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Evangelism: Behold the Harvest! (John 4:34-38)
Sometime ago in the "Peanuts" comic strip as Lucy, Linus, and Charlie Brown looked up to the sky, Lucy said, "You can see lots of things in the clouds." Then turning to her companions, she asked "What do you see, Linus?"
"Well," he said, "those clouds up there look to me like the map of Belize, the little nation in the Caribbean." Glancing in a different direction, "That cloud looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that cloud formation over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Steven; why I can see Saul of Tarsus standing to one side."
"Uh huh," gasped Lucy, "That's good." "And, what do you see Charlie Brown?" Clearing his throat, "Oh, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I've changed my mind."
You may smile at Charlie Brown. Yet in a more profound way, he reminds me of the first disciples of Christ who had a hard time stretching their faith to see the coming of the Kingdom of God and the spiritual harvest around them.
Their limited vision is brought out graphically in the John 4. You recall the story. Jesus and His disciples are going through Samaria on their way to Galilee. Nearing the village of Sychar about noontime, the hungry disciples go into town to get some food, while Jesus sits down to rest on the curb of Jacob's well.
A woman comes out from the village to fill her water jar. Jesus asks her for a drink, and initiates a conversation which leads the women to the knowledge of salvation. Overjoyed with her discovery, she leaves her water pot, and rushes into town to share her secret.
Meanwhile, the disciples return from the city, and are amazed that their Lord would be speaking with such a person. On top of this, He missed His lunch. They urge Him to eat something. Whereupon Jesus says (John 4:34-38): My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, "There are still four months and then comes the harvest?'" Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: one sows and another reaps. I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors."
Reflecting upon these words of Christ, notice four aspects of the vision.
Observe, first, the opportunity for the harvest! "Look on the fields," Jesus tells us (John 4:35). Do you see the people in the world needing to hear the Gospel? It appears that the spiritually dull disciples, with their earth-bound vision, saw only the recently planted fields of grain, still months away. If they were more discerning, however, they could see some men coming from the city who have heard the testimony of the redeemed woman. These awakened Samaritans want to know more about this Man who can change lives, and before He leaves them, they come to believe that Jesus is the Savior of the World. (John 4:39-42)
Indeed, if we, too, would lift our vision beyond the horizon, with the eyes of faith we could see the Spirit of God moving across the whole earth preparing a people to praise Him from every tongue and tribe and nation. Do you see them?
Looking at the world with this vision reminds me of a man on a train going across the desert in Arizona. He was the only person in the chair car who had not pulled down the window shades to keep out the glare of the hot sun on the parched earth. In contrast to the other passengers, he kept looking out his window, and seemed actually to enjoy the dismal scene.
After a while the curious man seated across the aisle, asked, "Sir, what do you see in that wasteland that makes you smile?"
"Oh," he replied," I'm in the irrigation business, and I was thinking if we could only get water to this land that the desert would become a garden."
That's what Jesus is teaching His disciples. He wants us to see the world's people as He sees them. Though lost and on their way to Hell, they are precious in His sight. By divine grace, they can become a new creation, made beautiful in holiness.
Oh, that these people could be reached while prepared, or literally "white" for harvest. Any of you raised on a farm will recognize the force of this analogy. Ripened wheat takes on a golden hue when ready for harvest. However, if reaping is delayed, the grain begins to turn a pale white, and will soon fall over on the ground. To speak of fields "white" unto harvest is to stress the imperative of getting into the fields before it is too late.
We go into the world with this sense of urgency -- to bring in the harvest while it is day, for the night will soon come when the opportunity is gone (cf. John 9:4). Yet we go knowing that God by His grace is already preparing hearts to receive the message. Others have preceded us by their prayers, some perhaps have even planted the initial seed of a Gospel witness.
But who will gather the waiting harvest? With this in mind, a second aspect of the vision comes into focus -- the workers for the harvest. In John 4:36-37, Jesus refers to "sowers" and "reapers," emphasizing that many people do the work. There are a variety of gifts and callings in ministry, and all contribute to the harvest. Those people who finally bring in the fruit actually are reaping the labors of others who preceded them. But whatever the task, the harvest depends upon the supply of qualified workers.
What Jesus taught here was made very clear in His own ministry. "Moved with compassion" when He saw the multitude clamoring for attention, He likened them to harassed and scattered sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). "The harvest is plentiful," He observed, "but the workers are few" (Matthew 9:37). Jesus did all He could to help them. But in the incarnation He accepted a limitation. In His physical body He could not possibly meet all the needs of the people.
Calling attention to the problem, He told His disciples to ask "the Lord of the harvest" to send out workers into His harvest field (Matthew 9:38). Jesus does not tell us to pray for the world. Rather He asks us to concentrate concern upon the answer to the world's need. Pray for workers -- men and women who have the qualities of a shepherd, persons who love the sheep and can lead them in the way of God.
His own priority in ministry shows how such prayers are answered. While ministering to the crowds, He concentrated on making some sowers and reapers who would go into the harvest and multiply His labors. As their number grew He selected twelve especially to be with Him. Peter, James, and John have an even closer association.
In this fellowship, for the better part of three years the disciples could see lived out His vision for the harvest. He began to involve them in His work, gradually enlarging responsibilities as they grew in faith and self-confidence. Though there were problems and progress was painfully slow, Jesus patiently keeps them moving toward His goal of world evangelization.
That the group was small in the beginning made no difference. All that mattered was that His disciples learned to reproduce His life and teach those close to them to do the same a strategy clearly focused in His farewell command to the church: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). It is not a call to clerical service, nor is it a gift of the Spirit to a few chosen saints. The Great Commission is a lifestyle -- and intentional way of living everyday where workers are prepared for the harvest. Since relationships of this depth are best accomplished with a few people at any one time, every Christian has about the same opportunity to make disciples. Likely, as with those closely associated with Jesus, they will be people with whom we already have much in common. You might call them your peer group.
Did you hear the story of the man in Texas who was arrested for horse stealing? When asked if he preferred to be tried by the judge or a jury of his peers, the man looked confused. "Peers," he mused, "Who's that?" They explained it means somebody just like you. "Oh, I'll take the judge," the man replied. "I don't want to be tried by a bunch of horse thieves."
Look around and you will see people close to you who want to learn more of Christ. They are the answer to your prayers for God to raise up workers for His harvest. Spend time with them. Show them how to minister, even as you find ways for them to exercise their gifts. Keep checking to see how they are coming along, building in them a sense of accountability.
In the process, of course, they will see your own failings and shortcomings. Let them also see the readiness with which you confess your sins when the error of your way is known. Thankfully, you do not have to be faultless, to make disciples, just transparent. The beautiful thing is that by investing largely of your life in them you also are being discipled. It is God's way of insuring that all of us are constantly being prodded to grow in grace.
Best of all, as your disciples begin to impart your vision to others, and teach them to do the same, with each succeeding spiritual generation, the harvest increases to the ends of the earth.
In teaching this strategy of multiplication, however, Jesus makes clear a third component of the vision -- the commitment to the harvest. Whatever the role one fills disciples are "sent" to work (John 4:38). It is an intentional dedication. Our Lord refers to His own mission in similar terms, being "sent" of God "to finish His work" (John 4:34).
To that end, Jesus renounced His own rights, took upon Himself our weaknesses and "became obedient until death" (Philippians 2:8). As He hung on the cross, the self-serving religious leaders stated the truth when they said in derision, "He saved others; but He cannot save Himself" (Mark 14:31).
Of course, He could not save himself. He had not come to save Himself. He came to save us; He came "not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28); He "came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10); and He would not be diverted from that purpose. The cross was simply the crowning climax of His commitment to do the will of God.
In that same sense of obedience to the mission of Christ, we, too, have a cross. Not that we can do anything to save our souls, of course. That work has already been finished by our Lord. But in our commitment to the work to which we are sent, we must die to self centered ambitions and programs that conflict with God's will for our lives.
The willingness of the disciples to make this daily commitment lay heavy on the heart of Jesus as His days in the flesh came to a close. Before His death you can almost hear the anguish of His voice as He intercedes for these men, "sent into the world" even as He was sent (John 17:18). For in a real sense the fruit of His sacrifice on the cross depends upon their faithfulness to His work. If they became indifferent or pre-occupied with other things, it would be as though He lived in vain. So earnestly He prayed that His life might captivate theirs -- that they may be "sanctified" or set apart even as He sanctifies Himself (John 17:19).
We hear a lot about self-fulfillment, but very little is said about self-denial. Whatever happened to the obedience of the cross?
I can never forget the final service of a Billy Graham School of Evangelism in Lima, Peru. While singing a closing hymn, the faces of the assembled pastors and church leaders seemed to glow with an inner light; the radiance that wells from an unrestrained love.
Turning to my interpreter, I asked: "What are the people saying?" He answered, "The words come from the apostle Paul, 'If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord; so, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord"' (Romans 14:8).
Tears began to flow down my cheeks for I knew that many of these pastors would soon return to jungle areas in the country under the complete control of the Shining Path guerrillas, where every day they worked in jeopardy of their lives. Yet they were singing they had already taken up the Cross, and whatever the cost, they were committed to the harvest.
That obedience to the vision of Christ brings out the final Truth -- the joy of the harvest. Jesus speaks of the workers' wages -- gathering fruit for "eternal life," is the way He puts it, "That both he who sows and he who reaps my rejoice together" (John 4:36).
The sweat and toil of getting in the crop are as nothing compared to the reward. It was seeing this joy -- "beyond the cross" -- that made the sufferings of Christ endurable (Hebrews 12:2).
Have you noticed how often He referred to himself as a "the Son of Man?" The title goes back to the prophecy of Daniel, where we are told a person of this likeness is coming "with the clouds of heaven to receive a kingdom that will never be destroyed," and "all peoples, nations and men of every language will worship Him" (Daniel 7:13-14). It is a messianic promise pointing to the triumphant second coming of Christ, when he will take His place of authority to reign over His people.
This vision was before Him every time that He "preached the Gospel" (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35; Matthew 10:7, et. al.). And as harvest workers multiplied across the earth, He knew the time was hastening when believers would be gathered from the east and from the west, the north and the south, to live with Him forever (Matthew 26:29).
Jesus had this reunion in mind when He passed the cup to His disciples at the last supper and told them that He would not drink of the fruit of the vine again "until that day" when He would take it with them in the Father's kingdom (Matthew 26:29). He taught His disciples to live in that expectation -- to view work now in the light of eternity -- to look beyond their toil and see the wages of their labor.
John the beloved saw that final harvest when he was caught up in the Spirit on the isle of Patmos. Peering though the door of heaven, he beheld a great worshipping host around the throne of God. They are clothed in white robes, symbolic of purity, and waving palm branches of victory. As far as the eye can see, they are gathered from "every nation, tribe, people and language" (Revelation 7:9).
The great Commission is fulfilled! In the schedule of God it is already accomplished; the celebration has begun. Hallelujahs of the completed church are ringing through the courts of heaven. A mighty shout can be heard saying: "Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Revelation 7:10).
Any activity which does not contribute to that destiny is an exercise in futility. The vision of the harvest simply keeps us on the wavelength of eternity on which history is moving. Yes, the mission of the church on earth may seem slow, sometimes discouraging -- yet the ultimate triumph of the Gospel is never in doubt.
Years ago in an expedition to an unreached area in India, the reverend E. P. Scott came upon a band of hostile warriors. They seized him, pointing their long spears at his heart. Feeling helpless, but resting on the promises of God, the old missionary drew out the violin which he had with him, and began to play and sing in their native language:
All hail the power of Jesus' name!
Let angels prostrate fall:
Bring forth the royal diadem
and crown Him Lord of all!
As the words rang out, reverend Scott closed his eyes, momentarily expecting death. But when nothing happened, even after singing the third stanza, he opened his eyes, and saw that the spears had fallen from the hands of his captors, tears filled their eyes.
The warriors begged him to tell them of that Name -- the Name above every name, the only Name under heaven given among men where by we must be saved. So he went home with them, and labored among them, winning them to Christ.
I see in this story a parable for us today. Not that we will be delivered from adversity, for God may want to seal our witness with blood. But whatever may come, we know the Name of Christ shall prevail.
The King is coming! While all the details are not yet clear, "we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2). And in that day, every knee shall bow before Him and "every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord".
This is reality! This is eternity! And we can order our lives by this heavenly vision. Open your eyes! Look upon the fields! Behold the Harvest!
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