Living in the Public Eye: How Jesus Related to the Masses and Why We Can’t Remain in the Crowd (Repost)
(Hey everyone! I am working hard getting the Sermon on the Mount book out. It is titled “The Way of Restoration: Following Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount”. In the meantime, I am reposting one of the posts in the series for you. Enjoy the sneak peak of the book to come!)
When Jesus came to the leader’s house, He saw the flute players and a crowd lamenting loudly. “Leave,” He said, “because the girl isn’t dead, but sleeping.” And they started laughing at Him. But when the crowd had been put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And this news spread throughout that whole area. (Matthew 9:23–26)
In this series of encounters with Jesus, we have seen Jesus interact with several distinct groups of people.
- With the sick and needy
- With the religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees)
- With his disciples
But there is a fourth group, often just called “the crowd” or “the crowds.” We first become aware of them at the end of Matthew 4, immediately after Jesus begins to heal the sick and cast out demons.
Large crowds followed Him from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan. When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. Then He began to teach them … (Matthew 4:25–5:2)
Ever since Jesus was launched into the public eye, the crowds have been there. They are a constant presence in the narrative of his life — a kind of background buzz in all the gospel stories.
Life in the Public Eye
When crowds first gathered around Jesus, he responded by preaching the Sermon on the Mount. It’s an idyllic picture: Jesus sitting on a mountaintop, teaching the ways of God. Crowds of people on the slopes, overlooking the sparkling waters of the Sea of Galilee, listening to the Son of God teach.
But that idyllic picture doesn’t really reflect reality. Jesus’ relationship with the crowds was far more mercurial than that. The few times when the crowd drives the action in the gospels, it’s usually because Jesus is trying to escape from them — by disappearing into the mountains, crossing the lake in a boat (or on foot), or just slipping away.
Sometimes he serves the crowds. Sometimes he teaches them. At other times they try to control or test him, and then he refuses to play the game.
The Needs of the Crowd
Sociologically, it’s a well-known fact that masses of people act differently than individuals or small groups do. A crowd is more than the sum of its parts. A mass of people, feeding off one another and acting together, becomes an entity all its own.
We describe this phenomenon in various ways: as mob mentality, groupthink, herd instinct. Peer pressure tends to drag people down, not up. Tragedies happen during the race to the bottom.
Jesus knew this. It’s probably why he didn’t waste energy trying to make crowds happy. He knew he could not personally meet every need, and he never tried. But when he looked at the crowds, he didn’t see an enemy. His heart went out to them too.
When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:36–38
The Burden of Celebrity
This particular story in Matthew 9 is one of the more negative interactions with a crowd. The mourners gathered at Jairus’s house mock and laugh at Jesus when he says the girl is sleeping, and Jesus does not raise her from the dead until he has summarily dismissed them.
All of this demonstrates a simple truth:
Life in the public eye is never simple. Celebrity comes with many burdens, internal and external. And few things can be more dangerous to the spiritual life of an individual than being catapulted to fame or influence.
Watching how Jesus handled his public role tells us a lot about him. And it also challenges us. It’s easy to follow Jesus in a crowd, when everyone is doing it and we can take our cues from those around us.
What’s hard is stepping out from the crowd and following him as an individual — as someone with a personal and relationship commitment to Christ that isn’t determined by social mores or the flow of what everyone else is doing.
The Pressure Cooker
We don’t know much about Jesus’ first thirty years on earth. But once he went public with his ministry and began to preach that the kingdom of God had come, the heat was on. Whether he liked it or not, life was no longer just about “me and God.”
With public ministry comes the awareness of other people. They are watching you. They are listening to everything you say and judging everything you do. They want something from you, pretty much all of the time.
With public ministry comes the heat of:
- Others’ expectations (“What do they want from me?”)
- Condemnation or approval (“How will they respond to this?”)
- Physical demands (When do you sleep? When do you eat? When do you get five minutes alone to think or build relationship with those who are close to you?)
The dynamics of a very large and very public ministry almost by nature push the minister toward shallower waters, toward compromise, or toward the deliberate cultivation of shock value.
Crowds make it hard to have close, personal relationships and accountability. They make it hard to pray; hard to study the Bible for oneself and not just as preparation for a message; and hard to separate our self-worth from the approval of people or the “results” we’re seeing in ministry.
We shouldn’t really be surprised when people go off the deep end after getting famous. We should be surprised when they don’t.
How Jesus Handled the Pressure
We begin serving God publicly for a reason. We have a vision, a goal. We have a mission or a message. We got this from God. It was all about obedience to his calling, faithfulness to his Spirit.
But now there are so many other opinions involved. Now there are other voices. Now there are other goals, visions, and desires intersecting with ours.
Jesus seems to have accepted right from the start that he could not please everyone, and that he wasn’t supposed to. He allowed controversy and sometimes deliberately provoked it, but he never gave way to showmanship or the pressure to keep crowds interested and entertained. He loved people, but he didn’t bend over backwards to keep them happy.
Instead, he kept his eyes on the Father. Jesus ran away from the crowds in order to seek out solitude and pray. He maintained a constant inner dialogue with God. He kept himself firmly rooted in the Scriptures, especially the words of the prophets concerning himself, and lived out of that identity.
In his relationships, Jesus prioritized individuals. He chose twelve men to invest heavily in, and he spent more time speaking privately with them than he did teaching the large crowds. Of those twelve, he chose another three to befriend even more closely and disciple even more personally.
In his mission, Jesus never wavered from his path. He knew he was journeying toward the cross, and the whims of the crowds never changed that.
Jesus’ key heart attitude was always love for the Father and obedience to him. Beyond that, he cared for individuals and invested in them, without letting the needs and demands of the masses overtake those personal relationships.
At the same time, he never gave way to an attitude of frustration or resentment toward the crowds. He was able to look at a mass of people and see the hearts and needs of the individuals within it.
Stepping Out of the Crowd
For us, Jesus’ example serves as a powerful reminder that we don’t have to be controlled by others or by the challenges of celebrity. In a time when we all live our lives far more publicly than at any time in the past — Facebook alone has made that a reality — we all need to know this.
It’s possible to keep our eyes on God, to remember who we really are in his eyes, and to stay the course, no matter how many people are watching or how many external pressures we feel.
But as we examine Jesus’ relationship with crowds, I hope we also hear the call to step out of them.
Sometimes, being part of a crowd leads us to do good things. On many occasions, the crowd supported Jesus against the Pharisees. But when mass opinion changes, we can find ourselves very much in the wrong.
In the end, the same crowds that welcomed and followed Jesus were among the primary drivers of the crucifixion. It was the threat of mob violence, as they cried out “Crucify him!”, that ultimately swayed Pilate to pass a death sentence on Jesus.
Ultimately, we can’t follow Jesus and popular opinion at the same time. We can’t measure our progress or understand our calling purely in terms of what everyone around us — at church, at home, or in society — is doing or expects of us.
We need to leave the crowds and become disciples instead, following Jesus individually and learning from him. We need to catch his vision, his mission, his identity, and his compassion.
- We need to let Jesus set our expectations rather than expecting him to conform to ours
- We need to seek him — to ask what he is doing, to seek to understand his heart. We need to develop a rich prayer life and learn from the Scriptures.
- We need to let our attitudes and habits be shaped by the Spirit and not primarily by our peers. When “groupthink” is out of step with the Spirit, we must be willing to be challenged and to change our behavior, even if we have to do it alone.
Ultimately, we must see ourselves as disciples of Jesus, willing to step out and follow him even if it costs us, makes us unpopular or uncomfortable, or requires us to abandon conformity and embrace a cross.
We don’t do this for the sake of rebellion or feeling superior to other people, but out of a secure identity as children of God, a heartfelt zeal for the will of God, and a deep compassion for those who are still sheep without a shepherd.
I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!
This is Part 129 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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