1. Chronology Discussion
2. Chronology List
2. The New Testament
The People who sat in Darkness
1. Defining the Area
a. The land of Zebulun
b. The land of Naphtali
c. Toward the Sea
d. Across the Jordan
e. Galilee of the Gentiles
2. Historical Context
3. Jesus as the fulfilment
2. The Threefold ministry of Christ
d. Three of one not one of three
3. The Asides of Matthew
Come and Follow
1. Matthew’s nets
a. The Cast Net
b. The Gill Net
c. The Drag Net
2. The call of Peter
Believe me! I tried to split this web page down into smaller chunks!
But what appears to be a series of four unconnected passages become one unit when you start thinking about them. Indeed, they represent the opening ‘shots’, so to speak, of Jesus’ ministry and the questions they raise regarding John’s very different record of events means that a consideration of the Gospel chronology is important and necessary before we can begin.
I got rather hung up on Capernaum as you’ll see by the quantity I wrote on it and the land demarcations which follow are interesting (and they link to 4:25) and, as numbers of commentators seem to wage war on the precise definitions, I thought it best to record what seems most appropriate.
The first message of Jesus as ‘repent’ (4:17) tied in well with both 4:23 and the statement of the preceding verses so my main attempt at drawing a line under it also failed abysmally. I again found that the call of Peter and John threw up so many questions that I needed to forget what I’d always thought was the obvious scenario and go back to the drawing board.
At least I didn’t spend too much time on the last three verses (we can, indeed, be grateful for small mercies)!
The Gospel writers do not always appear to have had chronology uppermost in their minds when it came to compiling a series of events and sayings from the life of Jesus (though, thankfully, they all place the death and resurrection at the end of their books and the birth, where it’s mentioned, at the beginning!), which gives the reader a few problems when it comes to attempting to bring some coherence to the incidents.
The chronology of the conception and birth has already been dealt with by myself here and there we saw that the pieces left for us fit together rather well. Here, though, some of the incidents would not have been expected to have occurred from what is before us in Matthew’s Gospel but it would appear that, between the return from the wilderness to the time when Jesus began His ‘Galilean’ ministry, there was a period of numerous weeks - perhaps months.
We get this mainly from John’s accounts which puts John the Baptist as very much a person at large and continuing to make disciples even after Jesus’ water baptism. Mtw 4:12 makes it sound as if there was an immediacy in the departure of Jesus to Galilee following the arrest of John which naturally reads as occurring almost as soon as He had returned from the wilderness - but this does not appear to have been the case on closer inspection.
Anyway, we’ll go through the passages step by step and see what actually happened before Jesus appears in Galilee preaching ‘Repent...’ (Mtw 4:17), a message which was the progression of John’s ministry once he’d been arrested by Herod.
1. Chronology Discussion
We first need to tie in the references to John the Baptist and Jesus in the first three Gospels and see how they tell us when the arrest took place and when, in fact, Jesus began what is now known as His ‘Galilean Ministry’.
It says plainly that, when Jesus heard that John was in prison He went back to Galilee and moved house (Mtw 4:12, Mark 1:14-15). The definite statement here, then, means that we know for a certainty that John’s arrest was the incident which seems to have sparked off the change of residency from Nazareth to Capernaum in Galilee. Luke unfortunately tells us about the arrest of John in the middle of his baptism passage so that it cannot be accurately dated along with the incidents that are recorded later on in his account (Luke 3:19-20).
‘From that time...’ Matthew informs us (that is, the time of John’s arrest and of His removal into Capernaum), Jesus began to preach repentance to Israel (Mtw 4:17) and then called the disciples to Himself when He re-met them on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Moving on into later passages in Matthew’s Gospel, 11:2 presents us with an incident in which John is in prison and in which he sends a message via his disciples to speak to Jesus concerning the things He was doing and the signs which were being done through Him. This certainly means that the Baptist was in prison but, like Luke, there is no real opportunity for us here to date it within the overall scheme of things.
Finally, Mtw 14:2, Mark 6:14 and Luke 9:7 all speak of John being dead, for Herod and the other Jews couldn’t have considered that he had been raised and was now in bodily form as Jesus unless he’d been executed by this time!
The Synoptic Gospels, therefore, present a coherent picture as to the events concerning John the Baptist but, when we turn to John, we see that things are not as simplistic as they seem to be. As noted above, it appears that, almost immediately after the wilderness experience, John was arrested and Jesus returned to Galilee, changed residency to Capernaum and so began His Galilean Ministry.
John’s Gospel presents just a little bit of a problem but, if it’s written in chronological order, it shows us that there was a significant amount of time which elapsed between the return from the wilderness experience and the time that Jesus moved to Capernaum and began to preach repentance to Israel as John the Baptist had done - it’s certainly not a problem to insert periods of time into Matthew’s Gospel, it’s just that it isn’t obvious that this is what should be done unless John is considered.
John doesn’t locate the water baptism of Jesus for us in the events that he records but we know that it must have taken place by the incident of John 1:29-35. It may be true to say that the wilderness experience has also taken place by this time and that, when Jesus had finished His time there, He first returned to where John the Baptist was before going north back into Galilee. John’s phraseology (John 1:35,43) make it almost necessary that the wilderness experience occurred before these passages for it would be difficult to be able to insert a period of forty days into this passage without doing a hatchet job to the overall flow.
‘The next day’ after John 1:29-34 takes place (John 1:35), Jesus meets both Simon and Andrew (1:38-39 implying that Jesus had some form of lodgings close nearby) and, ‘the next day’ once more (John 1:43), Jesus decides to go back to Galilee and takes Philip with him. At this time, Jesus is still resident in Nazareth (John 1:46) and, judging by John 3:23-24, the Baptist is still not in prison. This return into Galilee, therefore, must have been prior to that recorded for us in Mtw 4:12.
The subsequent passage in John’s Gospel (John 2:1-11) took place ‘on the third day’ (2:1 - after they’d got back from Judea?) and His family and friends then went to Capernaum - not to live but to remain there for just a few days (John 2:12), perhaps to see how the land lay or to visit Jesus’ new friends in Peter and Andrew.
The Passover was close at hand by now so Jesus went up to Jerusalem to attend the festival as all male Jews were compelled to do (John 3:1-21) but, while He was in the city He did ‘signs’ (John 1:23) so that many believed in Him. Instead of returning directly into Galilee, Jesus and the disciples then journeyed eastwards into Judea where the disciples baptized many in water (John 3:22) and where John also was making disciples (John 3:23-24 Cp John 4:2) for John was not yet committed into prison.
John heard of Jesus’ fame through a discussion that was brought before him, the incident of John 3:25-36 taking place as a response to this.
Then comes the return of Jesus into Galilee (John 4:1-3) which appears to be that paralleled by the statements in Matthew and Mark that Jesus withdrew into Galilee after He’d heard that John had been arrested by Herod. John gives us a secondary reason for His return home and that because the religious leaders had started to hear that He was making more disciples than John was.
From here onwards, the incident amongst the Samaritans (John 4:4-42) takes place and, after a couple of days (John 4:43), He departs once more for Galilee, arriving in the village of Cana where an official comes and beseeches Him to heal his son who is ill in Capernaum (John 4:46-54). This miracle is spoken of as being the second of the signs He did in Galilee so it must precede the full scale launch of His ministry in the area.
At this juncture, the move probably takes place into Capernaum (Mtw 4:13) but He then goes back to Nazareth (perhaps it was on one of his trips to the village to tie all His affairs up?) where Luke 4:16-30 takes place, John recording for us that Jesus realised that a prophet lacks any honour in the place where He comes from (John 4:44). Luke 4:23 needs to be considered here which has Jesus speaking to the Nazarenes and putting words into their mouth as saying to Him
‘...what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country’
an inference that signs and wonders had already been seen to be performed. This may push this incident a little further after where I’ve placed it in the chronology list below but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the miraculous had begun to be performed even before the large scale healing took place, the former being the prompt for the multitudes to come to Him.
It may seem like an assumption to assert that the move to Capernaum took place before Luke’s record of His visit to Nazareth, but the writer does inform us that the village was ‘where He had been brought up’, thus inferring that He was not now resident there.
As we saw above, a Capernaum official came to Jesus so that his son might live. It is possible that Jesus chose this village to move to because of the great need which He saw round about Him and because His first disciples came from this area and He needed to be close by to be with them. Whatever, His move was probably prompted by His understanding of the will of God the Father for His life.
His ministry then begins throughout Galilee (John 4:45) though Mtw 4:23-25 is not strictly in chronological order seeing as it summates Jesus’ ministry amongst the Galileans which took place over the course of, presumably, many months.
Luke 4:31 says He went down to Capernaum and taught on the sabbath, and this appears to have taken place next, Jesus now resident in that town. Mark 1:21 (Pp Mtw 4:18-20) infers it happened before the call of Peter and this should be followed here as Luke 5:1-11 seems to have been a different incident to that recorded for us previously (see below).
So began Jesus’ Galilean ministry but it needs to be remembered that, though the Synoptic Gospel writers seem to tell us that the wilderness experience ended almost the same time as John’s arrest and Jesus’ return into Galilee and His change of location to Capernaum, there must have been a number of weeks that elapsed while the incidents of John’s Gospel were taking place.
2. Chronology List
I have provided a list here of the main events of the period between Jesus receiving water baptism from John and the beginning of His Galilean Ministry into an easily accessible chronological order. The list seems to be the best way of understanding how the events interrelate though there may be a couple of incidents which readers may feel should be swapped round with others.
But it does give a framework which can be compared with the Scriptures to see if it ‘works’ and should be an easier proposition to disagree with and revise rather than have to start from scratch as I did!
Mtw 4:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22 - The water baptism of Jesus
Mtw 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13 - The Testing of Jesus
John 1:29-34 - John’s testimony as to who was the Christ
John 1:35-42 - Jesus meets Andrew and Peter for the first time
John 1:43-51 - Jesus calls Philip and meets Nathanael and decides to return to Galilee
John 2:1-11 - The marriage feast at Cana
John 2:12-12 - Jesus, his family and the disciples visit Capernaum for a few days
John 2:13 - Jesus journeys to Jerusalem for the Passover
John 2:14-25 - The first cleansing of the Temple and the testimony of some Jews
John 3:1-21 - Interview with Nicodemus in Jerusalem
John 3:22 - Jesus and the disciples leave Jerusalem and enter the wilderness of Judea to baptize converts
John 3:23-36 - The discussion between the Baptist and his disciples
Mtw 4:12a, Mark 1:14a - John the Baptist’s arrest
Mtw 4:12b, Mark 1:14b, Luke 4:14, John 4:1-3 - Jesus’ return into Galilee
John 4:4-42 - Jesus’ ministry to the Samaritans on the way to Galilee
John 4:43-46a - Jesus arrives in Galilee, perhaps into the village of Cana
John 4:46b-54 - The healing of the official’s son who lived in Capernaum while Jesus was in Cana
Mtw 4:13-16 - Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Capernaum
Mtw 4:17, Mark 1:15 - The fulness of Jesus’ ministry begins
Luke 4:16-30 - The ministry in Nazareth
Mtw 4:18-20, Mark 1:16-18 - The first calling (as opposed to the encounter in Judea) of Peter and Andrew
Mtw 4:21-22, Mark 1:19-20 - The first calling of James and John
Mark 1:21-28, Luke 4:31-37 - The miracle in the Capernaum synagogue on the sabbath
Mark 1:29-31, Luke 4:38-39 - Healing Peter’s mother-in-law
Mark 1:32-34, Luke 4:40-41 - Healing all who came to Him
Mark 1:35-38, Luke 4:42-44 - Jesus’ choice to forsake the current ministry in Capernaum for the time being and move on
Mtw 4:23-25, Mark 1:39 - A summary of Jesus’ Galilean Ministry
As Capernaum was the place that Jesus chose to base His ministry from a very early date after His return from the wilderness testing, it seems only right that we look at what place it may have been by referring to the Archaeological, Historical and Gospel accounts.
I would like to be able to give you some eyewitness account of the area as I saw it back on my visit to Israel in 1986 when I attended the Feast of Tabernacles along with many other christians from across the world. However, I was enrolled on a trip that insisted on driving passed all the interesting sites and concentrating their efforts on pretty mundane places where they’d gather into a holy huddle, close their eyes and pray.
At Caesarea Philippi, we drove passed the tourists up to a Crusader fortress situated on the hill above, we prayed at the Jerusalem rubbish tip which overlooked the Temple Mount (had it not been for the trees, we may have seen something of the city as we were praying!) and, at Capernaum, we sped on by heading for a synagogue built on the traditional site of the miracle of the swine that threw themselves over the cliff (though we weren’t allowed to actually go up to the caves where Legion probably dwelt and neither visit the cliffs that the swine may have gone over!).
So, if I should describe you how the land lies and what you would see if you’d lived there in first century Israel, I would be largely relaying my reading of the information from the text books and this is of little use - if it is, indeed, of any use at all!
I shall just confine myself here, then, to describing some of the more interesting points that seem to be fairly well accepted and attested.
Capernaum is referred to as a city (Strongs Greek number 4172) in two places in the Gospels. Mtw 9:1 simply states that Jesus got into a boat and crossed over the Sea of Galilee and ‘came to His own city’ which we know from Mtw 4:13 to be Capernaum. Mark 1:33 speaks of the ‘whole city’ being gathered together at the entrance to the door of Simon and Andrew (Mark 1:29) which, again, we know to have been Capernaum (Mark 1:21ff).
The place, then, was regarded as more than a village and the Greek word means primarily, according to Vines
‘a town enclosed with a wall’
Kittels also noting that it
‘...first means a fortified settlement. With the idea of political development, the idea of fortification drops away’
but goes on to point out that never in the NT does it retain its political overtones so that it’s correct to understand from its usage a walled city and centre that may have subordinate towns (specifically, Strongs Greek number 2968) associated with it where Vines contrasts these two Greek words by stating that the latter rightly means a
‘country town...as distinct from a walled town’
Additionally, Kittels states that ‘city’
‘...in the NT is an enclosed place of human habitation as distinct from villages, isolated dwellings or uninhabited places’
It is not without significance that the village of Nazareth is also referred to as a city (Mtw 2:23, Luke 1:26, 2:4) which, according to the sources above, would infer that it was a fortified place during the time of its mention in the Gospels. However, this is most unlikely - not just because the references I can find to the village make no mention of any fortified structures unearthed in archaeological digs there (though the site has been extensively inhabited and Zondervan notes that major archaeological work is impossible because of the density of its present population) but because Josephus doesn’t so much as mention it in his recounting of the Jewish War - as all contemporary records don’t.
If Nazareth had been a strongly fortified city, I would have expected (perhaps wrongly) to have read some description of its resistance or recapitulation to the advancing Roman armies as they swept through the land from the plains of Megiddo - this argument from silence, however, could also be levelled at Capernaum for Josephus probably doesn’t mention the city at all except in his ‘Life’ (see below).
The town of Nazareth also goes unmentioned throughout the OT (unless it changed its name into NT times) and Zondervan notes that both the Talmud and the entire body of literature authored by Josephus fails to mention it.
Zondervan concludes - before any evidence is presented to the reader - that
‘There is reason to believe that Nazareth was a rather insignificant town in Jesus’ day overshadowed by the larger city to the north [of] Sepphoris’
even though, as I have mentioned previously, the latter’s position would probably have given Joseph and Jesus sufficient opportunity in which to earn a decent living (see here).
Therefore, the clear demarcation in meaning of the two Greek words may be a little more fanciful than the linguists suggest but, if we turn to other evidence, we can see that Capernaum was indeed a very important and significant place and that it rightfully enjoyed a description of itself as a city in the Gospel records.
2. The New Testament
We have only to look at some of the descriptions given to us in the NT to understand that Capernaum at the time of Christ must have been a very important and probably very prosperous city.
For instance, John 4:46 tells us that
‘...at Capernaum there was an official whose son was ill’
The Greek word for ‘official’ here (Strongs Greek number 937) rightly means one who has royal honour and who is in the service of a king, Kittels defining the word as meaning ‘royal official’
Similarly, Mtw 8:5 tells us that
‘As [Jesus] entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him’
where the word for ‘centurion’ (Strongs Greek number 1543) means an officer enrolled in the Roman army who had authority over approximately a hundred soldiers though, according to Zondervan, it was normal that the centurion never rose to the ranks of a more major military position, the best that he could hope for being a position of recognition that he was ‘senior’ over those centurions who ranked as his equal.
Luke 7:1ff appears to record the same incident and, though the details could be reconciled into a single passage, it remains that these could be two separate events. However, if the centurion is taken as being the same, we read of the Jewish elders approaching Jesus to petition Him to heal the centurion’s slave saying (Luke 7:4-5)
‘...He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built us our synagogue’
which indicates that not only was there a centurion resident in the area (though how far Jesus had to travel to get near to the soldier’s house is impossible to determine - Luke 7:6) but that he had sufficient finance to be able to contribute (if not to wholly fund) the building of a synagogue for the people who he had been established to rule over.
Matthew, the tax collector whom Jesus called to be one of His disciples, also seems to have been collecting taxes in or around the city. After noting that Jesus ‘came to His own city’ (Mtw 9:1), the bed-bound paralytic is healed and (Mtw 9:9)
‘As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office...’
This may indicate that Capernaum was a city of taxation and, therefore, of financial importance but Mark 2:13-14 may infer that the tax office was situated at some distance from the city.
Capernaum also appears to have been the city where the half-shekel tax was collected (Mtw 17:24) but it is likely that the Jewish collectors only stumble upon Jesus in Capernaum because they’ve arrived there from another village or city doing ‘the rounds’.
What we see from these NT records, therefore, is of a large populous area which had a fairly important place in the region, having a royal official resident here along with a centurion and, necessarily, his own soldiers and a garrison of Romans. That the city may also have been a centre of taxation indicates prosperity also.
‘...it is perhaps allowable to imagine that it was on the sea beach that [Simon and Andrew] heard the quiet call...’
paints a too vivid picture of what the city wasn’t for it to be accepted with any great accuracy.
We may tend to think of Capernaum in the image of postcards and illustrations drawn from the area today, of a small rural community where fishermen mended their nets in the quietness of the countryside and lakeshore, but it must have been a very active and thriving community with a large Gentile population and the fishermen who had their own trade here were simply one among many who plied the seas of Galilee for their cash crop of fresh fish delivered to the large and mixed race population.
The name ‘Capernaum’ simply means ‘the village of Nahum’ though how or why it ever got this name and who this ‘Nahum’ was cannot be ascertained. It certainly is not mentioned in the OT and therefore may have been a small settlement until the Roman influence upon and occupation of the land. Though the site of the city had for a long time been disputed, there seems no reason to doubt anymore that the present location on the maps is the genuine place almost on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee.
Archaeological evidence of Roman occupation at Capernaum is ample mostly in the form of pottery associated with their occupation, even though NIDBA states simply that
‘Nothing remains from NT times’
Certainly, most of the architectural evidence is of a second or third century city and therefore well outside the time of Jesus’ presence there but one interesting feature is the synagogue (believed to be situated on the site of the first century synagogue in which Jesus taught) which contains a pillar with the inscription
‘Alphaeus, son of Zebedee, son of John, made this column; on him be blessing’
which could be an indication that the descendants of John the apostle continued to live and work here and that they retained their family name throughout successive generations (Mtw 4:21) - but we shouldn’t place too much weight on this.
This is now generally dated to the fourth century AD so that a continuation of the family for around three hundred years is starting to get just a little tenuous, even though AEHL notes that the style of decoration and architecture point onwards a date of the late second or early third centuries.
In September/October 1993’s Biblical Archaeology Review, the article ‘Capernaum - From Jesus’ Time and After’ by John Laughlin makes a few interesting observations concerning the Greek Orthodox property that had begun to be excavated and which had lay outside most of the older excavations - however, the title of the article was somewhat of a contradiction for most of the evidence related came from a period after Jesus was resident here.
Even when they did find evidence of first century occupation, he tells us (page 57) that
‘...since we did not want to destroy the later building on top [a Roman bathhouse of the second or third century AD], the full plan of this earlier structure is still unknown’
which is all very well from a conservation point of view but hardly good enough for us to construct an accurate picture of the first century city from. It does seem likely, however, that this earlier structure was also a Roman bathhouse as the layout and plan of it is strikingly similar.
At the outset of his article (page 55), the author states that
‘New evidence indicates that Romans indeed lived in Capernaum in the first century AD [by a simple opening of the Bible this would have been apparent!]. Moreover, far from being a poor, isolated village, Capernaum, the centre of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, was quite prosperous and was apparently home to Gentiles as well as Jews [gasp! You’re kidding? What a shame that archaeology seems to be relying less and less today on historical records and more and more upon their own individualistic interpretation of what they dig up!]’
going on to note that there are ‘meagre remains’ of the first century ‘town’ [sic] but that (page 57-8)
‘The few architectural remains indicate that the buildings were spacious and well constructed of dressed stones with large amounts of plaster. This suggests that the village flourished economically during Jesus’ time. Its location on the crossroads of important trade routes, the fertile lands surrounding it and the rich fishing available all contributed to its economic development’
My wife also remembered, having visited the site, that there was an array of Jerusalem limestone there in the building construction rather than the naturally occurring black basalt of the region, indicating a prosperity that could afford to bring such building materials from many miles distant - however, evidence for this is lacking in the sources I referred to and it may be that these stones are generally accepted as having been dressed for later buildings to that of the first century.
4. Josephus and others
Josephus mentions Capernaum but his details are somewhat perplexing and tell us very little that we could use either to locate its site or to inform us as to the prosperity and situation of the immediate region which lay a few miles from its centre.
In War (page231), Josephus begins by describing the area and region of Genessaret as
‘...a stretch of country with the same name [as the lake]...’
and goes on to detail the exquisite climate there which, he says, means that nearly every plant and crop is able to grow for there is both heat and cold here which suit different types of plants. Concluding his description of the area, he notes that
‘...apart from the temperate atmosphere it is watered by a spring with great fertilising power, known locally as Capernaum [the on line text translates it as Capharnaum - 3.10.8 - but it is normally accepted as being the name of the city - this may be an error]. Some have thought this an offshoot of the Nile as it breeds a fish very like the perch caught in the lake of Alexandria. The length of the region [Genessaret] measured along the shore of the lake that bears the same name is three and a half miles, the width two and a half’
If these distances are correct, Capernaum would have been situated on the SW edge of the region known as Genessaret and the river which flowed through the region - if it follows the same course as it does today - would have emptied itself into the Sea of Galilee south of both cities, but similarly called ‘Capernaum’.
This has led many to propose the location for the Jesus’ city at a different location to that generally accepted, lying at the mouth of the river seemingly associated with Josephus’ account, but there is no reason to think that Josephus refers to a city rather than to the river here.
Indeed, in his ‘Life’ (also known as ‘Autobiography’) we read of Capernaum (verse 72) but as a city and here Josephus gives the alternative name of Cepharnome, so dissimilar to the name of the river in War that it may be doubtful that it is meant to be taken as the same place (if anyone could look at the original autographs, I would be extremely grateful).
Unfortunately, his descriptions of where he was fighting could lend support to a location just about anywhere in the region and justification for the acceptance of either location for Capernaum is impossible on this basis. All that can be known from Josephus here is that the region had marshes associated with it, as he writes
‘...And I had performed great things that day, if a certain fate had not been my hindrance; for the horse on which I rode, and upon whose back I fought, fell into a quagmire, and threw me on the ground, and I was bruised on my wrist, and carried into a village named Cepharnome, or Capernaum...’
More than this, however, we cannot say.
The only other references appear to be in later Jewish writings but these may refer to the time of Jesus’ residency. AEHL notes that
‘In later Jewish sources, Capernaum is referred to as a seat of minim, or sectarians, perhaps referring to the time of Jesus’
but this tells us nothing about the prosperity and importance of the city.
The People who sat in Darkness
The area defined by Isaiah the prophet in his speech about the emergence of a great light in a land that was experiencing great darkness has five specific demarcations which give us the general area in which the Light was to be made known to Israel.
In Isaiah 9:1, the text reads slightly differently, the first two locations being further labelled with three descriptions that seem to summarise what has just been said.
‘...In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations’
so that both the area apportioned to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are the areas which have fallen into contempt but which will be transformed by the coming of the Light and further labelled as the way of the sea, the land beyond Jordan and Galilee of the nations (or ‘Gentiles’). At least, this is how it seems to read - when we come to think about what the descriptions actually mean below, we will see that they expand the tribal allotment as given to both Zebulun and Naphtali and point to areas that these two peoples were never considered to have been given by God.
Therefore Matthew is quite correct to use all five labels to define the entire area in which the great Light is to be seen and writes (4:15)
‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles’
almost as a title and definition for the statement which he quotes and interprets in the following verse and which equates with Is 9:2, omitting the description of the land as being one which was under contempt but which would receive the glory from God upon it. For Matthew, the importance seems to be to show his readers the area in which the Christ was to be first made known rather than include words which would have cluttered up his narrative (his words are paralleled in 4:25 and I note this in my last section on this web page).
These five definitions of the area, though, need to be understood as they would have been to Isaiah’s original hearers (if at all possible) in order that we may consider the area in which Jesus operated at the beginning of His ministry - then we shall go on to look at the historical context of the original prophecy before seeing how Jesus is considered to have fulfilled it.
1. Defining the Area
The best way, it seems to me, to understand the area to which Isaiah is referring is to look at the tribal allotments of both Zebulun and Naphtali for the first two phrases and use these to give us an indication of the region meant.
Both Naphtali and Zebulun often appear together in Scriptures, mainly because they were neighbours and often acted together in their dealings with the throne of both Judah and Israel to the south. Therefore, in the incident with Deborah and Barak, the armies of Naphtali and Zebulun are called out to take part in the conflict against Sisera, the commander of the king of Hazor’s army (Judges 4:6,10, 5:18) being two of the tribes nearest to the brook Kishon where the battle was to take place (Judges 4:7) though it is significant that Issachar who dwelt probably closer to the scene than either of the two tribes was also present (Judges 5:15).
They also appear as having been called out by Gideon against the Midianites (Judges 6:35), the reason again being that they were closest to the battlefield and are mentioned together in Ps 68:27 as both having ‘princes’ which seem to have been involved significantly in the procession of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (which appears to be the reason for the writing of the Psalm).
The area of Zebulun and Naphtali (along with Issachar) also became synonymous with the most northern extent of the Israelite territory (I Chr 12:40) which may also indicate that, by this time, the tribe of Dan who had migrated northwards from the sea edge to the west had already ceased to be regarded as part of the nation (Judges chapter 18).
Having shown their corporate identification, we need to look at their individualism especially with regard to the tribal allotment given under Joshua. The reader should get hold of a Biblical atlas of the OT and NT before reading any further as this will help them to understand the boundaries given to both these tribes and the other three descriptions which follow - I would have loved to have included a small scan of the Oxford Bible Atlas’s excellent map of the area but, unfortunately, as they refused me a small excerpt for my notes on the Seven Churches, I expect they would refuse me permission had I written to them concerning this request also so didn’t bother.
a. The land of Zebulun
Zebulun’s territory is detailed in Joshua 19:10-16 and, if the identification of the villages and towns in the Oxford Bible Atlas is correct, it was a land-locked area almost exactly equidistant between the west coast of Israel where the Mediterranean is located and the east where the Sea of Galilee was. In area, it represented a tract of land some fifteen miles by ten, but, as the exact location of some of the boundaries is uncertain it may vary quite considerably from these dimensions. The village of NT Nazareth would have been included within their territory and also, possibly, Cana.
Interestingly, Gen 49:13 speaks of the tribe being dwellers beside ‘the shore of the sea’ and that his northern boundary would lie at Sidon while Deut 33:18-19 links the tribe with Issachar and speaks of them as sucking
‘...the affluence of the seas and the hidden treasures of the sand’
It always amazes me that, if the OT Scriptures were supposed to have been written hundreds of years after the event and then only to give the nation some justification for their existence, why didn’t they make the prophetic word automatically fulfilled?!
Unfulfilled prophetic words are not a problem to the believer for such statements are always conditional upon a correct freewill response in the people to whom the word comes (see my notes here) but they appear to be more of a problem to those who assert some sort of conspiracy on the part of the Israelites to justify their own existence!
However, it does remain a possibility that, had they remained faithful to the Lord, as Asher and Naphtali would have had to have expanded their territory northwards, they may have allowed Zebulun to possess parts of their land on the southern boundaries, thus giving them access both west and east to the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee respectively. This is only a suggestion but, had Zebulun had to stick to their original allotment, they would never have been able to expand within the nation.
Though the inheritance outlined in Joshua 19:10-16 had been given to the tribe, Judges 1:30 notes that they never succeeded in possessing all that had been promised for they
‘...did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; but the Canaanites dwelt among them, and became subject to forced labour’
To conclude on a positive note, it appears that there were some amongst the Zebulunites who remained faithful to the God of their fathers as late as the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah (II Chron 30:11) even though they appear not to have been too aware of the necessity of cleansing themselves according to the Mosaic law (II Chr 30:18)!
Motyer sees Zebulun as having been captured by the Assyrian king along with the region of Naphtali but, if the list of cities and areas are as comprehensive as they appear to be of the boundaries of his campaign in II Kings 15:29, only a small proportion of Zebulun’s land would have come under Assyrian control at that time, a good reason for the continued existence of faithful Israelites as late as king Hezekiah as noted above, even though the final Assyrian conquest of the land and exile of the inhabitants occurred some ten years later and would have included this region.
b. The land of Naphtali
Naphtali’s allotment lay adjacent to Zebulun’s on their eastern flank, their territory defined for us in Joshua 19:32-39, even though some of the descriptions tend to cut against the Oxford Bible Atlas’s pencilling in of their territory, especially when we read that they touched the boundary of Judah on the eastern flank next to the Jordan (though the GNB notes that one manuscript actually reads ‘and the Jordan on the east’ which is to be preferred here).
By the mention of the cities of Chinnereth and Hammath (19:35) along with Lakkum (19:33), it can immediately be seen that the tribe hugged closely the western shoreline of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum naturally falling within their boundaries and their northernmost tip probably extending many miles to abut the eastern flank of Asher (19:34 see also Deut 33:23).
In all, the area was probably no more than ten miles wide in it’s north to south layout but extended some thirty or forty miles towards the southern tip of the tribe of Dan’s subsequent northerly migration.
Like Zebulun, however, the tribe never fully occupied their allotted inheritance, Judges 1:33 informing us that
‘Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Bethshemesh, or the inhabitants of Bethanath, but dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; nevertheless, the inhabitants of Bethshemesh and of Bethanath became subject to forced labour for them’
the former of these cities lying to the south or south west of the Sea of Galilee.
Although the land was conquered by the king of Syria at the prompting of King Asa of Judah (I Kings 15:20, II Chr 16:4 - they were probably retaken afterwards), it wasn’t until the king of Assyria’s conquest of the land that the inhabitants were carried away into exile (II Kings 15:29) though the territory of the tribe was still recognised even as late as king Hezekiah who marched into the area to destroy all the idols he could find of false gods (II Chr 34:6-7).
The subsequent three descriptions of the area read as if they are alternative ways of reading the regions contained within the two tribal allotments but, as previously noted, they do expand upon the region meant so that Matthew is quite correct in listing all five descriptions as giving the general boundaries within which God’s great Light would be displayed.
Interestingly, the Tetrarch of Galilee which was in existence at the time of Christ, resembles quite closely the combined territorial areas of Zebulun and Naphtali combined, though almost the entire territory of Issachar would also have been included.
c. Toward the Sea
Originally, this served as the first of three descriptions which read in Isaiah as additional labels which could be put on the land in question. But, as we saw above, they appear to be demarcations of areas which significantly go beyond the area defined and Matthew is quite justified in accepting them as being composite to the overall boundaries of the area described.
However, there appears to be no generally favoured interpretation held amongst commentators as to what exactly the phrase means and the translation accepted is either ‘toward the sea’ or ‘by way of the sea’ depending on which viewpoint you hold.
Mathen sees the phrase as referring to the coastal strip which clung to the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the territory of the tribe of Asher and which probably included Sidon at its northern tip - at least, that’s what he seems to be describing when he notes that
‘The region...was to the west of Naphtali and Zebulun and extended from north to south along the Mediterranean’
Both Matfran and Mattask see this description and the one which follows given from the viewpoint of the Assyrian invader as they came upon the land from the Golan Heights, sweeping down into the region of the Sea of Galilee to attack the nation. I will comment on this possibility in the next section, but the one thing they do rightly is to interpret it as referring to the Mediterranean Sea but fail to give any specific region as to what the phrase would have encompassed - it’s all very well saying that what is meant is an area ‘towards’ the Mediterranean but is it possible to know how ‘far’ the word ‘toward’ actually means?
Mathag defines the phrase not as a direction but as a routeway. He writes that it
‘...was the Roman Road (the Via Maris) connecting Damascus with Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, a branch of which went along the west bank of the Sea of Galilee through Bethsaida and Capernaum, key towns in the ministry of Jesus’
However, the words seem best to be taken to mean ‘towards the sea’ rather than as a title for a road which traversed the region and ran from Damascus to the Mediterranean. Matmor, in a footnote, points out that the word translated ‘way’
‘...is used as a preposition “toward”. [The phrase] means “seawards” rather than referring to a road leading to the sea’
‘The Sea’ almost certainly means the Mediterranean and the phrase is used as a description of such in, for instance, Joshua 17:9-10, 19:29, Judges 5:17 and I Kings 5:9. However, what region the phrase actually means is difficult to be definitive about. About the only thing that can be said is that the phrase needs to be understood from some area probably on the eastern edge of the allotment of the two tribes, and envisaging the land stretching out into the distance to the west, encompassing first the area of Naphtali, then Zebulun.
Whether the description is meant to be taken to refer to an area as afar as the shores of the Mediterranean is difficult to know, but the phrase seems to have to mean no more than the southern regions of the two tribes’ possession which reached towards the coast.
d. Across the Jordan
There is dispute as to whether this demarcation of a tract of land is to be taken as indicative of the east or west of the Jordan river which flows into the northern end of the Sea of Galilee and out from the southern tip, partly because of how one envisages Isaiah to be speaking to the people.
Both the previous description and this fall into this category so that Mattask writes
‘The expressions “by the way of the sea”...and “beyond Jordan” (ie west of Jordan) depict the district from the viewpoint of the Assyrian invaders’
and Matfran, that the two descriptions
‘...describes Galilee from the perspective of the Assyrian invader, as the land west of the river’
However, this seems unlikely as the prophecy is being given to Judah about the region and the Assyrian is not even so much as mentioned in these verses as conquering the land (even though we know that they did very shortly afterwards - see below). The natural way to understand both this phrase and the former one is as an Israelite - not an Assyrian - would have done. That is, as an area that was east of the Jordan river and which corresponded with the northern end of the NT’s ‘Decapolis’ and Philip’s Tetrarchy into which Jesus did make one or two trips (John 6:1ff, Mtw 8:28-34, Mark 8:22-26, Luke 9:10-17), one of which would have involved a lengthy journey north in the region from Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-33) and which the Assyrian armies took probably at the same time as, or shortly after, his conquests of Damascus.
But, more than this, the identical Greek phrase ‘beyond the Jordan’ occurs in Mtw 4:25 and no commentator in their right mind would interpret this phrase as meaning anything else other than the region which lay to the east of the river. If this means that there, there is little justification for asserting that the reverse area is what is intended in this passage just a few lines earlier. Matthew ties up the prophetic word through Isaiah by showing its fulfilment.
The region, then, should rightly be taken to include the entire eastern flank of the Sea of Galilee though just how far one is supposed to take the words as venturing into the regions of Bashan and Gilead is hard to ascertain.
e. Galilee of the Gentiles
We need to try to come to terms with what is meant by ‘Galilee’ and how the Judahite of Isaiah’s day understood the area to be defined then go on to think about the demarcation of Isaiah as it being ‘of the Gentiles’ or, as Matthew, ‘of the nations’ which is an unusual label to be attached to the area before the Assyrian advance and conquest when Israelites were still resident in the land.
However, defining the exact area that ‘Galilee’ would have been understood to have encompassed to an eighth century Judahite is far from easy - even if any of that nation had actually visited the land - for they dwelt in the southern nation and, because of increasing hostility between themselves and both Israel and Syria, may never have ventured very far north beyond their own borders.
OT Scripture is also not very illuminative. Of the seven references to the area of Galilee (Josh 12:23, 20:7, 21:32, I Kings 9:11, II Kings 15:29, I Chron 6:76, Is 9:1), only the three references italicised in the brackets name a city, Kedesh, in connection with the cities set apart to which the manslayer might flee to save himself from the avenger of blood. This city lies to the west of the Jordan river, approximately 15 miles north of the Sea of Galilee and so must have been accepted as being in the region but, as we have no other point by which we may fix the boundaries, there is little more that can be said.
Even Solomon’s gift to Hiram, king of Tyre, of ‘twenty cities in the land of Galilee’ (I Kings 9:11) doesn’t go on to name them and the title which they acquired of ‘Cabul’ is only repeated in Joshua 19:27. If this passage, written about a time many hundreds of years previous to the incident, was edited as some believe around the time of Ezra, the priest may have included a modern name to denote the area that was being described as the passage seems to be in the same general area as would have been necessary and logical for it to have been placed - that is, in the tribal inheritance of Asher of its northern most border. However, this assumption is by no means provable and shouldn’t be pressed into service due to our lack of any other real evidence!
This is about all that can be said about the area’s boundaries in OT times, but Josephus notes the NT area as follows (page 192 - 3.3.1 in the online version)
‘There are two Galilees, known as Upper and Lower, shut in by Phoenicia and Syria. They are bounded on the west by Ptolemais with its border region and Carmel, a mountain that once belonged to Galilee but now belongs to Tyre...The southern limit is formed by Samaratis [Samaria region] and Scythopolis as far as the streams of Jordan, the eastern by the districts of Hippus, Gadara and Gaulanitis, where Agrippa’s kingdom begins. Beyond the northern frontier lie Tyre and the Tyrian lands.
‘Lower Galilee stretches in length from Tiberias to Zebulon, the neighbour of Ptolemais on the coast, in breadth from the village of Xaloth in the Great Plain to Bersabe. Here begins Upper Galilee which stretches in width as far as Baca, a village on the Tyrian frontier; in length it extends from Meroth to Thella, a village near Jordan’
Generally speaking, if the reader has followed the descriptions of the other phrases, he will have seen that NT Galilee encompassed all the tribal allotment of both Zebulun and Naphtali - with most of the territory of Issachar - and included the towns and cities of Nazareth, Nain, Cana, Tiberias and Capernaum. It doesn’t appear to have encroached across the Jordan, however, into the tetrarchy of Philip or into the region of the Decapolis.
The description of the region as being ‘of the nations’ or ‘of the Gentiles’ is very significant. Zondervan notes that the title
‘...probably referred to the mixture of Jews and Gentiles then [in Isaiah’s day] living in that area’
but, as far as we know, the predominance of the population were Israelites and it wasn’t until a couple of years after Isaiah’s prophecy that Assyria took the land and resettled it with totally non-Jewish peoples specifically mentioned as occurring upon the conquest of Israel some ten years later (II Kings 15:29, 17:24 - see the next section below). It certainly doesn’t seem possible that a region referred to as being ‘of the Gentiles’ would actually contain a predominance of Jews, otherwise where would the significance of the title be?
Rather, Isaiah is speaking of the land as he envisages it after the Assyrian advance and conquering of the land which still lay in the future and it would be after this time that the great light would be made known in the land where the Gentiles resided.
As Motyer notes
‘...the reference to “the Gentiles”...introduces a new idea, the involvement of the Gentiles in the time of hope...the substantial fact is that no-one else who referred to Galilee [in the OT] found it necessary to call attention to Gentiles’
so that the phrase is totally unexpected and shouldn’t be understated - I will deal with Jesus’ fulfilment of this aspect of the prophecy under section 3.
Zondervan also notes that Jews were resident in Galilee
‘...when Simon the Maccabee brought numbers of them to live in Judea’
which is quite correct but, if we follow the entire passage which runs I Macc 5:14-23, we note that it appears as if, having defeated the nations who were oppressing the Jews in that area, the entire population were removed southwards, making the region almost devoid of a Jewish witness! How quickly afterwards and at what pace Galilee was resettled in subsequent years is not possible to determine but, by the time of Jesus, the area seems to have had a very diverse mixture of cultures and peoples who were normally resident in the land.
Maybe of significance here, though, is I Maccabees 5:15 which refers to the region in which both Jews and Gentiles resided before the Jews were moved southwards, as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ - significant because this phrase is similar to that used in Isaiah. If the Jews of this day who wrote the book (c.100-50BC) regarded the mix of Jew and Gentile to be sufficiently diverse as to warrant this label, the phrase originally coined by Isaiah may have had equal implication - that is, a mixture of both Jew and Gentile was what was imagined.
However, there is sufficient time between the two prophecies not to be able to make a direct connection and it is better to accept Isaiah’s label as implying the exile of the Jews of the land and the introduction of peoples foreign to Galilee at the time of the Assyrian invasion, people who were from
‘...Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim’
Matmor notes that
‘The inhabitants [of Galilee] had been forcibly Judaized and compelled to accept circumcision in about 104BC [a date which is after the incident of I Macc 5:14-23], which means that their commitment to Judaism was probably less than wholehearted’
Unfortunately, justification for such a belief comes indirectly from Josephus where he notes concerning Aristobulus (Antiquities 13.11.3) that
‘He was called a lover of the Grecians; and had conferred many benefits on his own country, and made war against Iturea, and added a great part of it to Judea, and compelled the inhabitants, if they would continue in that country, to be circumcised, and to live according to the Jewish laws’
Because the Itureans ruled Galilee, it is supposed that this circumcision must have bled over (excuse the pun) into the land but there is no direct statement concerning the practice. Therefore the extent to which this operation was carried out is widely disputed but, if it did take place, lacklustre commitment to the tenets of the Jewish religion and their devotion to obey the laws handed down to them from the Sanhedrin’s seat in Jerusalem seems to have been far from zealous.
I guess that circumcision was preferable to death - but only just.
Finally, and perhaps significantly, the region of Galilee in the NT was almost perfectly all the land of Zebulun, Naphtali and Issachar combined (which I have already noted above).
2. Historical Context
The passage in which Is 9:1-2 sits begins with Is 7:1 where we’re told that
‘In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but they could not conquer it’
and certainly corresponds with a passage of Scripture in II Kings 16:5 which reads
‘...Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to wage war on Jerusalem, and they besieged Ahaz but could not conquer him’
It appears that both the king of Syria and of Israel had already made raids upon the land and taken much spoil and done much harm to the land, even deporting some of the inhabitants into their own nations (II Chr 28:5-7ff) but the incident here recorded for us in Isaiah has to do specifically with an allied attack on the capital of the Judahite kingdom, Jerusalem.
The reason for this failure to conquer the land appears to be Ahaz’ reliance upon the king of Assyria, Tiglathpileser, to whom he sent messengers to give some help from the forces that were pressing in around him (II Kings 16:7-8). Instead of relying upon the Lord God, however, Ahaz showed himself to be unfaithful to the Lord, giving tribute from the Temple and the king’s house into his hands for the relief that the king effected for him.
Tiglathpileser, however, seems to have acted with shrewdness. Instead of marching with his armies to confront both kings, he took control of Syria’s capital city Damascus, weakened by the numbers of the army that had left Syria to besiege Jerusalem (II Kings 16:9 - 732BC), killing their king Rezin in the process - perhaps the king had only sent his troops along with the Israelites against Jerusalem or perhaps, as seems more likely, hearing of the siege laid against his city, he returned from the conquest of Judah and so saved the fall of that nation.
However, this enabled the Assyrian king to gain control of a powerful city from which he appears to have subsequently launched a campaign against the northern territories of Israel (II Kings 15:29), taking control of most of the area which had been described by Isaiah in 9:1. There is some dispute amongst the historians here but it seems best to go along with the date of a year later for this event after the fall of Damascus and that Pekah’s deposing by Hoshea (II Kings 15:30) was a move of the Assyrian king who saw in the new monarch an ally or, perhaps better, the head of a vassal state.
If the cities and the region captured are mapped and the area considered as whole unit, it would appear that not all of Zebulun was taken at this time and this may account for the fact that, when Hezekiah sent messengers throughout the land, there were still a handful of faithful Zebulunites who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover according to the Law (II Chron 30:11), even though Israel was finally taken ten years later and most of the people resettled away from their inheritance.
These two conquests of Tiglathpileser must have taken place within the first 3 years of Ahaz’ reign for Pekah, king of Israel, reigned twenty years in Samaria (II Kings 15:27) and was in the seventeenth year of his reign when Ahaz came to the Judahite throne (II Kings 16:1).
By causing Tiglathpileser to march upon Damascus and to subdue Syria, he effectively opened up the way for the Assyrians to march upon Israel and to take it into captivity (II Kings 17:1-6 - 722BC) resettling other people in the land who were foreign to the knowledge of YHWH (II Kings 17:24-28) and beginning the line of Samaritans who remained in the land until NT times - and are still resident in small numbers in present day Israel.
When Isaiah prophecies concerning the area outlined in Is 9:1, Damascus is probably in the process of being besieged and within a further couple of years (at the most) Naphtali and Galilee will be in the possession of Assyria. Within ten years from Tiglathpileser’s first advance upon Damascus, Israel was no more (though some would consider the vassal state ruled over by Hoshea as not being the nation of Israel because it had lost its independence) and the land prophesied by Isaiah as being a land of great darkness was just that, even though there was some knowledge of God in the land, mixed in with worship of other gods known to the newly established inhabitants (II Kings 17:29-34).
Isaiah actually put the maximum time in which Israel would be no more as sixty-five years (Is 7:8) and this certainly took place within that time - when it did, however, the nation of Judah would have been severely shocked that it had happened so suddenly.
This advance of the Assyrian armies would not stop - even though Judah had made a pact with the nation - until Judah itself found its land being oppressed and exploited by the army as prophesied by Isaiah (Is 8:5-8 Cp II Kings 18:13). It seems that it was only because a righteous king rose up in the form of Hezekiah (though even he seems to have initially paid the Assyrian king tribute to try and ward off his advances upon the land - II Kings 18:14-16) that the Assyrian armies were set upon by God Himself and pushed back (II Kings 18:17-19:37).
3. Jesus as the fulfilment
The darkness that fell upon the land when the Assyrians invaded and resettled the land (Is 8:21-9:2) came in the form of foreign gods that denied the character of God (II Kings 17:29-33).
The exiles from the conquest of Assyria will ‘pass through the land’ and out from it, distressed, hungry and will turn against both their home kingdom and their God (Is 8:21) but, instead of hoping for a change of their fortunes, will only experience alienation from God, [spiritual] darkness at every turn and not being able to see the way ahead (Is 8:22) because of their rejection of God through their going after gods which were no gods (Is 8:19-20).
The people will be sorely judged through their disobedience towards and their rebellion against God.
However, the land which, firstly, they brought into darkness through their religious practices and, secondly, which was brought into continuing darkness through the resettling of foreign nations into the area shall be the place where the people resident there shall see ‘a great light’. Even though the land had been brought into contempt by God Himself, there would come a time when it would be made glorious through the visitation of God upon it (Is 9:1-2).
The entire prophecy of Isaiah which runs from 7:1-9:7 is one of the great prophetic passages which continually returns to the theme of the Child to come. Matthew has already used one of the Scriptures in 1:23 (Is 7:14) and the Scripture here goes on in just a couple of verses (Is 9:6-7) to speak of the Child being born and that
‘...the government will be upon His shoulder, and His name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore’
It is quite justified to see in the great light of Is 9:2 a reference to the Child, and the reference to the light dawning (as Motyer - the RSV uses the word ‘shined’) points us towards the inception of the Child into society though here the idea of His ministry is in mind - but this could only realistically have been known retrospectively.
Jesus, then, is the Light which shines in the darkness (John 1:5) of the region of Galilee where many liberation movements had their bases, where the population was a diversified group of people from all over the known world (Tiberias being a city which was always reputed to be more pagan than Jewish) and in which the religious leaders in Jerusalem failed to perceive that there would arise One here who would be considered to be great before YHWH (John 7:41,52). Indeed, Galilee seems to have been a despised region from which no good thing was ever thought to be able to come.
For every religious leader within the boundaries of the Church there is a grave warning here also - and not for leaders also but for anyone who thinks they live in an area that God is blessing and moving in. When God begins to move in the slums and areas that we would never even imagine visiting, the reaction is to write the move of God off - after all, how can God move amongst those who have turned their back on Him and have been living contrary to His will for so long?
Perhaps even amongst our friends and relatives who we’ve come to accept as being unreachable, God may start moving and doing miraculous things in their lives - but can this really be God? Though Capernaum had seen many marvellous miracles performed both in and around it, it nevertheless failed to wholeheartedly embrace the teachings of the Gospel so that Jesus denounced it (Mtw 11:23) but that God moved here is undoubted.
I know I take delight in saying this on as many occasions as seems to fit the cause but Church history tells us that the leaders of the previous revival are usually the persecutors of the one that is just starting for whatever reasons - normally they see the manifestation of the presence of God as being something that is ‘evil’ and not something that God could possibly be doing, failing to realise that the way God moved through them was also considered in the same light by those who had been the recipients of the revival that had preceded theirs!
In Jesus, God was raising up a Leader who would not be One who would take His people Israel and rule over them, subjugating the peoples that lay around about them for the exploitation of the Jews, but a Leader who would rule righteously over both Jew and Gentile, so bringing them into a unity of purpose and service through Himself (Eph 2:11-22).
Although this was not perceived by the Jewish religious leaders as a whole, it was clearly spoken about in the OT in Isaiah, especially on a handful of occasions.
For instance, Is 11:10 (my italics throughout) speaks of the ‘root of Jesse’ (Is 11:1) standing
‘...as an ensign to the peoples; Him shall the nations seek, and His dwellings shall be glorious’
Is 42:1 that
‘...He will bring forth justice to the nations’
Is 42:6 (see also 49:6) has God say of the Messiah that
‘...I have given You as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations’
and Is 60:3, in words reminiscent of Is 9:2, declares that
‘...nations shall come to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising’
Therefore, it was fitting that this Leader should arise in an area that contained a large cross-section of the world’s population and which was cosmopolitan in composition.
Finally, there are a few points to note from Matthew’s text in 4:12-16. He begins by speaking of Capernaum being in the
‘...territory of Zebulun and Naphtali’
and that the fulfilment of the passage from Isaiah is tied in with Jesus’ movement from His residency in Nazareth to Capernaum.
As to the former, Matthew is putting together the two tribal inheritances and speaking of them as one unit, just as the tetrarchy of Galilee encompassed both tribal allotments. What Matthew is saying, therefore, is that Capernaum lay in the midst of both these areas.
The latter, however, is tied in with the movement of Jesus’ ministry from being based in Nazareth (which still lay within the boundary of Galilee, in Zebulun’s territory and, therefore, within the area defined by Isaiah 9:1) to one that is centred upon the area to which He is now beginning to minister. The movement from the village of His upbringing to the city of His ministry, signifies the ‘dawning’ of the work that He has been sent into the world to achieve - therefore the significance of Isaiah’s words now become apparent.
Later on, Matthew swaps the obvious translation of Isaiah’s ‘walked’ (Is 9:2) which implies a way of life that is set against the will of God to ‘sat’ (Mtw 4:16) which speaks more of a settlement and residency. Both are correct, though, for the Messiah came to the land where people resided who lived in spiritual blindness and who lived out an existence which was generally opposed to the ways of God.
The phrase ‘From that time’ seems to be plain enough and describe a change of circumstances and be outlining something new that is about to transpire from the moment just described onwards. But Mattask believes that the phrase is
‘...to be regarded as a summary of the public teaching of Jesus in Galilee during the first part of His ministry...’
with very little justification. Besides, Matthew again uses the phrase in Mtw 16:21 where he writes
‘From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’
and, again, in 26:16
‘And from that moment [Judas] sought an opportunity to betray Him’
Both these usages of the phrase indicate that a time has now come from which something has begun and which was not a present experience before it came. Therefore, Matfran is correct to see in the phrase the meaning of
‘...a fresh start, a new phase of Jesus’ activity...’
even though exactly why the proclamation of the message as ‘Repent...’ is actually all that new needs clarification. If you consider my attempt at a chronology recorded earlier on on this web page, you will see that what ‘begins’ here will probably already have been taking place in the Wilderness of Judea where Jesus went after celebrating the first Passover after His baptism in water (John 3:22). It is hardly feasible that the same message which John proclaimed to accompany water baptism (Mtw 3:2, Mark 1:4) would have been absent from the lips of Jesus during this time, baptism in water needing an explanation and justification for its performance.
Although the phrase ‘From that time’ naturally links with the preceding statement in 4:13 that Jesus had moved residency from Nazareth to Capernaum, it should not be thought that the message on Jesus’ lips has not been there prior to the move.
‘...from the time that Jesus moved to Capernaum there was a difference’
is quite correct, it implies that the message was absolutely new to Jesus’ ministry which, it would appear, it was not. Mark 1:14-15 helps us to understand the position here, though, when the writer comments that
‘...after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel”’
That is, although it is true to say that the message of repentance was tied in with the move to Capernaum, it was a message that was new to the area of Galilee that Jesus began preaching from this time onwards. Although the Baptist had reached all the Jews who had come to him in the Wilderness of Judea, the message had yet to be proclaimed in the northern most areas of Israel where Jesus dwelt - but this now is begun and, with the advent of Jesus’ ministry in the area, is made known also through the signs and wonders which accompany the preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mtw 4:23).
The proclamation of the message of repentance in Galilee, therefore, was as much the start of His ministry to that region as was His moving into the city of Capernaum.
NB - I have taken my notes in Section 3i which appear here and made revisions to them to produce the notes here. A detailed explanation of what ‘repentance’ is and of how it works can also be found on the web page cited.
After around four hundred years of silence between the ending of the writings of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New, God began His new work with the word ‘repent’ through John the Baptist (Mtw 3:2). I have already shown here that the nation of Israel appears to have been of the belief that there had been no prophet rise up that could be acknowledged as being from God, even though there were individuals who had spoken a Word from God into situations - for example, Luke chapters 1 and 2 record utterances made by both Mary and Zechariah which are predominantly prophetic in nature. Even in Luke 2:36, Anna is recognised as being a ‘prophetess’ which was a label presumably bestowed upon her by the religious leaders as well - the significance of there being ‘no prophet’, however, is probably that there was no prophet who had come with the Lord’s Word to the nation rather than to individuals.
The Book of I Maccabees is about our only reference point for such an assertion of there having been no visitation from a prophet, written around the end of the second or beginning of the first century BC about events which had transpired earlier in that century. I Mac 9:27 (NRSV) informs us concerning the situation described that
‘...there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them’
The passages in I Mac 4:46 and 14:41 both infer that there was no prophet in their midst though it is only the verse quoted which states plainly that there had been a gap in the prophetic ministry amongst them - unfortunately no date is given as to when this ended or the name of the last prophet that was recognised as being from God. But we would probably not be going too far wrong to see in Malachi the end of the prophetic function within the nation, whose utterances ended somewhere in the fourth century BC.
Just in case we should miss the point of the relevance of John’s word of repentance, Jesus also begins His ministry with the very same word (Mtw 4:17), the word ‘repent’. In fact, should we be in any doubt as to whether the messages were the same, we need only to consider the Greek of both proclamations (translated as ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’) which is identical. The way that Matthew presents both John and Jesus to the reader is of ministers sent from God who, though they widely differed in appearance and ministry (Luke 7:33-34), nevertheless were carriers of the same message.
It wasn’t that John and Jesus had grasped something similar about entry into the Kingdom that was shortly to be established, but that they had received directly from God something that was identical. Entry into this New Covenant had to begin with repentance.
Mark 16:15 is the most frequent text used by preachers to highlight the Church’s call to ‘preach the gospel’ but, before we rush out into the streets and proclaim this Gospel, we would do well to consider just what it is! Luke records a similar passage in his Gospel at 24:47 but there, instead of the word ‘gospel’ there’s a description of the content of such preaching, Luke describing it as
‘...repentance and forgiveness of sins...’
Instead of there being only forgiveness of sins proclaimed (something that was equally a part of John the Baptist’s ministry as it was of Jesus’ - Mtw 3:6, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3), repentance is coupled with it. The full Gospel, then, is repentance and forgiveness of sins - neither one nor the other exclusively but both in harmony.
The Church has often proclaimed forgiveness to the people who come to hear the message of the Gospel, without them ever hearing of the need for repentance to be able to receive that forgiveness. But, until repentance is experienced by an individual, there can never be the forgiveness of sins by God.
Going on one step further, we need to ask ourselves if this message of repentance and forgiveness was what was preached in the early Church. That is, did the apostles (who stood as the direct inheritors of the ministry of Jesus after the Spirit had been poured out upon them) preach the same Gospel or had the message of God towards mankind changed in the intervening days and months between Jesus being crucified on the cross, being raised from the dead and finally ascending into Heaven?
In the Acts of the Apostles, we have a record many times of the message of those early believers. Acts 2:38 has Peter recorded as saying
‘Repent and be baptized...for the forgiveness of your sins...’
while in other places we read variously of statements in Acts 3:19
‘Repent...and turn again that your sins may be blotted out...’
‘...to give repentance [where repentance is here spoken of as being a gift of God]...and forgiveness of sins...’
and Acts 26:18
‘..turn from darkness to light (repentance)...they may receive forgiveness of sins...’
This, then, was the Gospel message of the early Church - repentance and forgiveness. There is not forgiveness only when a person comes to Christ, but repentance - then forgiveness. Or, more accurately, repentance is the experience that allows an individual the capacity to be able to receive God’s forgiveness of his sins.
We have just seen that the first word of the Gospel of the Kingdom is ‘repent’. If repentance was not our experience when we first took the label ‘Christian’, then we have no part in the Church of Christ. This may sound rather harsh and overbearing, but an individual who sees nothing wrong in his own way of living and the things he does, is in no position to humble himself before God and to ask God to change him for the better and to receive the work of Jesus on the cross which condemns our own selfish lifestyle and provides a way of escape into the presence of God.
If we can achieve reconciliation with God by living the way we would want to, what is the point of Jesus being crucified with our old lives in order that we might be killed off (Gal 2:20)?
Further, how can an individual confess his sin to God when he doesn’t believe that he has any? And how can he then receive the forgiveness for something that he doesn’t believe is wrong? And how can he want to change from a way of living that is an offence to God when he doesn’t believe that there’s anything wrong with it?
Just as repentance requires a correct response from man, so entry into the Church is dependant upon that correct response being made when God convicts an individual of their sin.
Repentance, therefore, is not an optional extra - it is a requirement. Thus Paul says in Acts 17:30, that
‘[God] commands all men everywhere to repent...’
If anyone has entered the Body of Christ without repentance then, as Jesus said in Luke 13:1-5
‘Unless you repent you will all likewise perish’
And yet we should also realise that repentance must begin with a work of God upon an individual, a work in God’s timing and not of our own making (see here at Appendix 2).
So, therefore, Jesus begins His ministry to Israel with the identical message of John the Baptist, even though the actual ministry that God performed through them was significantly different.
2. The Threefold ministry of Christ
The ministry of Jesus Christ is summarised rather neatly here in three specific phrases, each of which we will look at under separate headings. Even though there is some dispute as to where one may end and another begin, it is best that we at least see how Jesus functioned in His ministry so that we might use accurate labels for the things that we also experience.
As will be seen, our own understanding of the concept which lies at the foundation of at least one of these is probably deficient and we need to consider carefully the necessity to return to a more Biblically based experience that will build a believer up rather than simply fill him full of information.
Strongs Greek number 1321
Vines defines the Greek word as meaning ‘give instruction’ while Kittels, speaking of the early usage of the word, pre-Jesus, says that
‘Common from Homer, this word denotes teaching and learning in the wide sense of imparting theoretical and practical knowledge with the highest possible development of the pupil as the goal...the term has a strong intellectual and authoritative bearing’
In later Judaism, however, and more closely allied to the way we would expect Matthew to use the word, it
‘...signifies instruction in the law for the right ordering of the relation to God and neighbour’
Kittels going on to say that
‘The form of [Jesus’] teaching is that of a typical teacher of the age...A novel feature in the Gospels is the absence of the intellectual emphasis which is common everywhere else among Greek writers...’
Mathag also sees the word in terms that relate directly to the contemporary Jewish world when he writes that
‘The teaching referred to is probably the exposition of Torah [Law] of which Matthew provides an example in chapters 5-7’
However, he fails to realise that the qualifying phrase in Mtw 4:23 of ‘in their synagogues’ perhaps disqualifies the passage he cites as being a type of the ‘teaching’ that would have been used in this context, for Jesus (Mtw 5:1-2)
‘Seeing the crowds...went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying...’
While it is quite true that the Greek word for ‘teach’ occurs here, the one example we have of a discourse of Jesus while within a synagogue and which is labelled as ‘teaching’ shows us a much different set up where there is a two-way conversation between the hearers and the teacher (see below).
Matfran is similar to Mathag here but realises the importance of the defining phrase referring to the synagogue and defines it as
‘biblical exposition as in Luke 4:16’
along with a few other commentators. But the passage which tells of His visit to Nazareth is hardly an example of Jesus ‘teaching’. All that we’re told here is that Jesus opened the Isaiah scroll that was given to Him (Luke 4:17), read Is 61:1-2 and then said simply (Luke 4:21)
‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’
It is quite true to say, as Matmor, that
‘There would have been no great difficulty in Jesus giving teaching in the synagogues for any Israelite might be invited to address the people’
but there is nothing resembling teaching here recorded for us by Luke and we would best discount the passage as being a good example of what it means to ‘teach in the synagogue’.
Besides, the passage nowhere says that Jesus taught, only that He ‘stood up to read’ (Luke 4:16).
It can hardly be regarded as teaching, then, in and of itself.
There are other places where Jesus is said to have taught in the synagogues (Mtw 9:35, 13:54, Mark 1:21, 6:2, Luke 4:15, 4:31-33, 6:6, 13:10, John 18:20) but none of these messages are associated with any record of what it was that Jesus was teaching.
Indeed, the only place where certain phrases of Jesus are said to be both ‘teaching’ and that they took place ‘in the synagogue’ is John 6:59 and this seems to refer to the contents of the entire passage which begins from 6:25, the people who find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee presumably locating Him in the synagogue at Capernaum (6:24).
Here, then, is our only definitive example of the contents of Jesus’ teaching as it occurred in the synagogues of the Jews and it begins through a question addressed to Him by the people who had found Him. While it is quite true that Jesus takes the experience of the manna supplied to the nation while in the Wilderness and expounds it to introduce the idea that He is the true bread of life, the origin of that series of thoughts is actually introduced by the people, not Jesus (John 6:31), so that the commentators assertions that ‘teaching’ was primarily the exposition of Scripture is not absolutely correct.
Indeed, if the example in John’s Gospel is a typical example of what took place, teaching appears to have involved a question and answer session between Jesus and those who would be His disciples in which He answered their questions and developed themes from the answers He gave them.
This is so different from our modern day idea of ‘teaching’ that we would do well to consider it carefully. A ‘minister’ who stands up to speak out a carefully structured message throughout in which he does not expect to be interrupted and asked questions that may drift his train of thought off onto another tangent is actually against what happened in the life of Christ.
It seems, then, that teaching, while necessarily expounding Scripture with the authority of God, is also a two-sided affair where the ‘congregation’ take part.
While it would be nice to take the word ‘teaching’ as referring to Biblical exposition and so justify my own work on Matthew’s Gospel here (!), the meaning of the word does seem to be much more than this and implies a two-way dialogue between the one who teaches and those who are being taught.
Strongs Greek number 2784
Vines defines the Greek word as meaning ‘to be a herald’ while Kittels speaks of it as meaning ‘to cry out loud, declare, announce’
Commentators seem to be divided over whether there is any real difference in meaning between the word translated as ‘teaching’ in the previous phrase and this one employed here. Matmor sees a difference and contrasts them both by saying that ‘preaching’
‘...is not the systematic instruction indicated by teaching but a forthright proclamation, a setting forth of certain facts whether people want to take notice of them or not’
On the other hand, Matmor says that
‘...[teaching] and [preaching] here belong together and no important difference is to be seen between the words...The latter is but the foundation of the former’
It is difficult to be definitive about this latter statement but it should be pointed out that the word for ‘preaching’ does also occur in the context of Jesus’ ministry to the synagogues in Mark 1:39 and Luke 4:44 where Matthew at the beginning of this verse has used the Greek word more properly translated by ‘teaching’.
It seems difficult, therefore, to be able to always draw a definite line between the definitions of both words but here, where Matthew uses them together, they should be seen to retain some difference that can be distinguished - as is the case with other Biblical words such as the OT words translated as ‘create’ and ‘make’ in the Creation narrative - but the difference in meaning may be only suggested by the defining phrases which follow their usage, in the former case this being ‘in their synagogues’ and, in the latter, ‘the gospel of the kingdom’.
In Mtw 4:17 we read that the word of repentance was ‘preached’ to the people Jesus met rather than being ‘taught’ and Kittels is quite right in stating that
‘In [Jesus] the word is a creative force; it gives what it declares’
but this is only because the word spoken is the Word of God which inherently has provision upon it to accomplish all that it’s been sent forth to do (Is 55:11 - see my notes here headed ‘Scripture and the Word of God’). The word certainly implies this when used of a Word that is relayed through a herald who has been given the authority to say the things that He has been bidden to say by God Himself, but the word need not imply this when used in modern usage and only becomes a religious term in the context of other passages.
If ‘teaching in their synagogues’ is rightly understood to speak of a two-way conversation between the teacher and listeners (see above), then ‘preaching the gospel of the Kingdom’ may more rightly (though not exclusively) be envisaged as an outdoor activity where such responses would have been difficult.
I know that this is a purely arbitrary definition, for Jesus’ announcements to the masses are regarded also as ‘teaching’ (Mtw 5:2) and there is probably much overbleed of one concept into the other, but it does give us a working understanding of the different types of messages that Jesus gave to those He encountered.
Kittels understanding of the content of the word as paralleled in Greek history as indicating a proclamation of
‘...instruction in what to do, and exhortation to do it, in order to move from error to knowledge’
is certainly confirmed by just a simple overview of Matthew chapters 5-7 but the words needed no verbal response from the hearers that ‘teaching’ seems to depend upon. Interestingly, neither ‘teaching’ nor ‘preaching’ appear to demand the necessity of any raised hands or any repeating of a prayer in order for God to accept the individual into His Kingdom (now that’s what I call revolutionary!).
A response in the life of the individual is certainly required and this is met by provision from God to bring about positive change and transformation, but a visual or verbal response is not proof of a changed life - only...er...a changed life is.
The defining phrase ‘the gospel of the Kingdom’ must necessarily include repentance (Mtw 4:17) and forgiveness (see above under ‘Repentance’) and be outworked in the instructions that Jesus gave in all His proclamations to those who gathered to listen to Him.
Strongs Greek number 2323
This word is the least difficult of the three and seems to have started life as meaning ‘to serve’ with the application being quite varied. It then moved on in meaning to be used as ‘care for the sick’ and, therefore, ‘healing’, though in the NT what is in mind is primarily a direct intervention of God into the lives and affairs of humans rather than a process of Medical treatment which results in the wholeness of the individual ‘cared for’.
With the advent of modern medical practices, many christians look to Health organisations to effect healing in their own lives and then proclaim their ‘ministries’ as being ‘of the Lord’. Though this may be true to a small extent, it must be remembered that there were medical practitioners around in the time of Christ (Mark 5:26) but they are never referred to as being able to execute healing on behalf of the Lord.
As Matfran notes, healing was the way
‘...in which the power of the Kingdom of Heaven was actually brought into operation (Mtw 12:28)’
and the people thus healed immediately saw the demonstration of the power which had been made available to them through Jesus for the healing of their complete person - the evidence of their physical healing being sufficient proof that their spiritual illness could likewise be remedied. As Matmor writes
‘...He met their spiritual need but He also dealt with their physical ailments’
Matthew also tells us that Jesus was able to heal
‘...every disease and every infirmity among the people’
That is, rather than see in Matthew’s statement that every person in the land was healed (a fact which is denied by other Scriptures - Mark 6:5-6, for instance, and places in Acts where there were still incapacitated people who had been there while Jesus walked on earth), Matthew is saying that there was not a problem that could not be remedied by the power that flowed through Him. As the people came to Him, so they were miraculously healed.
For a more detailed exposition of the subject of healing, see my notes here.
d. Three of one not one of three
Here we must consider condemning ourselves! And so we should, in a manner, not be afraid to do so for we have divided up the ministry of Christ into three separate areas that we care to apply to three types of people within the Church.
We speak of ‘preachers’ and ‘teachers’ and ‘healers’ (or, perhaps more correctly, we speak of ‘people with a healing ministry’) and categorise leaders and fellow believers by any one of these labels not realising that Jesus, as an example to us all, was all three in one, not one of three.
What I mean by this is that there is an almost inseparable union between ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Healing’ when we come to the Gospels (Mtw 9:35, 10:7-8, 12:28, Luke 9:1-2) and that the proclamation of the former cannot take place without a demonstration of the latter.
That is, if the Kingdom comes to an individual, a group or an area, so must the miraculous.
Just as the disciples discovered in the early Church (Mark 16:20)
‘...they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it’
It is not sufficient that a teacher should arise preaching the Kingdom of Heaven if he does not also demonstrate it in power (feeling uncomfortable yet? I put myself in the same position here but it is better that we don’t shy away from our own deficiencies before God) because our words should be confirmed by a demonstration of the things we proclaim.
If we believe that God’s Kingdom has come to our Fellowship then we should be experiencing signs and wonders on a regular basis wherever there is a need for them to occur. If we want a plumbline by which to judge whether the Kingdom has come, we need only answer the question
‘Has God’s power been released to perform miraculous signs and wonders?’
If the answer is ‘yes’, all well and good. But we shouldn’t shrink from the facts of the matter here - a demonstration of the Kingdom of Heaven is a necessary requirement through those who proclaim it in word.
Doesn’t make for very easy reading, does it?!!
Who would feel more comfortable by saying that the Scripture isn’t part of the original manuscript?
3. The Asides of Matthew
Nine times in the Gospel, Matthew tells us of ‘general’ healings performed by Jesus without giving us any particular details of the people being healed or of their situations as he does in passages such as 8:1-4,5-13,14-15,28-34 and so on.
But, although they are generalisations of nights, days and, sometimes, of much longer periods of time in which healing took place, there are certain distinctive elements that set them apart as being quite different to one another.
John summarises this ‘general’ ministry of Jesus in a Scripture recorded in John 21:25 which reads
‘But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’
Matthew takes great delight, however, in drawing the reader’s attention to this fact on numerous occasions, scattered throughout his book.
I have outlined the contrasts, differences and uniqueness of each of these passages below without going too deeply into their relevancy - this I have left for the reader to do, otherwise I may fall foul of there being not enough room in the books of the world to contain my notes!
The threefold description of Jesus’ ministry as ‘teach, preach, heal’ is given here along with details concerning Jesus’ popularity which caused masses of people to come to Him. The descriptions are general and relate to Jesus’ ministry throughout all Galilee.
This description is inserted after the incident of healing Peter’s mother-in-law at Capernaum and is declared to be a fulfilment of prophecy.
The threefold description of Jesus’ ministry as ‘teach, preach, heal’ is given here also but Jesus is spoken of as having compassion on the crowds when He saw their condition - not just as ill and incapacitated people but as people who lacked any real purpose or leader in their lives. The descriptions are, again, generalisations of His entire Galilean ministry.
As many people as followed Him from the synagogue where He was teaching, He healed - but here He specifically tells them not to make Him known. Matthew goes on to see in this request another fulfilment of prophecy.
Jesus withdrew across the Sea of Galilee to a ‘lonely place’ but found the crowds waiting for Him. He had compassion on them and healed their sick - the compassion spoken of here is probably the same as that of 9:35-36
Having come back from the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, they landed at Gennesaret, south of Capernaum and, as soon as the people recognised Him, they gathered all their sick together to be healed. The striking thing here about the healings is that the people asked Jesus that the ill may just touch the hem of His garment and He allowed them. Everyone who did so, through their faith, were made whole.
Somewhere in the region of the Sea of Galilee, on the top of a mountain, the people brought Him the sick and laid them at His feet for healing. The significant thing here is that the phrase ‘they glorified the God of Israel’ seems to be out of place unless there were Gentiles present - the indication is, therefore, that Jesus didn’t enquire whether a person who came to Him was either Jew or Gentile even though He knew that His mission was primarily to the Jewish people.
The same events of healing which have taken place in and around the Sea of Galilee above, now take place in the land of Judea. Instead of Jesus’ popularity ending when He left His home region, crowds continued to follow Him.
The same acts of healing which had taken place both in Galilee and in an undisclosed location in Judea, now take place in the Temple courts for the religious leaders to see (and to gripe about!).
Come and Follow
We know very little about the call of either John or James (Mtw 4:21-22) as they appear on the scene in this passage with no former mention in any of the other four Gospels of them. It is incorrect of us to think of them as ignorant of what Jesus had already done in the area because the talk in the region would have included Him as the subject of many a conversation.
But Peter would probably also have been talking about his experience in Judea with John the Baptist and of the things that he’d said concerning Him - perhaps he had even been present at the miracle in Cana (John 2:1-11), had accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem for that first Passover after the wilderness experience (John 2:12-21), been present with Him in Judea as they baptized converts (John 3:22-36) or witnessed the effect that Jesus had had on the Samaritan city (John 4:39-43).
It would be difficult to believe that a stranger appeared on the horizon, told two fishermen to follow Him when they had no inkling of who He was and that they didn’t at least say ‘Who are you?’ or ‘Follow you where?’
Such things do happen in the Church but the situation surrounding them would suggest to us that they had at least some idea of who men were saying this Jesus was and of the things that He had done already in their midst along with some of the things He’d been saying.
Just how Peter was called is best understood as being similar to the call of both John and James even though the specific details concerning the latter are lacking from the Gospel records. This I deal with in section two but Matthew’s use of different words for ‘nets’ is significant in Mtw 4:18-22 and we need to pause to consider what the words tell us about the relationship of the brothers John and James and the brothers Simon and Andrew before dealing with the call.
1. Matthew’s nets
Matthew employs three different words to signify different types of nets at different points in his narrative and they each give us an indication of what we should understand from the passage when we realise that they aren’t all the same.
I have used Zondervan’s labels of the three types of net simply for the reader to distinguish between them but the second, the Gill net, is certainly incorrect for the word employed is a general one used for all types of nets (as will be seen by comparison of the description of the third type).
a. The Cast Net
Strongs Greek number 298 - amphiblestron
The amphiblestron was a small round net cast over the shoulder (the Greek construction of the word means literally ‘something thrown round’) with weights attached to the edges so that it rapidly sank and trapped fish within its mesh. The idea seems to have been to endeavour to make sure that the net fell flat onto the surface of the water over a place where a shoal was known to be swimming - sometimes this is easier for a person on the shore to do rather than a fisherman who has waded out into the water.
It is used only here and in Mark 1:16, the parallel passage, and is only used with Simon and Andrew as subjects. A comparison with this and the net which John and James were using is given in the next section.
b. The Gill Net
Strongs Greek number 1350 - diktuon
A general word used for different types of nets and is used twelve times in the NT.
Zondervan uses the title employed by myself here and notes that the net is still used by fishermen of the area. They write
‘Long nets, supported on floats, hang near the surface, usually through the night and are hauled up the following day. This net is used in a passive way and takes fish only of one approximate size [due to the size of the mesh employed, the smaller fish swim through the holes and so develop into maturity before they’re ensnared]...This is mostly used well out in the lake, and at sea, and fish are brought ashore by boat’
However, although the description gives us a good picture in our minds of how the fishermen of the area may have caught fish in Jesus’ day, the Greek word is a general term for all kinds of nets and the Gill net may not necessarily be implied when the word is being used (see the section which follows on the Drag net).
That Matthew uses the word in 4:20, however, at the conclusion of Peter’s call is significant because, although they were fishing with the amphiblestron, a more personal form of net for catching fish, the ‘nets’ will possibly have included their commercial nets - this would further indicate that, while John and James shared in the fishing industry with Simon and Andrew, they still retained their own fishing tackle and equipment.
Indeed, Luke 5:2-3 records for us that there were two boats and that one of them ‘was Simon’s’. As John and James were partners with Simon (Luke 5:10) it seems right to see these brothers as owning their own boat (John 5:7) and of being able to fish at their own times and for their own catches.
Where their partnership seems to have been made is in the area of a fail safe so that the misfortune of one’s small catch would be supplemented by the abundance of the other two’s (something like an ancient insurance policy). Otherwise it’s difficult to see what advantages this partnership gave to either side while they each retained their own fishing equipment and boat.
If the incidents of Mtw 4:18-22 took place on the same day and very closely together as they appear to have done, Simon and Andrew are trying to get a catch of fish possibly for their own personal use (hence the amphiblestron is employed) while James and John are in the boat repairing their nets after their trip out onto the Sea of Galilee. Maybe, even, the former two brothers had opted for a fishing method which tied them in nearer to the shore because they thought that the conditions warranted it.
Mtw 1:21 and Mark 1:20 paint a picture of the two brothers - along with their father and their hired servants (indicating that the family may also have been not too badly off for money) - mending the nets together. One would have expected Simon and Andrew to have been lending them a hand if they’d shared in the use of the nets rather than, as it appears, simply supporting one another in each other’s need.
c. The Drag Net
Strongs Greek number 4522 - sagene
This word more rightly means a ‘dragnet’ and is only used once in the entire NT.
Vines notes that
‘...two modes were employed with this, either by its being let down into the water and drawn together in a narrowing circle, and then into the boat, or as a semicircle drawn to the shore...’
Zondervan notes that the sagene could have reached
‘...several hundred yards long, which is taken by boat around a semicircle and then both ends are hauled in to the shore. All kinds and sizes of fish were taken and then sorted. Much time ashore was occupied with net maintenance including washing...’
this last sentence perhaps indicating that this was the type of net normally employed by the four fishermen due to the references in Mtw 4:21, Mark 1:19 and Luke 5:2 even though the more general word for ‘nets’ is used by all three Gospel writers.
We will deal with the ‘drag net’ and its spiritual application by Jesus to the kingdom of Heaven later on when we get to Mtw 13:47 where the single use of the word occurs.
2. The call of Peter
Sometimes we think of Peter’s call by Jesus as a romanticised version of what actually happened. We take the incident outlined for us here and think that this was the first occasion that Peter had ever encountered Him - and the one and only time that Jesus called people to come and follow Him. But there was a progression in Peter’s encounters with Jesus that led him to the realisation that this was the One for whom he wanted to throw everything He possessed away.
It is quite true that, when a person comes to know Jesus, He desires that everything is potentially forsaken in order that the disciple may follow Him wholeheartedly (Luke 14:25-33) but the evidence of the NT Scriptures is such that this did not always happen immediately and decisively but that the revelation and encounters that men and women had with Jesus led them into a position where His demands upon them were a natural and logical progression of their relationship with Him.
Such was the case with Peter (and Andrew, his brother) who first met Jesus numerous months before this incident in Matthew’s Gospel in the Judean Wilderness after Jesus had returned from the forty day experience on His own without any food and tempted by satan (see my chronology above).
Peter (originally named ‘Simon’) first met up with Him indirectly and the responsibility lay not with any revelation that he received directly from the Father as to Jesus’ importance but with a quick word from his brother Andrew who had already committed himself to be a follower, a disciple, of John the Baptist.
Standing with another of John’s disciples, Andrew heard John proclaim Jesus to be the Lamb of God (John 1:35-37) and ran quickly to get hold of his brother to tell him that he’d found the Messiah (1:40-41). When Simon approached Jesus - probably wondering if Andrew was in his right mind but never having seen his brother so ecstatic and wound up - Jesus renamed him ‘Peter’.
Most of the following incidents which transpire from here on, simply refer to ‘the disciples’ being present with Jesus and it may rightly or wrongly be that Peter was present amongst them - we have no way of knowing whether he found it necessary to return to his home at Capernaum frequently in order to maintain his business. Both John and James were partners along with Simon (Luke 5:10) - even though they both retained ownership of their own boat (Luke 5:2,3,7,10) and their own nets (Mtw 4:20,22) - so there remains the possibility that they continued to run the business and support Simon’s family (he had a mother-in-law which implies a wife - Mtw 8:14) while he stayed with Jesus as He moved around the area. Such would be, in my opinion, the main advantage to be gained by having such a partnership.
Of the advantages of this partnership and of his presence with Jesus on the occasions when his name is lacking we cannot now be certain, but Simon would definitely have been amongst the disciples who would have been present at the first Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:13) even if they had not travelled down with Him. However, whether Peter was among the disciples who travelled eastward to baptize believers in water after the festival was over (John 3:22, 4:1-2) and whether he was among the number of the disciples who experienced the ministry to the Samaritans as they journeyed back home (John 4:3-45) is impossible to be certain about.
Although we imagine ‘disciples’ to refer to the twelve, Jesus’ choosing of them didn’t occur to much later on in His ministry (Mark 3:13-19) so that the title is better applied to an array of believers who followed him and which could have varied in numbers as some left for numerous reasons both permanently and temporarily and others joined.
Unfortunately, we can’t be certain if either John or James were ever part of this first ‘phase’ of the disciples for they are never mentioned before the incident before us in Mtw 4:21-22 but some knowledge of Jesus must have been with them for it would have been difficult for Simon to have remained silent on the matter when his brother had told him that Jesus was the Christ (John 1:41).
After the move to Capernaum, then, Jesus met up with Peter and Andrew as they cast a small hand net into the water by the shores of the Sea of Galilee. As the Scripture says, when they heard Jesus’ call for them to follow Him and that, from that time onwards, they would be fishing for men, they left their nets with which they’d been fishing and went after Him.
This needn’t infer that they left their livelihood behind as is often imagined. Certainly it meant a more committed role within the band of disciples (not ‘the twelve’) but it may not have meant much more. Jesus’ phrase that He would cause them to become ‘fishers of men’ is an excellent example of how Jesus meets people at the point they’re at - He could have said to a tax collector that He would make him be a collector of men rather than coins and have been able to convey the same meaning to a different person who would understand the same by it.
Unfortunately, we’ve turned the relevancy of the application into a word formula and I’ve heard many people (as I’m sure you will have) speak of themselves or others being turned into ‘fishers of men’ when they’ve had little or no angling experience! Let’s remember the context, therefore, and realise that there is a word for everyone in the situation in which they find themselves rather than think that there is anything mystical in Jesus’ turn of phrase here.
A while later, Jesus was teaching along the shores of the Sea of Galilee once more and Simon seems to have returned to His occupation of fishing in order to make some sort of living (Luke 5:1-2). Then follows the incident where Jesus uses Simon’s boat to preach from (sound travelling very well over water) and, afterwards, demonstrating His Sovereignty by getting Simon to haul in an incredible amount of fish when it was impossible in Simon’s mind that such a thing could happen (Luke 5:3-10) - again, the miracle, just like the previous words, is relevant to the one to whom it comes.
The contrasts between Luke’s account and both Matthew’s passage and Mark 1:16-18 is important to make here for, in the latter two, Jesus says only to Simon and Andrew that He will make them fishers of men (Mtw 4:19 Mark 1:17) whereas, in Luke, Jesus is recorded as plainly saying (5:10 - my italics) that
‘...henceforth [that is, from that time on] you will be catching men’
Also, both Matthew and Mark record that Simon and Andrew simply ‘left their nets’ (Mtw 4:20, Mark 1:18, whereas Luke notes (4:11 - my italics) that
‘...they left everything and followed Him’
Therefore, Matthew and Mark’s accounts must necessarily be an incident which occurred earlier to Luke and the latter’s record appears to have been the final event which gave Simon the commitment to leave everything behind that he owned and to wholly follow in the steps of Jesus.
Incidentally, it would appear that the nets and boats (or, at least one of the two) weren’t automatically sold for Peter returns to his livelihood for at least one more night of fishing (to relieve the boredom and monotony?) in John 21:1-3. It may be that John’s father, being certainly not poor (as noted above by the mention of the hired servants in Mark 1:20) may have continued to maintain at least one of the boats and employed workers for fishing (an ancient form of share fishermen, no doubt!) so that the boat(s) and equipment was still in use and adequately maintained for when - or if - John and James his sons returned from following after Jesus.
But it was certainly from the incident recorded for us in Luke 5:1-11 that Peter appears to have finally come to terms with the necessity of leaving everything to follow after Jesus.
This is not to say, however, that by returning to fishing after his encounter with Jesus in the Judean Wilderness (John 1:35-42) and by the shores of Galilee (Mtw 4:18-20) that he was in anyway uncommitted to Jesus and we would do well to remember that new converts - although having received a revelation of the work and person of Christ when they first come to believe - may need time with the Lord to observe His work at first hand until there will come a time in their lives when they will throw everything away in order to wholly follow the Lord.
While worldliness is not compatible with discipleship, deeper commitment to Christ is progressive just as it was in Peter’s life and we shouldn’t legislate new believers into giving up everything in the twinkling of an eye when they have not had the same revelation of the presence and power of God that we have.
I have dealt with verse 23 above and here intend saying a little about verses 24-25 but they are built on the foundation of Jesus ‘teaching, preaching and healing’ which is outlined for us in the first of the three verses.
As a consequence of this ministry, then, the facts of the following two verses make sense.
Syria lay to the north and north-east of Galilee and Mtw 4:24 implies that, upon hearing what was transpiring in Galilee, they went out of their way to bring as many as had illnesses or incapacities (physical, mental and inspired by some form of satanic influence) to Him in order that they might be healed. The label ‘Syria’ probably refers more to an area that was defined by OT boundaries than Roman ones for the province in NT times was enormous and, as Mathag notes, actually included the area of Judea and Galilee within its boundaries. However, perhaps we shouldn’t underestimate the size of the region which heard about Jesus and responded positively.
Syria was not a predominantly Jewish area (though many Jews had settled here for various reasons) and so the reports concerning Jesus’ popularity would have annoyed the religious leaders in Jerusalem as they filtered southward to the capital - after all, where were the multitudes coming to them to hear detailed exposition of the Torah rather than just to meet with Jesus to have their needs met and to hear what to them would have been pretty dodgey theological exposition (remind you of labels put on any move of God in recent times?).
If Syria provided a large source of people who came to have their physical needs met, it was (4:25) from
‘...Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan’
that great crowds followed Him.
The Decapolis was a Hellenised area lying to the east and south of the Sea of Galilee and Jesus will touch this area (Mark 5:20) through the healing of the man called Legion who dwelt on the east bank of the sea (Mark 5:1-19) and, later, will visit the region in person (Mark 7:31). The religious leaders considered the area as too unclean to venture very far into it because of its paganisation but Jesus was unconcerned and ministered the Kingdom of Heaven here also.
Jerusalem and Judea both lay to the south of the area of Galilee and were predominantly Jewish but the phrase ‘beyond the Jordan’ (Matthew uses the exact same phrase in 4:15) contained a mixture of Jew and Gentile populating the region and includes the land of the Decapolis along with Perea and Gaulanitis, the latter being where Philip’s Tetrarchy was located and which Jesus ventured into on more than one occasion (for instance, Mark 5:1-20 and 8:22-26) - it’s also the area through which it is logical to travel when you take your journey from Bethsaida to Caesarea Phillipi to the north, also within Philip’s tetrarchy (Mark 8:22, 8:27).
Just how far east we’re to take the description ‘beyond the Jordan’, however, is difficult to determine. Whatever, Matthew is telling us here not that He journeyed into these areas but that the people of those areas, when they heard of the things that were transpiring in Galilee, came to Him in droves to follow Him.
We should compare Mtw 4:15 here with 4:25 for the writer is providing for us a reason for the fulfilment of Scripture which lay not with Jesus’ acquisition of the Scripture and His attempt at fulfilling it. Rather, the Light is seen by the inhabitants of the areas mentioned so that they come to see it rather than have it imposed upon them.
While it is true to say that Jesus journeyed into all these areas at a future time, the reason that the Light is seen by them is because the report concerning Jesus in Galilee is proclaimed throughout the regions and, because of this, the people flock to see Him. Therefore it is the people who fulfil the Scripture, not Jesus.
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