A very brief encounter with a pastor nearly forty years ago is still vivid. We were hurrying in opposite directions, so our encounter was very brief, and we both just slowed as he realized who I was, greeted me, and expressed his admiration for my father’s writing. “I really like what he has to say,” he commented as he passed by. Then he turned back and added, “Except the postmillennialism. I just don’t see that happening in today’s world.”
He was already past me and looking back, and I never saw him again, but his words surprised me. His frankness betrayed the error in this pastor’s thinking—that his personal perception of what was possible was relevant to what God says about the progress of His Kingdom.
Had that pastor said, “I don’t see that in the Bible” I would have forgotten the brief encounter long ago. Perhaps he misspoke in his haste and that is what he meant, but, in reality, I believe we all have a tendency to walk by sight rather than by faith and view our times and the future of the Kingdom of God in terms of our perception of what is logically possible. In doing so, we are limiting the power of God to our human conception. If we say we cannot “see that happening in today’s world” we are positing a Kingdom of God limited to one of our own understanding.
Our Perspectives or God’s?
We are Scripturally justified in being pessimistic about man and his culture. Left to himself, man only shows the degeneration Paul described in Romans 1. To look at man’s future in terms of sin alone, however, misses not only the transforming power of the gospel by the Holy Spirit, but also the context of the developing Kingdom of God that was the basis for Paul writing to the Roman church.
If we focus on the depravity of man that may be all we see, but that is no more valid a perception than the humanist emphasis on man’s goodness. The gospel balances the sin of man with the regenerating power of His Spirit and the growth of the Kingdom of God, Who makes all things new. Our perspective of the times in which we live or the direction of all history must not be based on what we see and perceive but on the certain Word of God’s specific command to seek that Kingdom and its righteousness. It is a similar error to see that evil in our culture or the modern church and predict only judgment. Judgment will come, but we do not know when or how it will be balanced by God’s mercy and longsuffering, or how the growth of the church and the Kingdom might balance aspects of judgment. Even if judgment is imminent, our duty to positively promote the Kingdom still remains. It is no great piety to predict judgment if we do not proclaim and promote righteousness.
About the same time as I had that encounter with the pastor my wife and I socialized with another young married childless couple. The husband believed in an imminent (in 1978) economic and social collapse. As a result, he expressed the opinion, to the consternation of his wife, that having children was unwise. His opinion about the immediate future was so wrong that what he saw as prudent planning we can now see as tragically foolish. Now and then my wife and I recall that couple and wonder if they had children.
Even when we truly believe in the power of God to advance His Kingdom to cover the earth we can fall into another error, one that assumes some process of events over time must happen for the Kingdom to grow to any great extent. We temper our confidence in the eventual growth of the Kingdom with cynicism that it is unlikely to happen anytime soon, because we assume the progress of the Kingdom involves a necessary process.
As humans, such thinking is almost inevitable because everything we do is based on our work and a process of capitalization. When we are dealing with God’s Kingdom, however, we must remember that it moves not in tune with our efforts but with the purpose and power of God.
The Fields Are White Already to Harvest
Jesus once showed His disciples that their view of the progress of the Kingdom was flawed. While stopping at the Samaritan city of Sychar, the disciples left Jesus at Jacob’s well while they went into town to buy food. They likely thought Sychar was just a stopping place for the night before continuing on toward their destination, which was Galilee.
The exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is usually the focus of lessons on this passage (John 4:1–42). There is another exchange in that passage, however, between Jesus and the returned disciples that pertains to the Kingdom of God, which Jesus had begun to preach after John’s recent arrest (Mark 1:14). Jesus told the disciples, in verse 35:
Say not ye, There are yet four months and then cometh the harvest? Behold, I say unto you, lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest.
The first statement was a transparently true observation. Jesus was giving a timestamp; it was either January or February, depending on whether the crop was barley or wheat.
My father grew up on a farm, and loved driving through California’s Central Valley, with its unique climate that allows for a tremendous variety of row, fruit, and nut crops. It was natural for him to note the different crops he saw along the way. It was a part of his life and thinking to make such observations.
It was even more natural to those who walked through farmland as did the disciples. Every one of the disciples knew what sequence of work needed to be done and how long it would be before harvest. They had seen the process repeated their whole lives. So, Jesus stated the obvious: “You are assuming the grain harvest cannot take place for four months.”
The Harvest Starts Now
Sychar was to be more than a place to buy food and sleep before moving on. The disciples likely knew their destination was Galilee (v.3) and even that they were headed for Cana, Nathaniel’s home (John 21:2). They were not expecting Jesus to minister there on His way, but Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”
The ready fields to which Jesus refers are no longer either barley or wheat, but the elect of God then in Sychar in Samaria. That harvest was about to begin. The relationship of the Samaritans to the Jews had long been a strained one, for centuries. There was a real animosity and social separation, and like our assumption regarding compromised churches, the disciples likely believed any conversion of the Samaritans would be a difficult one that was likely some time yet in the future.
Our Lord announced that the harvest in Samaria was not a future event. The “fields” were ready for harvest; it would start immediately. Indeed, “many” of the Samaritans believed and begged Jesus to stay, which He did for two days resulting in “many more” believing and testifying “that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world” (v. 39–43). The harvest was not in the future as the disciples assumed, but then and there because that was when the Spirit moved.
“One Soweth, and Another Reapeth”
Jesus continued His agricultural metaphor of a harvest. Not only was the assumption of time and process wrong, but even of the necessity of their labors.
When I was in college I read an account of the Great Awakening. It was by one of its preachers who noted his surprise at the sudden overwhelming response to his message that had previously fallen on deaf ears. If we believe in the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, we must believe that such a response to the gospel is not only possible but certain when the Spirit so moves.
Whenever we assume the Kingdom of God must grow (as it sometimes does) imperceptibly like yeast, we may focus so much on the smaller matters of Kingdom duty that we become cold to the possibility that big things can happen. If we have only seen slow Kingdom growth or some defeats, we risk projecting this as a necessary long-term progression, but the one certainty we have is that the Kingdom of God will not fail. We must not act or think in terms of what we “see” happening based on our experience, but rather in terms of what God says is certain.
Jesus told His disciples, just before these two days with the Samaritans, that “One soweth, and another reapeth” (John 4:37). Here in Samaria, the disciples would see a harvest where they had bestowed no labor. “Other men labored,” He said, “and ye are entered into their labors” (John 4:38). Sometimes the people of God will see a growth of His Kingdom completely disproportionate to, or even entirely lacking, their own labor.
What Prospect for the Future?
Adoniram Judson was a pioneering missionary to Burma early in the nineteenth century. He and his wife Ann labored for years under deplorable conditions, often near to death. Recently released from prison, Judson received a letter from his American mission board which noted with concern the lack of any progress in the mission work, which then had not a single convert. Asked for a report on the future prospects of his mission work, Judson wrote, “The prospects are as bright as the promises of God.” His was a proper view of the Kingdom.
It is common to hear Americans deplore the state of the world in the most pessimistic of terms. I once heard someone say in a Bible study that things are worse than they have ever been before and several in the room immediately assented to that view. Such a view betrays a lack of knowledge of both history and the current state of the Kingdom. There are more Christians in the world today than at any point in history. Many areas of the world are seeing a dynamic church growth for the first time in their history. It is mostly North America and the United Kingdom that are the exceptions to this phenomenal growth, so our perspective is skewed.
The Kingdom is now growing even as the forces of statism and humanism are in decline and clinging to power. Communism, very recently regarded as the great threat to the future, is now a failed and discredited ideology. Where is this current trend going to take us in the future? That I do not know, but if we are determined to walk by sight, ought we not to see the obvious advance of the gospel and the Kingdom in our lifetime?
We do not know what the trends we see represent in terms of the long-term growth of the Kingdom, but, even from a human standpoint, we can see great progress. For that we should praise God and take heart that because His promises are sure the future is indeed a bright one, and we are on the winning side.