Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 4.12-23
3rd Sunday after the Epiphany - Year A

Other texts:

I wonder why the committee left off vv. 24-25. The word akoloutheo -- "follow" (the origin of our word "acolyte") is used of Peter and Andrew (v. 20), James and John (v. 22), and then of the "great crowds" (v. 25). Could there be a difference in following Jesus before any healings and miracles, like the fishermen; in contrast the great crowds who follow after verses indicating that Jesus healed all the sick? The contrast could raise the question if we follow because we have been grasped by Jesus call, or because we are going along with the crowd, or because of what we personally get out of it.

THE TIME (v. 12a)

Our text begins with the "arrest" of John. The word used (paradidomi) almost becomes the technical term for Jesus' "betrayal". There are parallels between the fates of John and Jesus. We will not be told why John was arrested or by whom until 14:1-12. However, his arrest strongly suggests that the elite -- the powers that be -- reacted negatively to his baptism, his call for repentance in the face of heaven's coming kingdom. They must have viewed the coming kingdom as a threat, rather than a word of hope. We will hear shortly (v. 17) that Jesus' proclamation is exactly the same as John's (3:2). If the elite had John arrested for this proclamation, it is likely that they will not react positively to Jesus.

THE PLACE (vv. 12b-16)

The move of Jesus from Nazareth to Capernaum is explained as a fulfillment of Isaiah (9:1-2). Nazareth was in the ancient land of Zebulun and Capernaum in Naphtali -- both are part of Galilee.

Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) raises this interesting question about Jesus starting his ministry in Capernaum: "This is all rather astonishing. Shouldn't the Messiah begin and end his work in Jerusalem? Why Capernaum? Why the land of the Gentiles?" [p. 68] Note that "Gentiles" in v. 15 is a translation of the Greek ethnos, which is also part of the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations (ethnos)! Ethnos basically means the largest grouping of people = "nations." It also takes on a meaning of "those who not 'us'". When "us" are Jews, ethnos refers to "Gentiles". When "us" are believers, ethnos refers to pagans or non-believers (see 1 Cor 5:1; 10:20; 12:2). We, like him, are to be light to the Gentiles = nations = pagans = those who are not us.

We are told that Jesus "made his home" (katoikeo) in Capernaum. In the same way that Joseph and his family had "made their home" (katoikeo) in Nazareth earlier (2:23). It would seem that Jesus' trip to Capernaum was not just a missionary trip, but to establish Capernaum as his home base. In 9:1, we have the phrase: "his own town," which would seem to refer to Capernaum, which is on the sea of Galilee, whereas Nazareth is not by any sea.

William Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes about this move:

Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, a small agricultural and fishing village (population around one thousand) on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He does not move to the larger cities, Tiberias (built to honor and named after the emperor Tiberias) or Sepphoris, the centers of imperial political, economic, social, and cultural power in Galilee, which maintain the elite's interests and control over the surrounding villages through taxation. As a Jew in Roman-controlled territory, Jesus locates himself among the marginal, with the poor not the wealthy, with the rural peasants not the urban elite, with the ruled not the rulers, with the powerless and exploited not the powerful, with those who resist imperial demands not enforce them. He continues the gospel's preference for the apparently small and insignificant places and people who, nevertheless, are central for God's purposes (2:5-6, 22-23; 3:1). [pp. 113-114]

As I write this, I am thinking of the many "marginal" church members I've met over the years. Often the "elite" in the congregation weren't even aware that they were members. They were on the sidelines. They were often the ones who were most in need of ministering. They were the ones who usually taught me about being a minister.

A few ago I attended workshop by Bill Easum. "Stuck" congregations -- congregations that are stagnate or declining -- congregations where the dominant passion is "Who's in control" -- have three (four) groups of people. There are Deciders who make all the decisions. Then they find Doers to do what they want done. The third group is the Ignored. They may not be asked by the Deciders to do anything, because the Deciders may not even know they exist. They may have told the Deciders, "No," and so they are not asked again. Easum also referred to this third group as "Pew Potatoes." In time, the Deciders will have troubles finding enough Doers to maintain the institution.

The movement to being "unstuck," begins with Doers becoming Dreamers. They know that something isn't right. They know that there must be more to church than institutional survival. They begin to question and refuse to serve on committees that only serve the institution -- and thus, become part of those Ignored by the Deciders. The more the Dreamers dream and do, the more confusion is experienced. Deciders become Controllers. They don't want chaos and confusion. They want control. Most Dreamers will not take on the Controllers. The Dreamers move on.

I present this little scenario of congregational life and ask, "With whom would Jesus be most comfortable?" I would expect to find him with the ignored -- the marginal people -- and with the dreamers as he proclaimed something entirely new that would upset the status quo. I suggested above that the Greek word ethnos essentially refers to people who are "not us". It was used by Jews of Gentiles. It was used by Christian believers of non-believers. Often the people who are "not us" are the ones church members don't want to reach. They want people "like us". Is that obeying the Great Commission -- making disciples of all ethnoi (the plural of ethnos)?

What is the "darkness" that the people are sitting in? The poetic parallelism makes it synonymous with "region and shadow of death". In Isaiah, it probably referred to living in oppression, perhaps under an oppressive government. In our context could it be the oppression of daily work, family obligations, or sicknesses?

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins) defines it: "... to live in the midst of actions and structures contrary to God's will." However, he goes on to state:

Yet darkness is not the final word, even though it seems to be. Light, an image of God's life and saving power (Ps 27:1), dawns and rescues people from darkness, whether political oppression (Exod 10:21, 22; 14:20; Isa 9:2; 42:7; 45:7; 47:5; 49:9; 1 En 1:8-9) or personal misery (Ps 90:6; 106:10-16 LXX) such as hunger or affliction (Isa 58:10). Jesus manifests God's salvation by transforming personal misery, by announcing God's empire, by forming an alternative community, and by anticipating the future establishment of God's empire in full (chs. 24-25). [p. 115]

Certainly Jesus is the "light" that shines -- and we are to be lights shining in the world (5:14, 16 -- note that it doesn't say "lights of/in the church"!), but what does that mean? First of all it means that the "mission field" for Jesus and us, is the world -- and especially those who "aren't us." The Hebrew from Isaiah for "Gentiles, goyim, basically means, non-Jews or heathens, similar to the Greek, ethnos.

Secondly, the activities of Jesus are summarized in the last verse of our text: "teaching, preaching, and healing" -- perhaps in simpler terms: "words and deeds." Our words and deeds need to be addressed to more than just church people. Even though Jesus had a "home base," he left that and went out among the people. What implications might this have concerning our congregations and their buildings and their ministries?


Like John the Baptist, the essence of Jesus' preaching is repentance. I will repeat some comments I've made about repentance before.

Repentance properly understood is an "I can't" experience rather than an "I can" experience. If repentance is promising God, "I can do better," then we are trying to keep ourselves in control of our lives. If we can do better, we don't need a gracious God, only a patient One who will wait long enough for us to do better. When we come before God confessing, "I can't do better," then we are dying to self. We are giving up control of our lives. We are throwing our sinful lives on the mercy of God. We are inviting God to do what we can't do ourselves -- namely to raise the dead -- to change and recreate us.

Note that the command, "Repent" is in the present tense -- "Keep on repenting!" "Continually be repentant!" It isn't like a door we pass through once that gets us into the kingdom. Repentance is the ongoing lifestyle of the people in the kingdom -- more like walking in a really long tunnel.

However, Matthew doesn't seem to hold out much hope for repenting. The verb is used in the preaching of John and Jesus (3:2, 4:17). It is used of the people of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah (12:41); but the indications are that the people in Jesus' day will probably not repent (11:20, 21; also 12:41). The noun is only used twice: 3:8, 11. So if our preaching seems to fall on deaf ears, perhaps we can be consoled knowing that John's and Jesus' call to repent often went unheard -- and eventually led to their arrests and executions!

"The kingdom of heaven" is uniquely Matthew's phrase. He often uses it in place of Mark's "kingdom of God." Perhaps, if we assume a Jewish background for Matthew, it is a way of avoiding saying and thus possibly misusing the name of God.

Basileia can refer to the area ruled by a king; or it can refer to the power or authority to rule as king. We probably shouldn't interpret the "kingdom of heaven" as a place -- such as the place we go when we die; but as the ruling power that emanates from heaven. One commentator translates the phrase: "heaven rules".

The verb eggizo is difficult to translate in this passage. It means "to come near". It can refer to space, as one person coming close to another person; or to time, as "it's almost time". The difficulty is with the perfect tense of the verb, which usually indicates a past action with continuing effects in the present. For instance, the perfect: "He has died" or "He has been raised" or "I have believed" can also be expressed with the present: "He is dead" or "He is raised" or "I am believing". When we say with the perfect tense that "The kingdom of heaven has come near." That implies that the kingdom is near or even that it arrived. Its "time has come" or "is now". Given the ambiguity of the perfect tense and the translation in the preceding paragraph, we might say: "Heaven's rule has arrived and is arriving."

Ironically, in a chapter called "Worship," Mark Allan Powell in God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel, states:

Still if worship is an appropriate response, it is not the ideal one. For Matthew, the ideal response to divine activity is repentance. . . . Indeed, Jesus never upbraids people for failing to worship or give thanks in this gospel (compare Luke 17:17-18), but he does upbraid those who have witnessed his mighty works and not repented (11:20-24). We know from Jesus' teaching in Matthew that people can worship God with their lips even when their deeds demonstrate that their hearts are far from God (15:3-9). Thus, the responsive worship of the crowds in 9:8 and 15:31 is commendable but will be in vain if performed with unrepentant hearts. [pp. 41-42]

What should be our response to the coming of heaven's rule? Surprisingly, it is not worship or praise, but repentance. Perhaps this is the big problem with the coming of the Kingdom or the coming of Jesus at Christmas or Palm Sunday (or even "praise services"?) -- we want to celebrate and praise, rather than repent -- let the coming one change our thinking and our living.

THE DISCIPLES (vv. 18-22)

Usually rabbinical students sought out their teachers and attached themselves to them. However, Jesus (a rabbi?) takes the initiative and calls -- probably less than ideal candidates -- to be his students. What Jesus teaches them is not a course of study, but a way of life to follow.

They leave everything to follow Jesus not because Jesus has promised to give them something, like going to heaven when they die or an abundant life on earth or even the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus calls them to a job -- to fish for people. I think that many of our people in the pews have a misinformed picture of following Jesus. They follow for what they might get from Jesus, rather than being called to an evangelical task.

Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentary) suggestions that the fishermen "represent all future believers whom Jesus irresistibly summons to follow him. It may not be necessary for all to leave professions and possessions behind, but all must leave their world behind and enter the new world into which Jesus invites them." [p. 30]

He goes on to write: "At a certain level of reality it is undoubtedly true that we choose Jesus as our master. We choose to be present where he is proclaimed and his words studied. We choose to read the Gospels and ponder their significance. At a deeper level of our being, however, we acknowledge, if only in retrospect, that the reverse has been true. In all our searching we were being sought. The one whom we choose is the one who first chose us." [pp. 30-31]

J. Andrew Overman (Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew) makes this comment:

Given the relatively small size of Lower Galilee and close proximity of the Galilean places named in the Gospel, there is no need to assume that those who supposedly followed Jesus never returned home again. In fact, that is quite implausible. A far more likely scenario is the group gathered around Jesus, being out on the road for a day or two, and then returning back to their homes and town. This is exactly the scene in chapter 8 when Jesus and his followers come to Capernaum. They reside in Peter's house (8:14).... I doubt the extent to which traditional, familial, and village ties were utterly severed within the Jesus movement. Those ties may have been strained, but this would have been much more a result of one's allegiance to the Jesus movement and not that these followers had forever left home. According to the narrative, Jesus retained ties with his mother and his village, Peter did the same with his home and village, and the group was never more than a half-day to a day's walk from their traditional homes. This, I think, provides a different picture of the relationship between the Jesus movement -- especially as depicted by Matthew -- and their patria, or native region, Lower Galilee. [p. 67]

In a sense, it might be easier to physically leave all the old behind and live our new, Christian lives somewhere else, but that doesn't happen to most of us. We remain living in our towns, with our families and friends. Thomas G. Long (Matthew) comments on this:

Taken as a whole, then, these twin stories of the calling of four disciples make it clear that Jesus summons people from the fabric of family relationships -- brother, sister, daughter, son, father, mother -- and from the midst of the workaday world -- fishing, teaching, clerking, cooking, building -- into a new set of relationships and to a new vocation.

Does this mean that Jesus calls into question our family ties and creates conflict with our occupations? In a sense, yes. The kingdom of heaven doesn't exist to serve the family; the family exists to serve the kingdom of heaven (see Matt. 10:34-39 and 12:46-50). The goal of the kingdom is not to serve us in being more effective and productive in our jobs. Our work is truly effective when it serves to express the will of God. The patterns of our lives are not made secure by the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven rearranges them into the new design of God's own making.

In these stories of the calling of the disciples, then, Jesus disrupts family structures and disturbs patterns of working and living. He does so, however, not to destroy but to renew. Peter and Andrew do not cease being brothers; they are now brothers who do the will of God (Matt. 12:50). James and John do not cease being sons; they are now not only the children of Zebedee but also the children of God. All four of these disciples leave their fishing nets, but they do not stop fishing. They are now, in the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, fishers for people. Their past has not been obliterated; it has been transformed by Jesus' call to follow. [p. 43]

Fishing was controlled by the "powers that be" in two ways. (1) Commercial fishermen worked for the royal family or wealthy landlords who contracted with them to provide a specific amount of fish at a certain time. They were paid either with cash or with fish. (2) Fishermen leased their fishing rights from persons called "toll collectors" in the NT for a percentage of the catch. The "tax" could be as much as 40% (see Malina & Rohrbach, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 44).

Thus, Jesus calling fishermen is more than just calling them away from their families. It also involves a break from the "powers that be" -- the wealthy and or the government -- and into a new power: the reign of heaven. Carter (Matthew and the Margins) comments about significance of Jesus calling fishermen:

The double call narrative in 4:18-22, then, utilizes a common form to present Jesus as God's agent enacting his commission to manifest God's saving presence, the empire of the heavens, and to legitimate the beginning of an alternative community of disciples called to live on the basis of this reign. The calls occur in the midst of the empire's close control of fishing whereby licensing, quotas, and taxation secure Rome's sovereignty over the water and its contents. Jesus' call contests this dominant reality by asserting God's sovereignty and offering an alternative way of life. [p. 120]

While the fishermen have some economic resources, their social ranking is very low. In Cicero's ranking of occupations (De Off 1.150-51), owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last. Athenaeus indicates that fishermen and fishmongers are on a par with money lenders and are socially despised as greedy thieves (Deipnosophistai, 6.224b-28c). The two characters have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control. It is among such vulnerable people that God's empire is first manifested. [p. 121]

An interesting approach to the "fish for people" image is to talk about what kind of bait would work to attract people. I titled a sermon once, "Worms Won't Work." However, that is not the way these fishermen fished. They used nets. They didn't use bait. The fish didn't have a choice of "to bite or not to bite" or "to eat or not to eat." They were dragged ashore or into a boat, they were dragged from life to their deaths!

Perhaps it isn't so bad for parents to "drag" their children to church. Maybe we should "drag" more people into church, whether or not they want to come. Put up roadblocks on the street and force the cars into our parking lots!

This may also indicate that the coming of the Kingdom is out of our control. We are going to be "caught" in its coming whether we like it or not.

Smith (Matthew, Augsburg Commentary) says:

In the ancient world fishing was a metaphor for two distinct activities: judgment and teaching. Fishing for people meant bringing them to justice by dragging them out of their hiding places and setting them before the judge at the end of the world. And fishing was also used of teaching people, of the process of leading them from ignorance to wisdom. Both cases involve a radical change of environment, a break with a former way of life and entrance upon a new. [p. 72]

Generally we view being captured, like in a net, or by the police, as a negative thing; but we also talk about being "captured by love". The relationship of love is often something out of our control. It happens to us. When its power runs its full effect, it means a change in life -- marriage is as much a dying to the old life as it is the beginning of a new life. That new life brings with it a bunch of new relatives, whether we want them or not. Being captured by Jesus' irresistible call meant an end to the old life and relations for the fishermen, so that they might start begin a new life together as followers of Jesus.

A wonderful comment by Hare in his commentary: "Our task is to share a faith that is exciting enough to be contagious" [p. 31]

In contrast, a short report from The Alban Institute called Why Some Churches Don't Grow: Factors That Might Motivate Those Not Interested in Growth states in the abstract:

The Lutheran Church, like most mainline denominations, works under a broad unwritten assumption that the conversion to personal faith in Jesus Christ has already occurred in people's lives elsewhere and that church growth merely involves assimilating these "already converted" into the ongoing life of the congregation.

Lutheran clergy are trained as nurturers of the faith, rather than as catalysts in any process of spiritual transformation in the lives of individuals.

As a denomination, the Lutheran Church is unprepared and ill-equipped to reach out to non-Christians and engage them in a transformational process that leads to an active faith in Jesus Christ.

The opening paragraphs of its summary state:

How easy it is for us to forget what draws people to congregations in the first place, namely their hunger for an authentic encounter with God, one which has a transformative effect on their lives.

The twelve congregations in our study were much more intent on maintaining their corporate life than they were on offering transformative experiences for either visitors or long-term members.

There were several individuals in our study who, having had to go outside the Lutheran Church to experience a conversion to Jesus Christ, later returned to their home congregation for on-going sustenance and fellowship. They were disappointed that their own congregation could not seem to provide that opportunity for them.

The final paragraph of the summary states:

A basic assumption on the part of the congregations in our study appeared to be, "If we serve our own people well, outsiders will see this and want to become insiders." Missing completely was any desire to find out about the spiritual needs of outsiders or to see if their congregation had resources to meet those needs. Also missing was any sort of strategy for reaching the unchurched of their area.

Perhaps we need to deal more seriously with the question Boring (Matthew, New Interpreter's Bible) raises about our text:

How do people become disciples of Jesus Christ? As this story is retold in the Matthean community, this is the question Matthew is addressing, not the historical or biographical question of a past event. To be sure, the historical Jesus of Nazareth called actual people to be his disciples, but this story is focused to interpret the meaning of this fact to the readers' present. Thus interpretation must concentrate on interpreting the Matthean text, refusing to combine it with the other Gospels and with modern conceptions of either fishing or discipleship. [p. 170]

A little later he gives what he and I think is Matthew's answer to the question:

People become believers by the power of Jesus' word; they follow him because he has spoken to them, and his word generates faith. For Matthew, Jesus' call to discipleship was spoken not only to a few disciples in first-century Galilee but to the church throughout history (28:20). [p. 170]

Peter, Andrew, James, John, and each of us are disciples of Jesus Christ because of the power of the Word to call us out of our old lives and into the new -- a call we need to hear daily.


I don't know if Matthew (or the original author) intended it, but the word for "mending" the nets in 4:24 (katartizo) is used in a number of other contexts. Perhaps most significant for us is its use in 1 Cor 1:10, which is part of our Second Lesson. The word is translated "be united". It is the "mending" of the divisions or schisms within the church. Such unifying is necessary for the church to effectively carry out its purpose.

The noun form (katartismos) is used in Ep 4:12 concerning "equipping" the saints. It is doing what is necessary to make them useful. That is why God has given them different gifts.

Sometimes fishermen (and congregations) have to be actively fishing with their nets, but sometimes they need to take time to restore what is broken, what is hindering their primary task of bringing in fish.

To conclude with some comments from a sermon on this text:

We are the fish and what God promises us, who are dragged out of the water in the nets to die, is a resurrection, a new life, a new family, a new future, all under God's control, all within the Kingdom of Heaven, which has come near in Jesus.

We have very little control over our own lives, but as fish caught in the net of God's love, we can trust that we are under God's control. We have to believe that being captured by God's love, that responding to the command to repent and die to self, that being raised to a new life by God, is not only right for us, but a message we need to share with the entire world.

I'm afraid that if we did drag people into church or force their cars into our parking lot, they might miss the gospel message we are trying to share with them. I'm sure that we can come up with better ways of catching people with the nets of God's love.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364