Christ And The Crowd
Sermon preached by Dr. Vance Havner at The Moody Church on Sunday August 14, 1960.
This is the age of the crowd. There are more of us than there has been before, and we are more crowd-conscious—everything is geared to the multitude. In the religious world the most successful preacher is the one who packs the church, and the most successful church is the one with the biggest statistics. While we are counting numbers, we have failed to make numbers count. We’re many but we’re not much, and that would apply to church members pretty generally today.
Of course, the church has a mission to the multitude. The Gospel is for the millions, but our measurement today is size rather than sort, and quantity instead of quality. We need to recover our sanity before we go off the deep end, and if we are to recover our equilibrium on this subject, we ought to study our Lord’s attitude toward the crowd, for here as elsewhere, He is our example and He sets the pattern.
We know that He preached to crowds. He was the bearer of good news to the multitude, and His teaching and His healing attracted thousands. There is a constant refrain running through the Gospel: “Great multitudes followed Him.” They came to Him from every quarter; they trod one upon another; they pressed upon Him so that He must use a boat for a pulpit; they packed the house so that the paralytic had to be let down through the roof. Crowds!
What was the Lord’s attitude towards the crowd? “When He saw the multitude, He was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted and were scattered abroad as sheep having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). He did not conform to the crowd in order to win their favor. He did not condescend to the crowd with a spirit of proud superiority. He did not criticize the crowd or lambaste them for their sin. He had compassion, which means not just being sorry for but feeling with the multitude. He regarded them as shepherdless sheep. I don’t know of any better description of a crowd, then or now. We won’t ever be able to help them if we approach them with an air of condescension or criticism, and if on Sunday morning we face the congregation with all their heartaches, fears and worries without compassion, then we’re not fit to face them at all. The people have come to church on Sunday morning fresh from the rat race and the old salt mines where they have been working all week. They are not interested in a clever little discourse. They want to hear something that will send them out prepared for Monday and Tuesday and all the rest of the week. And in order to have that, there must be compassion. Our Lord had compassion, but while He was compassionate, the Teacher did not commit Himself to the throng, and the Master never did trust the multitude.
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). He knew that a crowd is the most undependable thing on the face of the Earth. He did not build His work on a mass movement. He knew the day would come when mass crowds would cry, “Crucify Him.” Where was His crowd when He was on trial? Where was His crowd at the crucifixion? Where was His crowd just before Pentecost? We need to learn this lesson. Compassion, but never committal to the crowd. The multitude is the most treacherous thing on the face of the Earth. It can be a moving thing, and then it can become a monster.
So our Lord escapes from it every once in a while: “Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about Him, He gave commandment to depart on to the other side” (Matthew 8:18). Now that is strange, isn’t it? Here was a great crowd of people and all our Lord said was, “Let’s take off and go somewhere else.” There’s a time to escape from the crowd and if you don’t, you’re likely to be swallowed up and assimilated by it.
In the first place, our Lord not only had compassion on the crowd and did not conform to it, but He thinned it out by His preaching, which is a startling thing to us crowd-crazy Americans today, but He did (John 6). Sometimes I call this, “When Jesus lost His crowd.” One of the greatest disasters which can happen to the average preacher today is to lose his crowd, and some of them practically have a nervous breakdown if the congregation shows signs of dwindling. And yet the King of kings, the Son of God, and the Prince of preachers preached His crowd away. Before He began His sermon, they wanted to make a king out of Him. When He got through with it, He didn’t have anybody left but the irreducible minimum, and turning to them said, “Are you going too?” Peter said, “Where would we go?” Now that’s a new turn of events, isn’t it? After verse 41, “The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the Bread that came down from heaven,” there is a gradual defection. “The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). “Many therefore of his disciples, when they heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” (v. 60). We don’t like this preacher! “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (v. 66). Can a man be true to God’s message and hold a crowd today? My Lord lost the multitude, but He never lowered the message. Some preachers today might say, “Well, maybe that was a little severe, so perhaps I’d better mollify the thing a bit.” The Lord said, “No man can come to me except it were given him of my Father.” And that wasn’t a very popular thing to say, and a very difficult one to understand. Many of His disciples went away and walked no more with Him, so it got around to the faithful few.
That sort of doctrine and preaching will thin out a crowd today, even in church. You tell the average Sunday morning congregation in America that Jesus is not only our Saviour but our Sustenance, that He is our Bread, our Meat, our Drink. Not only was the Passover Lamb slain, and the blood put on the doorposts, but the flesh was eaten. Tell them that it is a mockery to go through the Lord’s Supper and all that it implies, to sing, “Break Thou, the bread of life,” and feed on trash all week and scarcely open the Word of God. Tell them that they must feed on Christ for every need of their lives if He is to be their meat and drink, and a lot of your congregation will say, “This is a hard saying, I don’t care for this,” because they cannot endure sound doctrine. We’ve come all the way from heart-burn to ear-itch in the last generation or so.
It was old Alexander Whyte who said, “The true preacher may have, and usually has, but few people, as people go in our day, and the better the preacher sometimes the smaller the flock.” It was so in our Master’s day. The multitude followed Him for the loaves, but they fled from the feeding doctrine. So He first tasted that dejection and sense of defeat which many of His best servants are fed on in this world. Our Lord did not trim His pulpit to the taste of the loungers of Galilee. No more will a preacher worth the name do anything else but press deeper and deeper into the depths of truth and life, as was the case with the Master till His followers, though few, would be all the more worth having.
Today we have an obsession over numbers, and it is the crowning disgrace to have a small congregation. We are so crowd-conscious that a lot of people don’t even enjoy a meeting if there aren’t at least a thousand there. We forget that some of the greatest decisions in all the history of the church were made where a handful of people had assembled, as with John Wesley’s conversion and Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s conversion. Some people do not fear sin half as much as they fear a sub-standard report on an off-Sunday. We are ransacking books, and studying stunts, and borrowing from Hollywood all in an effort to fill the auditorium when maybe it needs to be emptied.
It was Dr. W.E. Orchard who went to a certain church where a very sensational preacher was packing them out, and he sat back there and said to his wife, “Dear me, I would never be able to fill this place. I’d never be able to do this.” She said, “No dear, but you might empty it.” Sometimes that wouldn’t be a bad idea!
The business of a preacher is not to fill the church. The business of a preacher is to fill the pulpit, and it’s the business of the members to fill the church. God never called preachers to fill the auditorium. He told you to go out into the highways and hedges and bring them in. He told you to go out fishing. The Lord didn’t put a barrow in the front of the church for the fish to come and jump in. He sent us out after them. That is our responsibility. The full church is not always an indication of sound preaching. Some men who aren’t preaching the truth of God at all are preaching to full auditoriums. I’ve heard it said, “Feed them and they’ll come.” It all depends on what you mean by “feed,” and what you mean by “them.” Unregenerate people have no appetite for the Word of God. God’s people will come for the Word of God if they haven’t fed all week on the trash that the world offers now. But you have to have an appetite for the Word of God, and you get that when you are born again. There’s a famine of the hearing of the Word of the Lord today.
What kind of sermon was this that cost the Lord His crowd? When He fed the five thousand, they said, “Let’s make Him a king! If He can do that, why, He can break the yoke of Roman bondage: He can give us independence. He can lead us into a promised land of peace and prosperity, two chickens in every pot, three cars in every garage.” Our Lord said to them, in effect, “You are following Me for bread for your bodies. I did not come into the world to serve a worldwide picnic. I came to give you the Bread of God. I am the Bread of Life, and except you feed on me, you have no life.” We are only saved by the blood of Christ, we are sustained by the bread of Christ. Yet churches are filled with thousands of members who profess to avail themselves of the benefits of the blood who care nothing about the blessing of the bread. They want all the blessings and none of the obligations. The Israelites ate all of the Passover lamb, and Christ in His fullness must be appropriated by faith for every need. They ate it right on the spot, not later, and the time to feed on Christ is now. They ate it with bitter herbs and we are to feed on Christ with a humble and contrite heart. They ate ready to go, and you and I are pilgrims and strangers, our home is not here. There was no work connected with the Passover, and we are not to mix our own work with the finished work of Christ. They ate it with unleavened bread, and we are to purge our hearts from the leaven of sin and wickedness. The average church member today has no appetite for the Bread of Heaven on Sunday because he has fed all week on the garlic and the onions of Egypt. You cannot gorge on the garbage of radio, television, and magazine filth, and sit goggle-eyed all week admiring popular entertainers who make a joke of marriage and think nothing of breaking up homes to satisfy their lust, and then have any taste for the Bread of God.
What does it mean to feed on Jesus? The people said, “We don’t understand what you are talking about.” And He said, “Does this offend you? The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.” We feed on the living Word as we read and inwardly digest the written word: “If ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you”; “If ye love Me, ye will keep My word”; “Whosoever shall be ashamed of Me and My word”—Have you ever thought about that? Some people say, “I’m not ashamed of Jesus,” but they are ashamed of some things He said because they won’t do them, or obey them, or pay the price of conformity to His pattern.
What does it mean to feed on Christ? It means more than merely reading the Scriptures; it means more than memorizing the Scriptures, which is a good thing, but knowing the Bible by heart is not the same thing as knowing it from memory. “Thy Word have I hid in my heart.” You can have a head full of Scripture and a heart full of sin. It is well to memorize the Word of God, but just because you don’t happen to remember everything you read doesn’t mean you didn’t get some benefit from it. If you read with a sincere heart and with a prayer that the Spirit would apply it to your need, you’re benefiting from it now. The Pharisees spliced the Scriptures and divided them, took them apart and put them back together, but they didn’t know the Christ. The Word of God is a love-letter and you must receive it in the spirit in which it is written. Did you ever hear of a girl who took a love-letter from her beloved, and instead of getting the inner message and reading between the lines, took it apart and put all the nouns in one row, all the verbs in another, and all the adjectives in another row? Some people do that with the Word of God, and never get the message of God’s love. You can work in a bread shop, and study bread, and analyze bread, and take bread apart, and put bread back together, and starve to death if you don’t eat bread. It’s a good thing to read the Bible and memorize it, but all of the appreciation must be accompanied by the appropriation.
To feed on Christ means the conscious appropriation by simple faith of the living Christ for every need, moment by moment. God has provided everything in Jesus Christ. He spared not His own Son, but with Him He has freely given us all things. He is able to make all grace to abound so that we always, having all sufficiency in everything, for every need, shall abound to every good work. “My grace is sufficient for thee.” “I can do all things through Christ…” God has made no promise in the Scriptures to the saints that He will not fulfill in the Son by the Spirit. There will always be enough of everything I need to do all that I need as long as God wants me to do it. That ought to take care of everything. It’s not enough to read these promises and just say, “Isn’t it wonderful?” Translate it into your own flesh and blood. This means that at the beginning of the day you say, “Lord Jesus, Thou art my meat and drink. By faith I take thee for every need this day, my very life.” To live is not to live for Christ, or to live like Christ, but “for me to live is Christ.” And it issues in obedience, mind you, because “My meat,” my Lord says, “is to do the will of My Father,” and you are to do what you hear else you deceive yourself.
There is a popular interest in our Lord today just as there was in His time with the crowd that wanted to make Him king. Sometimes we see great multitudes, but not many disciples want to crown Him today. But our Lord stands today as then, and He won’t change His message to hold His crowd. He is as unpopular as ever. Sunday morning disciples will disappear before this kind of preaching, but some of us are determined to remain. There might be a Peter and a Judas who would deny all and would betray Him, but where else can we go? He has the words of eternal life. They germinate and sprout; we believe and are sure that He is Christ, the Son of God. Yes, He thinned His crowd. In Luke 14:25-33 the Lord gave the multitude three ‘cannots’ in a row. That would thin any crowd. It’s a wonder He had any followers at all. He knew the peril of a cheap mass movement. He deliberately preached cross-bearing, forsaking all else, and a love for Him so profound that all other loves were as hatred in comparison. He said, Let the dead bury the dead. He never lowered His terms to win the disciple. Today we are so carried away with size that everything is geared to bigness, and soon the crowd is unwieldy. Along with the extensive drive for the multitude, unless we have an intensive development of a minority, we are going to be swamped by our own numbers. The average church today is the greatest mission field anywhere. Our Lord’s program is still our pattern. We mistake motion for progress; we mistake activity for spirituality; and a lot of folks don’t know the difference between a crowd and a congregation.
Americans think in big figures. It’s pretty hard to find any American standards in the New Testament. Communism has borrowed His technique—the children of this world, men of the devil, are wiser than the children of light. Communism does not depend on the masses, but on the dedicated few. We Christians have forgotten our blueprint. We are trying to accomplish by a host what God would do by a handful. We are so interested in mobilization that it has become mob-ilization.
We need the extensive movement indeed to reach the masses, but unless in these crowds we gather and train a little band of Christians, disciples and witnesses as well as believers, we’ll be smothered in our own statistics. We must begin with a few, Dr. Torrey said, in order to have revival. Let a few members of any church get thoroughly right with God themselves. Most church members don’t respond en masse, but even in this Laodicean age, some will hear the Lord’s voice and open the door, and He will sup with them and they with Him. They will become [wooden sticks] set on fire from above. The only way to meet the problem of the crowd is with the pattern of the Christ. Look on them as shepherdless sheep with compassion. Do not become conformed to them, but challenge them with the message of our Lord that will divide: there was a division of the people on account of Him. Then He called out from that crowd a minority and a people for His name. God help us in these days to remember that if we do act in the scriptural way, we will have multitudes added, both of men and women.