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The Commencement of Jesus’ Ministry Matthew 4:12-25

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As I preach this message, it is Easter Sunday. Some may very well wonder what a text like this has to do with Easter, and I hope to demonstrate that in due time. Some have even expressed some concern about how this passage, sandwiched between the temptation of our Lord and the Sermon on the Mount, can be preached. Believe me, I think about these things as well, especially as Sunday morning draws near. The truth is that this is a very significant text, which serves as a kind of key to Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed to all the Gospels.

Up to this point in Matthew, Jesus has not yet preached nor has He performed any miracle.133 Let’s briefly review where Matthew has taken us thus far. In chapter 1, Matthew’s genealogy shows that Jesus is qualified to be King of Israel because He is both a “son of Abraham” and a “son of David” (Matthew 1:1, 2-17). It is also emphasized that several women in the messianic line were Gentiles. In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (1:18—2:12), he provides an angelic witness to the virgin birth and testimony from Gentile magi that Jesus is the “king of the Jews” (2:2).

I believe the remainder of chapter 2 (2:13-23) is closely related to our text. In 2:13-18, Matthew records the flight of Joseph and his family to Egypt, along with an account of the slaughter of the innocent infants. I take these verses as an early indication of the fact that Jesus will be rejected, opposed, and eventually put to death. The final verses of chapter 2 (2:19-23) contain a similar theme. When Joseph is given the angelic instruction to take his family back to the land of Israel, he is providentially guided to Nazareth in Galilee, and not to Judah. As a result, Matthew informs us, prophecy is fulfilled, prophecy that indicated Jesus would be called a Nazarene. Since there is no Old Testament text that we can directly link with this reference to prophecy in Matthew 2:23, we must give this matter more thought, realizing that good students of the Bible will differ as to Matthew’s meaning.

For myself, I am inclined to the view of Frederick Bruner and others:

For theological reasons I like to consider the … possibility, and it is no more than a possibility, that for Matthew a person from Nazareth, a Nazorean, was considered a nobody and that this, too, is what prophets had often predicted the Christ would at first be considered and become for us… . One likes to think that the Nazorean divinely promised through the prophets was the suffering Messiah, the Servant of God whose roots were transplanted first from Bethlehem to Egypt, and then from Egypt into the parched ground of Nazareth… . “He shall be called a Nazorean,” then, may mean at least this: “he shall be considered a nobody.”134

Let us leave this matter here for the moment, and take it up when we consider the text of this lesson.

In Matthew 3, our author introduces us to John the Baptist and his ministry, leading up to the baptism of our Lord by John. It is at this baptism that God declares (through the voice of the Father, the actions of the Spirit, and the testimony of John the Baptist) that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, Israel’s King. It is also at His baptism that Jesus commits Himself to the mission of the Messiah, which will lead Him to offer up His life as a sacrifice for sinners on the cross of Calvary.

The baptism of our Lord and His identification as the Messiah is followed by the temptation of our Lord by Satan in Matthew 4:1-11. Here, Satan concludes 40 days of temptation with his three final efforts (for the time being). By His victory over these temptations, Jesus proved that He and He alone was qualified as Messiah to fulfill the work the Father had given Him to do, the work of providing salvation for guilty sinners, by grace through faith.

The Structure of Our Text

Our passage contains three paragraphs:

Verses 12-17 Jesus withdraws to Galilee

Verses 18-22 Jesus chooses four disciples

Verses 23-25 Jesus teaches, preaches, and heals

As we will demonstrate, each of these paragraphs has something in common with the other two, and it is that connection which provides the key to this entire passage and its contribution to the Gospel of Matthew.

Jesus Withdraws to Galilee
Matthew 4:12-17

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been imprisoned, he went into Galilee. 13 While in Galilee, he moved from Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet would be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way by the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, and on those sitting in the region and the shadow of death a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach this message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”135

The casual reader would hardly realize that nearly a year has passed between Matthew 4:11 and 4:12:

Matthew passes over many things from the earlier work of Jesus in Judea and Galilee that could have been included. We are told about some of these things in John. Before returning to Galilee (which John records in 4:43), Jesus met and called the first disciples, turned the water to wine at Cana, resided for a short while in Capernaum, returned to Jerusalem for an early Passover, drove the money changers from the temple, talked to Nicodemus, conducted an early teaching ministry in the Judean countryside, and had his encounter with the woman of Samaria on his way north again (see John 1:19—4:42). It is at this point that Matthew seems to pick up the story (Matt. 4:12-25)… . In verse 11, Jesus was in the desert near the Jordan. Now Matthew says only that “when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (v. 12). This would have been about a year later.136

While John’s Gospel finds Jesus in Jerusalem quite early (John 2:13—3:36), the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) pass by this early Jerusalem ministry and present our Lord’s ministry as commencing in Galilee. Matthew and Mark specifically indicate that Jesus left Judea and went to Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest of John was therefore a kind of turning point in our Lord’s ministry.

I am inclined to agree with a number of translations which indicate that Jesus “withdrew” into Galilee. It would be wrong, however, to conclude that Jesus was somehow going into hiding, as if out of fear. For one thing, Herod ruled over Galilee, as well as over Judea, so Jesus was not escaping from Herod. And it should be self-evident that Jesus was not trying to remain incognito in Galilee. He traveled widely, ministered publicly, and attracted a very large following.137

The mystery is why Jesus would go to Galilee in the first place. I like the way Bruner puts it:

“Therefore when Jesus ‘retreated to Galilee’ he did more than head north, he seemed to go wrong.”138

As one of my friends put it, “When Jesus went north, to all appearances He had ‘gone south’” (somehow lost His bearings).

We need to remind ourselves about Galilee before we can understand why Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee is so perplexing. Galilee was north of Judea. As partial payment for the assistance Hiram, King of Tyre, had given Solomon in the building of the temple, Solomon gave Hiram 20 cities in Galilee. The interesting thing about this is Hiram’s response:

11 King Solomon gave King Hiram of Tyre twenty cities in the region of Galilee, because Hiram had supplied Solomon with cedars, evergreens, and all the gold he wanted. 12 When Hiram went out from Tyre to inspect the cities Solomon had given him, he was not pleased with them (1 Kings 9:11-12).

When the United Kingdom was divided during the reign of Rehoboam, Galilee became a part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom was Judah, which continued to be ruled by the descendants of David. The Northern Kingdom, under Jeroboam and subsequent ungodly kings, turned to false worship. Israel did not do much better, although some of her kings were godly men. When both kingdoms became corrupt, God began to warn of a coming day of judgment, a day when God would use the Assyrians as His instrument of judgment, carrying the people of the Northern Kingdom into captivity. The Assyrians would threaten Judah and Jerusalem but would not succeed in sacking that city:

1 The Lord told me, “Take a large tablet and inscribe these words on it with an ordinary stylus: ‘Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.’ 2 Then I will summon as my reliable witnesses Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah.” 3 I then had sexual relations with the prophetess; she conceived and gave birth to a son. The Lord told me, “Name him Maher Shalal Hash Baz, 4 for before the child knows how to cry out, ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.” 5 The Lord spoke to me again: 6 “These people have rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and melt in fear over Rezin and the son of Remaliah. 7 So look, the sovereign master is bringing up against them the turbulent and mighty waters of the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria and all his majestic power. It will reach flood stage and overflow its banks. 8 It will spill into Judah, flooding and engulfing, as it reaches the necks of its victims. He will spread his wings out over your entire land, O Immanuel” (Isaiah 8:1-8).

Tiglath-pileser, king of Assyria, did just as God had forewarned (see 2 Kings 15:29). When the Assyrians sacked the Northern Kingdom, they carried the people to Assyria. Later, Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, would once again march against Israel and would carry the Israelites into exile in Assyria (2 Kings 17:1-6). The Assyrians then brought captives from other places to live in the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 17:24). As a result, the Northern Kingdom (which included Galilee) became diluted (the people of Judah would probably say polluted) ethnically and spiritually. Over time the Jewish population in the Northern Kingdom increased somewhat. Nevertheless, for the Jews of Judah and Jerusalem, Galilee was not considered a place of status. As Bruner put it,

Galilee is a strange place for a Messiah to work. There is no early rabbinic reference to the Messiah’s appearing or working in Galilee. Galilee was not just geographically far from Jerusalem; it was considered spiritually and politically far, too. Galilee was the most pagan of the Jewish provinces, located as it was at the northernmost tier of Palestine. This distance from Zion was not only geographic; Galileans were considered by Judaeans to sit rather loosely to the law and to be less biblically pure than those in or near Jerusalem. Finally, Galilee was notorious for being the nest of revolution and the haunt of Zealot revolutionary movements. Just a few years before Jesus’ birth, Sephoris, capital city of Galilee, had been led in revolt by Judas of Galilee against the Roman government and had brought Galilee into defeat and many of the people of God into shame.139

Matthew very cryptically informs his readers that Jesus left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum “by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4:12). Because this was our Lord’s home base, a number of miracles were performed there, including the healing of the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13), and of Simon’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17), exorcising the man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23-28), and the healing of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof (Mark 2:1-12). No wonder Jesus could say that Capernaum was worthy of greater condemnation:

23 “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day. 24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!” (Matthew 11:23-24)

Capernaum may have its military garrison, and a tax-collector’s office, where Matthew was seated (Matthew 9:1, 9), but it was hardly the kind of town one would expect the Messiah to make his headquarters:

Little is known about Capernaum, but Matthew tells us that it occupied a seaside position and that it was in the general area of Zebulon and Naphtali (These tribes are mentioned again in the New Testament only in v. 15 and Rev. 7:6-8). The name Capernaum means “Nahum’s village,” but this does not help us because it is not known who the Nahum in question was. It is generally accepted that the site of the city is that known as “Tell Hum” at the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was of fair size (J. P. Kane says that its area was c. 800 by 250 m.), but it was not a great city and there are few references to it outside the Gospels. For whatever reason, Jesus made Capernaum the center of his ministry rather than his hometown; JB’s “settled in Capernaum” bring this out (cf. 9:1).140

What is so important about Capernaum and Galilee that Matthew makes such a point of telling us about these places? Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee was no mistake; it was, in fact, the fulfillment of prophecy, another proof that Jesus is the promised Messiah.

1 The gloom will be dispelled for those who were anxious. In earlier times he humiliated the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali; but now he brings honor to the way of the sea, the region beyond the Jordan, and Galilee of the nations. 2 The people walking in darkness see a bright light; light shines on those who live in a land of deep darkness (Isaiah 9:1-2).

With some variations from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, Matthew cites the first two verses of Isaiah 9. In chapter 8, Isaiah warned of the coming invasion of the Assyrians, which would sack the Northern Kingdom and threaten Judah. Now in chapter 9, Isaiah speaks of a coming day of salvation and deliverance. While the more immediate deliverance will be a return to the land of Israel, Matthew sees the ultimate deliverance in the coming of Messiah. It is Matthew alone who points to our Lord’s withdrawal into Galilee as the fulfillment of prophecy. It is noteworthy, as R.V.G. Tasker points out that,

The expressions by the way of the sea (i.e. towards the Mediterranean) and beyond Jordan (i.e. west of Jordan) depict the district from the viewpoint of the Assyrian invaders.141

As the Assyrians (followed by the Babylonians) made their destructive assault on the Northern Kingdom, as they made their way toward Judah, so Jesus made His saving assault first in Galilee, and then later in Judah. Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 9 indicates that it was his belief that the prophet Isaiah foretold (perhaps unwittingly) the geographical sequence of our Lord’s coming to save His people.142

Jesus Calls Four of His Disciples
Matthew 4:18-22

18 As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon (called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishermen). 19 He said to them, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people.” 20 They left their nets143 immediately and followed him. 21 Going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. Then he called them. 22 They immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.

Every student of the New Testament recognizes that there are several “callings” of the disciples. These take place over a period of time. The initial calling is to be found in John 1:

35 Again the next day John was standing there with two of his disciples. 36 Gazing at Jesus as he walked by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When his two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned around and saw them following and said to them, “What do you want?” So they said to him, “Rabbi” (which is translated Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 Jesus answered, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus. 41 He found first his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Christ). 42 Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon, the son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). 43 On the next day Jesus wanted to set out for Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.) 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and exclaimed, “Look, a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “How do you know me?” Jesus replied, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel!” 50 Jesus said to him, “Because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 He continued, “I tell all of you the solemn truth—you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

It seems that shortly after our Lord’s baptism by John two of his disciples (one of whom we know was Andrew144 – see verse 40) left John to follow Jesus. These two followed Jesus that day (verse 39). Andrew then recruited his brother Peter. Philip was added as well, and he recruited Nathanael. The calling that Matthew describes in 4:18-22 is a later one, perhaps associated with the calling in Luke 5:1-11. Matthew’s calling involves only four disciples, two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew (Matthew 4:18-20), and James and John (4:21-22). The account of Matthew’s will not be recorded until Matthew 9:9.

It seems that this calling of the disciples is a permanent one. This time these disciples leave their fishing business to accompany Jesus full time. Several factors point us in this direction. First, from Matthew’s point of view, this is the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry. What better time for the disciples to follow Jesus full time? Second, both sets of brothers are said to have “left their nets.” Matthew tells us that James and John also left “the boat” and their father (4:22). Third, Jesus’ words, “Follow me, and I will turn you into fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19) would seem to indicate a change of profession. While these disciples have left their fishing business before, this seems to be a more permanent departure, and thus a major turning point in their lives.

Matthew’s use of the word “immediately,” should not be overlooked.145 He tells us that immediately after these four men were called to follow Jesus, they left their nets and joined Him. I realize that while this is not the first time these men have been called, it is the first time they have been called to follow Jesus permanently. When called by Jesus, they responded immediately. I believe this is recorded to inform the reader that Jesus was a man of authority. Not only did He teach with authority (Matthew 7:28-29), He called with authority. When Jesus spoke, His sheep responded (see John 10:27-29).

Normally, disciples chose their master, but here it was Jesus who chose His disciples. He did not choose men who could put up a good fight (though Peter was willing to give it a try); He called men who would learn what He had to teach them about the kingdom of heaven. This is surely a clue to the kind of ministry our Lord came to carry out. He selected those whom He would empower and leave behind to proclaim the message of the Gospel. And in the end, He would instruct these men to make disciples of others (Matthew 28:18-20). The coming of His kingdom was not immediate, but would come over some period of time.

Jesus Heals, Preaches, and Teaches in Galilee
Matthew 4:23-25

23 Jesus went throughout all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of disease and sickness among the people. 24 So a report about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all who suffered with various illnesses and afflictions, epileptics, paralytics, and those possessed by demons, and he healed them. 25 And large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan River.

We should keep in mind that the greater portion of our Lord’s earthly ministry occurred in Galilee. Here, Matthew describes the commencement of Jesus’ Galilean ministry as starting out with a bang. It was an instant success. It could not have been otherwise. Jesus went “throughout all Galilee,” teaching, preaching, and healing (verse 23). You can imagine how word must have spread. Matthew gives us a general, overall description of our Lord’s success in Galilee. Let’s take a look at a specific example of His success:

14 Now when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying down, sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her. Then she got up and began to serve them. 16 When it was evening, many demon-possessed people were brought to him. He drove out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. 17 In this way what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled: “He took our weaknesses, and carried our diseases” (Matthew 8:14-17).

Imagine what it would have been like to have witnessed Jesus at work. The rumor spreads that Peter’s mother-in-law had just been healed. You rush to her home to see for yourself. A large crowd has already gathered. Those with every kind of malady have been brought to Jesus, and He has healed every infirmity. Not one ailing person has been left unhealed, and this included those who were demon-possessed. It included those who were hopelessly sick. If it were today, terminally-ill cancer patients would have been lined up, waiting for healing.

Our Lord’s ministry was not only extensive, it was taxing and time consuming, as D.A. Carson indicates:

Jesus’ ministry included teaching, preaching, and healing. Galilee, the district covered, is small (approximately seventy by forty miles); but according to Josephus (Life 235[45]; War III, 41-43(iii.2), writing one generation later, Galilee had 204 cities and villages, each with no fewer than fifteen thousand persons. Even if this figure refers only to the walled cities and not to the villages (which is not what Josephus says), a most conservative estimate points to a large population, even if less than Josephus’s three million. At the rate of two villages or towns per day, three months would be required to visit all of them, with no time off for the Sabbath.146

The variety of maladies cured, and the fact that no ailment was too difficult for Jesus to heal, underscored His authority. Jesus gathered a following from a wide geographical range, which included Syria,147 Decapolis, Jerusalem and Judea, and also from beyond the Jordan.148 Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee did not destine Him to obscurity; rather, it propelled Him to prominence.

Conclusion

And so we now come to the place where we must ask ourselves, “What is the point of this passage?” Why did Matthew place this passage between the temptation of our Lord and the Sermon on the Mount? What are we supposed to learn here?

The first thing we should observe is what I call “the Galilean connection.” The thing that links these three paragraphs is that they all occur in Galilee. This may sound like an insignificant point, but I assure you that it is much more important than it may seem at first glance. Consider the significance of our Lord’s association with Galilee in His ministry.

Jesus began His ministry in Galilee.149 We see this, of course, here in Matthew and also in Mark (1:14ff.). What I had not noticed before is that this fact is emphasized elsewhere in the New Testament:

34 Then Peter started speaking: “I now truly understand that God does not show favoritism in dealing with people, 35 but in every nation the person who fears him and does what is right is welcomed before him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all)— 37 you know what happened throughout Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 with respect to Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of all the things he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:34-39, emphasis mine).

29 When they had accomplished everything that was written about him, they took him down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These are now his witnesses to the people (Acts 13:29-31, emphasis mine).

Herod’s party included leading Galileans. I have never noticed this fact before, but Mark informs us that some of those who attended Herod’s birthday party were Galilean leaders:

21 But a day of opportunity came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his court officials, military commanders, and leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you” (Mark 6:21-22, emphasis mine).

If Herod’s friends and associates were Galileans, this would only serve to make Galileans more despicable to the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea.

Jesus’ disciples were Galileans. In our text, we read the account of Jesus calling four men to follow Him. What we should notice here is that he did so along the Sea of Galilee. These four men were Galileans, and so were the rest of His disciples:

69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A slave girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it in front of them all: “I don’t know what you are talking about” (Matthew 26:69-70, emphasis mine).

69 When the slave girl saw him, she began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But he denied it again. A short time later the bystanders again said to Peter, “You must be one of them, because you are also a Galilean” (Mark 14:69-70, emphasis mine).

10 As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11, emphasis mine).

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? (Acts 2:5-8, emphasis mine)

I may not be able to prove it, but I am inclined to think that because the disciples of our Lord were Galileans, this caused the Jerusalem Jews to look down upon them. The following text in Acts may thus reflect the Galilean origins of the disciples:

12 “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among people by which we must be saved.” 13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:12-14, emphasis mine).

The women who followed Jesus were Galileans. It was not just the disciples who were Galileans; the women who accompanied Jesus were also from Galilee:

55 Many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and given him support were also there, watching from a distance. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:55-56, emphasis mine).

55 The women who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they returned and prepared aromatic spices and perfumes. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment (Luke 23:55-56).

Galileans were not highly regarded, but rather were looked upon with contempt. Even Nathanael had his doubts about Galileans:150

45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets also wrote about—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46, emphasis mine).

40 When they heard these words, some of the crowd began to say, “This really is the Prophet!” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ!” But still others said, “No, for the Christ doesn’t come from Galilee, does he? 42 Don’t the scriptures say that the Christ is a descendant of David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (John 7:40-42, emphasis mine)

50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, 51 “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” 53 And each one departed to his own house (John 7:50-53, emphasis mine).

Even at the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus continues to identify Himself with Galilee:

“But after I am raised, I will go ahead of you into Galilee” (Matthew 26:32).

Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead. He is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there.” Listen, I have told you (Matthew 28:7).

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. They will see me there” (Matthew 28:10).

So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated (Matthew 28:16).

I believe that Matthew has gone to considerable effort to underscore the relationship Jesus had to Galilee.

Jesus’ parents were from Galilee, and He would have been born there other than the providential guidance of God (in order to fulfill the prophecy that He would be born in Bethlehem of Judea).

Jesus was raised in Galilee. God directed Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, and then to Nazareth of Galilee. Jesus was a Galilean in that this was His home.

Jesus began His earthly ministry in Galilee. He went from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Many Galileans followed Jesus to Jerusalem, particularly His disciples and the women who accompanied Him.

Most of Jesus’ earthly ministry was in Galilee.

Jesus met His disciples in Galilee, after His resurrection.

Matthew makes a point of letting His readers know that Jesus was from Galilee. He informs us that after His baptism and some preliminary ministry in Judea, Jesus withdrew to Galilee and from there He commenced His public teaching ministry, which would take Him to Jerusalem. He lets his readers know that Jesus not only went to Galilee, but that He was from Galilee – that is, He was a Galilean, as were His disciples. So what is the point or the purpose of this emphasis on Galilee?

First of all, I believe that His association with Galilee was part of His humiliation as the Messiah. Jesus humbled Himself to come to this earth in human flesh (Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 2:14-18; 4:14-16; 5:7-10). Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be rejected by men:

1 Who would have believed what we just heard?
When was the Lord’s power revealed through him?
2 He sprouted up like a twig before God,
like a root out of parched soil;
he had no stately form or majesty
that might catch our attention,
no special appearance that we should want to follow him.
3 He was despised and rejected by people,
one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness;
people hid their faces from him; he was despised,
and we considered him insignificant (Isaiah 53:1-3).

I believe the events of Matthew 2 contribute to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Jesus was born in the humblest of circumstances. He was rejected by the people of Jerusalem and opposed by Herod, who sought to kill Him. When His parents returned from Egypt, God led Joseph and his family to Nazareth of Galilee, and Matthew tells us that this fulfilled the (unspecified151) prophecy that Jesus would be called a Nazarene (2:23). Jesus and His disciples were rejected (or at least looked upon with some measure of disdain) by many, solely on the basis of His association with Galilee (e.g. John 7:40-41).

Second, I believe our Lord’s association with Galilee is consistent with our Lord’s saving purpose. As Isaiah 9 described it, Galilee not only had a higher concentration of Gentiles than did Jerusalem or Judea, it was also a place of great spiritual need. The people were living in darkness. It was a place where people sat in the shadow of death. Upon such a needy place and people, the Light dawned. This is not to say that the people of Judea were more spiritual, or that they were less in need. It is to say that they did not perceive it to be this way. The people of Jerusalem and Judea saw themselves as those who were spiritually enlightened, those who were not in need. They were certainly wrong.

Matthew, perhaps above all of the other disciples, could appreciate our Lord’s compassion toward those in spiritual darkness and need:

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13).

I call this “the principle of inversion.” Jesus is drawn to those who are most aware of their need and those who are most despised by those who think themselves spiritual. By seeking out sinners, Jesus manifests divine grace, and thereby brings great glory to Himself. Paul puts it this way:

26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

My wife Jeannette read a book recently which she had to tell me about. The book was about Gladys Aylward, a woman who God greatly blessed in China.152 This woman was born in England in 1902. One day she happened to see a church with a banner announcing that special missionary meetings were going on inside. Although she regularly attended another church, she was prompted to go in and to hear the man who was speaking about China. She was convinced from that time on that God wanted her to serve as a missionary to China. She attended a China Inland Mission training school, but she was not a great student and was informed that she was not suited for ministry in China.

Gladys Aylward was not convinced. She went to China on her own and sought out a woman she had heard about who managed an inn. With difficulty, Gladys reached this inn and began to minister there. When the woman she served under died, there were no finances to keep the inn going. Gladys was forced to find some kind of employment to support herself and the inn. A Chinese government official sought her out. A law had been passed, forbidding the practice of binding the feet of girl babies. They needed a woman who could speak Chinese and who would go from house to house and from village to village, inspecting the feet of the children and seeing to it that the foot binding ceased. Gladys took the job, but only after making it clear that she would be duty bound to share her faith with every home that she entered. And that she did. She visited every home in every village in that district, and each time she came to a home she shared the gospel. People were saved in each village, and then churches emerged. What an amazing ministry!

A movie was later made about Gladys Aylward entitled, “The Inn of Sixth Happiness,” starring Ingrid Bergman. I have heard that after making this movie, Ingrid Bergman was so strongly impacted that she looked up Gladys Aylward, and Gladys led her to faith in Christ.

This story has a very special significance to me. I heard the story years ago, but only remembered it after my wife reminded me. It was at a time when I wondered about myself and the contribution I would make to the cause of Christ. That story was told by a preacher I have never seen nor heard of since, but he linked it with Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1, verses 26-31. It was the most encouraging message I had ever heard. Thank God that Jesus not only went to Galilee, but that He chose Galileans to be His disciples. God does choose the foolish things of this world (that is, in this world’s eyes) to confound the wisdom of men, and to bring glory to Himself. It is not that Galilee is such a great place, but that He is such a great and gracious God.

The Contextual Connection

Our text, Matthew 2:12-25, falls between the account of our Lord’s temptation and the Sermon on the Mount. How fitting it is that this passage would serve as the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. On the one hand, Jesus displayed His power by healing every kind of malady that He confronted in Galilee. He also demonstrated His authority by casting out demons and by calling His disciples (who immediately left their nets and followed Him). No wonder people marveled at His teaching “with authority” (Matthew 7:28-29).

On the other hand, our Lord demonstrated His compassion toward those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death. It is not a surprise at all to learn that Jesus’ teaching would begin,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4-5).

It is just like Jesus to seek and to save those who are in great need.

The Easter Connection

At the outset of this message, I indicated that this sermon is being delivered on Easter Sunday. I also said that this text is related to Easter and the resurrection of our Lord. In Matthew’s Gospel, our Lord’s ministry begins in Galilee with the performance of many miracles. It is Jesus’ works that give impact and authority to His words. When John the Baptist entertained some doubts about Jesus’ identity, our Lord reminded John of His words and His works, which fulfilled God’s Word and testified to His identity:

18 John’s disciples informed him about all these things. So John called two of his disciples 19 and sent them to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 20 When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” 21 At that very time Jesus cured many people of diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits, and granted sight to many who were blind. 22 So he answered them, “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news proclaimed to them. 23 Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:18-23).

From the outset of His public ministry, Jesus validated His message with His miracles. That is what our text in Matthew 4 is all about. As the conclusion of our Lord’s ministry began to draw near, Jesus spoke of one final confirmation of His identity and authority – His resurrection from the dead:

38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. 41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here!” (Matthew 12:38-41)

In a sense, Jesus staked His entire ministry on His ability to demonstrate His divine power and authority. He did not leave us without sufficient proof of His power. As our text precedes our Lord’s teaching, so the resurrection punctuates it. The beginning and the conclusion of our Lord’s earthly ministry are authenticated, not only by fulfilled prophecy, but by manifestations of divine power. It is not for lack of evidence that men refuse to believe; it is out of the hardness of their hearts.

I dare not let this day go by without reminding you of the gospel which our Lord provided and proclaimed. You and I, like the people of Galilee, live in darkness, under the shadow of death. That is because God is holy, and we are sinners. We all rightly deserve God’s eternal wrath. But God in His mercy sent His Son to seek and to save needy sinners. Jesus lived a perfect life, unstained by sin. This we see, for example, in His victory over Satan’s temptations. Jesus died on the cross of Calvary, not for any sins of His own, but in order to bear the penalty for our sins. God raised Jesus from the dead as proof that His sacrifice for sins was satisfactory. Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father, waiting for the day of His return. He is coming to establish His throne on earth and to punish those who oppose Him. Have you trusted in the work of Jesus Christ? The resurrection is God’s proof of the righteousness of Jesus Christ:

8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned (John 16:8-11).


132 This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 9 in the Studies in the Gospel of Matthew series prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on April 20, 2003.

133 This is not to say that no miracles have been performed and no message has been preached. It is only to say that Matthew has not reported either up to this point in his Gospel.

134 Fredrick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: A Historical/Theological Commentary (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987), vol. 1, p. 62.

135 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

136 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2001), vol. 1, p. 62.

137 Leon Morris quotes Filson: “When Jesus went to Galilee, his move was an answer to Herod; he took up in Herod’s territory the work which Herod had tried to stop by arresting John; he began his ministry with a challenge rather than with a retreat.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 80, fn. 37.

138 Bruner, p. 118.

139 Bruner, p. 118.

140 Morris, pp. 80-81.

141 R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 56.

142 “‘The prophet, after prophesying judgment and doom, proclaimed the dawn of a new hope in the birth of a descendant of David who would establish a kingdom of Peace. Yet not in Jerusalem and Judah will the light first dawn, but in the northernmost part of the land of Israel, a region which lay in darkness and death at the time Jesus came to fulfil the ancient prophecy, and which even the Baptist had not been able to reach by his call to repentance.’” Levertoff, as cited by Tasker, p. 56.

143 “The word this time is diktuon; it is a general word for ‘net’ and not the specific hand net of verse 18. The plural covers all the nets they would have used in their profession as fishermen. They now left them all.” Morris, p. 86, fn. 60.

144 I am inclined to think that the other disciple of John the Baptist was John, the brother of James and the author of the Gospel of John.

145 This term is found 80 times in the Gospels. Mark likes it best of all for it is found 40 times in his Gospel. Matthew uses it 18 times, while Luke uses it 16 times, and John 6 times.

146 D.A. Carson, Matthew, Chapters 1 Through 12 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), pp. 120-121.

147 “The geographical extent of ‘Syria’ is uncertain. From the perspective of Jesus in Galilee, Syria was to the north. From the Roman viewpoint Syria was a Roman province embracing all Palestine (cf. Luke 2:2; Acts 15:23, 41; Gal 1:21), Galilee excepted, since it was under the independent administration of Herod Antipas at this time. The term ‘Syria’ reflects the extent of the excitement aroused by Jesus’ ministry; if the Roman use of the term is here presumed, it shows his effect on people far beyond the borders of Israel.” Carson, p. 121.

148 “Jesus’ reputation at this point extended far beyond Galilee, even though that is where the light ‘dawned’ (v.16). Two of the named areas, the region across the Jordan (east bank? See on v.15) and the Decapolis, were mostly made up of Gentiles, a fact already emphasized (see on 1:3-5; 2:1-12, 22-23; 3:9; 4:8, 15-16). The Decapolis (lit., ‘Ten Cities’) refers to a region east of Galilee extending from Damascus in the north to Philadelphia in the south, ten cities (under varied reckonings) making up the count (cf. S. Thomas Parker, ‘The Decapolis Reviewed,’ JBL 94 [1975]: 437-41).” Carson, p. 122.

149 In John’s Gospel, the first two signs are specifically designated as signs that Jesus performed in Galilee (see John 2:11; 4:54).

150 Granted, Nathanael does not mention the fact that Jesus was a Galilean. Nevertheless, Nazareth was a Galilean town or village, and thus I believe its location in Galilee is a good part of the reason why Nathanael has his doubts about Jesus being the Messiah.

151 By “unspecified,” I mean that there is no specific Old Testament passage to which Matthew refers in Matthew 2:23.

152 I confess that as of this writing I have not yet read the book. I am reporting my understanding of the book from my wife’s reading. I do hope to read the book soon, and would encourage you to do likewise.

Related Topics: Christology, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership