November 12, 2023

Matthew 9:35-38: The Harvest Is Plentiful

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: Various Sermons Topic: Default Scripture: Matthew 9:35–38

Matthew 9:35-38: The Harvest Is Plentiful

In light of the fact that this is our Recovenanting Sunday, we’ll be temporarily pausing our journey through 1 Peter and looking instead at Matthew 9:35-38. It says, 

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

May God bless the reading of his Word.

Let’s pray: Father, what a blessing it is to be gathered together around your Word with the opportunity to immerse ourselves in it this morning. We pray that your Spirit would be present and at work in our midst, causing the truths and teachings we encounter to find a place in our hearts. It’s in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

One of the distinctive features of our church is that we typically like to go passage by passage through books of the Bible. So, right now, we’re going through 1 Peter. But since this is our Recovenanting Sunday, I thought it’d be good for us to push “pause” on that journey and instead turn our attention to Matthew 9. This morning is a great opportunity for us not only to celebrate what God’s done in the past in bringing our church together and blessing us the way he has, it’s also an opportunity for us to take stock of where we are in the present…and even to spend some time considering where God would have us go in the future and what he’d have us focus on. 

Because it’s so easy for us to start drifting and diverging from the mission God’s given us. And at first, we might only diverge from that mission by a single degree. But the longer we continue that divergent course, the further away we end up being from where God wants us to be. 

Think about it like this. If an airplane is flying somewhere and is off course by just one degree, that might not seem like a big deal. I mean, if the airplane’s supposed to be going this way and instead goes that way, it certainly doesn’t seem like a big deviation at all. But as the distance the airplane travels increases, that one degree divergence actually makes a pretty significant impact on where the plane ends up. After 100 yards, the plane would be off its target by about 5.2 feet. After a mile, it would be off by 92.2 feet. Then after travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, it would be off by 6 miles. Then travelling from San Francisco to Washington D.C., it would end up 42.6 miles off course, which is basically not even in Washington DC but instead on the other side of Baltimore. Then, if you wanted to make this even more fun, you could turn that plane into a rocket ship and start thinking about it going to the moon. If that rocket ship was just one degree off, it would miss the moon by 4,169 miles. Going to the sun, it would be off by 1.6 million miles. And then traveling to the nearest star other than the sun, it would be off by 441 billion miles. 

So, I’m sure you get the idea. The longer that plane or rocket ship continues its divergent course, even if the divergence is just one degree, the farther away it’s going to end up from its intended destination. That’s why we have to make sure our church stays on course and keeps pursuing the mission God’s given us. Even a one-degree divergence from that mission will eventually have devastating consequences and bring us to a place where we’re no longer being faithful to that mission at all. So, that’s what I’d like to think about this morning. How faithfully are we engaging in the mission God’s given us? Are there any course corrections we need to make? What specifically do we need to focus on this upcoming year?

Now, one thing we can be grateful for is everything God’s done in and through our church this past year. I mean, there are so many encouraging signs that God’s been at work. Of course, most of the things God does are usually difficult to quantify. But there are several things we can keep track of relatively easily—and what we’ve seen this past year is very encouraging. For example, our average Sunday morning attendance has grown from 111 people to 141 people, which is an increase of about 27% over the past year. Our average giving has grown from about $22,400 per month to now around $31,600 per month, which is an increase of around 41%. And the number of people serving as volunteers in some official and regular capacity has grown from 75 last year to now 104, an increase of around 39%. And again, all of that is just within this past year. We also baptized 12 people and added 33 people as new members. Not only that, the building renovations we’ve been pursuing for a couple of years are pretty much complete at this point, with the exception of a few doors that still haven’t come in, and we anticipate also having brand new carpeting and new seating in this room in place within a month or two. 

So, there are many things that we can praise God for that have happened this past year—many ways in which he’s been incredibly gracious to us. As a result, our church is now in a more comfortable position than we’ve ever been in before. I mean, some of you probably remember what things were like before we acquired this building a couple of years ago. We met in a public school and then in a hotel and were basically living out of four plastic bins. All of our stuff for Sunday morning fit into four large plastic bins—because it had to. We didn’t have a building of our own. But now, things are obviously a lot more comfortable. 

Yet, at the same time, this comfortable situation can also have unintended consequences. There are certainly many advantages to the blessings we’ve enjoyed, but there are also some very real dangers. And one of those dangers that I believe we need to be especially mindful of is us allowing ourselves to be lulled into a state of spiritual and evangelistic complacency in the midst of our church’s comfortable situation. It’s very possible for us to become so comfortable in the midst of all these blessings—especially the blessing of our renovated building—that we end up losing sight of the urgency of the mission Jesus has called us to. 

And that’s why I believe the Lord has laid on my heart Matthew 9:35-38 as the passage for us to look at this morning. This passage has actually been on my heart for a number of months now precisely because of the danger I just described of us becoming evangelistically complacent in the midst of our comfortable situation. And by “evangelistically complacent,” I simply mean losing our zeal for the task of evangelism—or sharing the gospel. 

So, look with me again at what the passage says. Matthew 9:35-3835 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

Think about the metaphor Jesus uses in those last two verses—the metaphor of a harvest. As I consider that metaphor, I can’t help but be struck by the incredible confidence it conveys. It communicates such a positive outlook. According to Jesus, there are multitudes of people all around us who are spiritually ripe for the harvest. They’re ready to put their faith in Jesus and be rescued from their sins. Jesus also says something very similar in John 4:35. He tells his disciples, “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.” In other words, they’re ready to be harvested. 

So often, we allow ourselves to believe the lie that the only kinds of people around us are people who have no interest in Jesus and who are relatively hardened toward the gospel. As a result, we imagine, even if we told them about Jesus, they wouldn’t listen. Yet Jesus says that’s simply not true. Even though there are many people who are indeed uninterested in the gospel, there many others who are actually ready to embrace the gospel. In fact, there are countless multitudes all around us who are ready to embrace the gospel. 

The main obstacle, as we see back in our main passage is that there’s a labor shortage. There simply aren’t enough laborers to bring in this massive harvest that’s out there. “The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says, “but the laborers are fewtherefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” You know, my expectation would have been for Jesus to tell his disciples to pray for more people to be ripe for the harvest—to pray for people to be more receptive to the gospel. And that’s certainly a need, but, according to Jesus, it’s apparently not the most pressing need. Instead, the most pressing need is the need for more laborers. And that, I believe, is the main idea of this passage. The greatest and most urgent need this world has is the need for more gospel laborers. Again, the greatest and most urgent need this world has is the need for more gospel laborers. 

And friends, I believe that’s what our church needs as well. As I mentioned earlier, it’s certainly encouraging to see how the Lord has grown our church this past year. Praise God for that. But I can’t help but wonder, what portion of the people who attend here on Sundays and who are even members of the church are actually true gospel laborers? You know, what percentage of our people have shared the gospel with someone in the past month—or even in the past year? I’d be much more interested in the answer to that question than in many of the other metrics we track. Because let me be clear: we’re not just looking for numbers here. We’re looking for faithful gospel laborers. We’re looking for people who are interested not just in sitting on a pew on Sundays but in actually embracing the calling Jesus gives us of being missionaries in our day-to-day lives. Are those the kind of people our church is attracting—or, even better, the kind of people our church is producing? 

It’s very interesting to observe the context of this prayer request Jesus give here in these verses of praying for more laborers. As some of you may know, the chapter divisions in the Bible aren’t actually from God but are rather an element that people inserted for the sake of convenience. That means some of the chapter divisions may not be the best places to divide the biblical text. And I believe that’s certainly the case for the chapter division that occurs right after these verses. So let me read to you these verses we’ve been looking at followed by the next two verses without showing the chapter division. It says, Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, “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.” And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these—and then it lists the twelve apostles. 

So, Jesus tells his disciples to pray for more gospel laborers and is then like, “Hey guys, guess what? You’re the laborers! You know those people I asked you to pray for that God would raise up? It’s actually you. I’m sending you out to do ministry.” And I believe that’s the message Jesus has for us today as well. If you’re a Christian, Jesus is calling you to be a laborer who helps bring in the harvest. 

You know, I’ve heard it said that Jesus doesn’t want the church to be a cruise ship. He wants it to be a battleship. And I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. We’re not here to sit back and relax but rather to engage in the mission Jesus has called us to and to wage war against the forces of darkness. So, yeah—not a cruise ship but a battleship. But I recently hear a pastor suggest something even better than that. He said, what if we took the analogy one step further? What if we said that we want our church to be an aircraft carrier? Because battleships fight their battles on or near their ship, but that’s the last place an aircraft carrier wants to fight its battles. An aircraft carrier is designed to equip planes and then launch those planes out in order to carry the battle to the enemy. I actually read one article that said an aircraft carrier can launch a plane once every 25 seconds. 

That’s the kind of church we should aspire to be. Certainly not a cruise ship, and not even a battleship, but rather an aircraft carrier that’s continually equipping people and sending them out Sunday after Sunday to be missionaries in their day-to-day lives throughout the week. And even beyond that, my hope is that we can actually send people out to plant additional churches and even to be cross-cultural missionaries all over the globe. 

So, understand that that’s our mission here. We didn’t do all those nice renovations to this building in order to make it a cruise ship. We did them so that this building can be a more effective tool for gospel impact. That’s what we’re pursuing here—not personal comfort but gospel impact. We want to be that aircraft carrier. We want our Sunday morning services to be, in essence, missionary training meetings, equipping you to take the gospel to your families, to your neighborhoods, to your workplaces, to your schools, and even to the ends of the earth. That’s why we recite the Great Commission at the end of every worship service. That’s why we have that clearly included in our mission statement that we put on the front page of our bulletins Sunday after Sunday. We’re here to train missionaries. 

And the driving force behind all of this is ultimately our passion for the glory of God. Notice how our mission statement begins. It says that “We want to glorify God” by doing the things we do. We recognize, first of all, that God is worthy of all glory simply by virtue of who he is. And we also remember the love God’s shown us in the gospel. God loved us so much that he sent his own Son to save us from the judgment our sins deserved by dying on the cross in our place. God’s wrath should have come down on us, but it came down on Jesus instead. And the result of Jesus’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection from the dead is that everyone who puts their trust in him is forgiven of their sins and receives the free gift of eternal life in heaven. It’s a message we call the gospel. And as Christians, we’re so grateful for what God’s done for us in the gospel and for the grace he’s shown us in saving us from our sins that we want to devote our lives to seeking his glory. We want to do all we can to bring glory to the one who saved us. 

So, that’s the ultimate reason for engaging in the mission God’s given us of being gospel laborers. However, there is another reason as well. Look in our main passage at verse 36. It says that, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” That’s what led Jesus to tell his disciples to pray for more laborers. He saw the crowds of people who were without the truth of the gospel and who were helpless to save themselves, and—as the verse says—“he had compassion for them.”

The word translated as “compassion” refers to something that’s felt in the innermost part of a person’s being. In its most literal sense, the word actually refers to a person’s intestines or bowels, because that was the part of the body that people back in ancient times associated with strong emotions. So, whereas we might say, “I felt something deep in my heart,” they’d say, “I felt something deep in my bowels.” And I guess there’s some truth to that. I’m sure there have been times in your life when you’ve felt an emotion so strongly that it affected your stomach in some way. Maybe your stomach tightened up a bit, as if you’d just been punched in the stomach or something like that. I remember seeing a very disturbing picture in the news a year or two ago of a dead child who was a refugee and whose body washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean. That picture was so disturbing to me that I could feel it in my stomach. It was literally gut-wrenching.

And we see here in verse 36 that that’s the extent to which Jesus was affected by the sight of the multitudes of people. He had “compassion” on them. He was so moved by their plight that he felt it in the very core of his being. So, what about you? Is that the way you feel toward those who are far from God? Do you have that burden for them—a “compassion” that you feel in the innermost part of your being? Does the idea of them being headed toward a Christless eternity bother you and grieve you even to the point of weeping at times?

Let me tell you something: the closer you grow to God, the more you care about those who are far from him. A lot of times, people think they’re growing closer to God simply because their level of Bible knowledge is increasing. But that’s not necessarily the case. If you’re really growing closer to God, you start to become a different person. Your heart starts to become more and more aligned with God’s heart. And that includes having a deep care and compassion for those who aren’t yet Christians. So, again, the closer you grow to God, the more you care about those who are far from him.

And then, of course, that care is going to manifest itself in very practical ways. It’s going to lead you to start doing some very practical things in an effort to spread the gospel. So, one of the habits that I try to practice each month—believe it or not, I actually have a calendar reminder that reminds me to do this—is to set aside some time to prayerfully ask myself certain questions that help me evaluate my heart and examine my life and consider whether I’m really firing on all cylinders when it comes to evangelism. I usually ask myself these questions in place of my morning devotions that day because I’ve found it to be so beneficial. And I’d actually like to share some of these questions with you with the hope that they’ll be as helpful for you as they are for me. So, here they are—what we might call questions for personal reflection. I’d like to share five of them with you.

First, “How consistently have I been praying for those who aren’t yet Christians?” This is really where it all begins. Having a heart for those who are far from God begins with praying for them by name on a very regular basis—such as every day. If you’re not doing that, I’d have to wonder how deep your care and concern for them really goes. Second, How consistently have I been praying for evangelistic opportunities?” You know, it’s amazing how many times we talk about not having enough opportunities to share the gospel and yet…aren’t praying for opportunities to share the gospel. It’s one of those things that seems so obvious once you think of it, but many times the thought just never occurs to us—like, “Hey, maybe I should pray for more gospel opportunities.” And many times, what God does is that he opens our eyes to the opportunities that were actually there all along, right under our noses, but that we never noticed.

Then, third, “Is there someone who isn’t yet a Christian whom I could invite over for dinner or another activity?” In most cases, sharing the gospel with someone involves building a relationship with them. And inviting them over for dinner is a wonderful way of doing that. In addition, there are other activities we’ve found helpful as well. 

For example, some of you know that one tradition our family has is to invite our neighbors over to our house for a Christmas party every year. This is something we’ve been doing for a number of years now, and we’ll be doing it again very soon. In just a few weeks, I’ll be going around to numerous families that we know on our street as well as at least one family that’s new to our street and handing out containers of Christmas cookies along with an invitation to our Christmas party. I’ll also invite several other non-Christians we’ve built relationships with as well as a few Christians from our church to help us in reaching out. And our hope is that this Christmas party will help us connect with those who aren’t yet Christians and build relationships with them that will hopefully lead to us sharing the gospel with them at some point in the future. We plan on inviting them to our Christmas Eve service and maybe even to an Evangelistic Bible Study or something like that later this winter. 

And here’s the thing: anyone can do that. Any Christian in this room can make deliberate efforts, such as a Christmas party or even just a simple dinner one evening, to build relationships with those who aren’t Christians yet with the hope that God will open doors for the gospel. Other ideas include an Easter egg hunt around Easter time, being thoughtful about who you invite your children’s birthday parties if you have young children, or just having a simple cookout in the summer—perhaps on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July or something like that. 

Then, moving on to the fourth question, “Is there anyone I could invite to participate in an Evangelistic Bible Study?” You probably heard me mention Evangelistic Bible Studies a few moments ago. And in case you’re wondering what those are, they’re simply informal gatherings in which Christians and non-Christians study the Bible together with the goal of learning more about Jesus. They may involve several Christians and several non-Christians meeting together, or simply one Christian and one non-Christian. It usually works best to meet once a week for about an hour each time and have these meetings for a defined number of weeks—usually around 4-8 weeks—with a clear end date. By the way, if anyone wants more information about that, please don’t hesitate to ask me. I’d love to be helpful for you in setting one of those up. 

Then, the final question I ask myself is, “Do I need to reduce the other things I’m doing in order to give myself more time and availability for these evangelistic efforts?” It’s amazing how quickly our schedules can become so filled up with various good things that we don’t have time for the best and most important things. This means that maybe there are things you need to stop doing in order to be more faithful in evangelistic outreach. I’ve heard it said that the devil doesn’t have to destroy you; he just has to distract you. And that’s very true when it comes to evangelistic outreach. In order to keep you from being effective, the devil doesn’t have to destroy you spiritually. He just has to distract you with 101 other things that keep you from being focused on our evangelistic mission. 

So, if you’re a Christian, I hope these questions are helpful as you seek to become a missionary in your day-to-day life—or, in the words of Jesus in our main passage, a laborer in the harvest field. And just know that our desire as a church is to come alongside you and to equip you and encourage you so that you so that you can be the most fruitful gospel laborer you can possibly be—through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Because, brothers and sisters, understand that there’s a massive crop all around us that, even now, is ripe and ready for the harvest. There are countless people in Bethel Park and other surrounding communities who are ready to embrace the gospel. The only thing they need is for someone to share it with them. Will you be one of those gospel laborers? 

As we think about this upcoming year as a church, I think our vision needs to be for gospel laborers and gospel impact—with the understanding that the former leads to the latter. If we want to see gospel impact, then we need to have people step up as gospel laborers. 

And as we look at these verses, Jesus is very clear about how we can see that happen. We don’t have to guess about what our next step should be or have some sort of a brainstorming session or strategy meeting about it. Jesus tells us! He says to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” 

You see, God’s will is to do incredible things for the advance of the gospel—but not to do those things in a vacuum. His will is to do those things in response to our prayers. In a certain manner of speaking, we could even say that God’s waiting for us to pray before he opens the floodgates of heaven and rains down untold showers of blessing all over us. He’s ready to bless our church this upcoming year with gospel laborers and gospel impact, but he’s waiting for us to pray—and to persevere in prayer until he releases those blessings.

So, before we go any further this morning, I’d like to invite Steve Leonard, Daniel Kim, and Adina Caskey to come up here and lead us in prayer. Jesus only gives one specific command in this passage, and that command is to pray. So, that’s what we want to do. I’ve asked Steve to pray that God would give us his heart for those who are far from him. Then I’ve asked Daniel to pray that God would raise up laborers from this church for the harvest fields all around us. Then, finally, I’ve asked Adina to pray that God would raise up cross-cultural missionaries from this church for the innumerable harvest fields all around the world. And we’ll go in that order. So, Steve, please lead us in prayer.  

other sermons in this series

Mar 31


Romans 5:9-10: Saved by His Life

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Romans 5:9–10 Series: Various Sermons

Apr 30


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Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Acts 6:1–6, 1 Timothy 3:8–13 Series: Various Sermons

Jan 15


Matthew 6:5-15: The Practice of Prayer

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Matthew 6:5–15 Series: Various Sermons