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Called to Follow
Spring Quarter: Discipleship and Mission
Unit 2: Call to Ministry
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 31, 2019
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Matthew 4:12-22
Key Verse: Matthew 4:19
- Recall the reason for the need to repent.
- Explain the relationship between repentance and the kingdom of heaven.
It is commonly understood that Matthew is the gospel which was written for the Jews. It was written by a Jew in order to convince Jews. One of the great objects of Matthew is to demonstrate that all of the prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus and that every detail of Jesus’ life was foreshadowed in the prophets. Therefore, Jesus must be the Messiah.
Using more than 60 quotes from the Old Testament, Matthew explains the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection. The flight to and from Egypt is reminiscent of the nation of Israel’s enslavement and delivery from Egypt. Herod’s opposition to Jesus echoes that of Pharaoh to Moses. The parallels are many. Matthew makes clear that John the Baptist’s preaching is also according to Scripture, preparing the way for Jesus.
In addition, Matthew’s Jewishness is also evident in his use of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God.” The former expression occurs more than 30 times in the New Testament, and all of them are in the book of Matthew. “Kingdom of heaven” is a respectful Jewish way of saying “kingdom of God” since God’s name was not spoken by devout Jews of the day. The practice was to substitute other words for the divine name so clarity would be maintained. Thus, the use of the word “heaven.”
Still, another point regarding the Jewishness of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ time in a wilderness, which immediately leads into today’s scripture lesson. Of course, the parallel is with the nation of Israel’s experience in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. The 40 years of Israel’s story is mirrored in Jesus’ story of 40 days (Numbers 14:33,34; Matthew 4:2). But unlike that case, Jesus did not suffer defeat as a result. Instead, he faced Satan’s temptation victoriously defeating him three times with the faithful and proper use of Scripture. We will now proceed with today’s lesson.
The writer of Matthew says, “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (Matthew 4:12). The motivation for Jesus’ return to Galilee is that John the Baptist is put in prison. Matthew does not explain why John was arrested, apparently because this was a well-known story to his audience.
All four Gospels report that Jesus begins his public ministry by preaching in Galilee. These accounts portray Jesus as resolute. To be sure, Jesus does not react without prayerful consideration, given his previous 40 days spent in the wilderness.
Initially, we might assume that Jesus travels to Galilee because of safety concerns. But when we realize that Herod Antipas ruled the region of Galilee, the ruler who had John the Baptist arrested and later put to death, we know Jesus is not going to Galilee to escape danger from him. Besides, in instances where Jesus escaped danger (Luke 4:28-30; John 8:59; 10:39), the issue is one of timing. “They tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come” (John 7:30). The point is that there is no safety in Galilee.
Though Nazareth does not have a good reputation (John 1:46), that doesn’t seem to be the reason Jesus leaves his hometown after living there these three decades. More likely, it was his divine insight that causes him to realize in advance that he will have no credibility there (Luke 4:16-30; John 4:44). Consequently, because of their hard-hearted rejection of the man who grew up among them, the people of Nazareth will not see their town become the center of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 13:53-58).
After leaving hostile Nazareth, Jesus made Capernaum his headquarters for ministry. Capernaum is a typical working-class village and has a population of about 1,500. Capernaum means the “Village of Nahum,” quite possibly a reference to the Old Testament prophet Nahum. “Nahum” means “compassion.” Isn’t it amazing that Jesus who himself embodied compassion made the “Village of Compassion” his new mailing address?
Situated in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali, Capernaum is about 20 miles northeast of Nazareth. Zebulun and Naphtali are regions named for two of the sons of Jacob and the borders of their land grants go back to the days of Joshua (Joshua 19:10-16, 32-39).
If there was a backward place in the Roman Empire, this is it! Yet Jesus chooses insignificant Capernaum as the base of operations from which to launch his public ministry.
Yet it is noteworthy that Jesus himself is a nobody by outward appearances (Isaiah 53:2). He was not born in a palace but in a stable with animals. His hometown was not the enchanting Jerusalem but in the backward town of Nazareth. He was born to parents who were poor and in his early experience he was a refugee. His occupation was carpentry. No doubt, his life had been shared by common humanity.
The prophet Isaiah had a prophetic ministry that lasted from roughly 740 to 680 B.C. The four Gospels quote from the book of Isaiah more than 20 times. Therefore, the book’s vital prophecies of the coming of the Messiah has earned it the designation “the fifth Gospel” to a number of Bible students.
Jesus’ arrival in Zebulun and Naphtali (Nazareth was in the territory of Zebulun, while Capernaum was in Naphtali), provides a fertile place of ministry and fulfills that Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. Matthew 4:15-16 quotes from Isaiah 9:1-2.
The phrase “Galilee of the Gentiles” in verse 15 recognizes that region has been conquered by foreigners. Ever since the Assyrian campaign reduced it to a province under an Assyrian governor in 732 B.C. (2 Kings 15:29), this region has experienced turmoil and forced infiltration of Gentile influence. The inhabitants are called “the people sitting in darkness” (Matthew 4:16). This designation is a description of Jews who await deliverance while living among the hopelessness of the Gentiles. Thus it is here where the darkness is the most pronounced and where the center of religious life in Jerusalem is so far away that these Jews are the first to see the great light of God’s deliverance in Jesus. For sure, this is a messianic message of grace, for it comes first to those least expecting it.
Note here that the “way to the sea” (Matthew 4:15) was the trade route that ran through this region to the Mediterranean Sea. Matthew recognizes that Jesus’ ministry will extend far beyond the physical locality of Jewish Galilee. Jesus’ ministry will touch travelers from beyond the Jordan, and ultimately the Gentiles.
Matthew states in verse 17, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” The preaching ministry of Jesus now begins in earnest. Moving forward from where John the Baptist left off, Jesus continued to call sinners to repentance. As Isaiah had predicted, spiritual darkness had settled upon the land (v:16).
Now, what Jesus expects as a result of his preaching is succinctly summed up in the single word “repent.” When most of us hear or see that word, our first through (which is not wrong) is probably to think in terms of leaving a life of sin (John 8:11), and embracing righteousness (Matthew 3:8). More to the point, however, repentance is grounded in a change of thought and heart (refer to 1 Kings 8:47-50; Matthew 3:9; Acts 8:20-22). Genuine changes in behavior result from changes in the heart.
When Jesus died on the cross, He took on our identity as a sinner. When we believe in Him we take on His identity as the righteous Son of God. And we receive this righteousness the moment we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, repent of our sin, and ask for forgiveness.
Writing in his book “John Wesley’s Message For Today,” Steve Harper says that John Wesley called repentance, “A change of heart from all sin to all holiness.” Wesley meant “that whereas we once lived in sin with little thought of God, now we have had a change of mind. Now we know that sin matters: it must be forsaken. Now we know that God matters. He must be followed. We have made a 180 degree turn.”
Matthew goes on to declare in verse 17b,” for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The kingdom of heaven refers to the fulfillment of God’s promise to reverse the course of history, a history tainted by sin. That reward involves establishing his reign in place of the tyrannous, selfish reign of sin and death (Romans 5:14, 21). And as Jesus later told Pilate, “it is not of this world” (John 18:36).
History, as it has unfolded since the days of Jesus, reveals that the kingdom he announces supplants all others, but not in the way anyone in the first century A.D. expects.
For Jesus’ audience, God’s promise of a kingdom to come includes a strong nationalist focus on Israel. Devout Jews expect God’s promised kingdom to result in the defeat of Israel’s enemies, especially the Roman Empire (Acts 1:6). Thus, God’s kingdom is commonly expected to be political and military in nature, like any other, with the exception that it would be righteously ruled by God. At any rate, when people hear Jesus announce that the kingdom of heaven is near, they expect Jesus to inaugurate the kind of kingdom consistent with their hopes.
But Jesus has his own agenda! One of the ways Jesus will challenge these human expectations of the kingdom of heaven is through parables. These stories of Jesus project a very different vision of God’s promised kingdom than commonly anticipated.
Scholars inform us that the exact meaning of the verb that is translated “has come near” (along with its closely related adverb form) is the subject of much debate. One clear way it is used in the New Testament is to specify that something is physically near, or approaching something else (examples: Matthew 21:1; Luke 24:28; John 6:19). This is known as a “spatial sense.”
Another way the word is used is in referring to something that is near, or getting nearer, in time (examples: Matthew 21:34; 26:18; John 6:47). This is known as a “temporal sense.”
And a possible third meaning speaks of closeness of a relationship (examples Romans 10:8; Ephesians 2:13; James 4:8). This is called a “relational sense.”
All of these may be true for the occasion at hand. Wherever Jesus is, the kingdom is. Those standing near Jesus are standing next to the perfect representation (incarnation) of the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus arrives when “the defined time had full come” (Galatians 4:4) to put right our relationship with God (Galatians 4:5). Therefore, the spatial, the temporal, and the relational senses all have merit.
However, the crux of Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of heaven has to do with how people respond to him as their Messiah. As Jesus remains faithful to his mission, people are forced to make decisions. They will either be with him, requiring that they adjust their expectations to accept what He reveals as God’s program, or they will be against him. When the people chose Barabbas over Jesus, it was a “telling” day.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 22:19). And all four fishermen immediately left their mats and followed Him.
Now, before concluding, I want to make three brief points. First, it is important to note that the call and response of these four disciples is based on an extended prior relationship that they had enjoyed with Jesus. This experience is not their first encounter with Jesus. For example, Andrew was one of the two disciples of John the Baptist who left him to become a disciple of Jesus, and he immediately brought his brother Peter to Jesus (John 1:35-42). The point is that all four fishermen had plenty of time to consider Jesus’ mission.
Second, we see the significance of a personal commitment to Jesus. While the emphasis of the story is primarily on calling the four to join in Jesus’ kingdom mission, that task is accomplished above all as an outgrowth of their relationship to Jesus. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said. Allegiance to Jesus makes everything else possible.
The late E. Stanley Jones, an author and missionary to India, once said, “The great secret of the Christian faith is summed up in two words: “in Christ.” Live in Christ. Let Christ live in you.
Third, we note that Jesus’ mission regains both action and preparation. When Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James and John to join him in ministry, he was inviting men who knew the importance of both the “boat activity of casting nets” (Matthew 4:18) and the “dock-time activity of preparing those nets to be cast (Matthew 4:21).
Effective ministry today must recognize the same two requirements. Undergirding the boat time (preaching, teaching, etc.) should be a lot of dock-time – time spent preparing. When the opportunity to speak a word for Jesus presents itself, the question is, will we be prepared?
Those four responding disciples of today’s lesson had no higher priority than Jesus’ call on their lives.
- Were you to receive a call from Christ to a certain ministry tomorrow, how would you test the validity of that call?
- How would you best explain the meaning of the kingdom of heaven to someone else?
- What steps can your church take to help its members avoid equating allegiance to any particular nation with allegiance to the kingdom of Heaven?
Resources for this lesson:
“2018-2019 Standard Lesson NIV Commentary,” Uniform Series “International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 266-272
“The NIV Application Commentary, Matthew” by Michael J. Wilkins, pages 170-180
“Overcomer” by David Jeremiah, pages 61-69
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com)