As the light, Jesus reveals to us the way he would have the world be. He then calls us to turn from those things that distract us from joining his kingdom and calls us to become life-long learners at his feet.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that Jesus, as the light of the world, reveals our flawed understanding of how the world works and how we are to navigate it.
Understand that as we are brought into the light, we are issued a double call: the call to repent and the call to follow in life-long learning.
Catching up on the Story
The last story we encountered in Matthew was the story of Jesus’ baptism. In between Jesus’ baptism and this week’s text rests Jesus’ wilderness temptation. In his baptism, Jesus declared his intention to be fully and completely obedient to the will of the Father. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, this will get tested.
Except for Jesus’ journey toward the cross, nowhere else in Matthew’s gospel will Jesus’ obedience be so thoroughly tested. Jesus is tempted to use his powers to turn stones into bread. He is tempted to throw himself off the top of the Temple to see if God would send angels to protect him. Finally, Satan offers him dominion over all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would bow down and worship Satan.
In their own way, each temptation seeks to force Jesus to use his powers as God for his own good and his own advantage. Each time Jesus refuses because he knows that his mission, his obedience to the Father, is not about seeking his own advantage, but seeking healing and salvation for others.
After remaining steadfast in his intention to be fully obedient to the Father, Jesus sets out to gather a band of followers.
This week’s passage can easily be split up into two distinct yet related scenes. The first deals with Jesus’ movements after the wilderness temptations. This first scene, verses 12-17, set the stage for our movement into the Sermon on the Mount. The second, verses 18-22, deals with Jesus calling his first disciples. These two short passages become important as we prepare to begin a short study of the Sermon on the Mount as they represent the revealing of a new understanding of the world because of Jesus’ arrival and a call to embrace that new understanding, joining with Jesus in his light-bringing mission.
The Dawn of a Great Light – Matthew 4:12-17
We are not told how long it has been between Jesus’ wilderness testing and the beginning of his public ministry. We are told that John has since been arrested. Jesus withdraws to Galilee, eventually leaving there and heading to Capernaum, which is by the sea.
Matthew tells us of this movement because he sees it as an important step in fulfilling what the Old Testament foretells about this coming Messiah. There is some discussion concerning what exactly Matthew means when he says that Jesus’ movement to Capernaum fulfills what the prophet says in Isaiah 9:1-3. Some say that it points to the beginning of the mission to the Gentiles (Luz, 158-157; Hare, 28). Regardless of the reasons for Jesus’ movement, what is instructive for us is the actual quotation. As Jesus begins his public ministry, he brings with him light.
Imagine, if you will, sitting in a mostly dark room. In most cases, you will be able to generally make out the things around you. You might notice that there is a piece of furniture in that general area or a support pillar over there, but you will not be able to describe it in any great detail.
If you are in that room long enough, you might even begin to get a handle on how to navigate it. Using your sense of touch and your limited eye site, you might be able to move from place to place without doing too much damage to yourself or to anything else in the room.
Once, however, the lights get turned on, you will begin to see the room for the way it is. The couch that you knew was there, you can finally see that it has a floral print and can seat four people. You will notice the decorative woodwork on the coffee table. The details of the room, as they were created to be, now come into view.
Before the light was turned on, you only had a dim, ill-informed idea of the way that room was intended to look. You had some basic ideas about how to get around that room, but once the light came on, your ability to navigate the room expanded exponentially. You could finally tell what the room was intended for and how you best fit into it.
Matthew paints that kind of picture for us about Jesus’ coming. Creation, God’s people Israel and the Gentiles have been sitting in a dark room. Sure, they can navigate it well enough, and they know the rough layout of things, but they do not know the details. They do not understand what it has really been created for and how they best fit into it. Jesus arrives, bringing with him the light, and, bam, we begin to see the world for the way it really is.
There is always the problem with going from darkness to a great light. If you have ever been asleep in a dark room and someone turns on the light to wake you up, it can be quite unsettling, even painful. The light that Jesus brings can be like that unsettling and painful. It hurts because it causes us to see things in a radically different way. Part of the challenge of the Christian journey of faith is adjusting to the new light. We experience this at the beginning of our journey, and we experience it along the way as we are exposed to Jesus’ way.
So far in Epiphany, we have been discovering who it is that Jesus is. We have learned that he intends to be completely obedient to the will of the Father and that he is the only one who can stoop down, pick up and carry off the sins of the world. Now we pivot just a bit. We will continue to learn about who Jesus is in the coming weeks, but now we begin to learn about how the world should be and how we should navigate it because of Jesus.
Jesus, the light has arrived, and we now see that death is not running the place. On the contrary, the world is beautiful, and Jesus is moving in a wonderful direction. The world as we currently think it is not how Jesus wants us to understand it. So, he comes and lights the place up, illuminating for us how he would have it be.
Not only does the light show us how the world should be it also begins to expose the things that are wrong with it: namely, our sins. So, in verse 17, Jesus begins his public ministry with a call to change directions. The idea of repentance is not new to us. It is a word that the youngest of our children knows. It is a simple idea that means to turn from one direction and move toward another. It is always a double-sided idea. It will not do to simply turn from something bad. There must always be a corresponding turn toward something divine. So, Jesus issues us the call, as we now stand in the light of Christ, to turn away from the things that would keep us from participating in the Kingdom that Jesus now brings.
A word about the “kingdom of heaven.” In different places, we see Jesus refer to the “kingdom” as either the “kingdom of heaven” or the “kingdom of God.” Each phrase refers to the same thing. Very quickly, we can define the “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” as the way things are supposed to be, as God created them to be in the first place, as opposed to the way things are. The kingdom of heaven is God’s way of ordering things. In making this announcement, Jesus is proclaiming that he brings with him a movement toward the restoration of all things. The only proper response to the coming of this kingdom is to turn and join in with this movement toward restoration.
Fishing for People – Matthew 4:18-23
The scene pivots again. Jesus is walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when he sees two brothers, Simon, who will be called Peter, and his brother Andrew. They were fishing by casting their nets into the sea. Jesus turns to the two brothers and says, “Come along with me! I will cause you to fish for people!”
The call to “come along with me” or the more familiar “follow me” was more than just a call to tag along for the day or even a few days. In the mouth of a teacher or rabbi, as Jesus was, these words were a call to become students of the master, apprenticing with Jesus and learning how to live with him. Jesus’ very first call is not just an invitation for personal salvation but a call for discipleship (Bruner, 143). Surely, these two brothers, along with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, have/will receive salvation, but the emphasis is not on salvation; it is an invitation to lifelong learning at the feet of the master teacher. We do not find salvation apart from a call to lifelong learning and formation in discipleship.
The two sets of brothers share the same response: immediate obedience. Literally, they drop everything, turning from the things that might keep them from fully embracing the kingdom of heaven. Especially for the Zebedee brothers, leaving everything had significant implications. They left their father, and sons had a specific responsibility to care for their parents as they reached old age. The commandment about honoring your father and mother has more to do with caring for them in their old age than it does with not talking back. By leaving their father behind, in a sense, they neglect their duty to care for their parents, adding a significant level of family upheaval to the call to obedience (Nolland, 181).
Right after these sets of brothers respond with faithful obedience, Jesus sets out throughout the reign of Galilee, where he begins to teach and declare the message of good news regarding the coming kingdom of heaven. This good news takes the form not just of a verbal proclamation but of actual physical restoration. Jesus goes about curing every disease and sickness.
The Movement of the Kingdom
As we approach the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we will realize that our journey toward learning what it means to be a follower of Christ is just beginning. Matthew has revealed to us the first steps. We have been sitting in darkness, but now the light is here, revealing to us all that is bad and all that is good and right with our world. Jesus calls us to repent, to turn from what distracts us, and calls us toward a life-long journey of discipleship. The choice is ours. The light has come, but will we do as James and John did and move to immediately follow the master?
If we take a step back and look at the whole of what Matthew is relating to us, we find that a specific movement becomes apparent. The movement begins in our dark and shrouded world. We are not totally blind, but the nature of the world as it should be is hidden from us. It is like we sit in a dark room where only the shadow of things is viewable. We have learned to navigate the world well enough, but we are just stumbling about.
Along comes Jesus, who flips on the light switch revealing to us the world for what it really is. Jesus’ revealing to us will continue as we move forward in the Sermon on the Mount. As our eyes begin to adjust to the world around us, we hear two calls. The first call is to repent, to turn from those things that would keep us from really truly understanding and participating in God’s kingdom. As we turn away from those things that would obscure our view of the world as God intended it to be, we hear the second call, the call to follow Jesus.
This second call is not a call to salvation; that is part of the first call. The second call is a call to a lifetime of learning at the feet of the master teacher, Jesus. This following is an emersion in the life of the master, a daily commitment to time with the master, listening, asking questions, and digesting answers. Of course, this following is not without its consequences. Likely, we will have to leave all we thought we knew behind. We will have to relearn what it means to live in our newly revealed world. This may put us at odds with those around us. It may even mean that we must leave our fathers and mothers and our families behind. This is the cost of discipleship.
The reward that comes with our repentance and our obedience to the call to discipleship is great. Not only do we get to have a daily relationship with the one who created and sustains all things, but we also get to participate in his kingdom mission. If we repent, if we answer the call to discipleship, we get to proclaim the message of good news in word and in deed.
We are not quite there yet, the reward part, that is. We have much to learn. Next week we will begin our lessons with the Beatitudes.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
You’ve probably sat at length in a dark room. Or, perhaps, you’ve sat in the woods in the hours before dawn, waiting for the first light of day to break during hunting season. What happens when you sit in darkness? Do you get accustomed to the world around you? What happens when the light is turned on, or the sun rises?
Matthew quotes Isaiah 9 to describe the state of Israel and the world as sitting in darkness. For what is darkness a metaphor? Why would Matthew use it here? Have there been times in your life when you felt as if you were sitting in darkness?
Matthew describes Jesus as a great light that has now dawned. How does Jesus fit into the darkness metaphor?
How is Jesus like the coming of light to a dark room or dim forest? As the light, what does Jesus reveal to us about our world? In your times of darkness, how has Jesus been light to you?
What does it mean to repent? Why does Jesus tell us to repent?
After bringing light to the world, Jesus’ first call is for us to repent. His second call is for us to follow him. Jesus is calling us to something deeper than just salvation. To what is Jesus calling us?
Notice the way those whom Jesus called left everything behind. What are some practical ways in which we can respond to Jesus’ call in the same way? What have you left behind to follow Jesus?
After the two sets of brothers respond to Jesus’ call, what does Jesus do (verse 23)? In what ways is a response to following Jesus also a response to participate in his mission in our world?
Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005).
Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7, ed. Helmut Koester, Rev. ed., Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007).