Question: "What does it mean that the workers are few (Matthew 9:37)?"

Answer: In Matthew 9:37, Jesus makes a lamentable statement: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” This verse underscores the urgency of active participation in the work of God. The expression work of God refers to sharing the gospel of the kingdom with the unbelieving world. It is a work of God because believers lack the tools, resources, and strength to accomplish this task on their own. For this reason, the Holy Spirit must empower us for gospel ministry. Otherwise, we will not accomplish anything (see John 15:5).

Matthew 9:37 is situated within the context of Matthew 9:35–38. In Matthew 9:35, the apostle records that Jesus traveled through cities and villages, taught in synagogues, preached the gospel of the kingdom, and healed the sick. As a result, enormous crowds began to follow Him. The crowds saw a teacher and a miracle-worker, but Jesus saw into their heart: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 36, ESV). Without the care and protection of the Good Shepherd (see John 10:1–21), everyone will be harassed by the enemy and helpless to defend themselves. There is hope, but it can only be found in Christ (Hebrews 6:19–20).

Jesus employed the metaphor of a harvest to symbolize the abundance of individuals who are ripe and ready to hear, receive, and believe the gospel message (cf. John 4:31–38). Just as a waving field of grain invites many reapers, the crowds who flocked to Jesus were prepared to receive the gospel. Jesus saw both the spiritual readiness of the people and the opportunity to bring them into the kingdom of God.

Despite the plentiful harvest, Jesus lamented the gospel’s labor shortage: “The workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). The labor shortage indicates an urgent need for more ministers to spread the gospel and gather the people of God into His kingdom. This is challenging because “Pretenders were many, but real ‘laborers’ in the harvest were few. . . . Man-made ministers are useless. Still are the fields encumbered with gentlemen who cannot use the sickle. Still the real ingatherers are few and far between. Where are the instructive, soul-winning ministries?” (Charles Spurgeon, “The Joy of Harvest,” no. 3058, 1865). Are we pretenders, or are we laborers?

In response to the labor shortage, Jesus commands His disciples to “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Simply “throwing bodies at the problem” is not the best solution for the gospel’s labor shortage. To the contrary, we must pray that God would supply the church with faithful and diligent ministers of the gospel to meet the demand of His harvest.

Ministry is burdensome, but ministers do not have to rely on their own strength: “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9; cf. 12:9–10).

In conclusion, the statement, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” is a reminder that workers are needed for the spiritual harvest. There are abundant opportunities to share the gospel with unbelievers, but workers must go and preach the gospel. As the apostle Paul declared, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14–15). Let us pray that God will send more workers into the field.