“Jesus departed with his disciples to the sea, and a large crowd followed from Galilee, and a large crowd followed from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and around Tyre and Sidon. The large crowd came to him because they heard about everything he was doing.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
It’s amazing how much power a crowd of people has. When we see a crowd of people there is something in us that wants to do whatever the crowd wants to do. Think about a concert. Things are drawing to a close and someone shouts, “One more song!” Suddenly, the whole room is stomping their feet and clapping their hands chanting for more. Every kid tries at least once to justify something he wants with the reasoning that “everyone is doing it.” A large enough mob can overcome just about any force. Crowds are powerful. And Jesus could draw them like nobody could. What does that mean for us?
One of the consistent themes of the Gospels was the crowds who followed Jesus around the region as He traveled and taught. They were with Him all the time. Part of that would have been exciting–who doesn’t want a lot of people to take notice of who they are and what they are doing? To a certain degree, social media has made that longing sharper today than it has ever been.
But part of it too would have been exhausting. How many celebrities have eventually collapsed under the weight of their fame. Having people around is good. Having lots of people around all the time, all of whom always want something from you, and never getting a moment that is truly to yourself, however, is not.
And the various Gospel authors all make clear that while Jesus loved the crowds, He didn’t trust them. He was constantly wary of them. He knew they could turn on Him in an instant and they sometimes did. People are fickle creatures when we are by ourselves. In large groups that becomes exaggerated. Quit putting on the show they came to see and they’ll turn on you 180 degrees in an instant.
But why was it the crowds followed Him everywhere He went? That should seem obvious, I know, but I want to think about it with you for just a minute this morning and think further about what it means for the church today.
On a quick read, this is one of those passages that seems like a bit of a throwaway. It’s a transitionary passage that allows Mark to begin to take his narrative of Jesus’ ministry from being centered pretty tightly around Capernaum, to a more regionally focused one. It’s basically a summary: Jesus drew big crowds and healed lots of people. And yet, all Scripture is useful and this fits in the category of “all Scripture,” so what does this mean for us?
We see here a couple of things that I think are worthy of pausing to take note. The first is the nature of the crowds. There were people coming from all over to see Jesus. It wasn’t just people who were from His home region and were thus generally like Him who were drawn to Him. There were people traveling from fairly far-off and diverse places to experience what He was doing. In other words, the things He was doing were starting to attract people who were not like Him.
And that’s the second thing. Mark is clear here that it wasn’t Jesus’ teachings that drew the crowds. Oh, they marveled at His teachings once He had them, but that wasn’t the draw. The draw was the things He was doing. It was the healings and the exorcisms and the miracles whose talk spread far and wide and led people to leave their homes and businesses and travel to see this man who might be the Messiah.
Think about that with me for a second. The things Jesus did were rooted firmly in what He taught and believed. They went part and parcel with them. They were the natural fruits of the kinds of things He was saying. He was practicing what He preached. But He was practicing it. That’s the key. He didn’t just speak about the hope of the kingdom of God, He brought hope to people by alleviating their burdens and illnesses. He didn’t just boast about the love of the Father, He demonstrated it actively everywhere He went. The wonder of Heaven was on display every time He did a miracle. And when He did all these things, people came. People came from all over. People came who were nothing like Him. Some people came even though they didn’t like Him. The things He was doing were simply too powerful to ignore.
There is a belief among many churches today–sometimes expressed explicitly and sometimes merely borne out by their actions–that if we simply proclaim the truth about Jesus, that will be enough. If we will just proclaim the Gospel, the world will listen and turn. And this thinking isn’t entirely in error. People have to hear the truth if they are going to accept it. Remember what Paul said in Romans 10? “How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.'” There you have it. We need to proclaim the Gospel.
While proclaiming the Gospel is absolutely vital and we should be doing that in all the places we can with all the fervency we can, if there’s no one around to hear it, what good does that accomplish? Or, if we proclaim the truth only to small crowds of people who have already accepted it, who does that save? Jesus was an incredible teacher, but before He started ramping up His teaching ministry to full tilt, He primed the pump by doing things that were going to draw a crowd. And the crowds came.
I live and minister in a culture where annual revival services are a common part of the lifecycle of many churches. Usually they happen around this time of year. Churches put them on their signs and treat these as major outreach events. And nobody comes. Well, nobody who’s not already a believer and either a member of the church or a member of another church who grew up with this lifecycle and attends as much for social reasons as spiritual ones. And then these same churches do almost nothing for the rest of the year that would give someone who is not already a believer, much less a non-believer who is not like them, a reason to come and see what is happening there. They don’t do anything that might possibly draw a crowd. And then they wonder why crowds don’t come to their revival services.
Given the state of our culture today, absent the direct movement of God’s Spirit which is always an open possibility, no one is going to come to a church advertising revival services. It’s just not going to happen. We’ve got to be actively out in the community doing the kinds of things that get people’s interest. We need to be working to draw a crowd. This doesn’t mean we compromise convictions or go beyond our means to put on a show for the sake of putting on a show. But every community has some rhythms in which everyone participates in one way or another. As the church, we’ve got to be taking the lead in these things and making sure the community knows we are taking the lead in these things. And this not simply so we can draw attention to ourselves, but so we can build a reputation of loving our community with no strings attached. Then, once we have their attention, we proclaim the Gospel.
If we want to get the attention Jesus got, so that we can proclaim the kingdom as He did, we’ve got to do the kinds of things Jesus did. Again, the crowds came because they heard about everything He was doing. Come on, church: What are you doing? How are you investing in the life of your community in such a way that crowds are coming to see it? This isn’t just about drawing in lots of people so we can all have big churches. Far from it. But people are essential to the mission of the church. If we aren’t attracting them in at least some form or fashion, it may be time to ask some hard questions about just how on mission we really are. Just some food for thought from a reflection on Jesus’ own ministry.