There was a time when the Saviour called His disciples to an out-of-the-way district because “they had no leisure so much as to eat”. Yet multitudes of the people followed them. And we read that, when Jesus saw them, He “was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). The people did indeed have teachers – such as the scribes and Pharisees. But these teachers lacked authority; they did not deserve to be described as shepherds; they did not care for the flock; they did not protect their followers from false teaching, nor did they point them towards a better world.
So it is today. Go to any place where crowds gather in their thousands and ask, Where is the shepherd? And you must answer, They are as sheep without a shepherd. Whether you look at the multitudes pouring out of a crowded commuter train during the morning rush hour, or the throng on a busy shopping street, or small groups taking an evening walk in a holiday resort, you can be sure that few of them follow a shepherd who will show them the safe way through life. The multitudes may absorb the philosophy of TV pundits or entertainers; they may be under the influence of the more forceful among their friends and colleagues; but to sit at the feet of the Good Shepherd is something beyond their wildest imaginations.
Some are indeed influenced by religion. Roman Catholicism has multitudes of followers throughout the world, but their priests are pointing them away from Christ to a religion of works. Such shepherds are dangerous. So are the teachers of every false religion. And unbelieving teachers within Protestantism are also doing great harm. Ministers who do not proclaim the pure gospel are deceiving sinners; they are pointing their hearers in the wrong direction – towards a lost eternity.
Moved with compassion, Christ “began to teach . . . many things” to those who ran out after Him. We can be sure that Christ is still full of compassion. That is why, in spite of how He is rejected, He still makes it possible for sinners to learn about Him. That is why He has caused the Scriptures to be more widely circulated today than ever before. That is why He, the Great Head of the Church, is still sending out preachers of the gospel to act as under-shepherds. It is significant that, on another occasion when we read of the Saviour’s compassion, He told His disciples, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into His harvest” (Matt 9:37,38). Pity for a lost world should induce God’s people today to plead with Him to send out those who would bear the teachings of Christ everywhere.
Many, although they have not begun to understand His teachings, have lavished great praise on them. Many have pointed to the Sermon on the Mount as the best-possible basis for daily living. The utter selflessness of such words as: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,” is profoundly attractive – especially as a requirement for other people! But one might ask of those who speak so highly of the Sermon on the Mount: do they really think about the Beatitudes? Do they begin to understand the demand for inward spirituality in, for instance, the statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? Christ went far beyond setting a high standard of outward morality; He described a high standard of inward spirituality. And He showed where that inward spirituality is to be found – in Himself, for He said: “My sheep hear My voice . . . and they follow Me” (John 10:27).
The compassion of the Saviour was vividly displayed when the time was “far passed” and the multitude had “nothing to eat”; He multiplied the five loaves and two fishes to provide for them. The discourse which follows the account, in the Gospel of John, of the feeding of the 5000 was intended to demonstrate that the provision for spiritual hunger is altogether more glorious than the wonderful miracle which satisfied the bodily hunger of so many. And it is in the provision for spiritual hunger that the compassion of the Saviour is most clearly to be seen. Here indeed is spiritual food and spiritual drink, as He said to the people gathered about Him: “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
Christ went on to speak about the absolute necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood; in no other way can anyone ever attain to eternal life. He was pointing clearly to His death for sinners. He was to go down “to the dust of death” so that a multitude of hell-deserving sinners might be delivered from the wrath to come. What compassion was demonstrated when He who was eternally and supremely rich became so desperately poor! What compassion He shows to this world when He continues to have the gospel message proclaimed! What special compassion is shown to those sinners who still have the gospel preached to them although they have so often rejected it! Let those who continue in unbelief consider their position, with death, judgement and eternity before them. And let them now, before it is too late, embrace the Saviour mercifully presented to them in the gospel.
We who live where a pure gospel is proclaimed have great privileges. Others are not so blessed. Today, the world’s population continues to increase, particularly in developing countries. And the fields throughout the world, in countries at all stages of economic development, cry out for men to go as servants of Christ to reap the harvest. As we recall Paul’s question: “How shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14), we may also remember the question which immediately follows: “How shall they preach except they be sent?” Which is why we are directed to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers. And as we so pray, let us remember that the answer to our petitions will be given according to Christ’s compassion. Whatever our needs, and whatever our desires, we are always to bear that compassion in mind, “for we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities”. The conclusion we are to draw is: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy” (Heb 4:15,16). What encouragement to come with confidence before the Lord to plead that He would, in His mercy, make a great provision for the spiritual needs of this generation – by sending out large numbers of ambassadors to proclaim His will to sinners everywhere.
We may also notice how Matthew introduces the miracle of feeding the 5000: “Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and He healed their sick” (14:14). So, as we see how prevalent spiritual diseases are today in all parts of the world, let us remember when those with spiritual diseases will be cured. It is when Christ will come, in His compassion, to heal them – when He will come by the power of the Holy Spirit to apply the Word of God to them by regenerating power. It is for Christ’s sake that ambassadors are sent out with the gospel; it is for Christ’s sake that the Holy Spirit is given. And when the Holy Spirit applies the Word proclaimed by the ambassadors, sinners are brought into the kingdom of God; their sins are forgiven; they are made spiritually alive; there is a beginning of spiritual healing.
As we look back on the history of the Church of God, we may take encouragement to plead for such blessings – on a large-scale. When God in mercy sent out such ambassadors as Martin Luther and John Knox, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, what great works of grace were accomplished! The divine compassion remains unchanged. We therefore have every reason to plead with the Lord that He, according to that glorious compassion, would do great things for this generation also in spite of its rebellion.