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During the season of Epiphany we study Jesus’ ministry to learn who He was, and what He was all about. This year we’ve been reading from the Gospel of Matthew. So far we’ve heard the testimony of God the Father speaking audibly from heaven, and we’ve heard the testimony of Satan as He tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Today we hear the testimony of Jesus Himself.
Now, if you’re expecting some dramatic words from Jesus explaining who He is and what He’s doing here on earth you’re going to be disappointed. He doesn’t testify in this way – at least not in our reading for today. His testimony for today is much more subtle.
Matthew 4:12-17 (ESV)
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
During Jesus’ earthly life, He seldom acted like other people expected He would or should. Examples abound when it comes to this fact.
He was the Son of God, but born in a stable. He was sinless, but He Himself requested to be baptized. He in no way condoned sinful behavior, but He associated with thieves and prostitutes. He was a brilliant teacher, but His inner circle was made up of common laborers and outcasts. When demons that Jesus cast out of people started proclaiming, in truth, that they knew He was the Holy One of God, Jesus told them to be silent.
His teaching was full of unexpected things also. He contradicted the current religious authorities on just about every topic. Give your coat to the robber who already took your shirt. Love your enemies and pray for them. Don’t worry about food and clothing, but seek most diligently for God’s reign in your heart. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek ones – that’s what the citizens of heaven are like. True worship is about the heart, not what can be seen.
Yes, Jesus was unpredictable. He ate when others were fasting. He fasted when others were eating. He prayed when others were sleeping. He slept when others were working. At one point, Jesus’ mother and brothers thought He had gone crazy. He was teaching and doing miracles so nonstop that they thought He was going to work Himself to death!
But Jesus wasn’t crazy. He was focused. And not focused on doing what people thought He should do. He didn’t care what the polls said about public opinion. He was operating according to His Father’s plan. And when the game was over, the world would look back and see that every strange thing He had done had a reason and a purpose. They couldn’t see it back then. But when the whirlwind of Jesus’ three years of ministry were over – when Jesus had been crucified, and resurrected, and had ascended back to heaven – THEN His disciples would think back over the events they had witnessed and they would understand how it all made perfect sense. How so many things that Jesus had done, things that puzzled them, were NECESSARY so that EVERY Old Testament prophecy about Him was fulfilled.
If you don’t know where the car is going, you might not understand why the driver turns the way he does. If you’ve never had the entrée, the ingredients might seem oddly paired in the recipe book. If you’re the soldier in the field, the general’s orders might seem stupid and foolish.
But this is just because you don’t know the destination, the finished meal, or the plan of battle.
When John the Baptist was arrested, it seemed the perfect time for Jesus to step up and take his place. John himself had deferred to Jesus at His baptism. John himself had directed his own disciples to follow Jesus. When John’s followers got worried that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people that John’s were, John gently told them that Jesus was the main event, John was just the warm-up band. Jesus must loom larger, John must fade away.
Now, John had been taken away. Imprisoned. Surely, if Jesus was serious about this ministry thing, now was the time to take up preaching in earnest where John had been, and maybe now was even the time to start moving closer to Jerusalem, the holy city, the place of the Lord’s Temple. The place where the influential religious teachers of the day lived and worked.
But instead, Jesus withdrew. He moved away from the Jordan River where John had been baptizing, and away from Jerusalem, the great epicenter of Jewish religious life.
And He wasn’t moving back home to gather up locals who supported Him. Jesus went back to Nazareth, packed up and moved to Capernaum, a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee. A town located in Galilee, of all places. A region that had been influenced by pagan cultures and false worship for hundreds of years.
Almost a thousand years previous to Jesus living there, Galilee had been part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. You probably remember that long ago the Nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms, the northern one retaining the name “Israel” and the southern one being called, “Judah”. Well, the Northern Kingdom, which included Galilee never had a king that followed the Lord. They worshiped at idol shrines instead. Eventually, God sent the foreign nation of Assyria to destroy the Northern Kingdom. That’s why it was called a place of darkness and of the shadow of death. Not only was it full of the spiritual deadness of unbelief, it was also a place where ancient armies had decimated the people, deporting them until the land was all but uninhabited.
In the years approaching Jesus’ ministry the region of Galilee was well inhabited again, but it was still very influenced by Gentiles. By non-Jewish people who didn’t worship at the Temple.
Why in the world would Jesus start His religious career here?!
Well, like Jesus said Himself,
“…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12 NIV).
But another reason was this – the prophecy said the people who lived darkened land would see a great light. And so Jesus came and lived among them, bringing them the light and life that is the Gospel.
Don’t misunderstand our text when it says that Jesus began to preach,
“…Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).
Jesus didn’t JUST preach “repent”. He also told them the Good News about the Savior that God promised to send. Mark 1, verse 14 says…
“14 Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15 NKJV).
It’s a pretty simple reading for today. When others thought Jesus would step into John’s shoes, Jesus withdrew and went to Galilee. Unexpected, but perfect. In doing so Jesus fulfilled prophecy and brought the Good News to a region that sorely needed it.
Later on Jesus would not withdraw, but would go forward to Jerusalem when others thought He should stay away. When Jesus KNEW that His enemies were determined to murder Him, He purposefully went south to the Holy City. When Jesus stepped forward to meet the mob that would arrest Him, His closest followers resisted in fear. They didn’t know the way.
But Jesus did.
He had the Father’s plan in mind, not the ideas of men. And when all was said and done, your sins and mine had been suffered for, and washed clean off our record for good.
I guess the major takeaway from our reading today is this – Jesus fulfilled the prophecies made about the Savior in the Old Testament. He did this even though nobody at the time knew what in the world He was doing. And in this way, Jesus testified for future generations that He is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
But there’s another thing to take away from our reading today. Don’t second guess God. Don’t question His wisdom when His word is clear about what you should do in a given situation. God’s plan for Jesus didn’t match up with what people thought He should be doing. Why should God’s plan for Jesus’ followers match up with what people think we should be doing? When God’s word is clear, let’s just follow it, and see what happens.
When He says go, let’s go. When He says speak, let’s speak. When He says trust, let’s trust. And let’s let the history of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to glory be the thing that reassures us that God’s plan is gonna work out for the best.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.