The idea of sowing and reaping may be unfamiliar to someone living in a non-rural community in the 21st century, but it was a normal part of everyday life in the ancient world. The Apostle Paul would have been very familiar with this as most people in his world grew their own fruit and vegetables or visited the marketplace regularly to buy food. This food was, in the main, grown locally and probably still had a healthy sprinkling of soil on it. There was no such thing as ‘food miles’ or ‘pre-washed’ and packaged produce.
Lessons drawn from the regular activities of life are common in the Bible and the process of sowing and reaping is particularly useful when explaining the principle of cause-and-effect, actions, and their consequences, which God has built into all spheres of life - both natural and spiritual. This principle applies to everyone, both believer and unbeliever, though we will be focusing in this article on what believers can learn from it.
But let us define our terms for those who are not familiar with the concept. The term ‘sowing’ refers to the act of planting a seed and ‘reaping’ refers to harvesting, gathering in, or collecting, what grows from that seed.
Initially, we are going to look at what the Old Testament says about sowing and reaping as this is the Bible that Paul read, and his teaching is saturated with pictures and principles from it. These portions of scripture will provide evidence that Paul’s teaching is in complete harmony with the rest of scripture. Then, we will briefly consider how the Lord Jesus used the concept and conclude by reviewing the passages where the Apostle Paul teaches his readers lessons from this principle.
When Noah and his family disembarked from the ark, ‘the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake … While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease’, Gen. 8. 21, 22. From this we can see that the process of sowing and reaping was one of the normal cycles of life. Later in Genesis, we are reminded that the farmer expects to reap far more than they sowed. ‘Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year an hundredfold: and the Lord blessed him’, 26. 12. This is one of four main lessons we learn about sowing and reaping:
The wisdom books of the Old Testament mention the principle of sowing and reaping a number of times.
In Job chapter 4 verse 8, Eliphaz, one of Job’s three friends, makes this statement - ‘Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same’. It is a sobering lesson as Eliphaz is telling us, the same as Paul does in Galatians chapter 6 verse 7 - you reap what you sow.
On a more positive note, we learn in Psalm 126 verses 5 and 6 that despite the circumstances of sowing being hard and tearful at times, if you sow the right seed, you will eventually reap with shouts of joy. Again, this confirms that truth that Paul brings to the churches of Galatia.
In Proverbs chapter 11 verses 18 and 19, we read, ‘The wicked man does deceptive work, but he who sows righteousness will have a sure reward. As righteousness leads to life, so he who pursues evil pursues it to his own death’, NKJV. And, in Proverbs chapter 22 verses 8 and 9, Solomon states, ‘He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow, and the rod of his anger will fail. He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor’, NKJV. I cannot highlight this principle more vividly than these verses do.
When the prophet Hosea is called to denounce the sin of Israel, he uses expressive language and graphic metaphors. In chapter 8 verse 7, he says, ‘For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’. Continuing with this theme, Hosea writes, ‘Judah shall plow, and Jacob shall break his clods. Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you. Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity; ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men’, Hos. 10. 11-13.
This is striking language, reminding us of the danger of sowing sinful seeds and of how it could be so different if they sought the Lord. The lessons are still pertinent for us today and may have influenced Paul’s thinking as he penned his letter to the Galatians.
The Lord Jesus refers to this principle on a number of occasions. Matthew chapter 13 and John chapter 15 specifically highlight the principle. One key passage where the Lord Jesus refers to the principle is Matthew chapter 7 verses 15 to 20. The key phrases are, ‘You will know them by their fruits’ and ‘by their fruits you will know them’, NKJV. The Lord Jesus is clearly implying that the type of fruit that is harvested is clear evidence of the nature of the seed that was sown.
All the following passages serve to illustrate and underpin Paul’s use of this metaphor in his letters.
There are three passages where Paul directly refers to the concept of sowing and reaping, Gal. 6. 7-9; 2 Cor. 9. 6-11; and 1 Cor. 15. 37.
The Galatians chapter 6 passage on this topic has a warning -‘Be not deceived; God is not mocked’. At the beginning of this chapter, Paul has been teaching the believers how to react when another believer has been overcome by sin. He has been appealing to godly believers to be gentle and humble in how they handle this type of situation, bearing in mind that the ultimate aim is to help that person back on to the right path. He also wants these believers to be aware that they too are vulnerable to temptation. The emphasis in the passage is on the responsibility of the believer to care for others by sharing their burdens and yet at the same time being aware that we as individuals are ultimately responsible for our own conduct. Among the issues that the apostle raises is the need to provide practically for those who have looked after our spiritual needs, see also Rom. 15. 27.
Now, Paul writes, remember:
It is not that the believer gets eternal life by how they live (this is clear from many other passages of scripture) but that how they live reflects the fact that they have eternal life, and the fruit of the Spirit is seen in how they behave, 5. 22, 23.
The closing injunction in this respect is, ‘As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith’, 6. 10.
In 2 Corinthians chapter 9 verses 6 to 11 the apostle highlights the same principle but this time he is teaching them about their attitude to giving. There will always be believers in the world who are suffering and impoverished. Christians who are not suffering, at that point in time, have an obligation to provide for needy believers. In verse 6 of this passage, Paul highlights principle number three which is stated above, that is, that you generally reap more than you sow. This principle means that believers should understand that God is no man’s debtor and will compensate those who, out of a grateful heart, sow the seed of generous giving for the glory of God and for the benefit of His people. The Macedonian believers were a great example of this, 2 Cor. 8. 2.
The final passage I want to consider is found in 1 Corinthians chapter 15. This chapter is all about resurrection. It deals with the fact of resurrection and establishes a very clear case for the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ based on eyewitness evidence. In the second part of the chapter, Paul focuses on what the believer’s body will be like at the point of resurrection. To do this he highlights the principle of sowing and reaping, see vv. 37, 42-44, showing that the resurrection of a believer’s body is not simply the coming back to life of a dead body, but the re-creation of a new, glorified, body.
Paul is counteracting the false teaching that believers have spiritual life but no physical future. The scriptures teach very clearly that believers enjoy both spiritual life in Christ and will in a future day be raised in a physical body to enjoy life in His presence.
The body that God resurrects will not be the same type of body that died, even though it is identified as the body of the same person. Paul proceeds to demonstrate this from the sowing of grain. Effectively, life in a new form springs forth from death, vv. 36-37. So, the body we live in today will be different from the resurrection body, as in the example of seed and grain. If God can do this with grain, so He can do it with humans.
The question is - Is what grows the same as what was sown? No, but there is an essential link between the two. Without the seed there would have been no crop. Also, the plant gets its characteristics from the seed, and so it is with the resurrection body. The glorified body of the believer will be cleansed from corruption, with no more experiences of dishonour or weakness. It will be incorruptible, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. It is the same body, but it is sown in one form and raised in another. What a wonderful truth!
I have found the lessons Paul teaches from sowing and reaping very challenging and a sobering reminder that we need to think about what we do and say as we will reap what we sow. Thankfully, the grace of God in salvation has dealt with the consequences of our sin but, as we live for the Lord, we are sowing seed that will be harvested in the future and our desire is that it might be for His glory at His coming, 1 Thess. 2. 19; 2 Thess. 1. 10; Rev. 19. 8.
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