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Epiphany 3A Gospel

Matthew 4:12-23

Richard P. Thompson

The idea of following has lots of different connotations today. We can follow others on different forms of social media … on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. A child in school can have a following among her peers. Sometimes my wife says we are following the vehicle in front of us a bit too closely … although I may contend that we really are not technically “following” that vehicle in the first place!

All four New Testament Gospels include stories about Jesus’ call of disciples, who begin to follow him. But we would be mistaken if we assumed these to be the same stories or stories that told the same basic message. For all Gospel writers had distinct purposes that shaped the ways that they told both smaller episodes and their unique, larger Gospel stories about Jesus. This is certainly the case with this passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Unlike Mark’s version, this passage comes on the heels of a description of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11). It is significant that, in the last of the three mentioned temptations of Jesus, the devil claims to have control of “all the kingdoms of the world” along with their splendor, offering these to Jesus (4:8). This illuminating claim suggests that the empire of that day, Rome, was the possession of the devil (not dissimilar to associations made in the book of Revelation). Yet Jesus does not follow the will of the devil and does not become an ally of Rome and its empire, but instead remains aligned in worship with God and God alone (4:9).

The nature of Jesus’ final temptation sets the stage for Matthew’s introduction of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Several aspects of Matthew’s version of this part of the story stand out. First, Jesus withdraws to Galilee in response to the news that John the Baptist had been arrested (4:12). Although sometimes understood as action merely to seek safety, this action mirrors the magi’s response in opposition to the ruling authorities (see 2:12; also Joseph in 2:22-23). Second, Matthew alone mentions that Jesus settles not in his hometown of Nazareth but in Capernaum, a small village that few people would have known about. Rather than settling in nearby Tiberias (built to honor the emperor Tiberius) or Sepphoris, thriving Hellenistic cities that were also Galilean centers of imperialistic economics, power, and culture where the social elite would have gravitated, Jesus as a faithful Jew finds himself in a humble setting that society forgot about, with the marginalized rather than the elite, with the peasants rather than the rich, and the powerless rather than the powerful. Third, in typical Matthean fashion, it is noted that this happened to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, drawing from a reference from Isaiah 8:22—9:2, the second time that this Gospel draws from Isaiah 7—9 to tell the story of Jesus. (The first reference, in Matthew 1:22-23, quotes from Isaiah 7:14 to describe Jesus as “Emmanuel” or “God with us” who would “save his people from their sins”; Matt 1:21.)

So why does Matthew quote again from this particular portion from the book of Isaiah? Isaiah 7—9 addresses a specific crisis in Israel’s history, when the southern kingdom of Judah faced significant imperial threats, both from the Syro-Ephraimite alliance (the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria) and from Assyria. Yet Isaiah recognized something analogous in the first-century context for the Gospel audience living under the imperial power of Rome. Whereas Zebulun and Naphtali bring up unpleasant memories of dark days of the past (of the devastation that came as a result of Assyria’s seizing of the land), the prophet also contrasts such “darkness” (4:16) with a “great light” that characterizes of God’s rule and salvation. Ironically, a number of first-century writers used imagery of light to praise the Roman emperors. “Evoking Isaiah, then, destabilizes the status quo. To evoke a prophet is dangerous in an imperial context, since prophets point to different realities. They contest the dominant reality, locating imperial claimants in the much larger context of God’s purposes, reframing the present and future.” [1]

It is no wonder that, with such a reordering of reality, Jesus’ first message echoes that of John the Baptist. But two things are noteworthy about this message. First, in the latter part of the message, Jesus states that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The kingdom of heaven may be used in Matthew’s Gospel rather than “the kingdom of God” to avoid any reference to God—reflecting the Jewish character of this Gospel. But it seems as though “the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s Gospel refers to God’s rule rather than some kind of realm, so that this refers to what God is doing. That is, the kingdom is something that is happening, not something that merely exists. Just as God’s self-revelation to Moses declares that God is “who God is” (Exod 3:13-14), so also is the kingdom of heaven where God rules, works, and is, in contrast to the kingdoms of the world that merely exist and are built on what humans can accumulate (e.g., power, wealth, status, etc.). The contrasts between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this world are significant. And these contrasts are underscored further in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5—7).

Second, in light of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus proclaims, Jesus like John calls for repentance. But the imperative repent is not in the Greek aorist tense, which suggests, “Do this!” Rather, this command is in the present tense, which implies something like, “Be repenting!” But why this unusual connotation? Could it be that, because our human existence constantly must deal with the tensions between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdoms of this world, we must consistently rely on the grace of God to redeem us in the midst of a world that is inherently shaped in ways that value and channel human activity that focuses on self rather than God?

This is what makes the responses to Jesus’ call to follow him even more remarkable. To follow Jesus in this context meant that they would learn from Jesus and model their lives after him. And that means following one whose life embodies the kingdom of heaven in the midst of a world whose institutions and structures were built by other kingdoms … kingdoms with different values and perspectives. That means marching to the beat of a different drummer. Some think that these four fishermen left little behind, as they would have been considered poor. But others suggest them to be much like small business owners. And the latter left behind their father, which would have been seen with scorn and suspicion from the perspective of these ancient societies (i.e., as abandoning someone who would need them as he grew older). Yet all of them left “immediately,” indicating the radical nature of their response. They followed … knowing something of the cost … recognizing something of the difference that came in embracing what Jesus proclaimed regarding the kingdom of heaven.

Following Jesus. There’s more to it than just using the “Christian” adjective to describe the things you do.

[1] Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 101-2.

Richard P. Thompson

Professor of New Testament;

Chair, Department of Religion;

School of Theology and Christian Ministries, Northwest Nazarene University

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