By Samuel Clough
The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into His fields. – Matthew 9:37b-38 (NLT)
No one would deny the great need for laborers for the gospel in this hour. Not only is there the great need among the nations of the, but previously evangelized cultures in the western world are growing more and more ignorant of the gospel and more and more in need of a gospel witness.
The need for the gospel to go forth with power is clear and the need is as great as it has ever been in history. There are more men lost and in bondage on the earth now than ever before in human history. God is laying this burden on the hearts of believers all over the earth, but it is imperative that we do not merely respond to the call but that we return to the apostolic method of missions whether we have in view missions to the lost in our neighborhood or to an unreached people group.
What are we to do when are hearts are burdened by the great need of the gospel to go forth in power? Though our first impulse is to zealously enter into activity, Jesus summarizes the apostolic missionary method in Matthew 9:38. Before we undertake any activity, if we are truly burdened for the overripe harvest fields, we are to enter the place of intercession asking God to send out laborers into the fields and I fear that our familiarity with the language of the Scripture has masked just how radical Jesus’ instructions are.
Most of us, burdened with the great need of the gospel to go forth, immediately devise ways of motivating others to the call. We find new and innovative ways to call people to the great need of the sharing the gospel. We use charts and graphs to clearly indicate the great need. We devise powerful sermons that move the human heart to respond. We create training programs to equip individuals to evangelize. We teach new and innovative methods to communicate the gospel. In other words, once we get even a hint of the burden of God’s heart for the gospel we set ourselves immediately to activity and completely bypass Jesus’ instructions on how to respond to an overly ripe harvest.
We fall prey to this error for many reasons, but one reason this course of action is so deceptive is because the activities we have already listed are all necessary to the cause of world evangelism. Individuals must be called to share the gospel. They must be trained and equipped. Believers must understand how critical the hour we are living in is. It is not that what we are doing is wrong, the issue is that, in the rush to activity; we are setting the cart before the horse. Matthew 9:38 exposes our error in clearly declaring that laboring for an apostolic sending of men from heaven is the horse that must pull the cart of missions.
Saints, we have had a lot of gospel activity but the reality is what we have had little fruit. A lot of sweat, tears, blood, effort, and money have been expended and yet we have not seen the kind of results that the apostles saw. While there are many reasons for our lack of fruit, Matthew 9:38 identifies one of the critical errors.
The Apostolic Pattern
Saints, if we desire to again see apostolic missionaries of the same kind as the early apostles were, we must return to the apostolic method of missions and the apostolic method is to first pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers. The most well known apostolic missionary, Paul, was sent out of a community in Antioch that was obedient to the apostolic pattern. In Acts 13:2, the saints were in the place of prayer and the Spirit expressly sent Paul and Barnabas forth to the gentiles and so began the career of one of the greatest apostolic missionaries of all time.
Part of the secret of Paul’s success was that he did not just go to the gentiles with a burden and under the compulsion of human emotion, but he was sent by the Spirit. After all, that is exactly what is means to be apostolic. Apostolic simple means a “sent one.” In fact, it is a clear indicator of our lack of understanding of what it means to be apostolic that we constantly attempt to define what is apostolic according to role and function. We define an apostle by what he does, but an apostle is defined by who his is. To be apostolic is to be sent and only the Holy Spirit can effect a sending. When we begin defining what is apostolic by the activities that accompany it rather than by the God initiated sending that is the basis of all that is apostolic, we have already lost the essential elements of what it means to be apostolic.
The Holy Spirit is the Grand Architect
We must understand that man is not the grand architect, nor even the executor, of the plan of world evangelism, but rather that the Holy Spirit is the architect of the cause of Jesus on the earth. In the book of Acts we clearly see the Holy Spirit actively directing the work of the church. While we would acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit, we are much more prone to use the “wisdom” of 2,000 years of history to prop up human effort while we give the Holy Spirit lip service and then ask Him to provide the miraculous power when we need a “sign” or a “wonder” to back up our gospel claims.
And is it not part of our fundamental problem that our gospel campaigns our often our campaigns and not His? Saints, the Holy Spirit has not changed His role. He is still God. He is still the grand architect of the church as He is the one that makes known to us the mind of Jesus and tells us what is on His heart. Is it not the height of arrogance that we build so much of our gospel activity on human wisdom and human zeal and then ask the Holy Spirit to sprinkle a few miracles on it as though He is simply power for our programs?
We ignore the Holy Spirit as a person and as the all-wise God and instead use Him for power and then we stand amazed that so little power is on the gospel. Frustrated, we read the accounts of the apostles and become disillusioned that there is not power on the gospel, but when we have not followed the apostolic pattern, we should not wonder that the Holy Spirit does not gives His full endorsement to our activities.
We must again give the Holy Spirit His place as the grand master architect of missions and as the possessor of the mind of God if we expect His power to accompany our proclamation. It is true that He always uses men and that is precisely where the confusion comes in. He uses men and then we come to believe that something is intrinsic in man and so we seek to duplicate the pattern we see played out in a man rather than go back to the place of the sending of the Holy Spirit that is what made the man unique in the first place.
The issue of missions then is putting the Holy Spirit back in His place through the application of Matthew 9:38 and one of His primary roles, as the initiator of gospel activity, is to send men and women. As already noted, this is foundational to the understanding of what is apostolic because contained within the very definition of apostolic is the understanding that one who is apostolic is one who is sent.
It is true that the community of saints must send and individual, but that sending must be a secondary sending. When a community sends an individual whether it is to pastor a local church, or to go labor across the earth that sending must be an affirmation and acknowledgement of a sending that has already taken place, because before one can be properly sent by men they must have been marked as a sent one by the Holy Spirit.
Saints, one sent men can do more to turn the world upside down then a thousand believers sent by human effort and motivated by human zeal. The great need of the earth right now is not laborers, it is sent laborers and there is a tremendous difference. There is a reason that Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and Acts 9 are such pivotal passages and the reason is that they mark the sending of a man from heaven. Men that are sent from heaven change history. Men that are sent from man merely increase activity. God, in His kindness, may give some measure of blessing to man’s efforts, but He will not give an apostolic outcome where the apostolic pattern is not followed.
If the great need then is sent men is there any way we can increase the number of heaven sent laborers in our generation? Matthew 9:38 holds the promise for us. Are you burdened for the gospel? Do you feel the Lord’s heart both for your own nation and for the nations of the earth? If so, then the first thing is not to preach your burden or call others to missions, although that may very well come, the first thing to do is drop to your knees and ask the Lord of the Harvest to send men.
If you truly understand the great need of the harvest and the vast need for laborers you will understand the gross inadequacy of human effort and be pressed into the place of intercession crying out that God would send men knowing that a sending from heaven is the only solution to the great need of the earth in our hour.
Contending for Sent Laborers
The place of prayer is the place where the great missions enterprise is lost or won, for it is only in that place that we can secure the favor of heaven to send men for white harvest fields demand sent men, not merely laborers sent of energy, zeal, and humanistic motivations. Jesus’ instructions to His disciples were radical. They were ready for His call to lay down their lives and labor in the harvest fields, but I suspect they were surprised to hear Jesus’ admonition to rather pray that God might send men. As a measure of how significant Jesus’ words were, Acts 6 reveals that the apostles learned this lesson well as they gave themselves to prayer and the Word that sent ones might go forth and they shook the powers in their generation because their labor in prayer secured sent ones.
How different Jesus’ value system is from ours! We rush to activity, and the fact that we rush so quickly to activity betrays the fact that we have so little confidence in prayer and the reason we have little confidence in prayer is that we have little confidence in God Himself. We are more confident in our ability to labor than we are in God’s ability to send, though it is the heaven sent ones that are truly apostolic and that change history.
Does laboring on our knees preclude laboring in works? Certainly not. We must put our hands to the tasks in front of us in obedience to Jesus. He certainly calls us to labor, but He calls us first and foremost to the labor of prayer. He calls us first to gaze upward and cry out for sent ones to again walk among us and advance the gospel with power as the apostles of old did. We will labor until our bodies are exhausted and spent, but we must labor as sent ones from heaven, and it is the place of prayer that will secure this sending. Jesus’ command does not give us the luxury of praying and then refusing to go when sent.
The Holy Spirit has not changed. He is still jealous for Jesus’ glory. He is still the grand architect of the gospel enterprise. He waits only for a company of people who will resist human initiative and lay hold of Him in prayer beseeching Him to send men of His own initiative into the harvest. He will send men if we stand before Him and ask for apostolic witnesses. He will anoint the gospel with power when it goes forth according to the apostolic pattern.