The Chinese pastor and evangelist John Sung had a fiery and productive ministry in the area of Indonesia throughout the 1920s and 1930s. One thing that he regularly told people still resonates today: “Do not think that following Jesus is only a matter of being uplifted inside. There are millions who do not know the Lord Jesus. Go out and take the gospel to them.”
The vision of the many who are without a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus should bring into us a desire to do something about it. It will bring a desire first to pray and then to go out with the gospel of eternal life. It will forge in us a realization that it is utter selfishness to be continuously seeking a personal blessing without any concern for the millions in our world and to have no concern for the reachable here and far away. This vision and burden will come from a sympathy with the Lord Jesus that comes from fellowship with him in prayer and in his Word. It will mean a desire to reach others with the gospel of his salvation.
The plan of the Lord Jesus has always been to use his people to reach other people with the gospel. Before he even gave the Great Commission, though, he called his disciples to pray for laborers to be sent into the harvest. He, as the Lord of the harvest, would be himself responsible for the calling, equipping and sending; but the need for his people to pray for the workers to be sent into the harvest comes from seeing the world through his eyes.
In his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus passed on to the church through his apostles the necessity to reach the world with his gospel. It was a constant concern of his, and one which anyone who claims to know him and believe his Word needs also to take to heart. The believer, then, who sees the world through his eyes will have a renewal in thinking, an enflaming of passion and a guide to action beyond just maintaining the religious status quo. Even more, the perspective and power of his Word in our lives will mean that his vision of the world of needy and reachable people will become ours also, and it will drive us further into his Word and prayer to find his direction and power to reach the harvest of people ripe to respond.
Here is how Jesus demonstrated and communicated his view of the the world, in Matthew 9:35-38:
“And Jesus went around to all the cities and villages, and he taught in their synagogues, proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and healed every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds he was filled with compassion for them because they were harassed and beaten down like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest.’”
If we see people as Jesus sees them, we will be filled with his compassion. Truly loving Jesus and living in fellowship with him means that we will share his perspective on the world, and seeing people from his perspective will mean that we also will be filled with his compassion.
Ministry to others comes from and deepens the compassion that comes from Jesus. The first step to having the compassion of Jesus for others comes from taking the steps of obedience into ministry. For Jesus, it didn’t come from his perfect knowledge, nor from his being filled with the Spirit at his baptism, nor from his nights in prayer. Rather, it came from his actual experience of ministry, and we need to understand his compassion in this passage as a compassion filling his perfect human nature as he engaged in ministry to the crowds, as a part of his perfect human emotional reaction to the needs of other people that he saw.
Jesus first experienced his growing and overflowing compassion which when he engaged in his actual ministry to the crowds as the fulfillment of his earthly mission. This perspective did not come from any kind of academic background or theological training, but from actual compassionate contact, as in verse 35, “And Jesus went around to all the cities and villages, and he taught in their synagogues, proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and healed every disease and every infirmity.” His ministry was not demonstrated by holding back, giving advice, or looking out at people from a safe vantage, but from actually spending time in the ministry to people from his Messianic mission. Even more, it was not merely a ministry to physical needs for healing, but it began with and continued with his proclamation of the good news of the arrival of the Messianic kingdom in himself, King Messiah. His healing was out of compassion and care, but it was rooted in his own person as the Son of God, who had authority to proclaim the message of God and over the realm of physical disease and infirmity. And this ministry tour filled him with a deep compassion in his human nature as he came into contact with human need through his human nature. (Originally when I preached this message, I started after this verse, but now that I reconsider the passage, I consider verse 35 to be an essential beginning to what follows.)
It is one of the realities of actual ministry to others that the more a person ministers in serving Christ, the more a person sees the need of the world for the gospel of Christ and his healing sovereignty. Certainly times of prayer ministry are necessary, and there is much too little said in the modern church about the basic equipment for ministry being the Word of God, being filled with the Spirit and being a person of prayer. It is then the actual getting down close to others, making the journeys of ministry and encountering the need first hand that the awareness of the need deepens and fills believers with compassion for others. As with Jesus, taking the first step to share the gospel and minister to human needs will make us people filled with the compassion of Jesus not as a theory but as a living reality which demonstrates itself in our lives. Too often it seems like people are waiting for the right feelings first. They want to feel the need and the compassion before they will do anything, but like Jesus they rather need to get in contact with the real human need in on the path of obedience in ministry to experience the full compassion that comes from being close to Jesus and filled with his Spirit.
Thus, if we find many people who attend evangelical churches and whose stated beliefs are in line with sound evangelical doctrine, but lack the compassion of Christ, it may well be from too great an emphasis on Christians gathering and celebrating in worship rather than being equipped and sent forth in ministry. Look at how many songs seem to express that all God wants from us is praise and that we’re all right if we have the proper emotional state in a worship service. And it seems that there has been a benign neglect among many pastors, elders and church leaders, in the name of seeker friendly churches, of their mission to equip the church for works of ministry, as stated in Ephesians 4:11-14: “And it was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints unto the work of ministry, unto the building up of the body of Christ, until we all arrive at the oneness of faith and the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the full measure of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be childish as we are blown and carried around by every whiff of teaching by the trickiness of men in their sneakiness toward the scheme of error . . .” (Dale’s sight translation; unfortunately, there’s no modern English word or paraphrase that I can think of that can convey the emphasis of the preposition translated, “unto” in this passage as well). And it will be then that we come to know an emotional state that is more Christlike than being caught up in a thrill or warm afterglow of worship. It will be, as David Wilkerson once described the effect of any true baptism of the Holy Spirit, looking out and loving a lost world with the love of Jesus.
When we come into contact with others in the course of ministry, then, we will see other people with the compassion of Christ, as he did. And when this happens, we will see them in their true state, in the immensity of their need. So, as we come close to Christ, his compassion will come from knowing their state as he did. The Bible says then that, “When he saw the crowds he was filled with compassion for them because they were harassed and beaten down, like sheep without a shepherd.” The description is not merely of their physical needs for healing, which he took care of generously when he was with them. Rather, the phrase recalls what Isaiah had written: “All we like sheep have gone astray: we have turned every one to his own way . . .” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus knew that the real problem wasn’t the political domination of the masses by Rome or the economic exploitation of the masses by the rich nor their religious exploitation by their religious leaders. Rather, the true need was what he would provide in his death on the cross for them: “ . . . and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
Because of sin, every human being apart from Christ is broken, harassed and helpless. Whatever the outward appearance of comfort or discomfort, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, the human brokenness that marks us all comes from the sin that separates us from Go. Thus we’re all left without his direction, protection, provision and life, and we ourselves are as helpless and harassed as sheep without a shepherd. And this realization needs to infiltrate our perceptions of other people; it will enable us to see beyond our prejudices and the false fronts of others to the needs deep within their hearts and lives. It will mean seeing people according to the Word of God, from the perspective of a mind that has been renewed by the Spirit of God through fellowship with Jesus. This will draw us aware from the self centered defensive and passive life, and into a life of trusting God to meeting the need from the knowledge of the Savior and his power to save.
Rees Howells once told of how this realization came to him, as a part of his own experience, and how it became the burden which led him to be a missionary and to found a college to train missionaries. He said, “I had heard many people speaking on the need of the mission field, but I never ‘saw’ the heathen in their need until that afternoon; the Lord gave me a vision of them, and they stood before me as sheep without a shepherd.”
But the realization of this need would be utterly crushing if we do not ourselves know the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For all the compassion of Jesus there needs to be a faith in the truth and power of the gospel that can and will come to the heart that will receive him by faith. Most certainly there needs to be a personal reception of salvation by faith in Christ, not necessarily as a dramatic experience, but certainly as a real understanding of having passed from death to life, from condemnation to pardon, from separation from God to acceptance by God through faith in Jesus Christ. This means, then, continuing in living in fellowship with Jesus and listening to his Word, and being filled oneself with the power of his Spirit for witness. This then will give us the belief in the power of the gospel that will be the foundation for a confidence to pray and to witness with the realization that the Savior can and will come to bring his salvation to those who are living like sheep without a shepherd.
Arthur Blessitt found that this was necessary when he began a continuing witness in 1967 on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, California. He found that the Christians who were witnessing with him really didn’t believe that the Lord was able to save the druggies, the freaks and the winos, as he described them. Rather, he found that he was only able to have an effective witness there as he worked with simple believers, without church connections or lots of theological knowledge, but whose lives had been changed by the gospel, by the power of God.
So then, the compassion of Jesus will deepen within us as we minister for the glory of Jesus, with his gospel, love and power in this world. It will lead to a continuing perception of other people as Jesus sees them, and we will never be able to see them as we have seen them before. It will mean a transformation of our thoughts and feelings about others, as our own experience of the transforming power of the gospel fills us with the compassion and hope of Christ. We will then realize that he can and will do the same for others as he has done for us, and the confidence to reach out to others with the gospel of eternal life.
Even more, then, the compassion of Jesus will lead us to seek from him the reinforcements we need to reach the world with the gospel. We will realize that his plan of reaching people calls for workers in his harvest, and this will call us to seek from him the workers to complete the work. Reaching the harvest field of the world, as represented in each community, each human being, calls for God to prepare, empower and send out the workers into the harvest field.
Jesus held out before his disciples the tremendous potential harvest, but noted that more would be needed to fill the harvest. This is how he described both the potential and the need: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few . . .” He didn’t give them any false impressions of their ability and numbers as being sufficient to meet the challenge of reaching the world with the gospel. He didn’t slap them on the back and say anything like “I have confidence in you; go to it.” Rather, he commanded them to pray: “ . . . therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest.” He gave them a specific request, and it’s one that he definitely intended to fulfill, to pray for workers to be sent into the harvest field of the world of mankind apart from Christ.
Evangelism and missions, reaching people in this world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, comes from the initiative of the Lord of the harvest, Jesus himself, to send the workers into the harvest. His responsibility is to send – which implies his calling, preparation, empowering and sending his workers into the harvest field of the world. Even more, it then becomes the responsibility of the workers to work – which implies the work of witness and disciplemaking. But Jesus Christ, the Lord of the harvest, commanded his disciples to pray for this to happen, in light of the magnitude of the harvest and the need for so many more to accomplish the mission.
Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, came to the conclusion that this was the starting point when he was looking for 24 others to join him in the China Inland Mission. He wrote, “In the study of that divine Word, I learned that to obtain successful workers, not elaborate appeals for help, but first earnest prayer to God to thrust forth laborers, and second the deepening of the spiritual life of the church, so that men would be unable to stay at home, were what was needed.”
So often we look for people, but we want them to be of our own choosing, or to be someone like we’d be comfortable with, but Jesus’s command to pray first means that our wants and choices for our leaders, pastors and missionaries must recede into the background. So often, when we ourselves look for workers, we might be like the people of Israel, who want a king like the other nations, like the tall, good looking Saul, but we in fact need to wait for the Spirit filled tow headed kid David, who turned out to be the man after God’s own heart.
That Jesus calls for prayer means that this is something that we are not equipped or capable of doing on our own, but something for which we need the wisdom, power and guidance of God. So often people within the church seem to operate on the assumption that they can look at others, decide what their gifts and talents are, push and prod them to go where they think that they ought to go, and boast and crow about their accomplishment in getting that person to do what they assume God wanted that person to do. Certainly the Lord of the harvest is more than able to call, equip and empower his workers for his harvest, but this does not mean that anyone within the church has the wisdom to tell from someone’s supposed natural talents or spiritual gifts precisely where the Lord of the harvest wants that person. Otherwise the command would have been something like, “Figure it out and make them go there.” Rather, the Lord of the harvest tells his church precisely to ask him to send out his workers where he wants them – into the harvest where they are needed.
The call to prayer means acknowledging Jesus as Lord of the harvest and it means that we seek the people that he wants for his workers in the places the that he wants them. It means that we must acknowledge and follow his sovereignty in the calling, preparation and sending of his workers into his harvest, and being placed in the seas of human need where he would want them. This is what each one in denominational leadership and serving with mission boards needs to remember, that they are ever and always to be subject to the Lord of the harvest as he seeks to fulfill the prayers of his people for workers to come into his harvest.
But praying this prayer is not enough; praying this way also entails being ready to become such a worker oneself. Jesus gave this call for workers to those who had already been enlisted as worker and who would eventually be sent out as workers. Jesus gave this command twice: in this passage, to the twelve, and in Luke 10:2, when he sent out the seventy. It seems that his issuing of this command was with the understanding that the needs that they would uncover on their mission would move them to a sense of need and compassion for the people they would encounter, and that this would brand upon their souls the need for prayer for workers to continue the work of the harvest around the world.
The underlying principle, then, is that Jesus is not commanding them to pray for something for someone else that they would be unwilling to do for themselves. The disciple that prays that prayer needs to be someone who will be willing and ready to be sent out to fulfill that same prayer. To pray this without hypocrisy means that commitment to be a worker, wherever one is. It is understanding that having received the salvation of Jesus means being willing to be used to take the message of that salvation to others. It means the understanding that we ourselves are called to be missionaries ourselves, not necessarily in the sense of being in cross cultural or vocational ministry, but in the sense of being workers and witnesses for Jesus Christ wherever we are.
Wilfred Grenfell, the medical missionary to Labrador in Canada, was once a guest at a socially exclusive dinner in London, England. There was a lady who was seated next to him at the meal who asked him, “Is it true, Dr. Grenfell, that you are a missionary?”
He replied, “Is it true, madam, that you are not?”
So then, the vision of the harvest which comes from Jesus mean a calm trust in God to follow his instructions and methods for reaching the harvest. His plan always has been to use his people to reach other people, and the people he uses are those who have been sent into the harvest as his faithful workers. God does not give us a quick, easy, short cut way to become a worker, but commands us to start with prayer. So this means that we need first of all to address the Lord of the harvest with the need of the world, and request from him the people that we need to reach the world. His call is to bring before him the need for workers and laborers here and throughout our nation and our world. Even more, let us add on the request that the Lord will revive us with his Holy Spirit, and make us all witnesses to him in the power of Christ. The qualifications which we can see from scripture are not that someone is universally liked or socialized effectively to a lost and dying world, but rather, someone who is divinely dissatisfied with the world as it is, who sees those around him as sheep without a shepherd, and who is a believer in Jesus Christ, who lives in fellowship with Jesus Christ in faith and obedience, and who will witness to Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s plan to reach the harvest calls for his people to reach other people. If the Great Shepherd has found us, he calls us to reach those who are now like sheep without a shepherd. His plan includes the call and command to his people to pray for workers to accomplish his work of bringing in his harvest. The harvest today is as great today as it ever was, but the greatness of God is more than adequate to meet the need. His invitation to pray for workers to come into his harvest is also his promise to fulfill the prayer. Therefore pray this way with the confidence that God will answer the prayer, and let the love and compassion of Jesus move you to keep on praying for his laborers for the harvest.
The need for laborers then entails a willingness to become a worker oneself. Make it a part of your praying for laborers the act of volunteering to be a part of meeting the needs where you are. Look at the opportunities before you, and asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit, with holy and loving confidence and boldness, to be an effective witness for Christ. And include in this a willingness to be sent wherever he leads into harvest, as you recognized that the Lord of the harvest has the right to send you where he wants.
Even more, this is a request that needs to be much, much more a request that is an integral part of our prayer meetings when we gather together to pray. Too often church members have been notorious for bringing up physical needs and perhaps financial needs, and neglect to keep the prayer for workers to be sent into the harvest as a consistent part of their prayer requests. The needs for workers for the needs of the local church could certainly be brought under this explicit command and implied promise. Certainly a church which is between pastors can pray with this command and promise for a pastor – but they should then look for the one that they eventually call as God’s answer to this prayer, and the worker he has sent to their place in the harvest.
If the church which makes this request is seeking to be a part of reaching the world for Christ, this would then also entail being willing to live with what happens when the Lord of the harvest puts his nail pierced hand on the shoulder of someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister or friend or neighbor within the congregation, and points that person to a place in the harvest where he wants that person. Praying this prayer then means being willing to live with the consequences of God fulfilling this prayer as it touches the lives of those we know and love. It may mean sacrificing one’s own ambitions for that son or daughter and allowing the Lord of the harvest to put that person into a place of little recognition or even physical danger. It may mean letting go of someone who we may think needs to continue to be a part of our church fellowship for a long time more. But this really comes down living with the Lordship of Jesus Christ over that someone else’s life and not opposing it if I have other ideas or plans.
But there is still one more thing from these verses that needs to be emphasized: in the work of reaching the world with the gospel, the leaders and people within the church need to keep it in mind that Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church for everything in every way (Ephesians 1:21-23), is the Lord of the harvest. And this is where the wickedness of much of what happens among elders, pastors, church leaders and denominational officials that some call, ‘church politics,’ is highlighted, where it means behavior which is contrary to the explicit Word of God – rivalry, cutthroat competition, slander and backbiting as evil as anything which takes place in a secular corporation – and behavior which stands in any way in the way of the Lord of the harvest from sending his workers where he chooses. One of the consequences of someone seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus is often that others will seek to hijack, sidetrack, sabotage or stonewall that person as he or she seeks to follow the Lord of the harvest into his harvest field where he leads. Certainly that person is still responsible to obey God rather than man, as far as the leading is scriptural, but I personally find the, “That’s tough, just put up with it,” attitude toward church politics to be an unscriptural response. Rather, the situation calls for a healthy and holy respect for the Lord and Master of the harvest, the realization that his decisions are final, and the final acquiescence in the direction pointed by the finger of the right hand pierced by the nail of Golgotha.
As far as some current trends in training people in pastoral ministry, vocational missionary work and denominational leadership, the following articles piqued my interest:
What the author writes about ministry as apprenticeship is very apt. Though I value my friendships with my friends from my seminary years, I’ve felt his model of apprenticeship might have been a more effective preparation, and others such as John Wesley and Charles Finney felt the same way. I don’t think that a ‘ministry internship’ as part of a seminary education is the answer here.
Here is a further article on what another author sees as a coming bubble in higher education – and one which I would say had already arrived and is simply waiting to burst:
Here are some thoughts which come to mind on these matters:
- It’s becoming plainer than ever that a number of people have been educated beyond what they need to make a living.
- It should also be said that many are being put into the higher education system who have no business being there in terms of their goals and personal capabilities.
- Higher education often leaves a person overqualified for the work that they know how to find, and this often leads to a cycle of chronic underemployment.
- Christian institutions of higher education do not do their students, graduates, alumni, staff and faculty and denominational sponsors good when they follow uncritically the same lines of thought and action as the secular institutions.
- Much of seminary education is really not a preparation for pastoral ministry and missionary work but rather for continued higher education. In this I wholeheartedly agree with Jerry Bowyer. For instance, I personally found it extraordinarily difficult to draw a line between much of what was taught in New Testament exegesis and the actual understanding and application of the Word of God necessary for an effective preaching ministry. I found that the German theories on redaction criticism, form criticism and source criticism, for instance, had more to do with unsubstantiated, highly subjective theories on how some professors thought the text came to being than in actual interpretation and exposition of the text itself. And my background in classical studies, where much of the methodology of the German higher critics had already long since been repudiated, made knowing those theories more of an exercise in the history of Biblical interpretation than something that I could actually use in the pastorate. For myself, I found that ditching those theories in favor of more traditional paths of interpretation resulted in my being able to explain and apply the scriptures much more effectively in my preaching ministry.
- It seems like there’s actually a pattern of overqualification and underemployment that dogs some people who come through Christian colleges and seminaries. I’ve read what others have written on this, but bore could be said on this, and I intend to write more on this.
- I consider what I wrote above about the need of the world and the Lord of the harvest, and the number of brothers and sisters that I’ve known who have come through Bible colleges and seminaries who are no longer in vocational ministry. I don’t think that they can be dismissed simply with a cruel judgment that they never were really called to pastoral ministry or missionary service. There are a number of reasons why they may not have continued in vocational ministry. I myself wonder, with the need of the world and the call of the Lord of the harvest for workers, whether the need might be met more not just by continuing to send more and more through seminary and Bible college but by seeking to listen to, pray for and love those who may no longer be in vocational ministry, and understand that the Lord of the harvest may still have substantial work left for them to do.