Like Sheep Without a Shepherd

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:33-34, ESV)

In an earlier passage, Mark tells us that Jesus had sent out His twelve disciples in pairs to proclaim the gospel of repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick (Mark 6:7-13). I’m sure there was a measure of nervousness as they set out, wondering what would happen, and what God would do through them as they went. When this time of ministry was over, they returned and shared with Jesus, and each other, all that had happened. I can imagine the combination of excitement, awe, and exhaustion they must have felt! Jesus recognizes they need a rest, so he takes them away, sailing toward a quiet place far from towns and the crowds. I’m sure they were all looking forward to this break! Seasons of intense ministry demands can be deeply satisfying, but they can also take their toll on us physically and emotionally. It is good to take time away for rest and renewal.

But their plans for escape to a restful time of quiet began to fall apart as people caught sight of them sailing across the sea and ran to meet them on the shore. Word spread quickly through the area, and a great crowd gathered. We learn later that the crowd included around 5,000 men, and it would have included many women and at least some children, as well. Jesus’ plans for a retreat with His disciples were unraveling, but what He saw moved His heart, and He changed His plans. When He saw the great crowd, he had compassion on them—they were like sheep without a shepherd, with no one to guide them or care for their needs. He then set aside His plans for a time of rest with His disciples and began to teach the people.

For some of us, if we had seen the crowd gathering on the shore, we might not have landed, but turned the boat around and looked for another quiet place to land. After all, the disciples were tired from their itinerant ministry and needed rest. It’s easy to think, “Let’s stick with the plan and take care of ourselves.” But Jesus’ reaction was one of compassion for a people who needed someone to teach them about the Kingdom of God. His love for them moved Him to teach them.

We see in other passages in the gospels that Jesus did carve out time for rest and prayer (Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 6:12). He knew when it was needed, and He found ways to make time for it. But when faced with the needs of the people on the shore, His heart would not allow Him to turn away. His love moved Him to change His plans and teach instead of rest. This challenges and convicts me.

For Jesus, teaching was an act of love, of compassion for people who did not know God. Love compelled Him to tell them of the God who loved them, who desired to forgive their sin and restore their relationship with Him. What about us? What motivates us to teach others? In an earlier devotional I focused on John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves Him, and when Peter answers “yes,” Jesus then says, “Feed my sheep.” Teaching is an outflow of our love for God. In this passage we see that teaching is also an outflow of our love for people. In this way, teaching is one way of living out the Great Commandment: “… ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ … ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

I confess that for me, sometimes teaching can become a task to complete because it’s my responsibility. I find myself concerned about what to include, how to organize it, and what I need to bring to make the teaching go well. Somewhere in all my preparations I’ve lost sight of those I am going to teach. I don’t think about them, their needs, God’s love for them, and God’s desire that I would love them by teaching them. Jesus’ teaching flowed out of his love for the people, and He challenges me to do the same. He challenges us to do the same.

How’s your heart? Ask God to help you regain a heart of compassion for those you teach, that your teaching would be an act of love both for God, and for those He loves.

Jesus, thank you for your example as a teacher who teaches out of compassion for those in need. Help me to have that same heart of love for those I teach, and may you give me the grace and strength to teach them well. Where I’ve lost that compassion, please stir me and fill me with your love so that it overflows in the way I teach, that others would know your love for them. Amen.

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