The Corruption of Popularity
Jesus begins to more deeply unfold the particulars of His mission on earth, even if His disciples had much to learn about the eternal elements. He tells of His sufferings and of the scribes and elders and chief priests and how they will mistreat Him, and eventually He will be put to death. It is a prophetic narrative than grates against the expectations of His disciples and to be sure they must have been troubled by His words. Could they be real and literal or can we assume they are metaphoric and represent something much different that this story of death and torture? You and I, if we are honest, would have struggled with the same questions and feelings as did those disciples.
Finally Peter could no longer remain silent, and true to form he begins to rebuke the Lord for continuing to teach this prophecy concerning His future. Peter, probably speaking for most of them, assures the Lord that nothing of the kind will happen to Him, not on their watch. Oh yes, Jesus was popular with the disciples and they were at least in heart willing to protect Him from any attack and injury. They loved Him and they had left everything to follow Him, so this death spiral was unacceptable to them and their love for Him.
Now Jesus could have been encouraged by their show of support for Him and He might have relished in His popularity with His closest friends. He may have been swayed by Peter’s suggestion that nothing like that would visit Him. Popularity is very manipulative and can sometimes deceive its object into embracing their accolades to the exclusion of actual truth. It can cause one to embrace their caricature concerning himself and not the truth he knows. A popular figure can lose sight of his mission and espouse the crowd’s mission they are superimposing upon him.
But not Jesus. He not only rejected Peter’s misguided attempt at protection, He invokes the name of Satan so as to manifest the seriousness of Peter’s suggestions and pronouncements. Christ has His mission which began before He spoke creation into being and no one could make Him take His eyes off the joy that was set before Him. The cross and all its eternal sufferings was in His flint set eyes and He was on a journey that would gain the victory upon those Roman planks. And popularity is not only fleeting, it is entirely untrustworthy. The same crowd that shouts “Hosanna” upon His entrance will shout “Crucify Him” before Pilate. That is the nature of popularity, it flies upon the wings of its own interests and its wholly subjective.
So what can we learn from our Lord from that entire story? Let us examine the nuanced deceptions inherent in popularity regardless if it's one person fawning over us with reckless abandon or ten million, the dangers are the same. Many if not most times popularity feeds the less noble elements of our nature and it surely compromises any sense of impartiality. I have found it on this blog when I encouraged comments. The ones who posted agreement cemented my spirit concerning my views and those who disagreed were washed away on the waves of those who expressed appreciative agreement. Along the way I became suspect of my ability to impartially assess my own views and motives and any popularity only inhibited any objective self investigation.
How many of us pastors elicit from our wives an answer to the question, “What did you think of my message?”? Although that may inflate our own view and minister to our self esteem it may not be the most effective and impartial way to get an objective assessment of our messages. And when our wives sometimes do not offer a complete and excited approval of some sermon why are we then slightly injured? Why do we not receive that as a constructive morsel upon which to chew and ask the Spirit to refine us? It's because we desire popularity much more than we desire a dispassionate observation that could help to more spiritually formulate any future service. And if we are wrong and unbiblical in our behavior and/or speech, the popular pool will assure us of our righteousness and thereby blunt the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul is another example of one who showed courageous impartiality even at the expense of popularity. Peter had befriended Paul and even supported him in the meeting at Jerusalem. And Peter was the preacher of Pentecost and one of the chief apostles who had lived with the Lord, his approval would be very beneficial to Paul. But soon after that very meeting Paul comes to Antioch and witnesses Peter showing partiality to Jewish believers and separating himself from Gentile believers. What would Paul do upon seeing this? Paul had to know that to cross Peter would be very risky and may hinder his ministry if he fell out of favor with Peter. Peter had great popularity and Paul could bask in that shadow if he so chose.
But Paul was never interested in popularity, his or anyone else’s. Paul takes Peter and openly rebukes him probably before everyone and to Peter’s credit he received it as the wounds of a friend. But the thought of popularity could have easily affected Paul’s judgment concerning this incident and in fact his entire ministry. That, my friends, is rejecting popularity and embracing the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Many things can be compromised by popularity and an acclaim oriented atmosphere. Honesty, humility, grace, objectivity, teach ability, and even truth can be sorely diluted when we rely in any way of the praise and popularity of others.
There is a theology being spread about today that suggests there can be no certainty about anything and of course they are certain about uncertainty. That is foolishness. But is it not healthy to place our hearts and views upon the altar of spiritual inspection so as to insure we are not speaking from the flesh but the Spirit? And this should be done away from the applause of like minded praisers who cloud our minds and ears to the correction of God’s Spirit. Certainty without purification can be entrenched error, but when the certainty of others is an ingredient in our own certainty than how can we know we have arrived at our views discounting the opinion of others, friend and foe alike? We run the real risk that our spiritual tents have been staked by the applause of others and not the careful and vulnerable openness to God’s Word by God’s Spirit.
We all desire approval and popularity, but in matters of the Spirit we must not allow ourselves to be tainted by the observations of others no matter how well intentioned. Fasting and prayer and a broken and contrite spirit must be our classroom where we can have one and only one Teacher. God help us to seek Him like treasure.