Not long ago a friend sent me the Jesus film entitled The Gospel of John. This is a movie that tells the story of Jesus through the lens of John’s gospel. I don’t typically watch Jesus movies, but he assured me this was worth my time. So, one afternoon I put in the DVD and sat down to watch. It was a well done film and, generally speaking, very faithful to the gospel of John. But, as I watched the movie, something struck me at a level of depth that I had never experienced before: Jesus was very unpopular.
Of course, this is a truth we all know well—so well, in fact, that we often forget it. But, it was abundantly clear in the film version of John’s gospel. We rarely sit down and read a gospel through in one sitting anymore. We just don’t take the time to do it. But in the film version, I got the gospel in one large dose. And I was blown away by the amount of arguing, debating, and polemical interactions that Jesus experienced. There was yelling, screaming, and shouting. Accusations and charges. Heated exchanges. And there was Jesus, right in the middle of all of it. He kicked it off himself by the aggressive move of cleansing the temple (2:13-22). The Jews grumbled about his teachings (6:41), found him to be rather ordinary (6:42), and considered his words to be offensive (6:52). They plotted against him and tried to arrest him (7:25-30). They called him a liar (8:13), a Samaritan (8:48), one who is demon possessed (8:52), and picked up stones to stone him on several occasions (8:59, 10:31). And they eventually murdered him by nailing him to a cross (19:18).
Measured by standard human criteria, Jesus had a remarkably unpopular and ineffective ministry. Most people simply weren’t persuaded. They were not convinced. They saw Jesus (and his teachings) as ridiculous, absurd, and offensive.
If so, then the way we measure the success of our own ministries needs a serious recalibration. A few take aways:
1. We need to adjust our expectations about how people will receive our message. Often when the message of Christ is rejected, we wonder whether we have presented it with enough sophistication and clarity—perhaps we needed to be more articulate. While we certainly want to improve the manner in which we present the message, we must remember that there was no better and clearer communicator of the truth than Christ himself. If the son of God himself delivered a message, with the clarity and profundity that only he could achieve, and yet people still found it to be unpersuasive, then we can only conclude there is something else keeping people from the truth. Indeed, Paul tells us what this thing is: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18). People are darkened by their own sinful hearts.
2. We need to prepare ourselves for ministry marked by conflict and hostility. When students graduate from seminary and consider the average ministerial calling, they do not expect one that would be marked by persecution and rejection. But, our world is changing. It is clear now that we live in a world that doesn’t just practice immorality, but demands that every American citizen show approval and acceptance of that immorality. Make no mistake, the gay movement in this country is not interested in just freedom to be gay—they want a stamp of approval from the government and all of its citizens. It is not all that different from the way the Roman Empire required all its citizens to bow down to the image of the emperor and pay homage. Christians would not do this and were killed by the thousands. We need to prepare for a serious stage of persecution in this country. The question isn’t whether it’s coming. The question is whether we are ready.
But, it’s not just external conflict that is a challenge. Pastors need to be prepared to receive opposition from members of their own congregations. People in our own flocks will be offended by our faithful stand on controversial issues—and may even hate us as a result. In the world of the celebrity pastor who is lauded by thousands, this will be difficult to take. But, we must again remember that the bulk of the opposition to Jesus was from the nation of Israel, God’s own people.
3. We need to remember that there is a proper place for debate and disagreement in our ministries. One thing that modern ministry has lacked is a proper understanding of the role of polemics. The number one goal for most of our ministries is to avoid conflict as much as possible. And in many ways that is a positive; we certainly shouldn’t seek conflict. However, there is a right biblical place for debate and disagreement—exemplified by Jesus himself in the gospel of John. Indeed, if a ministry has no conflict at all, one might wonder whether it is really presenting the same message that Jesus himself presented. A servant is not greater than his master.