Sheep Without a Shepherd: Jesus’s Mission and the Rescue of Israel, Part 2

Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

“I am the Good Shepherd” are some of the best-known words Jesus ever spoke. They constitute one of the great “I Am” statements that characterize the gospel of John: I am the Vine. I am the Bread of Life. I am the Light of the World. John’s descriptions of Jesus are earthy, pithy, organic.

At first glance, the “shepherd” motif doesn’t seem to fit Matthew’s gospel as well. After all, Matthew centers Jesus’s story in the strongly Hebrew context of Jesus as King and Messiah, foretold by the prophets and foreshadowed by the entire story of Israel.

But as it turns out, the image of Jesus as a shepherd fits squarely within that kingdom framework. As we saw last week, Jesus’s self-identity as “the Shepherd of Israel” had powerful messianic connotations. It cast Jesus as the spiritual successor to Moses and the physical successor to David, and it connected him directly to the “coming of Yahweh” prophecy in Isaiah 40.

Adonai Yahweh, says Isaiah 40:11,

protects His flock like a shepherd;
He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them in the fold of His garment.

The Good Shepherd

John famously quoted Jesus as contrasting “the Good Shepherd” to hired hands who don’t care about the sheep. “The good shepherd,” Jesus said, “lays down his life for the sheep … I know My own sheep, and they know Me” (John 10:11, 14).

Shepherds were familiar figures on the Galilean landscape. They had specific duties, and good ones had a way of connecting individually with their sheep. Jesus used the image of shepherds to describe and interpret the ministry he was already engaged in, as well as to declare his intentions for the future.

He had come to care for his flock. He also intended to grow it, as he made clear in John 10:16:

But I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.

What Jesus did for the people in his own day, he still does for us—for all who come into the fold and listen to his voice.

Guide, Provider, and Protector

Sheep in Jesus’s day did not simply live on a patch of fenced-in pastureland. They were led by the shepherd to specific grazing grounds, in the hills or the valleys, as food became available. The shepherd knew where to lead his sheep so they could find good pasture and clean water sources, and he personally traveled with them.

Jesus’s ministry was an echo of Psalm 23:

The LORD is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.
He lets me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He renews my life;
He leads me along the right paths
for His name’s sake. (Psalm 23:1-3)

Knowing that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” Jesus fed his sheep in Galilee by teaching the Scriptures with authority. He gave them the Holy Spirit to drink. He invited them into a life-giving relationship with God.

As their provider, the shepherd also acted as protector for the sheep. He went with them, slept in their midst, and sat up at night to watch for enemies beyond the fire. If a lion or a bear threatened the sheep, the shepherd went out to fight it off.

Again, we can see this role in action in Jesus’s Galilean ministry, where he first defeated Satan in the wilderness and then challenged and cast out demons everywhere he went, freeing people from the enemy’s grip. When the enemy rose up and threatened his sheep, Jesus went to battle for them.

The ultimate act of protection would come when Jesus literally gave up his own life for the sake of the sheep, just as he said he would do.

Healer and Father

Shepherds also acted as healers for their sheep. They bound up the wounded, sought the lost, carried the lame on their shoulders, and tended those who were sick. Jesus’s ministry of healing the sick has obvious shepherd connotations as well.

A shepherd’s personal and devoted care for his sheep extended beyond meeting their physical needs. Shepherds in ancient Israel (and in parts of the world today) named their sheep and called them by those names. They developed a relationship with their sheep.

In the same way, Jesus called his disciples by name. He cared personally for every person who came to him. Later, he made a way of relationship for every individual through the Holy Spirit.

Just as a shepherd’s flock represented his wealth, so Jesus saw his people as his wealth, his inheritance, his reward—and also as his people whom he cares for.

David, himself a shepherd, wrote Psalm 23 as he reflected on the fathering way God related to him. After writing about the provision and leadership found in God, he wrote,

Even when I go through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger,
for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me …

Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
as long as I live.
(Psalm 23:4, 6)

When Jesus looked out on the crowds in Galilee—and past them, to the worldwide flock still ungathered, down through time to you and me—Matthew says he had compassion on them. It was his desire to shepherd them, just as Yahweh had shepherded David; just as good shepherds in Jesus’s own day were devoted to their sheep.

Jesus saw our weariness, our exhaustion from trying to be our own providers, protectors, guides, and healers. His response was to bring all we needed—to be all we needed, and still need.

Sheep are too precious to their owners to be left without a shepherd. In the same way, we are too precious to God to be left without his help. As Jesus declared, he knows us by name and gives his life for his sheep.


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!

This is Part 136 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


This blog, Revelatory Creative, is a labor of love. My goal is to spend time studying and writing about the kingdom of God so that the church—you and me—can find our place within this largely forgotten but central Bible message.

But I can’t do it without your help.

You can become a monthly sponsor for any amount you choose. In return, you will get free access to the audio version of my 7-week “Your Kingdom Calling” course, as well as digital books and video series related to this blog. Visit Support to become a supporter and learn more!

And thank you … from the bottom of my heart! This work is possible because of you.


Photo by Qingbao Meng on Unsplash



, ,




One response to “Sheep Without a Shepherd: Jesus’s Mission and the Rescue of Israel, Part 2”

  1. orlan m Avatar
    orlan m

    Dear brethren in Christ, our hearts is spiritually touched with your encouragement reading from your website kindly please share more with us and help us with your teaching materials for they will help us in our fellowship here and win more souls to Christ Jesus we pray and request you kindly if you have Bibles to send to us that Lord will lead you to come and share the word of God with us we hope that God bless us to share more in his kingdom and pray for the orphans who I TAKE CARE OF AND worship with THEM happy to read from you in Jesus name. . PASTOR  ORLAN  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *