12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The late historian Larry Hurtado wrote a fascinating little book entitled Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? The book seeks to answer that question. Why indeed, given the hardships that Christians suffered in the first three centuries would they choose to become Christians? One answer, according to Hurtado, was that the early Christians proposed an idea that pagan Romans had almost certainly never heard of. Hurtado explains:
In high pagan piety to be sure, particular gods could be praised as benign and generous, but it is hard to find references to any deities either loving humans or being loved by them in Roman-era pagan discourse (setting aside the myths of the erotic adventures of various male deities with human females). As MacMullen noted, loving gods or love for gods simply did not figure in pagan piety.
So is it too much to suggest that the early Christian portrayal of “God” was an attractive and affecting factor for converts? From the frequency of references to the Christian deity as both all-powerful and powerfully loving, it seems to me entirely plausible. In a world of many deities, early Christianity proclaimed one almighty deity in absolute sovereignty over all, beneath whom all other beings were mere creatures, unworthy of cultic reverence. And this all-powerful sovereign deity was moved by a powerful love, so Christian teaching claimed, and so sought and offered a direct relationship with people. I suspect that this was heady stuff, and certainly very different from notions about the gods in the wider religious environment of the time. It was incredible to some, and, I suggest, powerfully winsome for some others.
What many pagans found remarkable and, according to Hurtado, attractive, was the surprising idea that this one great God would actually love human beings! “Love” was not something normally attributed to the gods, so this was a strange and exhilarating thought. And Christians did indeed proclaim this…a lot! They were constantly speaking of God’s love for human beings, a love most definitively expressed in Jesus.
Matthew 4 ends Matthew’s introductory section and launches us into the ministry of Jesus. Here we see His loving intent on full display, His desire to call lost and suffering humanity to Himself.
Jesus’ Location: The Extent of His Love and the Missionary Nature of His Focus
We begin with a passage that may strike us at first glance as largely geographical in nature. It involves Jesus moving.
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
After John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus moves to Galilee. The word is actually more understood as something like “retreats” or “withdrew,” as the ESV puts it. Again, this may strike us as filler, but it most certainly is not. For one thing, moving to Galilee was a provocative act because of the type of place Galilee was. It was looked upon as the northern wilds of the Jewish homeland, for all intents and purposes. It was comprised of a lot of foreigners, a lot of Gentiles, a good degree of political unrest, a sketchy reputation. Frederick Dale Bruner writes:
Galilee is a strange place for a Messiah to work…Galilee was not just geographically far from Jerusalem; it was considered spiritually and politically far as well. Galilee was the most “removed” of the Jewish provinces, located as it was at the northernmost tier of Palestine. This distance from Zion was not only geographic: Judeans thought Galileans sat rather loose to the law and were less biblically pure than those in or near Jerusalem. Finally, Galilee was notorious as a nest of revolution and a haunt of proto-Zealot revolutionary movements…Therefore, when Jesus “retreated to Galilee” he did more than head north; he seemed to veer off. We know from other accounts in the NT that Jesus’ being a Galilean and doing his work of ministry mainly in Galilee were charges leveled against him…“Galilee of the nations!” This was the nickname for Galilee, something like “America the melting pot.” Jesus works where Judaism touches paganism, where the nation interests the nations, where light meets darkness, Jesus lives among the marginal peoples, on the frontier…
Bruner’s point is well-made and extremely important: Jesus moves toward the darkness, toward great human need. Some have suggested that Jesus was moving to Capernaum because it was bigger and His ministry would therefore be acted out on a wider stage. Maybe, maybe not. But mainly it was an expression of the extent of His love. He came for those far off, those in need of a physician, those looked at askance by the more upright of society. Jesus came to reach the needy and those who made others uncomfortable.
The missionary nature of this move is further heightened by the fact that, as Matthew tells us, his moving here fulfilled a prophecy from Isaiah:
15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Matthew is quoting Isaiah 9, which reads:
1 But there will be no gloom for her who was 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 has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
Notice the key aspects of this passage that Jesus fulfilled:
- Galilee is filled with Gentiles.
- Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness.
This move to Galilee should therefore be seen as a missionary move and an expression of love. Craig Blomberg writes:
From Isaiah’s day on, many foreigners had lived in Galilee; in the first century more than half the population was Gentile. So Matthew no doubt sees here a foreshadowing of Christian ministry to those who were not Jews…
It must not be missed that the gospels present Jesus as the only true light that shines in universal darkness, that Jesus, in other words, is exclusively Lord. The gospels do not present paganism in a favorable light, seeing it as another possible way to salvation. On the contrary, the gospels stubbornly present Jesus as the only light to the nations that brings life.
In his book Pagans, a history of how Christianity came to think of non-Christians and of how the Roman Empire was Christianized, James J. O’Donnell speaks of how offensive this Christian emphasis on exclusivity was to Roman pagans. He points to a Roman pagan named Symmachus who argued in the later fourth century that pagan religions should be allowed a place at the table in Roman society. He was one, like others, who did not care for Christianity’s eclipsing of the old gods or for the Roman promotion of Christianity. Here is what O’Donnell writes about Symmachus’ argument:
…Symmachus took up the pen to report the Senate’s desire to see their altar restored…The document Symmachus wrote is handsome in its generosities. When that old account I quoted above refers to his views on the “great mystery,” it evokes the most famous line of the report: “uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum”—“one cannot approach so great a mystery by one path alone.” He sounds like an ecumenical modern, eager to claim that all religions, ancient and contemporary, are really the same, expressions in different cultural form of human awareness of and respect for divinity.
That is the question, no? Must one approach “so great a mystery” (i.e., God) “by one path alone” or are all paths equally valid? The gospels, in showing Jesus’ moving to Galilee as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the coming Messiah, answer emphatically that there is indeed only one way: “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”
Christ is that light in the darkness that the Galileans, and we, and the world desperately need!
Jesus’ Message: Continuity and Fulfillment
And there, in Galilee, Jesus begins His ministry. The first sermon is simple and powerful:
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Would that all sermons were as short! But hear the Lord Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What is immediately striking about this is the fact that this is verbatim the sermon that John the Baptist preached in Matthew 3:2—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
“However else Jesus and John differed,” writes Craig Blomberg, “the core of their message was identical.” “Jesus’ message,” writes Frederick Dale Bruner, “is at first not one whit different from John the Baptist’s.”
This is the message of truth: repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For John, the message was one of anticipation as he pointed to Jesus. For Jesus, this message was one of fulfillment, for in Christ the kingdom had truly come!
Jesus’ message had two points: (1) repent and (2) the kingdom of heaven is at hand. To repent is to turn from that which is contrary to God, to reject all anti-God behaviors and attitudes and elements that separate us from Him. Repentance is a fundamental aspect of the gospel! To be saved we must know that from which we need to be saved! To embrace Christ we must let go of that which is not of Christ!
I once had a frustrating meal with a visitor to our church who told me that repentance has no place in evangelism, that our job is to call people to accept Jesus, not to call people to repent. When I pressed him on Jesus’ message of repentance and pointed him to this passage he argued that this message of repentance was particularly for the Jews. He argued that pressing repentance in evangelism and missions was fundamentally a legalistic act that should be avoided.
But is this so? The call to repentance can surely become legalistic if we are setting up various hoops for people to jump through before they can call out in faith. To be sure the fullness of repentance is something that we grow into. But we do not grow into it by being shielded from or ignorant of it at the call to conversion. Again, we must be shown our need for Christ if we are to accept Christ! Therefore we might say that while we do not demand that a person express perfect repentance (for who has ever done that?) we do call men and women to repentance. What is more, repentance walks hand-in-hand with: with the belief that Christ Jesus will accept and forgive us.
What is more, the argument that this call for repentance was part of Jewish evangelism and should not be part of our own evangelistic efforts is flawed. Acts 17 records the sermon that Paul preached in Athens to pagan Greeks. Consider:
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
Not only does Paul call the Greeks to repentance, he further states that God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” Furthermore, his reason for repentance is applicable to all of humanity: “because he fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.”
How should we think of repentance? One charming but also very helpful way of doing so comes from an illustration passed on by Howard Foshee:
L. Middleton, Christian businessman and popular writer, once shared an experience that two summer conference leaders had as they browsed through a gift shop near Asheville, North Carolina. They were looking at some wood carvings on display. Picking up a carved hound dog, one of the men asked the shop owner, “How in the world does someone go about carving a wooden hound dog?” The store owner pointed toward the corner and said: “See for yourself. There is the mountain man who whittles these hound dogs.” The two men went over to the mountaineer who was whittling away. “How do you whittle a hound dog?” one of them asked. “Well, first I take a piece of wood about this size. Then I take my pocket knife and whittle away all the extra wood that don’t look like no hound dog.”
Yes, repentance is that act by which we reject anything “that don’t look like no hound dog.”
And Jesus’ rationale for repentance? It is this: “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is widely believed that Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven” because this was a more traditional designation by Jews who were very cautious in the ways they used the name of God. But, functionally, Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” is the same reality as John’s “kingdom of God.”
And what is that reality? It is the reality of God’s reign and rule and the life into which Christ Jesus has called us in that reality. I very much like the definition put forward by a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a January 22, 1926, university paper:
The kingdom of God is a spiritual reality in which the sovereign will of the Father, the redeeming and judging will of the Son, and the love-forming will of the Holy Spirit for the spiritual community of the kingdom’s children have been truly realized in complete unity in authoritative, singular effectiveness.
The kingdom of God is the “already/not yet” reality of God’s rule in the world. It establishes the citizenship for God’s children. Its entryway is Christ Jesus Himself. It is eternal and inviolable. It is the realm of salvation and obedience and joy. It is, we might say, a new way of living, a new way of understanding and doing life.
This too is part of the gospel: repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. We are to repent and receive Christ Jesus through faith! This was the message of the Lord Jesus and this must be our message as well. Craig Keener writes:
For Matthew, the message for both Galilean Jews…and eventually Gentiles…is the same as John the Baptist’s…and that of Jesus: Get your lives in order, for God’s kingdom is approaching…Just as Jesus’ message concurred with that of John, so the message of Jesus’ followers must accord with that of Jesus.
Amen and amen. Let us too proclaim the King and His Kingdom! To do so is to love.
 Larry W. Hurtado, Why On Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), p.125-126.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.1. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.136.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew. The New American Commentary. Gen. Ed., David S. Dockery. Vol.22 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.88.
 O’Donnell, James J. Pagans (pp. 184-185). Ecco. Kindle Edition.
 Craig L. Blomberg, p.90.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, p.138.
 Foshee, Howard B.. Now That You’re a Deacon (p. 42). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Church and Eschatology.” The Young Bonhoeffer, 1918–1927. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Translated and edited by Hans Pfeifer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p.311.
 Craig Keener, p.97.