Welcome to the GGFApologetics Notes on Matthew blog. I am determined to work my way through a deep dive in The Gospel of Matthew this year. Observations may range from pastoral to simple questions or a survey of Bible difficulties. I will be drawing information from many different commentaries, articles and scholars. Sources noted below.
The second half of the fourth chapter in The Gospel of Matthew moves from Satan’s temptation narratives to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Verse eleven left Him in the company of angels with the devil departing as Jesus ordered him away, overcoming the evil one will become a recurring theme throughout the gospel narrative.
Reading The Bible Like A Novel
We notice when the story picks up again in verse twelve that the Evangelist is concerned with Jesus’ movements. He lists several geographical locations in a short block of text. Matthew opens with a curious statement: “When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee” (v. 12).
Why? Why does this prompt Jesus to move His ministry?
Issues like these remind me of something I remember hearing from Bible scholar Michael Heiser. He says we should read the Bible like it’s a novel. That is not to say that we assume it’s fiction or that it’s a lower form of writing somehow. No. The statement acknowledges that we read novels with curiosity. With novels, we are looking to make connections to information given earlier or making note of present material to see if it pops up again later. Reading novels, we are acutely aware of the work of the author and where he wants to lead the reader. So, according to Heiser, when we read that Jesus returned to Galilee once He heard about John’s imprisonment, if the answer isn’t obvious, we should ask “Why?” Why would Matthew include this information? Is it something his audience would understand without explanation?
In this case, there were a few practical advantages for Jesus moving His ministry along the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, a lakeside fishing village. Capernaum was a busier, more populated place than Nazareth. There would be more resources, supplies for His ministry. And more people. A more populated mission field. However, an increasingly dire reason may have been to get beyond the reach of Herod Antipas, who famously imprisoned John.
In my research, I uncovered a couple ways to look at the Why questions. First, this passage represents another example of “Fulfillment Prophecy”. Second, it may also offer commentary to Christ followers about recent events happening near the time of the Gospel’s writing in 80-85 AD.
Matthew’s motivation for mentioning these locations, like Nazareth, Capernaum, and Zebulun and Naphtali, beyond historical detail may have more to do with his habit of reaching back into the Old Testament to bolster the prophetic street credentials of Jesus. This time, it involves verse 13 of the Gospel:
“Leaving Nazareth, he went and live in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali– to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in the darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’” ( Matthew 12-16 referring to Isaiah 9:1,2)
Yes. Matthew reports another fulfillment of prophecy, this time from Isa. 9:1,2. It’s interesting that the apostle condenses the passage from Isaiah seemingly just to highlight the presence of those city names and make the connection between those locations and the “dawning light” (Jesus). The full text from Isaiah read:
“[a]Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.”
Topical, not Chronological
Here is a good place to make note that Matthew often arranged information topically, not chronologically. So we must not think that John was locked up immediately after Jesus’ final temptation. So if this historical event is not to be understood as listed chronologically, why include it here? Again, we should ask why. Scholar Warren Carter believes the text served as a cultural commentary on Post-Resurrection life:
“This Isaiah text functions in Matthew 4:12-16 as an analogy for Rome’s empire. “Galilee owned by or under the Gentiles” now belongs to and is ruled by another Gentile empire. Roman control had been freshly asserted over Galilee in destroying Jerusalem and its temple in 70CE. Matthew’s Gospel, written in the 80s, cites Isaiah 9:1-2 to describe Roman rule as ‘darkness” and ‘death.’ It positions Jesus, at the beginning of his public ministry, as the light or saving presence that shines in the darkness of Rome’s imperial domination. Jesus asserts God’s light or saving rule in Roman Galilee.” (Carter)
So, while not listed in this chapter to represent strict historical record, Matthew references recent tragic events, the Temple destruction ten years or so earlier, to convey to his Jewish audience Jesus’ place in history. He offers the real hope of Christ to a defeated people.
The Kingdom Of Heaven
“From that time on Jesus began to preach . . .” (v.17) There are a couple times where Matthew uses a phrase like this to mark our entrance into a different section of the Matthew’s Gospel. The other similar verse is Matthew 16:21 which announces that:
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
So verse 17 separates this proclaiming of the kingdom from the first part of the gospel, the introduction (Matt 1-4), and Matthew 16 begins Jesus’ journey to the Cross (Matt 16-28). These markers divide the book, again, by topic. Four chapters within the Introduction. Twelve chapters in each of the final two sections.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (v.17 continued) This may sound familiar to those following along in this Matthew study because it is the identical message of John The Baptist. Or is it? Scholar and commentator FF Bruce explains these words have different meaning when said by Jesus:
“Jesus’ message is summed up in the same words as John’s preaching but ‘the kingdom of heaven’ on his lips had not the same connotation as it did on John’s. Jesus’ call to repentance was a call to men to re-access all personal and social values in the light of the approach of the divine kingdom in His ministry. . .” (Bruce, “UTNT”. P 15.)
Interestingly, because Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, we have this much repeated phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”. In Warren Wiersbe’s “Be Loyal” commentary on Matthew, he explains that, out of reverence for our Good Good Father, the Jewish people would not use the phrase “Kingdom of God”. So they would use the word Heaven in its place. Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned thirty-two times in Matthew’s Gospel, while mentioning Kingdom of God only five times. In parallel stories, in Mark and Luke, Kingdom of God has the majority of use. Both those gospels were written to a non-Jewish audience, the Romans.
Wiersbe goes on to explain that:
“In the New Testament, the word kingdom means ‘rule, reign, authority’ rather than a place or a specific realm. The phrase “kingdom of heaven” refers to the rule of God. The Jewish leaders wanted a political leader who would deliver them from Rome, but Jesus came to bring spiritual rule to the hearts of people.” (p42,43)
When Wiersbe mentions that Jewish leaders expected, in Jesus, a political leader, not a spiritual one, it makes me think about how we often observe uninformed criticism from skeptics. These unbelievers scoff at examples of prophecy fulfillment inferring that New Testament writers simply invented the actions of Jesus in order to coincide with what was reported or prophesied in the Old Testament. But this accusation, in many cases, ignores the fact that the ancient Jewish people misunderstood so much about the coming of Jesus, who He would be, and how God’s Will would be accomplished. The true events of the New Testament, in effect, would represent poorly told lies, in that the truth would be more difficult to believe because it so violently diverted from common Jewish thought.
Fishers of Men
If one were to have The Gospel of Matthew as their only source for knowledge of the story of Jesus, they would have to believe that, seemingly out of the blue, Jesus commanded Peter and Andrew to “follow” Him in verse 19. And they immediately dropped their nets and left their father Zebedee to follow this stranger. Remember, that before this, though, the events of John 1:19-3:36 had already unfolded. Jesus wasn’t a stranger at all. Jesus had spent a day with Peter, Andrew, James, and an unnamed disciple (possibly John) before calling them into service.
The fishermen knew Him as the “Messiah” and John The Baptist had testified to them about Jesus before they were called into service. The men did not follow Him blindly or as entranced sheep.
Note, this section of scripture also features the famous “fishers of men” line, for me, remembered so well from a children’s church song from Sunday school. Well, interestingly, a similar phrase can be found in Jeremiah 16:16. But there, it’s fishers for men, meaning men catching people in judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, ordained men to save people from judgement. Another example of how Jesus turned the Jewish world on its head when he came here to be with us.
In closing, did Jesus turn your world on its head? How differently would you be living if not for Jesus? How has hope in Him changed you? Changed your relationships? How would you describe this experience to an unbeliever?
God helping us, may we be true “Fishers of Men”.
Bruce, FF. “Understanding the New Testament: Matthew”. Page 15.
Wiersbe, Warren. “Be Loyal: Following The King Of Kings”. Pages 42,43.