Workers Needed – Matthew 9:35-38

Pastor Scott L. Harris
May 2, 1993

“Workers Needed”
Matthew 9:35-38


In our text for this morning, we will see not only why Jesus was willing to do such much on our behalf but also what He desires of us. Turn with me to Matthew 9:35.

“And Jesus was going about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.'”

We are going to look at this passage in three sections. His work, His compassion, and His call. As we do look at each of these sections, think about what they mean to you personally. Jesus had His work. What is your work? Jesus demonstrated deep compassion. What compassion do you have? Jesus calls us to respond to the need. How are you responding?


The first thing we note about Matthew 9:35 is that it is almost the same as Matthew 4:23. The reason is that between Matthew 4 and the end of chapter 9, Matthew has presented the work of Jesus throughout the region of Galilee. Matthew 5, 6, & 7 presents the teaching and proclamation of Jesus, while Matthew 8 & 9 demonstrates Jesus’ healing ministry. The chronological narrative picks up again at this point for Matthew has proven his case that Jesus is the Messiah. His teaching could only have come from God Himself and the authority He has over disease & sickness, the natural, the supernatural, sin and death could only have come from God Himself. Jesus is the anointed one sent by God to redeem His people.

The only difference between the two verses is that Matthew 4:23 says He was going about “in all Galilee,” and Matthew 9:35 says that Jesus was going about “all the cities and villages.” The former signifies the general area covered, while the latter demonstrates the extensiveness of the work done. The area of Galilee was about 40 miles wide and 70 miles long. Josephus, a Jewish historian living at the time of Christ, tells us that there were around 200 cities and villages in that region with 15,000 people in the smallest of them (due to the fertility of the region). This means that there were at least 3 million people in the region. Taking note that Jesus went about in “all Galilee” and that He went into “all the cities and villages,” it is reasonable to assume that the majority of these 3 million people would have had some direct exposure to Jesus.

That is the extensiveness of Jesus’ work done for the people of this land who were described in Matthew 4:16 as “sitting in darkness.” Jesus was the light shining in that darkness, and Jesus brought the light of truth and hope to them in three ways: Teaching, Proclaiming, and Healing. That is the work that is needed to bring truth and hope to people in darkness.


Jesus took advantage of the custom of the time for visiting Rabbis to bring the message in the Synagogue. He would call for a certain Old Testament passage to be read and then He would explain the passage showing God’s plan for their redemption. An example of this is seen in Luke 4:14f when Jesus returned to Nazareth, entered the Synagogue on the Sabbath, then at the appropriate time stood and read Isaiah 61:2, then He sat down to explain what He read and its application for the present time which in this case was the fulfillment that day of Isaiah’s prophecy.

This was one aspect of Jesus’ ministry that He did throughout the region of Galilee in every city and village. It was the means by which Jesus was able to show the people that He was indeed fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. He was the Messiah.


Related to the teaching was the proclaiming. The teaching was more centered on explaining the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures to the people. The proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom was the direct application and announcement to the people that the prophecies were being fulfilled and they needed to repent for the kingdom that was at hand. The proclamation was good news (gospel) of God’s graciousness and mercy to His people. The Messiah was present and among His people.


The presence of the Messiah brought about the fulfillment of Isaiah 35:4-6 & 53:4, and what we have pointed out the last several weeks as we have been examining Matthew 8 & 9. Jesus banished sickness and disease from His presence through His ministry of healing. The blind received their sight, the lame walk, lepers were cleansed, the deaf could hear, and the dead were raised up. Jesus healed every kind of sickness and every kind of disease as He ministered throughout Galilee.

The response to Jesus’ ministry was mixed, as we pointed out last week. Some believed and followed. Most were amazed at all He did and said, but it made no lasting difference in their lives. And some rejected Him openly and spoke and worked against Him. (See: The Response to Jesus’ Ministry). But the responses did not deter Jesus from fulfilling the ministry that God had for Him on earth. He taught in the synagogues, proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, and healed every kind of disease and sickness throughout all of Galilee. There would be no excuse for these people not to know that the Messiah had come, for He was in their midst.

Matthew 9:35 tells us what Jesus did and verse 36 tells us why He was compassionate. “And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd.” The feelings that arose in Jesus as He saw the people were strong. The word translated here “felt compassion” is the strongest word available to describe His feeling. The word is actually a reference to His stomach, and is descriptive of the sense you might get when your child has had an accident and you see him or her in the hospital for the first time. It hits you right in the pit of your stomach and you want to exchange places with them if at all possible because of your compassion for what they are going through. You have empathy, not just sympathy. You feel with them, not just for them.

That is the way that Jesus felt for the multitudes. A feeling much stronger than just a casual feeling of feeling “sorry for them,” “that it was too bad for them – a sad situation.” Jesus felt for them and He felt it physically in the pit of His stomach.

Why such a strong feeling? Because the situation the multitudes were in was desperate. Our text describes them as “distressed and downcast.” The KJV has “they fainted, and were scattered abroad.” The NIV says, “harassed and helpless.” The Amplified version puts all of these together and says, “bewildered – harassed and distressed and dejected and helpless.”

The first word ( esklmenoi / esklmenoi) has a root meaning of “being flayed” or “having the skin torn” as might happen to a sheep wandering among the brambles and sharp rocks. Its derived meaning would be “harassed” or “severely troubled.” It would carry the idea of being battered, bruised, mangled, ripped apart, worn out, exhausted.

The second word (from rhynumi / rapsnumi) means to be thrown down prone and helpless,” as would an exhausted sheep or a person who had suffered a mortal wound. This word was used in reference to corpses lying on the ground.

Jesus was not fooled by religious fronts. He sees the heart, and He saw the hearts of these people as wounded and torn by the effects of sin. They were inwardly devastated and helpless in their sinful and hopeless condition.

They were “like sheep without a shepherd.” They were entrapped in a system led by the Scribes and Pharisees that had codified the Mosaic Law and left them wounded and wandering. Those that were supposed to be leading them were not leading them to God, for they were instead wolves leading them away from the true and proper worship of God. These sheep had no shepherd, and like a sheep without someone to protect and guide them they had become battered, bruised, confused, and disheartened.

Jesus’ compassion on them in their helpless state was great. So great that He Himself was busy in traveling throughout Galilee ministering to them. He was teaching them the truth of the Scriptures, proclaiming to them the good news of the kingdom of God, that the kingdom was at hand, the Messiah was present to redeem them from their sins and they had to but believe in Him, and Jesus was busy mending their afflictions. He was healing them from every sickness and disease.

But what about you? What do you think? What do you feel when you see people entrapped in sin? What goes on within you when you see a drug addict or a drunkard stumbling down the street? Disgust or sorrow? What goes through your mind when you see people suffering from the immorality of our society whether it be women who are pregnant out of wedlock, people with STD’s or AIDS? Is it revulsion because they are unclean or pity because they are so lost? I don’t know what is in your heart or mind, but God does. Let me challenge you to give serious consideration to the example that Jesus has set for us in our response to those enslaved by sin. Jesus was moved with compassion and so should we. Jesus did not see them as the enemy and neither should we. We should see them as sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus’ compassion did not end with a feeling, but moved on to ministry. He did much while on earth, but He saw the need was great and would need to be met by more than just Himself. Jesus is God, but He is God in Human flesh and that humanity limited Him in how much He could accomplish. Jesus’ compassion for the multitudes led Him to issue a call in Matthew 9:37 & 38 for His disciples to see what He was seeing.


“Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Jesus wanted His disciples to see the need of the multitudes. They were sheep without a shepherd, and they needed to be led and guided. There was a plentiful harvest, and there were few workers to bring it in. Jesus wants the disciples to recognize the need for workers.

What harvest is Jesus talking about? There is quite some discussion that is made about that. Some say it is a harvest of multitudes of souls, which is a common theme for missions’ speakers. They see the harvest as fields of wheat ready for men to just go gather it and bring it in. Others say the harvest is God’s judgment, which is a more common theme among theologians who recognize that more often than not the term harvest in the Old and New Testaments is used to refer to judgment. For example, Joel 3:13, 14 and Matthew 13:30, 39. They view the harvest more as tender for the fire. Joel 3:13, 14 says, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, tread, for the wine press is full; The fats overflow, for their wickedness is great. Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.” This is certainly a passage in which the “harvest” is one of judgment upon the wicked. The same is true in Matthew 13:30, 39 which says in the parable of the wheat and the tares, “Allow both of them to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'” Verse 39, “and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age.”

Certainly with passages like that we can get the idea that the harvest is one of judgment. But at the same time, passages like John 4:35, 36 support the idea of the harvest being souls. “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest‘? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. Already he who reaps is receiving wages, and is gathering fruit for life eternal; that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.”

What is the answer? I think both because that is fitting within the context of the passage. Remember that Jesus is seeing the multitudes as people who are distressed and down cast as sheep without a shepherd, and what Jesus feels for them is compassion, and what He has done for them is minister by teaching, proclaiming the gospel and healing. I do not think you can get away from the idea that Jesus’ call to His disciples in this verse is that they see the people in the same way as those who are in need of help.

At the same time you cannot get away from the idea of judgment, and that most of these people will end up in judgment for that was the theme of the verses in the immediate context concerning the response of the people to Jesus’ ministry. Some believed and followed. Most were amazed, but unmoved, and some rejected and were antagonistic.

I believe what Jesus wanted the disciples to see, and for us to see too, is that the need for workers to go out into the fields and bring in those that are saved, while the rest will be gathered by the angels for everlasting punishment. I see the harvest more as fields that are a mixture of wheat & tares as in the parable. The wheat is to be gathered into the barns which signify salvation and heaven, while the tares are burned up signifying everlasting punishment and hell. That same theme is also in the Joel passage, for Joel 3:16 & 17 speak of the Lord being the refuge for His people while He is judging wicked people. I think this is also more fitting to what we see around us. We see a lost and dying world that is in entrapped in sin and the people in it are bruised and battered by sin and its effects. They are confused and lost without hope. The majority of them will die in that condition, but there are some that are responding to God’s call and workers are needed to direct them to Jesus Christ.

The need that Jesus saw and wanted His disciples to see was great. And in verse 38 He makes His request to them to respond to this need, “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Now that may surprise you! You would have thought Jesus would have told them to be workers and go out into the harvest, but instead He calls on them to pray asking God to send workers. This is an important point and one we need to understand. Next week we will see Jesus commission His disciples to go out into the harvest so we know the ultimate effect of His request was that they went into action. So why doesn’t Jesus just say that to begin with. “The harvest is great, so get out there and get busy!”

Two reasons. First, we are limited and can only be individually involved in so much, but Jesus wants us to be concerned about more than we can be personally involved with. So, when there are areas we cannot be personally involved in, yet see the need, we can still be involved by seeking the Lord in sending others to meet the needs. Most of our missions praying is directly along those lines. We pray for countries and people that need to be taught the Word of God and hear the gospel, and as we do God sends His workers there. We pray for His workers to go into the harvest.

The second reason is more personal. We must remember that the work of the Lord is the Lord’s work and it must be done in His way and in His timing and not ours. No one is fit to do the Lord’s work until they have sought Him first. Isaiah had to be cleansed and have his iniquity taken away and his sin forgiven before he was fit to respond to the Lord in Isaiah 6:8, “Here I am, send me.” We should never get involved in a ministry without seeking the will of the Lord out first. You may not be ready, and He may want someone else.

There is a great harvest out there and workers are desperately needed. There are a thousand and one things to do to be involved in bringing in the Lord’s harvest. There are not only the various ministries that take place in and around the church such as Sunday School, VBS, Children’s ministries, Youth Ministries, Music, Worship services, visitation, follow-up, discipleship, Men’s fellowship, women’s fellowship, parenting classes as well as the support ministries of keeping the physical plant and basic functions of the church going. There are also so many things around us that are open to us such as the Christian Woman’s Club and the Gideons, but also Jail Ministry, Hospital ministry, Crisis pregnancy counseling, community outreach, community leadership, speaking to schools or other organizations about a host of issues from the Christian perspective – abortion, human sexuality, morality, drug abuse, creation science, etc. Then there are all the opportunities you as an individual have to affect other people for the cause of Christ in your personal contacts through your neighborhood, work, school, friends, and special interests.

The opportunities are vast, for the harvest is plentiful, but to be used by the Lord you have to first see the need and have the compassion of Christ for sinners. Second, beseech the Lord for workers to meet those needs, and then third, do whatever the Lord wants you to do.

Let me challenge you in each of these areas. First, get on your knees and pray for the Lord to open your eyes to what is around you and fill you with His compassion for this sinful world. Second, stay on your knees and plead with Him for workers to labor in the areas you see, and third, seek out what He wants you to do, and then do it whether it be something grand or small. If you are faithful in a little, He will entrust to you greater work in the future.

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