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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Jesus teaches his disciples about gospel-harvesting
Text:John 4:31-38 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's gathering work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 98

Psalm 19:4,5 (after the law)

Psalm 67

Hymn 76

Psalm 149:1,2

Scripture reading:  Amos 9:11-15

Text: John 4:31-38

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Imagine for a moment that you were walking through the CBD/downtown and got into a conversation with a random stranger.  You’ve never met the man before in your life.  But as you talk, you discover that he knows everything about you.  He knows your deepest secrets and your greatest need.  Despite what he knows about you, he deals with you in love, patience, and compassion.  If you were to meet such a man, undoubtedly you’d be impressed.  More than likely, you’d go and tell others about him.  In our day, many of us would probably make a Facebook status out of it:  “Met a stranger who told me everything I’d ever done.  #Impressive.”

Well, she didn’t have Facebook back in her day, but that’s something like what happened with the Samaritan woman earlier in chapter 4.  Jesus had that conversation with her at the well.  As they talked, Jesus spoke to her about living water.  He had living water to offer which would bring eternal life.  He was speaking about the Holy Spirit.  Our Saviour knew the woman’s need for that living water, because she had broken cisterns in her life.  Her broken cistern was her pursuit of men.  Married to one man after another and now living with someone she wasn’t married to.  She thought that these relationships would give her something that only God can give.  Christ put his finger on it and it made her uncomfortable, so she changed the subject.  They talked about true worship and Jesus said that he was bringing a huge change.  Worship wasn’t going to be at mountains anymore, but in spirit and in truth.  The woman said that the Messiah would come and sort it all out.  Then Christ dropped the bomb on her:  I am the Messiah.  At that moment, his disciples returned and interrupted the conversation.  The woman took off into the village of Sychar and told everyone:  “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.”  She was impressed with Jesus.  He was knowledgeable, loving, compassionate, and patient.  She asks her fellow villagers, “Can this be the Christ?”  The question expected a negative answer.  It’s not clear that she herself believed in Jesus at that moment, that she became a disciple.  And yet, God worked through her report and her question to send the crowds flowing out of Sychar to Jesus.

Now the people from Sychar are on their way to check out Jesus.  Jesus is still at the well with his disciples.  It’s time for our Master to give his disciples a lesson about reaping the fruits of spreading the gospel.  It was a lesson for those disciples back then, but it’s also a lesson for us as disciples today.  So I preach to you God’s Word from John 4:31-38:               

Jesus teaches his disciples about gospel-harvesting

We’ll consider:

  1. The food of Jesus
  2. The fields white for harvest
  3. The fellowship of sowers and reapers

Verse 31 tells us that what happens here happens “meanwhile.”  That means this is the time between when the people leave the village and the time they arrive.  There’s an interval where it’s just Jesus and his disciples.  The disciples had gone earlier into the village to buy food and they’ve brought it to the well.  They set it in front of their Teacher, their Rabbi, and they urge him to eat.  Remember, they’ve spent the whole morning walking.  A normal person would be ready to eat and get some fresh energy.  But after his conversation with that Samaritan woman, Christ has other things on his mind. 

He says in verse 32 that he has food that they don’t know about.  They don’t know because he hasn’t taught them.  But when they hear “food” their minds naturally go to the physical.  They think that he’s speaking about the food you put in your mouth.  So they ask each other in verse 33, “Did someone bring him something to eat?”  Of course, you have to remember where this question is asked.  They’re in Samaria.  They’re amongst the Samaritans.  Remember:  the Jews and the Samaritans disdained each other.  So it would be highly unlikely that a Jewish man like Jesus would get any food from anybody in Samaria. 

The teaching moment is there and Christ takes advantage of it.  He’s got his disciples’ attention.  He says in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”  There’s a lot packed into these words and I’m going to spend a few moments unpacking them. 

Jesus is speaking here about his food.  In the Bible, “food” is sometimes literal physical food, but sometimes it’s figurative or symbolic.  The disciples were thinking in terms of the food you put in your mouth, but Jesus is clearly speaking in the other sense.  It’s symbolic of a spiritual reality.

In the Bible, food is something that God provides for human beings.  Food is nourishment from heaven.  This is why Christians give thanks for their meals – we recognize that our food comes from our Father.  Food in the Bible is also something that gives pleasure.  God gives food that we can and do enjoy.  When Jesus speaks about food here in verse 34, he’s describing something that God has given to him.  He’s speaking of something that nourishes him, but also something that gives him satisfaction and joy.  That food is doing the will of him who sent him, doing the will of the Father.  Christ looks at God’s will, the mission he’s been given, and he feeds on it.  It is his nourishment and his pleasure.  For Jesus, God’s will is not a burden to be endured, but a tasty food to be enjoyed.  It’s not duty, but delight.

In the image that Jesus uses here, we can see a contrast with Adam in the garden.  In Genesis, Adam was created by God and called to a mission.  Adam was to have dominion over the earth – he was to manage this world as a responsible steward.  He was to be fruitful and multiply.  Adam was called to work the Garden of Eden and guard it.  God gave him physical food – he said that every tree of the Garden was at his disposal, except one.  You see, God also gave him that same spiritual food of obediently doing his will.  That was to be his delight.  But Adam chose the forbidden food.  At the behest of Eve, Adam chose to forsake God’s mission, and listen to the lies of Satan.  In essence what Adam said in Genesis 3 was, “My food is to do the will of him who tempted me and to accomplish his work.  I reject God’s food and I will take Satan’s food instead.  There is no nourishment in God’s food.  There is no delight in God’s food.  Satan’s food sounds a lot better.”

Now let’s stop right here.  Does any of this sound familiar?  God lays out his will for our lives in his Word.  Earlier we sang from Psalm 19.  The Psalmist says that God’s law is sweeter than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.  In other words, God’s law is delicious food.  Figuratively speaking, we eat it by doing it.  But how often don’t we look at God’s will, listen to lies about it, and not do it?    

There are lies in our hearts.  God’s will should be done, but if we do it at all, we’ll do it out of duty, not out of delight.  We’ll do it because we have to, not because we love to.  Other lies: we can pick and choose the parts of God’s will that we’ll obey.  Or we doubt whether everything in God’s law is actually good for us.  We think we know better.  So we lie to ourselves. 

The world also tells us lies about God’s will in his law.  The world lies and says that God is not wise.  God is not good.  Especially when it comes to sexuality, the world tells us that God doesn’t know what he’s talking about in the Bible.  In fact, it’s not God speaking in the Bible at all.  It’s just people and they were stone-age people, and we’re people living in the modern era.  We have science.  Therefore, we’re much smarter than the Bible.  That’s how the world lies.    

Satan tells us lies too:  did God really say?  Aren’t there many interpretations of the Bible and how can you know which ones are right?  Satan even puts these doubts into the mouths of preachers, theologians and church members and churches get led astray.  He comes as an angel of light and people are blind to the reality.    

We might look at Adam in Genesis 3 and shake our heads.  “Adam, how could you be so foolish?”  But in reality we’re all implicated.  We’re all included in Adam’s condition.  God’s will is supposed to be our food, it’s supposed to be nourishment and delight for us.  But because of sin, we’re like fussy little children who look at the good food from their parents, and refuse to eat it.  Why?  Just because.  Just because of the irrationality of sin, the total senselessness of rebellion against God.

Now look at your Saviour again here in verse 34.  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.”  He does the will of the Father.  He obeys him in every respect.  Jesus finds his nourishment in that.  He does it out of delight and love for the Father, not merely out of duty.  He is the perfect Second Adam.  He’s doing what Adam should have done.  He’s doing what we should do.  He’s doing it in our place.  The gospel promises that if you entrust yourself to Christ, his obedience is placed on your account before God.  If you’re leaning totally on Jesus, then God hears those words from Christ as if they’re coming out of your mouth will all truth and sincerity.  It’s as if God hears you saying, without a word of a lie, “My food is to do the will of the Father.”  If you’re in Christ through faith, this is perfect you in God’s sight.  God has declared you right with him, and part of the basis of that is the active obedience of Christ credited to you.          

In verse 34, Christ is referring to a particular aspect of God’s will for him.  In this context, it has to do with sowing the seed of the gospel.  It has to do with proclaiming the good news of eternal life which he came to bring.  It has to do with announcing that you can live forever with God through what Jesus has done.  You can live with God through the obedient life of Jesus and through the death of Jesus on the cross.  You just have to believe that he did it in your place.  It was God’s will for him to announce that good news.  As he was speaking with that Samaritan woman, he did that, he was eating the food given to him.  He was fulfilling God’s will for him, accomplishing his work.  His gospel ministry was the mission given to him, that gospel ministry was his food. 

That’s food intended for us too.  You’ve heard of the Great Commission.  Before Christ ascended into heaven, he sent out his church to spread the gospel.  We normally think of the Great Commission as it’s found at the end of Matthew’s gospel.  But John’s gospel also includes a form of it.  It’s in John 20:21 where Jesus says to his disciples, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  Look, Christ’s mission of gospel ministry is the ministry of the church.  It’s our ministry.  Christ was an outward-looking Saviour – he went in search of the lost, even in unclean Samaria.  His church, his people united to him, they’re supposed to be like him.  We’re to be an outward-looking church.  Our food is to do the will of him who sent us – to do the will of Jesus, even as he did the will of his Father.  Our food is to spread the gospel far and wide to whomever we can. 

Spreading the gospel is food.  When you eat it, when you do it, it nourishes.  Whenever you share the gospel with people, you’ll often find that your own faith is strengthened.  As you speak about Jesus and what he does to rescue us, you’re reminded again of what an awesome Saviour we have.  When you see the Holy Spirit starting to work in people, that’s an amazing thing too.  It’s going to bless the one who shares the gospel.  Spreading the gospel is food also in that it delights us.  Yes, at first it can sometimes be intimidating to share your faith.  But it can also be rewarding.  It can be delightful to know that God is working through us to make Jesus Christ known, even if it is through our weak and feeble efforts.  Loved ones, according to Scripture, spreading the gospel is not meant to be a ball and chain, a hard burden to suck the joy out of life – no, it’s meant to be food.  It’s something we should pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the desire for.

As we move along in our text, Jesus quotes a proverb in verse 35.  It’s not a proverb from the Bible, but from the world in which he lived.  People spoke of a period of four months until the harvest.  The exact meaning of the proverb is lost on us today, but the gist of it is that you normally have to wait for a harvest.  Harvests of crops don’t come instantly.  You sow the seed, you wait for the crop to grow and mature, and then only later can you harvest the final product. 

But here the proverb is proving to be wrong.  Jesus says in verse 35, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for the harvest.”  To understand these words, again we need to remember the context.  Jesus and his disciples are in Samaria.  The Samaritans are flowing out of Sychar to come to the well where Jesus is.  When Jesus tells his disciples to lift up their eyes and look, he’s directing their attention to the Samaritans coming towards them.  He’s telling these Jewish disciples to look at the amazing thing:  Samaritans, those despised people, they’re flocking to Jesus.  What does it means that the fields are “white for the harvest”?  Fields of grain are normally golden when it’s harvest time.  Yet the text literally says that the fields are “white” for the harvest.  The NIV interprets this and says the fields are “ripe” for the harvest.  But the ESV gives us the literal translation, “white.”  One possibility is that this is a reference to the white robes traditionally worn by people of that region.  Jesus is pointing to the sea of white, people clothed in white, flowing towards him from Sychar.

The fields ready for harvest are these Samaritan villagers curious to check out Jesus.  Christ looks at them and he sees an opportunity.  He’s not afraid.  He’s not reluctant.  This is what he came for.  There are crowds of people eager to find out what he’s about.  As becomes evident later in the chapter, many people in those crowds actually come to faith in him.

Look out over our city some time.  This is our mission field.  We’ve been placed in a city with thousands of other people.  All of these people – where are they going?  Many of them are lost.  Many of them are without the Saviour.  They’re heading for hell.  No, they’re not flocking here on Sundays to hear about Jesus.  Why not?  You might take the easy answer and say that God is just not calling them right now.  He’s sovereign and if he wants to save them, he’ll bring them here in his own good time to hear the gospel.  But is that really what happened in our passage?  God did bring one lone Samaritan woman to Jesus at the well.  He spoke about the gospel with her.  But then she went and told others.  Whether she herself believed or not is irrelevant at this point.  The relevant thing is that having heard the gospel from Jesus, she went and told others about Jesus, and that’s how this harvest started happening.  So how is any harvest going to happen here?  It’s going to happen as believers go and talk to others.  Tomorrow morning many of you will be at work.  Your workmates might ask, “How was your weekend?”  The door is open right there.  You could say, “The best part of it was Sunday at church.  I heard about my Saviour Jesus again.  Do you know anything about him?”  Brothers and sisters, God gives us these opportunities -- let’s take them.  Like our Saviour in our text, let’s rejoice at these opportunities and work with them.  And let’s pray that we would see the fields ready for harvest here too, that we would see people flocking to hear about the only who can save.

In Christ’s ministry at that moment, there was something remarkable going on.  The proverb spoke of a time passing between sowing and reaping.  But here in Samaria that was all collapsed – one minute Christ was sowing gospel seed with that woman, and the next the harvest was upon them.  Verse 36 speaks of the reaper receiving his wages as if the work is done.  The fruit is being gathered for eternal life. It’s like the sower and the reaper are in the same field at the same time.  When Christ says this in verse 36, he appears to be alluding to what we read from Amos 9.  In that passage, the sowing of seed and the reaping at the grape harvest are portrayed as taking place at the same time.  It’s a picture of a glorious period in history where God’s blessings overflow.  Those who sow the seed have the privilege of seeing that seed blessed to a rich harvest right away.  That’s what’s happening in John 4 in Samaria.  There’s no delay – it all happens suddenly and so the sower and reaper have fellowship in joy before God. 

Yes, he says, there are those who sow and there are those who reap.  Christ sends out his apostles to reap the harvest which they didn’t sow.  Others, like Christ, have done all the hard work, and now the apostles can build on that.  And they will. 

What’s happening in our text and what’s being said here anticipates further developments in Samaria in the book of Acts.  Already in John 4, we hear about many believing in Jesus.  But in Acts 8 this number gets even bigger.  In the scheme of things, that’s not long after Christ said these words in our text.  Men and women believed and were baptized in Samaria.  The gospel seed was sown, and immediately there was a harvest.  God worked like that in the early history of the New Testament Church.  He ensured that the church would grow explosively in its first years.  It would grow, not only in Samaria, but in other places too.  In this way, God guaranteed that the church of Christ would have staying power.

Loved ones, today we don’t have a promise from God that he will work in the same way.  God hasn’t promised that in our day our sowing the gospel seed will always result in an immediate harvest.  In fact, a lot of times we have to wait, or many times the seed falls on rocky soil.  We don’t live in the time of Christ and the apostles.  It’s a different era and we have to acknowledge that. 

That said, there are several things that remain that we can learn from.  One is that the sowing of gospel seed is our calling as the church of Christ.  He did it in John 4, we’re united to him, and we’re to do likewise.  Another lesson is that the harvest is in God’s hands.  We can pray and work.  We can pray for unbelievers to hear the gospel, we can do everything we can to help them to understand it.  But at the end of the day, we are not the Holy Spirit.  Only he can regenerate a heart so that a person repents from their sin and believes in Jesus Christ.  A third lesson is that there is joy in both sowing and reaping.  The sowing is the food that Christ was given, and we saw earlier that the sharing of the gospel was a joy and delight for him.  It’s to be for us too.  And we can be part of the reaping, part of the harvest, there too, there’s joy, there’s rejoicing.  But at every stage, no matter what God’s calling is for us, whether sowing or reaping, there’s joy in the gospel endeavour.  Whether the reaping comes soon after the sowing, or a long time afterwards, there’s rejoicing to be had in both.  It’s wonderful thing to be involved with the spreading of the gospel!

Loved ones, there is a constant temptation for every church.  Every church has its problems and issues within.  We do too.  The temptation is to become focussed only on those things.  Every church is tempted to focus on just addressing the internal problems.  The church which gives in to that temptation becomes only inward looking, focussed on itself and its issues – an us-centered church.  But the New Testament vision for the church of Jesus Christ is something different.  The vision of Christ himself for us is something different.  Yes, he wants us to take care of each other as brothers and sisters.  Yes, when we see a brother or sister from the church straying, we should say something, do something.  When a member is hurting, we should come alongside them and comfort them.  We should be looking out for each other, for sure.  Scripture teaches us to do all these things and more.  But, listen, it never ever sets those things in opposition to our calling to a lost world, as if you can choose to be either an inward-looking church or an outward looking church.  No, in Scripture we see a Saviour who cared about his disciples, but he also cared about all those lost Samaritans coming his way.  He had room in his heart for both concerns.  Let’s pray that his Spirit would create in our hearts both concerns too.  AMEN. 


O God our Father,

We praise you for Christ our Saviour and his obedience.  Thank you for sending him to do your will.  We’re glad that the Saviour’s obedience is ours when we believe in him.  We pray that you would help us with your Spirit to be likewise obedient.  Please help us especially in sharing the gospel.  We look around us in our city and we do see so many lost souls.  Father, we see a world enslaved by sin and the devil.  There’s so much brokenness.  It breaks our hearts to see family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours, who don’t know the joy and peace of belonging to Christ.  They’ve listened to the lies of their hearts, the lies of the world, and the lies of Satan.  Father, we plead for them:  show them your mercy.  Bring them the gospel.  Open their hearts to hear it and believe it.  And we plead for us:  Please give us opportunities to share the gospel, and please give us what we need to take those opportunities and run with them.  Please give us a stronger faith through sharing our faith, help us to grow as Christians as we witness.  Please help us to find joy as well in speaking about our Saviour to those who are lost.  And Father, we pray too that we can see a harvest from our labours.  Please work through us to draw in those whom you’ve chosen from before the foundation of the world.  O Father, please make us more like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.                               


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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