The verse in question comes from Matthew 9:37, where Jesus says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”
This statement comes right after Jesus has been going through the towns and villages teaching, preaching, and healing people of diseases and afflictions.
As he sees the crowds gathering to him, Jesus feels deep compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd – lost, confused, and in need of guidance.
Jesus’ statement about the plentiful harvest and few laborers comes right after he has been traveling through Galilee preaching, teaching, and healing.
Large crowds were following him wherever he went, having seen or heard reports of his miracles and authoritative message.
He had recently healed the paralytic lowered through the roof (Matthew 9:1-8), raised a synagogue leader’s daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-26), healed blind men (Matthew 9:27-31), and cast out a demon from a mute man (Matthew 9:32-34).
After seeing the desperate multitudes flocking to him, Jesus was deeply moved with compassion, seeing their neediness like sheep without a shepherd to guide them.
It is in this context that he makes his pronouncement about the bountiful crop ready to be harvested but the lack of sufficient workers to reap it.
In this context, Jesus makes his declaration about the abundant harvest and the few laborers.
By this he means that while there are many people ready to receive his message and be part of God’s kingdom, there are far too few people actively working to reach them and minister to them.
The harvest he refers to is the multitudes of people who need to hear about salvation through Jesus Christ.
They are ready to receive the Good News, but there are few people proclaiming it to them and guiding them into the Kingdom of God.
Some key points we can take away from this passage:
There is an abundant harvest
While this statement was made in reference to the crowds following Jesus at that time, it also applies today.
There are countless people in the world who need to hear the Gospel message and be saved. God desires all people to come to repentance and faith (2 Peter 3:9), so the harvest is still plentiful even now.
Laborers are few
Compared to the expansive harvest, there are far fewer laborers engaged in gathering people into God’s kingdom.
Jesus saw this insufficiency during his earthly ministry. And two thousand years later, the need for more gospel proclaimers is just as great.
A call for more laborers
Though not explicitly stated in Matthew 9, Jesus’ statement implicitly communicates the need for more laborers to advance God’s mission.
Jesus would later command his followers to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), communicating the same truth – more laborers must be sent out for the plentiful harvest.
Laborers are necessary
In calling for more harvesters to be sent out, Jesus looked for workers full of specific qualities.
They needed compassion for the lost, just as he had (Matthew 9:36). They needed faithfulness and wisdom to carry out their duties well (Matthew 24:45-51).
Power from the Holy Spirit was essential, which Jesus instructed his disciples to wait for before embarking on their mission (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).
And they needed the willingness to sacrifice and “take up their cross” just as he did (Luke 9:23).
Souls ready for harvest require more than just willing bodies – they need the right kind of laborers to tend to them well.
The harvest is ready, but it won’t be brought in without the active work of laborers.
While God could accomplish his purposes supernaturally, in his wisdom he has chosen to use his people as his primary ambassadors and ministry agents in the world (2 Corinthians 5:20).
The harvest requires human hands.
Wisdom in sending out laborers
While more laborers are needed, Jesus did not send out his twelve disciples immediately.
He spent time intentionally training and equipping them first (Mark 3:13-15).
Likewise, missions and evangelism require not just more people, but the right people – properly prepared, gifted, called and commissioned for the task.
Prayer for more laborers
Before commissioning his twelve disciples, Jesus spent the entire night in prayer (Luke 6:12-16).
He recognized the gravity of sending out workers into the plentiful harvest fields. First he bathed the process in heartfelt prayer before selecting the twelve apostles he would invest so much in.
When we see the need for more gospel proclaimers, our first response should be coming to God in persistent prayer for him to raise up such faithful laborers.
When Jesus saw the need for more harvesters, he first instructed his disciples to pray that the Lord would send out workers (Matthew 9:38).
This remains a vital need – prayer for more laborers, as well as for the maturation and empowerment of those already serving.
The urgency of the task
Jesus described the crowds as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).
This points to the urgency of raising up more laborers. As long as masses of people remain untended, the need for more workers remains dire.
Motivation of compassion
Jesus was motivated by compassion to remark on the harvest and the lack of laborers. Compassion propels ministry and mission. As Christ’s followers see people through his eyes of mercy, their hearts too will be stirred to compassionate action.
So in summary, when Jesus spoke of the abundant harvest and few laborers, he was communicating an urgent need for more gospel proclaimers to advance God’s kingdom.
This verse is first and foremost a call to his disciples, and all who would follow him, to pray for more workers and be willing themselves to serve as laborers.
The harvest of souls seeking salvation is ripe. But human agents are required for the ingathering.
To further expand on the meaning of this verse
It is helpful to look at some related passages that provide additional context:
In Luke 10, Jesus sends out the 72 disciples, saying to them, “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” (Luke 10:2).
This mirrors the situation and instruction he gave in Matthew 9.
In John 4:35, Jesus tells his disciples, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”
Here again is the imagery of spiritual crop ready for harvest.
The blessing of an abundant harvest is depicted in Psalm 126:5-6 – “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Though labor is difficult, the fruit it yields brings joy.
Paul builds on the laborers theme when telling the Corinthians, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).
Here the need for both planters and waterers is implied i.e. laborers with different roles.
In his final greetings to Timothy, Paul says, “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me… Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:9-11).
Even one or two more laborers are a big help.
Jesus’ call for more harvest workers continues to resonate. As the Gospel message spreads to new frontiers, the need for more laborers grows rather than diminishes.
May we each respond to this call, either by going to work in the fields ourselves or by praying persistently for the Lord to raise up more such faithful workers.
Jesus promises that the labor of harvesters will not go unrewarded.
When he returns, he will repay his servants based on their faithfulness and fruitfulness (Matthew 16:27, Matthew 25:21). Going into the ripe fields may be difficult, but the joy of bringing in sheaves will far outweigh the toil.
The need for workers is great, but the eternal rewards both for them and those they reap will be so much greater. May the Lord of the harvest thrust out more laborers into his fields!