On Good Works

Good works are defined by Scripture, not by us. They are the fruit of a faith that is alive. They play absolutely zero part in justification. Furthermore, the ability to do them comes from God, and not from us. It is the Holy Spirit that must work in us that we can do good works. We can never do more than God requires of us. Good works can never merit the forgiveness of sins. This is because our good works are always tainted with sin, even good works done as a Christian. Nevertheless, because of what Christ has done, our good works done as believers are accepted by God, and He will reward them.

So-called good works, done by unregenerate souls, cannot be actually good, since they are done with wrong motives, and for the wrong reason (anything other than the glory of God).

From Darkness to Light

Matthew 4:12-17

I remember once when my family was in Indiana for a wedding. We stayed at the house of a member of the church. They had a basement that had no windows at all. That is where we slept. I have never been in a place that was that dark. It was also a large basement with quite a few pieces of furniture and other things. If you did not have a flashlight with you, there was absolutely no way that you could find your way to anything. Darkness is completely disorienting. As Jesus said, “If a blind man leads another blind man, they will both fall into a pit.” What is needed is for light to come into our lives so that we can see. That is exactly what Jesus is. He is the light of the world.

Our passage starts out with Jesus hearing some news. He heard that John the Baptist had been arrested. Now, John had gotten into trouble for denouncing Herod. Herod had seduced his brother’s wife, after putting away the wife that he already had. And, of course, it is never safe to denounce an ancient near eastern tyrant, and so John found himself in prison. That was a signal for Christ to begin His ministry. It is as if John had handed over the baton when he had been handed over. John and Jesus are linked in the history of salvation. What happens to the one happens to the other in a broad way. Jesus also will be arrested and handed over, in His time. But when it happened to the fore-runner, John, that was the signal for Jesus to start His ministry.

Jesus’ first move was to move. The NIV is incorrect to translate the word as “returned,” since Jesus never lived in Galilee. The ESV has “withdrew.” From the next verse we learn that Jesus actually moved. It was a permanent thing. Jesus moved to Galilee. Galilee is in the north area of Palestine. It borders many Gentile nations. So why did He move to Galilee? Several reasons. First, Galilee had a lot of people among whom Jesus could minister. Galilee was a very fertile region, in more ways than one. It grew crops and ideas. Anyone with wild and wooly ideas who wanted to start some kind of rebellion would go to Galilee first. They were always being invaded by foreigners, and so new ideas would always be coming into the region. The great first-century Jewish historian Josephus says this, “They were ever fond of innovations, and by nature disposed to changes, and delighted in seditions.” If Judea was on the way to nowhere, Galilee was on the way to everywhere. It was an ideal place for Jesus to start His ministry. So Jesus left Nazareth, where He had grown up, and went to Capernaum. Capernaum was the most important city on the north shore of the sea of Galilee. It was in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali in the north part of Israel. That was to fulfill prophecy.

The prophecy was as follows (15-16). It is from Isaiah 9:1-2. In the Isaiah passage, the context has to do with the Assyrian invasion of the Northern kingdom that took place in 722 B.C. Isaiah answers the question: “Is there no hope for the lands of the north after they are invaded?” The answer is that there is hope in the form of the Messiah. Zebulun and Naphtali were the first of the tribes to be invaded. So also they will be the first of all the tribes to have salvation brought to them in Jesus. The little phrase “way of the sea” merely means that the territory is by the sea of Galilee. It is the coastlands. But the next phrase is somewhat difficult. The NIV wrongly translates here “along the Jordan.” The phrase really means “on the other side of the Jordan,” or “beyond the Jordan.” This creates a difficulty. If a person says “the picture is on the wall on the other side of the room,” then the person who said it must be on one side, while the picture is on the other side. So if Matthew says “beyond the Jordan,” then which side of the Jordan is Matthew on?

Zebulun and Naphtali are both on the west side of the Jordan. So Matthew would seem to be speaking from the east side of the Jordan. Why does Matthew speak this way? The key is in the Isaiah quotation itself. Isaiah is speaking from the point of view of the Assyrians when he says “beyond the Jordan.” That means that it is Israel which is sitting in darkness, not the nations around Israel. That way of speaking is typical of the way prophets spoke. They put themselves in someone else’s shoes to shock the people to whom they are speaking. It gives a new angle on whatever problem they are seeking to address. That is what Isaiah does. So what Matthew is trying to do is to include the Gentiles in salvation. The Gentiles are no longer “those people over there living in darkness.” Instead it is the Israelites who are living in darkness, and how great is that darkness since Jesus, the great light, has come!

The phrase “Galilee of the Gentiles” was originally a term of reproach, since Israelites did not associate with Gentiles. However, Matthew has filled the phrase with new meaning. No longer is Galilee a place where cursed Gentiles roam freely, speaking with clean Israelites. Now, Gentiles are clean, and they certainly are no longer living in darkness.

In verse 16, we come to a very interesting statement. It says that the people are dwelling, or living in darkness. That means not only that they are continually in darkness, but also that they are choosing to live in darkness. It is as if I chose to live in that dark basement for the rest of my life. Truly then, I would be loving darkness rather than light! If I did that, spiritually speaking, I would be someone who loves sin and does not want to come to Jesus to have my sins forgiven, because I love darkness more than light. But darkness is death. In the Hebrew language, especially in poetry, repetition abounds. In poetry, the first line is amplified by the second line. Often, the terms of the second line of poetry explain the first line. That is what is happening here. In the first line we see the word “darkness,” whereas in the second line in the same place in the line, we see the word “death.” Dwelling in darkness is dwelling in death. We can see that even in the phrase “shadow of death.” Death is dark and shadowy. If death and darkness are such close ideas to each other, then light is equal to life. So, if a light has dawned on people, that means that life has come to them. In Egypt during the plague of darkness, the whole land of Egypt was wrapped up in darkness. That was a fore-shadowing of the death of the first-born. But in the land of Goshen where the Israelites were, there was light and salvation. Egypt then is a symbol of death, and the Israelites are brought out of that land of death. God saves in the same way today. A person is dwelling in darkness of sin. God shines a light into their heart, and there is light. A new creation of light by God’s Word happens. Paul describes this in 2 Corinthians 4:6 “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

It is because Jesus is the Light of the world that Jesus preaches what He does in verse 17. Now we need to notice a few things about this verse. First, we see that Jesus preaches. Jesus preaches the Word of God. He is faithful to the message that God has given Him.

Notice, secondly, that Jesus preaches the exact same message that John the Baptist preached. Jesus is not an innovator when it comes to the content of His messages. So also, preachers today are not to be innovators in the substance of what they say. It is important to stress that in a culture where new is always better, and the old is always bad. Not so in Jesus’ case! He does not despise what has already been said. So it is not new doctrines that preachers are to preach, but the good old solid doctrines of Scripture which the preacher is to preach. Now, the preacher can preach the same old doctrines in new ways that communicate to each new generation. That’s fine. But too often, preachers confuse the one with the other. Do not listen to a preacher who says to you, “I have this great new doctrine to tell you that no one has ever heard before.” There is a name for that kind of novelty in preaching. It’s called “heresy.”

But what is it that Jesus preaches? He says that people should repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. What does this mean? First, let us look at repentance. To use a military term, repentance is an “about-face.” It is to turn away from sin to Jesus. Repentance is not remorse. We saw that this morning. Remorse is when you are sorry because you got caught, and are sorry for the consequences. Repentance is different. It means a turning away from sin, and a turning to the Savior. It means that a person realizes that he has offended the holy God, wants forgiveness and restoration of fellowship with God, and turns to God in faith, resolving not to do that sin anymore. Repentance is not a half-hearted thing. It does not mean that we leave some part of that sin lurking in our heart to resurface later and catch us. Now, that means that repentance is both a once-for-all event, and an on-going process. The once-for-all character of repentance is demonstrated by the fact that when we turn to Christ, we are no longer under the power of sin. It no longer condemns us, because Christ is our master now, not sin. As Thomas Brooks the Puritan says, “He that turns not from every sin, turns not aright from any one sin.” But repentance is also a process. Again, Thomas Brooks is helpful, “Repentance is a continued act of turning, a repentance never to be repented of, a turning never to turn again to folly.” He says a little later, “Repentance is the vomit of the soul.” That is why it is so hard to repent. It is about as pleasant as vomiting. However, if we are to expunge the poison from our soul, it is utterly necessary. Satan would want us to think that repentance is easy, and therefore worthy of delay. Repentance is so difficult that it is above our ability. Therefore, Jesus is commanding people here to do something which they cannot. With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.

In the last part of the verse, Jesus gives us the reason why we should repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. The NIV would seem to imply that it is not here yet. “Being at hand” is a better translation, because it preserves the ambiguity of the Greek. Literally, the Greek says, “has approached.” Is it here, or is it not here? That is the question. The answer is “yes.” The kingdom is here in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the kingdom in bodily form. The kingdom is here. However, the kingdom has not yet reached its full potential. Therefore it is not here. It is here already, and it is not yet here. We live in such a time. We live in the wilderness period between the deliverance from Egypt and the entrance into the promised land. It is a time period that is to be characterized by repentance. The kingdom of heaven invades the kingdom of the world. Right now there is fighting going on between the two. We are all soldiers in this battle. But which side are we on? That is the great question. Know that if you still belong to the world, you have only the fire of hell to look forward to. Your only hope to escape is to repent and come into the kingdom of heaven. As the great early church father Tertullian said, “If you are backward in the thought of repentance, then be forward in your thoughts of hell, the flames of which can only be extinguished by the stream of tears flowing from the penitent’s eye.” Our only hope of escaping the punishment that our sins deserve is to repent and enter the kingdom of heaven. That is done by believing that Jesus Christ suffered that pain of hell for you, so that you would not have to. We enter the realm of light when that happens. We have stepped from darkness into light. Let us therefore walk as children of the light.