The Strategy of Jesus

Jesus Series - 5

The Strategy of Jesus

(Matthew 4:12-25)

The global spread of the movement he founded, now comprising one third of the world’s population, shows that Jesus ranks among history’s greatest strategic leaders. This talk, the fifth in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, was given at an evening service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 16 March 1997.

Jesus’ Secret Ambition

The singer Michael W. Smith has a song which speaks of Jesus’ ‘secret ambition’: ‘to give his life away.’ This was Jesus overriding strategy : to die in Jerusalem, to give his life a sacrifice for the sins of all people.

This long-term objective of Jesus can only be recognized in hindsight. It was not known at first to the general public. I believe that Jesus was committed to this supreme objective from the time of his baptism, at the beginning of his ministry, when John the Baptist prophetically announced, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’ (John 1:29, 36). But Jesus didn’t tell even his disciples about this purpose till after they started to understand who he really was. The first prediction of his coming sufferings and death followed Peter’s confession of faith in him as Messiah, and occasioned Peter’s misguided attempt to turn him from this purpose (Mark 8:27-32).

Jesus’ Secondary Ambition

Closely related to Jesus’ primary objective, to die for sinners, was his secondary purpose, to train leaders who would continue his movement after he was no longer here. Jesus left nothing to chance. He was a brilliant strategist. It was not enough to die as an individual for sinners. From the start he recognized that he needed to create a movement to take the message of forgiveness achieved by his death to the world. So, from the inception of his ministry, we also see Jesus choosing disciples, and training them to be his successors when he was no longer here.

It is significant that Mark’s Gospel locates the call and selection of the first disciples immediately following the first signs of opposition to Jesus. When the first coalition of enemies emerged with the conspiracy of the religious and political leadership - the Pharisees and Herodians - against him (Mark 3:6), Jesus immediately withdrew to a lonely mountain in Galilee and ‘called to him those whom he wanted’, appointing twelve followers, who he called ‘apostles’ (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus heard the sound of distant thunder. He read the warning signs, and realised that this opposition would ultimately mean his elimination, so he began early to select and train successors, to continue his ministry after he had gone. ‘Remarkable as it may seem,’ says Robert Coleman in his classic study of Jesus’ evangelistic methods, ‘Jesus started to gather these men before he ever organized an evangelistic campaign or even preached a sermon in public. . . . These few early converts of the Lord were destined to become the leaders of his church that was to go with the Gospel to the whole world. . . .’ (The Master Plan of Evangelism [Old Tappan, Fleming H. Revell, 1964], pp. 21-22).

Jesus’ Training Strategy

We can also see Jesus’ strategic thinking in the way in which he trained these successors. He used unique training methods, which were relational rather than intellectual in character. He summoned ordinary working people as his disciples, bringing them into a team relationship with himself and one another, and training them on the job by personal example and practical experience.

Jesus didn’t let the demands of ministry to vast crowds prevent the training of his disciples. He concentrated on a few while not neglecting the many. Coleman remarks, ‘Jesus was a realist. . . . 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. . . .’ (pp. 33-34). Where many leaders are mesmerized by numbers and diverted by popularity, Jesus recognized the strategic importance of shaping a few key followers with his personal values and lifestyle.

In what could be called a strategy of association, Jesus’ taught disciples through a living interaction with himself. His teaching method was informal, relational, life-related. ‘Jesus had no formal school, no seminaries, no outlined course of study, no periodic membership classes in which he enrolled his followers. . . . Knowledge was gained by association before it was understood by explanation.’ (Coleman, pp. 38-39). He used a ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39) or ‘Come follow me’ (Mark 1:17) method of learning.

Coleman remarks, ‘The time which Jesus invested in these few disciples was so much more by comparison to that given to others that it can only be regarded as a deliberate strategy. He actually spent more time with his disciples than with everybody else in the world put together. He ate with them, slept with them, and talked with them for the most part of his entire active ministry. They walked together along the lonely roads; they visited together in the crowded cities; they sailed and fished together in the Sea of Galilee; they prayed together in the deserts and in the mountains; and they worshipped together in the synagogues and in the temple. . . . Even while Jesus was ministering to others, the disciples were always there with him. . . . Without neglecting his regular ministry to those in need, he maintained a constant ministry to his disciples by having them with him.’ (pp.42-43).

Keeping Ahead of the Pack

Strategic considerations even controlled Jesus’ movements and travel during his ministry. The two overall strategies of Jesus we have so far identified - to die in Jerusalem, and to train successors - seem to have determined even the geographical location of his public ministry.

It is well-known that Jesus avoided Judea and Jerusalem and concentrated on the northern area of Galilee during his popular early public ministry. Less well-known is that his movement around Galilee involved moving from one political jurisdiction to another. His objective seems to have been not just to minister to people from different geographical areas, but seemingly to avoid premature arrest and gain time to fully equip his disciples.

Examination of a map of 1st century Palestine shows that Jesus moved through at least four political jurisdictions as he travelled around and across Lake Galilee (Mark 6-8): Galilee (on the western shores of the lake), the Decapolis (to the southeast of the lake), the Tetrarchy of Philip (the modern Golan Heights, to the east and northeast of the lake), and Tyre and Sidon (Gentile territory to the north west, right outside the territory of biblical Israel altogether). As Jesus criss-crossed the lake he was moving from one political jurisdiction to another, keeping ahead of his opposition and so avoiding premature detention and arrest.

So we see that Jesus left nothing to chance. His greatness as a leader was in having overall strategic objectives which determined all that he did. He kept a supreme mastery of the situations in which he found himself, using them for his overriding purpose, rather than letting himself become the pawn of events. In this way he determined the time he would die, and secured time to minister to the crowds as well as train his followers before going to Jerusalem when the time came for him to die (Mark 10:32-34).

A Strategy of Multiplication

There is a further aspect of Jesus’ strategy that we can see as we look back on his impact on world history. From being leader of a small group of a dozen followers in an obscure province on the eastern border of the Roman Empire, the movement Jesus founded now comprises, two millennia later, one third of the world’s population (1,995,000,000 out of a total world population of 5,892,000,000 in mid-1997, according to Christian researcher David Barrett’s ‘Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 1997,’ International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 1997, pp. 24-25).

What was the key to this astonishing success? It was Jesus’ personal method of disciple-making. Modern evangelists, like so many modern political leaders or leaders of contemporary popular culture, prefer mass methods, often despising personal or friendship evangelism as slow and inefficient. In fact, Jesus’ preferred strategy of discipling a few to reach the many is demonstrably much more effective in the long run. It is the difference between addition and multiplication, as Dr. Howard Hendrix, Professor of Christian Education at Dallas Seminary, and Dr. James Kennedy, founder of Evangelism Explosion, have pointed out by contrasting the two methods:

Method 1: Addition (Mass Evangelism)

Assume that a modern mass evangelist preaches to 100,000 per day, with a 4% rate of conversion (double that of Billy Graham) and works a superhuman 365 days a year. After 1 year there will be 1,460,000 converts, and so on annually until after 16 years there will be 23,360,000 converts (slightly more than the combined population of Australia and New Zealand).

Method 2:Multiplication (Personal Discipling)

By contrast, using Jesus’ method of personal discipling, we can modestly assume that 1 person makes 1 disciple each 6 months, and teaches each successive disciple to do same. After 1 year there will be 4 disciples, after 2 years 16, after 5 years over 1 thousand, after 10 years over 1 million, after 15 years over 1 billion, and after about 16½ years the present world population of just under 6 billion would be discipled. Seen in this light, the famous motto of the Student Volunteer Movement a hundred years’ ago, ‘The Evangelization of the World in This Generation’ is not an idle dream. Jesus’ modest, seemingly inefficient, but highly personal method is in the long run powerfully effective and world transforming. No better method has yet been devised for changing the world.

Jesus was the greatest strategist the world has ever seen. The movement he started continues to transform the lives of individuals and impact world history two millennia after he walked the hills of Galilee.

Rob Yule
16 March 1997

© 1997, St Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand