“Now, when He heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into the Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came to dwell in Capernaum which is by the sea in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that the word through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the road of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations; The people sitting in darkness saw a great light and those sitting in the land and in shadow of death, a light dawned upon them.” From then on, Jesus began to preach and to say: ‘Repent! Because the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
Now that Jesus has been properly introduced (3:13-15), anointed (3:16-17), and validated (4:1-11), Matthew’s introduction is drawing to a close. But before he transitions to the main body of his argumentation, Matthew places the finishing touches on Jesus’ ministry. These verses mark the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry according to Matthew. It is a curious thing that most of Jesus’ time seems to have been spent in the northern regions of the Galilee. If Jesus is the long-awaited king, why then does He not conquer Jerusalem as David did and be done with it? Why does it seem as if Jesus is not focused on Israel’s capital? In order to understand this beginning stage of Jesus’ ministry, we must answer two questions: (1) Why does Jesus relocate to the north and (2) why does He re-preach John’s message?
Why Does Jesus Relocate to Galilee? (vv. 12-16)
We must continually remind ourselves that each gospel writer has a unique circumstance in which he writes. He addresses a different audience than his colleagues with a different purpose in mind. Matthew is not simply writing a brief summary of Jesus’ doings and sayings that may or may not correspond with Mark’s and Luke’s attempts at the same. Both the facts and the manner in which these facts are presented are true, precise, and necessary. In other words, we are chained to Matthew’s authorial intention. It must be understood that Matthew is not interested in recreating a complete sequential history of Jesus but is in fact picking and choosing various scenes in order to present Jesus in a specific light and manner. The relocation from Judea to Galilee is important. The only question remaining is: why?
The Occasion Stated (v. 12a)
“Now, when He heard that John had been arrested”
It should be admitted that Matthew includes a gap of time between verses 11 and 12 of about a year. If we read Jn. 1:19-3:36 seriously, we understand that Jesus conducted a ministry in Judea for some time before He withdrew into the Galilee. We also know that John continued to preach and baptize people for some time after he baptized Jesus. It is not that Matthew is ignorant of these facts but that (1) he assumes that his readers are well aware of them and (2) they do not serve his specific purpose.
John’s arrest at the orders of Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:1-12) seems to be the catalyst for Jesus’ relocation. The verb ἀναχωρέω (he departed, withdrew, took refuge) is not a common verb, appearing only 14x in the New Testament. Of these, 10 are found in Matthew’s gospel with 4 having Jesus as the subject (4:12; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21). Most see this withdrawal or retreat as an attempt to avoid conflict or confrontation. Jesus is supposedly withdrawing from Judea to avoid a similar arrest as John’s. If this is the case, then Jesus acts quite stupidly.
Herod Antipas was the tetrarch of both Perea (the east side of the Jordan River where John was arrested) and Galilee (the northern region of Israel between the Sea of Galilee and Sidon). If Jesus is trying to avoid capture and death from the man who arrested John, it is a curious tactic to move closer to your enemy and then draw attention to yourself by preaching the same message as the now arrested forerunner (v. 17). It is certain that John’s arrest serves as a catalyst for Jesus’ relocation. But rather than running, Jesus pursues the antagonist. This is a challenge, not a retreat. The message of the kingdom cannot be silenced. After campaigning in the south, Jesus turns His attentions to the north because John’s arrest signals that it is time.
The Reason Provided (vv. 12b-16)
The coming quotation of Is. 9:1-2 (vv. 15-16) is extremely important to Matthew’s point. So much so that he uses a verse and a half to set up the quotation linguistically. The whole of vv. 12b-15 form something of a chiasm:
B) By the sea
C) Zebulun and Naphtali
C) Zebulun and Naphtali
B) Toward the sea
It is clear that Matthew understands this relocation as a fulfillment of prophecy. The remainder of v. 12 along with v. 13 anticipate this fulfillment while vv. 14-16 state the prophecy itself.
Prophecy Anticipated (vv. 12b-13): “He withdrew into the Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came to dwell in Capernaum which is by the sea in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” – The region of Zebulun and Naphtali refers to the allotments given to these two tribes during the conquest (Josh. 19:10-16; 32-39). Along these ancestral lines we should note that Matthew links the present cities of Nazareth (located in Zebulun’s territory) and Capernaum (located in Naphtali’s territory) concretely with the original conquest. For Matthew’s point, it is not enough that Jesus is associated with the northern region of Galilee (a point that all three synoptic gospels make clear) but that He is specifically associated with both the cities of Nazareth and Capernaum. In perfect honesty, Jesus can be said to be from both places. At the same time, both cities lay in two different tribal allotments and thus represent both Zebulun and Naphtali in a very real and concrete manner. Matthew does not speak in riddles, metaphors, or allegory. He physically connects Jesus with Galilee, which is by the sea, and specifically with the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. As believing Jews who know their Bibles, Matthew’s audience is undoubtedly thinking of the Isaiah passage before ever Matthew quotes it.
Prophecy Fulfilled (vv. 14-16): “so that the word through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the road of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations; The people sitting in darkness saw a great light and those sitting in the land and in shadow of death, a light dawned upon them.”” – Only four chapters into his gospel and Matthew uses the fifth of his ten “fulfillment formulas” (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9). Matthew continues to demonstrate an orthodox understanding of prophecy by again referring to the prophet as the intermediate agent (διὰ) of revelation rather than the direct agent or source. Here the apostle turns to Isaiah 9:1-2.
The fact that Matthew has Is. 9:1 in mind as he writes v. 15 is clear enough, though it must be admitted that he writes only the bare minimum. Not a single verb is found in Matthew’s version as if he stripped the verse down to its essential components: (1) Zebulun and Naphtali, (2) by way of the sea, (3) and Galilee. The prophecy is found in v. 16, but Matthew has worked overtime to connect Jesus’s movements physically and tangibly to the context of Is. 9:2 in order to prove that He is actively fulfilling the word of God as spoken through the prophet.
Is. 9:1-2 is a ray of hope after a message of judgment. It is necessary to understand that Isaiah chapters 7-9 consist of a single literary unit which begins with a plot hatched by an unholy collation of Aram and Israel against Judah (Is. 7:1). For this treachery, both Aram and Israel will be overrun and carried off as booty (Is. 8:1-4). Yet there is hope for both the southern kingdom of Judah as well as the northern kingdom of Israel in the coming of Messiah. The message of hope given to Judah was a reminder of God’s promise to David; namely, the seed of the woman who will come from David’s line (Is. 7:14). The southern kingdom of Judah cannot be erased so easily. As for the northern kingdom, they too will have a future in God’s economy, for there will be a day when there is no more gloom when a light dawns in the north (9:1-2). God will maintain the promise to David by bringing Messiah (Is. 7) and will by no means leave out the apostate northern tribes when Messiah brings His light (Is. 9:1-2) and government (Is. 9:6-7). Isaiah 7-9 contains warnings and judgments to be sure, but this section if bracketed with promises of Messiah whose rule, reign, and blessings will affect both the south and the north.
The region of Zebulun and Naphtali are about as far north as one can get and remain in the land allotted to Israel. As such, these tribal lands have seen more than their fair share war and conflict. Any outside army attempting to conquer Israel comes from the north and proceeds south. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans all conquered Israel by starting in the Galilee and working their way south. This pattern is dictated by the topography more so than anything else. With this as the case, the Israelites who lived in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were quite used to being invaded. Of all the nations who have invaded and conquered the Levant, only one broke this pattern of north to south conquest. When Joshua led the twelve tribes of Israel to conquer the Promised Land, they came from the east, not the north when they crossed the Jordan River and established a foothold at Jericho. Once the city of Ai was captured (Josh. 8:1-29) the land was more or less divided in half. After a successful southern campaign (Josh. 10:1-43), Joshua turned his attention to the north where he subdued the remaining Canaanites in a final decisive battle (Josh. 11:1-10).
It is essential that we do not miss Matthew’s meaning here. Jesus is clearly presented as the light to be seen in the spiritually dark northern regions of Zebulun and Naphtali. But there is more in Matthew’s mind that to simply say that Jesus is the light in darkness. Jesus relocates to Galilee only after an extended period of time in the south (Jn. 1:19-3:36). Jesus (Ἰησοῦς/יְהוֹשׁוּעַ) begins His northern campaign after His southern campaign much like Joshua (Ἰησοῦς/ יְהוֹשׁוּעַ) did before Him. Matthew has gone to great lengths to present Jesus as a new Joshua who has come to conquer the land! Jesus’ relocation to Galilee is not a strategic decision to preach to an audience that is more open minded as many suppose but is in fact a purposeful move to connect Jesus to His mission as Messiah. If Messiah brings the kingdom, then Messiah must conquer the land. This understanding of Jesus’ relocation helps to answer the next question.
Why Does Jesus Revoice John’s Message (v. 17)
“From then on, Jesus began to preach and to say: ‘Repent! Because the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
When Matthew says, “from then on” he means “upon relocating to Galilee and from Nazareth to Capernaum.” Once Jesus completed His identification with Joshua, Jesus begins preaching the same message as John (3:2). It is important to first admit that this is the same message that John preached. At the same time, we must also admit that this message has a slightly different emphasis because it is Jesus who now preaches it.
It matters not if you read these words in the English or the original Greek, the message is identical. Neither John nor Jesus stated that the kingdom of heaven had arrived and is somehow established but that it had drawn near (ἤγγικεν). In no way can we make Jesus’ words to indicate a present kingdom reality when they certainly did not mean that coming from John. Yet the proximity of the kingdom is stressed and mentioned to motivate active and aggressive change. The present imperative “be repenting” carries the same force as it did in 3:2. On the verge of conquest, the king will slay all who oppose Him. This call to repentance is a call to life in that those who fail to repent will receive nothing from the coming king but His wrath. What John preached in the south Jesus preaches in the north. The message of the coming kingdom cannot be silenced
It is right to admit that as Messiah and thus the coming king, preaching the nearness of the kingdom has a more potent effect when coming from Jesus. He is poised in the north where many a decisive battle has been fought (Josh. 11:1-10; Judg. 4:12-16) and at least one more final one is anticipated (Rev. 16:16; 19:11-21). The nearness of this kingdom that will invade from heaven is so close that it might be said to have dawned. Those in the north can see the light of this kingdom as if from the sun, yet the sun has not yet arrived. The kingdom requires a conquest and while Messiah is here poised in the right position to conquer, that conquest has not yet been initiated or completed. That in and of itself is a curious feature.
It is worth noting that Matthew makes no mention of Is. 9:6-7, a text that anticipates Messiah’s government, rule, and reign, even though it would have fit perfectly with his own birth narrative. He went to the trouble of pointing his readers to the bookends of Isaiah 7-9 that anticipates Messiah and His kingdom yet stops short of connecting Jesus’ mission with the kingdom’s arrival and establishment. Why would he do that? Because there is no kingdom without repentance. Jesus came preaching repentance rather than crushing rebels because the nation of Israel has not yet looked upon Him whom they had pierced (Zech. 12:10). Not only is the nation’s heart far from God, but they had not yet pierced Him. While identifying as a new Joshua, Jesus’ present mission is to submit to the Father and save His people through sacrifice.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 80.  Grant Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 142.  John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 174.  D. A. Carson, Walter Wessel, and Mark Strauss, Matthew & Mark, Revised, vol. 9, 13 vols., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2010), p. 146.  Morris, p. 83.