for dead. Clearly, Jesus is not looking at their physical condition but of their spiritual condition because Jesus sees clearly what no casual observer would have picked up on.[9] Matthew makes this clearer when he uses the comparison of the crowds to sheep without a shepherd.

The language of sheep without a shepherd enjoys a rich biblical theology that begins with the commissioning of Joshua so that Israel would not be shepherdless (Num. 27:17;), runs through the wicked kings of Israel who once killed, would render the people shepherdless (1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chr. 18:16), and culminates in the prophets who condemn the leaders of Judah and Israel for their mismanagement of Yhwh’s sheep (Jer. 50:6; Ezek. 34:1-16; Zech. 10:1-2; 11:15-17). To this, we must add that Jesus has already been identified as the rightful and royal shepherd of Israel (Matt. 2:6; Mic. 5:2). With these facts in place, several statements can be made.

First, the imagery is not of discouraged and downtrodden people suffering social repression and physical maladies but of discarded sheep who have been plundered by predators. Without a shepherd to protect them, the people have been open to attack and are thus in such a spiritual condition to resemble a torn and bleeding herd of sheep cast down upon the ground. Their plight is not only real, but quite dire.

Second, the fact that these people are without a shepherd is an indictment on the religious leaders (i.e., the Pharisees) who were given charge over the people. Given the indictments from the prophets, particularly those of Ezekiel 34, this might be less of an oblique charge of the Pharisees’ neglect and more of an accusation of their being the plunderers. All the Old Testament charges against Israel’s supposed shepherds include accusations of their robbing, plundering, and in other ways taking advantage of the flock. The problem is not that the people are left in a state of anarchy with no one to govern them nor that they are ignorant with no one to teach them. Rather, the problem is that those who sit over the people do so only to their own profit at the people’s expense.

Finally, because Jesus is the singular shepherd of Israel, this heartbreak has more to do with the fact that the people do not come to Him as such. Jesus has already gone through the Galilee teaching, preaching, and healing (4:23). It appears that He is now making a second circuit through the region entering every city and village (9:35) as He continues to feed, call, and care for the people as Israel’s shepherd (2:6), yet the sheep do not realize it.[10] They gather to Him yet without purpose or direction. They are enamored by Him, yet do not commit themselves to Him. Thus, Jesus’ heartbreak. He sees the crowds who continue to be harassed and cast down yet fail to recognize Him as their shepherd.


Insight Into Jesus’ Mission (vv. 37-38)

Matthew moves from providing insight into Jesus’ mind to His mission. Jesus did not come to meet people’s felt needs, make them comfortable, or better their lives as such. He came to save His people from their sins (1:21). With Jesus’ own words we can see how He interpreted the situation and what He called on His disciples to do about it.


Problem: Disproportioned Work-Workers Ratio (v. 37)

Then, He said to His disciples, ‘On the one hand the harvest is plentiful, but on the other hand the workers are few.’


The first thing to notice is to whom Jesus speaks. This statement is addressed to His disciples. We immediately think of the twelve identified in 10:1-4, and those men were certainly there to hear these words. But it is better to think that there were more than the twelve with Him at this point. After all, if only the twelve followed Jesus from the beginning, the selection of them in chapter 10 isn’t much of a selection. Nevertheless, Jesus is addressing the minority in Israel who have taken their stand (even if only in word) with Jesus.

In His statement, Jesus uses the μέν/δὲ construction which presents two opposing truths in the form of “on the one hand…on the other hand”. The first truth is that the harvest is plentiful (ὁ μὲν θερισμὸς πολύς). The second truth is that there are few workers (οἱ δὲ ἐργάται ὀλίγοι). This reality creates a problem, for a crop left in the field will be wasted. But what does Jesus mean with this illustration?

We should first realize that there has been a change of metaphor from sheep and shepherds to a harvest and workers. Yet, there is still a connection between the two because Jesus was moved by the distress of the people as sheep without shepherds and this distress prompts Him to make this statement to His disciples. It is therefore likely that the crowds are identified as both the sheep and the harvest.

While attempting to interpret this image there are several observations that must be made. The first of which is that Jesus speaks only of a harvest. There is no room for a wider farming analogy that includes plowing, planting, cultivation, irrigation, or any other activity required to bring a crop to harvest. The focus is exclusively on the harvest. Secondly, it would be a mistake to take any and all references to harvest and import their meaning here. The harvest is often used as a metaphor for judgment (Is. 16:9; Jer. 51:33; Hos. 6:11; Joel 3:13) or at least the separation of the righteous from the wicked (Ps. 1). Yet it is not God who is doing the harvesting, but workers (though they be few). The next verse indicates that these workers are men like the disciples themselves. If judgment is present, then it cannot be the only point of this image and may not even be the main emphasis. This much we can say: (1) There is much to be gathered in. (2) There are few to do the work. Therefore (3) to the state of distress of the harassed and cast down sheep is added a sense of urgency to finish this work.

These three observations may produce more fruit if we take a moment and step back to view this verse in its larger context. (1) Matthew records this statement just after recounting Jesus’ ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing as well as Jesus’ heartbreak over the people. Jesus’ teaching was conducted in their synagogues, or among the people (the harvest). He preached the good news of the kingdom, that it is near and thus the people must repent. The harvest comes at the end of the year just as the kingdom comes at the end of this age. With so many people (literally all Israel and a plentiful crop) standing indifferently in the field and with only Jesus to call them to repentance and faith (the work of a harvester), there is simply too much to do and too little time to do it in. (2) What comes after this passage is Jesus’ selection of the twelve disciples who will in fact be sent out into the harvest. Thus, the harvest in this context is the people of Israel whom Jesus came to save. “Few workers” refers to the only individuals who have been preaching the nearness of the kingdom and calling Israel to repent (namely, John the Baptist and Jesus). This is the problem. But Jesus offers a solution to His disciples.


Solution: Desperate Plea for God’s Workers (v. 38)

Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest so that He might send out workers into His harvest.

The problem induces an implied response. Clearly, the disciples are expected to do something about the massive lack of workers. It is remarkable that Jesus does not leave this implication in the air but explicitly tells His disciples what it is He expects them to do. They are to plead with the Lord of the harvest. Many translations render δεήθητε (aorist passive imperative from δέομαι) as “beseech” (NASB) or “pray earnestly” (ESV) is literally “beg” (Lk. 5:12; 8:28, 38; 9:38, 40; Acts 21:39; 26:3; 2 Cor. 5:20; 8:4; 10:2; Gal. 4:12). This is not a slight request, but an urgent and desperate plea.

The disciples are commanded to plead with the one to whom the harvest belongs, namely God. This is His harvest and therefore He is in charge and is ultimately responsible for it being gathered in. Therefore, it is He who must send out more workers into the harvest. This speaks much more to the quality of the workers than it does their quantity.[11] The Lord of the harvest will choose and send out those whom He wills. The duty of the faithful is not to drum up an emotional response and charge out, but to plead with God to send out His men into His harvest. Such prayer submits to God’s sovereignty and makes the one praying of a single heart and mind with the Father.[12]

Keeping the context in view, Jesus is preparing His own disciples to join Him in this ministry of harvest. He commands them to begin praying with urgent pleading for God to save His people and leave them no longer as sheep without a shepherd. The twelve will see that God answered their prayers when Jesus selects them and sends them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

With this in mind, it is probably best to consider that while eschatological judgment is not mainly in view, neither is it absent. That the people have been mismanaged and abused by false shepherds is only part of the problem. They also must turn and submit to their true shepherd, Jesus. Failure on the part of Israel to turn to Jesus, repent from their rebellion and indecision, and trust Him will result in their ruination. The time of harvest has come. The time for decision is now. Plead with the Lord of the harvest for workers to proclaim the risen and returning Shepherd of Israel so that men might repent and be saved from the wrath to come.

[1] Matthew chapters 1-4 are essentially a prologue of sorts (The King’s Advent) with chapter 28 forming the conclusion (The King’s Announcement).

[2] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 362-3.

[3] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 238.

[4] These three participles (διδάσκων, κηρύσσων, and θεραπεύων) certainly indicate what Jesus was doing while He traversed all the cities and villages but may also communicate the purpose of His itinerate ministry. Charles Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 98.

[5] As noted before, there may be a sense where their synagogues makes a distinction between the people and Jesus. Jesus was not a part of their synagogues. It is as if Matthew notes the alienation of Jesus and His followers from the synagogue establishment. David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 108.

[6] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 407.

[7] The verb σπλαγχνίζομαι (to have pity, feel compassion/sympathy) is taken from the noun σπλάγχνον (inward parts, entrails – heart, liver, stomach) and thus describes an emotional response that is visceral in origin.

[8] The figurative use of σκύλλω is used to describe the harassment of one who annoys, bothers, or troubles another (Mk. 5:35; Lk. 7:6; 8:49). But the cognate noun (σκῦλον) retains the term’s violent origin as a description of plunder or booty taken in battle (Ex. 15:9; Num. 31:11, 12, 26, 27; Deut. 2:35; 3:7; 7:16; 13:16; Lk. 11:22).

[9] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 383.

[10] Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 365.

[11] William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 441.

[12] Lenski, p. 386.

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