The Ministry of Jesus (Matthew 4:12-23)

Jesus Calls His Disciples by He Qi

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali—to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (New International Version)

What is “ministry”? 

For some, ministry is only about the souls of people; it is seeing as many people respond to the message of salvation in Christ as possible. 

For others, ministry is meeting the tangible needs of people because there is such a breadth and depth of human social and physical problems. 

And, for others, ministry is defined in terms of what takes place within the four walls of a church building, led by pastors and church leaders.

“Ministry takes place when divine resources meet human needs through loving channels to the glory of God.”

Warren Wiersbe

Problems, however, arise whenever we:

  • Focus on one dimension of ministry. Because, in reality, ministry is multidimensional.
  • Fulfill the outward, administrative demands of ministry – without going after the relational heart of what ministry entails. 
  • Forget about whole groups of people who are different than us. Ministry is for everyone, not some.

We need to look at the ministry of Jesus – what he did and why he did it. Christ’s purpose is to be our purpose: Minister to the total life of all people.

Jesus Preaching

Before there were newspapers, CNN, and 24 hour news cycles, ancient people heard what was happening from heralds or preachers who loudly announced in the streets the important news of the day.

Jesus had a ministry to both Jew and Gentile. Although his ministry was chiefly directed toward his fellow Jews, Christ went out of his way to engage Gentiles, as well, with a message of repentance.

Repentance is turning the whole person – body, soul, mind, will, and emotions – from sin and disobedience to God in obedience to the message of Christ. It involves humility, sorrow for sin, and a commitment to following Jesus.

To repent doesn’t mean to manage sin or clean up parts of my life; it’s a radical conversion from an old way of life to a new way of life. Repentance is not simply adding Jesus to our schedule but is a complete change of how we live.

Christianity is a life, not just an event. Following Jesus is a journey, a life-long process of inner transformation; a complete forsaking of anything that does not please God; and a desire to reorient my life around what’s important to God. 

To illustrate this in a contemporary context, I ask, “What does it mean to follow the Green Bay Packers football team?” A fan not only watches all the games from start to finish, but cheers loudly for the Packers; talks about the Packers with everyone, even strangers; and doesn’t cheer for the Chicago Bears! Fans are committed to their team.

The difference, however, between football and Christianity, is that followers of a team are fans, whereas followers of Jesus are not fans in the stands or watching the television. Instead, Christ followers are on the field of play as teammates with Jesus.

So, when it comes to repentance, we turn from being fans of Jesus to followers of Jesus, doing what he did and saying what he said. We are active participants in the kingdom of God – embracing and embodying a message of repentance to new life in Christ.

Jesus Calling

Jesus calling the first disciples illustrates the kingdom message: a radical break with the old life. Each disciple walked away from a good life and embraced of a new life following Jesus.

Some understanding of Jewish culture in the time of Jesus is helpful here. Central to the life of any Jew was the Torah, the Law. Around age 6, Jewish boys would begin to go to the synagogue for schooling in the Torah by the local rabbi. 

This first level of education was called Beth Sefer (“House of the Book”) and would last until about age 10. In those four years, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, were thoroughly memorized.

By age 10, some of the boys would distinguish themselves as good students and able to handle Torah. So, they would continue on in the second level of schooling called Beth Talmud (“House of Learning”). Those that did not continue with school would then learn the family trade and become an apprentice. Those that went on with school would then memorize the rest of the Old Testament.

At about age 14, only the best of the best were studying Torah. At the completion of their studies, they would apply to a well-known rabbi in order to become his disciple. The goal of this third level was to become just like the rabbi. This was called Beth Midrash (“House of Study”). The rabbi essentially interviews the teenager to find out if he has the stuff to become like the rabbi. 

If the rabbi believes the kid doesn’t have it in him, he tells him to go back to the family business. If, however, the rabbi grills the kid and finds he has what it takes, then he will say to him, “Come, follow me.” It was considered a great privilege and opportunity, and the teenager would leave everything to literally follow the rabbi everywhere he went.

Now, let’s return to Christ’s disciples. Jesus calls Andrew, Peter, James, and John. At the time, they were fishing because they were fishermen. That meant somewhere along the line they didn’t have what it took to further their education, or to follow a rabbi. 

Let’s, then, not miss the import and impact of Jesus saying to them, “Come, follow me!”  Jesus is expressing a belief that these men can become just like him. Well, of course you drop your nets and follow him! Jesus believes I can be like him! Jesus took a group of young men who couldn’t make the grade and used them to change human history. 

Jesus also says the same thing to you and me: I choose you. Come, follow me. 

Christ believed in us before we believed in him. Yes, Jesus believes you can do all the work of embodying the very words of God and becoming like him.

The attitude here is not, “Oh, geez, I have to go do ministry,” as if I were a teenager who was just asked to do the dishes. Rather, the attitude is of privilege and opportunity. If we fail to view ministry in this way, then we must come back to the message of repentance and have an attitude adjustment. People who follow Jesus do so because they get to, not because they have to.

Jesus Healing

            Envision yourself walking with Jesus and following him. You observe several things about his ministry of healing:

  • Jesus heals every problem. Christ has the power and authority to do so.
  • Jesus heals the whole person – not just the physical, or just the spiritual.
  • Jesus heals people whether they repent or not. Christ never made repentance a prerequisite for healing. He heals simply because he wants to.
  • Jesus heals to defeat the devil. Christ continually looks to reverse the hold that sin has on people.
  • Jesus chose to focus on healing the destitute, the poor, and the disadvantaged – rather than directing ministry to the higher classes and royalty to mediate his wishes to the people.

Who are the people – the least, the lonely, the lost – in need of healing in your family, neighborhood, and community?

  1. Those who are ill with various diseases
  2. Those suffering severe pain – of body, mind, emotion, and spirit
  3. The demon possessed or demonically influenced
  4. Prisoners and ex-convicts
  5. The working poor, and the elderly poor
  6. Those in the hospital with no one to visit them
  7. Those who grieve alone
  8. Those with addictions and behavioral issues
  9. Victims of verbal or physical abuse
  10. And many, many more….

Jesus had a ministry of both word and deed. To follow Christ is to become like him and pass on what we have learned to reliable people who will do the same.

Remember Your Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17)

John baptizing Jesus with the Holy Spirit’s affirmation

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (New International Version)

Baptism is important. Remembering is important. Put together, remembering our baptism is highly important. Here’s why….

Baptism is important to Jesus

Baptism is the distinguishing mark or symbol of being a Christian. 

The New Testament actually knows nothing of an unbaptized Christian. That’s because the practice is tied to our identity as believers. Our baptisms are based in the baptism of the Lord who, in his Great Commission, told us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (who were all present at Christ’s baptism). 

The absence of baptism is like a bride without a wedding ring; a football player not wearing a uniform; a motorcycle gang without tattoos; or like an Iowa farmer without a Pioneer seed corn hat!

Baptism is the outward sign that we belong to God. It is the distinguishing symbol that we have been adopted by God and will receive all the promises of salvation in Christ.

Christ’s baptism fulfilled all righteousness through identification with repentant people

John the Baptist was understandably hesitant to baptize Jesus; he knew Jesus had no need of repentance. Although Jesus had no sin to confess, his baptism is a powerful symbol of his humility. It anticipates his ministry to people who recognize their need for God. 

It was necessary for Jesus to be baptized in order to communicate solidarity with people who are coming to God. “Righteousness” means having a right relationship with both God and other people. By being baptized, Jesus is proclaiming that a renewed and right relationship with God will become a reality through himself. Baptism is the sign that we belong to God and that our righteousness is tied to our union with Jesus.

It was important for Jesus to identify with sinners; it is important for us, as well. We remember our baptism – that we belong to God – by identifying with “sinners.” Here are 7 ways of doing it:

  1. Practicing hospitality (love of strangers)
  2. Using our spiritual gifts of speaking and serving on their behalf
  3. Getting to know people very different from ourselves
  4. Meeting people on their turf (not just ours)
  5. Showing respect and upholding dignity
  6. Asking thoughtful and caring questions
  7. Listening with focused attention

It isn’t what we “do” for people that’s as important as affirming our shared humanity with them; thus leading folks to the ultimate person who can address the needs of their heart:  Jesus.

Christ’s baptism fulfilled all righteousness through the affirmation of witnesses

Before Jesus began his ministry, it was necessary to receive validation of what he was about to teach and do. In ancient Judaism, one of the protections guaranteeing that Scripture would be taught according to the way of God, was through an ordination, of sorts. In order for a new rabbi to become a new rabbi, he needed the laying on of hands from two other rabbis who had authority to do so. 

That’s why Christ’s baptism is important. John the Baptist was a powerful teacher and prophet who was recognized by the people as such. John publicly said he wasn’t worthy to carry Jesus’s sandals, that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. So, a baptism by John validated Jesus and inaugurated his ministry. 

Baptism of Christ by Dave Zelenka

A second voice – another witness from heaven – affirmed Jesus: “This is my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with him.” And then, the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came upon Jesus. This further affirmed that Jesus would save people, not through arm-twisting and great shows of power, but through humility and gentleness.

Baptism was Christ’s first recorded act as an adult. In some ways, it was his first miracle – the miracle of humility in identifying with sinners.

Remember your baptism

Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s grace. Just as Christ’s baptism focused all the promises of God in salvation as being fulfilled in one person, so in our baptism we claim all the promises of God as found in Jesus. Water symbolizes new life, God identifying with us – Immanuel, God with us.

In baptism, God promises and seals to us our union with Jesus so that identity is not found in my past and my profession of faith, but in Christ’s past of bringing redemption to us.  Baptism does not so much express faith as call one to a life of faith and sets us apart as belonging to God.

Baptism is a visible declaration of an invisible reality: union with Christ. Just as circumcision was the outward visible sign of the old covenant, so baptism is the sign of the new covenant in Christ – available to both male and female – thus opening the way for women to participate fully in the ministry of the gospel.

In particular, infant baptism confirms that salvation is not initiated by us, but by God. It affirms that one is betrothed to God. As a child, then an adult, grows into the faith, it is our task to remember our baptism, to be reminded that God’s mark is upon us, that we belong to the Lord. 

God has set us apart to be a holy people, given to Jesus to live as he did. We must never forget that baptism is God’s identifying mark upon us; that our union and solidarity with Jesus is affirmed through this practice.

We are not solitary Christians; we belong Christ and to one another. Baptism is the initiation rite that takes a lifetime to complete. Therefore, we must struggle together in working out our salvation.

Because of our union with Jesus Christ, we must remember:

  • I do not belong to the world. So, I will not live selfishly, only seeking my own comfort agenda. Instead, I will give and serve others from a pure and humble heart.
  • I do not belong to sin. So, I will not give myself over to shameful words or actions, to bullying or manipulating people, to throwing fits and pity parties to get my way, nor using my tongue to speak gossip, slander, or suck-up to others. Instead, I will use my speech wisely, building up others through thoughtful and heartfelt encouragement.
  • I do not belong to the devil. So, I will not seek his agenda of lying, cheating, stealing, and being bitter. 

I belong to Jesus, so therefore:

  • I will uphold biblical justice by championing the cause of the fatherless and the widow, the poor and the needy, the least and the lost among us.
  • I will love others with all the grace God gives me.
  • I will forgive others because Christ has forgiven me.
  • I will consider others better than myself by embracing the humility of Christ.
  • I will hunger and thirst for righteousness.
  • I will seek peace and pursue it.
  • I will, give myself to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord – completely and thoroughly, unabashedly and unreservedly.
  • I will live into my baptism and remember it always because I belong to Jesus!

Let the Little Children Come (Luke 18:15-17)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (New International Version)

I happen to believe that kids are closer to the kingdom of God than most adults.

Us big people have developed a lot of baggage over the years. And all that stuff tends to obscure God’s kingdom and the light of Christ within us.

Kids, however, especially small children, still haven’t discerned any veil between the seen and unseen worlds. They freely move between them both without any problem.

So, of course, Jesus wanted to be around children. If he had any homesickness at all, I’m sure the presence of kids made him feel at home more than anywhere else on this earth.

Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

The kingdom of God is here within us.

The disciples of Jesus had some difficulty with Christ’s branding of the message because it was not exclusive enough for them. They wanted limits on the us part.

Kids are part of that mass of people that God is with. Children deserve as much or more attention than adults. More than simply saying that we care about kids, we need to be like Jesus. He let the children come to him and was intolerant of anyone preventing kids from doing so.

Since the disciples were, ironically, still living in a small world, they rebuked those who brought little children to Jesus.

We aren’t specifically told why the disciples rebuked the adults bringing children to Jesus. Maybe the children were making a lot of noise and were being a nuisance in the middle of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps the disciples had Jesus on a tight time schedule and this bringing kids to Christ thing was causing a delay. It could be that the disciples simply saw children as an interruption to the “important” work of ministry. 

I tend to think that the disciples simply failed to appreciate the children. The dominate view of kids in the ancient world was to see them as potential adults. Kids were pretty low on the ladder of society. The disciples likely saw no reason for children to be involved in what was happening.

The babies and toddlers and small children were brought so that Jesus might place his hands on them and pray for them. That still seems to me to be the best reason to bring kids to Jesus. 

“This story teaches us that Christ does not receive only those who voluntarily come to Him of a holy desire and moved by faith, but also those who might not yet be old enough to realize how much they need His grace….  From this we gather that His grace reaches to this age of life also….  It would be cruel to exclude that age from the grace of redemption.”

John Calvin

“Jesus does not only save repentant adults; he also saves dependent children and all those whom we think are incompetent to respond to Jesus.”

Frederick Dale Bruner

Jesus flat out rebuked his disciples for hindering the little children from coming to him. He wanted just the opposite of what was taking place. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such little people as these. 

As mentioned, children were at the bottom of the societal pecking order in the ancient world. Their place in that society was to be respectful and quiet, to speak only when spoken to, and to never interrupt an adult.

Yet, Jesus took the time to touch them and pray for them. He invited this interruption to his schedule. Christ bluntly told his disciples that they were the ones being the hindrance, not the kids.

I baptize all sorts of people, including kids and babies. Why? Because in baptism, I recognize that the smallest ones among us can come to this holy sacrament. I understand that in baptism the Holy Spirit begins and initiates the process of salvation that will take that little one from infancy to adulthood and eventual death. I discern that, ideally, the child grows to live into their baptism by recognizing by faith that Jesus died and rose from the dead and grants grace and forgiveness to all who come to him. 

In that process of salvation, of coming to know Jesus, we have the sacrament of the Lord’s Table to strengthen our faith and demonstrate to us that the saving work of Jesus that has been accomplished. It is a Table of grace for all the members of Christ’s Church. 

In my Reformed Christian tradition, we believe that Jesus is not physically, but spiritually present at the Table.  Because Jesus is present, we are able to receive the grace available to us as Christ’s members. So why, in light of this reality, and the words and practice of Jesus toward children, would we ever hinder and prevent the smallest members among us from participating at the Table?

Here’s a thought: If Jesus himself were serving communion in a church, and a group of 2-year-old children came toddling up to the Table to see Jesus, would you stop them from doing so? Or much like the disciples, would you rebuke those bringing children to Jesus?

As for me, I’d rather not be rebuked by my Lord.

Jesus gave children the three gifts they most need: time, touch, and prayer. Parenting and teaching are holy vocations, and we have the wonderful privilege of bestowing these same gifts on our children, grandchildren, and students.

Time, touch, and prayer are ways we bless children. And, what’s more, as God’s children, we are all to approach Jesus and spend time with him, allow him to touch us, and interact with him through prayer. 

May we all have the humility to bend down at eye level to the littlest among us so that we and others will know that the kingdom of God is among us.

“I Want to See Jesus!” (Luke 19:1-10)

Zacchaeus, by Ira Thomas

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (New International Version)

Every time I read this story about Zacchaeus climbing up the sycamore tree to see Jesus because he was a short man, I think of the old ‘70s song Short People by Randy Newman. The song was (and still is) criticized by some as being prejudiced against short people. 

Indeed, the criticism seems justified with lyrics such as “short people got no reason to live.” Yet, the song’s intended purpose was really the opposite – to be an attack on the pervasive prejudice of the day, and an attempt to “heighten” (pun intended) awareness of other people’s importance. 

“Short people are the same as you and I. All men are brothers until the day they die” are the lyrics containing the real message within the song.

At first glance, the story of the short Zacchaeus seems to be about his inability to see. Yet the real heart of the story is that:

Zacchaeus is unable to see because the other people are obstacles to his sight. 

In turns out that Jesus is the only person who truly sees Zacchaeus. No one else sees him. No one else seems to care. While everyone else is busy with their own line of sight, Jesus is concerned to see the one person who is unseen: Zacchaeus. 

And here’s the reason why Jesus had his radar attuned to picking up Zacchaeus: Because Jesus came to see people like Zacchaeus; Christ came to seek and to save the lost.

One of the most pertinent applications of this story for us, is that we must not be an obstacle for others coming to Jesus – and instead be a conduit for others to meet Jesus. For that to happen, we need a reformation of both attitude and our action.

Our chief obstacle to realizing a reformation is the sort of hindrance that Zacchaeus overcame in order to see Jesus and experience him:

Zacchaeus did not take himself so seriously.

A very serious Zacchaeus would not have been playful enough and much too respectable to climb a tree. Maybe he was used to living with short jokes all his life; I don’t know. I just see a rich businessman who was lighthearted enough to climb a tree; and who lightened up enough to give a big pile of money away.

As a tax collector, metrics and measurements and figures were his world. All of that accounting can create a serious and sterile environment – concerned with doing more, being more, and getting more.

Reformation – reforming oneself, one’s culture, and one’s institutions – comes through the disposition and willingness of not being so doggone serious all the time.

“Jesus and Zacchaeus” by Soichi Watanabe

Hanging one’s happiness and well-being on other people adopting my opinions, my plans, and my way is a surefire prescription for getting knocked down several pegs by both others and God.

A reformation comes through collegiality, cooperation, and collaboration with others. To acknowledge that God is God, and I am not, and that all people (even the ones I don’t like) are just as important as me, is to see with new eyes. This is the way of seeing Jesus because it’s the willingness to climb trees and to not care how it makes me look to do it.

People short on faith, short on hope, and short on love desperately need the love of God in the gracious person of Jesus Christ. 

Let us then, help, and not hinder, people’s ability to see Jesus.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV)

Let us not become discouraged when our expectations obscure our sight.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:2-5, NIV)

Let us have eyes to see and not be blinded by our own seriousness.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (John 9:39, NIV)

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9, NIV)

Let us humble ourselves and stoop to see the incredible reality in front of us.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:5-7, NIV)

Let us see and believe.

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:6-9, NIV)

In God’s kingdom, the tall are short, and the short are tall. And there are plenty of trees to climb so that everyone can see Jesus.

Loving Lord Jesus, give me the grace to see you in all things throughout my days on this earth. Help me to see your benevolent kingdom come and see your ethical will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven. Amen.