Human Responsibility Because of God’s Sovereignty

Last week we finished walking through the wilderness temptations and this week we will begin Jesus’ public preaching ministry. This is an odd statement because Jesus has always been the word and the revealer of the Father’s will. What we mean when we refer to Jesus’ public preaching ministry is His incarnate preaching ministry on this current wretched earth, after His birth or condescension and before His ascension. So far, Matthew has presented us with the fact that people are unable to choose what is good because our nature is unrighteous. We fall short of God’s glory. He has described for us that Jesus was the one who fulfilled all righteousness on behalf of His people. Considering these truths, which have been presented in the previous passages of Matthew’s Gospel, how do people actually become followers of Jesus Christ?

Matthew 4:12-22

Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, By the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, And those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, Upon them a Light dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.

Prophecy fulfilled

Isaiah 8:19-9:2

When they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?

To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through the land hard-pressed and famished, and it will turn out that when they are hungry, they will be enraged and curse their king and their God as they face upward. Then they will look to the earth, and behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be driven away into darkness.

But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.

In this part of Isaiah, the pre-exilic prophet, it is prophesied that the people of Israel will go into exile and the nation will be shattered. In Isaiah 8:14, God is described as both the stone to strike (reference to God’s providence in Exodus 17:6) and a rock to stumble over (reference to Moses’ disobedience in Numbers 20:11) for those in the exile, a snare and a trap for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The people would fall and be broken; they would be snared and caught (Isaiah 8:15). God was the snare providing their destruction.

In Isaiah 8:16, we see that the Law is sealed and the testimony of God is bound among Isaiah’s disciples. The people would ask the prophet to consult mediums and spiritists instead of consulting God (8:19). This is in contrast to God’s testimony and God’s law, which had been bound and sealed among the disciples of the prophet. Isaiah writes that if they do not speak according to the law and the testimony, it is because they have no dawn (8:20). Because they have no dawn, they will curse God and be driven away into darkness.

There first had to be a dawn, an enlightening, before people cared to consult the word of God. Without this dawn, people consult the dead on behalf of the living and are driven into darkness. We refer to this dawn as regeneration and without it we, just as the Israelites, are self-condemning, which we refer to by the terms unrighteousness and depravity. Matthew has already gotten to the heart of these things. When he states that Jesus has fulfilled the prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-2, this is the context of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The light reference in Isaiah 9:2 is the word of God. It was the word (the law and testimony) of God that was to make everything glorious. Jesus, the word (John 1:1) and the revelation of God settled in the geographical area of Isaiah 8-9. It is in His settling here that the prophecy is fulfilled according to Matthew. Matthew explicitly states that the prophecy is fulfilled before Christ’s preaching in that area begins.

There is something about the preaching ministry, even with Jesus, that precedes the proclamation of God’s law and testimony. There is a dawn or enlightening in the hearts and minds of people before God’s word is consulted or sincerely received. This truth is evident in Isaiah as well as Matthew, as Matthew quotes from these chapters of Isaiah.

If Jesus, the Word, isn’t present and working, people do not experience the dawning necessary to receive God’s law and testimony sincerely. Jesus is the dawn. When He settled in Capernaum, He fulfilled this prophecy. It was fitting that the preaching ministry of the Messiah begins in this location so that the Scriptures were fulfilled.

Jesus’ message

“From that time Jesus began to preach…” After Jesus does what is fitting to fulfill all righteousness, in His baptism and in the wilderness temptations, He settles in Capernaum and only then begins His preaching ministry. God’s righteousness revealed in Christ is the point of God’s law and testimony as we have discovered previously in Matthew’s Gospel. It is also the righteousness of God by which God’s law and testimony produce this fruit. It is not by my righteousness, religiosity, or ability. The entirety of God’s word is based in and upon His righteousness alone.

When Jesus begins to preach this message that is based in and on the Father’s righteousness as revealed in Him, He says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is familiar because it is the same message that John the Baptist was preaching. John started by saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and then expounded on the Old Testament text. His points are summarized below.

    • He taught repentance because God was coming to reconcile His people to Himself (Matthew 3:2, 6, Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 4:5-6)
    • He taught that true faith bore fruit consistent with repentance and that baptism meant nothing if one did not have true faith (Matthew 3:7-8).
    • He taught that true children of Abraham are raised up only by God, not by means or works or merit or choosing of people. God alone would fulfill His covenant (Matthew 3:9, Genesis 15).
      • God’s unconditional election of His own people is also established in Deuteronomy (esp. Deuteronomy 7:6-9, which also exposits God’s promise to Abraham in Gen. 15).
    • Those without true faith, being reconciled to God by God alone, will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:10, Isaiah 10:34 where the Lord alone is described as separating out the people who pretend to follow Him).
    • Jesus’ baptism would not be the same baptism as John’s. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance or of moral cleansing. Jesus’ baptism would be a new birth altogether (Matthew 3:11). Jesus’ baptism would be a fulfillment of John’s (that is why John would baptize Jesus). The new covenant would be a fulfillment of the old.
      • Jesus’ baptism is described as baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire.
      • The reconciliation of the Day of the Lord would not be brought about by the act of repentance, or human will or works or means. Reconciliation is only by the Holy Spirit. God alone fulfills God’s covenant.
      • This reconciliation would also be by fire (Isaiah 4:4). This referred to a purging of sin only possible by God’s judgment or conviction by the Holy Spirit. This means explicitly that we are unable to become holy or better by our own will, work, or means. This is what we mean when we say that we are totally depraved.
    • The Messiah would tend to His own fields, separating His people into His barn and will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12, Psalm 1:4, Isaiah 41:16, 66:24).

John taught explicitly that repentance meant nothing if it wasn’t the sort of repentance that would bear fruit. He taught that it was God who was able, not people, to raise up children of Abraham. He taught that true repentance was wrought in the person by the Holy Spirit. This was Jesus’ message and Matthew places it in the context of Isaiah 9. There is regeneration or dawn by the presence of Christ and the affectual (and effectual) work of the Spirit, then there is a hunger for the law and testimony of God. This is followed by the response of regenerate people- repentance. All people are instructed to repent. It is the instruction of the Gospel. All people have this responsibility as they stand before God. Only those who “have a dawn,” according to Isaiah’s language, will hear and respond with genuine repentance to God.

As a point of personal testimony, I know that I did not recognize my sin or my need to repent at any point before the moment of enlightenment that we read about here in the Scriptures. I was perfectly content. I didn’t feel like I needed religion. I didn’t feel like I needed the church. I felt like I was a good person, and that was enough for me until God gave me eyes to see. So, this is the message we preach. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Here we have to deal with a couple misconceptions. First, depravity does not mean that people have no responsibility. We have these responsibilities according to Scripture: to live for God’s glory and to not sin against God. What depravity means is that without God’s work of regeneration and sanctification we do not desire and so we do not choose God’s glory, and our desires lead us to sin (James 1:14). All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).

Second, human responsibility and conditional election (or works-based righteousness) are not the same things. God saves people even though they have failed to fulfill their responsibilities to Him. While we were enemies, God reconciled us to Himself (Romans 5:10).

The call to follow Jesus

With this message of repentance, Jesus calls His first disciples (here to mean His first disciples during His public preaching ministry). Notice that in response to Christ’s calling, the disciples left everything, completely forsaking their former lives to follow Jesus and to be fishers of men. The disciples did not initiate their being called, affirming Isaiah’s prophecy again. In fact, I can’t think of anyone in all of Scripture who initiated God’s calling, not Adam or Abraham or any of the prophets or Nicodemus. The only one who tried to make himself a follower of Christ was the rich young ruler and he could not do so (Matthew 19:16-30).

Following the story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:27-30, we see it confirmed that Matthew viewed following Christ as leaving everything and giving one’s self wholly to Jesus, to be taught by Him and to follow His instructions. Jesus affirmed that this was desirable and that He would reward accordingly. We will see this in greater depth when we get to Matthew 19, but for our current purposes, it serves to illustrate repentance. What does it mean to repent? It is not merely a turning from sin. It is a forsaking of our former lives so that we might follow Jesus wholly and submit to His instruction. Christ first calls, then our response is repentance and a forsaking of our lives so that we might follow Jesus wholly.


  1. What does it mean to consult the dead on behalf of the living?
    1. In the context of Isaiah, mediums were literally trying to consult the dead.
    2. Can this apply to the consulting of anything other than God’s word as the authority?
    3. Could it apply even to Sunday School or Bible Study material?
  2. What does Isaiah mean when he states that the law and testimony of God was bound and sealed and that, as a result, people who had no dawn did not consult or speak according to God’s word?
  3. What does it mean that we forsake our lives so that we might follow Jesus wholly? How are we able to do this?

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