MATTHEW 4: 12
Now when Jesus heard that John had been handed over to Herod, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth behind, made his home in Caphernaum beside the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali
The way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles-
The people who dwell in darkness have seen a great light;
On those who dwell in the land and shadow of death
A light has risen.
From that time Jesus started to preach, with this message, “Change your lives; for the Rule of Heaven has drawn near.”
This is the last passage which can be seen as preparatory to Jesus’ active ministry among his people. Matthew has to get his man into position for activity known to have taken place in Galilee. There is a hint in Mark that Jesus had a house in Caphernaum. Matthew picks this up from him or from another source and uses it.
Galilee was known as a mixed population of Jews and non-Jews, and therefore with customs which may not have been as strictly Jewish as those of Judaea. It could reflect for Matthew a community where a Jewish Christianity open to Gentiles had existed, as a model for the life of the church community for which Matthew was writing.
Zebulun and Naphtali are tribal names no longer in ordinary use in Matthew’s day but he uses them to make a link with the prophecy of Isaiah, which was directed by the prophet at this area when it was subject to Assyrian invasion: A new Davidic king would bring justice and peace to the region. Matthew simply applies the ancient prophecy to the light of Jesus’ preaching and healing, which do not take place away from Judaea by accident, but by the design of God.
Jesus’ message is identical to that of John the Dipper, who Matthew notes, had been “handed over”. I have inserted “to Herod“ for the sake of clarity, while keeping the literal translation which allows Matthew later to use the same term about Jesus, who shares John’s fate as well as his message.
It seems that the Rule of God, interpreted by Jesus’ contemporaries, was seen in a number of ways: 1. For some it was an eschatological hope for the more or less distant future, when God’s justice would be done in the world, for all but primarily for Israel. 2. For Pharisees it was a time when their aim of persuading Jews to live by the laws of holiness would arrive.3 For Zealots it meant the time of the Messiah who would lead Israel to overthrow the Roman conqueror and re- establish it as God’s people. 4. For Qumran believers it would be the time when a “righteous remnant” would be confirmed as the true Israel. There would have been in Jewish society of the time variations on and mixtures of these beliefs.
For Jesus, as set out in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer it meant the time when the will of God would be done on earth as in heaven. For the Christian communities, this time had not yet come in it’s fulness; hence the prayer; but some expected it to arrive very soon, perhaps in their lifetimes. For Jesus, the Rule of God was a) peaceful b) liberating for especially for sinners, outcasts, the sick, woman, children, the merciful, the gentle, the pure of heart, the poor and the persecuted c) begun in his ministry and that of his followers. It would arrive by persuasion.
Clearly in a society with competing religious interests, ruled by a world empire, the announcement of an imminent rule of God was not without its dangers.