Jesus, the light of the world, came down from heaven to brighten the world that was in spiritual darkness. The Jewish leaders, the people of Nazareth, and King Herod were in darkness and were trying to blow out this light. So, Jesus moved to Capernaum, a place of Jews, Gentiles, and foreigners. He preached to them that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand and that they could reach it through repentance and joining his Kingdom. So, the message of this gospel passage is to turn away from the imperfect way of life and to move towards practicing the gospel.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
(Matthew 4:12) When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. (13) He left Nazareth and went to settle down in Capernaum, a town by the lake of Galilee, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. (14) In this way the word of the Prophet Isaiah came true: (15) Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, on the way to the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee, land of the Gentiles (16) the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in the land of the shadow of death, a light has shone. (17) From that time on Jesus began to proclaim his message, “Change your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
(Matthew 4:12) When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.
John had been arrested.
Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, had imprisoned John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was the son of King Herod the Great, who had ruled all over Judea and surrounding regions at the time of Jesus’ birth. After the death of Herod the Great, his sons divided the kingdom among themselves for governance. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee. He had arrested John the Baptist who questioned his immoral behavior of taking his brother Philip’s wife Herodias as his own and for other evils Herod had done (Luke 3:19-20). According to the historian Josephus, Herod feared John’s popularity and his influence on the crowds. Herod feared that John could ignite a rebellion against him. So, he wanted to silence John by putting him in prison and did not intend to execute him for fear of agitation from the people if he would kill the prophet.
Why did Jesus move from Nazareth to Capernaum?
After Jesus’ baptism, both John the Baptist and Jesus preached and baptized people at the same time for a while at River Jordan (John 3:22-24). Jesus initially centered his ministry in his hometown of Nazareth. However, he later moved to Capernaum that was about 14 miles northeast of Nazareth at the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. There were multiple reasons for Jesus to move from Nazareth to Capernaum.
(13) He left Nazareth and went to settle down in Capernaum, a town by the lake of Galilee, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.
He left Nazareth.
Nazareth was famous only as the hometown of Jesus. It was a village forming around 150 to 400 people when Jesus lived there. People knew each other and lived as a community with many related to one another. Jesus used to go to the synagogue in Nazareth, and it was here that his own people rejected him. According to John 1:46, Nathaniel asked Philip the famous question: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” However, Isaiah had prophesied about 700 years before Christ that “From the stump of Jesse a shoot will come forth; from his roots a branch will grow and bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1). The root word of Nazareth is in Hebrew “netzer” meaning branch. Matthew connects this prophecy to the return of Joseph and family from Egypt to Nazareth. “There he settled in a town called Nazareth. Thus what was spoken by the prophets was fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2:23).
There is a tradition that after the Babylonian exile one clan from the line of David had returned around 100 B.C. from Babylon and established a village in Nazareth. The Davidic clan lived here instead of Bethlehem or Jerusalem because of their fear of Herod the Great. Herod, a non-Jew, was afraid of a king who might arise from that clan against him. Thus, Joseph and Mary who belonged to the clan of David and from Bethlehem were living in Nazareth.
Nazareth was a favorable place to live for Joseph, who was an artisan. Sepphoris, where Herod Antipas reconstructed the old city as his provincial capital, was only a few miles away from Nazareth. Sepphoris was a city of his father Herod the Great that Romans destroyed after his death. Because of the demand for artisans for reconstruction of that luxurious Greek-style city, Joseph and Jesus could find work there.
Went to settle down in Capernaum.
Capernaum is at the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This city had favorable factors like water for fishing, fertile land for agriculture, and a hub of international trade routes connecting Egypt and Damascus by the ancient highway “Via Maris.” The trade routes helped Jesus to spread his message and his fame to all the neighboring regions. Jesus could also travel from Capernaum to neighboring cities around the Sea of Galilee by walking on the seashore or traveling by boat.
Though called Sea of Galilee, it was a freshwater lake. The water was flowing from Mount Hermon in the north to the lake and was flowing out towards south through River Jordan to the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee has other names such as the “Sea of Kinneret” (Numb. 34:11, Deut. 3:17, Joshua 11:2), the “Lake of Gennesaret” (Luke 5:1), “Lake of Tiberius” (John 6:1).
In the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali
Joshua had assigned Galilee to the tribes of Asher, Naphtali, and Zebulun when the Israelites first inhabited the promised land. Zebulun was the tenth son of Jacob and his sixth son from Leah. Naphtali was one of the 12 sons of Jacob from Rachel’s servant Bilhah. Zebulun and Naphtali tribes failed in completely expelling the native Canaanites when they entered the land. So, they later had Gentile influence and attacks from neighboring Gentiles. The Assyrians conquered the land, exiled many Israelites, and scattered them so they would not unite for any revolt against the Assyrians. Many foreigners then settled in the land. Thus, Galilee became a mixed group of Israelites and Gentiles. Aristobulus conquered Galilee for the Jews in 104 B.C. and forcibly made the inhabitants Jews through circumcision.
(14) In this way the word of the Prophet Isaiah came true.
Since Matthew was writing the gospel for the Jews, he gives reference to the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah 9:1. “Yet there will be no more gloom for those who were in anguish. In the past, he afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but, in the future he will confer glory on the Way of the Sea, on the land beyond the Jordan, the Galilee of the Nations.” This became a reality when Jesus moved his ministry to Capernaum. The ancient Jews had expected Messiah to appear first in Galilee based on this revelation.
(15) Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, on the way to the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee, land of the Gentiles…
The attributes Matthew give for Capernaum are meaningful. It was the border of Zebulun and Naphtali tribes of Israel though it later got mixed with the Gentiles. It was the way to the Sea of Galilee and the Jews considered it as the Galilee of the Gentiles.
Galilee of the Gentiles
The name Galilee derived from the Hebrew word “galil” that means circle. The full name was the Galilee of the Gentiles. The Gentiles lived around them as neighbors: the Phoenicians on the west, Syrians on the north and east, and Samaritans on the south. Since the Gentiles and Jews lived around Galilee, the Jews there were more open to innovative ideas compared to other parts of Palestine.
(16) The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who live in the land of the shadow of death, a light has shone.
The people who lived in darkness
The Galileans, especially those who lived in Capernaum, were away from Jerusalem and had contact with many religions and ideologies. Though they had reasonable living conditions because of fishing, agriculture, and international trade routes, they were in spiritual darkness.
In the land of the shadow of death
The spiritual death overshadowed those who were sinful. That would lead them to eternal destruction.
A light has shone
Jesus, the light of the world, brought divine light to the spiritually dark place of Capernaum. Those who were sick and downhearted there received recovery from Jesus. The sinners, who thought they will have no redemption, heard the message of repentance and salvation. So, they welcomed Jesus, who got rejected in the synagogue of Nazareth. Jesus declared: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and sight to the blind; to free the oppressed and to announce the Lord’s year of mercy.” (Luke 4:18-19). Thus, the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed found light at the end of their dark tunnel. Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee year of release from debts (Leviticus 25:23-38) and all types of bondages (Lev. 25:39-55), especially spiritual oppression.
(17) From that time on Jesus began to proclaim his message, “Change your ways, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
From that time on
Before basing his ministry in Capernaum, Jesus had preached in Judea and Nazareth. By that time, Jesus became popular, and the enemies like the Pharisees, Scribes, and priests had turned against him. King Herod was suspicious that Jesus would talk against him like John and would lead a revolt against him. Jesus’ mission was not to overthrow any civil authority or set up an earthly kingdom. So, when Jesus heard of John’s arrest, he moved to Capernaum to continue his mission without interruption. Jesus’ ministry at Capernaum was a turning point. He selected disciples and trained them to be his successors to continue his mission after his crucifixion.
The kingdom of heaven
The evangelists use the Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God interchangeably. Matthew preferred Kingdom of Heaven because he wanted to avoid the word “God” that his Jewish readers would not use. Both refer to the rule of the Almighty rather than any territory because the whole universe belongs to God without any border. During the Old Testament times, Israel was the Kingdom of God. Jesus reestablished it with the church and Jesus as its head. Jesus will establish the Kingdom of Heaven in its fullness when the time of redemption is over, and when the time of judgement will arrive with his second coming.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus announced to the people that the Kingdom of God was at hand. However, John came to prepare the people for God’s Kingdom that the Messiah who comes after him would govern. Jesus, who was the Messiah, proclaimed that the Kingdom started with him and that it will have its fullness at his second coming. Until then, people can reconcile with God and with fellow humans.
Change your ways / Repent
Jesus came to help people to repent so they shall gain salvation and become citizens of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist also asked the people to repent before the imminent judgment. Repentance included regret on one’s failures along with a change of mind, heart, and lifestyle.
Repentance involves changing the sinful life. When tax collectors and soldiers came to John, they asked what they should do as part of repentance. He said to tax collectors: “Do not collect more than your fixed rate.” To the soldiers he said: “Do not take anything by force or threaten the people by denouncing them falsely. Be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:12-14).
Repentance also involves compensation for the mistakes done. When Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ house, out of repentance he declared: “‘The half of my goods, Lord, I give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I pay him back four times as much.’ Looking at him Jesus said, ‘Salvation has come to this house today.’” (Luke 19:8-9). Saul, who persecuted the early church, compensated by working enthusiastically for evangelization and even became a martyr for Jesus. Augustine, who led a sinful life, when converted by the prayers of his mother Monica, served the church earnestly, became a bishop, a canonized saint, and a Doctor of the Church.
The righteous also need to repent. It can mean a change of mind or direction for the betterment. The Bible says even God who is perfect had repented. God had destroyed many people of Israel at Mount Sinai because they worshipped the golden calf under Aaron’s leadership. However, Moses interceded for them. “Then the LORD repented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” (Exodus 32:14). Here, repentance is a change of mind as the Bible’s modern translations give.
John the Baptist’s reply to the crowds that asked him what they should do for repentance was: “If you have two tunics, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.” (Luke 3:10-11). Taking care of the needy by the acts of charity was also a sign of repentance. He asked people “Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance” (Luke 3:8). Again John said, “The axe is already laid to the root of the tree and every tree that fails to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9). Lack of good work also is part of sin. People who do not produce good fruit out of the resources God gave them need repentance.
Becoming poor by sharing the resources with others is a means of becoming perfect. Hence, Jesus asked the youthful man who kept all the commandments of God, “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all that you possess and give the money to the poor, and you will become the owner of a treasure in heaven. Then come back and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21).
The prodigal son’s elder brother did not commit any sin other than his unwillingness to accept his repentant brother. He represented the elite Jews who had to change their attitude towards the Publicans and the sinners. The action required is, as Jesus taught, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15). Thus, its twofold dimension is turning away from sin and going towards God. So, after giving up the sinful ways, we must put into practice the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Repentance, like faith, is also a gift of God to which we cooperate. Jesus came to the world with this gift for which he gave his life as a ransom for our sins. When we positively respond to it, we become eligible for its benefits. Repentance is not the baptism alone. It is an ongoing process of renewing our life in Jesus and trying to do good in favor of God’s Kingdom.