This talk was originally given in the first main session of our 2020 Maximise Conference – the first in the series called ‘Motives for Ministry from Matthew’. You can listen to the other four talks here.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and illness. 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.’
For twenty years our 9:38 Ministry Trainees Conference in January has been encouraging young people to maximise their gospel ministry for Christ – and the aim is the same for this conference. The focus of Maximise upon helping one another, as the people we are, in the circumstances in which God has placed us, with the gifts and opportunities he has entrusted to us, to prayerfully think through how to maximise their gospel ministry as they look to the future. We see ourselves as somewhat ‘up stream’ – working with people at a relatively early stage of thinking through the possibility of set-aside gospel work. For some of these the next step will be a ministry apprenticeship. Those already serving as ministry trainees are often ‘at the crossroads’ and undecided on their next step. We don’t want to be overly directive but those with Anglican convictions and an interest and fit for ministry in the Church of England we would certainly want to point towards Renew ‘Future Leaders’ conference and those with FIEC convictions or with an interest in cross-cultural mission we would be happy to point towards the Hub Conference or appropriate mission societies. This conference has a broader remit than previously – with streams for those who are students or workers still considering their future, and a stream for Trainers as well as Ministry trainees with an expanded programme and diverse team of highly experienced Ministry Leaders to help us with an exciting range of elective seminars and exposition groups. But our plenary sessions are all concerned with motivations; why should we maximise our gospel ministry when we can please and worship God in all walks of life.
There are various places we can go in the New Testament for motivations to maximise our gospel ministry e.g. in 2 Cor. 5 where Paul is defending his unimpressive “word in weakness” ministry from the scorn of false teachers – having explained that his cross-shaped message and ministry is the life-giving new covenant ministry of the Spirit, he reveals five of his motives for ministry – all related to Christ:
- first, his obedience to Christ “we make it our aim to please him” (5:9) – for when Jesus called his disciples he said “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (so all believers are to learn to be evangelists even if some are more gifted than others) and when he rose from the dead he commanded us, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Mat. 28:17-20);
- second, his fear of Christ: “for we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ…therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord we persuade others” (5:10-11) – Christ wants to reward our evangelism because among the many ways to love our communities and relieve suffering, evangelism is our highest priority for it rescues people from the horrors of hell for the happiness of heaven forever; Santhosh and Andrew will expand on these;
- third, gratitude to Christ, “the love of Christ controls us because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died…that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised” (5:14) – the love of Christ expressed in suffering the shame, pain and hell we deserve for our sins on the cross drives us to tell others about him;
- fourth, the message of Christ, “All this is from God who, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us…” (5:18-20) – through the Apostles then and through all who faithfully proclaim, teach or gossip God’s word now, God calls people to be reconciled to him; and
- fifth, the day of Christ, “Behold, now is the favourable time; now is the day of salvation” (6:1-2) – this age in which we live, the ‘last days’ before Christ returns, is the wonderful age of evangelism – when God is constantly calling people from all nations to salvation through his gospel;
So like our Apostle Paul, we should maximise our gospel ministry out of obedience to Christ’s command, fear of Christ’s judgement, gratitude for Christ’s love, responsibility for Christ’s message and excitement at the opportunities granted by Christ in these days in which we live. I will return to the responsibility we each carry in our final session. But I want to begin by spending a little more time in the passage that caused us to set up 9:38 in the first place: Mat.9:35-38 – where we hear of Jesus great motivation to glorify God in gospel ministry…because people need Jesus!
“35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the Kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 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)
- Jesus was an evangelist!
V.35 is almost word for word the same as 4:23 for as 4:23-25 prepares readers for Jesus “Sermon on the Mount” (the first of his five great discourses recorded in Matthew), so 9:35-38 prepares us for the second great discourse launching the mission of the twelve in Ch.10. They both summarise two evangelistic campaigns led by Jesus – indeed they clearly describe what Jesus was constantly doing to evangelise and train others in evangelism. Indeed, while he healed those who came to him with sicknesses, he walked away from his healing to pursue his evangelistic preaching saying, “for that is why I have come”! Notice the scale of it: Jesus went through “all” the towns and villages: there were over 200 of them (Josephus reckons this was over 3 million people). This wasn’t a casual stroll speaking to few random passers-by but a determined and demanding effort to reach as many as possible (as the messiah focussed initially upon the Jews because of their priority in the chronology of salvation). Jesus three characteristic activities (continued in 11:1) were teaching in the synagogues (guest rabbis were invited to teach the scriptures), preaching the gospel of the kingdom (4:17 explains this is proclaiming that God’s kingdom had “come near” in him because he’s the promised King offering access to the Kingdom of God by his death for our sins) and healing the sick (not only authenticating Jesus as the divine king but demonstrating the restorative nature of his kingdom). When he later extends his mission from Israel to all nations and his authorisation from the twelve apostles to generations of disciples “to the end of the age” in his Great Commission, his mission is simplified, “Go: make disciples of all nations…baptising them …and teaching them” (Mat.28:18).
We learn from this passage that evangelism was Jesus’ priority and characteristic activity: he came not only to be the gospel, but to proclaim the gospel and to train others to do the same. For as God in his Trinitarian holiness is self-giving love, so in his relations with sinners he is not only righteously wrathful towards sin, but righteously gracious and evangelistic towards sinners – so when God took flesh, he came as an evangelist! So if we want to be godly, we must commit ourselves to holy evangelism. You see, God eternally planned to glorify his Son by saving for his son an adoring bride of a church of people from all nations saved by grace. So he created human beings to fill the earth not just with descendants but with worshippers – through gospel ministry. He promised Abraham a kingdom through which he could bless all nations… through gospel ministry. In the earthly model of this kingdom, he redeemed Israel to be his holy priesthood… through gospel ministry, welcoming outsiders like Rahab and Ruth; he promised David a son to rule the nations… through gospel ministry; he sent prophets to warn the nations of his coming wrath and trained Jonah in gospel ministry through a humbling mission to Nineveh, and promised his people in exile a Messiah to be the light for all nations… through gospel ministry. When he came in Jesus, magi from the nations came to worship him, and when he called them he said, “I will send you out to fish for people”, through gospel ministry; he saved gentiles who came to him for mercy and after dying for the sin of the world, commanded his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, empowering them for gospel ministry with his Spirit to take the gospel to the ends of the earth; and to encourage us to continue offering ourselves to gospel ministry despite persecution he provided John with a thrilling final vision of the glorious and eternal multi-cultural feast of the lamb in heaven, where we shall celebrate our Saviour with a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language. So it should be no surprise to meet with the Jesus of Mat.9:35-38.
To be holy like God requires us to be both separated from sin and committed to gospel ministry (just as a beautiful garden is not just the absence of weeds but the presence of good and beautiful growth). Indeed, gospel ministry was Jesus’ characteristic priority, in his preaching, his small group bible discussion, and his conversational counselling (not primarily about parenting or marriage but salvation). We have no idea what his balance was between organised events and opportunistic speaking – one imagines Peter dreaming up crazy ideas, James and John planning and briefing the teams and Judas grumbling about the financial challenges! But the text isn’t concerned with logistical details but with Jesus living as a missionary – to show that holiness is evangelistic. To follow Jesus, we must live lives of evangelistic holiness! So while the defining activity of a church is Bible-teaching the purpose of all Bible-teaching is to equip believers to follow Jesus in lives of holy gospel ministry – or to commend the image we’re using at Dundonald – our congregations are not passengers on a cruise ship dedicated to our own comfort but crew on a lifeboat dedicated to saving people drowning in sin because Jesus was primarily an evangelist! Of course the people we rescue will often need first-aid care, and the crew will need health care as well, but the purpose of the boat is not to be a hospital but a lifeboat because Jesus was an evangelist and we want to be like him individually and collectively. The second reason we should maximise our gospel ministry is…
- People need Jesus!
How we treat people depends on how we see them and what our ministries and churches and networks offer people depends upon how we diagnose their greatest need. Jesus saw beneath appearances to people’s deep and eternal spiritual needs: he saw the crowds like flocks of sheep, prone to wander, vulnerable to predators, poor at foraging for food but precious to the farmer i.e. desperately in need of the leadership, protection and provision of a good shepherd! The LORD was the pastor or shepherd of Israel redeeming her through the desert into his kingdom (Ps.78) and David wrote “The LORD is my shepherd” leading him through the valley of the shadow of death to feast in his presence: God’s pastoral ministry entrusted to the leaders of Israel was always redemptive i.e. evangelistic! When Moses asked the Lord to appoint a man over Israel, “so that the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd”, the LORD raised up Joshua (“Jesus”). Jesus saw the crowds as God repeatedly saw Israel: in 1 Kings 22, Micaiah condemned Ahab saying, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, “These people have no master” i.e. you are a useless pastor! In Ezekiel 34, God sees Israel as desperately in need of good pastoral ministry starting with evangelism: “I myself will search for my sheep……I will rescue them…I will bring them out from the nations and gather them [search – rescue – gather = the ministry of evangelism]. Do you hear how Jesus sees people: not primarily as wicked sinners deserving swift retribution, nor gifted workers with resources of talents and money to be exploited, nor wearying burdens with problems to clog up our diary, but vulnerable sheep, “harassed (lit. flayed i.e. tortured) and helpless” (lit. flattened i.e. desperate). People in our church are tortured by the misery of sin (alcoholism, careerism, sexual immorality), the corruption of our bodies (cancer, depression, bereavement), the dysfunctions of society (abuse, poverty, loneliness) because without Christ they’re spiritually leaderless. They don’t need us – they need him! The particular word “compassion” used here is only ever used of Jesus, and only in the gospels, indeed four times in Matthew and always of how Jesus characteristically sees people: it means “entrails” and describes gut-wrenching tenderness (cf. 14:14, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them…”; 15:31, “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people”; and 20:34, “Jesus had compassion on them”). When Jesus sees the people in your local high street or football stadium or trains or classrooms, he doesn’t primarily condemn them as sinners but feels a gut-wrenching compassion for people who desperately need him; I now realise that the primary reason we struggle to evangelise our communities is not that they are more hostile than another culture, but that we probably don’t yet love them enough (e.g. the Titanic – waiting in lifeboats until the screaming stops)?
We are to evangelise individually and collectively because people desperately need Jesus who feels a gut-wrenching compassion for them and laid down his life on a cross for many of them.
- The harvest needs workers!
Jesus had focused upon the sizeable task of evangelising Galilee, presumably trusting in the sovereignty of his Father and the spirit-empowered obedience of his disciples to reach the rest of the world. Nevertheless, he identifies two features of the age in which we live: the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few! The twelve are nowhere near enough: the crop is ripe for sinners are ready to be saved. When we read, “he said to his disciples” he was speaking not only to his apostles, for in 10:1 he calls the twelve to him. These observations are enduring for all generations. Like his “fishing” metaphor, although he’ll later use this harvest metaphor as an image of judgement (as the prophets did), here he uses it of evangelism. Notice:
- the challenge is not the hardness of society but the shortage of workers! The harvest is plentiful and there’s no shortage of evangelistic opportunity – for we are surrounded by unbelievers! However much we bleat that our culture is becoming more hostile, every generation unbelievers are spiritually dead but that is no obstacle to the life-giving power of God in the gospel (e.g. the famous story of the two shoe salesmen). Jesus sees our challenge in evangelising London as a shortage of gospel workers.
- the need is for workers and not just staff – he doesn’t say “the clergy are few” – for the harvest needs labourers of every kind and not just leaders – the need is not for expensive staff, but loads of evangelistic workers – with a culture where everyone is looking for conversations at the barbers or the school gate, where all of us are bringing neighbours and friends and all of us are looking out for newcomers and able to explain the gospel There is a Lord of the harvest who sends out workers – into his mission field and he cares more about it than we ever will, and he is looking for willing volunteers: through us he will recruit, train, deploy, resource and sustain them. Let me ask you – are you willing to work for him? Who are we trying to reach. We don’t want to be spectators – get on the pitch. And you don’t want to arrive in heaven as a ‘clean-shirted rugby winger’…so in our New Year resolutions let us all seek to maximise our gospel ministry (and if necessary delegate cf. Acts 6)! What can I do as the person I am to help reach the lost – for as Jesus later says, “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” and because people desperately need Jesus!
- The solution begins with prayer – the Lord of the harvest will not surrender his field to the workers, but he loves to answer his prayer – as he now demonstrates in sending out the twelve in ch.10. Let us pray for workers and be willing to be workers who maximise our gospel ministry out of Christ-like compassion – because people desperately need Jesus – let’s pray!