Jesus, in His baptism, has told the world that He is going to walk the way of God righteously and now having defeated the tempter in the wilderness has set His eyes upon the people. It is tempting to read through this last portion of Matthew 4 very quickly because we know that the real material is about to drop in chapter 5, however, hopefully by now in our study of Matthew you have learned that no detail is given by Matthew just for the sake of filling space. Let’s carefully read through the remainder of chapter 4 and see the gold mine that Matthew is once again extracting from.
Matthew 4:12 Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; 4:13 And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: 4:14 That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, 4:15 The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; 4:16 The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. 4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
As we have been looking at John the Baptist, we have made many connections with Elijah in the Old Testament. This isn’t to suggest that John is Elijah or that he ever thought he was (i.e. John 1:21), but nevertheless, John is this fiery prophet in the wilderness who wears similar clothing and likewise has an odd diet, just as Elijah. And, just like Elijah reaches the end of his usefulness and God pull Elijah from the game and puts in Elisha, so too do we see John the Baptist being pulled from the game, as it were, and put in prison and passes his mantel to Jesus Christ. The mantel passing is the idea of their message and purpose. We would say that Elijah passed the torch to Elisha or, perhaps if we made an analogy to track and field, Elijah passed the baton in a relay race. The torch/baton/mantle of John the Baptist was his message and purpose, which centered around “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” In Matthew 4:17, we see exactly this – Jesus Christ picks up the mantle of John the Baptist and carries forward with this message.
There is a side discussion worth having over if Jesus is the “new” Elisha, but we’ll not take time in this post to dive into that.
John the Baptist is put in prison by Herod Antipas because of some snide comments John made to Herod about his brother, Philip’s, marriage. During the birth of Christ, Herod the Great had been contracted by Rome to rule over the area of Palestine. Herod was the king of Idumea-Nabatea, lands to the south and southeast of Judea. Herod wasn’t forced to become “Roman” per se, but was in a deal with Rome to keep this area of their empire under control. When Herod the Great dies, the area he ruled was divided amongst his sons. Herod Antipas took the region of the Galilee and Perea (across the Jordan, extending north into the area of the Decapolis and to the south, bordering the northern coast of the Dead Sea). Herod Philip takes the area east of the Galilee and north of the Decapolis and Herod Archelaus gets Judea and Jerusalem. Archelaus is deposed in 6AD and Rome takes the occasion to claim this more formally under their rule and institutes a Roman Governor of the area – Pontius Pilate. Almost 10 years after the death of Christ, Herod Antipas is exiled by Rome and Rome assumes control over his region of Palestine, installing king Herod Agrippa I. It is Herod Antipas who throws John the Baptist in jail and upon word of this, Jesus doesn’t run off and hide but rather goes to the heart of the region that Antipas ruled. He leaves the outskirts of Galilee (Nazareth) and moves to Capernaum, right on the Sea of Galilee. In Luke 4:16-31, we see an event happen in the synagogue in Nazareth (which we’ll circle back to later in our study in Matthew), but at this point, it is good enough to know that Jesus stood up in the synagogue and read scripture from Isaiah about the Messiah being anointed to preach the gospel to the poor and the acceptable year of the Lord. Jesus tells them that right then, this scripture was fulfilled before their faces – He was claiming to be this Messiah. Jesus mic-drops and sits down. This certainly caused a stir among the Nazarene synagogue goers and they eventually want to drag Jesus out of the town and dispose of him. Speculation: perhaps it is known that “no good thing comes from Nazareth” is a proverb of self-implemented? Meaning, perhaps people say this not because Nazareth can’t produce good things – but because Nazareth rejects the good things it produces? Jesus leaves the town He grew up in and moved to Capernaum. Matthew isn’t interested in simply chronicling the various areas Jesus may have resided in, but Matthew, who’s mind is deep into the Text, understands immediately what is going on by why Jesus is in these areas. Matthew quotes from Isaiah that were the lands of Zebulon and Naphthalim meet, by the sea, even beyond Jordan in the Galilee of the Gentiles, where people sat in darkness and the shadow of death loomed over them, that Jesus would see a great light. There are a couple of things to consider here.
First, this area of the Galilee and extending southward to what is known as Samaria was an area where the Assyrian empire made heavy strides to de-culturalize and de-nationalize the Jews they had conquered. 2Kings 17:24 And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel: and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof. This region was not considered “pure” by the Jewish standards of the south (Jerusalem). Samaria was certainly full of “half-breeds” due to the intermingling of these other nations, but Galilee wasn’t looked upon any better. In John’s Gospel, he records when folks begin questioning who Jesus is, some of them object to Jesus being the Christ because He was a Galilean. John 7:52 They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet. The regions to the north of Judea were certainly not viewed with the greatest of Jewish enthusiasm. They were outsiders and outcasts from the pretentious Judaism of the south. Jesus is born into the outsider life, becomes an outsider with them. He is rejected in His own town (Nazareth) and doesn’t even have a place to lay His head at night (as we’ll see in Matthew 8). It isn’t with glitz and glamour or parades and fanfare that Jesus enters His ministry – it is with the dirt and grit of outsider life and outsider perception. It will be from the mire of outsider existence that Jesus will offer more can celebrity glitz and glamour but His very heavenly glory.
Second, this area of the Galilee was where the Pharisees had settled into. Recall from our Post-Exilic Judaism series that when the Jewish leaders of the south became corrupt (the Sadducees), the Pharisees and the Zealots broke off and went north to the Galilee and settled towns there. The Pharisees had three main cities: Bethsaida, Chorizin and Capernaum. The Pharisees were school masters of the Old Testament and Capernaum was essentially the Harvard of their influence. No coincidence that this is where Jesus moves to. Jesus spends 3 years with the Pharisees but never rebukes them for their Pharisee association, but rather rebukes them for their hearts’ motives and their lack of compassion. Even Paul, when on a few occasions speaks of his Pharisaical life, calls himself a Pharisee in the PRESENT TENSE – “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). Yet, Paul understood through Jesus that the heart he had as a Pharisee needed changing. He didn’t stop being a Pharisee, but allowed Christ to conform Paul to His image and as a Pharisee, walk the path correctly. (See Philippians 3 for Paul’s testimony of this). Yet, the Pharisees viewed Rome as the judgment of God because of the sin of the people. If the people just repented, they thought, then God would stop this Roman nonsense. The Pharisees viewed their own people as the cause of the Roman occupation. And, through their lack of compassion and through the arrogance of their tactical obedience, what they failed to realize was it was their hearts that were the problem, not the people they looked down upon. Could it be that Isaiah’s words about the people sitting in darkness could have multiple meanings and that the Pharisees had their own part to play in not allowing the light to shine?
Lastly, this area includes the “Galilee of the Nations”, which is a reference to 20 cities that king Solomon gave to king Hiram (of Tyre) as a “thank you” for giving Solomon materials to build the Temple and of course a house for himself. In 1Kings 9, Solomon sees that these cities didn’t help give him any advantage in his conquest for wealth and empire so he unloads this baggage to the king of Tyre. Hiram recognizes exactly what is going on and is like, “is this any way to treat a brother?” Hiram names the area Cabul, which means “fettered” or “bound” or “shackled.” In other words, even the king of Tyre saw these as dead weights to his own kingdom. Solomon sold these areas away from Israel and they eventually fall victim as well to the Assyrians. These people sat in darkness, ultimately, because Solomon was more concerned with his own lust for empire than he was in loving his neighbor.
Whether it was the Pharisees’ misappropriated view of themselves and their people or whether it was Solomon kicking them to the curb or whether it was the ultimate impacts and fallout of Assyrian captivity, these folks sat in darkness as unwanted and unloved. It is this very spot that Jesus will spend three years – rebuking the Pharisees’ religious bondage and reversing the decision of Solomon and rescuing the captives. The rescue mission operated under the banner of preaching repentance for the kingdom of heaven being at hand. In other words, the kingdoms of the world that had done these areas wrongly were about to be undone by the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 4:18 And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. 4:19 And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. 4:20 And they straightway left their nets, and followed him. 4:21 And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. 4:22 And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
This Light that is beginning to shine in darkness isn’t intending on operating alone. He is going to call disciples unto Himself (whom He would later tell them that they are the light of the world). He finds Simon Peter and Andrew fishing. Cultural context would suggest that these two are “of age” as they aren’t out fishing with their father. In the Jewish school system, you were hoping to be so good with the Old Testament that you would be picked up by a rabbi and become their disciple. This only happened for a very small percentage of the population and if you didn’t make the cut, you were told to go home and apply your father’s trade. Andrew and Peter are out fishing but the absence of their father again suggests that they are at least 13 years old, but most likely somewhere between 14 and 17. This may seem a bit odd as our modern culture doesn’t understand people of this age working on their own. We have labor laws in this country to keep children from growing up. We extend the need for a child to grow and accept responsibility of life further and further that we have folks who are in the mid 20s and even early 30s who have “satisfied” what the government has said is the right way to go in life and yet they have no clue on how to manage life. Life wasn’t lavish appetizer that one would just nibble on from time to time, but life was something that was cherished and needed to be harnessed responsibly. The Jews of that day didn’t waste any time. There wasn’t a push to make sure they didn’t harm their child’s childhood. After all, if the child grew up as a leech on society, all of the fun a child had in their childhood was for naught. In fact, not properly training a child in the way he should go was harming their childhood. Therefore, folks go to work and got serious about life much sooner than we do in our modern, hand-held culture.
James (a Latinized form of Jacob) and John were fishing with their father, so they too had gone home to apply their father’s trade, but since they are with their father, they are probably somewhere between the ages of 11 and 13 (again, we can’t “prove” this, but cultural context would make this very reasonable). Jesus uses the professions of these teenagers as a means to call them into His ministry. This should be very telling – Jesus doesn’t find basket weavers and tell them He is going to make them fishers of men. Jesus takes the talents of the individual and uses those for His purpose. These boys leave their nets immediately to follow Christ. This was their second chance. They hadn’t gotten picked up by a rabbi from their formal schooling but now, they have a second chance and what a second chance it is! Jesus doesn’t pick them up because of their in-depth handling of the Old Testament, as was the usual way a rabbi would select his disciples, but rather Jesus picks them up because of what He sees in these boys, especially when He sees what He will do in/through them.
Matthew 4:23 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people. 4:24 And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. 4:25 And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.
The Light that was shining in darkness was the light of this kingdom that Jesus was preaching. It was the good news to those who sat in darkness, being abused by the kingdoms of this world, were now being liberated by the glorious light of the King of Heaven. We’ve talked about this kingdom before, but I want to pick up on a different aspect this go around. Our context has lead us to think about the treatment of the kingdoms of this world have on the outcasts. Rome as the kingdom of the day and they were no more equitable. However, there is something interesting we should know about one of Rome’s leaders, Caesar Augustus. In a city called Priene, which is modern-day Turkey, there was an inscription discovered that was essentially the birth announcement for Caesar Augustus. August’s real name was Octavian. His father, Julius Caesar, had died and when a comet was scene in the sky (known as Caesar’s Comet), it was said that Julius was passing into the realm of the divine – he had become a god. Therefore, his son was the son of a god. It is from this that Octavian took the name Augustus. This inscription reads,
Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him.
August was not just another Caesar in the line of Caesars but was seen as surpassing all who came before him and leavening no room for anyone who came after him to accomplish anything better. He was seen as the benefactor of mankind – as a savior, but not just for his immediate empire, but his salvation would be for all those who would be born after that generation. Rome saw the birth of Augustus as the birth of the son of god and the beginning of the good tidings for the world. The phrase, good tidings, is from the same word we get gospel from (euangelion, where we get our English word, evangelism). In other words, the birth of August was the beginning of the gospel of August, the son of god. This is the historical culture that Jesus was born in. The writers of the scripture didn’t shy away from this. They didn’t beat around the bush nor sugar coat their stance on Jesus Christ in relation to Rome or to Caesar. In fact, Mark, who writes with a Roman audience in mind, flat out begins his gospel with, Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is an outright assault on the notion that Caesar was the son of a god and on the notion that Caesar had a gospel of salvation to the world. The preaching of the kingdom of God by Jesus Christ – this gospel of the kingdom – was likewise an assault on the Roman notion of kingdom and empire and its king. The good news of the kingdom wasn’t found with Rome nor with Caesar – the good news, the glad tidings – the gospel of the kingdom was heaven’s answer to Caesar’s assent up Babel’s Tower. Matthew wants us to be focused on the nature of this kingdom – a place of healing, but as he quotes from Isaiah, that we would also rest assured that this kingdom doesn’t rise and fall with the tides of history, but this kingdom is established and established for ever and is ordered by righteousness and peace, not empire and wealth. Rome masqueraded chaos with a false sense of peace, but Jesus arrives to literally bring peace to a world in chaos. That’s the gospel of the kingdom!
Isaiah 9:1 Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. 9:2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. 9:3 Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. 9:4 For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.
[side comment: this day of Midian is a reference to Judges 7 where Joshua takes the Midian by blowing shofars and breaking clay pots, thereby confusing the Midianites with all of this crazy noise]
9:5 For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire. 9:6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. 9:7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
Matthew has summarized what he feels we need to know before getting into the heart of Jesus’ ministry – what the kingdom of God looks like and what it means for those who follow Christ. We are 9 lessons deep into Matthew and if you go back and review the previous lessons, I think you’ll find that just in summarizing the events that get us up to the ministry of Christ, Matthew has directly given you enough material to keep you digging in the scriptures for months. We are only about 14% finished with the book of Matthew (as chapters go) and it could be argued that the meatiest stuff is yet to come. If you get nothing else from these first lessons, I hope you get the need to slow down and really ingest the scriptures. So many of us want to eat like we eat dinner – just dump the vegetables out of the can and scarf them down. There’s no real preparation – no real care given to the food. And, when eating it, they are devoured quickly with no appreciation and reflection. Let’s not treat the the scriptures as a quick meal of canned food – slow down and stop and meditate on His word – appreciate the preparation of the authors and the care taken to prepare it and reflect as you consume it.
Our next post will launch us squarely into the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has called His disciples and is now going to teach His disciples what a kingdom heart looks like and then when we get into chapters 8 and 9, we’ll see Jesus do exactly what rabbis do – teach how to walk the path, then go and walk the path. Jesus will immediately practice what He preaches after this sermon.
Our story continues!…