Trinitarian heresies usually stumble over who Christ is. Without fail, these heretical groups, sects and movements brand themselves as “renewal movements.” God gave us the Scriptures but, alas, things went haywire after the apostles died. The church lurched into heresy bit by bit. These groups warn us that the Greeks influenced Christian thinking, and eventually this pagan philosophy corrupted our doctrine of God, and the church was in darkness. Until … (cue theme music) … someone read the Bible for himself and discovered The Truth (insert heresy now).
For example, Anthony Buzzard, a conservative Unitarian, writes,
Though I believe with a passion the extraordinary and yet eminently sane claims of the New Testament writers, I have the strongest reservation about what the Church, claiming to be followers of Jesus, later did with the faith of those original Christians. I believe that history shows an enormous difference between what has through the centuries come to be known as the Christian faith and what we find reported as first-century Christianity.1
The truth is that these cults are reading the Bible in a very flat, sterile way. The Gospels are thoroughly Trinitarian, and the cults cannot find their doctrine through a systematic exposition of Scripture. Here, in our text this morning, we see Jesus as the shepherd over Israel:
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 lonely 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 lonely place by themselves. Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk 6:30-34)
Mark is the only Gospel writer who specifically explains why Jesus “had compassion on them.” It was “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Why were they seeking Him? It wasn’t for the free food; that would come later (Jn 6:26)! It was probably a combination of excitement because of His status as a miracle worker (cf. Mt 14:34-36), and also His unique teaching on the Kingdom of God, which everyone acknowledged carried enormous authority (cf. Mk 1:22).
Mark tells us Jesus “began to teach them many things.” Matthew adds He “healed their sick,” (Mt 14:14) and Luke explains “he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing,” (Lk 9:11).
Who is this Shepherd?
It’s easy to pass by this reference to Jesus as the shepherd without comment. That would be a mistake. Jesus has already identified Himself as Messiah, and commanded everyone to repent because the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1:14-15). His entire ministry identifies Him to not be an ordinary prophet or messenger. He is altogether extraordinary:
- He’s the one John the Baptist preached about, who would baptize the faithful with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8).
- God ripped the heavens open to proclaim Jesus as “my beloved Son” at His baptism (Mk 1:10-11).
- He’s the One who withstood all Satan’s temptation for forty days (Mk 1:12-13); the Last Adam triumphed where the first failed so miserably.
- He’s the one who gathered disciples to “become fishers of men,” (Mk 1:17), to call people to repent and believe in Christ and His coming Kingdom.
- The demons are terrified of Christ, identify Him as God’s Holy one, and beg Him for mercy (Mk 1:23-24). The congregations in the synagogues are astonished, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him,” (Mk 1:27).
- He heals the sick, conducts exorcisms with ease, commands the demons to be silent – and they obey (Mk 1:32-34, 39)
I don’t mean this to be a tedious recitation of Jesus’ deeds. I believe Christians are so familiar with the Gospel accounts that we often forget how extraordinary they are. Jesus has proved His credentials by the end of Mark’s first chapter, and there are 15 more to go! Remember that, when Jesus was plainly asked if He was the Messiah, He pointed to His deeds as proof the Kingdom of God had broken into this present, evil world (Lk 7:18-23).
So, realize that Jesus’ actions and words already tell us He isn’t only a king. He’s divine and equal to the Father, yet distinct. This context is important when you consider Mark’s comment; “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). This is a very important phrase throughout the Old Testament.
Moses’ True Successor
Moses asked God to appoint a successor for him, “that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep which have no shepherd,” (Num 27:17). He worried the Israelites would falter if they didn’t have a strong and godly leader to show them the way. In our text, Jesus sees His countrymen who had followed Him so far; some desperate with disease, others desperate for news about the promised Kingdom. He had compassion on them because they were lost. They had no guidance. They had no leader. Remember, immediately before this account, Mark just finished recounting Herod Agrippa’s debauchery and his murder of John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29). Agrippa is the nominal Jewish leader of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day, and what a contrast!
So, God chose Joshua, “a man in whom is the spirit,” (Num 27:18). Interestingly, Moses prophesied about a man who would be raised up from among the Israelites, who would be like him, and to whom all Israel would be obligated to listen. This man is Jesus (Acts 3:22-23), who certainly had the Spirit, too (Mk 1:8,10)! Mark is identifying Jesus as the true leader of Israel, the successor par excellence to Moses.
The Bold Prophet
In another passage, King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah form an alliance against Syria. They seek a rubber-stamped blessing form the Lord, and their hirelings oblige with flattering words. Jehoshaphat asks if Ahab has another prophet handy. Ahab admits that, yes, there is another prophet, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil,” (1 Kings 22:8).
This prophet, Micaiah, initially offers a rote prediction of smashing success. When pressed, he gives the real message: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd’ and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace,’” (1 Kings 22:17).
Micaiah’s point is clear – Ahab is such a worthless and pagan leader that the Israelites, in effect, have no shepherd at all. The prophet exited with this warning to Ahab, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me!” (1 Kings 22:28). In contrast, Jesus is the promised Messiah, the true shepherd of God’s people.
The Coming King
In Zechariah, the prophet tells us the coming King will come on the scene in a meek and lowly manner. Yet, this king “shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea,” (Zech 9:9-10). Because of the blood of this king’s covenant with them, He’ll set the Israelites free (Zech 9:11). He will lead them into battle and crush all Israel’s enemies; they’ll trample their foes so terribly the blood will flow like wine (Zech 9:12-15).
Why is this conquering king necessary? Because, in Zechariah’s present day, “the teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for want of a shepherd,” (Zech 10:2).
The theme is the same. The current leadership in Israel was apostate and worthless, even in the early years of the return from exile! But, take heart – a new king would come! That king is Jesus, who came to shepherd His people.
Yahweh the Shepherd
In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord promised the Israelites that, one day, He’d destroy the Babylonians, the very nation which was gathering to destroy Israel in their day. When Babylon eventually fell, God promised, something marvelous would happen:
In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come; and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten.’
My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold (Jeremiah 50:4-6).
Their leaders have led them to disaster; they wander about like lost sheep who can’t find their way home. Interestingly, Jeremiah tells us that Yahweh is the shepherd who will re-gather Israel and tend to them (Jer 50:19-20). Yahweh is the true shepherd; yet, Mark tells us it is Jesus.
The psalmist also tells us, “Know that the LORD is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” (Ps 100:3). David confessed Yahweh is his shepherd (Ps 23:1).
Jesus the Shepherd
This context helps us understand Mark’s comment better. Jesus felt this compassion for the people because He was their true and promised leader; the Anointed One. His words and actions (briefly summarized from Mark’s first chapter, above) prove He is not merely a man, but the Father’s unique Son, distinct from Him, with equal power and glory. He was their “shepherd” because He was the promised leader; the one who would succeed where Moses, Ahab, and the leaders in Jeremiah and Zechariah’s day failed so terribly. In that capacity, He “taught them many things” about the Kingdom, and about what it means to truly love God (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6). Zechariah tells us Yahweh is their shepherd, yet Jesus is the One who came. What does this tell us?
The Scripture is soaked in the Trinity; in the distinction and unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who deny the Trinity often protest they’re simply following the monotheistic faith of Abraham, and reinterpret the New Testament through this grid. “There is not a word in the New Testament about any such revolutionary changes in the definition of God.”2
These men and women would likely find nothing noteworthy in Mark’s comment about Jesus as the shepherd who had compassion on his lost people. This is a flat, sterile, cardboard way to read Scripture. Jesus’ deeds, words, and the Old Testament teaching about the coming shepherd and Messiah prove otherwise.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?