Seeing the people, [Jesus] felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36, NASB)
Brothers and sisters, the fight against sin feels prolonged and arduous in this life—doesn’t it? We grow in one area, only to meet the next depravity in ourselves to war. Well, though the fight against sin is difficult, sin’s harm within us is far worse.
Jesus, the One who sees into our bare souls, noticed without exception that the people he preached to were “distressed” and “dispirited” without him. Jesus cared about the damaging effects of sin on our souls, and he saw our barren want—coming to give us life and truth for all eternity (c.f. Matthew 9:37-38).
How Sin Scatters the Sheep
Distressed and dispirited.
Distressed denotes that our souls are being harassed by sin and, therefore, are disoriented about our circumstances. Sin rips away at us. It leaves us troubled, disconcerted, anxious, and unhappy.
The second word, dispirited, suggests a limp form, haggardly and motionlessly positioned without help or care.¹ We are astray and lifeless by sin whose wages are death (Romans 6:23; Matthew 18:8), for it keeps us from our Shepherd. The people of Jesus’ time—and we in ours—needed the foretold, divine Ruler:
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6)
This Shepherd would be unlike any other. The infamous Pharisees, the spiritual leadership at the time of Jesus’ first coming, were not shepherding their people well. They were concerned with themselves primarily, and it grievously muddled the hearts and minds of the people in their care, as in the mold of the words of Ezekiel 34:5 and Jeremiah 50:6:
“So [the sheep] were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered;”
“My people have become lost sheep; Their shepherds have led them astray…and have forgotten their resting place.”
Good earthly shepherds herd sheep toward the guidance of the true Shepherd. Yet, without good earthly shepherds, people’s souls are consumed by unsound doctrine and wither from sin, and people do not see their needs accurately. In order to understand our needs as they are, we have to truly hear and see him.
It might be natural to assume that the opposite of sin is not to sin. Yet, better, the opposite of sin is to be led as sheep by the Good Shepherd who has compassion on us.
How Jesus Shows Compassion to His Sheep
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ compassion is associated with his messianic signs, people’s faith in him, and his teaching.
“Your sins are forgiven.”
Matthew’s Gospel teaches Jesus as Israel’s Messiah (Matthew 1:1). In Matthew 15:31, Jesus performs many miraculous signs, and people glorify the “God of Israel.” Then, Jesus has “compassion” for the crowd of four thousand, and with a messianic sign he feeds them.
In the previous chapter, a great crowd follows Jesus after the news of the beheading of John the Baptist (14:13), and he miraculously feeds the five thousand, with “compassion” upon them (14:14). These miraculous, messianic signs were likely associated with some display of faith, considering Matthew 13:58 which tells us about a place where Jesus “did not do many might works…because of their unbelief.”
Earlier in Matthew, his miraculous signs were seen alongside the message of having faith in his ability to do the more difficult work: “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (9:5). He is not merely one who has compassion and performs wonders—he forgives sins. By him, we have eternal direction and life.
“He began to teach them many things.”
Mark 6:34 directly connects Jesus’ compassion with his response of teaching these eternal truths: “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”—presumably about his being the Son of God (1:1), their need for his forgiveness (3:28), and their response of repentance and faith (4, 6:12).
Jesus met physical needs; he fed crowds and performed miracles—for he was the long-awaited Messiah (Matthew 1:1) and the Son of God (Mark 1:1). These attested to his authority, but Jesus taught that he was the eternal remedy for our sin-ravaged souls. So the Gospels, including Jesus’ compassionate messianic signs, teach us to follow him toward eternity in full confidence and belief. In him, we become sheep with the Shepherd we have always needed.
How Jesus’ Sheep Forsake Their Sin
Sheep are not the smartest of animals; but I think the comparison can also be one of beauty. I envision sheep following a shepherd trustingly, willingly, and without second-guessing their way.
Being spiritual sheep means we cannot discern that we are sinners in need of a Shepherd without being told so (Romans 10:14). Yet, once we truly hear him and see the truth of his teaching about ourselves and who he is, then we believe he is our Shepherd, and like sheep, we will follow him anywhere. Beautiful! So it is as the Christian life continues—as we see and hear more of Jesus, we want to follow and be led away from sin.
Christian, he has seen your need; he has acted for you for eternal life. So keep fighting your sin! Continue, because you have a true Shepherd whose life-giving voice your reborn soul loves to hear, and whose reorienting truth it marvels to see. Keep fighting your sin because you know you have a Shepherd who has had such compassion upon you. “Compassion involves so identifying with the situation of others that one is prepared to act for their benefit.”²
No other has, will, or ever could act for our behalf as he did.
Forsake your sin by knowing, listening to, and following the sin-forgiving, debt-paying Ruler and Shepherd of your soul.