Calling Disciples: fulfillment and calling

Calling disciplesAfter being identified as the Son of God in the baptism account (3:13–17) and after proving what kind of Son of God he is (4:1–11), Jesus journeys from Judea to Galilee in order to begin his public ministry (4:12–17). In the course of this journey Jesus will call his core disciples (vv.18-22) and witness to his proclamation with powerful deeds (vv.23-25). His journey will cover the wilderness of Judea and the towns of Galilee.

But all this begins with the barest of comments: “When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” (v.12) The word used for arrest (paradidomi) almost becomes the technical term for Jesus’ “betrayal”. There are parallels between the fates of John and Jesus. At this point we do not know why John was arrested or by whom until (cf. 14:1-12.) Yet, his arrest strongly suggests that the powers from Jerusalem reacted negatively to his practice of baptism, his call for repentance, and the proclamation that the kingdom was upon them. The authorities must have not have shared the hope of the kingdom’s coming but that rather viewed it all as a threat. Jesus’ proclamation (v. 17) is exactly the same as John’s (3:2). It is not likely to go well for Jesus.

Fulfillment. 13 He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”

Matthew is not introducing a travelogue for ancient Israel. It is in the context of his on-going fulfillment theme that we mentions these towns and specifically connects then to a citation from Isaiah 9:1-2 (see Mt 4:15-16). Matthew actually abbreviates text Isaian text which describes the land from the perspective of an 8th century BCE Assyrian invader. The results of that invasion truly made the area “Galilee of the Gentiles” (v.15) as successive movements of population had given it a predominantly Gentile population until a deliberate Judaizing policy was adopted by the Hasmonaean rulers (1st century BCE), resulting in a thoroughly mixed population. That such an area should be the place of revelation of the Jewish Messiah needed to be justified (cf. 2:23). Matthew sees the justification in Isaiah’s prediction of new light dawning in Galilee after the devastation caused by the Assyrian invasion.

Matthew has already cited Isaiah 7:14 in his Infancy Narrative, and now connects Isaiah’s “dawning light” with the birth of the divine child of Isa 9:6-7. It is in this context that Matthew points to Isa 9:1-2 to geographically locate the ministry of Jesus in Capernaum, located in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, thus having prophetic implications.

With his characteristic fulfillment formula Matthew introduces a quote from Isa 9:1–2. In its original context, Isaiah 7–9 promises deliverance from the threat of Assyria. Matthew has already connected the birth of Jesus with the sign promised to Ahaz (1:23; cf. Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10). Here he connects the political darkness facing Israel in the days of Isaiah to the spiritual problem that caused it. Israel’s defection from the Mosaic covenant had led to her oppression by other kingdoms. But for Matthew, Israel’s dark political prospects were symptomatic of her need for the redemption from sin that was now coming through Jesus the Messiah.

Calling the Disciples. From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

The very wording of the passage indicates a fresh start, a new phase of Jesus’ activity. At the heart of this new ministry is the proclamation of a message identical with that of John the Baptist (3:2), and later to be echoed by Jesus’ disciples (10:7). Jesus calls for a decisive response to a new situation, the arrival in his ministry of the kingdom of heaven.

The first to make that decisive response are the first disciples. The story of the call of Simon Peter and Andrew is very similar to the following story about the call of James and John. Both stories echo the story of Elijah’s call of Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19–21; and the prophets generally, cf Amos 7:15) – people divinely called, uprooted from ordinary existence. The calls similarly possess a four part structure: (1) the appearance of Jesus (4:18, 21); (2) the comment on the work of the prospective disciples (4:18, 21); (3) the call to discipleship (4:19, 21); and (4) obedience to the call (4:20, 22).

The first disciples encountered Jesus coming to them in their everyday occupation of fishing in the Sea of Galilee — then as now, an important and profitable business in Israel’s economy. It is easy to assume that Jesus has made an ad hoc metaphor. However, the image of a deity calling people to a new life – in both Judaism and local pagan cults – as “fishing” was common. The common theme of this metaphor was that the person was being called to participate in the divine work. Here God’s saving and judging mission to the world is represented by Jesus who calls disciples to participate in the divine mission to humanity. This scene anticipates the formal mission sending (9:36 ff) and the wider mission imperative to the whole world (28:19-20)

Without any preparation and with little or no deliberation, they leave behind their business and their families in order to follow Jesus. Discipleship is first and foremost being with Jesus, and the quick response of the first disciples (“at once” according to verses 20, 22) suggests how appealing the invitation to be with Jesus must have been. But discipleship also involves sharing in the mission of Jesus (“fishers of men” according to v.19), and that dimension too is stressed from the very beginning.

Boring (The Gospel of Matthew, 169) notes that “Despite its small size, this pericope represents a major subsection of Matthew’s structure…The call of the first disciples is the beginning of the messianic community: the church. Jesus’ baptism and temptation were not merely individualistic religious experiences of a ‘great man,’ but the recapitulation of the birth of Israel in the Red Sea and the wilderness testing; they lead to the formation of a new community, the Messiah’s people (1:21).”

It is here that we gain some insight into Matthew’s understanding of discipleship. A modern reader is tempted to refashion this biblical picture of discipleship into more manageable categories: accept Jesus’ principles for living, accept Jesus as a personal savior. Jesus “barges” into our midst and does not call us to admire him or accept his principles, but issues the divine imperative to follow him. The reasonable reply, “Where are you going?” is suborned to discovery along the way. Even without the language, the call of the disciples is a story of “belief,” “faith” and “trust.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, notes that Jesus comes to men already leading useful lives. He does not fill a hole in their lives or fulfill a need, but calls them away from work and family. The divine sovereignty is clothes in the call to human response: “I could not seek you, if you had not already found me” (Augustine, Confessions 1). Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ. It is only the call which creates the situation.” (Bonhoeffer, 161)


Matthew 4:12 withdrew to Galilee: Jesus made this journey when he learned that John had been imprisoned. “Withdrew” translates a word (anachōreō) used several times in Matthew to describe a strategic withdrawal in the face of danger (2:12–14, 22; 10:23; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21). The arrest and imprisonment of John led to his execution (14:1–12), which in turn led to another strategic withdrawal by Jesus (14:13). Perhaps these two withdrawals by Jesus anticipate the close connection made later between the fate of John and the fate of Jesus (17:12).

Matthew 4:13 Nazareth…Capernaum…Zebulun…Naphtali: Jesus’ first stop in Galilee was Nazareth, the village where he grew up (2:23). Matthew does not dwell on Nazareth (cf. Luke 4:16–30), preferring to stress Capernaum because its location has prophetic significance. Capernaum (cf. 8:5; 11:23; 17:24) is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, roughly two miles west of the Jordan River. Because Capernaum is not mentioned in the OT, Matthew stressed its location in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (cf. Josh 19:32–39); these two are mentioned in Isaiah 8:22- 9:2. The territory of these two tribes was the first to be devastated (733-32 B.C.) at the time of the Assyrian invasion.

Matthew 4:15 Galilee of the Gentiles: Galilee was looked down upon by the Jerusalem establishment and those who supported it. Its population was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles (2 Kgs 15:29; 17:24–27; 1 Macc 5). It was to this darkened place (cf. Ps 107:10; Luke 1:79) that Jesus brought the light of the Kingdom of God. His mission was not to the Gentiles during these early days of the Galilean ministry (9:35; 10:5–6; 15:24), although he did occasionally minister to Gentiles (8:5–13; 15:21–28). It seems, the Gentiles to whom Jesus ministered took the initiative to come to him, suggesting the applicability of Jesus’ message for all the nations (24:14). The beginnings of Jesus’ ministry in a remote, despised place, largely populated by Gentiles, foreshadows the expansion of mission to all the nations at the end of Jesus’ ministry (28:19).

Matthew 4:17 From that time on: Many interpreters of Matthew think this phrase signals a transition to the second major section of Matthew.

Matthew 4:17 Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand: At the beginning of his preaching Jesus takes up the words of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2) although with a different meaning; in his ministry the kingdom of heaven has already begun to be present (Matthew 12:28). This linkage of the messages of John and Jesus seems to lay a foundation for the similar fates of the two messengers (14:2; 17:12–13).

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