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Matthew 4:12-17

Jesus chooses a particular place – Galilee – to begin his ministry.

Tom Faletti

March 22, 2024

Matthew 4:12-17 Jesus starts his ministry in Galilee


Why does Jesus leave the area around the Jordan River where John had been baptizing?


The geography is important here.  What region does Jesus begin his ministry in?  What city does he move to?  What body of water is he near?


What is your impression of Galilee?


Galilee was not a large place.  Roughly 50 miles north-south by 25 miles east-west, its size was around the size of the small state of Rhode Island.


The northern part of Galilee was more mountainous and remote; but the southern part, which included Jesus’s hometown of Nazareth, was not the isolated place that many think it was.


The sneer against Galilee in John 7:45-52 was not about Galilee being culturally backward, but rather about the alleged lack of evidence that the messiah could come from there, combined with the belief among Pharisees that Galileans were less devoted to following every detail of the law. Even Nathanael's jibe in John 1:46 – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” – must have reflected mainly a local rivalry since John 21:2 tells us that Nathanael came from Cana, which was less than 5 miles from Nazareth. We have tended to misinterpret these comments to think that Galilee and Nazareth were more remote and insular than they actually were.


Nazareth itself was probably a small village, but in a region, Galilee, that was actually a crossroads for international travel.  It included two capital cities, Sepphoris and Tiberius, both founded by the local king, Herod Antipas, and many people spoke both Greek and Aramaic (Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology at Duke University, “Galilee,” From Jesus to Christ, Frontline, Apr. 1998,


According to the Jewish Roman historian Josephus, it contained 204 villages with a population of 15,000 people or more and was the most fertile part of the Jewish lands with an enormous agricultural output (William Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 65).


According to Josephus, Galilee was full of people who “were ever fond of innovations, and by nature disposed to changes, and delighted in seditions” (as quoted in Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 66).  At the same time, they were courageous and “more anxious for honour than for gain” (also p. 66).


Galilee was surrounded by Gentile territory to the west, north, and east, and by Samaritans to the south.  The original meaning of “Galilee” was “circle”: The term “Galilee of the Gentiles” in Matthew 4:15 comes from Isaiah 9:1 and refers to the fact that Galilee was encircled by Gentile nations.


Galilee had been conquered several times over the centuries and repopulated with Gentiles.  When Israel regained independence for around 100 years, from the successful revolt under the Maccabees in the 160s BCE until they were conquered by the Romans in 63 BCE, that region was turned back to Judaism.  However, Galilee was not as insular as Judea to the south (Barclay, Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, pp. 66-67).  Many people were bilingual, and the openness of Galileans to different cultures might have made it a good place to grow up for someone who would eventually preach a message intended for all people, not just Jews.


Why do you think Jesus leaves his hometown of Nazareth and goes to Capernaum?


John the Baptist was arrested by Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas’s capital cities were in Galilee, not far from Nazareth.  From a practical perspective, Capernaum might have been safer, with easy escape across the Sea of Galilee if needed.  From a ministry perspective, Capernaum was a large commercial town that offered a larger audience and a different pool of people from which to draw his early disciples.


Jesus did not just make a quick visit to Capernaum.  He “made his home” (4:13 NRSV) or “went to live” (4:13 NABRE) there – the Greek word implies that he took up residence in a house there.


Why might he choose to start gathering disciples in a commercial fishing town on the sea, rather than in his hometown?


This town was at the north/northwest end of the Sea of Galilee, a large fresh-water lake.  Moving here moves Jesus closer to Gentile territory (on the other side of the lake).  It also brings him into the commercial area around a very large body of water.  The Sea of Galilee was 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, and 680 feet below sea level, which made it a warm area (The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, pp. 70-71).


With Jews on the west and Gentiles on the east, and a high degree of commercial activity, this was a place where people might have been especially open-minded about his mission to all nations.



Matthew offers a fulfillment citation from Isaiah 9:1-2.  What does that Old Testament quote tell us?


This Old Testament quote tells us several things: First, Galilee is mentioned in the Old Testament as a place where God will do something significant.  Second, Capernaum in Galilee is in the Old Testament territory of the tribe of Naphtali, so this is part of God’s plan for the salvation of Israel.  The Old Testament passage was actually about a prophesied restoration after the fall of the nation of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C.  Matthew sees Jesus as fulfilling that prophecy and bringing light to those in darkness.


In what way is Jesus’s arrival like the dawning of a light in the darkness?


In what ways do you find Jesus to be a light in your life?


Matthew provides only a partial quote from Isaiah.  The passage contains other well-known messianic prophecies, including, “a child is born to us, a son is given to us”; he will be known as “wonderful Counselor, Mighty God”, etc. (Isaiah 9:6); and he will establish the throne of David in justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 9:7).  Matthew is signaling to at least the Jewish members of his audience, who would know their Hebrew Scriptures and the messianic prophecies, that Jesus is the Messiah.



In Matthew 4:17, what did Jesus preach in his early preaching?

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (NRSV) or “is at hand” (NABRE).


This is exactly, word for word, John’s message.  It might have been seen as gutsy to take up the message of someone who had just been arrested by the local king.   One might wonder how John’s followers reacted when it appeared that Jesus was claiming John’s mantle by taking his message, given that Jesus was not in John’s inner circle.  It didn’t take long, however, for Jesus’s message to develop further than John’s.


Do you think Jesus meant the same thing as John by this message of repentance?


What does it mean when it says he “proclaimed” or “preached”?  What would that have looked like?


The Greek word is the word for a herald’s proclamation from a king (Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 69), so the word signals a high degree of authority.


What does it mean to you when Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven “has come near” or “is at hand” (Matthew 4:17, NRSV and NABRE)?

We might think of the kingdom of God as any place where God reigns.  The word “kingdom” indicates sovereignty – that the place where God is sovereign, rather than flawed humans, is entering our sphere in a new way.  We can now live our lives under his reign.


Note that in Matthew, Jesus refers to the “kingdom of heaven,” whereas in the other Gospels it is the “kingdom of God.”  Scholars have sometimes tried to find a distinction between the two, with little success.  The best explanation is that Matthew is more sensitive to the ways that Jews talked.  Jews at that time avoided saying the word “God,” so Matthew uses “heaven.”  It is quite possible that Jesus also used the word “heaven” and that the other Gospels, with less concern about this Jewish desire to avoid saying God’s name, might have used “God” to make it more clear precisely what the term means (see Benedict T. Viviano, O.P., “The Gospel According to Matthew,” The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 639, and H. L. Ellison, “Matthew,” The International Bible Commentary, p. 1123).  (The Gospel of Matthew does, however, use the term Kingdom of God four times, in 12:28, 19:24, 21:31, and 21:43.)


As we go through the Gospel of Matthew, we want to hang onto this idea that Jesus is describing what the world looks like when God is acknowledged as sovereign and allowed to reign.  How can you make space for the kingdom of God to be “at hand” in your life?


What is something new you learned today about Jesus, and what difference does it make?



Take a step back and consider this:


In some ways Galilee might have been the perfect place for the boy Jesus to grow up, to prepare him for his ministry.  He would have been raised in a Jewish village in a region that was culturally diverse, where the Jewish language was spoken but also the Greek language that was the common language of a vast empire that dominated a large swath of the Earth.  He would have been exposed to different cultures, and those experiences would have prepared him to craft a message that could reach not only Jews but people of diverse backgrounds.  God used that breadth of experience effectively.


Similarly, God can use the experiences of your past to prepare you for opportunities for ministry in your life now.


As you look back on your life, how has God used events from your past as preparation for opportunities you had to serve him later?


Are there events from your past that you are still hoping God will use in support of future opportunities for service?  Those hopes might be good things to bring to God in prayer.



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Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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