THE WAITING HARVEST
P. D. Johnson
‘But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then saith he unto his disciples. The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.” Matthew 9.36-38.
The longer the Christian studies the four gospels, the more convinced he will become that the Holy Spirit, in His infinite wisdom, has chosen to record, in that particular section of Holy Writ, those aspects of Christ’s earthly ministry which are vital to the formation, confirmation and encouragement of the Church below. Time and again, as he prayerfully reads the divinely-inspired Gospel narratives, often under a very real sense of personal, spiritual need, he will come across a passage, not always of great length, that immediately arrests his attention, dispels the confusion in his mind, warms his heart, and fires his zeal.
One of the many shorter passages of this nature is the familiar incident recorded towards the end of Matthew 9. It consists of only three verses, and yet how instructive, how searching, how encouraging these verses are when properly understood and honestly faced by the Lord’s people in these difficult, and often depressing, days. With things as they are in Great Britain at the present time, and even worse in many other lands, it is easy for those who are concerned for the salvation of souls to become disheartened, have their vision clouded, and even begin to draw wrong conclusions and introduce false remedies. In the hope that the following exposition will prove ‘a word in season’ to at least some of the Lord’s confused and dispirited people, let us now look at the three verses in question.
1. Christ’s observation of the multitudes.
Before we look at Christ’s assessment of the people He came into contact with, and the counsel He gave His disciples in such a situation, we must spend a little time considering two points that emerge from our Lord’s observation of the multitudes:-
(a) Christ reflected on the people He saw.
The whole context of the passage proves that Christ did more than merely notice the multitudes He encountered in the course of His ministry. Observe how Matthew, after telling us that ‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and disease among the people . . .’ (v. 35), then goes on to relate, ‘But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion etc.’ (v. 36). In other words, even when Christ was fully engaged in this great, public ministry, He still had time to reflect on the people He came into contact with at every turn. Surely this simple point has something to say to evangelical Christians today? Our age is, to borrow a favourite expression of the late Dr. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, “a rushing, superficial age”. It is the age of the motor car, jet travel, and instant communication systems, and evangelical Christians are far from immune to the spirit of rush and tear that characterizes so many people at the present time. One cannot help feeling, too, that many Evangelicals have created a special ‘rush’ of their own! Ministers rush from one end of the country to the other to attend special meetings; church members rush out to evening meetings, almost as soon as their tea is over, nearly every evening in the working week, and even criticize other believers who refuse to neglect home duties in this way as “lacking in commitment”. Even the Lord’s Day seems to have become a special time for rushing to some. No longer is the Christian Sabbath a valued day for worship and rest: it has become a kind of religious endurance test where Christians have to go through an almost continuous succession of activities! It is difficult at times to see when some believers allow themselves time for any serious reflection. But unless Christians do so – as our Lord clearly did even in the midst of a demanding, itinerant ministry – they are not likely to understand the plight of the unsaved, or gain the mind of Christ in this matter.
(b) The effect the sight had on Christ.
Matthew could hardly have recorded Christ’s reaction in clearer words – ‘. .he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.’ (v. 36). Here we see that, as our blessed Lord reflected on the multitudes around Him, they reminded Him of sheep without a shepherd, wandering all over the place, looking for pasture, but without any true guide to lead them. In other words, our Lord viewed them spiritually, and saw all their fainting and wanderings as sure symptoms of their underlying Christless state. Notice, too, the effect that a true appreciation of their spiritual plight had on the Saviour – ‘he was moved with compassion on them.’ (v. 36). His heart was moved to the very depths as He realized that so many around Him were still the poor dupes of Satan, ignorant of even the most basic truths of salvation, and would remain in that miserable state until the ‘strong man armed’, who kept them in his power, was overcome by One who was stronger than he. It is just at this point that evangelical Christians have to ask themselves one or two pertinent questions. Assuming, then, that we do take time to reflect on the people we meet with, the first question must surely be. Do we reflect on them spiritually7 Do we see that, behind all their obvious unhappiness and dissatisfaction, behind all the chaos in their lives, behind their manifest ignorance and open sinfulness, lies the ‘prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience’ (Eph. 2:2)? And what about our response to that realization? Do we begin to be profoundly moved with compassion, as Christ was, or do we remain coldly indifferent, or, what is even worse, indulge a carnal, Pharisaical spirit of condemnation? It is one thing to expose and condemn the sins of our day: it is quite another thing to write-off the sinners themselves. Ah, did we but reflect on the ungodly people around us as Christ did, i.e. in the light of the glorious Gospel of free grace, we should soon find our cold, stony hearts beginning to melt, and feel something of that heavenly :compassion exhibited by the Lord Jesus Christ!
2. Christ’s assessment of the multitudes.
Having duly meditated on the multitudes in this spiritual way, our Lord then began to address His disciples. ‘Then saith he unto his disciples . . .’ (v. 37). As we shall now see. He began by giving them His assessment of the situation, and we can look at what He told them under two convenient headings:-
(a) He viewed the multitudes as a harvest awaiting reaping.
The first point that Christ made clear to His disciples was that the ungodly multitudes around them were like a harvest ready for reaping. “The harvest truly is plenteous …” (v. 37). Now the very fact that our Lord gave His disciples this assessment shows clearly that they needed Him to do so. The Saviour obviously foresaw that, unless His disciples first learned to view the unconverted throngs around them in this spiritual way, there was little point in Him saying anything about the work of reaping. It is equally necessary for Christ’s present-day disciples to be similarly instructed. In the present situation, it is easy for sincere believers to become so despondent that they can hardly think in terms of a spiritual harvest at all, let alone one that is plentiful! The continual awareness of the great mass of our fellow-countrymen, completely divorced from the Christian Church, living in all kinds of terrible sins, dabbling with a variety of erroneous cults and strange religions, and caring nothing for the pure Gospel when they do hear it, can eventually depress the most exercised souls, and lead them to feel that people are more like a city ripe for judgement than a harvest ready for reaping. But are the days of true, spiritual harvests really over, and must we look for nothing more than a few ears gathered here and there? Surely our Lord’s assertion that “The harvest truly is plenteous” should at least make us question our interpretation of present situations and future prospects, and ask ourselves whether we may not have allowed ourselves to listen too much to the voice of the tempter, and too little to the voice of the great Head of the Church. Perhaps if we concentrated less on the work and power of the great enemy of souls, and more on the purpose and power of the “Lord of the harvest” we should find ourselves emerging from our despondent state, and begin encouraging one another by saying, “The harvest truly is plenteous”!
(b) Christ viewed them as a harvest wanting reapers.
The second point Christ made to His disciples about the human harvest fields around them, was that there was a serious shortage of reapers. No sooner had he assured them that “The harvest truly is plenteous” than he added, “. . . but the labourers are few.” (v. 37). Now in a land that swarmed with scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, that assessment may have sounded rather strange at first in their ears. But when we study the four gospels we find ample evidence to support the truth of Christ’s statement. How few there were in Israel at that time who seemed to know anything savingly of the Gospel, and how the ignorant, bewildered, sheep-like state of the majority of the people reflected the ignorance of those who claimed to be their religious guides! Here again, our Lord’s words describe so well the situation we are confronted with today. When we soberly consider the plight of the unchurched multitudes in Great Britain at the present time, we have to conclude that they are where they are largely because of a shortage of faithful Gospel labourers in the past, and are likely to remain in that perilous condition unless we have an increase in faithful Gospel labourers in the days to come. And who that takes an intelligent interest in the affairs of other nations will admit to things being much different abroad? What temporal and spiritual miseries engulf lands where once the Christian Church had a real footing, and what profound blindness characterizes multitudes in lands where Islam and other false religions have long held sway! Oh, where are the spiritual successors of men like Carey, Marshman and Ward, who, understanding the true spiritual plight of the heathen, are moved with Christlike compassion to devote the whole of their lives, and consecrate their variety of gifts, to bring the Gospel to those who “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1.79)? Rarely has there been a time like the present when evangelical Christians professing the doctrines of grace needed to ponder the implications of that short assertion of the Lord Jesus Christ – “. . but the labourers are few”.
3. Christ’s counsel about the multitudes.
After Jesus had given His assessment of the situation to His disciples. He proceded to tell them what needed to be done about it. As we shall now see, the counsel Christ gave them is not always the same counsel their spiritual descendants hear today, and yet it is crucial to a proper solution of the problem facing evangelical Christians today:-
(a) What His disciples needed to do.
Christ’s directions could hardly have been more clear and concise
– “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest . . .” (v. 38). Even though the need was so great, and the spiritual plight of the masses around them so pressing, Christ counselled His disciples to pray!
Now that in itself compels us to examine ourselves. When we see the multitudes ‘scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd’, do we stop to enquire of the great Head of the Church what we need to do? Is there any space made, any time given, for waiting upon God in prayer? Techniques for evangelism are listed, and every Christian is virtually commanded to engage in every one of them, irrespective of individual temperament, natural gifts, state of spiritual knowledge or stage of Christian growth; conferences and seminars are organized, where reputed experts from various fields are brought in to further instruct and task the faithful. ‘Quick-fix’ teams are organized for local church missions which last only a few days. But where is the waiting upon God in prayer as Christ directed His disciples? It is as though we have come to believe that everything depends upon man – man’s activity, man’s techniques, man’s organization – and have lost sight of the “Lord of the harvest” to whom the Saviour instructed His disciples to address their prayers. Oh, what a relief, and what an encouragement at the same time, to be reminded, in these days of Arminian-based, man-centred evangelism, that our Sovereign Lord is still the Lord of the harvest!
He remains in control of the situation; He is still working-out His sovereign purpose of redemption; He continues to possess all the resources His Church needs for her great work. And yet He condescends to allow us to be labourers together with Him, and directs us, in the first instance, to this great work of prayer. “PRAY ye therefore the LORD OF THE HARVEST …”
(b) What His disciples needed to pray for.
Our Lord’s directions about what we should pray for are as specific as those He gave about praying itself. What does He encourage His disciples to pray for, when faced with such a situation? The answer is contained in His own words, “… that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.” (v. 38). Christ’s words remind us again that our great need today is not for more scholarship, special techniques, new methods, or even for a team from some ‘super-growth’ church in the United States to come over and tell us their secret! Our need is for more men whom Christ has sent into the ministry, and who conform to His interpretation of the word “labourers”. Oh, that word “labourers”: how expressive, how instructive it is! Does it not convey the idea of ability? Oh, how much we need men who have the God-given ability to preach the gospel in a truly evangelistic manner; to form new churches according to the pattern laid down in Scripture; and to pastor the causes of truth in a way which promotes their health, unity and growth! And does not the word “labourers” also suggest industry? ability alone will never result in a harvest being gathered home. Oh, how much we need men who will treat the Christian ministry, not as something they turn aside to when family commitments allow, and their secular work is done, but as the chief work of their lives to which they willingly give their talents and time! Let us not despair of obtaining such men. Our Lord’s instruction to His disciples to pray “the Lord of the harvest that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” implies that God is both willing and able to supply us with the Gospel ministers we so desperately need. Surely we can have that same confidence in this matter that garrisoned the heart of the saintly Samuel Pearce of Birmingham, when he wrote to William Carey in India, in August 1796, ‘Men we only want: and God shall find them for us in due time.’ Let us therefore take our Lord’s teaching to heart, and give ourselves to prayer for more Gospel labourers, and who knows that, in due time, we may yet see the Lord of the harvest being glorified in another large ingathering of precious, elect souls.