[K:NWTS 2/2 (Sep 1987) 29-40]
And When He Saw the Multitudes
Jesus preaches the gospel of the kingdom and demonstrates its power and the crowds gather (Mt. 4:17, 23ff.). When they do, he measures them in ways that more than estimate their size and apparent eagerness. His eyes judiciously survey them. He penetrates them as if, in their soul, they are transparent to him. His scrutiny transcends their ability to comprehend themselves. He sees them in the brilliant yet awesome colors of the end of the world, in the radiant yet searing light of the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom dawning in him.
Those who gather are Jews. "I was sent only," Jesus elsewhere testifies, "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt. 15:24). These Jews, although not all Israel, nevertheless stand in the place of all. Their gathering signifies the gathering of all God's scattered, disconsolate people as if Israel were being established afresh in her integrity.
Moses spoke of a day when
. . . the Lord your God will restore you from captivity and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you (Dt. 30:3).
Jeremiah also spoke of it:
Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in my anger, in my wrath, and in great indignation; and I will bring them back to this place and make them dwell in safety (32:37).
Some have thought these promises exhausted by the restoration of Israel from the Babylonian captivity. But both passages are proximate descriptions of a new and better covenant, an administration fitting the end of the ages in which Israel's heart is circumcised, and she serves the Lord from the greatest to the least (cf. Dt. 30:6; Jer. 31:3lff.). The restoration from Babylon proves no end in itself. Here is a shadow of the time of consummate blessing. When the crowds gather around Jesus, the true restoration, the end-times, has commenced.
And how could it be otherwise? At the heart of the promise of restoration and the coming end-times is the coming of God himself. Jeremiah tells us of the Lord's declaration: "then I myself shall gather the remnant of my flock" (23:3). The Psalms repeatedly testify to this hope. Psalm 96:13 says, "He is coming . . . . " Isaiah's prophecy is filled with the message about the coming of God and about Immanuel, a name meaning "God with us."
Matthew's gospel has made a great deal of the name Immanuel (1:22, 23). Jesus Christ is God with us. His appearance signals the arrival of the true restoration, the arrival of the end-times. When, therefore, Matthew tells us that the crowds congregated from Syria, Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan (4:23-25), we should perceive in these locales more than an arbitrary listing. These places represent the full complement of Jewish territory promised to the fathers and even the reunification of Israel, north and south. The multitudes, as Jesus sees them, read as all Israel restored for blessing in the day of God's visitation.
But Jesus' perception is more profound still. These multitudes are penetrated at the level of the covenant and the entire range of its application. Matthew is openly sensitive to this. After all, he opens and closes his gospel with statements of great covenantal significance. Jesus Christ is "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (1:1). Here is the true heir!
Matthew then charts the course by which Christ arrives at his inheritance, through his sacrificial death and resurrection. He concludes in a way that confirms the order of his brief, opening genealogy–David before Abraham. In other words, David's longed-for glory and authority reach the nations in blessing fitted to Abrahamic expectation (28:18, 19). David's greater son, through his emissaries, touches the ends of the earth with his glorious rule.
Because of this, we cannot settle for only a provincial or strictly Jewish interpretation of the places mentioned at the end of Matthew 4. Some of these multitudes hail from Gentile regions. Galilee is "Galilee of the Gentiles" (v. 25; cf. v. 15). Decapolis and the regions beyond the Jordan reflect a deliberate cosmopolitan flourish in which we can discern, as if in miniature, the gathering of the nations.
Jesus surveys the multitudes, therefore, and appraises them in the depths of this covenantal and eschatological significance. Actually, his estimation flatters them far beyond even their most exalted opinion of themselves. He understands them as assembled before God and as the wider expanse of his church, Jew and Gentile, whose gathering unto him is possible because of his mission for them.
Matthew repeatedly underlines this positive appraisal. In chapter 4, he uses the verb "to follow" three times in the stories of Jesus' call to the two sets of brothers (vv. 19, 20, 22). He uses it a fourth time in describing the multitudes (v. 25). Discipleship is defined as following Jesus and the multitudes are generously included under that definition.
The wonderful poignancy of Matthew 9:35-38 is difficult to miss. Here, the wider range of God's elect is mirrored in the harassed, cast-down multitudes that have no shepherd. Jesus, the true shepherd, has come with compassion to lead them.
The multitudes appear in Matthew 14 where we again are told they followed Jesus (v.13) and in chapter 15 where they are said to come to him (v.30). Interestingly, the language of this latter passage parallels the conclusion of Matthew 5:1; there the disciples come to him. So, the multitudes come like disciples. They are fed and filled with loaves and fishes that speak of the better food of Christ's teaching about the kingdom of heaven. In this lies the high intent of the popular stories about the feeding of the five and four thousand.
Yes, the multitudes are repeatedly seen in this favorable light, a light so favorable in fact that we cannot but help recognize the gathering before the Lord for blessing of all Israel and the nations. There is, however, a reverse side. As if with divine omniscience, Jesus grasps the multitudes' unnerving ambiguity; they are bewildered; they are hardened and reject Jesus. While preaching the universal sweep of God's election, they become the occasion for observing divine discrimination at work.
For one thing, the multitudes lack real perception. They never, in their confession, properly acknowledge Jesus. To be sure, they occasionally sense something of his magnitude (e.g., Mt. 7:28,29). Still, he remains an enigma. "This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?" they query (12:23). At Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, with all the excitement, the best they can do is, "this is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee" (21:11; contrast 16:16).
In the end, they are as loathsome as they were lovely. Unlike the disciples, who were terrified and scattered at Jesus' arrest, the multitudes are party to it (26:47). Easily they had been drawn to Jesus; easily they are persuaded to demand his execution (27:20).
Jesus may well be an enigma, the heart of the divine mystery. But the multitudes are an enigma too. Positively anticipating the final convergence of all before God, they simultaneously express their hostility to him and his judgment of them. For this reason, Jesus' attitude toward them is not exhausted by reflecting on their glory, nor by reflecting on those examples of our Lord's selfless ministry toward them.
Matthew 5 tells us that "when he saw the multitudes, he went up on the mountain." We are to see in this nothing less than a deliberate withdrawal. It is a discriminatory act by which Jesus distinguishes between his disciples, who then come to him, and the multitudes.
The pattern of this scene repeats itself again and again in Matthew. In chapter 8, verse 18, the crowds surround him; he gives orders to depart and his disciples, distinct from the crowds, follow him (v. 23). In Matthew 13, a passage paralleling Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount in many ways, Jesus teaches in the hearing of the multitudes, but in parables. When his disciples question his method (v. 10), he responds, "To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom . . . "And in words shocking to many, he says, "To them it has not been granted" (v. 11). Penetrating his words are his actions. In Matthew 5, he withdraws into the mountain, here into the house (v. 36).
These scenes are overlaid with testimony to Jesus' ultimate withdrawal. He shall withdraw into the mount of glory and into his house above. Only his elect will follow, only they will participate in the true and eternal blessings there. His ministry pervades Israel and the world. In fact, it is as if all Israel and all nations are gathered. Yet, only a few genuinely belong to him (Mt. 7:14).
Jerusalem's house is left desolate (Mt. 23:38). Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum descend into hell (11:21-23). All the nations are gathered before him; and he separates them one from another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (25:32). Arresting itself is the truth of divine election. Indeed, "many are called, but few are chosen" (22:14; cf. 20:16 KJV).
For Jesus, the generous perspective on the multitudes does not inhibit a forcefully articulate and unembarrassed devotion to the divine prerogative. The invitation is offered indiscriminately; enjoyment of its blessedness lies within the discretion of the Father and Son (Mt. 11:25-30). How odd that, according to so many who presently claim to follow Jesus, it does not, and for some, it cannot.
And When We See the Multitudes
But more than odd, the situation is tragic. Just how tragic should be abundantly clear from the fact that the stories of Jesus and his people are so tightly bound together. Severing that bond at any point, as has been the case for a large portion of the church with regard to the doctrine of election, spells spiritual discouragement, if not calamity.
The Twin Images
After all, we are twin images, Lord and people, beheld side by side in the mirror of the word. While we have no difficulty identifying ourselves in the commissioned Church of Matthew 28, we must also see ourselves beside the commissioned Christ throughout the gospel as a whole. His ministry anticipates ours. Ours is conformed to his.
When the multitudes gather in Matthew 4 and Jesus "disciples" them, we discern the outline of our own discipling of the nations. We, in keeping with his heavenly vision, are compelled to see them overlaid with glory. As they are drawn by the message of Christ's power, they gather as a portent of the final, everlasting assembly, the fullness of the Lord's harvest among the nations.
We view them with compassion, not condescension. Two reasons weigh heavily upon us. One, we ourselves have been graciously called from among the nations. The other, we are molded after the image of our Savior. Therefore, we serve the multitudes as slaves to their deepest need. We, after him, give up our lives for their sake (cf. Mt. 20:28), always teaching them by our words and actions the transcending and supreme importance of the kingdom of heaven.
But such a perspective demands that we keep the twin images in view. We must keep our eyes on Jesus and match ourselves afresh to the gospel. How easily we are distracted! We have found ourselves victims of irresponsible pietism, serving a willful gullibility, refusing to think ill of anyone.
Our foolishness multiplies when we baptize such nonsense with sociological and political rhetoric. We mix sentimentality with revolution and democratic fantasies. We bathe our romanticism in what we imagine to be realism. The multitudes are the masses which, by their now quasi-divine nature, leave us in a worshipful swoon. They are impeccable; their inner potential must not be repressed, nor their rights denied. They are destined to rule this world and all forces inherent to this world conspire to that end. Here is our gospel, so we are told.
The truth of the matter is that the Jesus of the Bible stands a million light years removed from any such evangel. His is a parabolic and consistently redemptive reading of the multitudes, something abhorrent to those of us who have hopped aboard the train of so-called realism. He begins with glory and ends there. But we who have dropped our eyes and now have forgotten the twin images are concerned only with the horizon of this world.
Unfortunately, many of us who are more conservative are as bad, if not far worse. For different reasons than our liberal counterparts, we also labor before an earthly horizon. Even though energetically evangelistic, we have transformed Jesus' approach into a social enlistment program. We have lost the vision of glory and a concern for it. Instead we pursue a fraternity of support and affirmation in this world.
We interpret the multitudes even more crassly than the liberals. Here, no ray of benevolence shines. All that is known is the statistical, economic, self-affirming potential of those that gather. The multitudes become a gauge by which we measure our abilities. Woe to the humble, unspectacular gathering! Or extending things a bit further, woe to that modest assembly of saints! Hardly capable of measuring up to our expectations or enhancing our portfolio for success, we seek to rob them of the overlay of glory seen by Christ. In the interests of a subtle quest for personal authentication, we jettison our Lord. The twin images no longer stand; only a solitary one remains–ours.
That Christ's is the fainter image even when retained by us is evident. We never have felt comfortable with his withdrawal from the multitudes. John Dewey freely admitted that biblical Christianity is committed to the doctrine of "the elect and the reprobate." But we must rid ourselves of such a vision, he said, if we are to insure the American dream; or, we might say, the dreams of anyone else who courts the world.
Although not liberal like Dewey, we, too, reject this harsh doctrine. Preaching on Jesus' withdrawal in Matthew 5 and other places, we approach it from the standpoint that we all need to get away. Pastors especially need adequate vacations from the pressing demands of their profession. Otherwise, we find Jesus' withdrawal inconceivable, since we are always running after the crowds.
Actually, in marring the picture of our Lord, we have marred our own. We, the church, if we understand ourselves aright, are a testimony to God's sovereign election. While not everyone in the church is saved, we collectively signify our Lord's withdrawal and his gathering to himself those who are his from the multitudes of the earth. The final day will vindicate this truth, just as the ministry of Jesus asserted and demonstrated it. Our denial does not refute it; instead it testifies to the lack of correspondence between us and the one we say we serve.
The Double Exposure
Obviously, there should not be discrepancies at any point. The twin images, Lord and people, should coalesce. We should be a reflection of Jesus, our example. If we are sensitive to this and our own deficiencies, we are driven to examine his image more carefully.
A closer look, however, leaves us amazed. It is as if we have just received our prints of a roll of film only to discover a double exposure. Not two pictures matching each other, but our picture superimposed on another. Our image, that of the church, has been superimposed on that of our Lord.
Looking then to Matthew's gospel, we find more than the Savior's story. In reading Christ's, we are reading our own since we are in him. His story spells sufficiency, accomplishment, completion. It communicates finality.
How delighted we are when we come across the double exposure! We realize its significance for our redemption. Jesus' death and resurrection have superimposed on them our own. Dealing strictly with the twin images, we could be tempted to think his death a mere example of sacrificial giving for us to emulate, his resurrection a mere encouragement concerning our eventual destiny. Now we know better. His death is a ransom by which we, purified from sin, stand in him before the Father. His resurrection is life in the world to come in which we through him already participate.
Because of this, we confess that we not only are to live like Jesus, but we live in Jesus. Our life in him, however, exceeds the scope of his death and resurrection. The double exposure introduces us to the certainty and finality of his mission to the multitudes.
To be sure, we follow after him and in one sense we are at work "completing" his business with this world. Yet, in another and more profound sense, our actions and words are already found in him. His death and resurrection declare accomplishment, finality; no less his ministry among the multitudes. Both are vicarious and we, being superimposed on him, have entered into that consummated reality found in him.
Jesus' treatment of the multitudes and subsequent ascent of the mountain in Matthew 5 testify to this. He has evangelized the multitudes, separated his church and, as he takes his seat above, gathered us before his throne in glory. Everything is, as it were, resolved, completed. Even the message with which we are to disciple the nations, he supplies in the sermon from his throne.
The apostle Paul, as deeply as anyone, appreciates the double exposure. Repeatedly, he speaks in the language of the twin images. In its strongest expression, he says, "I do my share on behalf of his body . . . in filling up that which is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col. 1:24). However, in the previous verse, he has also given us one of the strongest statements of the double exposure. He says, "The hope of the gospel . . . was preached to every creature which is under heaven" (KJV). He speaks of the evangelization of the entire created order as an already accomplished fact.
It could be pointed out, and rightly, that Paul is here speaking about his apostolic mission and not Christ's. The fact remains that his confidence with regard to his own ministry is expressive of the central theme in Colossians: Christ is the one in whom we have been made complete (2:9,10). Paul's apostolic mission, as well as ours of today, participates in the sufficiency and finality of Christ's.
We may search in vain for any treatment of Colossians 1:23 in the mission studies and evangelism literature that clutters Christian bookstores and pastors' desks. But rather than betraying Paul's balminess, it witnesses a magnificent grasp of the gospel's fullness by building upon the indispensable ground for assurance in our mission to the multitudes. The point is this: before we set about our mission, Jesus has executed his in such a way as to include us. We, therefore, do not face our task devoid of a serene confidence that it is already completed in him.
Far from eclipsing our zeal, as some may be tempted to charge, we have opened before us the proper basis for its genuine biblical expression. Accordingly, we honor the eschatological significance of Jesus' ministry. We magnify the grace of the gospel–truly, all is of the Lord–and compound immeasurably our gratitude to him. We exalt his power and sufficiency and draw into sharper focus his promise, "And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world." Yes, he accompanies us "to cheer and to guide." But more, he is our life, our accomplishment, to whom we have come and found rest even in our mission to the multitudes.
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church