Different Crowd, Same Story
On the first day of Passover week, a large crowd of Jewish pilgrims welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, waving palm branches and hailing Him as the Messianic King of Israel. This crowd was massive, as there were likely more than 2 million people who had travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover. This was far from the first time that Jesus drew a large crowd; crowds surrounded Him through much of His earthly ministry. And Jesus’ relationship with the crowds was always a tenuous one. Jesus did not trust the crowds, and it seems that whenever a large crowd surrounded them, Jesus would disperse them with hard sayings designed to separate the true believers from the false.
For instance, in John 2 when Jesus was in Jerusalem for an earlier Passover feast, John writes that “during the feast, many believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man” (2:23-25). Many people believed as a result of the miracles Jesus performed, but Jesus did not entrust Himself to them because faith in signs and wonders is not true faith.
When Jesus was in Galilee in John 6, large crowds followed Him because they saw the signs He was performing in healing the sick (6:2). After Jesus fed the massive crowd with five loaves and two fish, the people were so awestruck that they tried to make Jesus king (6:15). But Jesus withdrew from them. When the crowd followed Him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus told them that they were only seeking Him because He gave them a free meal (6:26). He then instructed them to believe on Him for eternal life (6:27-29). Instead, the crowd clamored for another sign (6:30-31). And so Jesus dispersed them, literally driving them away with hard sayings concerning Himself as the bread of life, and telling them that unless they ate His flesh and drank His blood they had no life in themselves (6:35-58). When they left, complaining about the difficult words He spoke (6:60), Jesus explained their rejection in terms of God’s sovereignty in divine election and effectual calling (6:44, 65, 70).
In John 8, when Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths, Jesus once again attracted a large crowd of “believers” (8:30). But Jesus knew their faith was not genuine, and so He once again dispersed them with difficult teaching, telling them they were not true children of Abraham, but instead were children of the devil, liars and murderers who did not belong to God (8:31-47). Finally, when Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the incarnate Son of God who existed before Abraham, this crowd of “believers” picked up stones to kill Him.
Now in John 12, the very same scene plays itself out again. Jerusalem was abuzz over whether Jesus would appear for the feast of Passover in spite of the Sanhedrin’s determination to seize Him and kill Him (11:55-57). This buzz was only intensified by the news swirling around that just a few months prior, Jesus raised Lazarus of Bethany from the dead. And so, when Jesus approached on the road to Jerusalem, the crowd went out to meet Him, waving palm branches and hailing the King of Israel. But this crowd was no different than the previous crowds; their faith in Jesus was no more genuine. By and large, these were fake followers with a fake faith.
Once again, their “faith” was grounded in the signs which Jesus performed. “So the people, who were with him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead, continued to testify about Him. For this reason also the people went and met Him, because they heard that He had performed this sign. So the Pharisees said to one another, ‘You see that you are not doing any good; look, the world has gone after Him’” (12:17-19). And once again, Jesus gave hard truths, difficult words that were intended to separate the sheep from the goats, the true from the false, the followers from the fans. At the end of this episode, Jesus once again withdrew from the crowds because of their unbelief. “These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them. But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him” (12:36-37).
Which Are You – Fan or Follower?
Passages like these beg a question which ought to cause each and every one of us to pause in self-examination. To which group do I belong? Am I a fan of Jesus, or a follower of Christ? Am I a part of that large crowd for whom Jesus is nothing more than a Sunday morning pastime – I show up and cheer on Jesus for awhile, all the time thinking that He must be very impressed with me, what with my “mostly” good life and my “mostly” perfect attendance at church? Or am I a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ – I have staked all of my hope on His blood and righteousness alone, and my heart longs to spend the rest of my life denying myself, taking up my cross, and following Him? Am I a fan of Jesus, or a follower of the Lord Christ? Have I merely made a decision for Jesus, or am I among His true and genuine disciples?
It is not especially fun to preach messages like this, but it is necessary. You need to know that Jesus says some very difficult things that ought to shake our complacent church culture to the core. Things like: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14). Many are on the broad road to destruction, and only a few are on the narrow way to life. That ought to shake us. Or: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23). There are many who profess faith in Christ but do not truly possess faith in Christ as evidenced by their lawless lives of iniquity, and they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That ought to shake us.
And so should our passage today shake us, for it leaves us no room for the kind of complacent Christianity that is so pervasive in our culture, and has been so pervasive in our own church. Jesus declares to us today, unless you die with Me, sacrifice with Me, suffer with Me, and follow Me, you will not be glorified with Me. This is a line in the sand passage, and Jesus intended it to be. And at the end of the day, very few were on His side of the line. I wonder on which side of the line you fall today?
 This turn of phrase, which I employ throughout this sermon, comes from Kyle Idleman, Not a Fan (Grand Rapids: MI, 2011).