Notes on Matthew 4:12-25: Questions, Chronology, and Fishers Of Men

Welcome to the GGFApologetics Notes on Matthew blog.  I am determined to work my way through a deep dive in The Gospel of Matthew this year.  Observations may range from pastoral to simple questions or a survey of Bible difficulties.  I will be drawing information from many different commentaries, articles and scholars. Sources noted below.

Let’s continue.

The second half of the fourth chapter in The Gospel of Matthew moves from Satan’s temptation narratives to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Verse eleven left Him in the company of angels with the devil departing as Jesus ordered him away, overcoming the evil one will become a recurring theme throughout the gospel narrative. 

Reading The Bible Like A Novel

We notice when the story picks up again in verse twelve that the Evangelist is concerned with Jesus’ movements.  He lists several geographical locations in a short block of text. Matthew opens with a curious statement: “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (v. 12).  

Why?  Why does this prompt Jesus to move His ministry?  

Issues like these remind me of something I remember hearing from Bible scholar Michael Heiser.  He says we should read the Bible like it’s a novel. That is not to say that we assume it’s fiction or that it’s a lower form of writing somehow.  No. The statement acknowledges that we read novels with curiosity. With novels, we are looking to make connections to information given earlier or making note of present material to see if it pops up again later.  Reading novels, we are acutely aware of the work of the author and where he wants to lead the reader.  So, according to Heiser, when we read that Jesus returned to Galilee once He heard about John’s imprisonment, if the answer isn’t obvious, we should ask “Why?”  Why would Matthew include this information? Is it something his audience would understand without explanation?  

In this case, there were a few practical advantages for Jesus moving His ministry along the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, a lakeside fishing village.  Capernaum was a busier, more populated place than Nazareth. There would be more resources, supplies for His ministry. And more people. A more populated mission field.  However, an increasingly dire reason may have been to get beyond the reach of Herod Antipas, who famously imprisoned John.

But Why? 

In my research, I uncovered a couple ways to look at the Why questions.  First, this passage represents another example of “Fulfillment Prophecy”.  Second, it may also offer commentary to Christ followers about recent events happening near the time of the Gospel’s writing in 80-85 AD.

 Fulfillment Prophecy

Matthew’s motivation for mentioning these locations, like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Zebulun and Naphtali, beyond historical detail may have more to do with his habit of reaching back into the Old Testament to bolster the prophetic street credentials of Jesus.  This time, it involves verse 13 of the Gospel:  

“Leaving Nazareth, he went and live in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali– to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:  ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in the darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’” ( Matthew 12-16 referring to Isaiah 9:1,2)

Yes.  Matthew reports another fulfillment of prophecy, this time from Isa. 9:1,2.  It’s interesting that the apostle condenses the passage from Isaiah seemingly just to highlight the presence of those city names and make the connection between those locations and the “dawning light” (Jesus).  The full text from Isaiah read:

“[a]Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2   The people walking in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

    a light has dawned.”

Topical, not Chronological

Here is a good place to make note that Matthew often arranged information topically, not chronologically.  So we must not think that John was locked up immediately after Jesus’ final temptation. So if this historical event is not to be understood as listed chronologically, why include it here?  Again, we should ask why. Scholar Warren Carter believes the text served as a cultural commentary on Post-Resurrection life:

“This Isaiah text functions in Matthew 4:12-16 as an analogy for Rome’s empire. “Galilee owned by or under the Gentiles” now belongs to and is ruled by another Gentile empire. Roman control had been freshly asserted over Galilee in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70CE. Matthew’s Gospel, written in the 80s, cites Isaiah 9:1-2 to describe Roman rule as ‘darkness” and ‘death.’ It positions Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, as the light or saving presence that shines in the darkness of Rome’s imperial domination. Jesus asserts God’s light or saving rule in Roman Galilee.” (Carter)

So, while not listed in this chapter to represent strict historical record, Matthew references recent tragic events, the Temple destruction ten years or so earlier, to convey to his Jewish audience Jesus’ place in history.  He offers the real hope of Christ to a defeated people.

The Kingdom Of Heaven

“From that time on Jesus began to preach . . .” (v.17) There are a couple times where Matthew uses a phrase like this to mark our entrance into a different section of the Matthew’s Gospel. The other similar verse is Matthew 16:21 which announces that: 

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

So verse 17 separates this proclaiming of the kingdom from the first part of the gospel, the introduction (Matt 1-4), and Matthew 16 begins Jesus’ journey to the Cross (Matt 16-28).  These markers divide the book, again, by topic. Four chapters within the Introduction. Twelve chapters in each of the final two sections.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (v.17 continued)  This may sound familiar to those following along in this Matthew study because it is the identical message of John The Baptist.  Or is it? Scholar and commentator FF Bruce explains these words have different meaning when said by Jesus:

“Jesus’ message is summed up in the same words as John’s preaching but ‘the kingdom of heaven’ on his lips had not the same connotation as it did on John’s.  Jesus’ call to repentance was a call to men to re-access all personal and social values in the light of the approach of the divine kingdom in His ministry. . .” (Bruce, “UTNT”. P 15.)

Interestingly, because Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, we have this much repeated phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”.  In Warren Wiersbe’s “Be Loyal” commentary on Matthew, he explains that, out of reverence for our Good Good Father, the Jewish people would not use the phrase “Kingdom of God”.  So they would use the word Heaven in its place. Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned thirty-two times in Matthew’s Gospel, while mentioning Kingdom of God only five times.  In parallel stories, in Mark and Luke, Kingdom of God has the majority of use.  Both those gospels were written to a non-Jewish audience, the Romans.

Wiersbe goes on to explain that:

“In the New Testament, the word kingdom means ‘rule, reign, authority’ rather than a place or a specific realm.  The phrase “kingdom of heaven” refers to the rule of God. The Jewish leaders wanted a political leader who would deliver them from Rome, but Jesus came to bring spiritual rule to the hearts of people.” (p42,43)

When Wiersbe mentions that Jewish leaders expected, in Jesus, a political leader, not a spiritual one, it makes me think about how we often observe uninformed criticism from skeptics.  These unbelievers scoff at examples of prophecy fulfillment inferring that New Testament writers simply invented the actions of Jesus in order to coincide with what was reported or prophesied in the Old Testament. But this accusation, in many cases, ignores the fact that the ancient Jewish people misunderstood so much about the coming of Jesus, who He would be, and how God’s Will would be accomplished.  The true events of the New Testament, in effect, would represent poorly told lies, in that the truth would be more difficult to believe because it so violently diverted from common Jewish thought.  

Fishers of Men

If one were to have The Gospel of Matthew as their only source for knowledge of the story of Jesus, they would have to believe that, seemingly out of the blue, Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew to “follow” Him in verse 19.  And they immediately dropped their nets and left their father Zebedee to follow this stranger. Remember, that before this, though, the events of John 1:19-3:36 had already unfolded. Jesus wasn’t a stranger at all. Jesus had spent a day with Peter, Andrew, James, and an unnamed disciple (possibly John) before calling them into service.  

The fishermen knew Him as the “Messiah” and John The Baptist had testified to them about Jesus before they were called into service.  The men did not follow Him blindly or as entranced sheep.

Note, this section of scripture also features the famous “fishers of men” line, for me, remembered so well from a children’s church song from Sunday school.  Well, interestingly, a similar phrase can be found in Jeremiah 16:16. But there, it’s fishers for men, meaning men catching people in judgment.  Jesus, on the other hand, ordained men to save people from judgement.  Another example of how Jesus turned the Jewish world on its head when he came here to be with us.

In closing, did Jesus turn your world on its head?  How differently would you be living if not for Jesus?  How has hope in Him changed you? Changed your relationships?  How would you describe this experience to an unbeliever?

God helping us, may we be true “Fishers of Men”.

Sources:

Carter, Warren. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138

Bruce, FF.  “Understanding the New Testament:  Matthew”. Page 15.

Wiersbe, Warren.  “Be Loyal: Following The King Of Kings”. Pages 42,43.

Notes on Matthew 4:1-11: Testing Jesus

I started blogging Matthew at the beginning of the year to coincide with my pledge to engage in in depth study of the Gospel over the next calendar year.  This means reading commentaries, articles, textual criticism, and anything I can get my hands on about the Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes, my reflections will be pastoral or a discussion of Bible difficulties or simply thinking out loud in an attempt to get to the heart of what our Good Good Father wants us to know about Him.

Let’s begin.

Chapter four starts as Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  It’s interesting to note that the devil does not initiate this event. The “Spirit” led Jesus there.  This was a period of testing approved and incited by God. Scholar and commentator RT France calls it an examination of Jesus’ newly revealed relationship with God.

A Hungry God?  

When it comes to this testing, there is a likely comparison to be made between Jesus, Son of God, and John The Baptist, maker of a way.  To start, God secluded John into the wilderness. He sent Jesus into the desert (v.1). John found sustenance in bugs and honey. Jesus, He made fast for 40 days and 40 nights.  Scripture confirms that He was hungry (v.2). Jesus clearly upped the ante in terms of sacrificial obedience. God tested both men. But the human state of His Son, He weakened and then matched Him against the devil, Satan, the Adversary.

How well do you hold up to temptation?  If I am being honest, for myself, not very well.  A couple weeks ago, I participated in a 21-day period of fasting and prayer.  The fasting part is not what it sounds like. I gave up caffeine. I didn’t even give up coffee;  I drank decaf. I had the opportunity to buy caffeinated joe every morning. No one would know what is in my insulated mug and surely nobody at work knew about my pledge.  But the temptation was definitely there. Admittedly, this might be a starkly, unremarkable comparison, but Jesus, recently empowered by the Holy Spirit (3:16), had the power to end his own hunger and the devil, as true to form, uses this fact to his advantage as we see in his first attempt to corrupt the Son of God.  He says, “If you are the Son of God, tell those stones to become bread.” (v.3)  To this Jesus responds from Deut. 8:3, “It is written:  Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (v.4)

RT France says of the tempting of Jesus to provide food for himself miraculously:

“The act was thus not in itself wrong. But Jesus recognized in His hunger an experience designed by God to teach Him the lesson of Deuteronomy 8:3.  His mission was to be one of continual privation, for the sake of His ministry of the word of God; a concern for His own material comfort could only jeopardize it.  As Son of God, He must learn, as Israel failed to learn, to put first things first. And that must mean an unquestioning obedience to God’s plan.” (France, “Matthew”. Pp 98.)

Jesus, as 100% God and 100% man, lived a life of continual privation, denying himself comforts that were at His fingertips every second of His life.

Jesus’ response to the devil using Deuteronomy 8:3 should also show that He understood why this time of testing was necessary.  The previous verse in Deuteronomy tells us:  

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. (v.2)”

I find it hard to fathom that the humility of Jesus was in question, but God, clearly, has Jesus set up to demonstrate perfect obedience in the way His chosen people did not.  These connections are inescapable. Our Saviour was battle-tested from the start.

A Leap Of Faith?

Next, the Evil One took Jesus to the highest point in the temple of the holy city.  He continued challenging Jesus to prove his relationship with God The Father. This time though, having been scalded by scripture in his previous attempt, he tried this tactic himself.  Surely, Jesus could not argue with the word of God, right? He said: 

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written: He will command angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.  (Psa. 91:11,12)

Jesus answered him.  “It is written: “Do not put the Lord to the test.” (Deut 6:16)

So now we are in the middle of a Bible quote-off between Jesus and the devil.  Both know their scripture but only one has the goal of obedience to God. We know this because, well, one of these persons is the devil and he misuses God’s word nine times before breakfast.  Here, by Satan’s reasoning, Jesus should throw himself down because the angels of the Lord will certainly protect the Son of God. And this will prove who you are. Easy Peazy. But the Adversary gets the context of the passage in Psalm 91 purposely backwards.  The first two verses in the Psalm read:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” (v.1,2)

But if Jesus were to throw himself down, whom or what would He be trusting in?  Certainly not God’s plan, right? He would be forcing God’s hand. Testing His word when the Son should be trusting it.  By understanding the scriptural landscape and trusting the Father’s plan, Jesus is succeeding in the way the Israelites failed.  In fact, Matthew draws these parallels between the failures of the early followers of God and the sufficiency of Jesus as a fulfillment of perfect obedience.  For this reason, Jesus references in his answer Deuteronomy 6:16 which itself looks back to Exodus 17 where the Israelite community quarreled with Moses for him to get God to give them water.  God finally instructed Moses to strike a rock to miraculously produce water. The ancient people of God TESTED the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7)

The Evil One demonstrates how he wants the Son to not act in service to the Father, but act as if the Father serves the Son.  We, as children of God, repeat this type of theology when we obligate God to answer our questions about His plans for us or attempt to shame Him for His past undesirable (to our eye) deeds.  Satan seeks to confuse us by tampering with the order of things.  

If our God is the God of Abraham, then He resides as the ultimate authority and necessarily becomes the focus of our lives.  However, many people are tragically looking for a god that, first, agrees with them and, second, serves them.

The Kingdom Without The Cross

The devil, undeterred, now took him to the very high mountains and showed him all the kingdoms of the world.  These were kingdoms that over which Satan held dominion and contesting his dominion was the reason Jesus came to Earth.  So the devil wasn’t usurping any authority when he offered, “All this I will give to you, if you will bow down and worship me.” (v.9)

So here we have Jesus, with full knowledge of God’s plan, the trials, the humiliation, the extreme pain of crucifixion, with a way to avoid it all.  All He has to do is bow down before the Deceiver and worship him and He can have the kingdom without the pain and anguish of the Cross. This is how Jesus responded:

“Away from me Satan!  For it is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” (v.10)  

Similarly, Jesus responded to Peter’s denial of Jesus’ teaching His mission of the Cross in Matthew 16:22.  He said: 

“Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me;  you do not have in mind the things of God, but things of men.”

The obvious connection here is that The Cross is Jesus’ unavoidable mission.  And if we are followers of Christ, It is our unavoidable mission as well. We mustn’t fall for these shortcuts introduced by our culture that seemingly get us there without the struggle, pain, or trials that are part of God’s plan.  If there is a reason that God tests us, it is so that we can be prepared ahead of time for the devil’s gambit. But this preparation first requires our obedience.

Eve of Destruction

Another connection with the Old Testament can be found in Genesis 3 where the Serpent tempts Eve.  Clearly, the Devil has employed the same ‘ol tricks from the very beginning. Below, I list Satan’s Genesis temptation with the Matthew 4 test.

  1. The Serpent tempted Eve with food. Although Scripture does not allude to hunger as motivation for Eve’s fall, it does describe the fruit as good (Gen. 3:6).  The Devil tempted a hungry Jesus with food.
  2. The Serpent told Eve she would not die from eating the food.  The Devil told Jesus that angels would save Him if He threw Himself down.
  3. The Serpent told Eve that eating from the tree would make her like God.  Eve wanted knowledge. The Devil told Jesus that if He bowed down and worshiped him, he would give Jesus the kingdom.  The very thing He came to earth to gain.

Well, we shall stop there for now.  Quite enough to think about if you ask me.  We will finish the chapter next time. May God bless you and keep you.

Sources:

France, RT. “Matthew”. Page 98.

Bruce, FF. “Understanding the New Testament: Matthew”. Pages 13-14.

https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/ivp-nt/Gods-Son-Passes-Test.

All Scripture is the NIV Translation.