Matthew 4: 12-17 The Kingdom’s Foothold

Capernaum as see from lake Tiberius photo by Tango7174 November 13, 2012 shared under Creative Commons 4.0

Matthew 4: 12-17

Parallel Mark 1: 14-15, Luke 4: 14-15

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles —16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

When John is arrested Matthew narrates that Jesus withdrew or departed (Greek anechoreo) to Galilee, a place where Jesus’ father Joseph brought the child and his mother for safety earlier. Matthew uses this word for withdrawing or departing much more than the other gospels (Mark and Luke use is twice, Matthew uses it ten times)[1] and it is the same word that describes Joseph’s action to remove Jesus and Mary to Egypt to escape the threat of Herod and Archelaus Matthew 2. The kingdom of heaven may be drawing near but it is not meeting the political threats of Herod or Rome on their own terms, Jesus will not reign in a manner consistent with the peace through military power practiced by Rome and its client states. Even though Jesus withdraws to Galilee from the wilderness of the Jordan he withdraws into the territory of Herod Antipas, who arrested John, and makes his base of operations precisely in this territory. Unlike an earlier time where Joseph’s departure with Jesus and Mary moves away from the threat of Herod, here Jesus withdrawing ironically brings him closer to the immediate threat.

Matthew quickly moves us away from Nazareth, where Jesus lived after returning from Egypt and where his family home may have remained and makes his home in Capernaum. Unlike Mark, where Jesus comes to Capernaum but never settles or has a home (Jesus being continually on the way is a Markan theme) Matthew makes Capernaum the home base for the mission of Jesus. Matthew does not portray Jesus as a homeless wanderer but instead puts him in a social class like the fishermen and tradespeople he would interact with. On the one hand this movement to Capernaum separates his home from the home of Mary and Joseph and sets him off on his own. On the other hand, the location is significant to Matthew as well and the next quotation of scripture highlights this importance.

The quotation is from Isaiah 9: 1-2, which is below in its larger context in Isaiah 9, this may be very familiar to Christians who are used to hearing this reading on Christmas Eve.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. 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. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9: 1-7 (Highlighted portion quoted in Matthew)

Isaiah 9 originally comes from a time where the Assyrian empire is expanding and Northern Israel will be conquered and absorbed by this empire, while Judah retains some measure of independence. Galilee and Samaria were associated with Israel (the tribes other than Judah and Benjamin) which no longer retain their distinctive identity after the Assyrian conquest in 721 BCE. Yet, this passage in Isaiah points to a hope for not only Judah (or Judea) but for all of Israel, even the Israel that has been lost and scattered among the nations. The great light emerges in the place where there had been darkness, where Samaria and Galilee had been isolated from the remnant of Judah. For Matthew, Jesus’ act of establishing his base of operations in Capernaum has a broader theological significance of being the long hoped for member of the Davidic line who can bring about the reconstitution of all of Israel.

The title Galilee of the gentiles (or nations-the Greek term ethnos means both, and Gentiles in general are the non-Jewish people) also points to the inclusive nature of the hope of both Isaiah and Matthew. Throughout Matthew’s gospel we will see Gentiles play significant roles as illustrating what faith looks like. Two figures (the Canaanite woman and the Centurion) will show a faith that is not seen in Israel or in the disciples. From the genealogy and the magi, we have already seen the way non-Jewish people were joined to the story of Jesus and how they often embodied a righteousness that was greater than their Jewish counterparts in the story. The choice of location not only points to the reconstitution of Israel but also to the nations also being the recipients of this light which comes in the darkness.

Ruins of 4th Century synagogue, Photo by David Shankbone shared under Creative Commons 4.0

Ruins of Housing during Roman times in Capernaum, Photo by David Shankbone shared under Creative Commons 4.0

Established with a base of operations in Capernaum, Jesus begins the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. As mentioned in the discussion of Matthew 3: 2, Jesus’ proclamation is explicitly linked to the proclamation of John the Baptist. Both are calling for repentance and announcing the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. John and Jesus share a common message but a different relationship or role within that message. John may be the herald that announces the kingdom of heaven’s approach and be the Elijah preparing the way, but Jesus will be the long-awaited Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. To use the rhythm of John’s gospel, John the Baptist’s authority and role have now decreased, but Jesus’ authority shall grow continually. Jesus not only announces the advent of the kingdom of heaven but will embody the kingdom of heaven’s encroachment on the kingdom of the world and the conquest over the one who claims dominion over these kingdoms.

While Jesus will later send his followers, “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10: 6) and not to the Gentiles, their testimony will be a testimony to governors and kings and the Gentiles (Matthew 10:18). Within the vocational understanding of Israel, they were to be a treasured possession of God, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19: 5-6) and they were called to be a light to the nations for the sake of the Lord. What happens in Galilee or Samaria or Judea is not intended to remain there but to be in the words of the servant song in Isaiah 42:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. Isaiah 42: 6-7

Matthew want to quickly bring us to the point where Jesus is teaching his disciples and forming them into a group that can be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations. Jesus in his actions is not merely about the reconstitution of Israel, but something larger is occurring that will affect the nations as well. The advent of the kingdom of heaven will not merely bring about a return to the nostalgic idea of a united Israel under a Davidic king but will instead impact the kingdoms of the world. The people who once lived in lands of deep darkness—on them light has shined. Or to use the poetic language of John’s prologue:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. John 1: 5

This light will soon instruct his followers on what it means to be ‘the light of the world’ and how they are to “let their light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14-15) But for now the light for Israel and the nations has begun to emanate from Capernaum and the kingdom of heaven has established its foothold in the land of the lost tribes of Israel.

[1] Matthew 2: 14, 19-22; 4:12; 10:23; 12: 14-21; 14:13; 15:21; it is also used for the magi withdrawing in 2: 12-13. M. Eugene Boring highlights this in (NIB 8:167)

6 thoughts on “Matthew 4: 12-17 The Kingdom’s Foothold

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