Which do you think Jesus prefers: a 15-member house church or a 5,000-member megachurch?
“Hmmm…is this a trap?” you ask, dodging my question. And of course, my answer is yes. As we’ll learn today in the gospel of Mark, it’s not numbers that Jesus is concerned about. He wants committed followers.
We’ve reached a point in Jesus’ ministry where his popularity is starting to get out of hand. Once again, he has to pull out of the town of Capernaum, and once again he can’t get away from the crowds. In fact, they’re coming not only from Galilee but from “Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon,” from great distances to the south, east, and north. Jesus has transitioned from a local hero to a regional celebrity.
Unfortunately, with celebrity status comes a celebrity circus. The crowd presses around Jesus, touching his clothes, pleading that he would heal them from their diseases. Jesus realizes that he may be crushed by the mob; the situation is so dangerous that he asks his disciples to get a boat ready in case he needs to put some distance between himself and the crowd. Worse, demon-possessed people begin to make a ruckus, falling down at his feet and announcing, “You are the Son of God!” For the second time in Mark’s account, Jesus acts to suppress the news about himself; he orders the unclean spirits not to reveal who he is. There seem to be a couple reasons for this (as we will see once we reach chapter 4), and one is purely practical: the crowds are inhibiting Jesus’ ministry. He loves them and takes care of their needs, but this isn’t the right climate to continue the mission he has come to accomplish.
So Jesus leaves the crowd behind and chooses twelve disciples to climb a nearby mountain with him. This is odd because in first-century Jewish culture, disciples would usually choose their rabbi. But that is not acceptable to Jesus; it’s important for him that he gets to decide who is close to him. So on the mountain, he appoints these disciples as the Twelve, and he gives them two charges. First, he appoints them “so that they might be with him.” Jesus doesn’t want to hold his followers at arm’s length. Sometimes I think of Jesus as an aloof, sort of spacey leader. The fact is, Jesus would rather have twelve friends than twelve thousand fans. He wants a close circle of companions who can share life with him and learn from him. That’s what Jesus wants from you, too. If you are his disciple, he has hand-picked you to be with him. It doesn’t matter that you’re not perfect; he didn’t select you because he saw something good in you. So don’t let your sinful flesh discourage you. Just be with him first of all, because he wants to be with you.
Second, Jesus appoints the Twelve so that “he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.” If that sort of mission sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what Jesus has been up to in the first few chapters of Mark. Essentially, Jesus gives the Twelve a mission, and that mission turns out to be the same thing he’s been doing. Jesus wants his disciples to imitate him. When Jesus chose you, it was to give you a mission just like his. He wants you to join with other disciples in advancing the good news of his salvation. He wants you to tell the truth to the world and show by your love that you really mean it. In our postmodern culture, your authority to speak the truth will be questioned; people will be offended that you claim to know the truth. But your authority comes from Jesus, so you can imitate him by telling the truth with a gracious attitude. The authority he has given you is so tremendous that you have power over unimaginable spiritual forces arrayed against you. So don’t let the world and the devil discourage you. Just imitate him first of all, because he wants you to be like him.
At this point in the story, Mark lists the Twelve. The order of their names is important. First of all comes Jesus’ inner circle within the inner circle: Peter, James, and John (and sometimes Andrew, the annoying kid brother of Peter). Jesus is going to focus much of his attention on them, and they will be leaders among the Twelve. Leaders of the church especially need to stay as close to Jesus as possible. And last of all comes “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” You can almost hear the anger in Mark’s voice. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is the only thing people remember about him. This betrayal is so prominent in Mark’s mind that he simply must mention it, even though it spoils the story. How terrible it is for someone to spend so much time near Jesus and in the end betray him! How much hotter the fires of hell will be for churchgoers who never truly commit themselves to their professed Savior! This is a horrifying and sobering truth.
You and I need to be with Jesus. He is the only one that can keep us from falling away. We can’t hold anything back from him. We can’t live secret lives; we can’t nurture secret sins. Jesus wants all of you. He really does want to be with you, and he really does want you to be like him. Please—don’t hold back from Jesus.