Mixing metaphors is a no-no in communication. We've all heard preachers who bounce around from analogy to analogy with reckless abandon. Their hearers may have no idea what image they've come from or where they're landing. The result is often confusion. But mixing metaphors can sometimes be helpful, even illuminating.
In one of the most well-known biblical passages on mission, Jesus layers the metaphors of shepherding and harvesting in a way that clarifies our calling, broadening our understanding of the Great Commission (Matt. 9:36–38). The passage reveals his heart for the nations. Jesus, as it turns out, is not merely concerned for the unreached and unengaged. He's also deeply troubled for God's people and their need in every generation for good shepherds.
Laborers for the Harvest
No doubt the dominant metaphor we employ for missions is agrarian. We send missionaries into fields. We speak of sowing and planting. We perceive hearts to be soil either stony or fertile. Following our Lord's example, we talk of seed watering and fruit bearing, of fields mixed with grain and tares. And given Matthew 9:37, we view mission as a harvest.
When we conceive of this agricultural metaphor, we often focus on only one aspect of farming—spreading the seed of the gospel. We envision those who would go to difficult fields, to unreached places, where they would do the work of an evangelist. In particularly challenging contexts, some may even talk of cultivating the ground through pre-evangelism. The mission is plowing and sowing, with a clear focus on distributing seed—not so much on harvesting the crops.
But what was Jesus's primary concern when he summoned us to pray the Lord of the harvest? Jesus called for laborers because of the harassed and helpless state of the sheep (Matt. 9:36). Specifically, the children of Israel needed faithful leaders. They were suffering without a shepherd. In other words, the harvest was plentiful and needed gathering. The massive yield called for a great workforce.
“Jesus called for laborers because of the harassed and helpless state of the sheep”
Shepherds for the Sheep
The immediate context in Matthew clarifies that the harvest envisioned was among the Jews. Hence, Jesus did not initially permit his disciples to minister among the Gentiles. His primary concern was instead for the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:5–6). They were sheep without a shepherd.
Matthew's metaphorical summary statement about the crowds comes straight from an Old Testament vision. A perennial problem for Israel was that she lacked godly shepherds. The solution? Prophets announced that God would come to shepherd his people (Isa. 40:11). Hinting at the full humanity and divinity of the Messiah, Ezekiel foresaw one like David pasturing the sheep; the Lord himself would come feed them (Ezek. 34:1–24).
But God's solution to the needs of the scattered sheep also involved shepherds, plural (Jer. 23:4). And so the church becomes a place where God's flock can be gathered and fed through the ministry of faithful, godly pastors. They must be shepherds after God's own heart—not like the failed shepherds of Israel or worldly leaders (1 Pet. 5:1–4; Jer. 3:15).
A Multi-Dimensional View of the Mission
What we learn, then, is that Jesus's mission has never been simply about goats and ground, as if all that we've been sent to do is sow seed and convert sheep. Of course, the Great Commission calls for rugged farmers who will plow and plant in dry fields that will one day become a bumper crop. But the mission can also be a response to the needs of God's people who are languishing without faithful leaders.
This is the case in much of the world today and even here at home. The global church is harassed and helpless. What Jesus witnessed in his day among the children of Israel is now replicated throughout the nations. The gospel has spread. Many have responded. Churches have grown. But in countless locations the sheep are lost without good shepherds. So the Christ-like and compassionate response is to pray for laborers and, like the disciples, to go when sent out (Matt. 10:1–5).
“The gospel has spread. Many have responded. Churches have grown. But in countless locations the sheep are lost without good shepherds.”
What this also means is that not every missionary will be going to uncultivated and frontier fields. Actually, more often than not, we will find ourselves working among someone else's harvest, entering into their labor (John 4:38). But when we go to such places, we go because the sheep are scattered and suffering. We go because they need better shepherds. We go because the Lord of the harvest sends us there.