Text: “Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest.” (The following is the substance of the speech delivered at the 1978 convocation exercises of the seminary held in Hope Protestant Reformed Church.)
My reason for speaking on this text is that I detect among us a certain lackadaisical attitude among our people towards the need for students in our seminary. This arises apparently, on the one hand, from the fact that God has given us a number of students in the seminary—more than we had for several years prior to this. On the other hand, there does not seem to be room now for all the students we presently have attending school. The result is that there is no longer any sense of need to encourage and pray for young men to enter .the ministry. While just a few years back we almost always heard from our pulpits a prayer that the Lord would provide us with students, we seldom if ever hear this prayer any longer. This attitude is, however, a serious mistake on our part and the ‘reason is to be found in these words of Jesus.
The context, both before and after these verses, indicates that what Jesus said applied first of all to the circumstances of the Lord’s earthly ministry. We read that Jesus had compassion on the multitudes because they were distressed and because they were as sheep without a shepherd. And in the immediately following chapter we read of Jesus sending out the twelve apostles to preach the gospel of the kingdom.
Nevertheless, Jesus is laying down here a fundamental truth which is applicable to every age of the church’s history. There never has been a time when this was not true that the harvest is plentiful and the laborers few. And the same truth is applicable to our present age. John Calvin speaks for his time and for ours in his commentary on this passage; he writes: “There never was greater necessity for offering this prayer than during the fearful desolation of the church-which we now see everywhere around us.”
When Jesus gives, as His reason for admonishing us to make this prayer, the fact that “the harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers few,” what does He mean?
There is here, quite obviously, a figure of speech. The abundant harvest refers, metaphorically, to the many elect of God to whom the gospel must be preached in order that they may be brought into the fellowship of the church. Comparing the gathering of the elect and their separation from the chaff to a harvest is an idea found in many ,places in the Scriptures. The idea of the figure is clear. The history of this present world from the viewpoint of the realization of the counsel of God is compared with a field in which crops are grown. Just as all that happens in that field is for the purpose of the crop, so is all that happens in history for the purpose of bringing forth the elect. The field is plowed and harrowed; is cultivated and fertilized; is blessed with rain and sunshine. And it is all for the purpose of the harvest when the crop is brought into the granary and the chaff burns in the fire. So all that takes place in all the history of the world is for the purpose of the gathering of the elect whom God has ordained to everlasting life.
This harvest is gathered throughout the New Dispensation and it is always an abundant harvest. The harvest is plentiful however, only from a certain point of view. If our viewpoint is mere numbers as we compare the number of the elect with the number of the reprobate, then we look at the matter wrongly. From this point of view there are only a few who are saved, for the wicked always outnumber the righteous. The elect are, in the words of Isaiah, only a hut in a garden of cucumbers, a besieged city, a very small remnant. But this is not the proper viewpoint. We must remember first of all that the number of those who are saved is very great, for a multitude which no man can number is finally gathered before the throne and the seed of Abrahti is as great in number as the stars in the heavens and as the grains of sand by the seashore. Secondly, even though the kernels of wheat which are finally stored in the granary occupy a comparatively small space in relation to the chaff, the harvest is nevertheless very great. A man who visits a farmer who has just completed his harvest and who says to the farmer that his crop was very small because the straw stack is so very large while the amount of wheat which is harvested is relatively speaking small, will be told by the farmer that he looks at the matter wrongly. All the labor that was applied to the field and the chaff itself which finally ended in the straw pile was for the purpose of the harvest. And though the amount of wheat may be small in relationship to the amount of straw, nevertheless the harvest is truly plentiful. Thirdly, Jesus is looking at the matter here from the viewpoint of the amount of work that needs to be done to bring in the harvest.
We therefore face the same situation today which faced Jesus when He uttered these words. Jesus Himself sees to it that this word is always true. There are today many who are distressed and spiritually weary because there are none to lead them. They are also as sheep without a shepherd. And the compassion which moved Jesus ought also to move us. The men who claim to be shepherds are oftentimes not shepherds but wolves who devour and scatter the flock. This is true both in our country and abroad.
The second reason why we are instructed to make this prayer is that the laborers are few. We might be inclined to dispute these words of Jesus. It seems to us as if there are more laborers than we know what to do with. There are, after all, only a few vacant churches and there are many students in our seminary. And so, we might argue, Jesus’ words cannot possibly apply to the times in which we live.
But Jesus Himself says differently. As applicable as the Word of God in its entirety is to our time, so also are these words which Christ speaks; and we ought to be careful lest we contradict Him as if we know better. It is true now too that in comparison with the work of the harvest the laborers are few.
We must look at all this in the proper light. Christ has entrusted us with His Word. And there are but few places in the world today where this truth is maintained in all its purity. If the harvest is to be gathered by the preaching of the truth of God’s Word, the laborers must come forth from churches where that truth is confessed in all its purity and preached.
But we must remember also that this is a matter of faith. Perhaps it is impossible to point out specifically the concrete need for more ministers of the Word. Perhaps if you should ask me to cite instances where all the men whom the Lord sends us are going, I would not be able to answer you to your satisfaction. But this is, after all, not the point. The Lord always asks us to live by faith, not by sight. This is the pattern of our entire life here below. And that faith by which we must walk very concretely demands of us that we believe these words which Christ spoke: the harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few.
And so we must pray to the Lord of the harvest. We must pray that He will send laborers into His vineyard.
The Lord of the harvest is God. To use the figure, He is the One Who owns the field. He does all the work in the field. He prepares the soil, plants the seed, nurtures the crops; and the whole harvest belongs only to Him. God does this through Christ. He does this first of all by sending Christ into the world to suffer and die on the cross and to rise again from the grave that all the elect may be saved. He exalts Christ at His right hand so that, under the rule of Christ, all that takes place in the world may be for the purpose of bringing forth the elect. Through Christ God causes His Word to be proclaimed and sends forth His Spirit to work in the elect so that they are brought out of darkness into the light of the kingdom of heaven. They are His elect and He will see to it that not one is lost. It is to God therefore, the Lord of the harvest, that our prayer for laborers must be brought.
Only God Can call laborers—this is the presupposition of the text. We do not recruit men as the United States army does. We cannot bring laborers into the harvest. This does not preclude a responsibility of parents, ministers, and elders who talk to young men and work with them towards the end that they become ministers of the Word. But only God can send forth these laborers. He alone can move the hearts of young men to pursue their studies so that they are prepared for this work. Only He can finally call through His church to the work of gathering the harvest. And so all our prayers must be directed to Him.
The laborers whom the church needs are men to preach. All the emphasis falls upon the fact that they must be men who will work. They are in fact called “workers” in the text. But they must be workers in the true sense of the word. They must be workers who are faithful to the truth of the Scriptures and who will preach it in all faithfulness come what may. They must be men who love God and His cause and who have compassion for the sheep who are distressed. They must be men who possess courage and faith, for the days ahead will not be easy days and the work will be very difficult and dangerous. They must be men who are prepared for that work. Such men we must seek from God.
If you who are students at present in our seminary are inclined to wonder sometimes why so much work is given to you in the years of your study so that your studies seem sometimes to be a burden almost too great to bear, bear in mind that this too is part of your preparation for the ministry. You must learn also in tee years of your studies that you are to be workers in the harvest of the Lord.
This prayer can arise from the church only when there is a desire to see the work done. It presupposes a willingness and an eagerness to perform the work. If that work must be done in this country or overseas, if it must be done in the way of great financial sacrifice, if it must be done at no little cost to ourselves, it nevertheless must be done and we must go where the Lord directs and walk through doors which He opens. It must be done without holding back and with a deep sense of the mission calling of the church.
Then our prayers will arise in all sincerity, and then God will answer them. He will send us such men and He will use us to gather those whom He has ordained unto everlasting life.