Over the years, I have mentioned a number of times that there is no good biblical reason to use the hosannas! of Palm Sunday and the crucify him! of the Passion account as any kind of proof of the fickleness of crowds. We have no reason for assuming that the make-up of the crowds was in any way identical. So because we are living in a time driven by mass movements, it is past time for to develop a theology of crowds. Given that America is filling up with competing mobs now, one of the things that believing Christians ought to do is go back to the Scriptures to see what we can learn about mobs. There is a great deal there, actually, and if we pay the right kind of attention, we can profit more than a little bit.
“And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then believed ye him not? But and if we say, of men; all the people will stone us: for they be persuaded that John was a prophet” (Luke 20:5-6).
Summary of the Point
In our text, Jesus asked His adversaries what they thought of John the Baptist, who was a true dividing line. Jesus had cornered them by asking a question that forced them to choose between their own actions, on the one hand, and the hostile reactions of a very hostile crowd on the other. All the people will stone us. A few verses down from this, we see that the Jerusalem elites were plotting against Jesus, and they thought they needed to deal with Him secretly, and because why? Because they were afraid of the people. Jesus was really popular with a lot of people who did not really grasp the implications of what Christ had come to do. “And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them” (Luke 20:19).
The gospel writers tell us this over and over. Two chapters later, the same thing is repeated. “And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people” (Luke 22:2). In the gospel of Mark, the same thing is mentioned and emphasized. “And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine . . . But if we shall say, of men; they feared the people: for all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed” (Mark 11:18, 32). And in the next chapter of Mark, we see the same thing repeated. “And they sought to lay hold on him, but feared the people: for they knew that he had spoken the parable against them: and they left him, and went their way” (Mark 12:12).
And this same pattern does not disappear after the Lord ascended into Heaven. Not at all. When officials went to detain some apostles, they handled them quite gingerly. And why? Because they feared for their lives. “Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned” (Acts 5:26).
The Room Was Full of Fumes
When the Messiah was born into first century Israel, He was born into a room full of fumes, ready to go off. It was politically volatile, and complicated, but it was also a complexity that could be reduced to two basic groups—those who had been baptized by John, and those who had refused it.
But before we get to that reduction, we have to take a number of other factions into account. That way we know what we are reducing down to their version of red state and blue state. There were the Sadducees, well-connected to the aristocracy that controlled the Temple. They were theologically liberal but quite conservative when it came to their own vested interests. There were the Herodians, whose connections were to the political elite, and who had a deep investment in what Rome was seeking to maintain. The Pharisees were a lay renewal movement, highly respected among the people, at least until Jesus got done with them. There were about 6,000 Pharisees in Israel at this time. They were largely merchants who had made enough money to be able to retire to a life of personal devotion, their goal being to get the average Israelite to live up to the holiness standards that the Torah required of priests.
Then there were the true followers of Christ—His disciples, other extras, and the women in His entourage, and this would include the crowds who loved Him, and who were not far from the kingdom. This was yet another group. Think of the massive crowds who welcomed Him during His Triumphal Entry. This was not a small group.
But there is yet another group, almost always overlooked, a bit more surly and anti-establishment, but still clearly in the pro-John-the-Baptist, pro-Jesus camp. This was a group of significant size that was hostile to the establishment that was hostile to Jesus. And by this I mean that they were seriously hostile, and at life-threatening levels. They were “on the Lord’s side,” but had not really internalized all that Sermon-on-the-Mount stuff. The Lord once rebuked a few of His disciples for not knowing what spirit they were of (Luke 9:55), but it should be pointed out that there was quite a large group out there who fit into that same category.
Now can we all agree that these crowds, as warmly affectionate toward John the Baptist as they might have been, and as doggedly committed to the honor of the rabbi Jesus as they were, were people who had not taken on board the full import of what the Scriptures required of them? I mean, had you gone to one of their rallies, who knows what kind of flags might have been there? And did their presence in the mix in any way discredit what Jesus was up to? Not even a little bit.
No. The Lord knew of this group’s cluelessness. He understood their cluelessness. He even used their cluelessness in His debates with that other form of cluelessness, the respectable kind—the kind that is always the last to know. But He never apologized for their cluelessness. “And the Lord spake unto them, saying, ‘I have recently been informed that the chief priests have been receiving credible threats against their lives, and I wanted to hasten to apologize . . .’”
The Incendiary Jesus
So in this powder keg called Jerusalem, what did Jesus do? Did Jesus come in to pour soothing oil on troubled waters?
No. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, riding into the city the way its rightful king might do. His followers were acclaiming Him as the son of David, which would make Him the right heir to a throne. He does this with the words of Zechariah in the forefront of more than a few minds.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation; Lowly, and riding upon an ass, And upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9).
He then went into the Temple, for crying out loud, and started flipping over tables. Jesus was acting as a straight up provocateur. He was staring straight at the Jerusalem establishment, and in essence He double dog dared them to do something about it. He dared them to kill Him, and so they did—but they still had to work around the crowds. They had tried Jesus in the middle of the night, remember, and then had to rent their own mob, which gathered at Pilate’s place early in the morning (John 18:28). All the mobs they were afraid of were home in bed.
This also helps to explain the behavior of Judas. Jesus was being provocative because it was time for Him to die and rise. Judas thought it was time for Him to use His extraordinary power to deal with the corrupt establishment. Judas would force His hand, and then be a hero—having made a little money on the side. He committed suicide because something misfired.
Ownership of the Public Square
Now all this is why we need to follow Christ, Christ above all.
There is only one kind of defiant joy in the world that can successfully stand up to this kind of godless pressure. There is only one path for defying the screechers—without becoming a screecher yourself. That path is Christ, the one who has risen from the dead. And He rose from the dead the same place they crucified Him, which is to say, in the public square.
Remember: the reason Christians still own the public square is because Jesus rose from the dead in it. I know that the militant secularists despise this truth, but truth it is, and they should have thought of those objections before they crucified Him there.
And as we take our place in the public square, we will find all kinds of people there. We will confront the same range of attitudes—open hostility, secret hostility, secret loyalty, misbegotten loyalty, and open and true loyalty. Should this slow us down? Not even a little bit.