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What is the significance of sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36)?

sheep without a shepherd

The role of a shepherd is to watch over, feed, protect, guide, comfort, and sustain the flock under his care. Spiritual leaders have a similar responsibility toward the people entrusted to their oversight. While Jesus traveled the countryside ministering to the crowds, He felt deep concern for the people because they lacked spiritual guidance and pastoral care from their leaders: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

A shepherd theme twines throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the Lord’s people, the Israelites, are portrayed as a flock of sheep, and God is their loving, caring Shepherd (Psalm 23; 100:3; Jeremiah 23:3; 31:10). God expected Israel’s leaders to be spiritual under-shepherds to His flock (2 Samuel 5:2; Numbers 27:17). Sadly, they failed at their duty (see Ezekiel 34). The prophets declared, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master’” (Kings 22:17; see also Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 10:21).

The shepherd theme continues in the New Testament, with Jesus portrayed as the “Good Shepherd” (John 10:11; cf. Isaiah 40:11) and the “Great Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). The people swarming toward Jesus are like sheep without a shepherd because their spiritual overseers, Israel’s religious leaders, have harassed and abandoned them. In Matthew 9:36, the verb translated as “harassed” (skyllomai in the original Greek) means “to be afflicted, troubled, grieved, bothered, annoyed.” “Helpless” comes from a verb that means “to be thrown down, rejected; thrown away, cast off.” This word speaks of the utterness of the people’s abandonment by their leaders and its thoroughly damaging effect. Jesus was profoundly moved when He looked into their faces because He saw people who were wholly disheartened, demoralized, and discouraged.

In Matthew 9:36, Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Ezekiel 34:2–6: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. . . . You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them” (NLT).

Sheep without a shepherd scatter easily, wander into dangerous territory, and become lost (Isaiah 53:6; Zechariah 10:2; 13:7; Matthew 26:31; John 10:12). Like sheep, we all need a shepherd to guide us along the right path (Psalm 23:3). Without a shepherd we will eventually starve and die. Therefore, a truly good shepherd never leaves his flock unattended (John 21:15–19). And if even one of his sheep goes astray, he will “leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost” (see Matthew 18:12–14). Jesus, the perfect Shepherd, lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:15).

In sharp contrast with the biblical depiction of a good shepherd, Israel’s leaders received this scathing indictment from Jesus: “They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. . . . And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:4–6, NLT). Jesus goes on to call them “hypocrites” who “shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13, NLT). Instead of shepherds, they are “blind guides” only looking out for themselves (Matthew 23:16).

The apostle Paul instructs church leaders: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Instead of leaving people as sheep without a shepherd, God’s Word calls true spiritual leaders to “care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example” (1 Peter 5:2–3, NLT).

Shepherds patterned after the example of Jesus Christ are self-sacrificing servants, willing to lay down their lives for the sheep (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16). They provide spiritual nourishment and guidance and rule people justly and with love.

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What is the significance of sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36)?
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This page last updated: February 27, 2024