Jesus’ Evangelism Is More than Words

If you’ve spent any time in church, at church retreats, or among people who go to church or church retreats, you’ve heard this passage:

Then [Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:37-38.)

If you heard it, chances are you were then told that this meant you, me and everyone else should either be out there telling people about Jesus so they can become Christians, or we should be praying for God to raise up other people to do it.

If so, you only heard half the story.

Harvesting Takes More Than Words

The context for Jesus’ harvest metaphor begins by describing what Jesus had been doing:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” (Matthew 9:35-38.)

A woman manually harvesting crops in Thirumayam, India. (Wikimedia)

In these travels, then, Jesus did three things: taught, proclaimed, and met physical needs. He noted how harassed and helpless people are and told his followers there was a lot of work still to do.

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. …

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:1, 5-8.)

When Jesus told his friends to get out there and harvest, he told them people were suffering and the disciples were in a position to do something about it. They could treat the sick and more, along with tell them the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand.

This focus on both temporal relief (healing) and eternal blessing (God’s kingdom is near) together make up the harvest Jesus spoke of, together show how to care for those who are harassed and helpless, together are the work of Jesus and of those who follow him.

This is the harvest Jesus tells us is ready for reaping. Someone who teaches that the harvest is merely winning souls to heaven is not only telling you only half the story, but is ignoring the things that led Jesus to feel compassion on harassed and helpless people in the first place. The people needed both physical and spiritual relief.

In fact, by placing these two not only in proximity but in concert with each other, it becomes evident that the physical and spiritual are inseparable. The harvest either includes both these inseparable aspects of a person’s life or it is not the harvest Jesus spoke of.

Why? Because a person doesn’t have just physical or just spiritual needs. That would be like saying that in order to be well nourished a person needs just food to eat or just water to drink. The need for one might seem more pressing in any given moment but the need for both is always present.

So too with spiritual and physical aspects: every person has both and they cannot be broken out and looked at entirely without regard for one another. Being one of the harvesters Jesus calls for means working for both the physical and spiritual good of the people he has compassion on – the harassed and helpless around you.


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11 Responses to Jesus’ Evangelism Is More than Words

  1. Lynn Thaler says:

    Great post. Imagine what would happen if Christians actually worked to help people with spiritual and physical needs.

    • Tim says:

      It is a powerful message when we speak to both spiritual and physical aspects of a person, showing them we care tons for both through our love

    • JYJames says:

      Some do.
      I fellowship with those who walk the talk. So that’s my world, my church. Faith in action is all we know. We do it. Like Bob Goff says, “Love does.” Be the answer.

  2. Doug says:

    This focus on both temporal relief (healing) and eternal blessing (God’s kingdom is near) together make up the harvest Jesus spoke of

    I’m afraid that the metaphor is a bit strained by this interpretation. The essential aspect of the harvest is that the landowner (through his workers) is receiving the fruit of the harvest, while distributing relief/blessing doesn’t seem to “fit”.
    I agree that the traditional interpretation of the verse is likely half the story. But I’m not convinced that we’ve found the other half.

    When Jesus told his friends to get out there and harvest

    But the closest that Jesus comes to telling his disciples to participate in the harvest (rather than praying for harvesters) is in John 4:35,36 (in the context of the chat between Jesus and the woman at the well)…

    Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.

  3. This is good, Tim. The people we encounter day to day are not just potential converts. Yet those who want to address the physical dimension often get labelled (snarkily) as preaching a “social gospel.” Maybe, as your post suggests, we need to take a closer look at what Jesus’ earthly ministry looked like.

  4. nmcdonal says:

    Very good points, Tim. I would actually tie the two even closer together: the deeds ministry was part of the proclamation ministry. It was a proclamation through deeds. They are intricately tied together, not just because we are spiritual and physical, but because the coming kingdom is spiritual and physical. Therefore to exclude deeds is to exclude part of the message.

    • Tim says:

      That’s what I was trying to say but you said it better and in just one paragraph!

      P.S. One FB commenter accused me of dodgy dualism regarding the spiritual and physical aspects in this post.

      • Kathy Heisleman says:

        Odd comment re: dualism IMO. It seems to me that dualism is the opposite of what you were posting. And btw—I don’t think the problem is lack of clarity on your part!

        • Tim says:

          That’s what I thought too, Kathy, but since I don’t know what they meant by dualism I was stumped.

  5. Ambrose says:

    Nicely put, Thank you!

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