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The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 9, 1997

Matthew 4:12-17

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How lovely is His dwelling place. Please turn with me in your Bible to Matthew chapter 4. We enter a new section of the Gospel of Matthew today as we begin in verse 12 of Matthew chapter 4. In chapter 1, we saw the origins of our Savior. We saw His identity set forth. David’s son is David’s Lord. He is the appointed Messiah. The one that God had promised to send to His people. In Matthew chapter 2 we saw the Gentiles worshipping Him as the Son of God who saves the world. They came from afar, the Magi to bring Him honor, and to do Him homage. In chapter 3, we see the Father Himself place His imprimatur on His ministry, put His verbal word of blessing on that which He would do. We saw the Lord Jesus in the baptism itself accept the commission publicly that He would be the sin-bearer for His people. And in the beginning of chapter 4, in those first eleven verses, we saw our Lord confront Satan himself in the wilderness, repeating a battle that had been fought and lost thousands of years before by our first Father, Adam, but this time with a dramatically different result, the defeat of Satan. It was the battleground of the covenant of grace that He fought in the wilderness and He won for our sakes. And now having seen the preparation for His ministry, and having seen the inauguration of His ministry and the beginning of it in temptation, we now see the beginning of His preaching ministry. His proclamation throughout Galilee. This is what we see here in Matthew 4:12 and following. Let’s give attention to the Word of the Living God.

Now when He heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, "THE LAND OF ZEBULUN AND THE LAND OF NAPHTALI, BY THE WAY OF THE SEA, BEYOND THE JORDAN, GALILEE OF THE GENTILES— "THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SITTING IN DARKNESS SAW A GREAT LIGHT, AND TO THOSE WHO WERE SITTING IN THE LAND AND SHADOW OF DEATH, UPON THEM A LIGHT DAWNED." From that time Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

Thus ends this reading of God’s Holy and inspired and inerrant Word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s look to Him in prayer.

Our Lord and our God, this is Your Word, and we ask not only for an understanding of its meaning, but a spiritual apprehension of that meaning. Cause not only our minds to be flooded with light, but our wills and our affections. Cause us, O God, to become obedient to the word, and so not only to be hearers, but doers of the Living Word through Jesus Christ our Lord, we ask it. Amen.

In this passage before us in Matthew, we see Jesus’ proclamation, Jesus’ message set forth. What was it that our Lord Jesus began preaching as He began His preaching ministry? Here we see the circumstances and the content of His teaching ministry set forth. And there are three things in particular I would like to direct your attention to. I would like you to notice the timing of the His ministry. I would like you to notice the place of His ministry. And then I would like you to notice the message of His ministry.

I. The timing of Jesus’ ministry.
    Let’s begin with the first one then. The first aspect of the passage I would like to draw to is the timing of Jesus’ ministry. In verse 12, we read, "Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee." What was the occasion of Jesus beginning His preaching ministry in Galilee? The occasion was the imprisonment of John. His beloved cousin, the one whom God had sent to prepare the way before Him had been captured and imprisoned by Herod, the ruler of Galilee, a wicked man who hated John because John, we will find out later, spoke the truth to his face. And Herod, that wicked man imprisoned, that righteous man, John. And upon hearing it, Jesus moves His ministry into Galilee.

May I pause and ask you to reflect for a few moments on John’s ministry. John had been prophesied of 700 years before by Isaiah, 500 years ago before by Malachi. His ministry lasted about eighteen months. Seven hundred years of preparation in the plan of God to be the one who prepare the way before the Lord. And John was given eighteen months. Can’t you imagine the words of John’s friends as he prepared to embark upon that ministry in the wilderness: ‘John, couldn’t you minister in the cities? Won’t you have more impact here? John, couldn’t you wear more normal clothing and eat a more normal sort of diet? John, couldn’t you be slightly less offensive to the religious leaders, who are after all are making their way out into the wilderness to hear you preach.’ How foolish that counsel must have seemed to John in prison after only eighteen months of ministry. And how thankful he must have been that he sacrificed everything when he went into that wilderness for eighteen scant months to minister.

How long has the Lord given to you? To me? We don’t know. John didn’t know either. But he did know from prison that for eighteen months he had given all of himself to God.

Do you see how urgent our callings are? How short those callings may be? How finite, how limited? Who would know that the messenger of the Lord, the one who was to prepare the way before the angel of the covenant, who would have known that he would only minister for eighteen months? Eternity had planned his ministry. His whole life had gone into the day when he would prepare the way of the Lord. And the Lord had for him, eighteen months. Do you see the value of time, the urgency of calling in your own experience? Do you live your lives with that type of urgency? With that sense of limitation? We never know when our work is done. And so we must work while it is day, for night is coming. Do we live our lives in that type of eternal perspective. John did. And though I have no doubt that he was a frustrated man in that prison, desiring to go out and preach the Gospel to the multitudes who needed it, yet he could have a clear conscience before God and say, ‘O Lord in the months that You gave me, I was faithful to my calling.’ I trust that we will be able to say the same to the Lord.

Notice the rationale of Jesus going into Galilee to minister. It is very clear. John’s ministry is now for all intents and purposes ended. He will spend the rest of his days imprisoned and then will give his life for the sake of the gospel. A martyr at the hands of Herod. And so Jesus goes into the wilderness to build upon the ministry that John has established there. What a compliment to John, that our Lord Jesus could go confidently into Galilee, knowing the John had done precisely what God had called Him to do from the foundations of the world, that is, prepare the way of the Lord. He had laid a sure foundation. He had preached the Gospel in the wilderness and the Lord Jesus could go to Galilee knowing that the foundations of John’s ministry were sound. And so Jesus goes to Galilee to do just that.

Jesus also knows, of course that His time is not yet. We know from the Gospel of John that already there were more people coming to hear Jesus than there were coming to hear John and Jesus was ministering in the Judean countryside and no doubt that would have upset the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and so Jesus makes His way from Jerusalem up into the outback, the backwoods of Galilee where He will at least, for a time, not be noticed by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus knows that His time will come. But now is not yet the time, and so, He goes into Galilee to forestall a premature conflict with Pharisees, with the Sanhedrin, with the religious leaders in Jerusalem.

There are many applications of this timing of our Lord’s ministry. But I would mention two of them to you this morning. The first is this: we learn from the timing of the Lord’s ministry that the Lord will build His church. You ask me, "How do you get that from the timing of our Lord’s ministry?" Let me tell you how. What if we had been there in Galilee, what if we had been benefiting from that glorious ministry of John and suddenly the greatest preacher to ever preach in Galilee is snatched from out midst and thrown into prison. Surely around our dinner tables at night, we would have shaken our heads and said, "Lord what are you doing? You have taken the greatest, the most honorable and unfailingly righteous man, you have thrown him into the clutches of a wicked tyrant, and you have cast him off into prison, when thousands are dying for the need to hear the Gospel." Surely we would have said something like that.

And yet, the Lord will build His church. Strike down the shepherd and He will raise us another. The Lord will build His church. Take Moses from the people of God and He will give them Joshua. Take John the Baptist from the people of God, and He sends His Son into Galilee.

Praise God, the church is not built around the necessity of particular individuals. The church is not built on men, however talented. The church is built on the rock; the church is built upon His unassailable truth. It is not built around men and personalities. We are all expendable in the sight of God. There is none of us that the church cannot survive without. Praise God! Strike down the shepherd and the Lord will raise up another. The Lord will build His church. This is one thing we learn from the timing of His ministry. Take away John the Baptist, and the Lord gives His Son. God will build His church.

There is another thing we learn from the timing of our Lord’s ministry and that is that there is an appointed time in God’s plan for everything in life. God knew precisely when He wanted to send His Son into the wilderness of Galilee. He had planned it from the foundations of the World, and so our lives are meted out the same. There is a timing and an appointed time in God’s plan for every thing in life. We must never forget that. Especially when we do not understand God’s timing. When we do not understand what He is doing.

II. The place of Jesus’ ministry.
    The second thing that I would like to point you to in this passage is the place of Jesus’ ministry. In verses 13-16, we see the place, the location in which our Lord was going to inaugurate His great Galilean ministry. We read at the end of verse 12, "He withdrew into Galilee" and then in verse 13, "leaving Nazareth He came and He settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali." It is very interesting, if you had found that the Lord was going to leave Judea and go into Galilee, the first place we thought, the first place that we would have thought that He would have gone, was His hometown, Nazareth. And that is not where He goes. Our Lord leaves Nazareth and He goes to Capernaum. And you may scratch your heads, and you may ask, "Well, why?" You may say, well He was a prophet without honor in His own land. So surely He went to Capurnaum, because they, at least would take Him seriously. But we are going to learn in Matthew chapter 11, that the people of Capernaum ignored Him as well. Nazareth and Capernaum will be condemned at the last day. They had the light of God in their midst and they rejected Him. Both of those cities end up indifferent to Christ. The greatness of spiritual light is no guarantee of spiritual sight, because if you are blind, it doesn’t matter how great the light is. Unless God does a work in our heart, in our spiritual sight, we cannot see though the light of the world is standing in front of us. And so Capernaum and Nazareth, but there was a good reason for our Lord to go to Capurnaum.

We find out later in Matthew chapter 9, that Capernaum was the place where Matthew the tax collector had his office. In Matthew 9:1, and Matthew 9:9, we find out that that was the place where Matthew was living. In the very next passage we are going to study this week, we find out that Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John while He was ministering in Capernaum. Capernaum is the place where He called His first disciples. It became the center of His Galilean ministry. And think of what a strategic place it was to minister to that part of Israel. By foot, He could access all the western lands. By boat, He could access the Transjordan. He could get to the other side of the Jordan, and minister to the people there. He was able to move freely from that which was the center of travel in the northern part of the kingdom. In fact, it became so much the center of His ministry that in Matthew chapter 9, verse 1, Matthew calls Capernaum Jesus’ own city. Capernaum becomes the base for our Lord’s ministry.

Galilee, we see described in five parts in verse 13. Leaving Nazareth, He comes into Capernaum, which is by the sea in the region of Zebulon and Naphtali. In verse 15, we see it called the way of the sea beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. It covers that whole northern region around the Sea of Galilee. Around the lake of Gennesareth. This is the area in which Jesus is going to minister. And Matthew tells us that He ministers here in fulfillment of prophecy. Seven hundred years before, Isaiah had prophesied that the people of Zebulun and Naphtali who had endured not one, but two captivities would find liberation. There would be a day when their captivity would be over and they would find liberation and light and Matthew says, the one who is the light, the one who is the liberator has come. He is preaching the Gospel in Zebulun and in Naphtali. He is preaching the Gospel in Galilee of the Gentiles. He has come to a place that was religiously and morally darkened even in the days of old. In the days of the kings, the northern kingdom and that part of the northern kingdom was renowned for its spiritual darkness. You remember in II Kings chapter 17, verse 33 that the Samaritans were described as those that feared the Lord and yet they served their own gods. It could have been said of the Galileans, mixed as they were, religiously, and maritally, Galilee of the Gentiles, this is where our Lord’s preaching ministry begins.

Again there are many applications of this truth about the place of Jesus’ ministry, but I want to remind you of two of them. The first is this. God’s grace is manifested in the most unlikely of places. If you and I had been planning where Jesus would do His ministry for its most strategic impact in Israel, surely we would have said, ‘Lord go to Jerusalem. That is the center of government. That is the center of power. That is where people with money, people with influence, people with education; they are there in Jerusalem. Go there and do Your ministry. Don’t go to the backwaters of Galilee where the ignorant and the poor and the uneducated and the morally depraved exist. Don’t go there, go to Jerusalem. We can find you financial support for your ministry. We can spread the word of your ministry much faster, if we’ll just base ourselves in Jerusalem,’ but God had determined that His Son would minister in Zebulon and Naphtali, and Galilee of the Gentiles. That is where He would send His Son. Not to the aristocracy of Jerusalem, but to the despised and the sorely afflicted and the largely ignorant masses of Galilee. That is where He would do His ministry. To a mixed Gentile, Jewish population, there the Father sends the Son. Think of it, my friends. Our Lord Jesus was born and reared in Galilee, and it would be in Galilee of the Gentiles that He would spend the larger part of His earthly ministry. Not in Jerusalem, not in Judea. God’s grace is manifested in the most unlikely places and before people who we may think of as the least worthy to receive it. Praise God.

Notice also from this, that we can learn that God’s plan encompasses not only every timing, not only every timing in life, but every detail of life. Even the location where Jesus will minister is within the plan of God. It had been set down by the prophets hundreds of years before, even where He will minister. We must never doubt that the details of our lives are in the hand of God. Especially when those details seem inscrutable and hurt. Every detail is in the hand of God.

III. The message of Jesus’ ministry.
    Thirdly today, I want to point you to the message of Jesus’ ministry. We are told in verse 17, that from that time that Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," notice two or three things about this message of repentance. First of all, I want you to note that it is precisely the same message that John the Baptist preached. We are told that in Matthew chapter 3, verse 2. It is precisely the same message that John was preaching. Again what a confirmation of John’s ministry, that when Jesus comes preaching, He comes preaching, in essence, the same message that John preached. Jesus tells us that John is the greatest of the Old Testament prophets and He preaches the same message. And by preaching that same message, the Lord Jesus teaches us that the Gospel is the same in all eras. The gospel is the same in the Old Covenant as it is in the new. It is the same in the Old Testament as it is in the New. The gospel is salvation by grace. That grace is embraced by faith and repentance. That grace is worked in us, a trust in the living God through Jesus Christ, His Son, and that is the way of salvation in both the covenants. In both Old Testament and New Testament, the message of Jesus and the message of John and the way of salvation are the same.

The second thing that we learn as we see Jesus’ message is this. Jesus is going now to build on John’s ministry in such a way that He will reach regions with John’s message that John had never reached. John had had a great impact, but he would not preach in all the places that the Lord Jesus would preach. And so the Lord builds and expands on John’s ministry.

Notice, thirdly about this message. That Jesus’ coming, and Jesus’ preaching the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" accentuates the truth of that message. John could anticipate the coming of Jesus the Messiah and say, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." When Jesus the Messiah preaches that message, it lends all the more urgency to the fact that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. He can say with a view that the crucifixion the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost are only months away, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand and the King is in your midst. What urgency our Lord must have preached that message with. Jesus preaching, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," is a confirmation of the truthfulness of that gospel message. And His message to the Galileens is His message to us, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" is not legalistic, fundamentalistic, back woods ignorant teaching. It is the teaching of our Lord and Savior. If we do not like the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," we do not like the preaching of Jesus. If we reject the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," we have rejected Jesus. For Jesus, the one who gave Himself, preaches the word, "Repent."

What is repentance? I would like to think with you for just a couple of moments about the meaning of repentance. What does it mean to repent? If you were to turn in your Hymnals right now to page 875, not hymn 875, but page 875, and look at the bottom of that page, to Shorter Catechism question number 87, you would find a wonderful definition of repentance. In that definition it will remind you of a couple of things. First of all, it will tell you that repentance is a saving grace. In other words, repentance is something that God has to work in your heart. Until God is doing a work in your heart, no one wants to repent. Augustus Strong once said, "man truly repents only when he learns that his sin has made him unable to repent without the renewing grace of God." We can’t repent without a work of grace done in our hearts.

That Catechism question goes on to say that repentance means turning from our sin, and turning to God. But it stresses that in repentance, we apprehend God’s mercy. Let me expand on that. The repentant man is more than simply sorry for sin. Repentance is more than an emotional state where we feel sorry for sin. Repentance is more than being remorseful over the consequences of sin. Maybe you have committed a sin that has ruined your life. Repentance is more than being sorry that you have ruined you life because of the action that you have taken. Repentance is more than feeling sorry that you have caused problems in someone else’s life. Repentance means having an entirely new attitude of heart towards your sin. The repentant person is a person who says, "I is not the circumstances that are the problem, I am the problem. My environment, my genetics did not make me do this. I did it and so I am the problem. I am the source of the problem. The evil that occurred in this circumstance came from me. I stand condemned, I deserve to be judged."

But at the same time, the repentant person also believes something else. And it is something so catastrophic, something so glorious that it is hard to believe because these two things are held together. Only the person who is repentant is simultaneously able to say, "I am the problem, and but God is merciful." The repentant person apprehends that God will receive him. In other words, the repentant person knows that though he deserves hell, God will receive him. Because the repentant person, by the grace of God, has come to see that God is a loving God who forgives at the cost of His Son, and so will receive him. And so the repentant person, not knowing what to do, casts himself at the mercy of the Lord because he sees that this is a God who will receive even a sinner.

Think of how we try and get out of our sins in relationships with others. Think how we attempt to get out of them by downplaying the impact and seriousness of our sin, by saying, "But I didn’t mean to do that. It wasn’t my intention." Or the circumstances just pressed me into a condition, where I am so sorry. We try and bridge the relation by blaming it on circumstances. See, it was the circumstance that really made this sin so bad. The repentant person doesn’t hide in that, because the repentant person has found that the only refuge from sin is not found in circumstances, it is not down in our candy coating or playing down what we have done. It is found in the refuge of a God who will forgive at the cost of His Son, and so the repentant person flees to Christ, because there he knows, he finds forgiveness. "Repentance is a thorough change of a man’s natural heart on the subject of sin," J.C. Ryle once said.

It does not mean that we become sinlessly perfected. Sin continues in the hearts and lives of those who are repentant, but they can never again be complacent about it like they were before. There is a story told of a farmer, who was a man with a tremendous temper. He terrorized his field hands. He brutalized his animals and his wife and his children literally feared him because of his explosive and unpredictable temper. He heard the preaching of the gospel as an older man, and he was brought to Christ. He was crushed by the realization of his sin. And he came to Christ. Three weeks after his conversion, he was working in the fields, a field hand made a mistake, an animal slipped and this man exploded, he exploded with his same language and his same unpredictable intensity and suddenly he stopped, he exploded a second time into tears and he ran back to the farmhouse where his wife was working at the kitchen sink, preparing lunch. He threw himself on the table, a heaving sobbing mass of farming humanity. And his wife said to him, ‘darling, what is the matter?’ He said to her, through his tears, ‘I am not different than I was before.’ She said to him, ‘my husband, there is all the difference in the world in you. You never repented of your sin before. You were never broken by your sinfulness before. I see a change in your heart towards this posture. Towards this behavior, towards this attitude. There is all the difference in the world my husband.’ He was not perfected sinlessly. But his attitude towards sin had changed.

Has your attitude towards sin changed? Have you repented? Have you come to the point where you no longer defend yourself and the only place you seek for refuge is in the forgiving love of the heavenly Father, whose mercy you apprehend? Have you turned your back on sin? Have you gotten to the point where you can never be complacent about sin again? And you have run to Christ? That is repentance. Friends, repentance by the way, isn’t something that we just do at the beginning of our Christian experience either. John Blanchard has told us that "the Christian who has stopped repenting is a Christian who has stopped growing," because we run into new sins in our life and we continue to have battles against old sins in our lives and those of us who have gotten married find amazingly how sin expands in the marital estate. It is just amazing. It comes from nowhere. We had been perfect before, and then we get married. There are new sins to be repented of. But our hearts can never be complacent towards them if God has worked the grace of repentance in them.

Has God worked the grace of repentance in your heart? Is there a sin of which you are aware of today that you have attempted to defend yourself from?

My friends, let me tell you this earnestly, there is no sin that you can defend yourself of. You may obscure it in the eyes of men. There may be very few in the world that know of that sin, but God knows of it. You cannot protect yourself from that sin; only Christ can protect you from that sin. And only if you fling yourself at His merciful feet in repentance, will you know what it is to find the protection, healing mercy of the almighty God who waits with open arms to enfold you. It is one of the great mysteries of life, is it not? That precisely when we discover how much we deserve judgment, we find out that God has given that judgment to His Son. So that He can give us mercy. We serve a merciful God. Want you go to Him today in repentance? Let us pray.

Oh Lord God, bless Your Word in our hearts, and receive us for Christ’s sake. Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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