Winning or Waning Light?

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When [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth He went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:12-16).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The ministry of Jesus seems to be filled with ups and downs, highs and lows. In Matthew’s account (as in our lives), it’s not always easy to tell if the Light that has dawned on God’s people is winning or waning?

In the verses immediately preceding our Gospel, Jesus emerges victorious from His battle in the desert with Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Our Champion stands toe-to-toe with our greatest enemy and utterly defeats him with nothing but the Word of God. And what does Matthew mention next? The arrest of John, God’s end-time voice in the desert! How shocking! John is the one spoken of in Isaiah 40, who cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (v. 3). He is Elijah foretold in the prophet Malachi (3:23). He announces the coming of the Mightier One (Matthew 3:1), and he participates with Jesus in fulfilling all righteousness in the Baptism of our Lord (Matthew 3:15). But now he is imprisoned and within a year Herod Antipas will put him to death to fulfill a rash vow (Matthew 14:1-12).

The triumph of God’s reign in Christ is certain, but it will not always look like progress in normal human terms. Violent men will seek to snatch away the kingdom of heaven. God’s royal ruling will show itself in strange vulnerability and weakness. Even John will question if Jesus is the Coming One (Matthew 11:2).

When Jesus hears of John’s arrest, He withdraws from the region around the Jordan and heads northward into the region of Galilee. This is not done out of fear, but according to plan. Jesus Himself will choose the times and ways to confront the evil men who seek to destroy or hinder the work of God’s gracious reign.

Jesus withdraws into Galilee and leaves Nazareth, His hometown, in order to take up residence in Capernaum by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali. This happens in order to fulfill Isaiah’s words in 9:1-2: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time He brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time He has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.”

Isaiah’s promise of future deliverance and blessing for the northern regions of Israel (the tribal areas of Zebulun and Naphtali), which were ravaged by the Assyrian invaders in the eighth century BC and by others since, has now come true in Jesus. The light of the Christ has begun to shine in Galilee. Jesus is about to begin His public ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing.

Matthew provides a summary of Jesus’ preaching, and it is precisely that of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John proclaimed such a message as the one who had come to prepare the Lord’s way. Jesus proclaims the same message as the Lord Himself who has come to free the people from their exile in sin and to bring God’s end-time salvation into the present.

First, Jesus, like John, addresses the lost sheep that are the house of Israel. Though there are certainly members of the faithful remnant who have never lost true faith in the God of Israel, the spiritual condition of the nation as a whole is essentially one of “lostness.” The call “Repent!” is then a call to conversion, to move from sin and unbelief to repentant faith and salvation.

Second, when Jesus of Nazareth (like John) grounds His call to repentance in Israel with the declaration that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” He is proclaiming that the royal, ruling deeds of God, expected on the Last Day, are beginning already now on earth. “The kingdom of heaven” is not primarily a place. It is certainly not a group of people or an organization. The kingdom of heaven is the reigning of God, what God the King is doing—in Jesus, in history.

As we see throughout Matthew’s narrative, there is an eschatological “already” and “not yet” quality to God’s reign breaking into history. The reign of heaven has not yet fully arrived, with all its power and salvation. That’s why it is hard to tell if the Light is winning or waning. At the same time, however, Jesus, the Son of God, is already here, and He is bringing a salvation that avails now and will avail on the Last Day. The time is urgent, and those who refuse what Jesus offers will also seal for themselves a judgment on the Last Day. The horizon that defines and looms large over all of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, and His resurrection, is the Last Day. For then all will be seen for what it really is!

That horizon must be the same powerful goal in the work and preaching of the Church in our day. The purposes of God in Christ for the world, for humanity, and for people as whole people—bodies and souls knit together as God intended—these purposes are the scope of the Church’s proclamation and ministry. The return of Jesus at the end of the age looms large. The date truly is unknown, so it cannot be calculated. Yet that the day will come truly is known, so it cannot be ignored.

As Jesus breaks into history today through the preaching of His Word and the administration of His Sacraments, the reign of heaven is here, and God is present to judge and save. As the Church lives out her life under those blessings of God’s present reign in Jesus, with deeds of love empowered by His Word and Sacraments, she ever and always looks forward in longing, fear, and joyful hope to the time of Christ’s return. Already and not yet, the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Matthew describes Jesus’ ministry in Galilee as one of word and deed. Jesus’ word consists of “the Gospel of the kingdom” of heaven. God has begun to break into history in a new way, a way that links the present to the Final Day of history. God has begun to break into history in Jesus. This is Good News because of what God is doing in Jesus, namely, saving His people from their sins.

It is a ministry of word and deed because Jesus has come not only to forgive sin, but to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). This, in no way, downplays the importance of God’s verbal declaration of forgiveness. That pronouncement through and in Christ Jesus is the heart of the Good News; without it, there is no Good News. However, sin has poisoned God’s creation and God’s people in many ways, as is evident by the list of maladies and infirmities that Jesus is healing (Matthew 4:23-24). Jesus has come to “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21) and sin’s consequences—disease, disorder, and death. Jesus’ ministry is one of preaching, teaching, forgiving sins, and healing “every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23)!

When God’s kingdom breaks into history, it comes to drive back Satan and to undo all the consequences of his slanders and temptations. Satan’s seduction of Adam and Eve into sin brought physical maladies and death upon the human race (Genesis 3) as well as the breakdown in the vertical relationship of God and man, as well as the horizontal relationship of man with his fellow man. Now, the one who brings the reign of heaven also brings healing and restoration with Him (Matthew 8:17; 11:2-5).

It is important that we remember the end times character of Jesus’ proclamation and manifestation of the kingdom of God. The very reason why there needs to be a Last Day is because of the ongoing conflict between God and His enemies, chiefly Satan himself. Only then will all creation be fully restored in the new heaven and earth. But now the judging and saving power of that Last Day reign has already begun in Jesus Himself. Just as Jesus, the Son of God, immediately engages in “hand-to-hand combat” with Satan in the wilderness after His Baptism (Matthew 4:1-11), so in His Galilean ministry, Jesus heals those who are brought to Him— “the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics” (Matthew 4:23-24). These are afflictions in people that Jesus has come to remove. The salvation that Jesus brings encompasses all human need that finds its origin in sin and Satan.

That nearness of the kingdom, however, is preliminary and limited in scope. Jesus heals only those whom they bring to Him, not everyone in the land. Jesus’ miracles are signs, a foretaste, the anticipation of the great and final deliverance that God will effect in Him when He comes again in glory. At Christ’s return, all the dead shall be raised, and those in Christ shall enter everlasting life in the new creation and never again be susceptible to any bodily affliction (1 Corinthians 15:20-57; Revelation 20:11-15; 22:1-2). Jesus’ healing miracles point to that final restoration. They are miracles in which the Son of God drives back the power of Satan, sin, and sickness for the needy in the land.

You, too live in a land of deep darkness. Culturally, you see an ugly society that has severed itself from the beauty of our Christian heritage. Truth has been exchanged for lies. The exercise of power trumps the rule of law. Secular buzzwords like diversity, equity, and inclusiveness replace biblical virtues like chastity, temperance, charity, and humility. In your personal life, you find the darkness of broken families, addiction, depression, anxiety, illness, anger, unbelief, and doubt. And there is always the shadow of death, where you grieve the loss of loved ones, or you face your own mortality.

But Jesus comes into that darkness preaching, teaching, forgiving, and healing, bringing life and light. In His Word, He proclaims the Good News of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to you. In His Holy Supper, Christ gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen you in body and soul unto life everlasting. Through His means of grace, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps you in the true faith. The fruit of the Spirit grow in you, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and chastity, causing you to live in holy conduct toward one another to glory of Christ’s holy name. And all the while, you look forward to that Last Day when Christ will come and raise you and all who have died in the faith to eternal life—body and soul—in the new heaven and new earth.

The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Last Day is nearer than it has ever been. The days are getting brighter and brighter, more and more every day. And though it may feel to you like the darkness is winning, God’s Word reveals the darkness is waning. The Light of the world has come. Every single passing day brings us closer to the great and glorious Day. The Great Dawn is closer now than it has ever been. God’s gracious reign in Christ is hastening towards us.

We wait for it as watchmen wait for the morning, confident that even now, even on us who dwell in the shadow of death and deep darkness, a Light has dawned.[i] The Good News of God’s reign in Christ continues to be sounded in Word and Sacrament. To sinful, hurting people, Jesus gives life, hope, and deliverance.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Gospel: Matthew 4:12-25 (Epiphany 3: Series A),

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