Read: Matthew 9:37-38
Biblical Christians realize that Christ has commissioned us to do something about a world of lost people. But we don’t always remember that the first thing he told us to do is pray.
When I first visited New Delhi a number of years ago, I noticed a large electronic display next to a major road intersection. Each day as I traveled to the meeting place I passed by the All-India Medical Institute, where a large clock had been erected, not to tell the time but to count India’s growing population. As we waited for the light to change and then crossed the intersection I watched that clock tick over every few seconds. When I first saw it years ago the total was closing in on the one billion mark; since then India’s population has grown by another hundred million. There’s no place like India for getting a sense of the enormous number of people in the world today.
Have you ever been in a crowd and felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of people? I’ve sometimes found myself on the streets of a big city looking out on a sea of humanity, a kaleidoscope of races and languages and faces, and thinking, How can God know all these different people? But he not only knows each one; he knows each one as well as he knows me. And he cares about every single one of them. It’s just mind-boggling to realize that each of the world’s six billion plus inhabitants has a name and a face and a story—and a place in the mind and heart of God.
“The harvest is plentiful”
Jesus had an experience once when he was looking out at the crowds one day, and Matthew tells us what he thought about and how he responded to that sight.
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 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 9:36-38)
Jesus’ compassion is aroused by people’s spiritual needs. To him, the crowds looked like sheep without a shepherd. In a famous Old Testament passage the prophet Ezekiel compared Israel’s corrupt religious leaders to shepherds who get fat off their sheep while neglecting to care for their most basic needs (Ezekiel 34). The people in Jesus’ day were also suffering because of a lack of good leadership. They were “harassed and helpless,” in Jesus’ words; beaten up and beaten down, we might say.
And in our own time it’s not hard either to think of examples of religious teachers or ideological leaders who take advantage of and prey upon the people they are supposed to be helping. Ours is a world of misled masses and confused crowds. There are the victims of false religions: people whose religion teaches them to hate and kill, for example; or people who’ve been told that faith is a guaranteed path to health and wealth, or people who think they can earn their way to God by being good.
And then there are all those who are deceived by the world view of secularism: those who believe that money and luxury equal happiness, those who think that sex is god, or that science is god, or that they are god.
Jesus sees all such lost sheep—in fact, he sees all who do not know him and are not following him—not just as objects of pity and compassion but as prospects for conversion. “The harvest,” he says, looking out at the crowds, “the harvest is plentiful.” The world’s great spiritual need is the church’s great missionary opportunity.
The idea that the church has the mission of bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ is objectionable to many today, including even many who call themselves Christians. But this is not our idea, it’s Jesus’ idea. He sees the human race as a field of standing corn, rich and ripe and ready to be brought in. To Jesus it is always harvest time. “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’?” he said to his disciples on another occasion, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).
“. . . But the Laborers Are Few”
There is a problem, though. The harvest is plentiful enough; but, adds Jesus, “the laborers are few.” There are hardly any workers in comparison to the size of the task. A whole world to be evangelized, people from every tribe and tongue and nation to be given the gospel and taught Jesus’ commands, and not enough missionaries and evangelists, not enough preachers and teachers, to do the job.
There should be enough, because every follower of Jesus should be a missionary (that is, one who is sent by him into the world) and every follower of Jesus should be an evangelist (that is, a witness to the Good News). But many Christians don’t seem to care about the harvest, or even about Jesus himself. Some have lost heart. They have concluded that Christian missions were for an earlier, less pluralistic age. Others remain silent from fear of causing offense, or of being ridiculed or called names. Consequently the harvest goes unreaped, and great masses of people continue to live, in the apostle Paul’s phrase, “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 niv).
So there is a problem which is also an opportunity: there’s a tremendous harvest of people just waiting to be brought to Christ, but not nearly enough workers to bring it in. So what are we to do about that? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess; Jesus is going to tell us. A great harvest, he says, not enough workers . . . “Therefore” . . . . Therefore, what? Therefore go? Therefore preach? Therefore give (especially to Words of Hope)? No, he doesn’t say any of those things, at least not first of all—though some of us might wish he had!
What he says is, “Therefore pray“: “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Why does Jesus begin with this? Why is prayer the first necessity for Christian mission? I don’t know if you have ever thought about that question, but I have, and I can think of several reasons why Jesus starts with prayer. First of all, Jesus tells us to pray because prayer is something everyone can do, and he wants us all to be involved somehow in the harvest. Missions isn’t just for an enthusiastic few; it should be every Christian’s concern. In view of the world’s great need and the church’s great opportunity, and Jesus’ clear teaching, what excuse does any Christian have for not praying for the ingathering?
Secondly, if we sincerely pray for workers for the harvest, all the other things that need to be done will follow. You can’t pray honestly for anything without also being willing to do more than pray, without offering yourself as part of the answer to your prayer. You can’t say, “Lord, raise up missionaries and pastors, but not me, and especially not my kids. I want them to make a good living and stay close to home.” That’s not real praying, is it?
So if we sincerely pray for the harvest, then we’re going to give, and go (if we’re called), and preach, and teach, and witness and all the rest. We all will be involved in some way. Notice that Jesus said to pray for workers, not just missionaries and preachers narrowly defined. Bringing people to Christ is not just for the “professionals” to do. Everyone can help. I ran across a wonderful quote about the kind of praying Jesus calls us to in a little pamphlet by a nineteenth-century Christian leader named Bennet Tyler. He wrote,
When you pray for the poor around you, that they may be warmed and filled, in what way do you expect God will answer your prayers? Will he convert the stones into bread for their sustenance and preserve their garments from decay, while you, heedless of their wants, have bread enough and to spare? And in what way do you expect that your prayers for the conversion of the [world] will be answered? Will God rain down Bibles from heaven, and commission his angels to preach them the gospel? No, but he will put into your hearts to do what lies in your power to send them the gospel.Bennet Tyler, A Sermon [on Heb. x. 36]
Here’s one more reason Jesus commands us to pray, the most important reason of all. It’s to remind us that, when it comes to conversion, the real work can only be done by God himself. As John Piper has said,
The purpose of prayer is to make clear to all the participants in this [spiritual] war that the victory belongs to the Lord. Prayer is God’s appointed means of bringing grace to us and glory to himself.John Piper, “Let the Nations Be Glad”
When we pray and ask the Lord not just to raise up workers but then to use those workers and bless their efforts with fruitfulness, we are recognizing that it all really depends on him. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Prayer helps us remember to give credit where credit is due for any success we may have in ministry. By starting with prayer and then relying on prayer rather than our own efforts, we honor and glorify God from beginning to end. And that’s the point not just of missions but of everything we do.
So if you want the harvest to come in, pray to the Lord of the harvest. And as you pray, believe. Just as prayer gives birth to mission, so faith gives birth to prayer. And may the result of our praying and giving and going and witnessing be that Jesus Christ is known and trusted and glorified throughout the world. Amen!