Matthew 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Abandoning All for the Kingdom
Once God had commissioned Jesus (3:17), the devil had tested him (4:3-11), the forerunner had completed his mission (4:12) and Jesus had settled in Capernaum (4:12-16), he was ready to begin his public ministry (from that time on, 4:17). Matthew opens this section with a summary of Jesus' message (v. 17). As this message summarizes Jesus' proclamation of God's authority, so verses 18-22 demonstrate people's proper response to God's rule; verses 23-25 demonstrate God's rule over sickness and demons; and chapters 5-7 flesh out the nature of the ethic of repentance one must live to be prepared in advance for the kingdom.
For Matthew, the message for both Galilean Jews (10:5-7) and eventually Gentiles (28:18-19) is the same as John the Baptist's (3:2) and that of Jesus: Get your lives in order, for God's kingdom is approaching (4:17). Only those who submit to God's reign in advance (as in 4:18-22) will be ready when he comes to rule the whole world. Just as Jesus' message concurred with that of John, so the message of Jesus' followers must accord with that of Jesus. We must proclaim the imminence of the kingdom (10:7; compare 28:18), demonstrate God's rule over sickness and demons (10:8), and pass on our Master's teachings (28:19).
In 4:18-22 the One whom the Father called now calls others who will advance his mission. Jesus' call to leave profession and family was radical, the sort of demand that only the most radical teacher would make. This text provides us several examples of servant-leadership and radical discipleship.
Jesus Calls a Nucleus of Disciples (4:18-19)
Early Jewish and Greek tradition normally assumes that disciples are responsible for acquiring their own teachers of the law (m. 'Abot 1:6, 16; ARN 3, 8A; Socrates Ep. 4). The more radical teachers who, like Jesus, sometimes even rejected prospective disciples (see commentary on Mt 19:21-22) probably considered the disciple's responsibility so weighty that it would be dishonorable for the teacher to seek out the disciple.
Jesus' seeking out disciples himself may thus represent a serious breach of custom (Malina 1981:78; though compare Jer 1:4-10), "coming down to their level" socially. This would be like itinerant preachers going out to the unchurched instead of expecting them to visit our churches and appreciate our well-prepared sermons. Probably Jesus is choosing as his model the prophetic way of choosing one's successor found in 1 Kings 19:19-21 (see also Lk 9:61-62).
Jesus Relates to His Hearers in Terms They Can Understand (4:19)
Although most scholars agree that Matthew's community included Christian scribes (Mt 13:52; 23:34), Jesus did not call professionally trained rabbis (who might have had a lot to unlearn first) to be his disciples. He called artisans and encouraged them that the skills they already had were serviceable in the kingdom. If God called shepherds like Moses and David to shepherd his people Israel, Jesus could call fishermen to be gatherers of people. Some great men and women of God in the Bible never even became public expositors of Scripture; aside from his prophetic gifts, Joseph's witness involved especially public administration, learned in Potiphar's house and a prison and then applied to all Egypt. Social workers, teachers and many others have skills and backgrounds on which we must draw to be an effective church today. It is to our loss that congregations disregard the insights of the various professions among us.
Jesus' Call Involves Downward Mobility (4:20)
Although artisans had far less income than the wealthy (who made up perhaps 1 percent of the ancient population), they were not among the roughly 90 percent of the ancient population we may call peasants either (popular jokes about low-class disciples "mending their nets" aside-the expression can mean preparing their nets-v. 21). Family businesses like these were especially profitable. Even if disciples followed Jesus only during certain seasons of the year, they could not easily return to abandoned businesses.
The disciples thus paid a price economically to follow Jesus. Jewish people told stories of pagans' relinquishing their wealth on converting to Judaism (Sipre Num. 115.5.7), and Greek philosophers told stories of converts to philosophy who abandoned wealth to become disciples (Diog. Laert. 6.5.87; Diogenes Ep. 38). These stories demonstrate not only the relative worthlessness of possessions but also the incomparable value of what the converts gained. The kingdom is like a precious treasure, worth the abandonment of all other treasures (Mt 13:44-46). Many of us today respond defensively, "I would abandon everything if Jesus asked me to, but he has not asked me to." Yet if we value the priorities of the kingdom-people and proclamation more than possessions-I wonder whether Jesus is not speaking to us through the world's need for the gospel and daily bread. Let the one who has ears to hear, hear.
Jesus' Scandalous Call Costs Comfort and Challenges the Priority of Family (4:21-22)
James and John abandoned not only the boat-representing their livelihood-but also their father and the family business (4:22). In a society where teachers normally stressed no higher responsibility than honor of parents (Jos. Apion 2.206; Keener 1991a:98, 197), including economic responsibility for them, some people would view such behavior as scandalous. Jesus elsewhere affirms the importance of marriage (19:9) and filial (15:4-6) relationships; the kingdom is never an excuse to downplay our crucial responsibilities to our families (see Keener 1991a:98-99, 102). They too warrant our attention and our ministry. At the same time God has called his servants, and that means we are not our own. Those of us who are single dare not choose marriage partners who cannot bear our calling, and we must recognize the demands of God's kingdom-announcing its good news-more highly than the shame it brings on our families or the way they feel about that shame (10:35-37; compare 1:24).