Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

28. Preaching in Galilee (Matt. 4: 13-17; Mark 1: 14,15; Luke 4: 31)

Jesus now moved to Capernaum. It can hardly be described as his headquarters, because his ministry necessarily involved considerable movement about the country. But this was to be the main centre of his work throughout the ensuing year. There were several reasons for this.

Matthew links this move with John’s imprisonment, which must have taken place about the time Jesus came north (Jn.4: 1,3). The word used by Matthew and Mark here is the one normally used in the gospels for betrayal (43 times), and also with the somewhat milder meaning: delivered, handed over. The implication seems to be that John was paying the penalty for being so plain-spoken in his preaching. The Pharisees did not forgive sins of that sort. It was probably by their false accusation and contrivance in the first place that John now found himself a prisoner (Mt.17: 12).

Accordingly Matthew describes this transfer of activities to Capernaum by a word which carried a hint of flight (4: 12). Later on it is described as “his own city” (Mt.9:1); and the narrative of 17:24 tells of him paying temple tribute there, thus implying that by that time he had been recognized as a citizen of Capernaum for more than a year.

If, then, at this time there was danger to Jesus also, Capernaum lay on the very edge of Herod’s territory, and in emergency it would be possible to cross the lake or the Jordan into the tetrarchy of Philip who was one of the least vicious of the Herod family.

Also, for certain, a warm welcome awaited Jesus at the home of the nobleman whose son he had healed and who was now a fully-committed disciple.

Yet another reason of importance-James and John, Peter and his family, and Andrew with them, lived at Bethsaida, the fishing quarter of Capernaum, and Jesus had plans to call them to a much more thorough-going discipleship than they had yet contemplated.

Also, it is not to be overlooked that Jesus was under orders. To him the remarkable Isaiah passage cited in Matthew 4 was a directive. Yet, left to themselves, would today’s students of Isaiah find any Messianic content whatever in those words?

A Puzzling Prophecy in Isaiah

The description of Capernaum as “in the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali” is rather odd. The town could only be said to lie in both of these tribes if it was on the boundary between them, a conclusion not easy to harmonize with the details of Joshua 19. Certainly Matthew is here preparing the way for his rather enigmatic quotation from Isaiah 9, but perhaps also there is intention to suggest in order the localities of Nazareth (Zebulun) and Cana (Naphtali); Capernaum, “the way of the sea”; whilst the phrases “beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles” imply an intention to extend activity to the more Gentile side of the lake, Decapolis and the region of the Gergesenes.

As in several earlier examples Matthew’s use of Isaiah 9: 1,2 does not at once commend itself as a clear and immediately convincing prophecy of the ministry of Jesus. Nevertheless it is wise to assume that Matthew knew what he was writing about, certainly more than his twentieth century critic does. If Matthew declares this passage to be a prophecy of Christ, then it is; and it forthwith becomes the duty of the present-day reader to bring a teachable mind to this fact. This is the first and necessary equipment for progress in understanding, and even then it may be necessary to admit to only a very limited insight into the deeper meaning of such Scriptures.

It may be taken as fairly certain that this prophecy about “the people that walked in darkness” had immediate reference in Isaiah’s own day to vivid events in Galilee which are not mentioned elsewhere in Bible history or prophecy. It has been suggested by Boutflower (“Isaiah”, ch.5, 6) that Isaiah, in disfavour at the court of Ahaz because of his strong opposition to fashionable idolatries (2 Kgs. 16: 11-17, ls. 8: 9) and wrong-headed political alliances (8: 12), was hunted out of Judah and took refuge in Galilee (8: 16,17). Thither he spread abroad his prophetic message of a new era of godliness and prosperity which the new king (Hezekiah) would bring in due time.

The appropriateness of such a pattern of events to the time of Jesus will now be evident. Given scant encouragement in Jerusalem, and warned by the imprisonment of John of yet greater hostility to come, Jesus abandoned Judaea (Jn. 4: 3), and betook himself to Galilee. The word for “borders of Zebulun and Naphtali” is used also in Isaiah 9: 7 LXX: “Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end...”

The Glory of the Gospel

Thus this extension of the scope of Christ’s work at this time was seen as a token fulfilment of the greater evangelization which his kingdom will bring to people who “sit (i.e. dwell or abide) in darkness ... and in the region and shadow of death.”

This description of the people of Galilee is usually taken as a picture of their spiritual dereliction when Jesus appeared among them. The context suggests another possibility-that the words have reference to the gloom and sadness which lay heavily upon them because John had been cast into prison. “Such as sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death” is the Psalmist’s description for the miseries of captivity and imprisonment in “gates of brass, and bars of iron” (107: 10,16).

Isaiah’s consolation is couched in language appropriate to the Shekinah Glory: “a great Light... is sprung up”. The Hebrew here uses a word which, with perhaps two exceptions, always describes the vivid brightness of the Glory of the Lord. This was now manifest in Galilee, not as a physical shining forth, but in the matchless teaching and awe-inspiring miracles of the Son of God. In his version of these words Matthew switches to a Greek word which suggests the Messianic prophecies about The Branch of the Lord (s.w. Zech 3: 8; 6: 12; ls. 60: 1; 61: 11 etc.)

Preaching Campaigns

Mark’s version of this first appeal to Galilee (1: 14) introduces a long series of similar expressions about the Lord’s preaching. These, dotted through the first half of his gospel, are clearly designed to convey the impression of a number of “campaigns” (at least five) held in this region (1: 21,39; 3: 7,8; 4: 1; 6: 1,6,56; 7: 31). “How beautiful upon the mountains were the feet of him that brought good tidings (the gospel)” (ls. 52: 7).

Key Phrases

The message Jesus proclaimed was: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mk. 1: 15). Here are three key phrases which dominate the early chapters of the synoptic gospels - but not John’s gospel. There the first of them comes twice only, in the discussion with Nicodemus; the others are not used at all. This might afford ground for uneasiness were it not for the fact that the fourth gospel makes copious use of equivalent phrases. Instead of Jesus being proclaimed the King of the Kingdom of God, he is the Light, the Life, showing and bestowing “eternal life”. Similarly, being “born from above” is John’s equivalent of “repentance”, and for “gospel” he has that tremendously significant word “witness”. Also, binding all four gospels together is the key word “faith”, with its verb “believe”, occurring as often in John as in all the synoptics put together.

Somewhat remarkably, in the passage just cited, Mark (in the Greek text) has “believe in the gospel”, using a form of the phrase which is almost unique. It is difficult to be sure of the precise inflexion of meaning here. A possible, or even probable, meaning is “believe by means of the gospel”, the implication being: ‘hear the good news, and through it be led to a faith-full committing of your life to Christ.’

“The Kingdom at hand”

There was an urgency about the message which today is both obvious and bewildering: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand”. The first of these phrases seems to point to a specific period of time, for which the only candidate is Daniel’s “seventy weeks” prophecy (9: 24-27) about “Messiah the Prince”; and it is usually held that the last of those seventy weeks brings one to the ministry of Jesus.

But what of the kingdom being “at hand”? A wide variety of interpretations has been proposed here. For example:

  1. The King of that kingdom is here in your? midst - this is usually supported by a very dubious reading of Luke 17: 21: “The royal majesty of God is in the midst of you.”
  2. God’s new order, the church, is now to be inaugurated. A number of parables might perhaps be cited in support of this.
  3. Your opportunity to share in the kingdom is now being brought to you. This appears to be the meaning in Luke 10: 11.
  4. The words meant literally and precisely what they say; but there has come a great divine deferment of fulfilment because the message was not received.
The pros and cons of these divergent points of view call for considerable discussion. A not uncommon attitude is to find what is considered a satisfactory item of supporting evidence for one of these interpretations, and then to judge the matter settled. That is not the best way to study the gospels. Certainly a careful study of all the occurrences of the words translated “at hand” should be undertaken first, and as honest an assessment as possible made in the light of that.

Apparently Dr. Thomas leaned towards the fourth of these interpretations: “Had the nation, continued to obey the Lord’s voice and to keep the covenant, and when Christ came received him as king on the proclamation of the gospel, they would doubtless have been in Canaan until now; and he might have come ere this, and be now reigning in Jerusalem as King of the Jews and Lord of the nations” (Elpis Israel, 1924 ed. page 301). See also the Appendix in “Revelation” (H.A.W.)

Why no definition of the Kingdom?

It is to be noted that neither here nor in any other place in the Lord’s teaching is there a systematic exposition of the nature of the kingdom which Jesus proclaimed. The explanation is simple. There was no Jew, learned or illiterate, who did not know as familiarly as an English schoolboy knows about Waterloo or an American about Gettysburg, that his own nation had been called by God to be “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” All were well acquainted with the inspiring prophecies of the reign of a Jewish Messiah in Jerusalem. All knew about the Kingdom of God. What they needed to learn was the identity of its King and the spiritual qualifications for citizenship. Hence the emphasis of the miracles and the sermon on the mount.

Notes: Matthew 4: 13-17

An alternative to (or, extention of) the idea suggested in the text not only sees the familiar Is. 9: 6,7 as a prophecy, in the first instance, of the birth of Hezekiah, but also interprets v. 1-5 as a series of pictures of the blessings of his reign:

v. 1,2: The northern tribes, ravaged earlier (“at the first”) by Assyrian invaders, are later (“afterward”) to hear Hezekiah’s gospel call to share in the blessings of worship at Jerusalem.

v. 3-5: The destruction of Sennacherib’s army, bringing inexpressible joy to the succoured nation and also the return of the multitude of captives carried away by the Assyrians (“thou hast multiplied the nation”). The more important parallel with the work of Jesus suggests itself readily enough. It is noteworthy that Matthew does not go on to quote v.6,7 which are so obviously Messianic. He takes the fact, and the familiarity of his readers with it, for granted.
Then began Jesus to preach. Cp. Acts.10: 37: “beginning from Galilee”. The implication seems to be that this was the real start of his work. Or was there an earlier “beginning” (including Jn. 2: 1-11) before the first Passover in Jerusalem?

Mark 1: 14,15

The time is fulfilled. Hence the urgent tone in this gospel? Mark repeatedly says: “straightway, immediately”.

Believe (in) the gospel. The preposition en is very frequently used in NT with the sense: “by means of”.

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