This is the season of church camps. I have spoken at more than my usual this year. Folks seem to have been blessed. At this chapter of my life I know that God uses earthen vessels and I can believe that I have been used by the Lord to minister to people. Some who appreciate my efforts come and tell me how my ministry has blessed them. “God spoke to me.” “Your teaching is down to earth and practical.” “What you shared has been prophetic.” In response I usually say, “thank you.” Some want to have their photos taken with Bernice and myself. We normally oblige. We appreciate the goodwill. But all the while I am tense. I am worried. I look out for an old enemy that usually ambushes me at such moments. I am on the lookout for pride. I remember what happened to the apostle Paul.
. . . in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. ” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9 NIV)
Pride was so dangerous that God had to give Paul painful medicine to prevent him from becoming “conceited.”
The same point came home to me recently when I was preparing to preach on the passage of Jesus walking on the water in Matthew 14:22-33. This incident came right after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21). By all accounts the feeding of the five thousand was successful ministry. It was a great miracle that met a real need. People were hungry and they ate till they couldn’t eat anymore, and still had twelve basketfuls to doggy bag home. The miracle touched a large number of people, five thousand men alone, not counting women and children.
Imagine if the miracle had happened today. A miracle of such scale would have made the evening news. Today, many in the crowd would have cell phones and the event would have been on You Tube before the twelve baskets came back. And yes the incident would have quickly become a trend on Twitter. The miracle would have been a remarkable testimony to the power and love for God. People would want to crown Jesus on the spot. And His disciples would have achieved instant popularity and fame. But popularity and fame is as dangerous today as it was then. Which may explain what happened next.
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. (Matthew 14:22-24 NIV)
Jesus shooed his disciples, away from the crowds and into a boat. They were instructed to sail to the other side of the lake. The language is strong. We see it in the words “immediately” and “made.” It was an urgent matter. The disciples had to be extricated from the appreciative crowd and sent away. And instead of enlisting the appreciative crowd for His agenda, Jesus dismissed them. Why? Matthew does not tell us but the Gospel writers point out the danger of the temptation for Jesus to assume a Messiahship that avoided the Cross (e.g. Matthew 16:21-28). R.T France speculates:
If there was a popular attempt, whether spontaneous or planned, to pressurize Jesus into adopting a more openly messianic role . . .we may suppose that the disciples would not have been slow to share the enthusiasm, and that Jesus found it necessary to isolate them as quickly as possible from this seductive movement which ran counter to his own messianic agenda . . . (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007, 568.)
I think France is right. The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross, a way of complete trust and obedience in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. Popularity has always been a very serious danger to Jesus’s agenda.
This may also explain why Jesus quickly sought solitude to pray and to seek an audience with His heavenly Father. We can understand if Jesus prays before ministry as He did in Luke 6:12-18. Here Jesus prays after ministry, indeed after ministry that had impacted many lives. Matthew does not tell us the content of Jesus’s prayer here.
The burden of Jesus’ prayer is not revealed; but it is possible that the crowd’s attempts to make him king (John 6:15) prompted him to seek his Father’s face. (D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 8, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, 343).
The struggle to keep His focus on the Cross was the content of Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). It is conceivable that here too, when a grateful crowd confronts Jesus with a short cut to His Messianic work that by passes the Cross, He seeks His Father for clarity and strength.
Now here is an idea. We shouldn’t just pray before a ministry assignment. We should also pray after we minister, especially if it seems to have gone well. We should pray to thank the Lord, and we should pray to regain perspective — that our true identity is rooted in God not in our performance, that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge if a ministry has gone well (1 Corinthians 4:5), and to pray for deliverance from any unhealthy pride creeping into our hearts. We should pray that the Lord reminds us that the Christian life has nothing to do with popularity and fame but has everything to do with trusting and obeying. In a day and age when success is equated with fame and popularity, let us hear again Jesus’s words:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV)
So if the Lord blesses the work of your hands, be glad, praise Him, but guard your hearts. Don’t hang around fishing for compliments. If you know what is good for you, seek solitude. Pray. I am learning.