Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 23, 2014
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
— Matthew 8:18-22, ESV
One of the interesting things to do in Bible study is to put yourself back in Jesus’ day. Imagine that you are a Galilean in close proximity to the doings and sayings of the Lord. Would you be an impetuous leader like Simon Peter, or a devoted follower like John, or a selfish traitor like Judas Iscariot, or one of the many mostly disinterested spectators? I’m sure there is a character for everyone if we all were to put ourselves in their first century shoes.
Now, let’s do the opposite. Instead of putting ourselves back in Jesus’ day, let’s bring Him into our time. Imagine Christ as a teacher and preacher in today’s world, a perfect peg in a most imperfect hole. I am convinced, by Scripture, that our Lord would be almost the opposite of the caricature of today’s minister of the gospel.
Jesus was typically turned off by crowds.
Modern ministers measure themselves by the crowds, and most of them will sell their souls to get them. Some manufacture miracles in order to draw large crowds, and I’ll bet they can tell you how much money comes in per capita. The so-called seeker sensitive movement gained popularity by growing attendance through offering services that were long on comfort and entertainment but short on word and sacrament. Preachers with egos the size of an ocean now beam themselves onto big screens so that their church can claim the biggest congregation through multiple locations, totally defying Christ’s model of the incarnational ministry of the word. The first question they ask on Sunday is, “What is our attendance,” and the first question they ask on Monday is, “How can we get more people in the seats.” This turns ministry into marketing and measures success by worldly means.
Jesus never saw a good crowd He could not disperse. He had a curious way of thinning the crowd, usually with tough teaching that few wanted to follow. Other times, Jesus would turn the crowd away by simply turning away. In the case at hand, “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side” (ref. vs. 18). Jesus could draw a crowd without even trying, then He would try to make it go away, save for the few sincere souls who truly understood what it means to be a true follower of Jesus Christ. Maybe that should be our model for ministry in the modern world, too.
By no means is it wrong for a church to grow, it should. By no means is it wrong to strive to reach more people and engage them in biblical worship and teaching, if biblical worship and teaching is what you are offering. By no means is it wrong to count people, for people certainly count with God. It is just plain wrong to measure a person’s ministry by the number of people that it draws.
Jesus left this earth after a three-year ministry that gained Him a net following of about 120 people. Simon Peter took over leadership and gained thousands with his first sermon. Is Simon Peter superior to Jesus Christ because of the numbers? William Carey, the father of the modern missions movement, had virtually no converts to Christianity after his first seven years in India. Was he a failure? Joel O’Steen draws the biggest crowd of any church in North America. Need I say more?
Let us never worry about the quantity of people in our ministry, but rather let us concern ourselves with the quality of our ministry to people. Make sure the measure of quality is the word of God, not the latest book on church growth. And if it draws a crowd, make sure it is one in which Jesus would not want to turn away and go to the other side.
Jesus was not impressed with professions of faith.
Right before Jesus made His getaway, a young man, a scribe at that, came forward to make a profession of faith. “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” he said. Even though Jesus did not have the Apostles singing in the background, and even though our Lord was not standing at the front begging people to “take that first step for God and God will take the rest,” and even though counselors were not standing by to help people fill out membership cards, this man still came forward to profess his faith to Jesus. And Jesus could not have been more unimpressed.
Most evangelical churches pride themselves on being evangelistic because they offer a five-minute-or-less way to become a Christian. It comes packaged in neat witnessing programs that offer a few steps, a couple of verses, and a single prayer. Or, it comes tacked on to the end of a worship service were people are manipulated to get up out of their seat and come forward for an instant resurrection into eternal life. Then, the ministries or churches can promote the many professions of faith they have received, even though the vast majority of such professions show no enduring evidence of discipleship. But, in our day, such statistics are impressive.
But, not to Jesus. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus call for or call us to collect professions of faith. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus ask for or ask us to ask for decisions for Christ. Imagine the professions of faith Jesus could have counted after performing a string of miracles like the ones mentioned which immediately preceded this passage. Imagine the number of decisions Jesus could have counted if He was in to counting decisions. But Jesus is the opposite of most evangelical ministers and churches.
Jesus did not tell us to go and make decisions. He told us to go and make disciples. It is a process that requires persistence. It requires no manipulation but leaves room for the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. It focuses less on crowds and numbers than it does on the individual and the soul. Soul work is patient, hard work, the kind Jesus did, and the opposite of the cheap grace offered today by Christianity Lite.
Jesus preached a costly gospel rather than cheap grace.
Bill joined a church when he was a kid. Under intense pressure, he walked that aisle and prayed that prayer. He attended regularly for weeks, worship and youth group. Soon his attendance was sporadic, then occasional, and now as an adult, Bill goes to church some years on Easter. He was part of a record number of baptisms that year, but in the years since he discovered sex, drugs, and rock and roll, public worship became boring and unimportant, his Bible never cracked its way open, but bless the Lord, Bill still has Jesus in his heart and is one of the many millions of Southern Baptists world-wide!
Such cheap grace began to infiltrate the church in the 19th century, then came rolling in like thunder in the 20th century. That’s why stout men like J.C. Ryle said in the 19th century, “Nothing, in fact, has done more harm to Christianity than the practice of filling the ranks of Christ’s army with every volunteer who is willing to make a little profession, and to talk fluently of his experience.” And that’s why courageous scholars like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote books in the 20th century like “The Cost of Discipleship.” Finally, in our 21st century, the charade continues on most evangelical fronts, but there is a serious movement to do the opposite, to be like Jesus, when it comes to preaching the gospel and making disciples.
Note how in this gospel story, when the scribe popped up to make a quick profession, Jesus told him,“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, if you’re serious about becoming a Christian, you may lose you family and friends and wind up homeless. Perhaps hearing this meaning in the message, the next professor cautiously said, then heard Jesus say, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Jewish law required burial of a dead body on the day of death, so this man’s father wasn’t dying that day, or probably any day in the near future. Jesus was simply saying that to become a follower of Christ, family ties, comfortable jobs, luxuries, and even some necessities get lost in the train behind the engine that is total commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Jesus preached a costly gospel of commitment, and committed it to His true disciples to proclaim afterward. It is the true gospel that is not sugar-coated. It is the true gospel that demands true repentance from sin. It is the true gospel that requires evidence of true, active, and persevering faith.
So follow Jesus, the Opposite. The size of the crowd does not matter to the Lord, but faithfulness in the individual Christian and collective church is what counts. Emotions and feelings are not impressive to Him, truth and commitment are what He seeks. A past experience of a profession of faith is virtually irrelevant, but He does want to know if you love Him, worship Him, and will serve Him now and forever. Christ, the Opposite, is quite demanding, and all He demands is your all. Have you given it to Him, or are you holding back and doing the opposite?