Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Theme Taken to Its Ultimate Expression (Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time, Part 6)

[I'm trying to read the Gospel's accounts of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection with fresh eyes to get to know Jesus better. The "fresh eyes" I'm using is The Message paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson. As you join me on this journey of getting acquainted with Jesus one chapter at a time, I invite you to use a translation of the Bible with which you're not so familiar. Doing so may help you to see and understand things you haven't before. Among my favorite translations are: The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), The New International Version (TNIV), and the Good News Bible (Today's English Version).]

Matthew 4:13-25

The writer of the first of the four gospels which open the New Testament is constantly demonstrating the many ways in which Jesus fulfilled God's work toward saving humanity from sin and death. Jesus, as Matthew tells it, doesn't bring any new teachings, He is simply the ultimate revelation of God's character, will, and work.

In this section of chapter 4, we see that Jesus extends and completes the work that His earthly cousin, John the Baptizer, has undertaken. John's mission was to prepare the world for the coming of the Savior-Messiah. (Matthew 3:3)

And what was John's message? This:
"Change your life. God's Kingdom is here."
Or, in the New Revised Standard Version's rendering:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
Interestingly, after John's arrest, Jesus withdraws from public view for a time and then re-emerges. And what is His central message?
"Change your life. God's kingdom is here."
Or, in the New Revised Standard Version's rendering:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
In other words, there is a complete consonance between the ministries and proclamations of John the Baptizer and Jesus. What makes Jesus unique isn't His teaching, much of which can be found in the teaching of other religious figures and philosophers. What makes Jesus unique is Who He is and the role He plays.

Matthew teaches that Jesus is not just a man, but God; that His death is rendered by Him voluntarily in acceptance of the punishment for sin you and I deserve; and that He rose from death to open eternal life to us all.

John the Baptizer, with His message pointing to Jesus and the need for repentance, was, in a sense, the first Christian.

To repent, as the Peterson paraphrase faithfully reflects, means to change directions. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as repent is metanoia.

That's a compound word, the first two syllables of which are familiar to us in the English language. Meta means change. (Metamorphosis, for example, means change of body.) Metanoia means that we change our minds.

When we repent, we ask God to help us think differently. We ask God to help us not to think selfishly, but with an attitude of love and humility toward God and others. This is what Paul is talking about when he quotes what's believed to be an ancient hymn of the Church in Philippians:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:4-11)
A lifestyle of repentance is one in which we continuously turn to God away from our sinful impulses. To make our turnings "stick," Jesus is more than a good example. The world is full of good examples. But those good examples can't change our impulses or our actions.

Jesus is also the risen and living Savior, Who gives the repentant the power to help us keep turning to Him. That's why Paul writes of the Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection for us--what we call the Gospel or God's good news:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith." (Romans 1:16-17)
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word for repent conveys the notion of a physical turning. To repent means then, to turn back from the course away from God and to turn toward God.

Jesus is the One Who makes it possible for us to find the welcoming arms of God when we do turn from sin, as experienced by the Prodigal Son in Jesus' wonderful story. That story goes on to show the grim future we choose when we refuse to turn toward God's welcome also.

Beginning at Matthew 4:18, we see Jesus gathering the group of His twelve closest disciples. Disciple translates the Greek New Testament word mathetes. This has the meaning of student or follower. Jesus was a peripatetic (a word transliterated from the Greek, by the way) rabbi or teacher, who took his students with Him so that they could learn how to carry on His ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.

The first four disciples Jesus calls are fishermen by profession. Fishermen were usually wealthy folks. (To underscore this, another of the Gospels tells us that Zebedee, the father of James and John, had servants.) Fishermen had to pay the Romans for rights to fish. They therefore had to start out with some capital and because they enjoyed fairly exclusive privileges for fishing rights in a society and culture that basically feared the water anyway, they usually reaped big profits for their troubles.

The fishermen had a special hatred for the extortionists who served as franchise-owning tax collectors for the Romans, making the gathering of representatives from both of these groups among Jesus' closest followers remarkable.

What's more remarkable is the ways in which these wealthy men, who in following Jesus, were leaving a lot behind, just did it, no questions asked.

Some scholars today believe that the fishermen didn't completely leave their trades behind, that they would return to their fishing boats from time to time after their mission forays with Jesus had run their courses. I'm inclined to agree with that picture of things. It doesn't make the following any less remarkable, though. These guys were wealthy folks with lots to lose from going off with this marginal, poor itinerant preacher. They followed anyway.

What was it that they saw in Jesus that pulled them to Him?

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