The Ministry Begins
One of the great struggles of humanity has been to know what the meaning and purpose of our lives are and how to live them. After all, we don’t come with written instructions tucked under our arms on how to live, do we?
“I didn’t understand what the meaning of life was,” said a 17-year-old boy from a well-to-do family who became a prescription drug addict. “I still don’t, but I thought that everyone else did, that there was this big secret that everyone was in on that I wasn’t. I thought everyone understood why we were here, and that they were all secretly happy somewhere without me.”
Paul Feyerabend, a German writer and philosopher of science, confessed in his autobiography: “So one day passes after another and it is not clear why one should live.”
Hence, the Bible, the gospel, and the story of Jesus and what He has done for us. In Jesus—His preexistence, birth, life, death, ministry in heaven, and second coming—we can find the answers to life’s most pressing questions. This week, we will look at the beginning of Christ’s life and work here on earth, a life and work that alone can give full meaning to our own.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, April 9.
Matthew 3 begins with John the Baptist, whose first recorded word in the text is an imperative—“Repent!” (Matt. 3:2). In one way, that’s a summary of what God has been saying to humanity since the Fall: Repent, accept My forgiveness, put away your sins, and you will find Redemption and rest for your souls.
And yet, no matter how universal that message, John also put a distinct “present truth” (2 Pet. 1:12) spin on it, a message for those people at that specific time.
John also does something here that is done all through the New Testament. He quotes the Old Testament. Old Testament prophecy comes alive in the New: time and again, whether Jesus or Paul or Peter or John, all quote the Old Testament in order to help validate, explain, or even prove the meaning of what was going on in the New. No wonder Peter, even in the context of the miracles he had personally witnessed, nevertheless stressed the “sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet. 1:19) when talking about the ministry of Jesus.
Notice how central Jesus is to everything that John was preaching. Everything even then was about Jesus and about who He was and what He would do. Though the gospel was presented, John also made clear that there will be a final reckoning, a final divide between the wheat and the chaff, and that it will be the prophesied One who will do that dividing. Hence more proof of how inseparable the gospel is from judgment. Here also is an example of how, in the Bible, the first and second comings of Jesus are viewed as one event as we see John—in the immediate context of Christ’s first coming—talking about the second, as well.
“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1, NKJV).
Imagine this scene from the perspective of Satan himself. The divine, exalted Being whom he knew as the Son of God had now lowered Himself—had taken on human flesh—in order to save the human race. This was the same Jesus whom he warred against in heaven and who threw him and his angels out (see Rev. 12:7–9). But now this Jesus was—what? An emaciated human being alone in a harsh wilderness with no obvious support? Certainly Jesus would now be an easy target for Satan’s deceptions.
“When Satan and the Son of God first met in conflict, Christ was the commander of the heavenly hosts; and Satan, the leader of revolt in heaven, was cast out. Now their condition is apparently reversed, and Satan makes the most of his supposed advantage.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 119.
What a contrast: though Lucifer had once sought to “be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14, NKJV), Jesus had emptied Himself of the glory of heaven. Here, in this one scene, we can see the vast difference between selfishness and selflessness; the vast difference between what holiness is and what sin does.
Imagine how the angels who had known Jesus in His heavenly glory must have viewed what was taking place as these two foes now stood face to face in a mode of conflict that the two had never experienced between them before. Though we have the advantage of knowing how this turned out, the angels—indeed all of heaven—didn’t; and so, they must have watched this conflict with rapt and fascinating attention.
Matthew 4:1 starts out with what seems like a strange thought: it was the Spirit that led Jesus into the desert to be tempted. We are supposed to pray that we are not led into temptation. “ ‘ “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” ’ ” (Matt. 6:13, NKJV). Why, then, would the Holy Spirit lead Jesus this way?
A key is found in the previous chapter, when Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Seeing John’s resistance, Jesus says, “ ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ ” (Matt. 3:15, NKJV). To fulfill all righteousness, that is, to do what was needed in order to be humanity’s perfect example and perfect representative, Jesus had to be baptized, even though He was sinless.
In the wilderness temptation, Jesus had to pass over the same ground that Adam did. He needed the victory against temptation that we all, from Adam onward, have failed to attain. And thus, by so doing, “Christ was to redeem Adam’s failure” (Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 117), only He did so under conditions unlike anything that Adam had faced.
By this victory Jesus shows that we never have an excuse for sin, that there is no justification for it, and that, when tempted, we don’t have to fall but through faith and submission we can overcome. As we have been told: “Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:7, 8, NKJV).
Matthew 4:12 tells about the imprisonment of John, thus ending his ministry. At this point, Jesus’ ministry “officially” begins. The text doesn’t say why, when Jesus heard about John, He went to Galilee, only that He did. (See also Mark 1:14–16 and Luke 4:14.) Perhaps, while John was still preaching, Jesus wanted to keep a lower profile, lest a rivalry arise. The Greek verb in Matthew 4:12, often translated “departed,” can give the idea of “withdrawing,” in the sense of avoiding danger. Thus, prudent as always, perhaps Jesus was seeking to avoid trouble.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of Jacob’s sons (see Gen. 35:23–26), and their descendants became two of the tribes that ultimately settled in the beautiful northern region of Canaan.
Unfortunately, these two tribes were among the ten tribes who gave up their faith in God and turned to the things of the world. Many of the Old Testament prophets railed against the sinfulness, the worldliness, and the evil of these northern tribes, who were eventually overrun by the Assyrians, who then scattered them around the then known world. In turn, Gentiles settled in Israel, and Galilee became a mixed population, a confused and dark place. Galilee’s most famous prophet was Jonah, which ought to tell us something about their level of commitment.
Whatever the problems in Galilee, there was this beautiful prophecy in Isaiah—that even in the dark land of Zebulun and Naphtali, “ ‘on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned’ ” (Matt. 4:16, NIV). In other words, here—where the need was so great, where people were deemed rude, backward, boorish—Jesus came and lived and ministered among them. However exalted He Himself might have been, we see the willingness of Jesus to humble Himself for the sake of others. We see here, too, another example of how central the Old Testament was to the ministry of Jesus.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17, NKJV). Just like John, Jesus began His ministry with a call to repentance. He knew, as did John, the fallen state of humanity and the need for all people to repent and come to a knowledge of God. Thus, it’s not surprising that His first public proclamation, at least as recorded here in Matthew, was with a call to repentance.
Here, in the forgotten land of Galilee, was a small fishing partnership run by four young men: two sets of brothers. These men apparently had a heart for God, because for a while some of them followed John the Baptist. But, to their surprise, John the Baptist had pointed them in the direction of another young man from their own region.
These men had approached Jesus of Nazareth and asked to spend time with Him (see John 1). That’s how this culture worked: men would approach a rabbi and ask to follow him. But it was the rabbi who made the final decision about who his disciples would be. And when a rabbi asked you to be his disciple, it was a very exciting moment.
Many people have grown up with the idea that when Jesus called the disciples at the sea, this was the first time they had met Him. But we know from John 1 through 5 that these men had already spent a year with Jesus—apparently on a part-time basis.
“Jesus chose unlearned fishermen because they had not been schooled in the traditions and erroneous customs of their time. They were men of native ability, and they were humble and teachable,—men whom He could educate for His work. In the common walks of life there is many a man patiently treading the round of daily toil, unconscious that he possesses powers which, if called into action, would raise him to an equality with the world’s most honored men. The touch of a skillful hand is needed to arouse those dormant faculties. It was such men that Jesus called to be His colaborers; and He gave them the advantage of association with Himself.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 250.
Further Thought: An evangelist came to town and advertised his meeting by this invitation: “Come see a preacher tear a page out of the Bible!” That, no doubt, brought a crowd. He then stood before them, opened his Bible, and—to their astonishment—tore out a page. “This page,” he said, “never belonged there. It’s the page separating the Old Testament from the New.” Whatever one might think of his theatrics, the preacher made a good point. These two books are, really, one. All through the New Testament, the Old Testament is quoted. Time and again events in the New Testament are explained and justified by either Jesus Himself or the New Testament authors, by references to the Old Testament. How often did Jesus make the statement, in one form or another, that “Scripture must be fulfilled”? Whether from Jesus Himself, who repeatedly pointed back to the Old Testament writings (see John 5:39, Luke 24:27, Matt. 22:29, John 13:18), to Paul, who was always quoting the Old Testament (Rom. 4:3, 11:8, Gal. 4:27), to the book of Revelation, with an estimated 550 Old Testament allusions, the New Testament constantly links itself to the Old. The Old and New Testaments are God’s written revelations to humanity of the plan of salvation. Though, no question, some parts of the Old Testament, such as the sacrificial system, are no longer binding upon believers, we must never make the mistake of somehow relegating the Old Testament to an inferior status to the New. The Bible is composed of both Testaments, and from them both we learn crucial truths about God and the plan of salvation.