Simple is not necessarily simplistic. The Scriptures tell a simple story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Paradise Regained. But as simple as those terms are the story is an epic unfolding of plots, subplots, good and evil, cosmic spiritual warfare, and stupid human mistakes. Simple. But not simplistic.
Think about that as you read these words from Holy Scripture.
“Therefore My people shall know My name; Therefore they shall know in that day That I am He who speaks: ‘Behold, it is I.’ How beautiful upon the mountains Are the feet of him who brings good news, Who proclaims peace, Who brings glad tidings of good things, Who proclaims salvation, Who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns'” (Isaiah 52:6-6 NKJV)!
“Therefore David himself calls Him ‘Lord;’ how is He then his Son?’ And the common people heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37 NKJV).
One of the reasons I seek to represent the Lord and the Church is by being involved in the life of the community. In this way, I gain the opportunity to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to a larger segment of the population than just my class or my local church. Some time ago, I found myself sitting next to a very distinguished fellow on a long flight. The young gentleman was a freshly minted Ph.D. from one of our greatest universities. Upon learning that I was a minister, my airline companion wanted to talk about religion. We had a good time as we talked about following the “footnote trail” in our reading and research. It was a stimulating conversation. But at one point, he paused and said: “I’m interested, how you ended up a pastor.” I told him that in order to explain the answer to that question, I had to, first, share how I ended up as a believer and follower of Jesus Christ. I explained that, at one time, I had only been interested in religion or ideas about God. I was less concerned about knowing God personally. I confessed that I had missed the Gospel of Jesus Christ altogether. I had missed the Good News of God’s grace. The young scholar looked at me as if I just might be an alien. I continued my story despite the glossy eyes of my compatriot.
“I learned I was a sinner, needed a Savior, and that Jesus was and is God in the flesh. Jesus is the eternal God who came to live the life that I could not live and die the death that should have been mine.”
“Ah, I am just talking on. Does that make sense to you?”
He nodded “yes.” But he signaled “no.”
I told the fledgling professor that I had received God’s offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone. Just Jesus. Nothing else. Nobody else.
“I am trusting in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life. Jesus was crucified and rose again. And by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus lives in me. And everything in my life has changed. I have hope that transcends death.” I thought of what I heard my old mentor, Dr. D. James Kennedy once say as he shared Christ while a passenger on a plan: “If this big bird goes down, I go up.”
I paused. And that was certainly mercy to the professor. He looked at me, still trying to see if I had antennae growing from behind my ears. At last, he spoke,
“But surely you affirm that there are many different ways to seek the Deity.”
“Yes, of course. We may search for a god in all kinds of ways. I have tried several ways of seeking Him.”
There seemed to be some relief at that.
“But I am saying that according to the Bible there is only one way to the One True God and that is through Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Well,” my seat buddy began, “We will just have to disagree on that one.” But I added this,
“Since you are a scholar, what will you do with Jesus? If He is the One He claimed to be, and the unimpeachable testimonies about Him are laid before you—that He was crucified and rose from the dead—we must bow before Him as God.”
And can you guess what he said next? He seemed to cover himself with the respectability of his new degree and made his concluding statement:
“Well, Sir. That is just a bit too simple for me.”
It is sometimes possible to confuse simplistic with simple. Simplistic means shallow. Simple can mean the amazing ability to summarize and make intelligible that which is obscure or deep.
Peggy Noonan, in her book, On Speaking Well, wrote something that I put in my personal book of quotations:
“The language of love is simple because love is big. And big things are best said, are almost always said, in small words.”
“The kingdom is here.” “Repent and believe.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “For God so loved the world . . .”
Because we live in a post Christian, post Western—as Tim Keller says, “Post Everything”—world, I think we may be afraid of simple talk about Jesus. But I think that simple talk about sin, about God, about Jesus, and about how to be saved, is needed more than ever. And I believe, based on God’s Word, there is a presupposition that this message will take care of itself; that God’s Word will not return void, but will accomplish what God intends.
Mark 12.37 says in the ESV, “And the great throng heard Him gladly.” I prefer the language of the King James, so etched in my mind, at this verses: “The common people heard Him gladly.”
The Greek word, ochlos, does indeed mean a very large crowd. But the word is used for those not in leadership, not nobility. Rather, the word is similar to our English, “the masses.” So the King James is very satisfactory for me, “the common people.”
The fact that the common people heard Jesus gladly, as He was teaching about His own divinity—in front of the rabbinical Ph.D.s, who did not get it—is a valuable lesson for us. The Gospel is cosmic-sized news wrapped in a child-sized package. The simple is profound:
“We are sinners, we need a Savior, and Jesus is the only way to be saved. Repent and turn to Him by faith and you will be saved.”
This Good News, simply profound, can be understood by anyone, anywhere whose heart is open to receive it. Little children who can barely read, young people who cannot understand some things in life can understand this, uneducated villagers in the remotest areas of the earth can get it.
Sometimes even Ph.D.s can get it.
Why is it that the common people heard Jesus gladly? The answers point to the way we must share our faith and to the way we today may be interpreting our own faith.
I make three propositions about why the common people heard Jesus gladly.
Number one. The common people heard Jesus gladly for He was common.
Now, let me explain what I think the Bible is teaching. When I say common I do not mean that He was unremarkable or unexceptional. Jesus of Nazareth is Almighty God. But the Almighty came to His creation in human flesh. He looked, undoubtedly, like a first-century Jew from the northern part of the country. He learned a trade. Jesus assumed the family business as a carpenter, a craftsman. Our Lord experienced the common religious training that others did. Jesus continued to attend the worship services of the synagogue through His life, even though He was sought to be killed for His remarks in them.
Isaiah saw him this way in his famous passage on the Messiah:
“Who has believed what they have heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53.1-2).
He was common. The common people could hear Him—over against the religious leaders of their day—for Jesus was one of them. God had taken on flesh and had so identified with His people that he was accessible.
Even a cursory reading of Scripture will yield the same opinion. For example, Jesus called down Zacchaeus from the tree—a tax collector and a swindler—and went to his house to eat. Our Lord Jesus was and is a friend to sinners. Jesus went out of his way to meet a Samaritan woman with a past, as well as a Gardarene man with a legion of demons. Jesus lived among those who were often disenfranchised. He also was comfortable talking with those who had received the finest education of the day. No one was off limits.
But to be common does not mean that we adapt to the sinful ways of the world. Jesus obviously didn’t do that. It doesn’t mean that we change our message in order to accommodate the culture or to the community. The message, in fact, cannot be changed. It is the message. It is what it is. We are the ones to be adaptable. We adapt to others. We identify with those people we are seeking to reach. Often our testimony forms the bridge that unites the solitary islands of self. This is nothing more or less than sinners loving other sinners because Christ loved us.
Look at the prophets in the Old Testament. Isaiah and Jeremiah. Thee two major prophets preached coming judgment. But they also preached a way out of judgment through faith in God Himself. And when judgment came, in Jeremiah’s case, we get the book of Lamentations—weeping for the people. Jeremiah became personally involved with those he was seeking to reach. They did not listen. God judged them. And Jeremiah went into the dust as a public demonstration of his own unity with the people. He wept for those who refused to obey God’s voice.
I once knew a very uncommon chaplain in the Army. This chaplain was very committed to the Lord, but—let’s just say—very eccentric in some of his ways. In fact, he was gently teased by other chaplains for his invariable exclamations of “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” He was a fine man. I loved him. But sometimes he just didn’t know the right time to pray, to witness, or to “have church.” Now when your fellow ministers don’t like you because they think you say “Amen” too much, you know you are way out there! When I first met him, I thought that he just didn’t seem to fit. But it didn’t take long for me to see that the soldiers in his unit loved him. And his commander loved him. You know why? Because he loved them. They knew that he was a little odd. But he poured his authentic eccentricity into the narrow channel of love. When that unit went war, the chaplain was there. He was just another soldier. He was common. And when it came time for the chapel service in the desert, Soldiers were there. Why? He was one of them. He didn’t have to accommodate the culture to reach the people in the culture. In a way, that chaplain’s simple message and his inimitable ways of sharing that message made soldiers love him and listen to him all the more.
That chaplain’s love built a bridge that connected self with others. And he preached Jesus on that bridge. Men came to God because of the incarnational bridge-building work of that chaplain. The common people heard him gladly because he was one of them.
In our world, we must not bend or accommodate our message. And I do not believe for a minute that changing your style every two or three years is going to make a big difference. Last week, a bunch of sold-out Christians, seventy years old plus, were singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” It was powerful. Bring in anyone, young or old, and they will sense the love and power of God in that testimony. I say that when we care enough to reach out, when we care enough to be there, if we care enough to say to the world, “We are here because of what Jesus of Nazareth has done in our lives” we will identify. You see, the human condition is the same now and always. It is the same in Chattanooga and in Chennai, in Boston or Bangkok. Human hurt is the same whether you say you are post modern, modern or whether you refuse to be qualified by socio demographic profilers. And people dream and have hope wherever you are. The human heart is hungry for love and that is a universal. And Jesus alone satisfies the human heart. And that is a fact.
What does this tell us about sharing our faith? Be human. Build bridges to others—not out of only cultural relevancies—but out of what it means to be human. Know that God has made us all to be hungry for God. And then offer them the One who identifies with their humanity: the God who became Man and yet didn’t cease being God: Jesus. And what does it tell us about our faith? The great church father Athenathias, whose birthday is this month, wrote about the Incarnation:
“The Word of God came in his own person, because it was he alone, the image of the Father, who could recreate human beings made after the image. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as man, he was living a human life; and as Word, he was sustaining the life of the universe; and as Son, he was in constant union with the Father.”
The common people heard Him gladly because He was common, God was one of them.
Second, the common people heard Jesus gladly for they could hear Him
His message was marked—not by intellectual obscurity— but by perspicuity. You say, “You are being obscure right now! What is that word perspicuity?” It means clarity. It means that the deep, profound eternal truths of heaven can be understood.
Long ago, I heard that we should put the cookies on the lower shelf where the children could get them, and the adults would be sure to get them as well.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t teach the deep things of God. On the contrary, it means that, in Christ, the deep things of God become clear.
Let me tell you one thing. Jesus did not mince on theology. In fact, the sentence that the common people heard him gladly came as he was expositing a difficult text where David says, “the Lord said to my Lord…” Jesus is here contradicting the teaching of the religious leaders—in the Temple no less—as He establishes His own divinity from that text. The divinity of the Son of God, and the fact that the Old Testament teaches a Trinitarianism while at the same time clearly teaching monotheism can be mind-boggling. Unless you just state it and expect that God the Holy Spirit will carry it to the hearts of those who will receive it. And that is what Jesus did and we must do.
One of the reasons I have always respected J.C. Ryle, the great 19th Century Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, is that he taught great theology in straightforward simple ways. Read Ryle and you are in for a feast. But a child can read Ryle and get it. And when I really want to get at a Scripture that seems difficult, I reach for Ryle. He is always simple and clear. He is a great example, I think for us today in many ways. Ryle also believed that 19th century working class people in the industrial sections of Liverpool were candidates for worship in Anglican Book of Common Prayer services. He thoroughly rejected the idea that the worship of the Church of England, which he called, perhaps with hopeful and forgivable naiveté, the Reformed Church of England, was too high for the workingman. He thought that what was missing was a man of God who would love those working class families and go into their world and bring them Christ in their workplace. He believed that the theology of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, on which our Westminster Confession of Faith is based, can be understood by all men, no matter their social structure, because the Gospel is the Gospel and it can reach men anywhere anytime. And apparently the people believed it. Because under Bishop Ryle, his diocese grew. New churches were built. People were saved. Missionaries were sent out.
I believe that the doctrines of grace are the Gospel—that man is a sinner and can’t save himself, that God is a God of love but a God of judgment and will punish our sins, that God made a covenant—a sacred bond in blood—with Himself and then with Man, that He would do for us what we could not do for ourselves. That He would send His Son in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully Man, and this Man Christ Jesus would satisfy the divine requirement for righteousness and would atone for our sins on a cross. And that whoever believes in Him will be saved, and that salvation because it is a gift of God cannot be stolen or lost or eroded, for if God Himself does it cannot be undone! Now this is the old Reformed faith which Calvin and Luther and Spurgeon and Ryle and M’Cheyne and McCallie and many, many others preached as the Gospel. It is called at once Augustinianism, the Reformed faith, Calvinism, but it is simply as Spurgeon put it “Pauline Christianity.” It is as Warfield called it “the faith of Jesus and of Paul.” It is the Gospel. I don’t believe that our church’s teachings are for the educated only. I believe that the pure doctrines of grace can change the life of a poor farmer as much as a wealthy professional. I believe that we ought to be planting churches that teach these doctrines in the great cities of the earth, and in the forgotten places of the earth.
I have a friend, Pastor’s Bob’s son, Mark, who took a trip down the Amazon to bring the Gospel to unreached peoples. And I asked him, what did you say? He said that I say the same thing that I say to people in my home church in Jacksonville, Florida. I speak of God’s grace, Man’s sin, and God’s judgment on sin, Christ’s love and sacrifice and resurrection from the dead, and the need to repent and believe.
What does this say for sharing Christ? Trust the Bible. Trust God. His message transcends all races, all generations, all cultures, and can penetrate all hearts. And what does it say to our faith? Trust the Bible. Trust God. Believe the Gospel. God’s plan of salvation is supernatural and can do what we cannot do.
And so the common people heard Jesus because He was common and because He could be heard.
And I would say that they heard Him gladly for He brings gladness
Jesus was the Man of Sorrows for the suffering He went through. But to the man or woman or boy or girl who felt their guilt and found Him to forgiving, or were troubled and knew His peace, or were spiritually blind and found sight through Him, He was also the Man of Joy.
In Isaiah 52, there was a promise of one coming who, when He spoke, people would know it was God speaking (Is. 52.6). And we have all heard:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
The message of Jesus Christ is a happy message that ought to produce happy believers. Billy Sunday would preach:
“If you have no joy in your religion, there’s a leak in your Christianity somewhere.”
Martin Luther would say:
“The Christian ought to be a living doxology.”
When we were in India last year, we all witnessed, in a new way, the difference that Jesus Christ makes. Where Jesus was loved there was happiness in the eyes of the people. Where idolatry reigned, there was not only poverty, and confusion, but also sadness—in people, in families, in the very land! Once after I had preached, two women came up to us who had been in Hinduism and another in Buddhism. They told me about their empty lives and the empty lives of others. They told me about the bondage that they had been in. But they told me about how Jesus saved them. I have never seen more radiant faces.
Jesus brings joy.
I know of no better illustration of this than what I went through this week. In burying my mother-in-law and my Aunt, and preaching two funerals in this one week, I saw joy because of faith in Jesus. In fact, as we went out with my mother-in-law’s body, the piano and organ were playing, “O Victory in Jesus.”
There is a difference. When we think about sharing our faith, think about the fact that to share Jesus Christ clearly as the way, the truth, and the life, and to share what he has done in your own life, is a true act of mercy. Because without Christ, there is an emptiness. Your evangelism is an act of mercy that destroys Satan’s hold on human life. For our faith, this should remind us of how true faith in Jesus brings not only life eternal, but also life abundant.
Some Final Thoughts
I would say that the common people hear Jesus because He is common, and we can hear Him, and His doctrines bring gladness.
Today the Gospel is presented to you in very simple terms: Bread and the Cup. His Body is personal—not theoretical. His blood is shed for sinners to be saved—not philosophers to be tickled.
Many of you have prayed for our family as we walked through a tough week. My Aunt Georgia died and I went to preach her funeral. My mother in law died and I preached that funereal yesterday and we go to Illinois, after this service, and I do her graveside tomorrow.
Let me tell you. Jesus is not only the one I preach. He is the One I want. Someone yesterday asked me if I would be here today. I said I would. I said that Communion was being served. And I would be coming hungry and thirsty.
I need Him. I want Him in my life. When I am tired and I want healing I need to run to Jesus.
Jesus saves. Jesus serves. He will save you if you ask Him. He will serve you, today, if you come to Him.
It is just that simple.