Archive: The Evangelism of Jesus


By Robert E. Coleman, Professor of Evangelism, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

Reprinted from “The Master Plan of Evangelism” Fleming H. Revell Co.
© 1963, 1964 by Robert E. Coleman

The first installment stressed how Jesus took great care to mould His disciples, emphasizing depth training of a few.—Charles W. Keysor, Editor

Jesus devoted most of His remaining life on earth to these few disciples. He literally staked His whole ministry upon them. The world could be indifferent toward Him and still not defeat His strategy. It even caused Him no great concern when His followers on the fringes of things gave up their allegiance when confronted with the true meaning of the Kingdom (John 6:66). But He could not bear to have His close disciples miss His purpose. They had to understand the truth and be sanctified by it (John 17: 17), else all would be lost. Thus He prayed “not for the world,” but for the few God gave Him “out of the world” (John 17:6,9). Everything depended upon their faithfulness if the world would believe on Him “through their word” (John 17:20).

It would be wrong, however, to assume on the basis of what has here been emphasized that Jesus neglected the masses. Such was not the case. Jesus did all that any man could be asked to do and more to reach the multitudes. The first thing He did when He started His ministry was to identify Himself boldly with the great mass revival movement of His day through baptism at the hands of John (Mark 1 :9-11; Matt. 3:13-17; Luke 3:21,22), and He later went out of His way to praise this work of the great prophet (Matt. 11:7-15; Luke 7:24-28). He Himself continuously preached to the crowds that followed His miracle-working ministry. He taught them. He fed them when they were hungry. He healed their sick and cast out demons among them. He blessed their children. Sometimes the whole day would be spent ministering to their needs, even to the extent that He had “no leisure so much as to eat” (Mark 6:31). In every way possible Jesus manifested to the masses of humanity a genuine concern. These were the people that He came to save-He loved them, wept over them, and finally died to save them from their sin. No one could think that Jesus shirked mass evangelism.

In fact, the ability of Jesus to impress the multitudes created a serious problem in His ministry. He was so successful in expressing to them His compassion and power that they once wanted “to take Him by force, to make Him King” (John 6: 15). One report by the followers of John the Baptist said that “all men” were clamoring for His attention (John 3:26). Even the Pharisees admitted among themselves that the world had gone after Him (John 12: 19), and bitter as the admission must have been, the chief priests concurred in this opinion (John 11:47,48). However one looks at it, the Gospel record certainly does not indicate that Jesus lacked any popular following among the masses, despite their hesitating loyalty. And this condition lasted right on down to the end. Indeed, it was the fear of this friendly mass feeling for Jesus that prompted His accusers to capture Him in the absence of the people (Mark 12:12; Matt. 21:26; Luke 20:19).

Had Jesus given any encouragement to this popular sentiment among the masses, He easily could have had all the kingdoms of men at His feet. … But Jesus would not play to the galleries. Quite the contrary. Repeatedly He took special pains to allay the superficial popular support of the multitudes which had been occasioned by His extraordinary power (John 2:23-3:3; 6:26,27). Frequently He would even ask those who were the recipients of His healing to say nothing about it in order to prevent mass demonstrations by the easily aroused multitudes. Likewise, with the disciples following His transfiguration on the Mount “He charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen” until after His resurrection (Mark 9:9; Matt. 17:9). On other occasions when applauded by the crowd, Jesus would slip away with His disciples and go elsewhere to continue His ministry.

His practice in this respect sometimes rather annoyed His followers who did not understand His strategy. Even his own brothers and sisters, who yet did not believe on Him, urged Him to abandon this policy and make an open show of Himself to the world, but He refused to take their advice (John 7:2-9).

In view of this policy, it is not surprising to note that few people were actually converted during the ministry of Christ, that is, in any clear-cut way. Of course, many of the multitudes believed in Christ in the sense that His divine ministry was acceptable. But comparatively few seemed to have grasped the meaning of the Gospel. Perhaps His total number of devoted followers at the end of His earthly ministry numbered little more than the 500 brethren to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:6). And only about 120 tarried in Jerusalem to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:15). Though this number is not small considering that His active ministry extended only over a period of three years, yet if at this point one were to measure the effectiveness of His evangelism by the number of His converts, Jesus doubtless would not be considered among the most productive mass evangelists of the Church.

Why? Why did Jesus deliberately concentrate His life upon comparatively so few people? Had He not come to save the world? With the glowing announcement of John the Baptist ringing in the ears of multitudes, the Master easily could have had an immediate following pf thousands if He wanted them. Why did He not then capitalize upon His opportunities to enlist a mighty army of believers to take the world by storm? Surely the Son of God could have adopted a more enticing program of mass recruitment. Is it not rather disappointing that One with all the powers of the universe at His command would live and die to save the world, yet in the end have only a few ragged disciples to show for His labors?

The answer to this question focuses at once the real purpose of His plan for evangelism. Jesus was not trying to impress the crowd, but to usher in a Kingdom. This meant that He needed men who could lead the multitudes. What good would it have been for His ultimate objective to arouse the masses to follow Him if these people had no subsequent supervision nor instruction in the Way? It had been demonstrated on numerous occasions that the crowd was an easy prey to false gods when left without proper care. The masses were like helpless sheep wandering aimlessly without a shepherd (Mark 6:34; Matt. 9:36; 14:14). They were willing to follow almost anyone that came along with some promise for their welfare, be it friend or foe. That was the tragedy of the hour—the noble aspirations of the people were easily excited by Jesus, but just as quickly thwarted by the deceitful religious authorities who controlled them. The spiritually blind leaders of Israel (John 8:44; 9:39-41; 12:40; Matt. 23:1-39), though comparatively few in number [probably less than 7,000 Pharisees and Sadducees] completely dominated the affairs of the people. For this reason, unless Jesus’ converts were given competent men of God to lead them on and protect them in the truth they would soon fall into confusion and despair, and the last state would be worse than the first. Thus, before the world could ever be permanently helped men would have to be raised up who could lead the multitudes in the things of God.

Jesus was a realist. He fully realized the fickleness of depraved human nature as well as the Satanic forces of this world amassed against humanity. And in this knowledge He based His evangelism on a plan that would meet the need. The multitudes of discordant and bewildered souls were potentially ready to follow Him, but Jesus individually could not possibly give them the personal care they needed. His only hope was to get men imbued with His life who would do it for Him. Hence, He concentrated Himself upon those who were to be the beginning of this leadership. Though He did what He could to help the multitudes, He had to devote Himself primarily to a few men, rather than the masses, in order that the masses could at last be saved. This was the genius of His strategy.

Yet, strangely enough, it is scarcely comprehended in practice today. Most of the evangelistic efforts of the Church begin with the multitudes under the assumption that the Church is qualified to conserve what good is done. The result is our spectacular emphasis upon numbers of converts, candidates for baptism, and more members for the Church, with little or no genuine concern manifested toward the establishment of these souls in the love and power of God, let alone the preservation and continuation of the work.

Surely if the pattern of Jesus at this point means anything at all it teaches that the first duty of a pastor as well as the first concern of an evangelist is to see to it that a foundation is laid in the beginning upon which can be built an effective and continuing evangelistic ministry to the multitudes. This will require more concentration of time and talents upon fewer men in the Church while not neglecting the passion for the world. It will mean raising up trained leadership “for the work of ministering” with the pastor (Ephesians 4:12). A few people so dedicated in time will shake the world for God. Victory is never won by the multitudes.

Some might object to this principle when practiced by the Christian worker on the ground that favoritism is shown toward a select group in the church. But be that as it may, it is still the way that Jesus concentrated His life, and it is necessary if any permanent leadership is to be trained. Where it is practiced out of a genuine love for the whole church, and due concern is manifested toward the needs of the people, objections can at least be reconciled to the mission being accomplished. However, the ultimate goal must be clear to the worker, and there can be no hint of selfish partiality displayed in his relationships to all. Everything that is done with the few is for the salvation of the multitudes.

This principle of selectivity and concentration is engraved in the universe and will bring results no matter who practices it, whether the Church believes it or not. It is surely not without significance that the communists, always alert to what works, adopted in a large measure this method of the Lord as their own. Using it to their own devious end they have multiplied from a handful of zealots seventy-five years ago to a vast conspiracy of followers that enslave nearly half the peoples of the world. They have proved in our day what Jesus demonstrated so clearly in His day that the multitudes can be won easily if they are just given leaders to follow. Is not the spread of this vicious communistic philosophy, in some measure, a judgment upon the Church, not only upon our flabby commitment to evangelism, but also upon the superficial way that we have tried to go about it?

It is time that the Church realistically face the situation. Our days of trifling are running out. The evangelistic program of the Church has bogged down on nearly every front. What is worse, the great missionary thrust of the Gospel into new frontiers has largely lost its power. In most lands the enfeebled Church is not even keeping up with the exploding population. All the while the Satanic forces of this world are becoming more relentless and brazen in their attack. It is ironic when one stops to think about it. In an age when facilities for rapid communication of the Gospel are available to the Church as never before, we are actually accomplishing less in winning the world for God then before the invention of the horseless carriage.

Yet in appraising the tragic condition of affairs today, we must not become frantic in trying to reverse the trend overnight. Perhaps that has been our problem. In our concern to stem the tide we have launched one crash program after another to reach the multitudes with the saving Word of God. But what we have failed to comprehend in our frustration is that the real problem is not with the masses-what they believe, how they are governed, whether they are fed a wholesome diet or not. All these things considered so vital are ultimately manipulated by others, and for this reason, before we can resolve the exploitation of the people we must get to those influential leaders whom the people follow.

This, of course, puts a priority on winning and training those already in responsible positions of leadership. But if we can’t begin at the top, then let us begin where we are and train a few of the lowly to become the great. And let us remember, too, that one does not have to have the prestige of the world in order to be greatly used in the Kingdom of God. Anyone who is willing to follow Christ can become a mighty influence upon the world providing, of course, this person has the proper training himself.

Here is where we must begin just like Jesus. It will be slow, tedious, painful and probably unnoticed by men at first, but the end result will be glorious, even if we don’t live to see it. Seen this way, though, it becomes a big decision in the ministry. One must decide where he wants his ministry to count—in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of Christ’s life in a few chosen men who will carry on his work after he has gone. Really it is a question of which generation we are living for.


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