“The hardest part was at the very beginning!” said the young pop music star. “I came along before there was an ‘American Idol’ show, but just after the big record labels were already losing to the digital market of iTunes and Napster. That window was very hard to get started in this business!” the young woman complained. Truthfully, I didn’t know who she was, but her interview caught my attention on the TV set above my head. Of course, the fact that my flight was going to be delayed and my sandwich was utterly uninteresting may have also had something to do with my interest in her interview. I watched the whole exchange and then my mind drifted. Getting started… sometimes that really IS the hardest part. My mind faded back to my home:
My hedges need clipping, but to do it I’d have to get the clippers and the cord out and drag them through the hot backyard in the Florida summer sun… I think that can wait!
I really need to start this diet and drop off these extra summer pounds that came from writing for hours in a chair, but to do that I have to get the stuff to make those morning breakfast shakes in the cupboard, and besides… there is a pan of brownies in the kitchen that shouldn’t go to waste…
I need to paint the woodwork upstairs, but in order to do that I will need to check in the garage on the pan and brushes, and that garage is a mess. I am not sure where the paint is, and that is going to be another fiasco to get the right color…
Anyone who wrestles with themselves to get things done knows that starting isn’t easy. It takes commitment, and you have to believe that it is both important and able to be accomplished. Today’s lesson is about the beginnings of the public ministry of Jesus – the “getting started” in crowd teaching, healing and shepherding. Jesus was stepping out of the shadows into center stage in some Galilee villages. After Nicodemus was taught by Jesus to see life in a new way, and the Samaritan “woman at the well” in Sychar found that her life was not empty and useless – Jesus made His way back to the western lower Galilee, to the region where He had grown up years before. The first interviews were concluded, and Jesus was now working with growing crowds and a handful of disciples that John sent his way. Jesus needed to make His message known, and back it up with significant works to show His power. Four short passages recall this time of ministry, and each offers a view that includes different problems and different reasons to believe in Jesus and His message.
Key Principle: Though some ignore the Savior’s true message in favor of a religious control or a self-directed life, those who trust Jesus find Him to be the answer God promised long before His coming.
The short passages found in both Matthew’s Gospel and that of the Gospel of Mark tell us the same thing about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – it began with public preaching. Jesus was not simply some philanthropist – He was a public preacher.
Preaching: Preaching repentance and Kingdom preparation (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 1:14b-15).
Note the two records and what they offer us about the message of the Savior at the outset:
Mt. 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Mk. 1:14 “…Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
First, Jesus’ preaching was, from its beginning, about BEHAVIOR, not simply about Pharisaism or “world peace.” That is a more important point than we may have believed in time past, because people in our country have been consistently told otherwise. Listen to the words of the text – Jesus said four things if the two accounts are taken together:
• The time had come: God has a plan, and He unspooled events to coincide with His purposes. God chose a time when a portion of Judah had been returned to the ancient homeland of Israel. He chose to send Jesus into a time when a singular language gripped much of the western world. He offered His Son when the Roman Empire – a politically contrived power – was blending many languages, cultures and cultic worship forms into one cohesive unit around the Mediterranean. He picked a moment in the timeline of human history that He knew would work the best for His plan.
• Repentance was necessary: Meeting God is always on His terms. Jesus didn’t tell people to “fix themselves”, but rather to turn away from their self-determined path and follow Him. That “turnabout” is the meaning of the word “repent” (meta-noeo). The implication is that change must come. As long as one believes they can apprehend God by their own seeking, the need for a Savior is tiny. If one doesn’t see themselves as “lost” they seek no Savior. The requirement of repentance was this: Know you have a need and that you cannot find it within, or in any religious system you currently possess.
• The Kingdom was near: Where the King goes, the kingdom follows. The Jesus of the New Testament was the “Eternal Son of God” involved as the very agent of Creation (Colossians 1:16-17). He is the “expressed image of God’s person” (Hebrews 1). Because He was the promised King that would one day sit on the throne of David, the Kingdom was near. It would be enacted, first spiritually and later physically… but God always delivers His promises.
• It was time to believe in the Good News: The coming of the “Perfect Lamb” that John the Baptizer made clear “came to take away the sin of the world” was very good news. The system of atonement was never-ending with death and bloodshed – a graphic reminder of sin and the payment in blood and death. The message that Jesus’ sacrifice, as gruesome and horrible as it was made, was the total payment was very good news. Sheep and goats applauded along with their human owners! His death was their life – and that was good news.
As long as people believe they can earn God’s forgiveness through religious or philanthropic deeds, they will maintain their own control over their spiritual destiny, and therein is the lie. God has a plan, and God provided the Lamb when it suited Him to do so. The message came with the King – the Kingdom was coming next.
Power: Healing long distance (John 4:46-54).
During the early days of His preaching, Jesus returned to Cana (sometime after He had turned water into wine at a wedding). People were excited to have Him back, and I am sure He had plenty of invitations for upcoming parties! John’s Gospel recorded:
John 4:46 Therefore He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine. And there was a royal official whose son was sick at Capernaum. 47 When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and was imploring Him to come down and heal his son; for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” 49 The royal official said to Him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son lives.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off. 51 As he was now going down, his slaves met him, saying that his son was living. 52 So he inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. Then they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives “; and he himself believed and his whole household. 54 This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.
By including this short episode, John offered us the opportunity to observe the happenings in Cana, and recorded a story that can easily be broken into three simple parts:
• The Encounter with Jesus (4:46-50a): the official left Capernaum and traveled up the steep climbing road to Cana. He met Jesus and explained his need, and Jesus obliged and told him the child was healed.
• The Trust in Jesus (4:50b-52): the second half of verse fifty began with the simple statement that “the man believed”. The truth of that belief was illustrated in his journey home.
• The Full Grasp of Belief (4:53-54): as the healing of his son was made plain, the man knew how to connect his son’s change to Jesus’ words.
Let’s move into the verses and examine the “encounter with Jesus” (4:46-50a). Though the man was a “royal official”, he was also a father. This desperate dad heard of the reputation of Jesus and sought out a rescuer for his child. We know three things about the man. First, the man knew of Jesus and what others claimed He could do (4:46a). Second, the man was faced with a heart rending problem he could not care for (4:46b). Third, the man reached out for Jesus and begged Him to have mercy and deliver him from the clutches of the terrible need (4:47).
The troubles of his son led the man to abandon any sense his self-sufficiency and seek Jesus. He was an official, but he was unwilling to mask his vulnerability. In a way, his son’s plight became the source of a great blessing from God, but it was found only when desperation opened his heart and made him willing to take his need to Jesus, abandoning self-reliance. The man had to traverse both the steep upward path from Capernaum to Cana and the humility of the social difference in status between Jesus and himself. Under normal circumstances this reach “downward” would have been unthinkable. This nobleman had to “lower himself” to seek help from a humble Jewish villager and now roaming preacher.
It is worth remembering that when we speak to people who are “at the top of their game” that there is no home into which pain, sickness and sorrow cannot enter. The most accomplished athlete, the most popular celebrity – every person lives within fragile bodies and in a fallen world. Our power, glory and strength can be reduced in the turn of a single news cycle of events. With the wrong word, we can watch our popularity recede faster than our hairline. When a person speaks in arrogance, it is often because they are not yet far enough along the journey – but their day will come. Troubles and pains, sickness and death – these realities humble every man or woman who isn’t senseless. It is for that reason we should look beyond arrogance and anger, and see a person within.
Jesus met the official, and listened to his need (4:47) but His initial response did not seem helpful. Jesus said that Galileans only seemed to believe what they could SEE. (4:48). Is that strange? Jesus’ reaction did not sound loving at all – is seemed cold. He said (apparently to the crowd around Him): “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe.” Why take a seemingly desperate man and hold out on him like that? The answer is not as complicated as it may appear. Remember, this is another story in the string of John’s narrative, like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman – and each illustrate an earlier statement of that Gospel: “Jesus knew the heart of man” (John 2:24-25). Jesus knew how manipulative people can be – especially those who have been in positions of power. Most of us can readily admit that we will move heaven and earth to achieve what we want. When the miracle is something as pure as healing for a child or when the miracle or God intervention is something else. The sad truth is, though, when it’s done we will show no commitment to Him or His message – but will move through life in our own plan and strength. Many of us need to admit we use God to get what we want rather than allow the struggle to lead us to full submission to God.
God has an objective in the troubles of our lives – but it may surprise us. His objective is our trust in Him in all times and circumstances. People say: “If God is a healer, then why are there sick children in the world? If God is peaceful, then why do wars happen? If God loves, then why do bad things happen to good people?” Behind these questions there is the desire to see God prove himself by taking these evil things away so that we will all believe in Him and live ‘happily ever after.’ The problem is reframed and God’s goodness is questioned – not our submission to Him based on what He has already done. In this scenario, God left Himself cloaked and refused to do what was necessary to make us believe. Our disbelief then, is HIS FAULT… but the problem is framed over false logic. Think about it: There are plenty who have enough to eat, aren’t struggling with the effects of war, a roof over their heads. Yet many of those people have no relationship with God. There have been many good times in our lives that did not yield surrendered lives. Our relationship with God cannot be simply based on his ability to heal us or perform other miracles for us. Our faith must leave this world’s way of thinking and take on a Biblical world view, solely based on surrender to the Word of Jesus.
Why didn’t Jesus make it easy for the man? In our modern American lifestyle, we often act as though life should be easy. Ease, in fact is not always what is best for us. A faith that requires no effort is a faith that is not worth having. Faith takes effort because it requires a change on our part. It comes from God, Ephesians tells us – and not from within us. A new king sits upon the throne only after a pitted struggle removed the former king!
Jesus told the man that he could trust the Word alone – “Your son is made well.” (4:50a). What is clear on close inspection is that the man changed when he encountered Jesus. Panic fled away. The ‘need to trust only what he could see’ left him… as he exchanged panic for trust (4:50b). How do I know? Let’s take a closer look…Jesus spoke to the man at one o’clock (the seventh hour of the daylight – 4:52b) and yet did not return the same day. The text is clear the man encountered his slaves “the next day”. How could this be? He came with panic in his heart and yet stayed from one o’clock in the afternoon until the next day to journey down the five and one half hour path to his home? The key to the change is the word “BELIEVED” in verse 50.
The man believed. The man trusted the word of Jesus. He rested in the promise of Jesus overnight. He “ceased striving” to find a way to care for the need because he believed the need was already met.
Sometimes, it even takes time to find out if the surrender is real: A young woman had become critically ill and her prognosis was grim; she would likely die within the year. Her family had a nominal “Easter and Christmas” commitment to the church, so the discussions in the hospital between this young pastor and the family always ploughed new ground. The woman challenged him – if Jesus healed in the Bible, He should be able to heal me today. If not, what use was He? So she begged and bargained. “If only” God would show mercy, the family urged, they would completely recommit themselves… This earnest young pastor prayed with all his heart. He refused to join the ranks of those who said, “If it is thy will.” It was God’s will that she be healed, he concluded. Then to his amazement, God healed her—completely. And with the physicians shaking their heads, she was sent home from the hospital. Next Sunday, the entire family was there in the front pew, dressed and sparkling. The young woman gave her testimony, praising God for his goodness. The following Sunday, the family was there again. In four weeks, it was only the woman and her husband. And after that, attendance was sporadic until they dropped into their previous pattern. Before long, the woman rationalized the entire incident. She had experienced the most dramatic sign God could give her: healing, bathed in prayer and surrounded by the church. But after only two months, its power dimmed to nothing. (Adapted from Source: sermon central illustrations).
Her surrender was not real, though her amazement was. She was amazed at first that God could and would act on her behalf. If our encounter is with amazement alone, it will fade. If our encounter led us to true surrender – we will ever be changed and marked by our walk with Jesus. Jesus is looking for surrender to Him, not an applause line from an amazed admirer. In the royal official, He got a surrendered heart.
Problems: Facing hometown rejection (Luke 4:16-31a).
Luke 4:16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’ ” 24 And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25 “But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, He went His way. 31 And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and He was teaching them on the Sabbath;
Four observations struck me in this story:
First, it is interesting that the Holy Spirit led Jesus to conflict (Matthew 4:1-13) and ONLY THEN to fame, when the temptation to fulfill a mission for self-motivation had been clearly defeated. (Matthew 4:14). Jesus was not taken off His mission or message by the affirmation of the crowds, but He understood the need to remain on message regardless of the response (4:22-24).
Second, Jesus established a reputation of teaching that caused others to take him seriously (4:15), but only after they had observed His life (cp. 2:52). His life was marked by the commitment to worship and the Word (4:16).
Third, Jesus’ understanding of both His mission and of the crowds was bathed in His knowledge of the Word, and the examples of Elijah (cp. 1 Kings 17:9ff) and Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-14; 4:25-28). He framed the situation and the response to it from Biblical examples – because that was the source of truth.
Fourth, Jesus responded to opposition with strength and surety (4:29-30) neither harming the opposition, nor acquiescing to them. It is not necessary to “win” a discussion that uncovers people in conflict with God (or even the notion that He exists). You must strive only to be clear and not be derailed. We should concentrate on speaking Biblical truth with grace and show patient love toward the dissenting voice. It isn’t our job to make people believe in God or the goodness of His plan, but to show how belief works out in the practice of our life. Their heart is ultimately their responsibility.
Prophecy: Settling down by the Kinnereth (Mt. 4:13-17).
There is yet one more short passage that captured the landscape of the start of Jesus’ preaching, and it is found in Matthew 4:
Matthew 4:12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: 15 “THE LAND OF ZEBULUN AND THE LAND OF NAPHTALI, BY THE WAY OF THE SEA, BEYOND THE JORDAN, GALILEE OF THE GENTILES – 16 “THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SITTING IN DARKNESS SAW A GREAT LIGHT, AND THOSE WHO WERE SITTING IN THE LAND AND SHADOW OF DEATH, UPON THEM A LIGHT DAWNED.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The summary statement in verse seventeen was at the heart of the first part of this lesson – that Jesus came “out of the gate” with a message of repentance. Our second story reminded us that submission was a non-negotiable point in Jesus’ work. His time in Nazareth illustrated that Jesus was undeterred in His presentation – He would not be led by family or follower – but by His Father and the mission given to Him from above. This last portion reminds us that the mission was not a new innovation, but a long expressed prophecy. Jesus was following a path that was revealed to prophets long before His birth in Bethlehem.
What appeared to be a REJECTION in Nazareth was a signal to move to Capernaum near the Kinnereth (Sea of Galilee). Matthew 4:14 made clear this was NOT a simple choice – but the fulfillment of a designed work that was already stated. Think about that for a moment. God made a plan, and even the choice to move “home base” was a part of that plan.
Was not the arrest of Jesus part of that plan? How about the striking of the face of the Savior by wicked men? Was the Cross itself part of that plan? Listen to words about the Savior written seven hundred years before His birth:
Isaiah 53:3 “He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.”
Here is the point: What looked like a spontaneous rejection of his neighbors was part of a bigger plan. What appeared to be a failure to reach people with a message of love was also part of that plan. Jesus’ life was pre-scripted and pre-revealed in prophetic narratives. His earth ministry wasn’t about self-choice, but about following His Father’s plan… and so is yours. You have few plans to make… you have paths to follow. You do not know what they are – so you must trust the One who does.
There is an old story about a potato farmer who had a son. The farmer was old, but the son young and strong. The son was accused of theft and thrown in jail – and the old farmer was heartbroken. It was time to break up the hard ground to plant the potatoes – if he didn’t do it soon the year would be lost to the crop. He wrote a letter to his son and expressed anguish that hard times were at hand. His son wrote back: “Dad, don’t dig up the potato field…that is the place where we stashed the loot!” Within hours, a team of policemen were digging the entire field searching for the proceeds of the theft. Finding nothing, they went home. The next day, the young man wrote from his cell: “Dad, that was the best I could provide to get the ground broke up, and as I have said all along, I didn’t steal anything. I hope they got the place ready for you.”
The young man cared for his father’s need in a way that no one expected – but he was working a plan. That was the same story we read in the Gospels. There was a man accused as a criminal, beaten and executed…but that wasn’t the story. The truth was that God provided something they didn’t understand in a way that they didn’t expect. That is the kind of God we serve.
Though some ignore the Savior’s true message in favor of a self-directed life, those who trust Jesus find Him to be the answer God promised long before His coming.
• Jesus is the answer. He created me, and He insists that I yield to Him – and He is right.
• Jesus is the answer when those closest to me are hurting, and I take their need to Him.
• Jesus is the answer when people want to use Him to fix their problems, but want to deny His right to choose when, where and how He works.
He was the answer when His coming was announced three thousand years ago, and He was the answer when He came two thousand years ago. He is still the answer today.
Jesus will be the answer when believers are assaulted by academics, scoffed at by cynics and beheaded by evil men. He will be the answer when the church is hated, and when it is removed. He will be the answer when Israel is brought under the full weight of human hatred. He will be the answer when He comes in the clouds and they “look on Him Whom they have pierced”. He will be the answer when His mouth opens and destroys the best weaponry of the world’s military machines. Jesus WAS, IS and IS To COME – as the answer to the human need.