Matthew 4:12-23 – Third Sunday after Epiphany
It appears the RCL chose this text for this Sunday in the season after Epiphany because of this quote from Isaiah, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light…”. They are giving us a simpler preaching direction in the revelatory splendor of Jesus the Christ. That then is exemplified by the disciples who don’t even bat an eye at his calling and go willingly without debate. They have seen a great light. If you want to preach on the Epiphany season, there is certainly a lot of imagery there to wrestle with (particularly with the light/dark dichotomy).
But this is the start of Jesus’ ministry and Matthew wants to ensure that we know that Jesus is walking in with authority. And what better way to illustrate that than by this chapter opening with Jesus rejecting the devil for 40 days in the wilderness. After Jesus returns from the wilderness, we hear that John is arrested. This is important to both Matthew and Mark. There is a sequential order of their ministry (for Matthew it is the prophetic witness). According to Matthew and Mark, John and Jesus are not doing ministry at the same time and for Matthew that is because prophetic authority has transitioned to Jesus at his baptism. We are following Jesus now.
Also, in this first section, we get to ask a narrative question, why did Jesus withdraw to Galilee? Was it because John’s followers were also being arrested and he was escaping arrest himself? Was it because his ministry wouldn’t gain traction there? I’m inclined to think it’s the former. Jesus needs to move to a different area until things cool off again. However, in doing so, Matthew tells us that prophecy is fulfilled.
When returning to Galilee, Jesus does not return to his home in Nazareth but instead starts a new one in Capernaum. Matthew attributes this to prophecy. R. Alan Culpepper notes, “The [Isaiah] passage probably originally celebrated the coronation of a Judean king or the birth of a royal son. To walk in darkness was a metaphor for living under oppression; to see a great light meant the coming of a great king who would bring deliverance and peace.” While prophecy is beautiful, we may also already know why Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry in Nazareth. In Matthew 13:53-58 we will hear about his rejection in his hometown. Jesus may already feel that he can’t begin there. His ministry needs to start in a place where he is not known. He doesn’t begin preaching at the Jordan and he doesn’t begin preaching in Nazareth but instead in Capernaum. But even though he is starting in a new place, the message is familiar: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus begins with the exact same message as John the Baptist. He is carrying the prophetic witness to new places.
In Jesus’ calling of his first disciples, we immediately experience the authority of Jesus. With just a few words from him, they leave everything and follow. We also get a familiar line, “I will make you fish for people (fishers of men).” I think there is some beauty in thinking about Jesus connecting with their vocation and saying it will influence their work in discipleship. However, Matthew returns to the fishing theme less than any other Gospel. When Matthew says, “they left their nets” this is an indication that Simon Peter and Andrew are walking away from it forever. Similarly, James and John immediately leave their boats and their father. There is no turning back. We are reminded of this when Peter asks Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27). In Matthew’s Gospel, discipleship is leaving everything behind and following Jesus.
And in case there was any doubt in the authority of Jesus, he jumps right into his ministry “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
Matthew wants us to have no doubts about the authority of Jesus and who he is. This sets us up to be attentive hearers to the long sermon that he’s about to give on the Mount.
This is a transitional section in Matthew to get us to the Sermon on the Mount. And because of that, it can feel like there are a thousand things going on and none at all. But, I think if we pick one lane, there are some possibilities for really meaningful topics.
Jesus picking up the mantle
Matthew is the only Gospel where John the Baptist and Jesus open with the same line, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus says the identical line to open his public ministry. What if we didn’t see Jesus as an isolated figure. A Messiah who is an anomaly. What if we saw Jesus as one in a line of prophets? What if we saw Jesus as one who has learned from those who came before?
Calling the First Disciples
What does it mean to let everything go and follow Jesus? I know that I have preached at times, “Jesus isn’t asking us to quit our jobs and give up our families.” And yet, here, Matthew isn’t mincing words. They drop their nets, they leave their families, they leave everything and follow. So, how do we translate that today? We’re not being asked to do the same thing as the disciples and follow the physical Jesus. But are we being asked to drop some things so that we can be more faithful disciples? This question can be asked for individuals and for the church.
There will be other opportunities to preach on authority, but this is a possibility for this week. How do we lean into the authority of God and trust in God’s calling to us just as these first disciples did?
 Emily McFarlan Miller, “With Race in Mind, Christians Reconsider Language of Dark and Light at Advent,” Religion News Service, December 8, 2022, https://religionnews.com/2022/12/07/amid-racial-reckoning-christians-reconsider-the-language-of-dark-and-light-at-advent/.
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 73.
 Culpepper, 74.