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Matthew 4:12-17

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v.12     There is some time that elapsed between v. 11 and v. 12.  Jesus had some ministry in the South, in Judea and Jerusalem, contemporaneous with the ministry of John the Baptist, before returning to Galilee.  That ministry is reported in the Gospel of John.  The explanation for John’s imprisonment is given in Matthew 14:3 and in the other Gospels.  John had publicly condemned the king for his marriage to his sister-in-law.

Galilee was a much more “happening” place than Judea.  It was not a large area but had a substantial population.  Josephus reports that all of its land was cultivated, none wasted, and, in an almost certain exaggeration, says that even the smallest villages had more than 15,000 inhabitants.  Important roads passed through the area so there was a great deal of contact with the outside world.  That was not so true of Judea.  One commentator quotes an old saying:   “Judea is on the road to nowhere; Galilee is on the way to everywhere.”  [Barclay in Morris, 80]  Judea was mountainous and isolated; Galilee open.  Galilee was a place for the preaching of new ideas!  It was also further from the Pharisees’ center of power in Jerusalem.  It might have been expected that the Messiah, the promised king, would do the lion’s share of his work in or near the capital, Jerusalem.  But, once more, Jesus defies expectations.

v.13     Since the Lord’s ministry to be described in Matthew was an itinerant one, we should think of Capernaum as less his “home” and more his “base of operations.”  It may also have been Matthew’s hometown, as 9:9 suggests.  “Capernaum, a busy lakeside town, ensured a wider audience for Jesus’ teaching than Nazareth.”  It was not a large town, however, and there are few references to it outside of the Gospels.  The Lord’s leaving Nazareth may also reflect his having been rejected by his hometown folks after preaching in the synagogue there, a rejection recorded in Luke 4:16-30.  [France, 100-101]

v.14     Once again, as so often in the introduction of his Gospel, Matthew points out how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the OT.  This is the fifth of ten fulfillment quotations in Matthew’s Gospel and we are only in chapter 4.  His introduction to the Lord’s ministry had for one of its main purposes the demonstration that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy.  [Hagner, I, 73]

v.15     Zebulun and Naphtali were the two tribes of Israel whose allotted territory bordered on the Sea of Galilee.  Galilee had a thoroughly mixed population of Jews and Gentiles.  That mixture caused the Jews in Jerusalem and Judea to look down on the Galileans.  So, once again, the Lord is also choosing to associate with the despised and lowly rather than the high and mighty.

v.16     Though Matthew is writing to a Jewish Christian audience, he has no hesitation in emphasizing the divine plan to send the gospel to the Gentile world.  It is Matthew who tells of the magi coming to worship the newborn king and it will be Matthew who concludes his Gospel with the Lord’s command to take the Gospel to the world.

When we considered the ministry of John the Baptist and the summary of his message given in Matthew 3:2 we pointed out that here in 4:17 the very same words used to describe John’s message are used to describe the preaching of Jesus:  “repent for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”  At that time we pointed out that when Jesus sent his disciples out on their first preaching tour, he gave them the very same message to preach.  In 10:7 we have a summary of that message in still shorter form.  Jesus said to them as he sent them out:  “As you go, preach this message:  the kingdom of heaven is near.”  In context however, it is clear that the meaning of that indicative statement, “the kingdom of heaven is near,” was that those who heard must, therefore, repent.

And so it would continue, even after the Lord’s death and resurrection and even after Pentecost.  When Peter preached his sermon on the Day of Pentecost and the crowd, deeply affected, cried out to him:  “What shall we do?”  He replied, in the terms Jesus had taught him several years ago:  “Repent…in the name of Jesus Christ.”  And later in Acts we read the same thing of the preaching of the Apostle Paul.  In 20:21, Paul tells the elders of the church in Ephesus that his message among them had been that “both Jews and Greeks…must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  And in 26:20, in his defense before Agrippa, Paul summarized his preaching in this way:

“First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in
all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should
repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their

That last phrase, “they should prove their repentance by their deeds” carries us back to John the Baptist again, who, you remember, in 3:8 preached that men should “produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” which is another way of saying what Paul said.  The centrality of repentance in the Lord’s preaching is also stated negatively.  In Matt. 11:20-21 Jesus condemned the Galilean cities in which he had performed miracles because they did not repent as a consequence.  He says the same thing about that unbelieving generation of Jews in 12:41.  They had every reason to repent but had not repented.

Now if this is the sum and substance of what the Lord wished to say to the world, and John the Baptist before him, the greatest man born of woman save one; and if this is the message that the apostles and Peter and Paul especially preached wherever they went to any and all who would hear them, well, then, this is a message we should crave to understand and take to heart.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Now repentance is a word with a long history of usage.  It very definitely means different things to different people.  You might ask yourselves now what the word means to you.  I’ll bet we’d have a number of different definitions.  So it is imperative that we understand what it meant to John and Peter and Paul and, especially, what it meant to our Savior.  For many people, repentance means remorse and to repent is to be sorry that one did something wrong.  But many people are deeply remorseful for their errors but never repent in the sense in which John and Jesus and the apostles summon us to repentance.  Paul even says that remorse, what he calls “worldly sorrow,” leads to death.  Judas was remorseful but it led him to suicide not to salvation.  There are vast multitudes of people who for long periods of time or during the occasional moment feel the hot pain of self-loathing and self-reproach.  They bitterly regret the things they have done and said. But that remorse, that self-hatred does not humble them, it does not lead them to Christ and God, it does not set them on the path to life; it simply oppresses them and draws them into a deeply unhelpful concentration on themselves.

Contrarily, many people think of repentance as moral reformation, a turning over of new leaves in one’s life.  We know people who used to drink and do no longer; who have greatly improved their marriages, who have made peace with their children.  We know people who led criminal lives but who do no longer.  All of this is to the good, but it is not repentance, or, better, it may not be repentance and often is not repentance.  Reformation is as different from repentance as changing one’s clothes is from changing one’s heart.  Repentance goes down to the root and changes the life from the bottom up and the inside out.  It concerns motives as well as actions and its reasons are all found in Christ and the kingdom of God that has drawn near.  Only a Christian truly repents.  Only a Christian can.  Only a Christian can even know what real repentance is and consists of.

The idea of repentance – the word, whether in Hebrew and Greek refers simply to change; the Hebrew means “to turn” and the Greek “to change one’s mind” – but in biblical usage it refers to change, a change of heart and of life, a turning away from sin and toward the will of God, a change that is characteristic of those who are born again.  One of the best biblical descriptions of repentance is found in Solomon’s prayer of dedication at the Temple, in 2 Chronicles 6:37-38.  There we read in Solomon’s prayer:

“When they sin against you – for there is no one who does not sin – and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas and uphold their cause.  And forgive your people who have sinned against you.”

There are two parts of repentance in that definition:  the recognition of one’s sin and guilt and the turning away from the sin back to God.  You have the same double emphasis in the definitions of repentance that we find in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism.  The Confession tells us that repentance is an evangelical grace, a gospel grace, that is, a gift of God,

“whereby a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.”

Both of those definitions, the biblical one and the confessional one highlight the two great dimensions of biblical repentance.  First, there is the godly sorrow for sin, the sense of shame and wrong that comes not primarily from being caught, not from the consequences and trouble that have ensued, not from the embarrassment before others, but from a sense of having offended God who loves you, Christ who made terrible sacrifices for you; a sense of having grieved the Holy Spirit who has made known to you the way of eternal life.  It is the fear of God and the love of God which creates and motivates true repentance.

We know this sense is an important part of true repentance.  The recognition of one’s sin, the recognition of one’s behavior as sinful and evil, the recognition of one’s having offended God, the accusing of oneself before the Lord – all of this is taught and illustrated in the Bible many times.  There is a sorrow and a chastened spirit that is characteristic of true Christian living precisely because Christians continue to be sinners but know and feel the wrong, the unworthiness, the corruption, the shameful irresponsibility of their sin.  And they know that and feel that especially because they are very conscious of their standing before God and Christ, to whom they owe their lives and hopes of heaven, whom they love and whom they have dishonored and disappointed.

I do not want in any way to minimize the fact that repentance starts in this godly sorrow for having done wrong, for having dishonored the Lord in thought, word, and deed, in confession of one’s sins and prayer for pardon and forgiveness.  There ought always and powerfully to be present in our hearts the sentiments of Christina Rossetti’s wonderful poem.

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women, loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved:

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky.
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

We need to grieve more than we do our inexcusable failures to love, to serve, and to obey the God who gave us life and then redeemed our lives, when we had destroyed them, so that we might live forever in joy with him.

But, second, repentance is not only godly sorrow; it is not, I think, even chiefly godly sorrow over sin.  It certainly begins in such a sorrow, but left there it is not repentance.  It is easy to think, however, that repentance is primarily godly sorrow and the desire for forgiveness and a prayer for it.  That is very often the way even real Christians speak about repentance.  I looked up the hymns in the section of our Trinity Hymnal devoted to “repentance.”  A Christian could certainly be forgiven for thinking that if he turned to the hymns on repentance in a good hymnal he would find out what repentance is, how it speaks, what it does, what it consists of.  But if you survey the hymns in the repentance section of Trinity Hymnal you will find that almost all the emphasis falls here on contrition, on the sense of having sinned, on sorrow for sin, on prayer for forgiveness.  There are a few scattered expressions of more than this but only a few and they tend to be at the very end of the last verse.

But if, as Robert Murray McCheyne said, “sanctification is the better half of salvation,” then transformation, change of living, new obedience is the better half of repentance.  Repentance may begin in godly sorrow, but it proceeds to the transformation of life and, in a Christian life, it continues in the transformation of life.  When John and then Jesus, when the disciples and then the apostles preached repentance to the world because the kingdom of God had drawn near, they were preaching for the transformation of the lives of men and women.  John and Paul said it explicitly, that repentance involved obedience, good works, which works proved that the sorrow for one’s sins was genuine and rightly motivated.  “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” John said, and Paul said that he preached everywhere that Jews and Gentiles alike should prove their repentance by their deeds.”  But, what is more important, Jesus, who also preached that people should repent because the kingdom of God had come near, spent a great deal of his time talking about the transformation of life, true good works, real obedience.  That new life, that godly life, that life lived from the heart for God and for others, that is the repentance he is after.  The Sermon on the Mount, that we are soon to begin, is a transcript of the life of repentance.  Repentance is, our Lord is telling us, is an inner conviction that finds expression in a constant flow of heartfelt acts of love and obedience.

It is not enough to be sorry that you sinned.  Very evil people can be sorry for their sins.  To repent is to live a new life.  It is to change in the ways that please and honor God.  Today there is a new language of repentance abroad in the evangelical and Reformed world.  People speak of their brokenness.  “Brokenness” is the new buzzword. They talk about how “broken” they are.  I don’t want you to use that language of yourselves.  It is a way of speaking that sounds suspiciously like its opposite.  People who talk publicly and at some length about their humility are not likely to be humble.  But one finds this nowadays.  “I’m a deeply broken person.  And I think it is wonderful that God should choose so unworthy a vessel to accomplish such great things for his kingdom.”  Substitute the word “humble” for the word “broken” when you hear these statements and then how do they sound to you?

I like very much C.S. Lewis’ perceptive comment.

“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of…person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.  Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him…. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all.”  [Mere Christianity, 114]

Repentance is not demonstrated in the Bible in affirmations of one’s own unworthiness.  These should be made, primarily in private to God.  Repentance is demonstrated rather in godliness, in obedient, faithful, other-centered, Christ-honoring living.  In fact, “repentance,” in biblical usage is the Christian life, it is discipleship, it is sanctification.

That is why the Gospel of Matthew is going to be filled with teaching about the life of discipleship, the life of following Christ.  It is because, as we read in 4:17, Christ’s message was one of repentance, a repentance that stems from a conviction that the kingdom of God had drawn near in Jesus Christ.  Once a person believes that Jesus is the Son of God, that he came to save his people from their sins, that he and he alone is the way, the truth, and the life, I say, once a person is convinced of that, his life, her life will change, and it will continue to change.  As Dr. Packer puts it:  “When faith has primed the pump of the human heart, repentance is the way of living that results.”  [Packer, Quest for Godliness, 173]

Now most of us in this room believe that the kingdom of God drew near in the life and work of Jesus Christ.  We believe that he was the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of the OT.  We believe that his life and death and resurrection were the means to deliver us from our sin and the death we deserved on account of our sin.  We believe that he who has the Son of God has life and he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.  And what is the true response to that conviction?  Well John and Jesus and Peter and Paul all say the same thing.  It is repentance.  It is a turning away from sin to all that is right and good, it is living to obey, to honor, and to please the living God, it is to follow in Christ’s footsteps, imitating him because he has shown us how human beings ought to live.

That is what repentance is and that is why it is so important.  It lies at the very center of what it means to be a Christian.  It is the means by which one begins to be a Christian, it is the means by which one continues to be one, it is the means by which one is always a Christian.

Now, I say to you Christians:  are you repenting because the kingdom of God has drawn near?  Is repentance the mark and the characteristic of your lives?  Are you changing in the direction of Christ’s example, his teaching, his commandments?  Are you markedly different now than a year ago or two years ago because repentance is your way of life?  Many Christians can remember their repentance from years ago, but will be harder put to say in what way it has been the continuing characteristic of their lives.  And it is not enough to say that they continue to be sorry when they sin, continue to seek forgiveness for their sins, continue to recognize their faults.  That is all to the good.  But it cannot remain there, not if it be true repentance.  There must be a putting off of what is wrong and a putting on of what is good.  There must be a turning away from what is sinful and turning to what is holy.  There must be a following after Jesus Christ in this way and that.  That is repentance.  Produce fruits worthy of repentance; show your repentance by your deeds.

I know there are many ways for each of you to practice your repentance.  You immediately thought of them as soon as I raised the issue in your mind. The kingdom of God has drawn near.  Christ is present with you and in you by his Holy Spirit to bring about change!  Christ came to bring you to repentance!  It is his will; his purpose in your life and with him, you can do anything.  So, change!  In your thoughts and words and deeds.  Put to death what is sinful in your life; put on what is holy.  Husbands and wives; parents and children, look to Christ for help and make those changes that should be made in your treatment of one another.  Be very different in this way or that months from now than you are today.  Do not rest until repentance has been offered to God in that area of your life.  The kingdom of God has drawn near.  It can be done.  Therefore, repent!  I encourage you.  You will never regret a moment of true repentance in  your life.

What a magnificent and beautiful power repentance is when it takes hold of a life and continues to grip that life.  No wonder, no wonder there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents! John tells you; Peter tells you; Paul tells you; and the Lord Jesus himself tells you:  repent.  Do this, you do all!