READ Matthew 4:12-17
If you were asked to summarise Jesus’ teaching in 10 words or fewer, what would you say? How would you sum up the greatest teacher of all time in a few words?
Maybe we could do that in just five words: Love God; love your neighbour. That might need to be unpacked to know what it means in practice but is that a fair summary of Jesus’ teaching?
What if we were to summarise His preaching to non-Christians – in other words, His evangelistic message? How would you summarise that in ten words or fewer?
Matthew gives us the answer in this passage. Jesus had been in Jerusalem but returned to Galilee, in the north, via Samaria. Galilee was quite remote from Jerusalem. It was also Jesus’ home region. He had grown up in Nazareth. It was quite a rural region although there were some significant towns there; there were a lot of Gentiles (non-Jews) in the region and a trade route ran through it, so it wasn’t really a cultural backwater.
Matthew tells us that the catalyst for coming back to Galilee was John the Baptist’s imprisonment. It might seem that Jesus was heading to a remote region to avoid trouble with King Herod – except that Herod actually ruled the region of Galilee. His capital city was Tiberius, only about 13.5 km from Capernaum which, as we will see, became the centre of Jesus’ ministry. It is not as if He is fleeing danger. In fact, maybe Jesus intentionally went to one of the darkest regions. There was a lot of Gentile, pagan influence in Galilee. We see that in the prophecy quoted from Isaiah 9…
- Galilee of the Gentiles
- The people living in darkness
- Living in the land of the shadow of death
And yet, also in that prophecy, there was talk of a great change:
- The people living in darkness have seen a great light
- Light has dawned on those living in the shadow of death.
I am sure you remember… I hope you remember… do you remember?… how Jesus described His ministry when He was in Nazareth?
- Good news for the poor
- Freedom for prisoner
- Recovery of sight for the blind
- Freedom for the oppressed
His ministry offered hope to the very needy. Hope for those in the worst situations. Hope for those who knew they were lost without it. Light in the midst of darkness.
That is really important for us to ponder. Are we bringing good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, in the name of Jesus?
Jesus offered that in Nazareth but it was rejected. So, as Matthew says, He moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. Capernaum (which means “village of Nahum”) became Jesus’ ministry base. Matthew 9:1 says Jesus returned to His own town. That was Capernaum. This was the centre of operations in Galilee.
Now, let’s consider v.17: “From that time on, Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” There is Jesus’ preaching in nine words.
We could reduce that to six words: “God’s Kingdom is close, therefore repent.” Or, maybe, even three words: “Kingdom close! Repent!”
Can anyone do better than that? Maybe just: “Kingdom! Repent!”
I don’t think we can reduce it any more than that because those are the two core concepts: the Kingdom and repentance.
The Kingdom of God is simply God’s rule. Where God rules, the Kingdom is present, especially when that is contrasted with Satan’s rules. Where Satan rules, people are kept in darkness, but God brings light. Jesus later said that Satan comes to rob, kill and destroy, but God’s Kingdom is full of justice and mercy and freedom. So, for example, the royal official’s son was dying. That’s a Satan thing. But Jesus healed him. That’s a God thing. God’s presence was breaking into their lives in a new way. The Kingdom was present in Jesus and in His ministry.
If that was true, what should they do? If the rule of God was close, what should they do?
We can just as legitimately say that the Kingdom of God is near now. God is active in the world. More than that, one day, God’s Kingdom is going to come in all its fullness. People talk about the Kingdom being here “already but not yet”. The Kingdom is here. God is doing things. But it is not yet here in its fullness. One day, everything that is wrong with the world will be swept away and God’s perfect Kingdom will be established. The good things that God is doing now are just little hints of the wonderful perfection that is to come – where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
The closeness of the Kingdom of God is both good news and bad news.
For the Christian, it is amazingly good news. The Christian is grieved by all the evil and pain in the world and longs for God’s perfect world. The coming of the Kingdom will be the end of pain and grief. Actually, everybody longs for that. But it is different for the Christian. He/she longs for the day when God receives the honour and praise that He deserves but that He doesn’t get now. And he/she has received promises from God about that day.
But for the non-Christian, it is incredibly bad news. For perfection to come, evil must be eradicated. The coming of the Kingdom will be the time when all that is wrong will be judged. That will be an absolutely fearsome day for those who have rejected God or ignored God. People who have chosen the way of sin will reap the consequences because God will judge sin.
That is why Jesus’ message was “The Kingdom is close; it is time to repent.” It is precisely because the Kingdom is close that Jesus urged people to act. God is close. Repent!
Today people think that people are basically good and God is gentle and understanding. He won’t really judge people. It will be all right in the end. There is no real urgency.
But that is not the message of the scriptures. On the contrary, there is an urgent call to repent. Repentance means to have a change of thinking and a change of direction. It means recognising that I have been heading in one direction that is not what God wants. Maybe it has been a very selfish direction. It has all been about me. Maybe there has been deliberate disobedience of God; bad choices – choices that are going to exclude me from God’s Kingdom. Repentance is being grieved about that life – that rebellion against God – and choosing instead to live in a way that pleases God.
God responds to repentance. He forgives. He washes the past away and He gives the gift of the Holy Spirit enabling us to live the new life. Remember that Jesus told Nicodemus that we must be born again. This is the same message. Being born again happens when we repent, God forgives, God gives us new life and His Holy Spirit. There is no other way into the Kingdom of God.
Some people might pray and ask Jesus into their hearts (whatever that means) but there has been no repentance. Some people might join a church and enjoy the people and the programme; might even agree with the teaching, but there has been no repentance.
Jesus’ message was one big call to repentance. And that is consistent in the Bible. John the Baptist’s preaching is summarised in Matthew 3:2 using exactly the same words: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.” The prophets were constantly calling the people to repent – to turn back to God.
Last week, we considered Peter’s preaching at Pentecost. When the people were cut to the heart – in other words, when they were convicted that they had sinned against God – and they cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” what did Peter say?
“Repent and be baptised, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” See that? For the past, forgiveness. For the future, the Holy Spirit.
Notice how the Acts 2 account finishes. “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Do you hear the urgency there? “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
Have you heard that message? The politically correct version of Christianity says, “God loves you. It is all OK.” That is not what Peter said. That is not what Jesus or John the Baptist said. The politically correct version of Christianity is leading people into hell.
The biblical version of Christianity says, “Because you have disobeyed God, you are in serious danger. But God loves you and offers forgiveness. Turn away from your lifestyle. Put your trust in Jesus. Follow Him. Live His way.”
Remember Jonah? In Matthew 12:41 Jesus said that the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. According to jesus, this is a biblical example of true repentance. The Ninevites were a godless, wicked people whom God planned to judge because of their evil. He sent Jonah to preach against the city – presumably preach condemning it. Jonah, of course, tried to run away. He got into a whale of trouble. God rescued him and again told him to go to Nineveh. Jonah did but in a grumpy mood. He preached against the city. In forty days the city would be overthrown. Then an amazing thing happened. The people of Nineveh believed God. They recognised the trouble they were in. They fasted. All of them mourned in sackcloth and ashes. The king put on sackcloth and sat in the dust. It was genuine sorrow and fear before God.
The king then issued a decree: the people were to fast; they were to dress in sackcloth (in fact, even the animals were to be covered in sackcloth. This was complete, nothing missing, sorrow before God.) They were to call urgently on God and they were to give up their evil ways and their violence. This was a radical change of lifestyle; a radical turning around. They didn’t even have a guarantee that God would change His mind. The king said, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish.” Who knows? But God did. He saw their response. He saw that they turned from their wicked ways and he did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened.
Repentance involves sorrow and the fear of God; the recognition that we are worthy of judgement, the pleading with god for mercy and the genuineness shown by being willing to turn away from those things that have been wrong.
Our overarching theme at the moment is “Experiencing God”. We will experience God either way. We will either experience the judgement of God or we will experience the grace of God. But Peter and Jesus don’t want us to experience the judgement of God. That is why they warn us and plead with us.
So, the obvious question to finish with: Have you repented? Have you been on your knees before God and confessed your sin and sought His forgiveness and His Holy Spirit to help you live a new life? I pray that the answer is yes and I pray that you continue repenting when you become aware of sin in your life.
If the answer is no, can I plead with you to do it? Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.
A second question is: In our own sharing of the gospel, are we calling people to repentance? Are we concerned about people’s salvation given God’s judgement, or are we saying, “God understands. Everything will be OK”? God is amazingly gracious and forgiving towards those who repent.