Fans or Followers?

With the new year upon us, many of us will begin reading our Bibles with renewed vigor following a plan that we hope to stick to throughout the year. While many have offered a number of excellent plans to work through (Justin Taylor has a helpful list here), my concern is not so much how much Bible I get through (though this year, I hope to get through a lot) , but whether or not my understanding of the text is faithful to what is actually written. Am I being true to text as it presents itself? I say this because it is amazing how often a small passage of Scripture that initially appears to be so easy to understand is actually far deeper and more complicated than we first expected. Case in point: a friend of mine a while back had to preach from Matthew 4:23-25 for a seminary class and he titled his sermon “You Want Me to do What?” Here are the verses below:
23 And he [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan (Matt 4:23-25 ESV).

My friend’s basic premise was that because Jesus was teaching, preaching, and healing, then we as his disciples should do likewise. By his own admission, he said he didn’t have enough time to prepare the sermon and as such he only approached the text at face value. In doing so he made a common mistake that affected his interpretation and later his application. It is a mistake that I too have made. Simply put, my friend took a descriptive passage and made it prescriptive. That is to say, my friend took what Jesus did (descriptive) and preached that we should go and do likewise (because Jesus did it, so must we – prescriptive). In taking this path, my friend made the verses more about us than about Jesus! Let me be clear: application is important, indeed necessary, for sound preaching. A good preacher must answer the “So what?” question if his hearers are to be challenged and changed. But in this passage, what is it that Matthew wants us to see and where is the application? Let me offer my observations:

  1. In verse 23, Matthew places teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom ahead of healing in terms of Jesus’ ministry. It is not that the healing was unimportant, but that here Matthew gives priority Jesus’ teaching and preaching ministry, not to the healing ministry. 
  2. Verses 24-25 tell us that his fame spread dramatically, but notice why the people came. Was it to hear the gospel or wasit to be healed? The passage clearly says that they came for healing. Could it be that the people are concerned not with Jesus’ mission but with what he can give them? In short, are they are seeking the gifts, but not the Giver himself? 
  3. To be sure, Jesus healed them. He gave grace because he is good to us, even if our own motives may at times be impure. But the same crowds that come for blessings are the same crowds that later shout “Crucify him!” These people are not true followers, but fair-weather fans who quickly turn their back when Jesus does not give them what they want (we see the same phenomenon in John 6:1-69).

If we take this text then as being about doing as Jesus did in terms of his preaching, teaching and healing ministry, we milk the passage for good advice but in so doing lose the Good News. On the other hand if the text is about Jesus, it challenges our heart and makes us aware of our need for the Gospel: are we fans of Jesus who only want him for his blessings? Or are we true followers seeking to trust, listen, and obey him faithfully no matter the cost because he paid the ultimate price to save us?