Matthew 4:12-16, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun (was an area located south of the Sea of Galilee and west towards the Mediterranean — included Nazareth) and Naphtali (was the entire western shore extending far into the north — included Capernaum), that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying (quotes Isaiah 9:1-2):
‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’”
In a verse by verse study through a book like Matthew — a book that has three companion narratives (Mark, Luke, and John) with two of the three (Mark and Luke) documenting largely similar content from differing perspectives — two challenges emerge for the preacher.
First, when a story has a duplicate narrative, how much of the parallel accounts should be included? And secondly, how much of the larger chronology do you establish for context? I’m mean this is a series through the Gospel of Matthew and not a harmony of the Gospels. Admittedly, there is no wrong answer as it’s largely left to the preference of the preacher.
With that in mind, as long as we keep Matthew’s core intent front and center — that he’s establishing the case for the Kingship of Jesus, I believe pulling in additional details from the other narratives as well as establishing a chronological context using all four Gospel’s simply deepens our ability to grasp and understand what’s really taking place.
Case in point, it’s worth noting that approximately one year has passed since the conclusion of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in verse 11, and this detail recorded in verse 12 that “Jesus heard that John had been put into prison.” Because John’s arrest and tragic death will be documented later in Matthew’s Gospel, we’ll hold off on our commentary for now.
From my perspective, this section of Matthew 4 gains a lot of clarity when you first place it into the context of what Jesus has been doing over the course of the last year.
So what’s He been doing? According to the first few chapters of John’s Gospel, after His showdown with Satan in the wilderness, Jesus would remain near the Jordan where He’d have His first interactions with two men Andrew and Philip (who’d been early disciples of John the Baptist) and their respective brothers Peter and a man named Nathaniel.
From the Jordan, Jesus would briefly return to Galilee to attend a wedding in Cana where He performs His first miracle — turning water into wine. Then, from Cana, Jesus would head south, have a quick layover in Capernaum, before continuing back into Judea to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. It would be during this spring festival that Jesus “made a whip of cords” and cleansed the Temple of the money changers for the first time.
Again, relying on John’s account, Jesus remained in Jerusalem and the larger region of Judea for some time teaching the people and performing miracles. In fact, during this early season of ministry traditionally known as the Year of Obscurity, Jesus would be approached by one of the premier Jewish scholars of the day late at night — a man named Nicodemus. The profound conversation they have is recorded for us in John 3.
In addition to teaching and the miracles, according to John 4, Jesus allowed His growing collection of disciples to baptize in the same area of the Jordan as John the Baptist. Over the course of the months that followed, Jesus would go from being an unknown quantity to more popular than even John — a detail the religious establishment had taken note of.
Ultimately, because of John’s arrest and the growing heat that resulted, Jesus leaves Judea and returns to Galilee. On His journey north, He would stop in the Samaritan city of Sychar and have another riveting exchange with a woman who’d come to draw water from Jacob’s well. According to John 4:43, we’re told that “after two days” of ministering to the people of Samaria Jesus departed and finally made His way into Galilee.
Look again at verses 12-13, “Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum.” In his record, Matthew indicates Jesus’ first stop was His hometown of Nazareth before He ultimately continued onward to establish His headquarters in Capernaum. While scholars are split on the issue, I believe the events of Luke 4 sit between Matthew 4:12 and 13.
Crafting his account to present Jesus as the King, Matthew tells us the fact Jesus would eventually spend more of His time in Galilee as opposed to Jerusalem was prophetically significant. Quoting Isaiah, Matthew says, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Writing of the Galilean region, historian Josephus documented in his annals that this area of roughly 900 square miles contained 204 villages populated by 15,000 people each. This would equate to an astounding 3 million residents — making the Galilee densely populated.
For context as to this specific geographic footprint, with the church as the epicenter, 900 square miles would include a circle with Jefferson to the far north, Social Circle in the south, the outskirts of Lawrenceville to the west, and downtown Athens as the eastern border.
Now imagine 3 million people living in that area. That’s roughly 300,000 more than the 2.7 million currently living in the city of Chicago! You’re talking about 3,333 people per square mile. Again, for context as to what this would look like… Gwinnett County has a population density of 2,123 people per square mile. My point is that a ton of people lived in Galilee!
According to Josephus and in many ways confirmed by what we know of the area today, the Galilee was heavily populated in Jesus’ day mainly because of the Sea of Galilee and the fact it had incredibly fertile soil ideal for agricultural development. Not only did the Galilee have an abundance of food and water, but it offered people a way to make a living.
For example… As the Carpenter from Nazareth, Jesus was able to make a living in the region supporting these two primary industries. While most of the homes were made of stone, fishing boats, yokes used in the tilling of the fields, and wheels were made of wood.
Because the Galilee was what we’d call prime real-estate, in many ways the region was the original melting-pot. Aside from there being a sizable Jewish population in the area, you had all kinds of various people groups who’d been relocated into the Galilee by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and in Jesus’ day the Roman Empire.
In fact, Josephus notes that during the first century there were actually more Gentiles living in Galilee than there were Jews! As Isaiah wrote some six centuries earlier, the area Jesus Christ would spend most of His time was indeed “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
It’s strange to consider, but the Sea of Galilee (also known in Hebrew as the Lake of Gennesaret because of its harp-like shape and by the Romans as the Sea of Tiberias) is not that large! Sitting only 13 miles long by 8 miles wide, the body of water covers an area of 64 mi2 which is roughly the size of D.C. The circumference of the lake is only 33 miles.
What’s interesting is since the Sea of Galilee is positioned 700 ft below sea level, it’s the lowest freshwater lake on planet earth. For context, the Dead Sea (which is saltwater) sits at 1,400 ft below sea level. In fact, the Jordan River actually connects the two!
Because of the high topography and mountains that surround the Sea of Galilee, she’s famous for having rapidly developing, violent storms that create huge, fearsome swells. It’s been said Galilee gets her name for she’s the lake that behaves like a sea.
Matthew tells us Jesus “came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea.” Translated as Nahum’s Village (a reference to the OT prophet who spoke of Nineveh’s impending fall) Capernaum was an important fishing village located on the northern shore just below Mount Arbel at the entrance to the Valley of the Doves. As such, Capernaum was the gateway to a major trade route that connected the Sea of Galilee with the Mediterranean.
Historically, we know Capernaum was significant because the city was home to the Roman centurion charged with the region. Not only did Peter have a home in Capernaum, but Matthew the tax collector lived there as well. Capernaum was Jesus’ base of operations.
Don’t miss this notable point that Jesus would spend the lion’s share of His time in Galilee. While you could have imagined Jesus the King would have focused His energies ministering in the capital city of Jerusalem which was the seat of power and religious learning, He deliberately surrounded Himself with the simple, blue-collar folks of Galilee.
Again, as Matthew explains by pointing back to the words of Isaiah the prophet, it was part of God’s overarching plan for “the people who sat in darkness,” for “those who sat in the region and shadow of death,” for those in Galilee to see the dawning of a “great light!”
Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” The first thing that jumps out at you when you read this verse is the fact Jesus’ message to the Galileans was identical to the one preached by John down in the Jordan. The explanation for this was the fact while John’s ministry impacted Judea in the south, those in the north (Galilee) hadn’t been exposed to his message.
While we’ve already unpacked the significant role repentance has in our commentary on the ministry of John the Baptist, I do want to briefly emphasize an important detail you might be inclined to miss. According to Matthew, Jesus came to Galilee to do what? He came “to preach!” Next Sunday we’ll explore this idea a bit further.
Matthew 4:18-22, “And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him.
Going on from there, Jesus saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.”
Again, because of the matter-of-fact nature in the way Matthew presents Jesus’ calling of Peter, Andrew, James, and John to officially become His disciples, this is just another one of these perfect examples where the other Gospels provide us some important context.
First and foremost, you need to understand this was not these men’s first exposure to Jesus. Consider that almost a year earlier we have the following occasion recorded in John 1:35-42, “Now John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ So the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then He turned, and seeing them following, said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They replied to Him, ‘Rabbi, where are You staying?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day.
Now one of the two who heard John speak, and followed Jesus, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother (the other was Philip). He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ And he brought him to Jesus. Now when Jesus looked at him, He said, ‘You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas.’”
Keep in mind, Jesus established a relational connection with Peter and Andrew several months before this occasion. Andrew had been a dedicated disciple of John the Baptist, was actively looking for the Messiah, and both he and Peter seem convinced after this exchange that Jesus was indeed the Christ. That said, there is no evidence Jesus called either Andrew or his brother Peter to be official disciples at this point in time.
Regarding James and John… In the Gospels, we’re given three lists of the Galilean women who were present at the cross, and if you compare these accounts something interesting emerges. In John 19:25, we’re told, “There stood by the cross of Jesus His mother (Mary), and His mother’s sister (Jesus’ aunt), Mary the wife of Clopas (believed to be Joseph’s brother’s wife, Mary’s sister-in-law, and another of Jesus’ aunts), and Mary Magdalene.”
In Mark 15:40-41, we have listed “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses (again Jesus’ mother), and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee.” Lastly, in Mathew 27:56, the listing references “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.”
According to Eusebius, who was an earthly church father, the woman John presents as “His mother’s sister,” Mark identifies as “Salome,” and Matthew describes as being “the mother of Zebedee’s sons” was in fact the same woman. Most notably, this would make Salome not only the sister of Mary but more importantly James and John Jesus’ cousins!
When you take into account that according to Luke 5 Peter and Andrew were business partners with James and John an interesting mosaic comes into view. These four men had likely known Jesus most of their lives! In fact, in the record of Mary and Joseph losing a pre-teen Jesus, we read in Luke 2:44 that after a day worth of traveling they “supposed Him to have been in the company” so they “sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances.”
With all of this in mind, what’s happening in this passage proved to be a profound moment for these men. For the last several months, while continuing to work their normal 9 to 5 as fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, and John have been following Jesus around, listening to Him preach, and watching in wonder His love for people and ability to miraculously heal. There is no doubt in their minds Jesus was the Messiah — the promised King of Israel.
Then the day came… According to Matthew, as Andrew and Peter were “casting a net into the sea” likely from the shore as there’s no mention of a boat, Jesus came walking up and formally invited them to become His disciples. Then just a few minutes after this, as James and John were “in the boat mending their nets,” Jesus extends to them the same invitation.
Within the rabbinical tradition, the formal invitation by a rabbi to “Follow Me” would have been clearly understood. While these four men had been fans of Jesus — likely occasional companions, Jesus was inviting them to be His disciples. As such, they would travel with Him, tend to His needs, learn at His feet, and be trained to one day represent Him.
Though this was an offer they all instantly accepted (Matthew says Andrew and Peter “immediately left their nets” to “follow Him” and James and John their “boat and father”), placing this occasion into the larger framework we’re given in the Gospels, it would seem at this point in time Jesus was only asking for a part-time commitment.
Here’s why I can say this… In Luke 5:1-11, we have another story that’s similar but different enough to be a separate occasion altogether. We read, “So it was, as the multitude pressed about Jesus to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.
When He had stopped speaking, Jesus said to Simon, ‘Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ But Simon answered and said to Him, ‘Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.’
And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’
For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.’ So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.”
The reason I place this story following the account given in Matthew 4 centers on a unique distinction in what Jesus said to Peter. In Matthew 4:14, Jesus said, “I will make you fishers of men.” In the recorded account of Luke, Jesus said, “From now on you will catch men.”
While the first promise is presented in a future tense (“I will”), the second coupling “from now on” implies a present immediacy. The evidence suggests Matthew 4 documents Jesus’ initial invitation for these men to become His disciples while remaining fishermen, and it was not until Luke 5 that Jesus formally invited them to make discipleship a full-time endeavor.
One of the misconceptions we’re often left with when we conceptualize the ministry of Jesus was that He only called twelve disciples. To this point, though Philip and Nathaniel and now Peter, Andrew, James, and John have been officially called, it won’t be until Matthew 10 that Jesus chooses 12 from at least 82 disciples to be His inner circle. Note: After picking the Twelve, we’ll read in Luke 10 of Jesus sending out 70 additional disciples.
I should also add the phrase “they forsook all and followed Him” is a tad misleading. According to John 21, following the resurrection, Peter, James, John, and at least four other disciples actually return to the Sea of Galilee to fish. Because of this Jesus will appear to them and call Peter a third time. In all likelihood, these men left behind their businesses to trusted employees who continued to provide their families with a revenue stream.
Here’s the point I’m trying to make from all of this… While it’s true there is a real sacrifice in making the decision to follow Jesus, there is typically a process in the way Jesus goes about calling disciples. Tragically, many read a story like this one and are left to conclude Jesus was making cold-calls and these men were taking steps of faith without evidence — like there was some kind of mysterious twinkle in Jesus’ eye caused these men to abandon all in an act of blind faith in order to follow a man they didn’t know! This was not the case!
Let’s recap… The process began in their lives from the prophetic testimony of John the Baptist to Andrew — a disciple of John, which meant Andrew had repented of sin and was actively looking for the Messiah. For Peter, his exposure came via the testimony of his brother that led him to an encounter with Jesus. It’s safe to assumer their intrigue spilled over to their friends James and John who were cousins of Jesus.
Relationally, all four of these men already had a personal connection with Jesus and over the course of months, they spent time with Him. As previously noted, before Jesus called these men, they were already convinced by their own experiences that He was the Christ!
Then came the calling… Still a process! Already believers, Jesus now invited them to be His disciples, students, apprentices. While they had jobs and families, they jumped at the chance to take on a formal role in Jesus’ ministry. We don’t know how long this dynamic lasted, but these men had to balance discipleship and their work as fishermen. At long last, the day came when Jesus finally invited them to take on a full-time commitment.
One of the misconceptions when it comes to the call of Jesus is that it requires blind faith — which is a lie! When Jesus walked up to these men on the shore of the Sea of Galilee He was inviting them to act on what they already were convinced was true because they’d spent time hanging out with Him, listened to Him preach, and watched Him in action. Their decision to follow Jesus was completely rational with what they already knew!
The other great misconception about the call of Jesus to follow Him is that your life instantly changes. My friend, that’s not the promise of the Gospel. While it’s true accepting Jesus changes you (“I will make you fishers of men.”), most of the time everything else in your life stays the same — same home, friends, family, occupation. Never forget, Jesus came to change who you are and not always the environment you happen to be in.
Let me add two larger points to this story central to its application… First, Jesus had way more unnamed disciples than the twelve He later singles out! In fact, during that initial Year of Obscurity recorded in John’s Gospel, we have many mentions of “His disciples” but never once are we provided the identities of any of these men or women.
This leads to my second point… I believe the experiences of the twelve and I’d add Peter, James, and John who’d make up the core of the inner circle are unique to them.
Let me explain why these two points are important… For some disciples of Jesus, a day does arise when He invites them to leave behind their secular profession, trust Him entirely with their provisions, and enter into occupational service like these four men. It’s interesting that in the case of fishermen Jesus would use that gifting in service to a different mission.
And yet, this is not the experience of every disciple called. The Scriptures confirm that the majority of those Jesus calls to discipleship He intentionally leaves in their secular professions. What’s cool is both groups are called by Jesus and considered His disciples.
Christian, in either scenario, the intention of discipleship remains the same — your job is to represent the Rabbi, Jesus Christ! Understand, this is why the decision to follow Jesus is the first step of discipleship. You see the only way you can truly and authentically reflect Jesus to the world around you is by spending time with Jesus. It’s not something you can muster up or accomplish on your own.
Consider the moon… The moon gives off no light in and of itself. Fundamentally, the moon is powerless. Instead, the brightness of the moon in the night sky is entirely dependent upon its position regarding the sun. In fact, the only thing that limits the moon's ability to reflect the sun is this world. The more world between the sun and moon the less light the moon reflects. The less of the world between you and the Son the greater the light!
Matthew 4:16, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned!”
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