Jesus and the crowds
A CONSTANT FEATURE of the ministry of Jesus was the crowds that followed Him. This is not surprising as the teachings of Jesus were refreshingly simple, cutting away the excess debris of human philosophy and rules, and getting to the heart of the matter.
Listening to Jesus, the crowds were astonished both at what He said and how He said it – with such authority. And He matched His walk with His talk, for though His enemies tried to pin Him down with all kinds of accusations, His character shone through. He also performed many miracles as He healed the sick and drove out tormenting evil spirits from imprisoned souls. The crowds were naturally attracted to Him.
But the Lord was not swayed by the crowds. He refused to measure success by the numbers in the crowd. As Gordon MacDonald wisely observes, “Jesus seemed unconcerned with empty seats.” He was focused on producing deep people rather than super-crowds. There were several times when Jesus avoided the crowds. For example, at one time, when Jesus saw a crowd forming by the Sea of Galilee, He ordered His disciples to cross by boat to the other side of the lake. It appears that Jesus was trying to get away from the crowds. He had done many miracles and His popularity was rising. One would have thought that He would have seized the opportunity to build up the crowd’s response. Instead He sought to move away from the crowds.
Jesus knew the Scriptures and was aware how dangerous crowds could be. The Hebrew Scriptures do point out the many negative features of crowds. God’s Law warns, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong” (Ex. 23:2). In this context the temptation was to follow the wishes of the crowd even if it was clearly wrong, to side with the crowd and pervert justice. This, ironically, happened to Jesus when He was tried unjustly and crucified by the actions of a violent and rebellious mob. There were a few brave men who tried to speak against the crowd’s blind and twisted thinking, but the vast majority of them were crowd-followers, taking the apparently safe route of pleasing the crowd (Mt. 27:24).
The Hebrew Scriptures also speak about a “hostile crowd” (Judges 6:31), a “noisy crowd of evildoers” (Ps. 64:2), “a crowd of unfaithful people” (Jer. 9:2), and the tempting “noise of a carefree crowd” (Ezek. 23:42). The potential temptations of a crowd were well-known to Jesus. That is why though He was followed by crowds, He refused to submit to their popular agendas or be swayed by their herd instincts.
The Lord protected Himself from the crowd by praying and maintaining a deep relationship with His Father. After a long and busy Sabbath day ministering to the crowds, He intentionally got up very early in the morning to pray and centre Himself in the Father’s will and purposes (Mk. 1:35). After miraculously feeding a huge crowd with just five loaves and two fish, Jesus dismissed the crowd and spent time praying alone (Mk. 6:45-46). Obviously He wanted to hear His Father more than the crowd. It was this rootedness in the life and will of His Father that enabled Jesus to address the popular demands of the crowd that persistently followed Him.
Realising the crowd was following Him for the wrong reasons (for they wanted only material and temporal benefits) Jesus said some unpalatable things – about the need to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to gain eternal life (Jn. 6:53-58). His earth-bound listeners found this to be “hard teaching” and many turned away (Jn. 6:60, 66). It is strange how Jesus seemed keen to reduce the size of the crowds that followed Him.
ON ANOTHER OCCASION, when “large crowds were travelling with Jesus”, He turned to them and talked about how difficult it was to be His disciple – it was not a holiday, but a journey on the way of the cross (Lk. 14:25-35). I wonder how significantly the crowd was reduced after what Jesus had to say.
If the Lord’s stance regarding crowds was one of caution and a refusal to be shaped by the crowds, it became the very basis of His compassionate ministry among the crowds. In order to minister effectively, we must remember that we are called to be in the world but not of the world. The Lord’s freedom from the “wants” of the crowds gave Him liberty to minister to the real needs of the crowds. Thus, when “he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them” (Mt. 9:36; 14:14).
When Jesus saw the crowds, He saw the individuals in the crowds. Just think of Levi (Mk. 2:13-14) or the woman who bled for 12 years (Mk. 5:24-34) or blind Bartimaeus (Mk. 10:46-52). In each case, Jesus picked out the individual in the crowd. Not only that, Jesus had the power to transform a crowd into a community.
Take the feeding of the 5,000. We don’t know the details of how the miracle took place. Let us imagine this possible scene. Jesus breaks the bread and distributes it. Ten people have half loaves with them. They could have eaten them with gratitude, but they find it difficult to eat their bread with hungry faces looking at them. The action of Jesus inspires them to break the piece of bread in their own hands into two, and to give one of the pieces to another person. Somehow both the piece they keep and the piece they give away seem to have miraculously grown in size so that it is enough for them. Soon there is a wave of bread-breaking. People begin to recognise that something awesome is happening among them as they break bread. Jesus has miraculously transformed, even if for a moment, a selfish crowd of masks into a loving, sharing community of faces.
In church we must heed Scripture’s many warnings about crowds. We must stay close to Jesus who teaches us what to do about the crowds. Then we will not follow and ape the crowds but, rather, humbly see them with compassion and allow Jesus to minister to the individuals within them and transform the crowds that attend our churches into communities that reflect His glory.
NO POPULAR AGENDAS
“The potential temptations of a crowd were well-known to Jesus. That is why though He was followed by crowds, He refused to submit to their popular agendas or be swayed by their herd instincts.”