My pastor was preaching out of John 4 a few weeks ago. As he does so often, Jesus powerfully speaks into real-life situations with words that upset the status quo. Humans are a competitive lot and Americans are all the more so. This competitive nature encourages us to take our identities in the winning or in the losing (even though we give superficial and half-hearted admonitions that “it’s just about how you play the game.”)
Who gets to be the winner?
This winning or losing scenario also plays out in the realm of evangelism. The winners are those who “reap souls for Jesus” and the losers are everyone else. Oh, we would never say that out loud, but it becomes obvious in the stories we share with each other. The winners, (a.k.a. “the reapers,”) are allowed to tell stories about God’s grace in bringing “brother so and so” and “sister Susie Q” to God with much hoopla, fanfare and applause (not that there is anything wrong with this per se since we do know about all that rejoicing that’s going on in heaven when a person receives Christ). However, when the losers, (a.k.a. “the sowers,”) give their testimonies we all feel an almost a palpable pity. Maybe we think, “we’re so sorry you only got to sow and not reap like the winners—we’ll pray for you.”
But the words of Jesus in John 4:31–37 give us a third way to look at our evangelist endeavors. This passage talks about sowers and reapers each “rejoicing together” in the assignment that God has called them to. How many “the-fields-are-white-unto-harvest (!!!!!!!)” sermons have I heard, enjoining all of us to “go out into the world because everybody is ready to get saved!” Now certainly, there are fields that are ready for the harvest (e.g., the 3000 new believers in Acts 2:41). But I wonder if the Israelites heeded any of the words that the prophet Joel spoke (see Acts 2:17–21) in his day. Or did David have as great success as Peter when he spoke of the coming Messiah (see Acts 2:25–28)? No, Peter (who quoted these OT prophets) was a reaper, Joel and David were sowers, and they both used the same exact words!
The truth is that you very well may be in a harvest field that is “white unto harvest” where the labor of reaping needs doing. If you’re in that field, then you must do the hard work of reaping (for there’s nothing else to be done!). But it is just as likely that you are staring at a barren field where all the hard work of praying, meeting people, building relationships, and telling them about Jesus, i.e., the sowing, must be done—maybe for years and maybe in preparation for other reapers. If you find yourself in that field, then you must do the hard word of sowing (for there’s nothing else to be done!).
So how can sowers think about reapers and how can reapers think about sowers?
1. You sowers, by all means and with grateful hearts rejoice in the work God is doing through you. What an honor it is to be used to sow the gospel. Jesus was a sower just like you (Mark 4:1–9). Don’t grow envious of the reaper. You and he are in this together and no farmer wants to see all the labor involved in preparing, sowing and watering go to waste. Also, stop being apologetic for “just sowing” and start glorifying God! Rejoice that he is using you to spread the gospel! God graciously works in you, giving you the desire to share the good news and the patience and faithfulness to sow for his good pleasure. So sow, and give the glory for your sowing to the God who has sent you to the fields (Rom 11:13 or wherever you are sent). And then, rejoice with the reaper!
2. You reapers, by all means and with grateful hearts rejoice in the work God is doing through you. What an honor it is to be used to reap souls. Jesus was a reaper just like you (isn’t John 4 about reaping?). Yet do so while still acknowledging and valuing those who have gone before you. Humbly tell those around you how God is doing a great work in your day, bringing many to himself daily. Tell us how you reaped where you did not sow and how you not only appreciate the work of the sowers, but the one who is ultimately responsible for the increase. Rejoice with the sower!
At the end of the day, there are no winners and losers in the labor of evangelism. There are only sowers and reapers, and each is as important to the task as the other. Without the sower, there would be no grain, and without the reaper there would be no increase. As the “plowman overtakes the reaper” (so to speak) and they meet each other in the field, let that be an occasion for rejoicing together.