Monday, September 18, 2017

Jesus and the Crowds: A False Teacher?

Several times recently in social media I have seen posts that contrast an image of a large, well-filled auditorium with that depicting a sparsely populated church. The message accompanying these images proclaims that false teaching about the Christian faith draws large crowds, while a small attendance is indicative of true Christian teaching.

If the message is drawing a large audience, that must mean it’s tailored to the “itching ears” of people who only want a non-challenging, complacent, or distorted version of the faith. On the other hand, it is inferred, genuine Christian teaching appeals only to a few. The implication of this contrast is clear: if a preacher has a large following, drawing great crowds to his ministry, he must be a false teacher who should be avoided.

Let’s apply this criterion to the Gospel record of the ministry of Jesus. Because whatever Jesus taught about living in the kingdom of God was true and valid, he must never have spoken to large crowds, right? Only a handful of people would have been drawn to his teaching or followed him.

Jesus drew large crowds.

The problem is, that’s not what the Gospels tell us about Jesus’ teaching. In all four Gospels we find that large crowds sought Jesus out, surrounded him, and received his teaching gladly. I surveyed the Gospels in a well-known English translation of the New Testament looking for occurrences of the word crowd or its equivalent in association with Jesus’ teaching or healing activity. Here’s what I discovered: for the words crowd or crowds, 72 occurrences; for multitude or multitudes, 25 occurrences; and for throng, 5 occurrences. (In almost all cases the Greek word is the same, ochlos, though in a few cases the Gospel writers used plethos. The translator’s judgment governs which English word is used.)

In collating these instances I was able to group them into ten, often overlapping, categories:
  Crowds follow Jesus or gather around him
  Crowds surround Jesus and hinder access to him
  Jesus addresses the crowds
  Jesus dialogues with a crowd, or with people in the crowd
  The crowds react to Jesus’ teaching or things he does
  Jesus has compassion on the crowds and meets their needs
  Jesus leaves the crowds or dismisses them
  Jesus’ opponents react to the fact that he draws great crowds
  The crowds acclaim Jesus
  A sorrowful crowd accompanies Jesus to his crucifixion.

What is most often said of the crowds in the Gospels is that they gathered to Jesus, followed him, or clustered around him. A good example is Matthew’s introduction to the “Sermon on the Mount”: “And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him” (Matthew 4:25—5:1). Mark reports, “Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land” (Mark 4:1).

Luke provides another instance: “When the crowds learned it, they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11). And this example comes from John: “After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased” (John 6:1-2). There are too many instances of this to list here; altogether the Gospels contain some twenty passages or verses that refer simply to the fact that whenever Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, and demonstrated its presence by healing peoples’ diseases, large numbers gathered to him and followed him.

Jesus’ audience was often so closely clustered about him that it was hard for people to gain access to him. Luke provides two examples: “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd” (Luke 8:19). “And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature” (Luke 19:2-3).

The crowds respond to Jesus’ teaching.

Sometimes the Gospels simply report that Jesus addresses the crowds, and occasionally they record his conversation with members of his audience. Here’s an instance from Mark: “And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Again, Luke tells us: “And when a great crowd came together and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: ‘A sower went out to sow his seed . . .’” (Luke 8:4-5). The people surrounding Jesus were not simply passive listeners, but engaged him in conversation as in Luke 11:27: “As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’” Jesus’ hearers asked questions: “The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Christ remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?’” (John 12:34).

The Gospels record the crowd’s reaction to things Jesus says and does. Matthew concludes the “Sermon on the Mount” with this statement: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus’ healing of the paralyzed man provoked the crowd’s response:  “And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:12). John tells us one reason why people were attracted to Jesus: “The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign” (John 12:17-18).

Jesus has compassion on the multitude.

We are reminded, several times, that Jesus had compassion on the crowds who came to him and was moved to meet their physical needs. Here’s an instance from Matthew: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore he saw a great throng and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:13-14). Mark provides these examples: “As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). “In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him, and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the crowd . . .’” (Mark 8:1-2).

The needs of the multitudes coming to him were so great that sometimes Jesus had to send them away and take his departure, often by boat. As Matthew tells us, “And sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan” (Matthew 15:39). Mark records another instance: “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd” (Mark 6:45). Jesus drew aside from the crowd to heal a deaf man (Mark 7:32-34).

Jesus’ crowds threatened his enemies.

Jesus’ popularity with the people alarmed his enemies. The Gospels record their reaction, and we cite three instances. Matthew reports, “But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet” (Matthew 21:46). John tells us, “Yet many of the people believed in him; they said, ‘When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?’ The Pharisees heard the crowd thus muttering about him, and the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him” (John 7:31-32). Because the crowds believed in Jesus, Judas could not arrange to have him seized when they were present: “So he agreed, and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of the multitude” (Luke 22:6).

Beginning the week of his passion with his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus drew the acclamation of the multitudes — as the well-known account of “Palm Sunday” reminds us. John tells it this way: “The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!" (John 12:12-13). The esteem in which the crowds held Jesus complicated his enemies’ efforts to eliminate him.

It was only at Jesus’ crucifixion that crowds were stirred up against him and called for his death, and that was the doing of Jesus’ enemies. Preachers sometimes claim that the people who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday” had turned against him by Good Friday. That’s not true; the scornful Friday crowd was a different crowd. And even as Jesus was being led to Calvary, Luke tells us, “there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him” (Luke 23:27). The disciples whom the risen Jesus met on the Emmaus road were but two of a sizeable following who had “hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).

Is the size of the audience a valid criterion?

It’s clear that Jesus, during the years he preached the kingdom of God in Galilee and Judea, was the head of a large popular movement, gathering crowds of people wherever he went. So, returning to our original issue, was Jesus therefore a false teacher? If we follow the logic of the social media posts we cited, we would have to conclude that he was — because if his teaching was the truth, it should have attracted only a small following!

The size of a preacher’s audience ought not to be taken as an indicator of whether or not he or she is giving forth teaching that is true to Scripture and the Christian faith. As the Gospel record of Jesus’ ministry shows, the message of the kingdom of God can draw a large, responsive audience. If there is a question about the validity of a popular preacher’s ministry, the question can only be resolved by a thorough examination and analysis of what’s being presented in the light of the Word of God.

Attacking fellow believers is surely not an effective way to promote the Christian faith. But if, on social media or any other platform, a critic wants to label a preacher as a false teacher, let that critic state his case on the basis of Scriptural principles. The size of the audience has nothing to do with it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"Keep the Butter Square!"

I seem to have inherited from my father not only my first name, and my profession in the ministry and college teaching, but also my habit of wanting to make everything neat, orderly, and symmetrical.

At mealtime, in our family home as I was growing up, the butter was placed in a dish to pass around the table as needed. I think this was before we were buying the spread packaged in four quarters, so it was in a larger shape like a cube protected by an ancient pewter cover. To butter our bread, boiled potatoes, or whatever, we would take our knife and dig out a gob of butter, only to hear my father admonish us to “Keep the butter square!” He preferred that the butter in the serving dish not become misshapen, but remain neatly squared off.

This trait stayed with Dad till the end of his life. One incident stands out. When I was the pastor of a small-town church, he and my mother visited for a Sunday worship service. Seated on the platform after the service had begun, I noticed Dad in the congregation making a sideways motion with his outstretched hand. It turned out that the flower stand and pulpit chair on one side of the platform were not symmetrical with those on the opposite end. He was trying to get me to make the necessary adjustment then and there, to restore the proper order of the furniture.

This penchant for having things orderly and organized has been one of my lifelong character traits. Books must be shelved by topic and subtopic, and within the subtopic organized by author’s name. Vinyl records or music CDs must be organized by composer and genre, and a list made of all music so I can consult it when considering a new purchase, in order to avoid duplication, without going to another part of the house where they are stored.

Memorabilia must be boxed by life periods, in sequence. All other stored items, such as railroad ephemera (a hobby of mine), computer equipment, or unused kitchenware must be placed logically into cartons and labeled. I prefer the type of carton with a removable lid, like the cartons used to ship reams of copy paper, and have collected enough over the years to contain anything that will fit into them. I never throw away a good carton, and have stacks of folded cartons stored in a shed for possible future use.

When I moved to a new home some years ago, I installed seven large metal shelves in the basement to store such items, each loaded with clearly labeled cartons grouped by similarity of contents. When I held an open house welcoming friends to my new residence, people would go downstairs to inspect the basement. Cries of “Oh, my God!” could be heard as they registered their shock at what they witnessed down there.

The urge to organize and sort affects my use of the computer, as well. I don’t understand how people can load up their cameras or cell phones, or their computers, with thousands of images none of which have a caption that would explain, to the outsider, the subject and date of the image. I have standard methods of naming photo files that enable me to quickly find what I want. For family photos, for example, the file name begins with the date (year-month-day) and then the subject. A photo of my wife and me in front of a locomotive is labeled “2015-09-26_Richard_ Shirley_at_Monticello_Rwy_Mus.tif.” That way, when I sort by name I am also sorting by date. Of course, photos from each branch of our large family are kept in their appropriate sub-subfolders, under the proper subfolder, under the master “Images” folder in my hard drives (I back up everything to two other computers). I don’t keep every image I take of a subject; I pick out the best one or two and then get rid of the rest. Why do some people keep every shot, whether blurred, off-center, duplicative, or whatever, and then even put them on Facebook?

And I don’t like what the various versions of Windows do with downloads, scans, etc. Since I’m the only user of my computers, I don’t use the “My Documents,” etc. folders; I put everything in an appropriately named folder on the main “C” drive. It annoys me when some piece of software, such as a printer program, automatically puts my scans into “My Scans,” in “My Documents,” in my User folder, and assigns it some goofy name of its own. I have to go and locate it, cut it out to where it should go, and rename it according to my naming conventions.

Okay, call me compulsive if you like. I’ll tell you one thing, though: when I need to locate something I know where to find it, whether it’s in bookcases or storage shelves or the computer. “OCD” can pay off if you use it wisely; in the end it can save time and trouble.

Besides, I have a theological justification for my efforts. When God began to create the earth it was “without form and void”; what he did during the days of creation was to bring symmetry (e.g., light and darkness) and labeling (“God called the light day,” etc.) into what had been unordered and unlabelled. Then, finally, he could “rest” in his temple and enjoy his good work. By ordering our lives we participate in the Creator’s work; at least, that’s how I think of it. So when my open house guests encountered the order and organization of my basement, their reaction, “Oh, my God!” was not entirely inappropriate.

And, of course, it’s also good policy to keep the butter square.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Defending the “Prosperity Gospel”

The so-called “prosperity gospel,” or “health and wealth gospel,” is much maligned in certain Christian circles. An Internet search will turn up a plethora of web sites, blogs, and the like that raise objections to the idea that following Jesus leads to a healthier, more prosperous life. The assumption of these critics is that the Christian life is to be marked by suffering, so that Christians who view their faith as promoting prosperity and health are departing from the pattern of the New Testament church. We present here some arguments that counter certain assumptions of the critics of the “health and wealth gospel,” who would instead advocate a “sickness and poverty gospel.”

The early Christians were not poor.

Jesus and the earliest Christians were not poor by the standards of their time and place, as they are often depicted. Jesus was a general contractor; the word teknon (Mark 6:3) refers to something more than a simple carpenter. The first disciples were in the fishing business; Matthew (Levi) was wealthy, being a publican. Well-to-do people, including the wife of one of Herod’s officials (Luke 8:3), supported Jesus and his disciples in their ministry. The disciples maintained a treasury from which they distributed aid to the poor (John 13:29). Jesus’ garment was of such quality that the Roman soldiers declined to cut it up (John 19:22-23). Wealthy men provided a tomb for his burial (John 19:38-40).

Early Christians worshiped in the homes of substantial citizens (e.g., Lydia, Acts 16:14-15) whose residences could accommodate an assembly. People like Paul with his entourage, or Priscilla and Aquila, could afford to travel through the Mediterranean world, booking passage on merchant ships. Paul was able to rent the lecture hall of Tyrannus to conduct his seminars (Acts 19:9).

The New Testament writings are the work of educated authors.

The New Testament writings are not the work of poor, uneducated peasants. They display a literary skill consistent with a high level of education, vast knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, and serious historical research (e.g., Luke’s introductions to his Gospel and Acts; a wealthy patron apparently underwrote the production and publication of these works, Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). The manner in which the gospels are constructed reveals a deep theological insight into Jesus’ own intent, and reveals his intellectual brilliance in reformulating the story of Israel around his own ministry.

Paul’s writings reveal a philosophical genius that has been said to equal or surpass that of pagan thinkers of the time. The New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, were multi-lingual, conversant with Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek (Jesus, Matthew 15:22-28), and perhaps Latin and various local languages such as Lycaonian (Acts 14:11).

The early church had the witness of the Scriptures.

The earliest Christians did not have a “New Testament;” their Scriptures were what we call the Old Testament, i.e. the Hebrew Scriptures of the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Thus they had the example of wealthy Israelite leaders such as Abraham, Joseph, and Solomon. Moreover, they had the counsel of the Book of Proverbs, that “the reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4), and such counsel was not lost on the New Testament church.

While Jesus made clear that excessive concern for wealth can be a hindrance to receiving the good news of God’s kingdom, he also promised a “hundredfold” material reward for his followers in the “age to come” (Mark 10:17-31). He also told a parable about faithful servants who used what they were entrusted with for material gain (Matthew 25:L14-23). Paul recognizes that some members of the Christian community will have ample resources to give “with generosity” (Romans 12:8), and underscores the Scriptural principle that “sowing” leads to reaping a reward (Galatians 6:7; cf. Malachi 3:10).

Suffering, in the New Testament, is not poverty or sickness.

While the New Testament refers to the suffering of Christians, this suffering is not poverty and sickness but persecution, because the message of the earliest Christians ran counter to prevailing societal norms. Among Jews, the inclusion of Gentiles threatened the exclusivist, revolutionary mentality of the Pharisees and others, about which Jesus warned them (Luke 13:1-5). Acknowledging Jesus as “Lord” threatened the Jewish understanding of monotheism, and it is clear that early Christians, while not abandoning monotheism, melded the work of Jesus into the activity of the Father (1 Corinthians 8:6; cf. Jesus’ words in John 14:9 and passim).

In the Roman world, the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” threatened the lordship of Caesar, who was worshiped as a god. For these reasons the activity of the followers of Jesus was accompanied by persecution. But Jesus taught his disciples to pray that they would not be subject to peirasmos, the testing of persecution (Matthew 6:13). Writing to Gaius, John reproduced the customary greeting of a letter writer, “I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health” (3 John 2); he saw no need to alter the greeting to reflect an expectation of illness and deprivation.

The purpose of Jesus’ coming is not to foster poverty and sickness.

The New Testament abounds with brief statements about the purpose for which Jesus has come. While he came to serve, and to seek and deliver the “lost,” he also came to impart abundant life (John 10:10) — however we take that phrase. He also came “to destroy the works of the evil one” (1 John 3:8). Since the “thief” comes to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10), logically the Son of God comes to do the opposite — that is, to bring blessing instead of curse, fulfilling the promise of God’s covenant and delivering his people from “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) in which pestilence, deprivation, exile and other evils are included (Deuteronomy 28). In so doing, Jesus comes to “deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4) so that the harsh circumstances of sickness, poverty, and ignorance that mark this age can be overcome. Part of Jesus’ stated mission, at the beginning of his preaching, is to bring “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18), which can hardly mean the continuation of their impoverished condition.

The New Testament church is a transitional phase in God’s purpose.

The New Testament is not the final story in God’s plan for his people. It is a transitional phase that records how the message of the kingdom of God was first proclaimed and spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The New Testament expresses the vision for a greater culmination: “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). “Every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus the Messiah is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). These were not realities achieved in the New Testament church, except by anticipation: “For whoever is in the Messiah, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The kingdom of God is like seed that takes root and eventually spreads throughout the earth (Matthew 13:31). The early church labored under great difficulty, but the difficulty was not supposed to last forever.

Two millennia of history show the beneficial results of Christian faith.

The history of those parts of the world that have been dominated by Christian influence reveals the beneficial impact of Christianity as a “health and wealth gospel.” The development of hospitals and charitable organizations, institutions for research and learning, and efforts to promote the public good has been the result of the practice of Christian virtues. The rights of the individual, valued by God as a creature in his own image, have become a cornerstone of human culture leading to such milestones as the abolition of slavery. Industrial initiative and the results of technology have, on the whole, benefited people across a spectrum of society. Poverty has diminished, pestilence has been curbed, and people have been freed to explore their possibilities in life to a degree not seen in parts of the world where this Christian “health and wealth gospel” has not been promulgated. (For a summary of the cultural and social impact of the spread of Christian faith, see John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? Zondervan, 2012.)

Opponents of the “health and wealth” gospel are inconsistent.

Critics of the “health and wealth” gospel take the supposed New Testament church as their model, claiming that the Christian life is subject to poverty and sickness. To be consistent, they should apply that model to all aspects of their life and witness. They should not have church buildings, or if they have them, not furnish them with electricity or flush toilets. They should avoid the use of radio, television, or the Internet to propagate their ideas. They should walk to all church meetings instead of riding in automobiles, and meet during the night only because there was no “weekend” as we know it in the Roman world. They should not use printed or electronic Bibles, which were unknown in the early church, but restrict their use of Scripture to oral or handwritten format.

Insistence that Christians must suffer poverty and illness is a “gospel” of works.

The “sickness and poverty gospel” nullifies the suffering of Jesus on our behalf. It claims we have to suffer in order to be true Christians. It is a “gospel” of works, not grace. In a world awash in poverty, illness, injustice, and all forms of oppression one wonders why any Christian would not choose to preach a gospel of deliverance from these evils.