The Harvest is Plentiful (Matthew 9:35-38)

Before we go any further, welcome back! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen many of you. It’s good to see you again, and I’m ready to get going this Fall. It begins with a message that I’ve been waiting to give for some time now.

In November 2010, a wedding party in Australia, was unexpectedly called into action right after the wedding ceremony. While they were posing for pictures on a scenic ledge, a woman unrelated to the wedding fell into the water and started drowning. Dressed in his tuxedo, the best man jumped in and brought the woman back toward shore. Then the bride, a trained nurse, waded into the water and started administering CPR. By the time the Surf Life Saving volunteers had arrived, the woman had regained consciousness. But according to one safety official, "[The victim] was very lucky that the bridal party was there and they acted quickly and got her to the shallows." After the daring rescue operation, the drenched but heroic best man and the bride happily rejoined the wedding reception and continued with the festivities.

That’s the picture I want you to keep in mind this morning. We're dressed up for a party (celebrating worship), but at the same time we're also prepared to dive into mission, even when it's inconvenient and dangerous. This morning I want to look at a passage of Scripture in which Jesus challenges us to look out and to take a specific action.

Today I’d like to talk to you about something very specific. It’s a dangerous thing to talk to you this morning, because a response is going to be required. In just a few minutes, you are going to be confronted with a choice, a response you’re going to be asked to make. There’s a lot riding on this response, not only for you but for this world as well. So this is a scary time. There’s a lot riding on the next few minutes.

A Pivotal Passage

The passage we’re going to look at this morning is a hinge passage, a pivotal passage. What’s a hinge passage? A hinge is the swing point between two objects. A hinge holds together two objects. And the passage we’re looking at today holds Jesus’ ministry together with our ministry. That’s why the Scripture we’re going to look at today is so important, because it’s all about us having a similar ministry to Jesus.

So let me read the passage for you, and then let me lead you to the response that Jesus requires from us.

We read in Matthew 9:35-38:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

As I said, this is a pivotal point in the book of Matthew. Up until now, it has been all about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been traveling all throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. Not only that, he’s been healing diseases and casting out demons. Epileptics, paralytics, and even a mother-in-law have been healed! Jesus has calmed a storm. The blind have received sight. A young girl has been raised from the dead. The mute are speaking again. As the crowds watch this, they rightly say, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33). That’s what you call an understatement. Can you imagine what it would have been like to see this? It would have been extraordinary. That’s all of what has been happening up until the passage that we just read.

But something happens right afterwards. Up until now it’s all been about Jesus ministering in power. But a strange thing happens after the passage that we just read. In Matthew chapter 10:1 we read, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” So what’s happening here?

We’re right at the moment when Jesus makes the switch from preaching and teaching and healing himself, to commissioning his disciples to go out to preach and teach and heal. What’s going on here is that Jesus is about to commission his followers to do what he’s doing. He preached; he’s about to get them to preach. He’s taught with authority; he’s about to send them out to teach with authority. He’s driven out evil spirits and healed all kinds of diseases and sicknesses; he’s about to get them to drive out evil spirits and heal all kinds of sicknesses and diseases.

So you have a before and after picture, and in between you have this section. So what does this tell us? It tells us that whatever happens here is critical for us to have the same type of ministry that Jesus had. If we are to be doing the same type of thing that Jesus did, then what takes place in this pivotal passage is extremely important. So let’s look at what takes place in this passage that is so important to having the same type of ministry that Jesus did.

A Window into Jesus’ Heart

The first thing that this passage does is that it gives us a bit of a window into the heart of Jesus. If we’re to have the type of ministry that Jesus had, it’s going to be because our heart is becoming like the heart of Jesus.

We read in verse 36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.” The compassion of Jesus is a theme that keeps coming up in the book of Matthew. Matthew 14:14 says, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” In chapter 15:32, Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” In chapter 20:34 we read, “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.” What we discover is that compassion is at the heart of Jesus.

Compassion is a pretty strong word here. You would think that the reason for Jesus’ compassion would be because of the sicknesses that he’s encountered. Everywhere he turns, there are people blind, epileptic, paralyzed or even dead. That is certainly worth our compassion. There are a few days every year that I can barely listen to the radio. It’s the days that they have a telethon to raise money for The Hospital for Sick Children. I’m filled with compassion and I can barely take it when I hear the stories of the sicknesses of these children. It makes sense to be moved with compassion when we encounter the sick.

But what moves Jesus here isn’t the physical illnesses that he’s encountered. Verse 36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” What moved Jesus - and what doesn’t move me as much as it should - was the great spiritual need of the people. Their lives had no center, their existence seems aimless, and their whole experience was one of futility.

You see, the prophet Micah had written:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
(Micah 5:2, quoted in Matthew 2:6)

God had said through Ezekiel: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23). But the situation, as Jesus saw it, was close to what the prophet Ezekiel had prophesied earlier in the same chapter: “My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).

As a result, Jesus saw the people as harassed, confused, bothered, and unable to help themselves. And this, even more than the illnesses that he saw, moved him with compassion.

I said earlier that if we are to serve like Jesus served, we must have a heart that is becoming like the heart of Jesus. This means that we begin to feel compassion for those we encounter who have not been placed under the great Shepherd Jesus Christ. It means that we look around us and see people the way Jesus does, and feel compassion for them the way that he does.

Two Responses

But that’s not really the heart of the challenge that is ours this morning. I said that this would be a dangerous talk, and it is. This is a pivotal passage, and it’s all about bridging the gap between Jesus’ ministry and ours, so that we have the same kind of ministry that he had. I’d love to have the compassion that Jesus had, but that’s not what Jesus talks about. Jesus speaks to the disciples at this pivotal moment and gives them something to believe and something to do. And as we read this passage today, we are likewise given something to believe and then something to do.

First, we’re given something to believe. Jesus says in verse 37, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” What does he tell us to believe? Jesus switches metaphors here from shepherding to farming. And what he tells us is that the harvest is ready. In other words, people are ready to receive the good news of the kingdom. The problem isn’t that people are unready to receive the good news; the problem is that we aren’t ready to tell them. “The workers are few.” Imagine a farmer with fields ready to be harvested, but workers who are AWOL or non-existent. Jesus looks around him and he sees people who are helpless and harassed and ready to hear the good news of the gospel. The problem is that there’s nobody to tell them.

So let me ask you: do you believe that the harvest is plentiful? The harvest is plentiful all around us. Do you believe that? Jesus gives it to us as something for us to believe. One of the greatest lies of the devil is to convince us that people aren’t interested, that it’s a waste of time to tell them. The harvest is plentiful. God has prepared them. There are many yet to be reached with the gospel of the kingdom, and there’s an urgency. They’re ready to hear. This is what he tells us to believe. Do you believe it?

A recent book captures the urgency of evangelism very well, and calls us to respond. It’s:

  • theologically urgent because of what God has revealed, including the truth that there is a heaven and hell
  • spiritually urgent because people are utterly spiritually lost apart from Christ
  • physically urgent because death is coming for all, and with it the opportunity to respond to the gospel will be past
  • statistically urgent because the vast majority of people in our community have not yet heard the gospel or been invited to respond to it
  • strategically urgent because God has chosen to use the church as his strategy of reaching the lost
  • personally urgent because each of us must respond

He’s given us something to believe - that people are ready. Now he gives us something to do about it. Wouldn’t you expect that Jesus would say, “So get out there and tell them!” But that’s not what he said. Surprisingly, he said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Why would Jesus tell us to pray instead of doing something? It’s not like Jesus is against action. In the very next chapter, remember, he’s going to instruct his twelve disciples, and then send them out to preach and teach and do the things that he’s done. But he knows that before we have the ministry that he has, we must have the same prayerful reliance on the Father that he does. Before we have the compassion of Jesus, we must have the connection with the Father that Jesus has.

Warren Wiersbe says, “When we pray as He commanded, we will see what He saw, feel what He felt, and do what He did. God will multiply our lives as we share in the great harvest that is already ripe.”

It’s one thing for us to go and do. It’s another thing altogether to plead with God that he would raise up people - either through conversion or growth - who are ready to go; to pray that God would give them a spirit for the work, call them to it, and give them wisdom and success. Matthew Henry said, “It is a good sign God is about to bestow some special mercy upon a people, when he stirs up those that have an interest at the throne of grace, to pray for it.” God is up to something when we begin to pray like Jesus commands in this passage.

It’s when I consider that I was one of these lost sheep, and that I came to know the Great Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, that I begin to be motivated to pray. It’s as I look at the cross and see the Shepherd willingly lay down his life for me so that I could become his sheep that I begin to think that the least I can do is pray for others.

And when we start to believe that the harvest is plentiful and pray that he would send out workers, you never know if we may become the answers to our own prayers - that we would be the workers commissioned by the Lord of the harvest himself.

So two questions, and the stakes are high for both you and for the world. Will you believe Jesus when he says that the harvest is plentiful? And will you pray, beginning today, that God would raise up people - maybe even you - to do his work?

This morning I’d like you to respond. First, I invite you to respond to the free offer of salvation given to you in Christ. It may be that you’re here this morning, and you’ve never done so. Today is your day to come, to respond to the One who gave his life as a sacrifice for your sins.

But I’d also like you to respond on behalf of those who don’t yet know Christ. Today the invitation is to first believe that the harvest is plentiful. And then the invitation is to pray. We can begin that God would raise up new evangelists within his church, but be careful. The answer to that prayer may be you. We can pray in particular for people we know who are part of the harvest, that they may come to know Christ.

Let’s do what Jesus asks us to do right now.