Matthew 4:12-23, The Beginning of Jesus’ Proclamation

[January 26, 2013] Today’s Gospel reading spans the end of the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and the beginning of the five discipleship sections, with verse 17 being the pivot on which they turn, that single verse ending the one and beginning—indeed, as a thesis practically entitling—the following. “From then onwards Jesus began his proclamation with the message, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’” I intend to discuss both halves of this hinge that divides them.

Jesus Returns to Galilee (Matthew 4:12-13)

At first we might get the impression that verse 12 is the beginning of what follows, that the beginning of the gospel ends with the testing in the wilderness and when “the devil left him, and suddenly angels appeared and looked after him.” However, verse 12 begins with the word “but” (de) which links it to what precedes it, and Jesus’ name is absent, meaning that the listener would have to infer who “he” was by recalling verse 10 (thus it was intended that, in the reading of it, verse 12 would have followed verse 11 without a break). Moreover, the reference to John the Baptist would have us to recall chapter 3, thus completing what began there. 3:1—4:17, then, form a unified whole, completing the first section of Matthew’s gospel about the coming of Immanuel (“God-with-us”) as the emergence of the kingdom of the heavens.

John the Baptist is “handed over.” This word is used prominently in the context of Jesus’ passion and thus links the two men, both in their proclamation and its consequence with respect to the kingdoms of the world (a Herod, again—Herod Antipas this time; we should not forget the attempt on Jesus’ life by Herod the Great in chapter 2—and Pontus Pilate). This consequence (the “handing over”)—both turning on the matter of kingship—is parallel, though the men (John and Jesus) and their mission is a continuum, John preparing the way of and introducing Jesus, their message being identical.

Jesus withdraws into the Galilee. The word for withdraw (anachōreō) can also mean to return, connoting from a considerable distance. Jesus withdrew from the south, where John was active and where Jesus had been when he came out of the wilderness of Judea, to return home. He had his own work to do, independent of the Baptist’s, and yet not in conflict or competition with it. He waited until John was arrested before he made a new beginning in Galilee.

He went to his home in Nazareth (see 2:23), to his mother, and, presumably bidding her goodbye, he left and settled in Capernaum, setting up residence there. This was to become his Galilean base for his apostolic itinerancy.

Galilee of the Nations! (4:14-16)

“This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali! Way of the sea beyond the Jordan. Galilee of the nations! The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a country of shadow dark as death a light has dawned.”

 Before we consider Isaiah’s prophecy in particular, notice the typology. Jesus’ course is reliving the experience of Israel, but being faithful in it. His baptism in the Jordan evokes Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea (as did Israel’s crossing of the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua, Jesus’ namesake) and his forty days in the wilderness evokes the forty years of Israel’s wilderness sojourn. The crossing of the Red Sea was Israel’s departure from Egypt, from slavery and the tyranny of Pharaoh, a picture of what repentance does. Pharaoh and his armies are buried in the sea and left behind. Then Israel was tested in the wilderness, as Jesus also was, and over the matter of sonship and inheritance. The wilderness was also the time of Jesus’ fasting, his mourning for the sins of the nation. The generation of Israel that left Egypt did not enter the Promised Land. They wandered for forty years until their bodies were strewn in the sand. This was on account of their unbelief at Kadesh-barnea. Only the generation born in the desert would enter the Promised Land. Jesus, by fasting, mourned for Israel’s unbelief and sin, and denied himself in the temptations, renouncing again and again his sinless soul, to consecrate himself entirely to the divine will (it had to be the will of another—not his own—which could for him be none other than the will of the Father).

It follows then that his emergence from the wilderness was typologically his entering the Promised Land (“the Land of Israel,” 2:20). In Deuteronomy the Promised Land—if Israel was faithful to God—was the place of God’s blessing, of beatitude (see Matthew 5:3-11). Israel was not faithful, and it was not expected that she would be, and so her experience became the experience of the nations. Israel came under the divine censure, like the gentiles; though it was worse for Israel because of its election (on account of which God also always preserved Israel). By this I mean, Israel was aware, on account of the revelation it was given, of what it lost, making its experience bitter. Yet Jesus entered “the Land of Israel”—yes, “Galilee of the nations”—as the faithful one, the one upon whom all God’s favor—and blessing, and the promise of the Spirit—rests. Heaven opened and the Spirit of God descended upon him and the voice from announced, “This one is my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on him” (Matthew 3:16-17).

 “Galilee of the nations.” Galilee was annexed by the Assyrian monarch in the days of old—this is to what the prophecy of Isaiah refers (in 8:23—9:1)—and Israel (the northern and southern kingdoms respectively) went into exile among the nations. When Judah returned from exile, it was under the rule of the Persians. Then they were subjected to the Greeks. In the days of the Maccabees they won their independence, but again came they under the rule of the Romans. They had not return to the Promised Land but to the land of promise. The promise—and its beatitude, its blessing—would have to wait for the coming of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit in the latter days.

Yet when Jesus returned to Galilee he brought the blessing of the promise with him. He was the Messiah and his presence made the land the Promised Land. No, the promise was not yet fulfilled, except in him and in those who came into his personal “sphere” (his qahal, or assembly, or church). The kingdom (and kingship) of the heavens was where he was, yet the kingdom of the heavens was not established over the kingdoms of the world, overcoming them, though its mastery of them soon would be (Matthew 28:18). Just as Hezekiah faced the Assyrian threat, as they stood outside the gates of Jerusalem, by remaining faithful to YHWH, and they were defeated and sent home, bringing temporary hope and relief to all his territories (including the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, which had suffered so much in prior days), so Jesus faces all the powers of the world and by his faithfulness to God defeats them.

It was not the “Judaizers” with their zeal and intolerance and violence who would fulfill God’s promises, but the peaceful Jesus. Yet his first coming is only a window into the fulfillment that will come to the whole world at his second coming. Nevertheless, this “window” was a real presence and not merely a picture. His first coming was no mere sign of the coming of the kingdom, it really was the coming of the kingdom itself, its actual coming—in his own person. It was limited to his own person and his personal sphere, but it was truly there. For Israel, the kingdom of the heavens had drawn near.

“Galilee of the nations”: the phrase has the meaning I indicated above. It does not mean that Galilee was settled by Gentiles. Though Gentile lived there it was the heartland of Israel. Nor does it mean that Jesus would direct his ministry to the Gentiles; he did not and even forbade his disciples to go to the Gentile towns. Yet the title, for Matthew, does allude to the hope for the Gentiles that the Messiah is. The prophets describe salvation coming to the Gentiles in the messianic age, when the kingdom is established. Matthew’s gospel is, in fact, an apology (meaning defense) for the church’s mission to the Gentiles. Jesus ministers always with a view to this openness, knowing that what he brings is for them too. And in resurrection—the promises for Israel (and his qahal) being secured—he sends his disciples out to make disciples of all nations. This is the direction that the gospel moves, and it is already alluded to in the genealogy of David in chapter one and the visitation of the magi in chapter 2.

In chapter 1 we are told that the child in Mary’s womb was to be called Immanuel, God-with-us (the prophecy there too—Isaiah 7:14—originally referred to Hezekiah), and Matthew interprets John’s ministry by what is written in Isaiah 40:3: John, in preparing the way for the coming one is preparing the way for the coming of God. When the heaven opened and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and the voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” we see in the conjunction the dynamic of that singular name of “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” in 28:19. This is the “great light” that the people who lived in darkness saw. The darkness in which they lived, the shadow dark as death, was the hopelessness in which they found themselves. The coming of Jesus was like the sun dawning on them. It was the light of God’s own presence among the people of God—the people of Israel—who had long been living in its eclipse.

Jesus is still the hope of the people of Israel, as he is the hope of the Gentiles who have long dwelt in hopelessness, even if they have not known it. Israel has been gifted with this sight on account of having been given the promises. The Gentiles only grope in the darkness, “seeking the deity and feeling their way towards him,” though in truth, God “is not far from any of us, since it is in him that we live, and move, and exist” (Acts 17:27-28).

The Announcement (4:17)

Verse 17 says, “From then onwards Jesus began his proclamation with the message, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” Literally, it says “he began to announce and to say.” The word russō (proclaim) means to make something known, to declare or herald it, to broadcast the news of it. Jesus began to herald the news that the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near. “Has come near” is one word in the original: engi; and it is in the perfect tense. It is something that has happened. These are the same words the Baptist used in 3:2 to herald the news of the coming one. The coming one has come! Therefore the kingdom of the heavens has come, and is now near to us. Therefore, “repent!” If the news is true, the only appropriate response is to repent. The announcement is that the news is true.

This verse therefore concludes Matthew 1:1—4:16. Emmanuel has come in the person of Jesus. His coming is the rising of the sun on the people who dwell in the darkness of fear and hopelessness on account of their estrangement from God (their sin). His coming is the emergence of the kingdom of the heavens into actual time (history), and into actual geographical space (Galilee). It is not just eternal; and it is no longer far off. It is here and now, tangible and in our own lives. The divine has taken up residence among us, and our own flesh and blood is the personal presence of God, God as “I am.” God, living in the natural environment of Palestine as a natural part of its wholeness, his own biological body, eating and digesting and excreting the food of the land, being the body of God no less than his soul and spirit are God’s own.

While this verse concludes Matthew 1:1—4:16, it also introduces 4:18—26:1a, and in particular 4:18—8:1. “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” The Gospel (the good “spell” or story in English, or good news or joyous message or glad tidings in Greek) is the story of Jesus’ coming, the news of his coming and the significance of it. That “the kingdom of the heavens has drawn near” is the Gospel, if we understand it to be referring to the coming of Jesus, his emergence into the public life of Israel and onto the stage of history.

The Sermon on the Mount describes what this means: it describes the meaning of being him and of being someone in his personal sphere. So chapters 5—7 is an exposition of this verse. (It is preceded, however, by a necessary introduction.) Moreover, each section of 4:18—26:1a is an exposition of this verse, each considering it from a different angle: 8:1a—11:1 is about the mission of the kingdom; 11:2—13:53 is about its lack of reception; 13:54—20:34 is about its foothold; and 21:1—26:1a is about its judgment.

The Presence of the Kingdom (4:23)

“He went round the whole of Galilee teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing all kinds of disease and illness among the people.” From Capernaum Jesus went in a circuit around (peria) the whole (holos) of Galilee, treating Galilee as his apostolic diocese (see 2 Corinthians 10:13-16; Romans 15:19). He taught (didas) in their synagogues, meaning that he expounded on the Scripture readings; he heralded (rus) the Gospel (the good news) of the kingdom; and he healed (therapeuō) all (kinds of) disease and illness among (en) the people. Jesus interpreted the Scriptures to prepare the people for the announcement that the time of fulfillment had arrived (we see an example of this in the synagogue of Capernaum in Luke 4). The healing that accompanied his ministry of words was a working of miracles, giving immediate relief to those who were suffering. When the kingdom of the heavens is at last established, creation itself will be restored and the suffering of people will end. Right now it was only happening where Jesus himself was. When he comes again, who he is will be universally manifested and so the miracle of healing will be as well. His acts of healing, indeed, foreshadowed the resurrection of our bodies from the dead. For now, though, these acts of healing did not necessarily bring a spiritual benefit to those who were healed. They were signs only. When Jesus says that the miracle “saved” them, something further takes place besides the biological healing. Along with the healing of the individual’s body, their spirit is awakened and restoration begins in their soul.

This twofold ministry of word and healing is an illustration of the kingdom of the heavens being near to the people.

The Calling of Disciples (4:18-22)

Ultimately, the purpose of this consciousness raising was to call the people to repent (metanoeō), to turn around and open their minds to something utterly new, to see with new eyes and thus enter and live in an entirely different mental landscape. This is what the word “repent” literally means.

It also has the meaning (in Hebrew) of making an about-face to turn toward God, to agree with God’s judgment of oneself, to submit to whatever comes by it and to love God in this submission, and to live with this love in faithfulness to God.

This is the Biblical and traditional sense of the word, and we do not cast it aside, for it certainly seems to be what the Baptist meant by it. When we see Jesus in action, whether we consider his teaching or his deeds, this is always there too. Nevertheless, while Jesus stresses that we must accept the divine judgment under which we live and not rebel against God’s hand, he puts an even greater stress on opening ourselves to the new, and therefore to the word in its most literal sense (in Greek). He is the new thing that is abroad in the land. This in fact is what the good news is. His coming is something utterly new and completely unprecedented, though it is the fulfillment of all that Moses and the prophets had said would come to pass.

When we consider then the calling of the four disciples, it is this that is emphasized entirely. We see no reference to repentance in the negative sense, having to do with sin and judgment. He simply calls these men to come to him. “Come after”—or follow—me.” It is, of course, a call to become a disciple, a rabbi’s apprentice. Why fishermen would drop their work, their livelihood and trade, and at once take up this completely different kind of work, is something to wonder at. No doubt it had everything to do with the kind of person Jesus presented himself as and what they saw or recognized in him.

Given the sparseness of the text, we can only surmise that they believed his announcement that the kingdom of the heavens had come near. They must have felt deeply the significance of the words “the kingdom of the heavens” and reacted to the news that it was close. Moreover they must have also responded to the one saying it. Perhaps they were aware of the miracles that he had wrought as evidence of the nearness of the kingdom, linking him personally (somehow) with this kingdom and its nearness, though we are not told of any miracles at this point. All we are told so far is simply of the coming out of Jesus and that he is making this announcement.

We are not even told in Matthew that the Baptist had pointed Jesus out to anyone. Perhaps he had (John’s gospel tells us he did), but Matthew is silent about it. Indeed, Matthew only tells us that Jesus saw the Spirit descending on him; he does not tell us that anyone else saw it. So, he does not give this to us to draw any conclusions from it about the four fishermen. All we have is verse 17.

I have mentioned several times about Jesus calling people into his personal sphere. What do I mean by this? Jesus calls people into a relationship with himself. He does not call them into any sort of relationship. It is a specific relationship of fidelity to him, to his person, of loyalty, faithfulness, allegiance, even that stronger word, fealty. It is more than what we usually mean by commitment. One can be committed to an idea, but this is commitment to a person. When you enter into this kind of relationship to someone, you in a way belong to them, and they in turn take responsibility for you. To violate this relationship is not simply a weakening of commitment, it is betrayal. The one who claims you has an exclusive right to you, and you are committed to them with a sense of loyalty—you cannot divide your loyalty among two, it belongs to this one exclusively. This is what we mean by “believing” in Jesus. We enter into this particular kind of relationship to him. He becomes our “lord.”

When we thus make this act, we enter his personal sphere. Our relationship to him is of one person to another, in which his claim on us is existential and makes us into a person in relationship to his person. He makes himself responsible for us, but we are also at his beck and call. Thus we become his apprentices. In this personal sphere we are defined by him. We share his relationship to the Father; his Father becomes our Father; and he can give us the Holy Spirit that rests upon him. By virtue of our relationship to him, we come under the blessing that rests on him as the Father’s beloved. All this we see spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, this is the function of the sermon, to spell it out for us.

I will make you fishers of people” (4:19)

When Jesus tells Peter and Andrew that he will make them fishers of people, we can hardly not recall Jeremiah 16:16. In view of the following words we might give the words in Jeremiah a negative interpretation, but Jesus might have had in view the verses that precede it: “Look, the days are coming, YHWH declares, when people will no longer say, ‘As YHWH lives who brought the Israelites out of Egypt!’ but, ‘As YHWH lives who brought the Israelites back from the land of the north and all the countries to which he had driven them.’ I shall bring them back to the very soil I gave their ancestors.” Then it says, “‘Watch, I shall send for many fishermen,’ YHWH declares, ‘and these will fish them up …’” In view of the words that precede this, it would mean that YHWH is fishing for his people in all the lands to which he had driven them in order to bring them back to the Promised Land. This is a messianic promise, and Jesus is calling these fishermen to “make disciples” of others, that is, to bring others within the personal sphere of Jesus, in whom are contained all the promises of God. By coming to Jesus people come to the Promised Land.

Moreover, in Jeremiah 16:19-21 not only are the Israelites caught and brought to the Promised Land, but Jeremiah says: “To you[, YHWH,] the nations will come from the remotest parts of the earth and say, ‘Our fathers inherited nothing but Delusion, Futility of no use whatever. Can human beings make their own gods? These are not gods at all!’ ‘Now listen, I will make them acknowledge, this time I will make them acknowledge my hand and my might; and then they will know that YHWH is my name.’” This also might have been meant as a threat, but it can also be read in a positive way—that the nations will give up their idolatry and turn to the God of Israel, to YHWH. The Christian missionaries, unlike the Pharisees, did not insisted that the nations (the Gentiles) either be “God-fearers” who attended synagogue while keeping their idols and attending to public sacrifices or be circumcised converts (proselytes). They insisted that the Gentiles had to give up their idolatry, whether or not they converted (Paul insisted that they should not convert; they should remain Gentiles as long as they gave up their idolatry). Jesus may have understood these words as a description of the commission he gave his disciples, “Make disciples of all nations.”

If we look forward, Jesus will again use the imagery of fishing in Matthew 13:47. There the dragnet is handled by the angels who will pull in the haul of fish at the end of the age and sort them out according to whether they are wicked or upright (evil or righteous). This does not describe the missionary enterprise but rather the judgment of the nations (not Israel and not the church), which is also depicted in Matthew 25:31-46. Fishermen are also depicted in Ezekiel 47:10 with another meaning.

Mending Nets (4:21)

If it was significant that Peter and Andrew were fishing, it might also be significant that James and John were mending their nets when Jesus called them. This might be a hint; Matthew does not take us there. Nevertheless, the word for mending occurs five times in Paul’s letters (Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 13:1; and Romans 9:22), twice in Hebrews (10:5; 13:21 and maybe 11:3) and once in 1 Peter (5:10) where it has the sense of “to put in order or restore,” “to design, prepare, or make,” or “to complete or make perfect.” In most of these places it is related to the ministry within the church, and in that sense it is in contrast to “fishing.”

If so, then the two sets of fishermen represent two aspects of the church’s apostolate—fishing and stitching. Both are our work. Both, in any case, look beyond the immediate context in Matthew, namely the upcoming Sermon on the Mount, to the mission of the kingdom in 8:2—11:1 and the revelation of the Messiah’s qahal (the church) in 13:54—19:30.

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