Open Matthew 10:5-8.
“Sheep without a shepherd” — it’s a disturbing image for a ruler who cares for his people (9:36). One man cannot round up the scattered sheep (9:37-38), so Jesus commissions twelve undershepherds (10:1-4), sending them to the lost sheep to announce his kingship (10:5-8).
The shepherd metaphor permeates this whole passage (9:36–10:16). It’s is a kingdom image: from the very start, God has been the Shepherd of Israel (Genesis 48:15). He delivered his flock from Pharaoh, leading them through the wilderness as their Shepherd (Psalm 77:20).
He appointed the house of David as kings over his nation, undershepherds to care for his people (Psalm 2). When the kings of Israel and Judah were cut off, his people were swallowed by beastly empires:
Ezekiel 34:5-6 (ESV)
5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Despite this disaster, God himself promised to come as their shepherd and find them:
Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16 (ESV)
11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered … 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
“Shepherd” is therefore a metaphor for God’s kingship over his people, the kingdom of God. Their heavenly ruler promised to seek and restore his flock. Matthew has already told us how God would do this — through an earthly shepherd, a descendant of King David:
Matthew 2:6 (ESV)
You, O Bethlehem, … from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.
Centuries of suffering under foreign rule are over. The divinely appointed son of David has been born to be their king. His sheep hear the authority in his voice (7:29). They recognize the chain of command (8:9). They honour their heavenly sovereign for delegating such authority to his human representative (9:6-8). Israel’s God had at last expressed his compassion for his sheep who had, for so long, been harassed and oppressed like sheep without a shepherd (9:36).
So the shepherd appoints twelve workers to help him round up the scattered tribes of Israel, his “lost sheep” (10:6). He commissions them to announce his kingship (10:7). He empowers them to enact their regal shepherd’s care for the needs of his sheep (10:8).
On this first mission, King Jesus limited his emissaries to Israel only. Later he commissions them to take the good news of his kingship to the whole world (24:14). By the end of Matthew’s Gospel, our regal shepherd receives all authority in heaven and on earth. He commissions his undershepherds to bring the nations to recognize and obey his kingship. He gives them not only power of attorney (to operate in his name), but his enduring regal presence wherever they go (28:18-20). We proclaim his kingship, and appeal to the king to heal what’s wrong in his world.
God’s kingdom has come near! Heal the sick! Raise the dead! Cleanse lepers! Expel Demons! You received the king’s authority as a gift. Give it as a gift (10:7-8).
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 316–317:
Their message is the good news of God’s impending kingdom (10:7). … To make disciples for this king is to proclaim the good news that God’s future kingdom is already active in this age (cf. 28:20).
… Signs constitute one critical authentication of the kingdom message (10:8). “The disciples’ mission (vv. 7–8) replicates and extends the mission of Jesus in preaching the coming of God’s kingdom and in healing the sick (see 4:23)” … Signs could draw other people’s attention to the gospel of the kingdom (11:3–6, 21, 23; cf. Jn 2:11; Acts 9:35, 42). Matthew again emphasizes a point not merely for historical interest, but for the missionary activity of his community.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 111–112:
Up until this moment, Jesus’ disciples have been passengers in the car, and he’s been doing the driving. They have been astonished at what they’ve seen, but he’s made all the decisions, handled all the tricky moments, steered them through the towns and villages, taken the criticisms, and come out in front. Now he’s telling them to go off and do it themselves. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how they would feel. You want us to do it? By ourselves?
… Now the Twelve were not just to be a sign that God was restoring Israel; they were to be part of the means by which he was doing so.
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