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The Other 9:38

Neil Powell and John James

The Other 9:38

Matthew 9:38 is a wonderful verse. As Jesus went through the towns and villages, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and manifesting all its blessings, he was deeply moved by the crowds. He looked out at the vast numbers of lost people, harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and he had compassion. Then he turned to his disciples, saying, “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). 

This passage speaks of the overwhelming urgency of our task while reminding us of the compassionate love of Christ. It calls for the response of harvesters while also reminding us to cry out to the Lord of the harvest. It lays out clearly for us the spiritual need in a way that should compel us to prayer, commissioning, and action. But it also speaks of the opportunity for mission. The key word is plentiful. We are prone to despondency and shortsightedness, but this verse opens our eyes to fields that are ripe for harvest (see also John 4:35). 

However, there is a second 9:38, in Mark. It’s a verse you would struggle to use as a slogan for a mission conference. John came bounding up to Jesus, reporting, “We saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus immediately rebuked him, saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” When it comes to gospel ministry, the master is far more inclusive than his disciples.

Mark placed this exchange in a section of his gospel in which we’re clearly to associate discipleship with childlike behavior. In a culture where children had the lowest status of all, Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” before taking a child in his arms and stating, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:35, 37). Jesus’ point comes into focus just a few verses later as he rebuked his disciples with the words “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (10:15). 

The point is this: disciples of Jesus are to be like little children, gladly and humbly occupying a low standing, refusing to elevate themselves one above the other and living in complete dependence on him. Our human instinct is to seek ways to make ourselves better than others, belonging to the “in” crowd, labeling others as outside of the camp and “not one of us.” We are to resist this with every sanctified impulse in our bodies. 

In reflecting on these two 9:38s, David Shaw, a tutor in New Testament and Greek at Oak Hill College, imagined C. S. Lewis’s creation, Screwtape, preaching on a demonic Mission Sunday with the aim of promoting a toxic tribalism: 

“As His subjects gather themselves to work in some area of the harvest field, let them think that only their methods are proper, or that their small corner of some field is really the whole. Let them acknowledge only their efforts as “strategic” . . . and let them pray, but only for their labors. That way, with only a little effort, they can pray for His glory, but all the while seek their own.”

That’s a terrifying sentiment to read in print. But are we terrified by such a sentiment in our hearts? In contrast, the deeper our grasp of the gospel, the greater our generosity toward others will be. J. C. Ryle, speaking on these verses, remarked, “Is our neighbor warring against Satan? Is he really trying to labor for Christ? This is the grand question. Better a thousand times that the work should be done by other hands than not done at all.”

Ministry truly done in the name of Jesus is ministry that belongs to Jesus. Will we really refuse to consider partnership on earth with people we expect to spend eternity with in heaven?

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This is an excerpt from Together for the City by Neil Powell and John James. Used with permission. Neil and John tell the story of 2020birmingham and make the case for gospel-driven church planting collaboration. Find out more at Together for the City.