John 4:34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 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. 36 Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 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.”
In reading this passage I wondered, “Who is the sower and who is the reaper?” As my first instinct was to find out whether someone else knew the answer to my question, I googled the phrase “one sows and another reaps” to see what people had said. Here are some examples of the (more sensible) opinions.
“It means that quite often people don’t respond the first time they hear the gospel message, but they might think about it. You might share without any results. Someone may later come and share again and they lead them to Christ. Your work was important though.”
“Barnes commentary states it this way: One man may preach the gospel, and with little apparent effect; another, succeeding him, may be crowned with eminent success. The seed, long buried, may spring up in an abundant harvest.”
“I believe it is saying that one person may witness to someone, and the person may be thinking about what you said to him/her, but wouldn’t make a decision for or against God. Then that person may go to a church or another person and gets saved. They become the person that reaps what the first person has sown before them.”
“Some people are sowers of the seed by planting Jesus into someone’s heart. Other people are reapers and come along and get the benefit of reaping what was sewn by that person accepting Jesus.”
These opinions correspond to what I have heard in preaching and discussions about this passage. I am not really satisfied with these, because they do not derive from what Jesus actually said in the passage, and because there is an assumption here that the sower and the reaper are Christians, that is, the ones who do all the work are Christians and not God himself. This anthropocentric (human centred) view denies that the main work in the Gospels is the work of Jesus Christ, not work done by the disciples.
These popular interpretations of the passage encouraged me to go beyond simply thinking about this for my own benefit, and instead record my thinking in this discussion of the passage. I am sure that I will miss some of the nuances present in the passage, as our God is “a rich store of salvation, wisdom and knowledge” (Is 33:6). Nonetheless I will expand it as far as I can.
The context of this statement is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. The Samaritan community came into existence in the Hellenistic period (late 4th C BC). Some opposed the Jewish community, although some practiced the Israelite faith. Samaria was Hellenised by Alexander the Great. But some wanted a new start and built a temple on Mt Gerazim. The Jews of Jerusalem were opposed (sometimes violently) to the Samaritans. Samaritans considered the first five books of the Bible as scripture, and believed that Mt Gerazim was the place appointed by God for worship. Although the Samaritans may have some common ground with the Jews of Jesus’ day they could not be regarded as Israelites. This fact, I believe, is important in understanding what Jesus is saying in this passage.
The work of God/others have laboured
In John 4 Jesus had been at Jacob’s well talking to the Samaritan woman for some time, when the disciples came back and asked him to eat something (4:31). But Jesus replied that his food was to do the will of God and finish his work. What is this work of God which Jesus was doing? I am assuming that Jesus is making a reference to the Old Testament when he refers to the work of God.
1) The work of God begins in creation (Gen 2:2-3). Jesus is the one who finishes the work of Creation by bringing about the new creation in teaching, healing, and sanctifying humanity. He also brings about the ultimate rest.
2) The work of God involves redemption. “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago” (Psalm 44:1). The enemies of God are overcome by his deeds (Psalm 66:3). Jesus redeems humanity and by his death overcomes the enmity between humanity and God.
3) The works of God bring about obedience (Psalm 78:7) and cause people to know his holiness (Isaiah 29:23). God’s work includes exercising his wrath on evil (Jer 50:25) and vindicating his people (Jer 51:10). These are accomplished by the cross.
It is important to emphasise that the work is done by Jesus as he is the one who does the work of the Father. The statement in verse 38: “I have sent you to reap what others have worked for” must be read in this light. The NIV translates the expression in v 38 as “worked for” (kopiaō), while other translations use “laboured for”. The word is not the same as the word work (ergon) in verse 34, but the concepts are no doubt linked together. So when Jesus tells the disciples that others have “worked for” or “laboured for” something, it is unlikely that Jesus is referring to other disciples labouring. He is telling them that he and the Father have laboured before them. In fact, if we look at the vocabulary of the Gospel of John, this idea is even clearer. The only other use of the word “laboured” (kopiaō) in John’s Gospel is in John 4:6. “Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired (kopiaō) as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.” In other words, Jesus is the one who laboured before the disciples.
However, Jesus says “others have laboured”, not “other”. Who are these plural “others”? Jesus is clearly one of the “others” who have laboured. The word “other” is a very common word in John’s Gospel (and elsewhere). But there are two significant passages in which “other” is used in a way which suggests to me the “others” which Jesus refers to here. “There is another who testifies in my favour, and I know that his testimony about me is valid” (John 5:32). “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor to be with you forever” (John 14:16). These two others are the Father, who testifies to who Jesus is, and the Holy Spirit, who comes as a counsellor like Jesus. So I would suggest that the “others” who have laboured before the disciples are in fact the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Before the disciples laboured in the fields (more on this word later), there were three “others” who laboured first. The disciples are told that they will “reap the benefits” of their labour. This expression “reap the benefits” is literally “enter into”. The disciples, then, have the privilege of “entering into” the work which Father, Son and Spirit have done before. This is surely applicable to us in the work of evangelism (or any Christian work). The work is never primarily ours, but always a participation in the work which the triune God has already done. Such a participation is a wonderful privilege. We are called to participate in what God has done in Christ. But we are not called to do the sowing and reaping as if this were all left up to us.
There is an Old Testament parallel to the statement, “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” (v38). When Israel entered the Promised Land, God gave their enemies into their hands and gave them the land of Canaan. Israel fought, but the victory came because the LORD gave it to them. Therefore he says, “So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant” (Josh 24:13). Just as Israel did not work for the cities and vineyards of Canaan, it is well that we remember, that although we are given the privilege of participating in the harvest of people, the hard work of preparation has been done by others, namely Father, Son and Spirit, who change the hearts of people that they might come into the kingdom of God.
There is an interesting association with sowing and reaping in Psalm 129.
Psalm 129:1 A song of ascents. They have greatly oppressed me from my youth– let Israel say– 2 they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me. 3 Ploughmen have ploughed my back and made their furrows long. 4 But the LORD is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.
In the servant songs of Isaiah, it is written, “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
Ploughing is the precursor to sowing (and thus necessarily reaping). The one whose back is ploughed is the one who offered his back to those who beat him, namely Jesus himself. There can be no sowing and reaping without the cross. The harvest of people is not so much dependent on our efforts but upon the efforts of the one who has laboured unto death on the cross.
Sowing and Reaping
The word translated as ‘fields’ (“I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest”) is used far more often to mean a country or a region. I take this then as a kind of pun. Jesus spoke about fields and harvests, but he was not speaking about actual crops, but people. The people in question were not general people but the Samaritans in particular, that is, those people who he had been speaking to at the well. The fields or the countries were ripe for harvest, because they had been sown in the past and the time had come for the harvest.
By way of evidence that the sower is the Father (and not a human being) I offer the very common Old Testament concept that God scatters Israel among the nations. In John 4 the verb used for sowing is speirō and in the OT the verb used for scattering among the nations is diaspeirō. This is a compound of the word speirō and a preposition. They are used for different things. Speirō is used for scattering seeds, but diaspeirō is used of scattering people. Some examples of scattering people:
“These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth” (Genesis 9:19).
“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”” (Genesis 11:4)
“I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins” (Leviticus 26:33).
“The LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you” (Deuteronomy 4:27).
Although Israel was scattered there is a promise that they will be gathered again.
“He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12).
“I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety” (Jeremiah 32:37).
The word ‘gather’ used in Isaiah and Jeremiah here of Israel is used in John 4:36 “Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests (gathers) the crop for eternal life”. So while the LORD scattered (sowed) the people of Israel throughout the lands and the countries (same word as fields above) he also gathers (harvests) them again.
I think that what Jesus is referring to in John 4 is this scattering and gathering of God’s people. When Jesus came, he came to bring the people of God back to the Father, to gather up those who had been scattered abroad, and to give them eternal life. The people who God desires for his own have been separated and scattered, but they can all be brought back to him as a crop or a harvest.
Isaiah speaks of an ingathering of the nations, not just of Israel
Isaiah 66:18 “And I, because of their actions and their imaginations, am about to come and gather all nations and tongues, and they will come and see my glory. 19 “I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations– to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. They will proclaim my glory among the nations. 20 And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the LORD– on horses, in chariots and wagons, and on mules and camels,” says the LORD. “They will bring them, as the Israelites bring their grain offerings, to the temple of the LORD in ceremonially clean vessels. 21 And I will select some of them also to be priests and Levites,” says the LORD.
There are many other such passages. See for example Jer 3:17, 31:8-10, 32:27, Ezek 11:17. The Samaritans who have heard of the Messiah and come to faith in him are the beginning of the ingathering of the nations, the harvest of God.
This passage, then, is not about how human beings each sow a little seed of the gospel, although that is the popular understanding. It is about the Father as the one who sows and the Son as the one who gathers together the people of God. He does this through offering his own back to those who will plough it. The Spirit also works to draw the people to the Son, because only through him can they be gathered together as the people of God in order to have eternal life. The role of the disciples in this is to share in the gathering of the people of God. It is not primarily about the disciples, but they do get a share in the work of Christ.
This explanation is not a means to avoid evangelism, but rather an empowerment for evangelism. The work has been done for us in a real sense, because the Father, Son and Spirit have done the work of sowing and reaping. In knowing this we are able to participate in the work of bringing people to the Father, a work which has been initiated by “others”. Long before we ever thought that people need to know the gospel, the Father has been working to bring his scattered people back to himself, so that they may know his glory. To participate in this work, then, is not a burden but a privilege.
 See New Bible Dictionary 1999, p 1052.