TODAY’S READING: Matthew 12; Mark 3; Luke 6
Ministry constantly tempts us to focus on the multitudes over intimate disciples. All three of today’s passages refer to the multitudes, and the general sense is that the exuberance of the crowd was more of a challenge than a blessing (Mark 3:9). Mark’s gospel makes a clear distinction between the multitude and the twelve disciples (vv. 7, 14), and Matthew compares Jesus’ efforts to limit the spread of His fame to the example of the Messiah in Isaiah 42:1–4. In context, the Messiah was lowly at home because He had the goal of declaring the gospel to the Gentiles in the power of the Spirit.
All God’s people are called to be missionary in spirit and function. For some that means to go; for others that means to send. Leaders and laity called to stay home that the gospel may span the globe would do well to learn from Jesus’ example. He was never seduced by numbers; He realized that crowds carry with them contingencies which demand so much energy that the global mandate becomes lost. We have so magnified the importance of church growth that we pursue it, even when our size then prohibits us being missional. Jesus resisted the temptation to have a large following and instead focused on discipling a few, for He realized (and desires we would realize, too) that it’s not large ministries that change the world, but it’s faithful disciples.
Intentionally making His ministry small, Jesus spent all night in prayer that He might choose twelve faithful, available, teachable men to be with Him (Luke 6:12; Mark 3:14–15). He then trained them to preach, going out into all the world loving their enemies. Jesus knew that the enemy would use the tool of popularity to distract us from world mission, and He knew that when we were on point, we would fill others with rage and they would seek to destroy (Matt. 12:14; Luke 6:11). To be missionary in focus is to go toward wrath and opposition from both within and without. We will be accused of all kinds of evils when we stand firmly for the priority of the evangelization of the unreached. One of the reasons God uses smaller, nimbler collections of people to spread His fame around the nations is that intimacy allows greater agreement. The bigger you are, the more general you must be in theology and the more generous (to a fault) in inclusion. Jesus knew that when you get big you tend to lose control of focus; He intentionally stayed small so He could stay true.
It is obviously not either/or. The example of Jesus is that large groups only stay true if founded on smaller gatherings of intimate disciples focused on preaching the gospel in all the world, even to enemies. By all means, let the church continue to grow in size as long as that growth is spurred and cultivated in intimate collections of disciples in mission-based relationship. This is after all the point of Jesus in Matthew 12:50: Who are His brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers? Not those in big groups (necessarily or automatically), but those who do His will. What is His will? That none perish. That every people group is represented around the throne. That we go out in missionary bands and preach the gospel among our enemies. Jesus-oriented mission humbly distances itself from large groups with all the attending distractions and focuses on an intimate band of disciples, raising them up to preach the gospel and change the world.