Open Matthew 4:12-17.
They met in the wilderness: the person God appointed to rule, and the enemy who claimed to rule all the kingdoms of the world. They reached no compromise deal. Now it’s war.
John the Baptist is the first prisoner in this conflict (4:12). Makes sense: he’s been promoting the coming king. Satan doesn’t personally arrest John, of course: the powers under his control do it for him. In this case, it’s Herod.
Should Jesus rescue John from the evil clutches of Herod? It’s what John expects (Matthew 11:2-3). Surely the one who came to release his people from oppression and set the captives free would not leave John in prison? But Jesus “withdraws” from the conflict (4:12). When Herod finally decapitates John, Jesus “withdraws” again (14:13). He has no plans to engage Herod. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Jesus did not view Herod as the enemy, merely a puppet of the enemy.
So Jesus avoids the puppet. Unlike John, Jesus does not critique Herod openly. Herod had two towns in Galilee: Sepphoris (close to Nazareth) and Tiberias (largest seaport of Galilee). Jesus avoids both these significant centres. He avoids Herod. The enemy he plans to fight is the “ruler” he met in the wilderness.
Galilee has a long history of oppression. When Canaan was originally divided among the twelve tribes, the district of Galilee was in Naphtali and the northern part of Zebulun. 750 years before Jesus’ ministry, Assyria invaded and took this land. The Assyrians settled foreigners there. Isaiah saw it as no longer part of Israel: it was Galilee of the gentiles.
But Isaiah proclaimed a day when God would restore these emaciated tribes:
Isaiah 9:1–2 (ESV)
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.
Despite Isaiah’s hope, it got worse. Babylon captured the whole land. The Chronicler recorded those who returned after the captivity. He knew no names from Naphtali beyond those mentioned in Genesis 46:24 (1 Chronicles 7:13). He knew no names for Zebulun at all.
Then, 150 years before Jesus’ birth, the neighbouring coastlands joined forces with “Galilee of the gentiles” to destroy the Jews. The Maccabean family fought these enemies and rescued the Jews of out Galilee. (1 Maccabees 5:14-23). Eventually some Jews settled there again, but a dark shadow remained over Galilee. Then, 60 years before Jesus’ birth, the whole country fell to Rome.
Matthew says all this history of doom and gloom was about to change. Jesus “withdrew” from Judea (centre of the Jewish faith) to this backwater, Galilee. But he wasn’t returning to the tiny village of Nazareth where he grew up. He moved to Capernaum, a bustling city of some 10,000 people on the northwest shore of the Lake. He moved here, Matthew says, because he planned to restore the light of God’s reign to the darkest part of the land, the people dwelling in the “shadow of death” (4:16). The enemy wasn’t Herod; it was the power behind Herod and all the other oppressors that preceded him.
Jesus chose to launch his message not in Jerusalem but in the northern downtrodden extremity—Galilee of the gentiles. The king stood on the shores of Lake Galilee announcing the end of the coup, the restoration of God’s reign. The heart of his message was this: “Turn back to God. His dominion over you is about to be restored” (4:17).
On 15 May 2014, I stood on the shores of Galilee watching the sun rise over the same lake where Jesus launched his kingdom message. For me, that sunrise became an image of what he still does — bringing humanity back home under God’s reign. He has faced and defeated death. The light of his kingship has dawned.
What others are saying
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 85:
For centuries, indeed for half a millennium before the second century BC, Galilee was in pagan hands, and it was an area where the Greek language, pagan customs and non-Jewish influences held sway. It was bound to be so: Galilee stood on one of the oldest and most important trade routes in the East, the Way of the Sea from Damascus down to Egypt. Nowhere could Jesus have had such a chance of gaining a large following as in Galilee. They may well have been living in the shadow of moral and spiritual death, as their more orthodox neighbours to the south asserted, but on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (16). It is not uncharacteristic of God to go for the least likely place, where the orthodox would never expect to find him, among the greatest masses of unreached humanity.
Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 173:
Ever since the Assyrian campaign reduced it to a province under an Assyrian governor in 732 B.C. (2 Kings 15:29), this region had experienced turmoil and forced infiltration of Gentile influence. The inhabitants are called “the people sitting in darkness” (Matt. 4:16), a description of Jews who awaited deliverance while living among the hopelessness of the Gentiles. Here, where the darkness was most dense and so far removed from the center of Jewish religious life in Jerusalem, these Jews are the first to see the great light of God’s deliverance in Jesus. It will bring hope to those who understand most clearly the hopelessness of death. This light presages the universal message of hope, because from this same region Jesus will send the disciples to carry out the commission to make disciples of all the Gentiles (28:18).