But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad….


Our emotions are neither to be feared nor despised, for they are a normal part of us as God made us in the first place. Indeed, the full human life would be impossible without them!

A feeling of pity would never arise in the human breast unless aroused by a mental picture of others’ distress, and without the emotional bump to set off the will there would be no act of mercy. That is the way we are constituted and what I am saying here is nothing new. Every mother, every statesman, every leader of men, every preacher of the Word of God knows that a mental picture must be presented to the listener before he can be moved to act, even though it be for his own advantage!

God intended that truth should move us to moral action. The mind receives ideas, mental pictures of things as they are. These excite the feelings and these in turn move the will to act in accordance with the truth. That is the way it should be, and would be had not sin entered and wrought injury to our inner life. Because of sin, the simple sequence of truth-feeling-action may break down in any of its three parts.

The Christian who gazes too long on the carnal pleasures of this world cannot escape a certain feeling of sympathy with them, and that feeling will inevitably lead to behavior that is worldly. To expose our hearts to truth and consistently refuse or neglect to obey the impulses it arouses is to stymie the motions of life within us, and if persisted in, to grieve the Holy Spirit into silence.[1]

Christ’s Divine Compassion

And seeing the multitudes, He felt compassion for them, (9:36a)

Perhaps from the vantage point of a hillside, Jesus looked out over the great mass of people who had been His almost constant followers for many months. They were always there, wherever He went. If He entered a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, they would either follow in other boats or run around the shore to the other side and meet Him there. They dogged Him from town to town, from house to house, from synagogue to synagogue, and gave Him no rest.

Many people came simply to watch and listen, eager to see and hear what the great miracle worker and teacher would do or say. They had never heard anyone speak the authoritative but gracious words He spoke, and they had never seen anyone perform the marvelous feats that He performed. Many other people, however, came to Him for specific needs in their own lives or in the lives of their loved ones or friends. Most of these came for physical healing or deliverance from demons.

But the divine eyes of Jesus saw infinitely greater need in their lives, a need that far surpassed a withered arm, a bleeding body, a possessed mind, or blind eyes and deaf ears. He sympathized with their physical pains, too, and would have been deeply moved had those been their only afflictions.

But in seeing the multitudes Jesus saw the deepness and pervasiveness of their sin and the desperate plight of their spiritual blindness and lostness. Consequently, He felt compassion for them as only God could feel. He cared for them because He was God incarnate and it is God’s nature to love and to care, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Over and over in the gospel record we are told of Jesus’ compassion and love for men. When He withdrew in a boat to be alone after hearing of the death of John the Baptist, the crowd discovered where He went and “followed Him on foot from the cities. And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:13–14). After He had healed a great number of people on a mountainside in Galilee, He privately told His disciples, “I feel compassion for the multitude, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not wish to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way” (15:32). It was not enough that He had healed the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb, and many others among them (vv. 30–31). When they were without food, He cared deeply about their hunger.

Splanchna, the noun form of the verb behind felt compassion, literally refers to the intestines, or bowels. In Scripture it is sometimes used literally, as when describing Judas’s death (Acts 1:18). More often, however, it is used figuratively to represent the emotions, much in the way we use the term heart today. The Hebrews, like many other ancient peoples, expressed attitudes and emotions in terms of physiological symptoms, not in abstractions. As most of us know from personal experience, many intense emotions-anxiety, fear, pity, remorse, and so on-can directly, and often immediately, affect the stomach and the digestive tract. Upset stomach, colitis, and ulcers are a few of the common ailments frequently related to emotional trauma. It is not strange, then, that ancient people associated strong emotions with that region of the body. The heart, on the other hand, was associated more with the mind and thinking (see Prov. 16:23; Matt. 15:19; Rom. 10:10; Heb. 4:12). The heart was the source of thought and action, whereas the bowels were the responder, the reactor.

Jesus therefore used the common term of His day to express His deep compassion for the great crowds of people who were suffering. But His care was not merely figurative, because He felt in His own body the symptoms of His deep caring. If our bodies literally ache in pain and nausea when we experience great agony, remorse, or sympathy, we can be sure that the Son of Man felt them even more. Matthew tells us that, in order to fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah, Jesus “Himself took our infirmities, and carried away our diseases” (Matt. 8:17). It was not, of course, that Jesus Himself contracted the diseases or infirmities, but that in sympathy and compassion He physically as well as emotionally suffered with those who came to Him for healing-just as a parent can become physically ill from worry and concern over a child who is desperately sick or in trouble or danger.

When Jesus saw Mary and her friends weeping over the death of her brother Lazarus, “He was deeply moved in spirit, and was troubled,” and He wept with them (John 11:33, 35). The phrase “deeply moved in spirit” carries the idea of physical as well as emotional and spiritual anguish. Jesus Himself was seized with grief as He saw His dear friend grieving; and He burst into tears. He knew that Lazarus would soon be alive again, and His grief was therefore not for the same reason as theirs. But it was the same feeling as theirs and even more intense. After some of the people there wondered aloud why Jesus had not prevented Lazarus’ death, He was again “deeply moved within” (v. 38), a phrase that carries the idea of shuddering, of being physically racked with emotion.

When Jesus was arrested in the Garden, His concern was not for Himself but for His disciples. He said to the soldiers, “If therefore you seek Me, let these go their way” (John 18:8). When He was hanging on the cross, facing death and suffering great physical agony from the crown of thorns and the nails in His hands and feet, His concern was for His mother. “When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ ” (John 19:26–27). In His incalculable compassion He would not give up His spirit until He had provided for His mother.

As He agonized over the rejection by His own people, He did not feel anger or vengeance but the deepest possible remorse for them. In one of the most poignant statements ever uttered, He lamented, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matt. 23:37). Luke reports that when Jesus approached Jerusalem for the last time, “He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes’ ” (Luke 19:41–42). As Isaiah had prophesied, Jesus was indeed “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3).

Jesus not only performed miracles of healings to establish His messianic credentials but also to show God’s infinite love. He demonstrated compassionate power, a kind of power completely foreign to pagans and even to most Jews-who had long ago lost sight of the lovingkindness of the God who had called, guided, protected, and blessed them as His chosen people. The people who witnessed Jesus’ healing touch and heard His healing words must surely have been as astonished by His compassion as they were by His power.

Dr. Paul Brand has spent many years in medical work among lepers. In his book Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, he writes,

[Jesus] reached out His hand and touched the eyes of the blind, the skin of the person with leprosy, and the legs of the cripple. …

I have sometimes wondered why Jesus so frequently touched the people He healed, many of whom must have been unattractive, obviously diseased, unsanitary, smelly. With His power, He easily could have waved a magic wand. … But He chose not to. Jesus’ mission was not chiefly a crusade against disease … but rather a ministry to individual people, some of whom happened to have a disease. He wanted those people, one by one, to feel His love and warmth and His full identification with them. Jesus knew He could not readily demonstrate love to a crowd, for love usually involves touching.

Commenting on two statements about Jesus in the book of Hebrews (“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses,” 4:15; and “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered,” 5:8), Dr. Brand says,

A stupefying concept: God’s Son learning through His experiences on earth. Before taking on a body, God had no personal experience of physical pain or of the effect of rubbing against needy persons. But God dwelt among us and touched us, and His time spent here allows Him to more fully identify with our pain. (Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980], pp. 140. 146–48)

That sympathetic compassion is unique to Christianity, because it is unique to Christianity’s God. Hinduism is perhaps one of the most cruelly neglectful of all religious systems. Its caste system prohibits anyone from even touching those of an alien caste. Its treatment of the sick and dying is sometimes shocking and barbarous, because providing them help is thought to delay the process of karma and reincarnation. Brahmins, the Hindu priestly class, recognize no responsibility for the care of the afflicted and downtrodden. Islam, whose history runs red with secular and religious bloodshed, cannot be expected to show much pity for those in need. The primary motive behind Buddhist benevolence is that the act may lay up merit

How different were Jesus’ teaching and example. In the parable of the slave who owed an unpayable debt to his king, Jesus illustrated God’s love through the grace of the king, who “felt compassion” on his slave “and released him and forgave him the debt” (Matt. 18:27). When the two blind men sitting by the road just outside of Jericho cried out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” He was “moved with compassion, … touched their eyes,” and restored their sight (20:30, 34). When the leper came to Him, declaring, “If You are willing, You can make me clean,” Jesus again was “moved with compassion,” and He cleansed the man of his tormenting disease (Mark 1:40–41).

G. Campbell Morgan wrote on this passage,

There is no reason in man that God should save; the need is born of His own compassion. No man has any claim upon God. Why, then, should men be cared for? Why should they not become the prey of the ravening wolf, having wandered from the fold? It has been said that the great work of redemption was the outcome of a passion for the righteousness and holiness of God; that Jesus must come and teach and live and suffer and die because God is righteous and holy. I do not so read the story. God could have met every demand of His righteousness and holiness by handing men over to the doom they had brought upon themselves. But deepest in the being of God, holding in its great energising might, both holiness and righteousness, is love and compassion. God said, according to Hosea, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?” It is out of the love which inspired that wail of the Divine heart, that salvation has been provided. (The Gospel According to Matthew [Old Tappan, N.J.: Revell, 1979], pp. 99–100)

The great Puritan writer Thomas Watson said, “We may force our Lord to punish us, but we will never have to force Him to love us.” The God of Scripture is the God of love and compassion. How different are the gods of paganism. The supreme attribute of the ancient Greek gods was apatheia, apathy and indifference. Those supposed deities were supremely unconcerned about the welfare of mankind. Even the nature of the true God had been so distorted by the scribes, Pharisees, and rabbis that most Jews thought of Him primarily as a God of anger, vengeance, and indifference. Jesus brought an entirely new message.

Because the Lord is compassionate, believers who bear His name are also to be compassionate. “To sum up,” Peter says, “let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead” (1 Pet. 3:8–9).

Man’s Lost Conditions

because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd. (9:36b)

Jesus’ second motive for ministry was the knowledge of man’s lost condition. He saw the people around Him in the reality of their need. He was moved by their diseases and sickness, and He healed every kind of them (v. 35). But He was moved even more deeply by the needs that most of the multitude did not know they had-to be freed from their bondage to sin. He was not fooled by their religious fronts and their spiritual facades. He saw their hearts, and He knew that inwardly they were distressed and downcast.

Skullō (to be distressed) has the root meaning of flaying or skinning, and the derived meanings of being harassed or severely troubled. It often connoted the ideas of being battered, bruised, mangled, ripped apart, worn out, and exhausted. Jesus saw the multitudes as being inwardly devastated by their sinful and hopeless condition.

Rhiptō (to be downcast) has the basic meaning of being thrown down prostrate and utterly helpless, as from drunkenness or a mortal wound. The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) uses the word of Sisera as he “was lying dead with a tent peg in his temple” (Judg. 4:22). Jesus saw the downcast multitudes as sheep without a shepherd to protect and care for them. They were helpless and defenseless, spiritually battered, thrown down, and without leadership or supply.

Those who claimed to be their shepherds were the scribes and Pharisees, but it was those very “shepherds” who were largely responsible for the people’s confusion and hopelessness. Their religious leaders gave them no spiritual pastures, nor did they feed them, give them drink, or bind up their wounds. Instead, they were spiritually brutalized by uncaring, unloving leaders who should have been meeting their spiritual needs. Consequently, the people had been left weary, desolate, and forlorn. In 10:6 Jesus calls them “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” God’s chosen people who had been left to perish.

The scribes and Pharisees offered a religion that added burdens instead of lifting them. They had great concern about their self-made traditions but only superficial and hypocritical concern about the true law of God. And for them, the common people were the object of disdain not compassion, to be exploited not served. The scribes and Pharisees were true descendants of the false shepherds against whom the Lord had railed centuries earlier through Ezekiel: “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them” (Ezek. 34:2–4; cf. Zech. 11:5).

The scribes and Pharisees “tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders,” Jesus said; “but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (Matt. 23:4). Worse than that, they “shut off the kingdom of heaven from men,” not entering themselves and not allowing others to enter (v. 13). What an indictment.

Many religious leaders today are still endeavoring to keep people out of the kingdom by distorting and contradicting God’s Word and perverting the way of salvation. They still keep them from the true Shepherd. By telling people they are already saved because “a good God would never condemn anyone to hell,” they lead people to be content with themselves and to see no need for repentance and salvation-thereby shutting tight the gracious door God has provided. Or when people are told they can work their way into God’s favor by avoiding certain sins or by performing certain good deeds or participating in some prescribed ritual, they are likewise deceived and left in their losthess. Those for whom Christ feels compassionate love are spiritually battered, bruised, and thrown down to lie helpless outside the sheepfold God has provided for them in His Son.

Jesus called such false teachers thieves and robbers, strangers from whom people should flee (John 10:1, 5). In his parting words to the Ephesian elders at Miletus, Paul warned, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28–29).

How wonderfully refreshing it must have been to hear Jesus say, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). What a contrast those words were from the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, who added burden upon burden, tradition upon tradition, requirement upon requirement.

Someone has written,

Let me look on the crowd as my Savior did,

Till my eyes with tears grow dim;

Let me view with pity the wandering sheep,

And love them for the love of Him.[2]

9:36 As He gazed on Israel’s multitudes, harassed and helpless, He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. His great heart of compassion went out to them. Oh, that we might know more of that yearning for the spiritual welfare of the lost and dying. How we need to pray constantly:

Let me look on the crowd, as my Savior did,

Till my eyes with tears grow dim;

Let me view with pity the wandering sheep,

And love them for love of Him.[3]

36 Like Yahweh in the OT (cf. Eze 34), Jesus showed compassion on the shepherdless crowds and judgment on the false leaders. The “sheep” Jesus sees are “harassed” (not “fainted” [KJV], which has poor attestation), i.e., bullied, oppressed. In the face of such problems, they are “helpless,” unable to rescue themselves or escape their tormentors. The language here is close to Numbers 27:17 (which could almost make Joshua a “type” of Jesus); but other parallels (e.g., 1 Ki 22:17; 2 Ch 18:16; Isa 53:6; Eze 34:23–24; 37:24) remind us not only of the theme’s rich background but also that the shepherd can refer either to God or to the Davidic Messiah God will send (cf. 2:6; 10:6, 16; 15:24; 25:31–46; 26:31).[4]

[1] Tozer, A. W., & Smith, G. B. (2015). Evenings with tozer: daily devotional readings. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 111). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1237). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 275). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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