1. Sent to finish God’s work (John 4:34-38) – a mission of sowing and reaping
My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. ‘Don’t you have a saying, “It’s still four months until harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour.’
John 4 recounts Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well in her hometown of Sychar. The woman is amazed at the insight this Jewish traveller has into her life and at the words he speaks about God. She runs to tell her neighbours about this amazing man, wondering if he might even be the Messiah God had promised. The disciples, seeing the approaching Samaritan crowd and disapproving of Jesus’ conversation with a woman of ‘ill repute’, urge Jesus to look after His physical needs. Even if He must speak to these people, surely He should pause first to eat something? Jesus refers enigmatically to food He must eat which they know nothing about and the confused disciples think that someone must already have given Him something to eat. Jesus, however, replies that His food “is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish his work” and proceeds to give a lesson in mission.
The harvest is ready – not the crop harvest, which is still four months off, but a spiritual harvest of people who are ready to receive eternal life. That Jesus should say this in the context of Samaria is remarkable. The implication is clearly that these unorthodox outsiders are going to be counted among God’s people and to receive the unending full life of the eternal Kingdom of God. The term translated ‘eternal life’, which is frequent in John, is rich and contains all of these ideas. Literally meaning ‘life of the age’, it is about quality as well as duration of life, but it also implies that this life derives from the coming reign of God. There is a precursor here of what will become clear after the resurrection – the gospel is not only for the Jews, but for all nations.
The image of the harvest is used elsewhere by Jesus – in His parables (see Matthew 13, 21 and 25) it is an image of the eschatological (end-times) ingathering of God’s people, while in Matthew 13:37-38 He urges the disciples to pray that God will send workers into the harvest. Here in John 4, however, Jesus develops the image in another direction by referring to the disciples as those who will reap the harvest, while others have sown the seed. There is an important principle of gospel ministry here. Often one person will do the “hard work” of breaking up the ground – for example, understanding the context, beginning to gain favour among the people and translating Scriptures – but they do not see the fruit of their labours. Another person – sometimes soon after and sometimes much later – will be the one who sees the harvest ripening. The history of missions contains many examples of pioneers who did not see much response to their work but who lay foundations on which others could build. Yet, Jesus expects that both sower and reaper will rejoice together. In other words, they will both see the ultimate results of their efforts in God’s eternal kingdom and they will both be overcome with joy at what God has done. There is no room for pride or jealousy! Mission will require a range of people with different gifts and skills. We must learn to appreciate the contributions of others and to cooperate for the greater task of God’s work. Our own denominational and organisational loyalties and strategies must be subservient to the greater goal of God’s mission.
Another important point is that the disciples do not come into a vacuum. God has already been at work and their service in reaping the harvest is merely bringing His work to completion. Jesus speaks of His own mission as having been sent to finish God’s work. The ultimate fulfilment of this statement is in the cross when, as He died He cried, “It is finished!” (John alone records this cry in John 19:30). Yet, there is another sense in which our mission brings God’s work in a context to completion. Jesus says the disciples will reap where others have previously been at work, presumably referring both to His sowing of seeds in the conversation with the woman and to the prophets who had faithfully proclaimed God’s word throughout earlier centuries right up until John the Baptist. God is already at work in every context before we arrive. Even in places where the gospel has not yet been proclaimed, He has already been at work – through individuals’ consciences, reflecting God’s Law written on human hearts, and through echoes of God and His truth in culture. The Spirit of God precedes us in mission, preparing hearts for the coming of God’s Word. When we come in mission we are simply continuing “God’s work” – when we reap a harvest, we are simply finishing His work in that place, or rather seeing it brought to completion by the action of His Spirit through our service. To finish God’s work brought to completion in the lives of people is to see them come to faith in Christ and in His death in their place. The task of mission is imperative because some still have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus emphasised in His reference to the harvest in Matthew 13 by calling God “Lord of the harvest”, here by referring to “God’s work” He reminds us that God is sovereign in mission. Just as the Father sent Jesus to do His will, so we are sent by Jesus to do the will of God. We must be attentive to Him.
In summary, the principle for mission that emerges from this passage is:
God is sovereign in mission – we must seek and follow God’s will as His Spirit is already active in every context, working and rejoicing together as we play our different roles in order to share Christ.