I think sometimes preachers, commentators, and theologians give in too easily to the temptation to get behind the story of Jesus rather than reading it for what it is . The way the story is told cues us to the meaning the gospel writers saw in the story. It is story-telling that we encounter in the Gospels, not some kind of scientific history writing. The story has a point. That’s why the gospel writers tell it.
In addition, people often too quickly attempt to harmonize and explain. And, I think the temptation is strong in this passage.
Matthew 4:12-23 seems to me to naturally fall into four sections (1.) Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, (2.) the message Jesus preached, (3.) the call of Jesus’ earliest disciples, (4.) Jesus’ ministry among the crowds.
(1.) Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee
Ἀκούσας δὲ ὅτι Ἰωάννης παρεδόθη ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν. καὶ καταλιπὼν τὴν Ναζαρὰ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ τὴν παραθαλασσίαν ἐν ὁρίοις Ζαβουλὼν καὶ Νεφθαλίμ· ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος·
γῆ Ζαβουλὼν καὶ γῆ Νεφθαλίμ,
ὁδὸν θαλάσσης, πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν,
ὁ λαὸς ὁ καθήμενος ἐν σκότει
φῶς εἶδεν μέγα,
καὶ τοῖς καθημένοις ἐν χώρᾳ καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου
φῶς ἀνέτειλεν αὐτοῖς.
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”” (NRSV)
A new phase in the plan of God is opening up. Now, John the Baptist is removed from the scene, and Jesus public ministry begins. The preparatory phase is over. Now the Messiah begins his work. The Gospels do not criticize or belittle the ministry of John the Baptist. Rather, they say: John’s ministry was preparatory. It laid the groundwork for the coming of Christ, but it has been superseded by Jesus’ ministry.
The gospel writer sees significance in the very place where Jesus ministered. This is more than just happenstance. This is fulfillment. Even the small details of Jesus’ ministry are fulfillment — fulfillment of the hopes of the people of Israel. Jesus has come to the outcasts. Jesus has come specifically for those who otherwise dwell in darkness. He has come with a message for the world — he has come to “Galilee of the Gentiles.” The word ἐθνῶν in this passage simply means “nations.” It is used the same way the Hebrew גּוֹיִם (goyim) is used — all the nations apart from Israel. Anybody except the chosen tribes. It is good for us to translate it that way in our minds — it reminds us of our place in all of this. Galilee was where the Jews mixed with “the nations.” Already we have an important foretaste of Jesus’ ministry: he has come for the outcast and the forgotten
(2.) The Message Jesus Preached.
Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν· μετανοεῖτε· ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”” (NRSV)
As in the Gospel of Mark (1:15), Jesus message is briefly summarized. We are told the heart of what he had to say: it was a message of repentance in light of the coming of God’s Reign on earth.
Although it is the peculiar business of Christ to establish the kingdom of heaven in the hearts of men, yet it is observable, he begins his preaching in the same words with John the Baptist: because the repentance which John taught still was, and ever will be, the necessary preparation for that inward kingdom. But that phrase is not only used with regard to individuals in whom it is to be established, but also with regard to the Christian Church, the whole body of believers. In the former sense it is opposed to repentance; in the latter the Mosaic dispensation. — Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.
Yes, this is essentially the same message that John the Baptist gave. John has been silenced, but the message continues. God is at work in the world, calling people to new directions, and the work cannot be stopped.
The message of John the Baptist always comes first. The Gospel writers cannot tell us the story of Jesus without first telling us the story of John the Baptist. And, it seems to me that the message of John the Baptist is a continuation of the call of the prophets to “turn” (or “return” שׁוּב) to God. “But as for you, return (שׁוּב) to your God, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” (Hosea 12:6 NRSV). It seems to me that the true meaning of “repent” (μετανοέω) is to be found by reference to the prophetic call to “turn” (שׁוּב) to God.
The message of repentance is always hard to hear. Our selfishness runs deep. Given religious garb, it simply becomes self-righteousness. It is hard to hear that even what we think is our “goodness” is offensive to God (and probably to the rest of the world).
The message of repentance always must precede the message of hope. It is the old call of the prophets once again — a call to turn from a selfish and self-centered way of life, to a new life of devotion to God and God’s will and creation. We are called to awake from our selfish slumber.
Awake, then, thou that sleepest. Know thyself to be a sinner, and what manner of sinner thou art. Know that corruption of thy inmost nature, whereby thou art very far gone from original righteousness…” – John Wesley, Sermon #7 “The Way to the Kingdom.”
(3.) Jesus Calls the First Disciples
Περιπατῶν δὲ παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν τῆς Γαλιλαίας εἶδεν δύο ἀδελφούς, Σίμωνα τὸν λεγόμενον Πέτρον καὶ Ἀνδρέαν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, βάλλοντας ἀμφίβληστρον εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν· ἦσαν γὰρ ἁλιεῖς. 19 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων. 20 οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ.
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” (NRSV)
And, here we are allowed to see the radical nature of Jesus’ call to discipleship. The original disciples hear the call of Jesus, they drop everything and follow him. And, the way Matthew tells the story is striking. We are given no preparation for this.
And this is where the temptation is strong (at least for me) to explain this away: Well, they were probably already disciples of John…. Maybe they had already heard Jesus before…. Maybe they had seem a miracle….
But, there is a pattern here about this call to discipleship: Jesus calls. People respond by leaving all to follow him. A radical call is being given into the beginning of a new life. A decision must be made. Will we leave all to follow him? The way the story as told stresses (a.) the inherent authority of Jesus’ call, and (b.) the radical all-out response of the first disciples.
In those days it was not unusual for a person to seek out a rabbi to follow. But, here the rabbi is seeking. And, as the call is issued, some who hear respond. And, by responding they become the core of a new movement to bring hope to the world — to those who dwell in darkness.
From this a theology of evangelism can take shape. Jesus is seeking followers. The call to repentance prepares the way. People are called to follow. When they respond, they leave their old world behind, and set out on a new life of discipleship. And, a result of this is that they become those who are able to “fish for people” — bringing others also into the Reign of God.
(4.) Jesus Ministers to the Crowds.
Καὶ περιῆγεν ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ Γαλιλαίᾳ διδάσκων ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς αὐτῶν καὶ κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας καὶ θεραπεύων πᾶσαν νόσον καὶ πᾶσαν μαλακίαν ἐν τῷ λαῷ.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (NRSV)
New Testament descriptions of Christian ministry generally contain this triad of “preach… teach… heal.” Jesus’ ministry was to the whole person: to the will, to the mind and to the body. He came with “good news” and with “healing.”
Behold here the perfect pattern of an evangelical preacher: 1. He goes about seeking sinners on every side, that he may show them the way to heaven. 2. He proclaims the glad tidings of the kingdom, with a freedom worthy of the King whom he serves. 3. He makes his reputation and the confidence of the people subservient not to his own interest, but to the salvation of souls. 4. To his preaching he joins, as far as he has ability, all works of mercy, and temporal assistance to the bodies of men. 5. He takes care to inform men that diseases, and all kinds of temporal evils, are the effects of sin, and that their hatred to iniquity should increase in proportion to the evils they endure through it. 6. And that nothing but the power of God can save them from sin and its consequences.
In this way, we see Jesus’ ministry as an in-breaking of God’s Kingdom of righteousness , peace and justice. Yes, there is a hard word we need to hear about our selfishness. (Our selfishness simply becomes self-righteousness when given religious garb.) The call is to radically turn from a way of life centered in self, to a life of following Jesus.