The Harvest and the Labourers
1. A Summary of Jesus’ Ministry (v. 35)
Sometimes, people repeat themselves because they forgot what they said and they don’t know that they’re saying it again. Sometimes, people repeat themselves because they know exactly what they said, and they are saying it again on purpose for an important reason.
Back in Matthew 4:23, we read about Jesus that “he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
That sounds familiar, right? Because the first verse in our passage today sounds almost identical: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (Matthew 9:35).
This is one of those cases of intentional repetition. These two statements by Matthew are like bookends, marking off the beginning and the end of one of the sections in his book. And what’s between these two bookends? A record of those very activities. From chapters 5-7, we have the Sermon on the Mount, where we hear Jesus teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. And then from chapters 8-9, which we’ve been considering in the past several weeks, we have these nine accounts of Jesus healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
4:23 introduced this whole section, and 9:35 looks back and sums up this whole section of Jesus’ ministry. And it’s worth repeating again that Jesus’ work of proclaiming the gospel and His work of healing were very connected with each other. We’ve seen a number of times in the past few weeks that Jesus’ healing ministry was built on His broader mission to forgive our sins by giving Himself up as our sacrifice. And in every miracle of Jesus we see a preview of the New Creation which He was going to die and rise again to invite us into.
But you might wonder—why is this season of Jesus’ ministry coming to an end? Was he done proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom? Was He finished healing and delivering people? Were there no more people to preach to, no more afflicted to deliver?
And the answer is the opposite. The reason for this transition point is that there were far more people who needed to hear the gospel of the kingdom and be healed than Jesus, confined to His incarnate body, could reach. This ministry of preaching and healing wasn’t coming to an end—it was about to expand into something much broader.
2. A Glimpse Into Jesus’ Heart (v. 36)
And the connection point, the hinge, between Jesus’ ministry thus far and this new phase of ministry is found in verse 36, where we get a glimpse into Jesus’ heart.
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). When he saw the crowds—the crowds that lined up to see His miracles and be healed and hear Him preach—He had compassion on them.
“Compassion” is a strong word, and it’s a very emotional word. The English phrase “His heart went out to them” captures something of the sense of this word. And Jesus has compassion—His heart goes out—to these crowds. These crowds who had caused Him problems, the crowds whom He had needed to get away from at times. The crowds who were full of people who didn’t understand who He was. And He has compassion on them. His heart goes out to them.
Because Jesus has the heart of a shepherd, which we read in the rest of verse 36. He had compassion on them “Because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
This is not the first time in the Bible that we’ve heard this language. Throughout the Old Testament, God compares His people to sheep, and when they don’t have good leaders, expresses His concern for them as sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:15-20, 1 Kings 22:17, Ezekiel 34:1-6). And so here in Matthew 9, we’re getting a glimpse into the heart of Jesus. And it looks just like the heart of God, something that shouldn’t surprise us very much by now.
3. A Call From Jesus to Pray (v. 37-38)
So what does Jesus do with this compassion? Does He just feel it, or does He do something about it? Verse 37: “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” (Matthew 9:37–38).
Jesus’ heart of compassion manifests itself in a call to pray.
But first, notice how the imagery changes at the beginning of verse 37. In the last verse, we were talking about sheep and shepherds. Here in verse 37 and 38 we’re hearing about a harvest and labourers. This is another word-picture that would have been very familiar to the people of that day, and, not surprisingly, it’s also a word picture with a rich Old Testament background.
Just like God’s people are often compared to sheep, so often they are often compared to grain that is planted and harvested. And often, in the Old Testament, the imagery of harvest is a picture of end-times judgement. The sins of the people have made the ripe for judgement, and when God harvests them they are brought to judgement.
But in the book of Matthew we’ve also seen how the picture of a harvest can speak both to judgement and salvation. Remember John the Baptist’s words? “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
Winnowing is what you did with the grain after you harvested it. And so according to John, the harvest has begun. The messiah has come and the people will be harvested, some to salvation, and others to judgement. Jesus used very similar language in the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-39, and there’s even some overlap in the parable of the soils.
The great end-times harvest had already begun. And we see this in the ministry of Jesus so far. As He preaches the kingdom and gives a preview of the kingdom in His miracles, some people respond in faith and are saved. Others do not respond in faith, and they will face judgement. Either way, the ministry of Jesus has a separating effect. You can’t stay neutral with Jesus. When confronted with His message and His person, you have to respond with saving faith or damning unbelief. And that’s how the harvest works.
And this work of harvesting was work. Like a literal harvest of grain, workers needed to go out and bring in the harvest. Workers needed to go out an announce that the kingdom of God was at hand, and call people to repent of their sins and trust in the Messiah.
Jesus could not do this harvest by Himself. Isn’t that quite a thought? I’m nervous even saying it, because I don’t want to suggest that there’s something Jesus couldn’t do. But this is a case where Jesus chose to limit Himself. Jesus was there in the body, and just one body. He couldn’t be everywhere all at once. And there was an urgency that people be harvested into the kingdom while the time was ripe, before it was too late.
Those of you who farm know that if you leave the ripe grain out in the fields too long, it goes bad. And when people are ripe for the gospel, you can’t wait forever. The harvest has to happen.
And what Jesus says in verse 37 is that while the harvest is plentiful, huge, massive, the labourers were few. There weren’t enough workers for the size of the harvest.
So, what does Jesus do about this? He calls His disciples to pray for more workers. Verse 38: “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The harvest is the Lord’s. He is the Lord of the harvest, and the labourers who gather in the harvest are his. And if there are not enough labourers for the harvest, then prayer must be sent up to the Lord of the harvest, praying earnestly—even begging—Him to send out more labourers.
4. A Mission to Jesus’ Apostles (10:1-5)
Now right here we run into one of those many cases where the chapter and verse divisions in the Bible can be very unhelpful. Remember that, when Matthew wrote this gospel, there was no chapter 9 and 10. People would have read about Jesus’ call to pray, and just kept going. And right away they would have read, “And he called to him his twelve disciples.” They would have read about the authority Jesus gave them, and their names, and then read in verse 5 “These twelve Jesus sent out.”
Do you see the connection here? These twelve apostles—they are the labourers the Lord is sending into the harvest. Jesus tells them to pray for the Lord to send out labourers, and then He makes them the answer to their own prayers as He sends them out. That’s why today’s sermon is called “The Harvest and the Labourers.” These first few verses of chapter 10—this is the answer to the prayers at end of chapter 9. These are the labourers sent out into the harvest.
And the whole rest of chapter 10, which we’ll be unpacking in the next three weeks, is all about Jesus preparing them for this mission to go gather in God’s people into the harvest.
And there’s some really big lessons there for us regarding prayer which we’ll consider in a few minutes. But first, let’s break down these five verses and consider four aspects of Jesus’ mission to His twelve apostles.
A. The Calling of the Twelve (10:1)
First, notice the calling of the twelve. Verse 1: “And he called to him his twelve disciples.” We should note that the twelve were already His disciples. Jesus had already called them to follow Him (Matthew 4:18–22, 9:9). And so when He calls them to Himself again, they come.
Please notice that these men are not volunteers. They are obeyers. Jesus calls, and they answer.
B. The authority of the twelve (10:1)
Next, let’s consider the authority of the twelve. Jesus called these specific “twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” Those words sound familiar, right? Those are the very things that Jesus had just been doing as he travelled around Galilee. And now He’s giving His 12 disciples the authority to do the same. And as we’re going to see in verse 7 next week, He sends them out to proclaim “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In other words, they’re going out to do the very things that Jesus Himself has been doing. He is essentially multiplying His ministry by a factor of 12.
There’s some really big lessons here about leadership development and apprenticeship. Did the disciples know that, as they travelled around with Jesus, they were essentially apprentices in ministry? That by watching Jesus, they were learning how to do the same? Maybe they didn’t know, but Jesus did. This was all a part of the plan. After watching Jesus do these things, they are now empowered to do the same themselves.
We should recognize that, in verse 10, Jesus is not giving this authority to each and every of His followers, throughout all of time. At this point, the authority to heal and cast out demons was given to the twelve. And even though Luke’s gospel records a later time when Jesus gave this same power to a group of seventy-two of His disciples, there is something really unique about this group of twelve. Even up until the book of 2 Corinthians, this specific ability to perform miracles like this was associated with the apostles (2 Corinthians 12:12) who continued to have a unique authority in the church.
Remember how the church in Acts 2 “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching”? These twelve apostles were Jesus’s authoritative messengers—which is the meaning of “apostle”—and that’s a role they maintained long after this first mission had been completed.
So does God still heal people or deliver people from demons in response to our prayers? The answer is yes. Has God given each and every Christian the authority to heal and cast out demons that He gave to these 12? The answer to that question is not yes. There was something very unique about the twelve.
C. The Identity of the Twelve (vv. 2-4)
And another reason we know this is because these twelve individuals are named in the following verses. That’s important. They weren’t just a generic group. These specific twelve people mattered. And we find their names in verses 2-4.
As we read through the list, it’s interesting to note two sets of brothers: Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John. Often times disciples of Jesus need to choose between Jesus and our families, like we heard a few weeks ago and will hear again in another couple of weeks. But it is a good thing when family members can serve Jesus together.
Next, in verse 3, we read about Phillip and Bartholomew, Thomas, and Matthew the tax collector whom we’ve already met. Other than Matthew, we don’t know near as much about these other apostles—and the same goes for James and Thaddaeus. I’d love to read a biography about each of these men, but in the end, it’s more about who they represented then themselves.
“Simon the Zealot” is mentioned in verse 4. The Zealots were a group of freedom fighters who used violence to stir up rebellion against the Roman empire. And if that’s what this name means, then it’s really interesting that a Zealot and a tax collector were both among Jesus’ band of 12. Before they met Jesus, these guys were as far apart as two humans could be.
Now, some have pointed out that “zealot” may not have taken on that meaning until after the time of Christ, and the name “zealot” may simply mean that this Simon was known for being passionate and enthusiastic. Even then, we see how diverse this group of twelve was.
And then, finally, there’s Judas Iscariot. “Judas” might sound like a bad name to us, but it’s simply from the Greek form of “Judah.” We shouldn’t be superstitious about this name. And at this point, most people probably thought Judas was a great guy. It looks like he was given authority to cast out demons and heal the sick just like the rest.
I wonder if people struggled in their faith when it came out that Judas was a fraud who ended up betraying Jesus for a few extra bucks in his pocket. I hope that people had been able to see past Judas to the Jesus whom he had preached, even if he preached Him for the wrong reasons.
Now one more thought here about the identity of the twelve. And that’s the fact that there are twelve. That’s important. If you were a Jewish person, you couldn’t miss the echo of the twelve tribes of Israel. You couldn’t miss the echo from Numbers 1:4 when God picked one man from each tribe to help Moses.
And Jesus makes the connection between the twelve tribes and the twelve apostles very explicit in chapter 19 when He says “You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). And knowing that, we might assume that these twelve apostles came from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. One from each as a representative.
But we know that can’t be the case because there’s two sets of brothers in the apostles. So there’s no way they all came from different tribes.
So what’s this telling us? It’s telling us the very same thing we’ve several times in Matthew up until this point (Matthew 3:7, 9; 8:11-12): with the arrival of Jesus, we can see that being a part of the people of God is not a matter of which family you were born into. It’s not which tribe you can trace your family tree through. It’s not even a case of whether you’re descended from Abraham or not.
Jesus re-forming the people of God around Himself, and so the people of God are no longer defined by family tree but by repentance and faith in the Messiah.
D. The Sending of the Twelve (v. 5)
So we’ve seen the calling of the twelve, the authority of the twelve, and the identity of the twelve. Finally, in verse 5, we see the sending of the twelve: “These twelve Jesus sent out.” These twelve were sent by Jesus.
They were not asked to go. They were not invited to consider going. They were sent. And so they went. Even if this isn’t what they expected. We don’t know if they were thinking, “Hey, I was fine to follow Jesus, but going out to do what He did? I don’t know if that’s what I signed up for!”
But just like they obeyed Jesus’ call at the beginning, so now they obey and they go.
We’re going to pick up again next week on verse 5 and carry on from there, but for now I don’t want us to miss the connection between verse 5 and chapter 9 verse 38. “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His harvest.” “These twelve Jesus sent out.”
They prayed, and they got sent. And who sent them? Jesus. So who is the Lord of the harvest? Seems like this is yet another one of those important clues to the real identity of Jesus. Matthew is asking us to reflect on the very close relationship between Jesus and God. And we know that this culminates in the revelation of Jesus as the son of God (Matthew 16:16). He is the Father’s agent who does what the Father does.
The disciples pray, and Jesus sends them out.
But—not before teaching and preparing and instructing them on their mission. That’s what we read about in chapter 10, which is Matthew’s next extended teaching section. It’s all about preparing the disciples for the mission, and we’re going to take the next three weeks to unpack it together.
So, we’re kind of pausing in midstream here. There’s so much more for us to learn about the mission of the twelve.
What About us?
But this is a good time for us to stop and consider what we’ve seen so far—a summary of Jesus’ ministry, a glimpse into Jesus’ heart, a call from Jesus to pray, and a mission to Jesus’ apostles.
And I want to highlight three ways this passage calls us to respond to Jesus today.
1) Sharing Jesus’ Heart
The first is that we would share Jesus’ heart. Remember how, in 9:36, he saw the crowds and had a shepherd-like compassion on them? We should want to share in and cultivate Jesus’ compassion for people.
This compassion is not like worldly compassion. It doesn’t stem from some misguided belief in people’s inherent goodness. Like we’ve been hearing in adult Sunday school in the past few weeks, people don’t have any inherent goodness. The gospel finds its grounding in God’s worth, much more than our own.
And yet, one of the things that makes God glorious is that He loves and shows compassion to people who don’t deserve it. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44–45).
That’s what God is like! Think of how many wicked people God is keeping alive today with kindness they don’t deserve. And Jesus calls us to imitate our Father’s warm heart in this way.
When you look around the world today, do you see a bunch of messed-up people you want to avoid as much as possible? Or do you see a bunch of people who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”? What goes on in your heart when you consider this? Would you ask God to give you a heart that feels compassion, like Jesus?
2) Answering Jesus’ Call to Pray
Now remember where Jesus’ heart of compassion led to: a call to pray. And that’s our next consideration. We want to respond to this passage by answering Jesus’ call to pray.
Jesus’ call to pray was not made just to the twelve apostles. They were called out of the larger group of disciples (10:1) whom Jesus had instructed to pray for the Lord of the Harvest.
And that call to pray for the mission of God was not a one-off. If we look at all of the cases of prayer in the Bible, we see that so often prayer is centred on and motivated by God’s purposes and God’s plans and God’s mission.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9–10).
And as we pray like this, we are shaped to play our part in the mission, just like what happened with the twelve apostles. You’ve heard the phrase that “prayer changes things.” One of the first things that prayer changes is the person praying. Praying for the mission of God fits us to join in that mission.
Tonight at 6:30 at our prayer service we’re going to consider some of the ways that the rest of the New Testament invites us to pray for the mission of God and we’re going to practically do this together. And I’d encourage you to join us if you’re able.
Beyond that, I encourage you to obey Jesus by regularly, earnestly, praying for the mission of God. Pray for unreached peoples. And pray for God to send workers out into His harvest.
There’s some great tools you can use to help you in that. If you have a smartphone you can get the Unreached of the Day app from the Joshua Project, or the Operation World app, both of which will give you pray on a daily basis for the peoples of the world.
A third really practical idea is to sign up for the missions newsletter emails from the church office. You can do that from our login page or by sending Julie a note. This is a really practical way for us to pray together for the missionaries we support.
This is what prayer is for. It’s about God involving us as partners in His mission as we earnestly pray for His plans and purposes to be fulfilled. So don’t just think this is a good idea—actually take some steps to answer Jesus’ call to pray. And watch what happens to your heart and life as you do that.
3) Participating in the Mission
Finally, I want to call us each to actually participate in the mission. Our mission today is a lot bigger than this specific mission of Jesus followers. Rather than the lost sheep of Israel, we’re called to make disciples of all nations. But it’s just a different phase of the same end-times harvest that began with Jesus and will go until the full harvest is brought in and Jesus returns.
This is a mission that we don’t have the option of participating in. Remember how the disciples were sent? Similarly, when Jesus told His church to make disciples of all nations, we don’t get to opt out of that. Jesus is not just our personal saviour, and church is not just our Sunday-morning hobby. Jesus tells us to follow Him, and He is on mission to the nations of the world.
So it’s not a question of whether you’ll participate in the mission or not. If you are a follower of Jesus, He has made that decision for you already.
The only question is what part in the mission we’ll play. If you think back to World War 2, some soldiers fought in the front lines, some people worked in factories back home, some people planted “victory gardens” so that more money could fund the war effort, but everybody was a part of the war effort.
So it is in the church, as we labour to make disciples here and around the world, and especially among the unreached, there are many different parts to play. But we all have a part to play.
And that part to play is not just giving money to missionaries, so they can tell people about Jesus so that we don’t have to. We all have a part to play in getting close to other people so that we can help them get closer to Jesus.
For some of you, that is going to mean moving across the world to bring the gospel to the unreached. For others of you, that is going to mean walking across the street to get to know your neighbours. For still others, that’s going to mean walking across this room to shake someone’s hand and build a relationship with a stranger.
This week, would you open your hands to the Lord, and tell Him that you’re at His service, and you’re willing for anything? And would you ask Him to help you discern the part in the great mission that He would have you play?