The narrative continues with Jesus learning that John as been imprisoned. Wow! Realize that because we’re so familiar with the story, Herod, the dancing girl, beheading, we don’t go “Wow!” when we most certainly should. As we read through the gospels there are apologetic points aplenty to be made. If you were making up a story of the founding of a new religion, and the coming of a predicted great Messiah, why would one of the key characters even before the story really gets started be hauled off to prison? We know this often happens to prophets in Israel, but wasn’t this supposed to be different? Apparently not. To me, John going to prison reads real; it wouldn’t have been made up if it hadn’t actually happened.
Jesus now leaves the town he grew up in, Nazareth, to his new home on the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum. Matthew says almost in passing, “he went and lived” there. It’s strange for me to imagine Jesus living in a town like every other resident, having a little house with a yard where he eats and sleeps and just lives. He greets his neighbors, helps the little old lady cross the street. Just a normal, sort of, guy. But he doesn’t stay home much. Matthew says this move is a fulfillment of Scripture. He does this throughout his gospel because he’s writing to Jews, and nothing says genuine like fulfilling what the sacred writings said centuries before. Some of these fulfillments Jesus could have arranged knowing what he was supposed to do, but others were out of his hands as we’ll see.
Now Jesus starts carrying on the message John no longer can: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And he starts building his team. He starts with with two pairs of brothers who will prove to be instrumental in his ministry, and the Church he intends to build after he’s accomplished his mission. The first are fishermen Peter and Andrew. He tells them what their new occupation is going to be:
19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Human beings are the ones they will now “catch.” And their response on the face of it is strange: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” He does the same with James and John, sons of Zebedee. They too were fishermen, and they were in a boat with their father. When Jesus calls them, their response is even a bit more strange: “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” That’s it? See ya pops! It’s been nice. This is a good point to explain the purpose of the gospels, why they were written, and the nature of ancient biography and history.
C.S. Lewis made the phrase, “chronological snobbery” famous. Since the Enlightenment, scholars and intellectuals began to see anything in the past, especially the distant past, as outmoded, inferior, regressive, etc., and the people who inhabited that world benighted. These people lived in a world of superstition without the light of science and reason. The attitude over the years that eventually trickled down to the culture was, “We know better,” wink, wink. So, for example, since we “know” that miracles can’t happen, this whole Jesus story is made up superstition. Another example having to do with our text is the belief that ancient authors, especially those of the gospels, didn’t care about accuracy and true history. They were creating a narrative to make a point, and accuracy wasn’t important. In fact, that is a perfect example of chronological snobbery, judging something as inferior simply because it’s old.
But as knowledge of the ancient world has grown, our understanding of ancient biography and history has grown as well. An author, like Matthew, had a limited space in which to convey his message. If he didn’t think a specific detail was important to that message, he wouldn’t have included it. So it appears that the brothers took up and followed Jesus out of blue, but this was not the first encounter these men had with Jesus as we know from the other gospels (John 1:35-42 and Luke 5:3). In our day with endless distractions, it’s hard to imagine the kind of ruckus Jesus would have made where he lived, and in the cities and towns he visited. Plus after 400 years of silence, the people’s hope that this was in fact the Messiah must have been off the charts. So these first disciples of Jesus knew full well who he was.
We learn at the end of this chapter that Jesus was becoming hugely popular and why:
23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria . . . 25 And great crowds followed him . . .
Nothing in Israel had ever been seen like this before. He was healing every disease and affliction. Imagine a day before medicine and doctors and hospitals what this might have been like. And we know from this passage that “the gospel of the kingdom” has something to do with pushing back against the affects of the fall. This healing, then, is a sort of type and shadow of what’s to come ultimately from Jesus ministry.