The phrase “sowing and reaping” refers to the agricultural matter of planting seed and producing a harvest of crop, something very familiar to the people in the Bible. It is also used figuratively in the Bible to describe various spiritual activities, including the matter of people coming to “believe and be saved” or obtaining “eternal life” (Luke 8:12; John 4:36). Our interest in this metaphor is especially due to the insight it gives us about evangelism.
The basic point of the metaphor of sowing and reaping is that actions lead to predictable consequences. Sowing will lead to reaping. Stated differently, you will reap what you sow. We considered seven basic parts of the metaphor and noticed several important lessons from doing so.
The seed is the word (Mark 4:14), the word of God (Luke 8:11), or, most specifically, the word of the kingdom (Matthew 13:19). The good news of the kingdom is the word that was spoken both by Jesus (Matthew 4:17, 23; Luke 4:43; Luke 8:1; 16:16) and the first Christians (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).
Sowing means scattering the seed, which stands for speaking the word. It is imperative that the word of the kingdom actually be spoken. Sowing is considered hard work (John 4:38).
Plowing is either breaking up the ground before seed is planted, or, sometimes, plowing under seed after it has been scattered. Plowing is not a major part of the metaphor, but sometimes in ancient agriculture, plowing was considered to be a part of sowing (Job 4:8; Hosea 10:12-13). There are certainly some good things spiritual farmers can do after speaking the word initially, which we might think of as plowing (or watering). We emphasized, however, that care should be taken not to extend the metaphor too far lest we come to some conclusions about evangelism that were not intended by the biblical writers.
The soils in the Parable of the Sower (or perhaps more accurately, the Parable of the Soils) represent the different kinds of hearts people have and consequently the different ways they respond to the word (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-9, 13-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15). The condition of a person’s heart has an enormous effect on what happens when they hear the word of the kingdom. Only the one who “understands” (Matthew 13:23) or has a “good and honest heart” (Luke 8:15) will accept the word, persevere, and produce fruit. Only a minority have hearts that respond in this way.
The farmers cannot make the seed grow and ripen. Rather, the earth produces “by itself” (automatically). This takes place independently of the farmer, whether he sleeps or gets up (Mark 4:27). “By itself” is a way of saying the invisible hand of God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:16; cf. Romans 1:16). Growth is a process (Mark 4:28) that normally takes some time (cf. John 4:35).
When the seed grows and ripens, it is time to reap, that is, gather in the crop. Spiritually this refers to people entering the kingdom. We need to be alert because we don’t always see the harvest that is present (John 4:35; cf. Matthew 9:36-37). We have a role in people in entering the kingdom by assisting them in responding to the word. While sowing is regarded as hard work, reaping is considered joyful (John 4:36; cf. Psalm 126:5-6).
Human beings have an important role in evangelism, parallel to farmers. Our role is especially sowing and reaping, as described above. Often different humans will have different roles (1 Corinthians 3:5-6; John 4:37). Still, they are “one” and work for the same goal (1 Corinthians 3:8). They all rejoice together whenever there is harvest (John 4:36). Our focus in our role is on being faithful to what God has entrusted us. We should not judge other workers but rather realize God will judge us (John 4:36; 1 Corinthians 3:8; 4:1-5). Our judgment will be based on whether and how we communicated the message and how we build on it (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
The human role is given by God and so is vital. In fact, many more workers are needed (Matthew 9:35-38). We are to pray for these (v. 38) and also equip them (Matthew 10:1ff.).
At the same time, the farmers are only one of three parties involved in evangelism. Both God and the person hearing the word greatly affect the result. As noted, only God can give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6), and the farmer doesn’t even understand how it happens (Mark 4:27). Because of this, the farmers are “nothing” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7). Only God is something. So we shouldn’t put human workers on a pedestal, either ourselves or others.
When sowing and reaping are mentioned in connection with other matters besides evangelism, additional points are made. Since these passages are not talking specifically about evangelism, however, we should proceed with some cautious evaluation about how we apply them. Still, it seems to me that three more lessons can safely be gleaned from these other passages.
First, we need to be careful not to wait for ideal circumstances before we speak the word.
He who observes the wind will not sow,Ecclesiastes 11:4
and he who regards the clouds will not reap.
This appears to be talking about literal farming, and the message is don’t wait until everything is just right or you’ll never do anything. It seems to me that easily applies to speaking the message to others. Though timing and circumstances should be considered, we will rarely have the perfect situation. We need to be ready to speak the word “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Second, we need to realize that sometimes sowing will not lead to the expected reaping. Normally it will, but we’ve already qualified this based on what kind of soil or heart a person has. Elsewhere Scripture indicates people may sow good seed but reap bad outcomes (Jeremiah 12:13; Micah 6:15). These passages seem to be describing literal farming again, but with God withholding his blessing on their crops due to their sinful lives. Conversely, sometimes the reaping may vastly exceed all expectations, due to God’s blessing (Amos 9:13). This reminds us of one of the first passages we considered in this series, which indicated that both farming and God’s work are more complex and involved than we sometimes think (Isaiah 28:23-29).
Third, the more we meaningfully speak God’s word to others, the more people will come to Christ.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.2 Corinthians 9:6
Here Paul states the metaphor in proverbial form, and he applies it to giving and receiving. His point is that God will bless and provide for those who give generously.
It seems to me that this proverb can be applied to evangelism as well. As noted, we don’t control the growth. Yet the more we speak, the more likely the word will come to people with good and open hearts who will respond to it. The opposite is painfully true. If we are only speaking the message of the kingdom to non-Christians occasionally, it’s no wonder there is very little harvest. We need to speak the word, meaningfully, and bountifully.
As always, I want to encourage you to look for something from this series that you can put into practice in your life. Hopefully the summary above or the three additional lessons noted here will spark something in your heart and call you to action. Remember, it is not with the measure you read that it will be measured to you, but rather with the measure you use (see Mark 4:24-25). I encourage you to take a couple minutes to scan this post again, looking for something you especially need to hear and heed right now.
May the Lord of the harvest send out many more workers into his harvest field, and may we serve him faithfully by watching for opportunities to speak his message to others and being ready to help them enter the kingdom when the seed has ripened in their hearts.
For more on how Empowering Subjects is equipping farmers for the harvest, see here.