Summary: What we’re trying to do is push back the darkness.
So, Matthew says that, “when Jesus heard that John [the Baptist] had been arrested, he withdrew….” What does that tell us? It tells us – doesn’t it? – that there is a force of darkness at work in this world. And we know what that means, of course. It means there is opposition – stout opposition – arrayed against God, set on thwarting the purposes of heaven. You could see it in Jesus’ day in the arrest of John the Baptist. The kingdom of darkness made an aggressive advance against John in an effort to silence the truth.
The darkness took other forms, too, and we can see them in our text. In verse 23, we read of “disease and sickness among the people” of Galilee. Verse 24, which we did not read earlier, gives us greater detail on these afflictions. Along with “various diseases and pains,” there were other types of adversity: demon-possession, epilepsy, paralysis, and so forth.
So, if you look at it, what you see is that, here in this passage, we have two kinds of evil, two forms that the darkness takes. There is natural evil, and it is represented by sickness and disease, although it might also include natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. There is that, and then there is moral evil. Moral evil involves actions taken by some that lead to suffering for others. The arrest of John the Baptist would be an example. John’s arrest was nothing short of an abuse of power. It was the exercise of self-interest at the expense of what is just and right. It was an instance of people in high places being bad and inflicting pain on the innocent. It was a form of institutional bullying.
So, we have these two kinds of darkness. And look at this. Jesus came right into the darkness, and, in coming into it, he brought light. He brought healing to those suffering from natural evil. And you can see that in verse 23, where Matthew tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee…, curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
But he also brought light into the darkness of moral evil. When John was arrested – and arrested unjustly, don’t forget – we are told that Jesus withdrew (v. 12). Wait! Can that be right? Yes, that’s what the text says, but what does it mean? On the surface, it almost sounds as if Jesus yielded to the darkness. So, what do we do? Well, we examine Jesus’ withdrawal, and we see if we can gain some understanding of what it means.
Does it, for example, suggest that Jesus became afraid, so he decided to keep a low profile? Yikes! John’s been arrested and is likely to be executed. Maybe I’d better make myself scarce. Is that what was going on? Was Jesus running for the hills?
You know better than that – that is, if you know Jesus. You know that he was not afraid of the authorities. No earthly power could intimidate him, and no spiritual power could either. When the time came for him to offer his life on the cross, we are told that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” which is where he knew he would be executed (Luke 9:50). Right? He wasn’t running for the hills; he was running to the hill, the hill of Golgotha! He was not afraid of what man can do. He did not withdraw because of fear. He was not afraid of the forces of darkness.
But neither was he foolish. He exercised wisdom in his battle with evil. There is a long-standing military strategy referred to as defense in depth. And it works like this. When an attacking force is on the horizon, the strategy is not to prevent the advance of the enemy but, rather, to delay it. In this way, it buys time by yielding space. That’s what Jesus was doing when Matthew says that he “withdrew to Galilee” (Matt. 4:12).
And even when Jesus did march into enemy territory by going to Jerusalem, he went as “a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7). By silently going to his death, he allowed death – the greatest darkness of all – to completely overtake him. Surely, Satan and all his dark legions considered themselves victorious when it appeared to them that they had extinguished the light of Christ’s presence on the cross! They were ready to take their place in the “winner’s circle” and claim the triumph of evil over good. Don’t you think?
But what you and I know is that Jesus gave the enemies of truth just enough rope to hang themselves. Colossians 2:15 says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities” – disarmed them no less! and, more than that – “made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].”