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God's Harvest

By Rev. James Gracie

This Editorial was published in the Presbyterian Standard, No. 31, July-September 2003.

WE HAVE much to learn from the seasons which come and go as each year unfolds. Each season seems to be illustrative of a spiritual equivalent and what we see with our eyes speaks to our souls. It should not surprise us that this is so: the God of our salvation is also the God of creation and providence. Into the fabric of our universe and then into the tapestry of its history the Lord has woven many lessons for us.

In the cycle of our calendar year we reckon the four seasons from Spring through Summer to Autumn and then finally Winter. However spiritually the order is different. We begin with winter, the season of death and decay. This is the natural state of our sinful world, apart from grace, and of every soul before conversion to Christ. Spring is the season of new life. The Holy Spirit sent into the sinner's heart quickens the soul in union with Christ and we are born again to repentance and faith. Summer is the season of growth. Receiving grace for grace we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, making no provision for the flesh. The final spiritual season is the autumn. It is the season of maturity and fruitfulness. It is the time of harvest.

By harvest we may understand several things. There is the labour of harvesting, there is the crop which is gathered and there is the season in which this takes place. All three have something to teach us about the gospel.

The Labour of the Harvest

A harvest, particularly in older times or in other cultures even today, might involve sowing or planting, watering, reaping, threshing, winnowing and storing. But when we speak of harvest we usually refer to reaping. This is the work of cutting the stalks of corn once the grain has swollen and ripened and binding the stalks into bundles or sheaves. It is the gathering in of the harvest.

In the Bible there are two senses in which souls are gathered by God. There is firstly the gathering of souls into the kingdom of grace, the church of Christ on earth. When Jesus beheld the Jewish multitudes as sheep without a shepherd He said to His disciples: "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few; Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest" (Matt. 9:37,38). In this regard the harvest of God is gathered by men - men who are raised up by God and thrust forth into the world to preach the gospel to their fellow sinners. It is the Holy Spirit who makes men willing to repent and believe through His regenerating work and God's servants are to look for evidence of that gracious work in the lives of their hearers. Because it is fallible men who are charged to evangelise, teach, baptise and admit to membership those who profess faith in Christ then some who are not truly regenerate may be harvested into the visible church. In the language of Scripture, tares may appear among the wheat. But there is another reaping to come.

There is secondly the gathering of souls into the kingdom of glory, the church of Christ in heaven. This takes place at the moment of death. Of this final harvest our Saviour spoke when He said to His disciples: "Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn" (Matt. 13:30). In this respect God's harvest is gathered not by men but by angels, for Christ said "and the reapers are the angels" (v.39). We are reminded of what our Lord said concerning Lazarus, a man who was poor in this world yet rich in faith. "And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22). Here is a beautiful picture; the souls of believers being taken one by one by holy angels from the state of grace to the state of glory in heaven where they enjoy their rest. Is it going too far to suppose that the souls of the wicked are in a similar way taken by evil angels from this world to the next where they shall be tormented forever?

The Fruit of the Harvest

Although the life of every individual is reaped at death, not every life is a fruitful life. Or at least, not every life is fruitful in good things. As the children of Adam our stock is a corrupt stock; we have inherited his sinful nature, being justly reckoned guilty by God of his original sin. There is a law in the natural world which holds good in the spiritual realm. It was revealed by Jesus when He said: "every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit" (Matt. 7:17). Out of our sinful natures only evil can come. What then is to be done? There is only one solution. "Make the tree good, and his fruit good" (Matt. 12:33). "Ye must be born again" (John 3:7)!

In the hearts of God's elect a powerful seed is planted in time by the Holy Spirit in the gospel. Others may experience the common strivings of the Spirit under the preaching of the Word, but only in the Lord's people does regeneration take place. A new, living and abiding principle of holiness to the Lord is established by the gracious operation of the Spirit in their hearts. What is the fruit that we may expect to see in regenerated souls in this life?

The first fruit we expect to see is a confession of Christ. In a new-born individual we will witness faith and repentance. This is the "blade" of a Christian profession as Jesus described it (Mark 4:28), for these saving graces are like the twin leaves which make up the shoot a seed send forth when it bursts into life. Only when green growth appears above the ground can we properly judge that a seed is a living seed. And even then, as we have seen, it may be the wrong type of seed! Did Saul believe? Yes - and no! Did Judas repent? Yes - and no! "Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come" (1 Cor. 4:5).

Later we must see the fruit of a conformity to Christ. In mature believers a holy character has been formed. This is the "ear" of a Christian profession. If Christ is the Lily of the Valley then His people are as lilies among thorns (Song 2:1,2). They were once like thorns themselves - barren and unattractive. But God said to them when He called them, "Be ye holy, for I am holy" (1 Pet.1:16). How can it be? Only through a work of God's mighty grace. Sanctification proceeds from our union with Christ and by the indwelling of His Spirit. Through Him we get strength as we use the means of grace. We must sow to the Spirit rather than to the flesh (Gal. 6:8). It is instructive to note Christ's teaching that some believers bring forth fruit as much as "an hundredfold" (Matt. 13:23). It must be a rare thing for an ear of corn to contain that many grains - all coming from a single, shrivelled seed sown in the earth. But grace is a supernatural seed. Oh to see the "full corn" in our own lives! Only if there is true holiness here will there be glory hereafter.

The Time of the Harvest

Harvest has traditionally been the occasion of festivities. There has been much labour and toil during the year. There has been expectation but perhaps much anxiety too. Now the moment long waited for has come and the ripened crop is gathered safely into its store. As there is joy among men when the harvest is come so there is great joy among God's people when there is a reaping time in His kingdom.

Every conversion is a matter of joy to believers, especially when there has been any personal involvement through prayer, teaching or testimony. We may imagine how the apostle Paul rejoiced over Onesimus, when through his ministry this runaway slave become by grace a "brother beloved" (Phil. 1:6). Or over Timothy, who was also Paul's "son in the faith" (1 Tim. 1:2). While we delight to hear of professions of faith our joy should be measured in case what is planted should wither and die. Time is the great test. "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth" (3 John 4).

The progress of the gospel in the world brings rejoicing to the church. When the dark places of the earth are irradiated with gospel light and the strongholds of Satan are pulled down then we shout our "Alleluias!" This we do now as we hear of places under the sway of Popery, Islam and other false religions turning to the Lord. This the church will do when the Roman harlot is finally judged by the Lord (Rev. 19:1-3). These things are the triumph of King Jesus and of His righteous cause.

While the time of God's harvest is fixed in His eternal counsels, this time is not revealed to us. Who can say when it will please the Lord to bless the precious seed of truth and make it flourish in a particular man's heart? Who can say when the "set time," the time to favour the whole church with reviving and blessing, will come (Psa.102:13)? Our duty is clear. It is to sow the seed! Let us not look at the prospects, for they rarely seem propitious. And let us not despise "the day of small things" (Zech.4:10). Small things are better than nothing, and small things will lead to greater things in God's good time. "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him" (Psa. 126:6).