TEXT Matt 4:12-25
Jesus moves to live in Capernaum
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Caper’na–um by the sea, in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, 14 that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled, 15 “The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Jesus calls first disciples: Peter & Andrew
17 From that time, Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Jesus calls James & John
21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb’edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb’edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus’ preaching & healing ministry
23 And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decap’olis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested,” — Jesus had been baptised but had not commenced his public ministry when an ominous cloud overshadowed him; he was told of John’s arrest and threat to life. This would have been a shadow implying opposition to his own ministry. This was a new sense of John the Baptist being the precursor of Jesus not alone in his preaching and baptizing but also in being “handed over” to the authorities and being put to death. This should be the time for Jesus to keep quiet and not provoke Herod who had arrested John. That is not how Jesus saw it. He realised that John was now silenced so this was the time to take up “the slack” and get down to replacing John and his message.
“he withdrew into Galilee” — The word “withdrew” is frequent in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 2: 12, 22; 4: 12; 12: 15; 14: 13; 15: 21) and it is used when Jesus left some place because of unbelief and persecution. The early Church used this word to describe anchorites or hermits.
“Galilee” was known as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ because about half the population was made up of non–Jews or Gentiles. Jesus will now be able to include non–Jews in his ministry. The word “Galilee” means ‘circle’ as that was its shape.
“and leaving Nazareth” — Jesus left Nazareth which was very close to the seat of Galilean government, and so could be unsafe for him. The people of Nazareth did not accept Jesus. He gave that as the reason why he worked no miracles there (Mt. 13: 54–58).
“he went and dwelt in Caper’na–um by the sea in the territory of Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” — The Greek phrase, “went and dwelt”, implies that Jesus owned the house in Capernaum.
Two advantages of living in Capernaum were, first, that it was near the sea and convenient for transport to other places around the Sea of Galilee.
Second, it was a busy commercial port and that expanded his audiences and contacts.
Matthew shows that it was in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy by Isaiah that Jesus went to live in Capernaum on the North–West shore of the Sea of Galilee.
One of the characteristics of Matthew’s Gospel is that he wished to show how the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus and so how he fulfilled God’s will. In this way he intended to show how Jesus, fulfilling the prophecies, was the promised Messiah or Anointed One, called ‘the Christ’ in Greek and used as such in English also.
While Capernaum may have been judged by some as blessed because Jesus lived there, it never was converted and brought about condemnation by Jesus (Mt. 11: 20, 23–24).
“Zeb’ulun and Naph’tali” — These were two tribes mentioned by Isaiah in his prophecy. The use of these two names was obsolete when Matthew wrote his Gospel about 80–90 A.D. Capernaum was in the territory that had been known formerly as Naphtali.
“that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” — Matthew will now quote a prophecy from Isaiah (Is. 8: 23–9: 1). This is his style. He likes to quote prophecies to show that everything is fulfilled as foretold through prophets. Already, in the opening two chapters, he uses prophecy in this manner five times. This present quotation is the sixth use. There will be another forty–three quotations and references or allusions to eighty–seven words or phrases from the Old Testament in this Gospel.
“‘The land of Zeb’ulun and the land of Naph’tali, toward the sea” — This is the Sea of Galilee.
“across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” — This is meant to be a prophecy of great hope. The past tense is used by Isaiah to show that the prophecy has been fulfilled. The people who were without hope, and who lived sinful lives, now began to see the dawning light, the initial coming of Christ the Light.
“From that time Jesus began to preach” — Jesus had not yet begun his public preaching. He had spoken only to John the Baptist (Mt. 3: 15) and to the demons (Mt. 4: 4, 7, 10).
“saying, ‘Repent’” — His primary preaching–message was two–fold: first, he called for repentance, which means a change from a sinful mindset and heart in the individual and in society. This includes, as an essential ingredient, “doing penance”.
“for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” — Second, he informed that the kingdom of heaven was coming shortly, if not that already it had come. This is a most important subject for Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, he will mention “the Kingdom” fifty–two times.
“The Kingdom of Heaven” does not mean a geographical territory nor that heaven is like a human kingdom. It means the reign, sovereignty or lordship of God. It includes his reign in individuals, groups and communities. This is the central message of Jesus’ preaching and he will refer to it as “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. He will instruct his disciples to proclaim this message (Mt. 10: 7). The “Kingdom of Heaven” will not be complete until the end of time (Mt. 13: 30, 40–43).
One becomes a member of this kingdom through repentance which is a direct assault on sin. When the Church has been established, entrance into the Church and the Kingdom will be through the Sacrament of Baptism. The necessity of repentance will not be diminished. These two points, repentance, which is a direct attack on sin and the devil, and the Kingdom, sum up the purpose of his coming into the world and he will elaborate on these throughout his public ministry.
Matthew records John the Baptist using these exact words to commence his preaching also: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3: 2). This means that Matthew 3: 2 and 4: 17 mark an ‘inclusio’.
Matthew, with four exceptions (Mt. 12: 28; 19: 24; 21: 31, 43), uses the term “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the kingdom of God” as is used in the rest of the New Testament out of Jewish respect for the name “God”.
“The Kingdom of Heaven” is mentioned in this verse and in verse 23. This is another ‘inclusio’ so that everything between these similar verses, the choosing of the four apostles, Jesus’ preaching and healing, is included in what has to be said about the Kingdom. The two sets of brothers are being recruited to promote the Kingdom and encourage people to join.
During this present period of history, until the Second Coming of Jesus, the Church makes him and his salvation present.
“is at hand” — Both Jesus and John the Baptist have informed that the reign of God is not distant but is to be manifested shortly.
“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” — The first two apostles called are identified and their profession of fishermen is mentioned. Jesus, who takes the initiative and does not wait for them to volunteer, which was the normal way of a learner to join a teacher, makes two demands of them and these are total and immediate commitment to him. What is to be demanded from them is that they will gather people around the cause. In Church technical terms, we would say that they were to be ‘missionaries’. They certainly did not have any experience or special qualifications for setting up a religious organization nor a worldwide group.
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him” — In fact the only qualification they showed was obeying the call of Jesus and they did not object, question or argue but were absolutely docile to him. He had said, “Follow me” so he would teach them all they needed to know. He gave no indication that he would leave them or when they would be trained. As their work progressed, he informed them that he would be with them and very close forever.
“And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zeb’edee and John his brother, in the boat with Zeb’edee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” — Once again Jesus takes the initiative in selecting his co–workers in a similar scene. James and John are equally docile and prompt in their obedience. Verses 20 and 22, the call of the two sets of brothers, are almost exactly the same in wording.
Peter and Andrew were told that they would have to abandon their nets, signs of their livelihood and become missionaries by adding people to the Kingdom. James and John leave father, boat and the nets they were mending, symbols of family and livelihood. In the Church we would describe their activities as ‘pastoral’, just as the Epistles, using the same Greek terminology, do (I Cor. 1: 10; II Cor. 13: 11; Gal. 6: 1; Eph. 4: 12; I Th. 3: 10; Hb. 13: 21; I Pt. 5: 10). The two sets of brothers depict the pastoral and missionary activities of the Church. The Church is frequently referred to as a ‘boat’ or ‘barque’.
Why these four should have been the first disciples is not explained but Peter, James and John became the inner core of the Twelve.
“And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.” — The first activity mentioned is teaching and this is described as taking place in the synagogues. It might be expected that in Galilee of the Gentiles, Jesus would have given priority to evangelising the Gentiles but that was not the case. The Jews were those to whom he concentrated his call to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Three activities, “teaching”, “preaching” and “healing” are mentioned. This is called a triplet in which the middle term is the most important. This tells us that “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” was Jesus’ main task (Mt. 9: 35; 24: 14). The other elements tell that his preaching was done by word and by deed, his healing ministry.
This triplet is mentioned also in Matthew 9: 35. Once again, there is another inclusio: Matthew chapters 5 to 7, the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches and chapters 8 and 9, where he heals.
Verses 24 and 25 do not belong to the Sunday Gospel but as they round off the Reading, they are included in this Explanation. Readers now have the complete Chapter 4.
“So his fame spread throughout all Syria” — Syria, with four divisions, was north of Galilee and was a Roman province. St. Luke mentions that Quirinius was governor there when Jesus was born (Lk. 2: 2).
“and they brought him all the sick” — Note the word “all” used twice in this verse: “all Syria” and “all the sick”.
“those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” — This list is meant to show that there was no disease or pain that Jesus could not cure.
“And great crowds followed him from Galilee” — “Galilee” was where Jesus was living (in Capernaum), teaching, preaching and working miracles of healing.
“and the Decap’olis” — “Decap’olis” means “the ten cities” which were a confederation of Greek towns on the east and south of the Sea of Galilee and not too distant from Galilee. Jesus worked two miracles there (Mk. 5: 1–20; 7: 31–37).
“and Jerusalem” — This was the centre of the Jewish religion and information of any religious movements would have been reported very quickly.
“and Judea” — Judea was the smaller and southern part of Palestine, including Jerusalem. The two other divisions were Samaria and Galilee.
“and from beyond the Jordan.” — This is the area known as Transjordania but this name is not used in the RSV translation though it is in others such as the Jerusalem Bible. It covers the area east of the Jordan River to the Arabian Desert.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with the first two chapters telling us Who Jesus is, How he came to be born, Where he was born and From Where he came, the Flight into Egypt. Chapter three tells us about the mission of John the Baptist preparing for Jesus. Chapter four begins with Jesus’ preparatory retreat, as we might call it, that is the Temptation in the wilderness where he encountered and overcame the devil.
This present passage is the commencement of his ministry. His first activity is to move house to a better place for contact with more people and to have a more convenient centre for easy movement around the Holy Land, especially by sea. He also makes a very definite decision: he is not going to minister exclusively among the Jews, as they would expect but will be open to the Gentiles.
He plunged immediately into his preaching, sharing two essential points: he came to establish the Kingdom of Heaven and the way to prepare for this was by repentance. People were well groomed for this by John the Baptist. Jesus had overcome the devil; now he was inviting people to change the devil’s way (sin) of living and join him in the new kingdom or reign of God.
Once he let it be known what his purpose was, he undertook another major decision: he needed help. That was his very first project. He recruited two sets of brothers.
Where did he go to enlist? He sought out ordinary men and women where they actually were working. Later, these would include Mary Magdalene and some women who would travel around with the initial group. What did he offer? A change of work — you will be “fishers of men” rather than of fish. What will you get from me in return? At this moment, nothing but you will have to give up absolutely everything: father, family, livelihood (boat and nets) and anything else that might hinder what I want from you! What I need is complete and perfect renunciation. And all four agreed immediately!
However, in a sense, there is nothing very strange in that. How many people have met a spouse in this way — brief encounter, a few hours together and realisation at once that this was the one they had been looking for, perhaps for years. Love at first sight.
In the case of the first four called, they had been searching for something special in their lives. They had been directed towards God by John the Baptist whom they had known. It took the special encounter with Jesus to help them realise that they had to “follow” him.
His mission was to proclaim that God loves all men and women and gives himself to them to be their family.
At the time, the culture did not allow the Rabbi to select his pupils; they decided on him. Jesus changed this. He took the initiative and chose them to become his ambassadors of love to the people around them. A God–given call.
This incident was a lesson to all men and women, including those who read this passage. We might think that we are not worthy or able for the task but he knows best. He chose us; we did not choose him. He knows us and our abilities. God gave each of us special gifts or charisms, not for ourselves but for others. In God’s plan, I am essentially an ‘other–centered’ person. I have a role to play for the world and for the Church.
What we need to be expert in is love. We need personal contact with Jesus, more through the heart than the head. This we acquire through conversation called prayer, not rattling off other persons’ prayers but our own personal exchanges with Jesus.
What a call we have received. We have been selected to build up the Kingdom of Heaven with Christ! We are collaborators in a divine ministry.