Are the Fields Still White For Harvesting?

What Did Jesus Mean by His Comments in John 4:35? Are the Fields Still Ripe for Harvesting?

It is Time for a Biblical Answer to this Question!



A cereal field ready for harvesting

The distinctive 'whitishness' of a crop ripe for harvesting.

I have a Christian Newsletter called 'Action' regularly sent to me. This is a published by a well-meaning group who are commited to taking the gospel back out into the small villages of the UK. I greatly admire the sincerity of this group but I truly wonder whether they are, to quote an old saying, 'Locking the stable door after the horse has bolted' !

What do I mean? Well, read on.

A brief article in their January Newsletter (which I received in February – hmmm, that's not good!) was titled, 'The Fields Are White.' Let me quote the opening to this brief article,

'I am sure that we are all familiar with this passage of the Word. It is so relevant today as we look out and receive our renewed burden for the lost each day. However, what are we to do about it?'

The clear implication is that the words of Jesus in John 4:35 are just as applicable and relevant in our day as in the days of Jesus and, indeed, much modern evangelistic practise assumes this to be the case, but is this really so?

Okay, let us consider this Scripture. First we need to check out the context: Please find John 4 in your Bibles. Jesus had just been talking to the Samaritan woman at the well; the disciples join Jesus and are surprised that He had been speaking to a Samaritan woman since Jews normally did not have any social contact with Samaritans (John 4:27). Shortly, the disciples urged Jesus to eat (verse 31), Jesus responds with the enigmatic comment, '”..I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”' (verse 32). The disciples (as so often) took Jesus' comment literally supposing somebody had already brought Him food (verse 33). But then Jesus made it plain that His food was to do the will of the Father and to complete the work (verse 34). This neatly brings us to the text which I want us to look at:

Are the Fields Truly Still 'White for Harvest' Today as in Jesus' Day?

'Do you not say, 'Four months more and then the harvest'? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest' (John 4:35, NIV).

I must say that I am a little disappointed that the NIV has dropped the word 'white' here. The NKJV has it,

'...Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!' (John 4:35b).

The 'white' would show, of course, that the crop was already ripe for harvesting.

If the reader should check out the next few verses (36-38) there can be no doubt that Jesus was saying that a crop was ready to be gathered for the kingdom of God! But there was a problem! Matthew tells us more:

'Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”' (Matthew 9:37-38, NKJV)
And Luke 10:2 says pretty much the same thing.

It seems to me that Jesus is making two points in John 4:35:

1. The ripeness, or readiness of that (spiritual) crop for harvesting.

2. The abundance of that spiritual crop.

I find that in John 4:35 Jesus meant something just a little different to what modern evangelists mean when they quote this verse! When a typical modern evangelist says that the fields are 'white for harvest' in our day he means that there is much suffering in this world due to sin, so let us get the Gospel message to those people because they need it. Now I hope I won't be accused of splitting hairs here but I think that Jesus meant something slightly (but quite significantly!) different. Jesus surely meant that a people had been prepared who would readily respond to the Gospel message - in faith - in fact, John 4:37-38 plainly says this, '”...Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”' (John 4:38b, NIV). A people had been prepared who were rich in faith; the disciples would not need to twist arms or to use emotional psychology!

Who were these people who were 'prepared' ? Well, (literally) God alone knows but there is strong evidence that many of the “God-Fearers” who attached themselves to the synagogues because they believed that the God of Israel was the True God but did not become members of the synagogue system (partly because some of them were Gentiles) quickly responded to Christ. Notice Acts 10:2,35 and Acts 13:16 for instance.

But the immediate problem which Jesus refers to in Matthew 9: 37-38 and in Luke 10:2 is that there were initially few labourers for the 'harvest' because Spirit-filled true believers would not become available in numbers until that first post-resurrection Pentecost! - But today things are very different!

When I graduated with a theology degree in 1998 I was quickly warned that, here in the UK, there are actually too many Christian ministers!! My understanding is that from 1998-2001 several hundred Christian ministers became available here in the UK, the majority of them (though certainly not all) Bible-believing evangelicals. I am among that number! It is quite obvious that such a number graduating from various colleges and seminaries would never all be able to go into pastorates here in the UK! Yet in such a day where there are a huge surplus of Christian ministers, modern society is showing a remarkable and widespread disinterest in the message of the Gospel of Jesus.

A cereal field ready for harvesting

So the picture which we see today is a complete reversal of the beginning of the New Testament Church of God; in that day a huge amount of people had been prepared and seemed to be just 'bursting' to commit themselves to Christ - about 3,000 being added to Christ's Body on that Pentecost (Acts 2:41)! This is undoubtedly what Jesus had meant about the kingdom of God forcefully advancing in the days of the Apostles: See Matthew 11:12.

But today when thousands of Christian ministers are available in the (former) 'Christian West' there is record disinterest and even the most enthusiastic evangelist would have to admit that only a few, here and there, are being added to the Church.

So I maintain that when Jesus spoke about the fields already 'white for harvest' in John 4:35, He was referring to two things:

a. A people prepared and ready.
b. The great numbers who would quickly commit themselves to Christ in those earlier years of the age of the Church when the kingdom was 'forcefully advancing.' (Matthew 11:12).

I don't think that we can truthfully say that the fields are 'white for harvest' in either of those ways today, though I have no doubt that people will continue to mis-use this Scripture.
When we see sinners suffering because of their sins (and because of the sins of those around them) we take pity and would love to see them accept Christ - but we should not confuse our compassion towards these people with an abundant field which the Master Husbandman has carefully prepared through the work of the Holy Spirit and by grace and which only now needs harvesting for the kingdom of God.

However, I would just make one proviso to my comments. Those comments are especially relevant to the situation in the West, (North America, the UK, Europe etc.), our peoples have heard, or been made aware of, the ramifications of the Gospel so it might be said that westerners are without excuse in either knowingly rejecting that message, or neglecting to respond to it's challenge, however, it is certainly true that many people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere remain very 'open' to the message of the Gospel and are still often readily responding to the challenge of Jesus of Nazareth. So it would appear that there remains a field ripe for harvest in certain parts of the world, yet no longer in the "christianized" West.

Robin A. Brace, 2006.

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