It’s not unusual today for church leaders to aspire to lead a mega-church with thousands of people. They expect that they will become more and more popular and attract many people.
However, I’d like to show from Scripture what the trend usually is, so that we do not get our hopes crushed when things do not turn out the way we expected.
First, I’ll simply mention the prophets of old. This includes all the Old Testament prophets up to and including John the Baptist. They endured much persecution and were not widely popular with the people they were preaching to.
Jesus said, “"Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mat 5:11-12)
Many of the prophets were put to death. Jesus said to the Jewish lawyers of His day, “Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them.” (Luk 11:47)
The best example is Jesus Christ. His popularity grew until it reached a peak on the day He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. On that day, the masses were shouting praises to Him, waving palm branches, and making a carpet of palm branches for Him to ride on. They saw in Him their long-awaited King and Messiah.
John’s gospel states: “On the next day the large crowd who had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, ‘Hosanna! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD, even the King of Israel.’" (Joh 12:12-13). It appeared to Jesus enemies that the whole world had gone after Jesus (Jn 12:19). Even the Greeks wanted to see Jesus (Jn 12:21).
But this popularity was short lived. Within a week, Jesus was arrested (Jn 18:3, 12). And the next morning the crowds were shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” John wrote in his gospel account, “So they cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’" (Joh 19:15)
Their next step was to put Him to death on a cross. After this, Jesus never regained the same kind of widespread popularity He had at that zenith on “Palm Sunday” a week earlier.
All of the original eleven apostles experienced the same thing. All of them were persecuted with threats, beatings, and imprisonment, and they were all eventually put to death. The only exception was John, whom it is believed survived being boiled in oil, and was later banished to the isle of Patmos.
The apostle Paul
Each time the apostle Paul preached in a city, his popularity usually followed the same kind of trajectory pattern as that of Jesus.
In Damascus this happened. “And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened. Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, ‘Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.” (Act 9:18-22)
Notice how he increased in strength. But that did not last. When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.” (Act 9:23-25)
And it was like this wherever he traveled. For example, in Psidian Antioch. Luke wrote of the popularity they enjoyed when Paul first began to preach there: “As Paul and Barnabas were going out, the people kept begging that these things might be spoken to them the next Sabbath. Now when the meeting of the synagogue had broken up, many of the Jews and of the God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who, speaking to them, were urging them to continue in the grace of God. The next Sabbath nearly the whole city assembled to hear the word of the Lord.” (Act 13:42-44). You know you are popular when the whole city assembles to hear the word of the Lord you are preaching!
But that didn’t last. Luke wrote: “But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming. Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first; since you repudiate it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.’” (Act 13:45-46)
The same thing happened in Iconium. “In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren.” (Act 14:1-2)
In Lystra, after Paul healed the crippled man, the people shouted that the gods had come down to them. They began to worship Paul and Barnabas as gods! “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have become like men and have come down to us.’ And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds.” (Act 14:11-13). Paul and Barnabas had great difficulty restraining the people from offering sacrifices to them.
This as usual was short lived. “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.” (Act 14:19)
The same thing happened in Thessalonica. “And according to Paul's custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women.” (Act 17:2-4)
Their popularity in Thessalonica didn’t last very long. “But the Jews, becoming jealous and taking along some wicked men from the market place, formed a mob and set the city in an uproar; and attacking the house of Jason, they were seeking to bring them out to the people.” (Act 17:5). Even though a large number of the God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women believed in Christ, afterward Paul and Barnabas were forced to leave the city due to the violence.
This pattern was repeated later in Berea: “Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. But when the Jews of Thessalonica found out that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul in Berea also, they came there as well, agitating and stirring up the crowds.” (Act 17:12-13)
Putting it All Together
We could give many more examples, but these will suffice to make the point. When we look in Scripture at the popularity of Jesus and His apostles, including Paul, we see that it was always short-lived. If they did see a time of great popularity, it did not last for long. It was followed by violent persecution. The apostle Paul taught, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2Ti 3:12)
In fact, Jesus warned, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.” (Luk 6:26)
So when preachers today think that they are going to achieve and sustain widespread popularity, expecting to build a mega-church with a great numbers of disciples, they deceive themselves. This is not the pattern of Scripture. Rather, in Scripture, when the Truth is preached, it may be popular at first, but it will always bring intense persecution.
When we see someone today preaching a message that receives and sustains wide popularity, we have to question it. We should find out what the message is that they are preaching. It is usually not the true gospel of salvation through repentance from sin and faith in Christ by grace alone.
I watched a televised interview on "60 Minutes" with a pastor of a one of the largest mega-churches in the world. He said that he does not preach or teach from the Bible. His teachings and books are more of a self-help gospel. He tells people “how to become a better you.” The reporter asked him why his latest book did not have one mention of God or Jesus Christ. His response was, “That’s just my message. There is Scripture in there that backs it all up.” He does not feel it is his gifting to explain the Scriptures. In a separate television interview with Larry King, when asked how we get to heaven, he side-stepped the question. Then later when a caller directly challenged him on that, he refused to say that an atheist or any non-believer will perish if they do not put their faith in Christ. Consequently, he is wildly popular even with non-believers, including Jews.
However, the true gospel is considered a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. And it will always eventually be met with stiff resistance. But it is still the power of God unto salvation.
Let me encourage you to preach the true gospel, and not to give people what you think they want to hear, just so you can be popular. You may not see all the fruit of it in this life, but you will be greatly rewarded in eternity.
Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.
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Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus. Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?
“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15). He preached that we must repent and believe.
Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"
Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International. He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.