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.