The Principle (John 4:35-38).
The Bible uses the ancient practice of farmers sowing and reaping to help us understand how people embrace Christ. One rich passage about this is:
35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”John 4:35-38 (ESV)
The basic principle, that actions lead to predictable consequences, is clear in this paragraph (see first post in this series here). Sowing leads to reaping and one will reap what is sown. Here sowing and reaping are applied specifically to people coming to believe in Jesus, and the outcome is stated specifically as “eternal life” (v. 36). When someone sows good seed, people will be reaped into eternal life. In this series we will explore this relationship in John 4 and in a number of other passages that use the metaphor.
In addition to the general principle, John 4 gives us several other helpful lessons about sowing and reaping. First, sowing is hard work and reaping is joyful. In reference to sowing, the NIV says others have done the “hard work” (v. 38). This seems to be an accurate understanding of the Greek term kopiao—”to labor hard, toil, be wearied or spent with labor.” If we include plowing with sowing, as was sometimes done (see first post in this series), it is clear that this aspect of literal farming is laborious. If you have ever tried to communicate Christ to someone who does not know him, you may have found it to be difficult work at time as well. This is especially true if you had to work and pray to open up their hearts or remove “weeds” or “stones” that were getting in the way. The truth that sowing is laborious (v. 38) suggests we should not be surprised if it is sometimes difficult to work with people and communicate the message.
Reaping, on the other hand, is joyful! Verse 36 specifically references joy (and we’ll come back to this verse). There may well be some significant work involved in reaping too (both literally and spiritually), but because we get to see and experience the harvest of someone entering the kingdom, there is much joy (cf. the parables in Luke 15).
Psalm 126 expresses the truth about the difficulty of sowing and joy of reaping:
5 Those who sow in tearsPsalm 126:5-6
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
These verses appear to be describing literal farming (see “seed” and “sheaves” in v. 6), but the first four verses of the Psalm suggest the writer may have mentioned farming here because he saw a parallel between it and some other kind of blessing that had recently come to Jerusalem (cf. “restored the fortunes of Zion” in v. 1). Regardless, in light of John 4, it is clearly not a stretch to apply the emotions the Psalm mentions to sowing and reaping in evangelism.
Second, sometimes the one who sows and the one who reaps are different people. This is clearly stated in John 4:37. The word “here” in the verse indicates that it is true in this case, though not necessarily in all cases. Jesus said his disciples were reapers in this instance (v. 38), and Jesus himself certainly seems to be involved in the reaping as well. But who were the sowers?
We know the disciples were not (v. 38). Rather, it was others (note the plural). Reading the passage in its context, it seems to me that, even though he seems to have been involved in the reaping, Jesus was also a sower. He sowed seed through a significant conversation with the woman before she came to believe (vv. 7-26). Another one of the “others” who sowed would be the woman herself, who talked to her own people about Jesus (4:29, 30, 42). The Old Testament prophets and Scriptures, and both Jewish and Samaritan teachers could also be considered sowers. Some of the Samaritans may have heard some of the seeds sown by John the Baptist as well.
The truth that one sows and another reaps reminds us that we may sometimes sow seed with people and not get to be the one that helps them enter the kingdom. This can encourage us in those times when we see no result or response to our efforts. On the other hand, however, we should also make sure that we don’t start thinking it’s unlikely that there will be any reaping and consequently sow seed carelessly or too casually. Clearly we need to sow as well as we can whether we reap or not.
Conversely, this truth also reminds us that anytime we help reap someone into the kingdom, most likely others have sowed before us. I have sometimes fallen prey to the self-centered thinking that “I” led this person to Christ, oblivious to the lesson taught here, that others sowed seed before me.
Extending this truth a bit further, remember that a few years after the event described in John 4, Philip went to Samaria and preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, and a good many more people were reaped into the kingdom (Acts 8:1-25). Jesus and all the others who sowed seed among the Samaritans for many years beforehand contributed to the substantial reaping in Acts 8.
Third, though sowers and reapers are filling different roles, the two are working toward the same goal. Because of this, the above-mentioned joy is not limited to the reaper. The “sower and reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:36).
A couple years ago, this verse came to mind and rebuked me when I heard someone in our church had baptized a person that I had been studying the Bible with a few months beforehand. We need to remember God’s work is not about which farmer gets to reap, and in fact, it is not about the farmers at all. Farmhands are servants and dare not get territorial about the work of the Lord of the Harvest (cf. Luke 17:10). Sower and reaper work together for the same goal, and they should also rejoice together.
Fourth, a period of time is (usually) needed between sowing and reaping for the seed to grow and become ripe. Verse 35 mentions a period of four months until the next literal harvest. The time it took for the woman and the other Samaritans to come to faith in Christ once he arrived there does not seem to be too long, but we should remember that they had already heard about the Christ (or Messiah) previously (see v. 29). It may have in fact been years from when the seed was first sown and passed down among them until they were harvested into the kingdom.
I don’t think this account tells us precisely how long it takes the seed to grow to a harvest, but it does tell us that normally some time will be required. If we have a conversation that leads quickly to someone’s conversion, we may think very little time was needed. Most often, however, a closer look beyond ourselves will reveal that others had sowed some seed with that person previously. Again, we have to get over looking at matters merely from our own point of view. Though there may be exceptions, as a general rule, we expect it to take time for the seed to grow. As one of my mentors used to say, we shouldn’t fret during this time or try to dig the seed up to see how it’s doing. Instead, we trust God to give growth. As with many spiritual matters, however, we may also need to guard against the opposite extreme—not really expecting a person to embrace Christ any time soon.
This leads to a fifth lesson: We may not always see the harvest that is right in front of us!
35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.John 4:35
There was in fact a spiritual harvest right there in front of them, but they didn’t see it. I’m not sure what “white” for harvest means. Some think it refers to the literal color of certain grains when they ripen. My college professor thought it referred to white head coverings of the Samaritans. In any case, the Samaritans were showing interest in what the woman had told them about Jesus by making their way out toward him (v. 30), and Jesus saw a harvest in this (cf. Matthew 9:36-37). He told his disciples to look and see it as well.
When we are immature spiritually, we may be oblivious to the opportunities God gives us. I know I have been so plenty of times. It would seem that the twelve, whom Jesus told to lift up their eyes and see that the fields are white for harvest, were suffering from “bread on the brain” (John 4:8, 31-34), and that wasn’t the only time their preoccupation with food caused them to miss spiritual matters (Mark 8:14-21). We need to pray that God will help us lift up our eyes from whatever may be preoccupying us so that we can see the harvest around us. Unseen, unknown sowers have been sowing. God has been giving growth. We need to see and be ready to reap.
I hope the principle of sowing and reaping and the five lessons mentioned here will help and encourage you to be involved in the Lord’s harvest field.
For more on how the ministry of Empowering Subjects is equipping people to be workers in the Lord’s Harvest field, see here.