Alfred Place Baptist Church

10:1-11 The Harvest is Plentiful, but the Workers are Few

Luke 10:1-11 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals, and do not greet anyone on the road. 5 When you enter a house, first say, “Peace to this house.” If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God is near you.” But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you.” Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’”

Often we find our Lord giving specific commissions to his disciples. At the opening of the previous chapter we find him commissioning his twelve disciples to preach and heal, and later on, at the threshold of his ascension, there will be Jesus’ ‘Great Commission’ recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But here we read of the mission of the Seventy-two. These are the men who had volunteered to follow him or whom Jesus had chosen and called. He has been mentoring and teaching them and now they have to go forth and speak up for him. They have to prepare for his own arrival in saving power at the places where they’d been working. Their evangelism was a development of their training. It is when you enter the frontline of Christian service you show if you’ve really learned from your Teacher.

One Monday night during the ministry of Dr. Jay Adams his telephone rang and, speaking in a whisper, was one of his church members. “Pastor, where does it say in the Bible that Jesus Christ is God?” He was about to give her some verses but interjected, “Why are you speaking in a whisper?” “I have a Jehovah’s Witness in the kitchen, and he’s winning.” “But I preached only last night on how and why we must understand Jesus Christ is God.” “Yes, I know,” she said, “but I didn’t know I needed it then.” She came to know she needed these truths when she had to speak up for her Lord. So it is when we meet a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon, then we have to explain clearly what we believe of the deity of our Saviour. So these disciples whom he commissioned, had they been diligent students? Had they learned what he had taught them? How does the Lord Jesus prepare them?

THE VISION OF THE PLENTIFUL HARVEST.

i] Jesus told them that a vast harvest lay before them; “The harvest is plentiful” (v.2). So often we think of the harvest facing us as particularly barren, as a dust bowl, a few withered stalks bending in the wind with a little cluster of seeds. We are working in Egypt’s seven lean years, and that attitude dominates the church’s vision. How different was the prospect the Lord gave them, so post-millennial! A vast field of golden wheat stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction all the way to the horizon. They were faced with an immense harvest, and those were the first words in this commissionary sermon which he impressed upon the Seventy-two, the sheer abundance of the harvest, that they would not see the edges of the fields in which they were labouring. It reminds me of the other phrase of our Lord, he was sending them “to the uttermost ends of the earth.” After his ascension they were not to think in terms of Jerusalem and Judea, or even of Samaria, but out and out to the far flung remotest regions of the world. The time had ended for the message to be limited to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Now it was to go where’er the foot of man hath trod – there the feet of Christians were to tread, to every continent, across every mountain range, fording every river, sailing over every ocean, to all the islands of the South Seas, to the interior of Africa, to the new world, to Australia and New Zealand, to all nations, to every single individual. The harvest is plentiful. No one may say, “but I can’t find anyone to talk to!” That is never the problem; it will always be the very reverse of that, too many people and too little time, because this harvest field is the world itself.

We are to go with the tremendous message of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and his kingdom is one of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” We are to go to every corner of the world; we are to go to every social class from the untouchables to the monarchs on their thrones; we are to go to every single area of human need to the beggar and to the millionaire; we are to go to every level of culture, high and low, sophisticated and barbarous, the aesthete and the cannibal. No one and no class is to be excluded. We ourselves are never to lose sight of that vision, that here are people. almost 7,000 million of them, who are all made in the image and likeness of God, and we are in debt to them all to tell them of the King of love. They are on a broad road and it leads to destruction, but there is a narrow path and it leads to life and everyone is on one of those roads or the other. We are to bid them come onto the narrow path.

Our most urgent need is to recapture that vision, that we have an obligation before God to take the gospel to the whole world. This gospel is relevant to the needs of every immortal soul. The vision given to us by our Lord is of mankind lost and irrational and despairing, and we are to see it in such a way that we weep over it. It is a tremendous responsibility to impact our families and our congregations with such a view of the world. No church can be content with their grasp of this vision and the effort that they are putting in to fulfilling our Lord’s commission. No individual can sit back satisfied with the money he has given, with the prayers he has prayed, with the invitations he has extended or the words he has spoken. Every time a couple of Jehovah’s Witness or Mormons knock on our door then we feel anew how little we have done and are doing in reaching the lost with the good news of a Saviour. Our gospel belongs out there in our world, with men as men, not with favoured, exercised men who begin to think that maybe they are elect. “Are you a man or a woman? Then I have good news of a Saviour for you . . . for you to take and love and serve. We are to do all in our power to take the whole gospel to the whole world, this vast harvest field as it stretches out and out all around us. That task is to be taken up by each individual Christian and the whole church.

ii] Jesus told them that a harvest confronted them. In other words before them lay something of immense value. They weren’t looking out on common land grazed by a few goats and ponies; it was not fallow land. Here was a vast field of grain in full harvest.

Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,

The hills with joy are ringing.

The valleys stand so thick with corn

That even they are singing (William C. Dix, 1837-98).

That is the world lying before us. I know that this is also a rebel crop of all who have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and that every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts is only evil continually, that their wills are enslaved to sin. Yet while that is true these men and women are all made in God’s image, and because of an earlier grace shown to our first parents and the seed of the woman they are able to show beautiful gifts and virtues as family men and scientists and people engaged in the caring professions.

In the New Testament there was a certain class of people and they were not far from the kingdom of God. They are called ‘God-fearers’. They knew something of the Scriptures as did their parents and grandparents. They went to the synagogue and they were waiting for the redemption of Israel. There were Samaritan villages where they eagerly heard the Lord Jesus. We are almost told that these people were ripe for glory. There was a man from Ethiopia who studied the Bible and wanted to understand its message. There were other God-fearers too, some women who met by a riverside in Philippi in Greece and they prayed together. They were all a harvest waiting to be reaped. We are to pray that God will lead us to such good soil like Philip approached the Ethiopian, and that our conversation will produce much fruit.

There are other people who are more bewildered but they are asking important questions. There was a man who came running to Jesus. He had a real outward righteousness; he had kept the ten commandments from his youth. He wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Others are curious; “Who is Jesus Christ? How can I know what is true? What must I do to be saved? Who made God?” They are part of our own post-modern generation in its despair. Are there no standards of right and wrong? They are caught up in a philosophy of meaningless. They have lost confidence in their own intellectual position. They doubt whether there are any answers to their great questions, and so often the professing church gives them a stone, a demythologized anti-supernatural message, some emasculated gospel without redemption. This is our moment of opportunity. There is a ripeness, I say, in such questioning. This is the time for God’s church to act and to speak out the word of God. “It is written . . .” Not, “I think of it like this,” but, “This is what Jesus said . . .” We give the word; but let me go further;

iii] Jesus told them of the certainty of a great harvest being brought in. The seed was perfect; the weather was ideal, the sun has shone at the right time; the rain has fallen in just the correct quantity. There was no mould and the scavenging birds had been scared away, so that the harvest is, immense huge barns would soon be filled to overflowing. It would be a multitude of sheaves more than any man can number. Many would come from north, south, east and west. All of them were given by the Father to the Son to save and keep. All that the Father gave him would come to him. All of them were predestined and chosen and they were all going to be reaped. He had them on his heart and they were in his hands in the grasp of eternal love. The Lord was determined to save them all. His name is Jesus because he saves his people from their sin. He has committed himself to them and their redemption. This is the harvesting of God’s elect.

Paul was facing the awesome task of being sent to reap a harvest in Greece in Corinth. This vast city may have contained a million people, and Paul alone had been called to wield the gospel sickle there. He was walking into that harvest field, reaching out to catch a few stalks and swinging the sickle. What possible difference could one man make? How would you feel? Apprehensive? Unprepared? God came near speaking to Paul and this is what he said, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” (Acts 18:9&10). There was to be a great harvest in Corinth; a mighty church would soon be flourishing there. The same principle is ours today; God has a people in our little town, few or many we don’t know, but he knows them because they are his. He has given them to Jesus to save and keep. So our task is to find those people (“Lord lead me to them”), to show grace, compassion and boldness and being led by providence reap a harvest of those whom the Lord is determined to save. We are going to gather them in from the four corners of the earth. One man can make an eternal difference; Jonah, John Calvin, William Carey, David Brainerd, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, William Paton or Charles Haddon Spurgeon transformed the places in which they laboured.

I think that we have to cultivate a mentality, thinking to ourselves when we settle into speaking to some strangers on a journey or on vacation, “I wonder if he or she might be one of the Lord’s people?” Some may seem so godless, so unredeemable, so committed to this foul world, and we hesitate in saying a word to them about Christ, and yet we must hesitate before we dismiss any of them and think, “Perhaps this is one of them. Perhaps the Lord has him in his love. Perhaps for all his lostness he is one of them whom the Lord is determined to save. So we have little confidence in our own eloquence or skills of persuasion or in the responsiveness of contemporary society to Christianity but we evangelize confident only in this that there is a great harvest and God is determined to reap it all. The church’s future is not to be gauged by the wisdom and music and communication skills of its worship leaders, and not even in the lives of those who lisp and stammer their love of the Lord Jesus. The church’s future is to be gauged in terms of the Father’s determination to give honour and glory to his Son by filling heaven with multitudes changed into his glorious image. Out there are the Lord’s people, all of them to be gathered through the gospel message. There will be a time when this great number are going to be presented to God, each one having been transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, and all of them will bear witness that where sin had abounded grace did much more abound. This is no tiny minority group. They are a vast prairie of people stretching out as far as the eye can see. Among them are people in despondency and fear, asking the church for answers, not yet professing faith, and yet they are the Lord’s people. He has them. We serve him in speaking to them.

HOW THE PLENTIFUL HARVEST IS TO BE GATHERED IN.

They were few in our Lord’s time. This is not a 21st century problem. Look at his own position, in the vast land of Palestine with its big towns there were only 72 disciples to spread the word. Today we are in the same boat. Look at the whole world situation, at the sub-continent of India with more than a thousand million people living there and not one per cent of them Christians. Or look at Europe, at France with its ten thousand towns without a gospel witness and our other neighbours scarcely better. There are a limited number of preachers, missionaries, translators and evangelists. There are very few for so mammoth a task. Our Lord gently lays that burden on every Christian heart. I say that the problem is no less acute today than it was then, so few labourers confronting a vast harvest field. What is our first response to be to this problem? “Pray!” Jesus said to them. “Never stop praying. Go to the Lord of the harvest and tell him of the situation and ask him to organize the whole enterprise, that you hardly know where to start. Plead with him that he send help, that more labourers are thrust forth into the harvest. Say to God, ‘Constrain them to go. Cause your word to burn as a fire in their bones so that they cry, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel . . . I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers,”’” (Roms. 9:3). Let’s stand today bearing that burden, facing this great field, and seeing how few there are who will work in it. But I go on and ask you what do we need to gather in this harvest? This awareness;

i] We are Labourers. That’s Jesus’ designation, not that we are people who can’t think what to do and so we say, “O.K. we’ll do some Christian work.” No. ‘Labourers’ are required. Not men who want an interesting gap year, or prestige, or bags of time to read theology and church history. No. ‘Labourers’ are required. In other words, men who love to labour. Men in love with labour. “Pray that God will send out men who will sweat and toil and grow weary and horny-handed in their labours in this harvest field.” Christ is describing the job requirements; hard work, seeing the vastness of the need and weeping over it all, wishing that you yourself could be cursed if only that would make your brothers blessed, strenuously applying yourself to serving this cause, and praying as you labour for God to guide and provide and sustain. That is the job description. He is not simply speaking of ministers but what is the vocation of every single believer, that little old lady getting frailer by the year, she has no right to retire from this calling. Labouring believers are needed, who work at every level of the Christian life. Sunday School teachers who labour for the Lord. Parents who labour for Christ. Book shop workers who labour for him. Church officers, elders and deacons who labour for him. Old Age Pensioners and teenagers who will dedicate all their energy and gifts to Jesus saying ‘Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.’ This is the great concept. Of course it involved the preacher, but it embraces every member as they gossip the gospel and point men to him. As John Cennick wrote,

Then will I tell to sinners round

What a dear Saviour I have found;

I’ll point to Thy redeeming blood,

And say: Behold the way to God.

Am I really labouring? Is the youngest Christian working away in this harvest? Is the newest Christian aware she has to do this? Is the weakest Christian conscious that she can’t plead her weakness as an excuse for not doing something in this harvest? An awareness of this is essential for the health of a church. Doing it is essential for the growth of the church. The one way a church will develop in ministry and understanding and love is to enter the front line of Christian service. You have been on the bench for too long. Now come onto the field and join us. What else do we need to bring in this harvest? This awareness;

ii] We are Lambs among Wolves. Wolves like lambs. They lick their lips when they see them. The natural man likes earnest, pure, young women who want to discuss privately with them ‘religion.’ They lick their lips. Teachers enjoy boys and girls who protest about evolution in their classes. Journalists like complaining Christians; it gives them a story. Behind the smiles of ‘come-on’ there are the jaws and cruelty of wolves. Our Saviour often warned his disciples that the world would treat them as it had treated him. The more like Jesus Christ they behave and speak so the antagonism of the world will be focused on them. They tore him apart on Golgotha; the Rock of Ages was cleft there by nails and hammers and spears. They will hate you too. Blessed are ye when men revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you. They are wolves; how else would you expect them to behave? You do not love the world nor the things that are in the world and that makes you unpopular. You are different, but you are also a lamb. You are not a suicide bomber. You don’t plot with lambs how to destroy as many wolves as possible. Jesus says, “But love your enemies. Do good to them that despitefully use you.” That is the church’s constant position. Not many mighty and noble are in our ranks. Not many influential media people. Not any tough guys at all. We don’t have the ayatollahs in our midst; we are all lambs. We don’t have many academics. We are not remotely near to being equal academically with the world. It’s the world that walks the corridors of power; we dare not try to ape it. It’s not important. There are scores of members of parliament who can’t wait to retire at the next general election. They have tasted that power and how hollow it is.

We are sent forth deliberately as lambs. We do not have the speed to flee from wolves. They can overtake us easily. We do not have a leathery skin like a hippopotamus to protect us from their teeth and claws. We have no fangs, no burrows to hide in; we cannot climb trees. We are totally vulnerable. All we have is a Shepherd but he is utterly unafraid of wolves. He is more than a match for the biggest wolf pack in the world. He is omnipotent. Devils fear and fly from him. He loves his lambs so much he will lay down his life to save them. The weakest, newest lamb is safe in his hands from the most ferocious wolf.

So what does this flock of lambs do? I will tell you. We get this staggering answer. They are mighty in pulling down strongholds. They overcome all human philosophies and they bring them captive to the good Shepherd. In this cruel, scornful, competitive world they are led in triumph by Christ. They are more than conquerors. The most powerful wolf to confront and terrorize the early church was Saul of Tarsus. What could those lambs do against his energy, his fanaticism, his brilliant intellect and his youth? They could do nothing to match him in themselves, but they had a greater Shepherd to whom they cried and he more than conquered Saul of Tarsus. What the Shepherd did was to make him his servant. He turned all those gifts around so that they served the kingdom of God and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not many wise are called. We don’t have Aberystwyth academicians on our side but that is no hindrance to pulling down strongholds. God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, the good shepherd of the sheep.

iii] We are Empty Handed People. “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals, and do not greet anyone on the road” (v.4). It is quite fascinating this switch from these rich metaphors appealing to our affections – men labouring in a vast wheat-field and filling their barns, lambs surrounded by a pack of wolves. Suddenly all that stops and Jesus talks about the wallets and money-bags and sandals of these 72 men who are listening agog to all that he’s said to them, and about not greeting people on the road. We’ve come down to earth from these wonderful word pictures with a wallop. What is all this about?

Some of these details are certainly unique to this particular commission because when we get to chapter 22 Jesus tells his disciples to make sure that they do have a moneybag and knapsack (v.36). Every call is different. This was a short-term pioneer mission for men who would go out and then quite soon (v.17) return to him with a report of their work. So Christ sends them off with nothing but the gospel. They have to trust God for all their needs. Travel lightly. Don’t be distracted from your work. Don’t take extra baggage. Don’t chat idly to people as you go to your next place of work. Concentrate 100% on your mission until your work is done. He is calling for single-mindedness. He wants them to say, “This one thing I do.” There cannot be successful work in the harvest if they have a divided mind.

As these Seventy-two went off one or two of them would say to the others, “It’s just like going into the Temple isn’t it?” Yes, of course it was just like that. Every Jew who entered the Temple courts was forbidden to be encumbered with bags and sacks. You were there in Jerusalem to give yourself to Jehovah the Lord of hosts. Leave your bags at the entrance. Even today when you are invited to be presented to the Queen to receive some honour from her you can’t be carrying a suitcase or a plastic bag or a set of golf-clubs or a haversack. They are forbidden; you have one great encounter before you, to meet her Majesty, and you shed every other encumbrance to give yourself to that. So our Lord is saying that in this work of bringing in the harvest of souls all your efforts are to be fixed on this.

Consider a man who announces that he believes that he has a call from God to preach to the church and pastor a congregation, then he has to give himself to that task. There may be times and places when he needs to support himself because the group are too small to support him, but his aim, as soon as possible, is to get himself wholly involved in this work. If he does some dead end job to earn money like serving fast food or stacking shelves in a supermarket, then that is very restricting and dissatisfying. However, if he takes on a serious job, working with others, taking responsibilities, bringing work home with him in the evenings then he will find very soon that both callings are suffering, his attempts to glorify God in this job and to be a pastor-preacher of a church puts him under a lot of strain. As soon as he can he must disentangle himself from one of those callings. He must decide whether he is a businessman doing a bit of preaching on the side or that he is a pastor-preacher doing a bit of business on the side. The pressures of doing the two will kill him eventually.

The big lesson for every Christian is to be disencumbered with the pull of the world. Sit loose to its prizes and honours. Why get involved right up to your neck in the anxieties and concerns of this world? I think of an Aberystwyth student who had the gifts to be a preacher in a European country, knowing the language and his wife also knew it, and yet he got involved in a job with a building society and climbed its ranks for some years until he changed and became a schoolteacher. Of course he is still a Christian, and he often preaches here and there on Sundays, but he has a responsible job and because of his preaching he is often away from his own church. His life is not one of single-minded passionate dedication to the work that he has gifts from God to do. There are others who have the opposite problem. They might have been better scientists if they had not hesitated for years about whether they should really be preachers.

iv] We are People of Peace. “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you. Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house” (vv.5-7). Our message is revolutionary. It turns the world upside down, and it brings a sword into a home, but that is because some of the people will reject the mighty all-round message of deliverance and restoration which brings peace at every level into a home, peace with God, peace between a husband and wife; the hearts of the children are turned to the parents and the parents to the children. All of them are held in the grip of the God of peace who brought Jesus Christ from the dead. So you enter every place on a mission of peace. ‘Shalom’ you say and ‘Shalom’ you mean, and if they accept you and say ‘Shalom’ in return then you benefit from their peace.

When you come to the house of God please come bringing your peace! To see some people whose heads are hanging down, refusing to sing, refusing to look at the preacher through the sermon or even when he talks to the children, that is a declaration of war not peace, that they want him out! Bring peace and love. Jesus is warning his disciples, “Do not abuse the conventions of village hospitality to your own advantage, moving into another house with a comfier bed or a better cook! You are challenging God’s gracious kindness and promise to provide for your needs. Stay in the house.” You see how insistent Jesus is on this. He has told the twelve this rule in the previous chapter and verse four and now he repeats it again – Stay in the house! “Make the ones giving you hospitality feel at home in their own house!” Be a gentle, contented man of peace as you labour in the harvest.

v] We are Unyielding in the Declaration of our Message. “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’ But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near.’” (vv.8-11). In other words, do not sacrifice your message for the same of peace. The text of their sermons was that the kingdom of God was near. It was near because the King himself was near. A great proof of this was the sick being healed in the name of Jesus. Even with the blind seeing and the lepers cleansed the message of the reign of Christ was not popular. There were places where the preachers were not welcome, and so they were told to get out, and say to the populace, “Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you.” It was a solemn thing that the kingdom of God had come so near but people loved darkness rather than light.

Today we face a tremendous crisis of confidence in the Christian church. When things are a bit quiet, or when there are some troubles or resignations then we tend to blame ourselves. “What’s wrong with the church?” we ask. Well let’s interrogate ourselves, “Did we have the right message?” Yes. “Did we have the right men?” Yes. “Did we have a legitimate concern?” Yes. “Did we have a social programme?” Yes. “Did we get a response?” No. Nobody came. Whose fault was it? The people of the town. We have got to such a state when we think that unbelievers are never to blame. I want to stand before every unbeliever and say, “I have examined my social concern, and whether I am teaching what the Bible says, and my personal life, and our relationships in this church, and I have come to the conclusion that you are to blame for not becoming a Christian. The responsibility is yours. That choice is all your own, not God’s. You have disobeyed the word of God; you have rejected the offer of forgiveness that God has made to you.” Isn’t that possible? It’s not that we in this church are an obscurantist, loveless group of gullible airheads from whom any wise person would run a mile. It is not that you couldn’t understand a word of the sermon. Your problem lies with what you understand only too well, what you are rejecting. We have to brush the dust off our feet and say, “We have taught you the word and you would not come to Christ to have life. Be sure that the kingdom of God was once near you,” and that is a very solemn business, to lose something you almost had.

24th January 2010 GEOFF THOMAS