He (Jesus) withdrew to Galilee after he heard that John had been handed over. And departing from Nazareth he came to dwell in Capernaum by the seaside in the regions of Zabulun and Naphtali. Therefore the prophecy of Isaiah the prophet was fulfilled which said:
The land of Zabulun and
The land of Naphtali,
The way of the sea,
The other side of the Jordan,
Galilee of the nations,
The people who are dwelling in darkness,
A large light they see,
Those who are dwelling in the region of the shadow of death
A light has dawned on them.
From that time on, Jesus began to preach saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is coming.”
Matthew 4:12-17 (My own translation)
The NT contains many quotes from the OT, which give us great exegetical insight to those passages. Observing their method of interpretation may be challenging at times, but worthy of study and meditation. The two versions of the Bible used by the Apostles and early church were the Hebrew Scriptures and the Septuagint (LXX). The LXX was a Greek translation of the OT that had its origin in the community of Hellenistic Jews in Alexandria Egypt. In this particular passage, Matthew chooses not to use the LXX perhaps in order to better connect with Hebraic audience. He also does not feel compelled to make a word for word quote or word for word translation; instead he feels free to emphasize his point of Jesus Galilean ministry as fulfillment of prophecy. He is connecting this new inclusion of the ministry in and around the Gentile nations as being a fulfillment of the Christianity’s Hebraic roots. This is foreshadowing of the spread of the gospel to the nations and foreshadowing of the Great Commission. (The term Gentile can be misleading because of modern usage, this word in the Greek is “nations”; the word in the Hebrew is “foreign nations”. I will simply use the term “nations” in order to emphasis the “every tribe, language, people and nation” nature of the gospel. I also want to de-emphasis the notion of Gentile’s as merely non-Jewish, especially seeing that believers from other nations are grafted into the covenant community which started with Abraham.)
Matthew does not quote the entire passage from Isaiah chapter nine; instead his use of the first few sentences is suggestive of the whole. Often times, the gospel writers bring the reader along slowly in order to bring the reader to a conclusion that at first glance is unpalatable; Jesus is the “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Is 9:6) To the Hebraic Jew, he would know the passage in Isaiah 9, much as culturally we easily recognize this passage. The Hebraic Jew of course would not associate it with the Halleluiah Chorus but with prophecy regarding the Messiah. The Messiah was idea that one would come to save the nation of Israel from their suffering. This was the hope of the Jew for deliverance from the oppression from foreign nations. Instead of the Mighty God being a military leader, the servant-leader Messiah fulfills this prophesy as a preacher. While the Hebraic Jew may have been expecting a military genius like the Maccabees or King David, preaching is the fulfillment of the prophecy. The Messiah subjugates the nations through a message, not a military march.
The region that Matthew is discussing is away from the Jerusalem centric land of Judea. Galilee is north, not across the Jordan as expressed from the text. The original Isaiah passage refers to the Hebrew word rB[, or across. Matthew’s Greek translation is peran, on the other side. The point of reference is that there is an army coming from east to west to attack Galilee. The perspective is the Assyrian invader. Perhaps this is reminding the reader the perspective of Moses and Joshua coming into the land and the idea that Messiah will have a ministry like that of Moses and Joshua. Instead of conquest with the sword, Jesus will conquer the nations through the preaching of the Word. As Joshua arose at the close of Moses ministry; so Jesus arose at the end of John the Baptizer’s ministry. As Moses was on the east side of the Jordan followed by Joshua on the west side; so John the Baptizer was on the Jordan followed by Jesus north in Galilee.
Context of Matthew 4: 12-17
- Parallel passages: Mark 1:14,15; Luke 4:14-15. These are much shorter and do not have the quote from Isaiah.
- The context in general
- Follows the Temptation in the Wilderness
- Precedes the Call of The Disciple
- Other places in scripture that mentions Galilee
- Josh 20:7
- 1 Kings 9:11
- 2 Kings 15:29 - “Cabul” good-for-nothing
- 1 Maccabees 5:23 shows the entire Jewish population as small enough to evacuate in circ. 164 B.C.
- Luke 1:79 makes an allusion to Isaiah 9.
- Fifth of the ten fulfillments of OT prophecies in the book of Matthew.
As Jesus began his ministry, he began it with preaching, the authoritative declaration of the Word of God. In our modern day, we can get side tracked from the main focus of ministry to other nice things:
Matthew was wise in communicating difficult ideas, inclusion of the “nations”, to Hebraic audience by using OT scriptures.
Jesus began his ministry in an area that others would not have chosen. He worked in an area despised as “Galilee of the Gentiles”. His work started with God’s heart for the nations, his work started with the humble and less noble. When we minister, we must be careful to discern God’s heart.