We have noticed that sowing and reaping is a metaphor in Scripture that is applied to some different activities. Our focus has been on its application to evangelism. We noted that the basic principle of the metaphor is that sowing seed leads to reaping fruit, if the soil is good. So far we have considered the seed (the message of the kingdom), the soil (various kinds of hearts), and the growth of the seed to a ripened plant ready for harvest (people believing and being saved)(series begins here). Today’s post will focus on the farmers.
Before we look at the primary passage for today, I want to mention briefly that Jesus said that the thing that is needed to address the broken people and mess of the world is more workers (Matthew 9:35-37). He also said that he is the one who sends workers out, but that we are to pray for them (v. 38). Workers also need to be trained (Matthew 10:1ff.). I wanted to bring this passage in because Jesus uses the language of harvest (Matthew 9:37-38) that we have encountered in this series (Mark 4:29; John 4:35). I won’t go into this any further, however, since he does not refer more specifically to sowing and reaping here. Clearly, though, it is important for us to pray that he will send out more farmers to work in his field. (For more on Matthew 9:35-38, see the five posts that begin here).
Previously in this series on sowing and reaping we noted that the primary responsibility of the farmers is to sow the seed, that is, to speak the word of the kingdom. There are some other activities we may do as well, but the primary focus in this metaphor is to speak the word.
God has given us this role. He could work without us, but instead, he has chosen to work through us. That means the role of the farmer matters. It is imperative that we speak the word of the kingdom.
In 1 Corinthians Paul describes the roles he and Apollos had with the Corinthians and thereby gives us some additional insights about the farmers:
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.1 Corinthians 3:5-9
It’s pretty clear that the Corinthian Christians were viewing the human workers in an unhealthy way. They seem to have placed too much importance on different leaders and were taking pride in whichever one they were most closely associated with (1 Corinthians 1:12; 4:1-6). In response, Paul writes that none of the farmers “is anything” (1 Corinthians 3:7). The human workers are not the most significant factors in God’s work, and one should not put undue importance on them. There is some tension here. Farmers are at one and the same time both indispensable and “nothing.” As far as having a necessary role in God’s work, they are indispensable. As far thinking they have or impart special status, they are nothing.
The reason for this is that God is the one who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). As we noted in the parable of the growing seed, God makes things grow (Mark 4:26-29, see post). This takes place whether the human farmer “sleeps or gets up.” No matter what we do, we cannot cause the good news to grow in a person’s heart to the point that they are ready to be reaped into the kingdom. Only God can do that. We don’t even know how it happens.
The 1 Corinthians 3 passage also shows that human farmers have different roles. We noted previously that some sow and some reap, and some will do both (John 4 and post). Changing the language somewhat, Paul here says that he planted (not the same word as sowed) and Apollos watered. It’s hard to be certain, but it seems to me that Paul is not referring to specific activities but to chronological order. He worked with the Corinthians first, followed by Apollos. Still, they had different roles with the Corinthians.
In spite of the different roles, however, the human workers “are one” (1 Corinthians 3:6; ESV and literal) or “have one purpose” (NIV). As Jesus said, sower and reaper rejoice together (John 4:36). We need to be careful not to think that we or any other human worker is more important than the others. As Jesus taught us, when we have done all that we are commanded, we are to say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Luke 17:10). Since God gives the growth and we are “nothing,” there is no room for competition, comparison, jealousy, or pride.
This does not rule out the need for farmers to do their work faithfully, of course. In fact, Paul writes that the farmers are stewards of what God has entrusted to them, and the number one quality needed in a steward is that they be faithful (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). It is not our place to judge other farmers (1 Corinthians 4:3). Instead, the Lord will indeed judge us (1 Corinthians 4:4).
We will be rewarded according to our work (John 4:36; 1 Corinthians 3:8). Being a faithful steward would surely include whether and how we communicated the message of the kingdom (cf. “entrusted” in 1 Timothy 1:11; 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:14). Our reward will also be based on how well we built on the foundation of Christ. If we build in such a way that new believers endure, we will be rewarded (1 Corinthians 3:10-14). If they do not endure, we will not be lost, but we will suffer loss (1 Corinthians 3:15). As faithful servants and stewards (1 Corinthians 4:1-2), it is imperative that we lay the foundation of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-11) and build on that foundation with quality teaching (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). We should also note that our judgment by God will include his exposing the hidden motives of our hearts, and this will affect what praise we receive from God (1 Corinthians 4:5).
Some practical lessons for us as farmers emerge from these passages. First, the human workers should not be put on a pedestal. We should guard against thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought as well as thinking too highly of other workers. Paul bluntly wrote that we “are nothing.”
Second, since God gives the growth we need to be careful not to start thinking we can cause or make people respond to the gospel. The seed sprouts and grows, “though he does not know how” (Mark 4:27). We must not take matters into our own hands or think our ingenuity and insight can make the seed grow to the point that people will respond. Authentic growth of seed only comes from God.
Third, we still need to fill the role God has given us. Though we are nothing, we are indispensable. We should care about how we fill our role and fill it as best as we can, with a focus on faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). This will include such things as actually speaking, speaking the right message, speaking with pure motives (1 Corinthians 4:5), and speaking the message clearly (Colossians 4:4), boldly (Ephesians 6:19), gently and respectfully (1 Peter 3:15).
When I think deeply about all these matters, I sometimes find it difficult to keep everything in balance. How can we focus on filling our role faithfully as best as we can but still view ourselves as nothing and rely on God to give the growth? I’m not sure I have an answer, but I do have a stance: humility and prayer.
May we pray that the Lord will send out many more farmers into his harvest field and may all farmers fill our roles faithfully.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is equipping farmers for the harvest, see here.