“Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 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. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”” (John 4:31–38, ESV)
The scene now switches back to Jesus with His disciples as we remember that they had left to go get Him some food. Having come back with it they urged Jesus (who they called “Rabbi” which was a title the Jews would use in honoring a teacher or religious master) to eat. His disciples had come back to serve Him, But threw them for a loop, telling them that He had eaten some other food. Looking to each other they questioned if someone else had brought Him food in their absence, as if they had gone on a wasted mission.
Again we find that Jesus was speaking about something else. He again used a normal human process to speak about a greater spiritual one. While His disciples were focused on food which the body digests for strength and endurance, Jesus was focused on feeding on the work He had been given. As I thought about the picture I thought about the many times in my life when I got so focused on a task that I forgot to eat. I don’t know about you, but this has happened more than once. And I’m sorry in some ways to say that there have also been many times when I let food get in the way of other things which maybe should have received immediate attention. I guess both sides of this point to our tendency to give our energy to those things which capture our hearts and minds. In those times when I did not eat it was not to say that food was not important to me, but at the time there was something more important or more pressing that grabbed ahold of my focus and secured my full attention. Jesus told His disciples that He had such a focus, and then He proceeded to drive His illustration home.
In their agrarian society there were set times when the harvest of the various crops would occur. In the book of Ruth time was marked for her by Ruth gleaning in the fields through the wheat and the barley harvests (Ruth 2:23). The barley harvest would usually begin in April and the wheat harvest would typically extend into the middle of June. This period of about seven weeks typically marked the weeks between the Passover and the Feast of Weeks (or Pentecost). Looking at Jesus’ comment to His disciples about the harvest being four months away, He was probably speaking to them in December or January. This was after the seed was planted and during the period of waiting in anticipation of being able to harvest the fruits of their labor. (There are many Bible study helps that can provide more information on the harvests and even their association with various Jewish observances.)
Here Jesus uses the link of harvesting their regularly anticipated crops and their dependence on those crops for their physical need for food with every individual’s spiritual need for salvation and the opportunity to bring them to a point of understanding where they believe for themselves. In our last look at this account we read that the people of the town, at the word of the Samaritan woman, had left to go see for themselves this man who claimed to be the Christ. And I imagine here that Jesus was speaking to His disciples about this greater harvest—the harvest of lives for the kingdom of God, when the people of the town had begun to arrive. Looking at the people coming He told His disciples to look for themselves and see the harvest which was there before them. This harvest was being laid in their laps, without having done any effort. They did not have to do anything to bring it to pass. Jesus had spoken to the woman, and the woman spoke to the people, and here they had the privilege of being there as these individuals are harvested and lives are eternally reaped.
Jesus saw the parallel, and He used it to teach His disciples. Whether they were the ones who planted the seed or the ones who gathered the benefit, they had the opportunity to share together in the joy of lives coming to know about salvation in the Christ who had come. They could all share in their belief with great joy. Credit was not the issue. There was no room for pride over what role one person or another played. What they had in common was the shared joy of being a part of the greater work of God as people came to meet and believe in Jesus Christ. Sure Scripture speaks about eternal rewards for this service, but Jesus told them that the present joy of knowing that people were responding is worthy of great rejoicing in the present.
There is always some groundwork laid in a person coming to Christ for salvation, and the people who have a hand in it may not (in this life) ever know the role they played. Recognizing this, Jesus told His disciples that they were being sent to benefit from the work of others as they participated in reaping the great fruit of hearts ripened for salvation. Quoting a familiar saying, He told them that as they engage in the end process through reaping that they had joined hand in hand with those laborers who had gone before, whether that be the prophets, parents, religious leaders, strangers and, of course, the very Spirit of God working in their hearts. Jesus does not specify the other laborers who had joined in this, but what He does focus on is their privilege of being a part of the chain built one link upon another.
As we look at this specific setting, those who were approaching were most directly linked by the woman who was herself personally prepared by Christ. Right there before their very eyes were people coming to them, and as we will go on to read many of them were mature grains ready for the harvest.
In Luke 10 Jesus sent out seventy-two of His disciples to go out in twos ahead of Him into the towns. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” (Luke 10:2–3, ESV) Jesus then went on to tell them to stay in those places where they are taken in and fed and to move on from those who reject them. Their instructions in each town were in those places they are received to heal the sick with the power given to them by God and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” He finished His words to them with, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16, ESV) This was just a taste of what was later to happen after Jesus returned to the Father and the Spirit is sent at Pentecost to indwell and empower all believers as ambassadors for the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Looking to ourselves, as we go throughout our days we have little to no idea at times what kind of groundwork may have already been laid in the lives of people we encounter. And we might not have any idea of what role we might even have in this chain leading to a new person coming to receive eternal life. We may be just one more laborer who points the way or we might be one who God uses to actually pick the fruit. In either case, it is an awesome privilege to be a part of God’s work of salvation.
The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17–20, ESV)