Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, 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.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:12-17 – NRSV.)
See similar references in Mark 1:14-15 and Luke 4:14.
Matthew is to return to the details of the arrest of John the Baptist in 14:3-12.
“Matthew here begins his story of Jesus’ ministry, characteristically stressing the note of fulfilled prophecy. He leaves the impression that Jesus was in Judea for some time after his baptism, moving to Galilee only after the arrest of the Baptist. Of course John may have been arrested immediately after he had baptized Jesus, but unless this happened Jesus remained in Judea for some time (which would agree with John’s account of activities of Jesus in that area). Matthew prefers to start his account of Jesus’ ministry with the fulfilment of prophecy.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 79.)
John had been arrested: The Greek verb, paradidōmi, translated here as “arrested”, literally means “to hand over”. Matthew uses it again in 26:15 – Judas asks the religious authorities: “What will you give me if I betray him to you?”. Similarly in verses 16 & 21.
he withdrew to Galilee: This is puzzling as Herod also has control over the district of Galilee. However, Matthew makes it clear that Galilee is where Jesus’ ministry begins. One scholar writes of Galilee: “Galilee …. was the region west of the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee bounded on the west and north by Phoenicia and Syria and on the south by Samaria. It was thus not large in area, but it was very fertile and had a considerable population. Josephus observes that it had all been cultivated, that there was no waste land, and that the smallest village had more than 15,000 inhabitants (War 3.43). Even allowing for exaggeration Galilee must have been well populated. Important roads passed through the area (Barclay quotes a saying: ‘Judaea is on the way to nowhere: Galilee is on the way to everywhere’), and whereas Judea was mountainous and isolated, Galilee was open to trade and ideas. History had seen foreign conquerors make their mark on the region and, of course, had brought an influx of people from many races. All this means that Galilee was the kind of country where new teachings might be heard and even welcomed.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 80.)
made his home in Capernaum by the sea: Capernaum is right up the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, on the Western edge – a substantial distance from Nazareth which is on the southern edge of Galilee. Capernaum becomes Jesus’ home base.
the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The fulfillment quotation comes from Isa 8:23–9:1 (9:1–2 in English). But it is a rather loose adaptation of the Septuagint text, designed to show that the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee was in accordance with the Scriptures. In Isaiah the text expressed an oracle of hope after the overrunning of Galilee by the Assyrians in 732 B.C.” (D J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 71.)
Repent: The Greek verb metanoeo means literally “to change one’s mind”. We must remember that the understanding of “mind” in Jesus’ day is not limited to the world of the rational mind and its ideas: “…. in LXX Jer. 8:6; 38:19 (MT 31:19); Isa. 46:8 metanoéō refers to a complete change of attitude, not just a change of mind about specific acts, thus taking on a meaning that is not found in secular Greek and anticipating its use in the NT. …. The writings in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha also make frequent use of metanoéō and metánoia in the sense of a complete change of one’s way of life, a complete turning from sin and to (the ways or laws of) God. In other Hellenistic Jewish literature (e.g., Philo De virtutibus 175–186; Joseph and Asenath 15) metánoia is used for the conversion of Gentiles to the ways of God. In the NT itself metánoia and metanoéō occur fifty-six times, most frequently in the Lukan literature (twenty-four times in Luke, eleven times in Acts) and Revelation (twelve times, eight of them in the letters to the seven churches, chs 2–3). The terms are rare in the Pauline literature (five times) and do not occur at all in the Gospel or Epistles of John. Usually these terms express repentance in the full sense of a complete change of one’s way of life (although the sense of regret is operative in Lk. 17:3f), the spiritual change implied in a sinner’s return to God.” (E W Smith, & B H Dement, “Repent” in G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume 4, Revised, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988, 136.)
One scholar observes: “Reference to repentance is actually quite limited in the reported speech of Jesus (Matthew has only 11:20–21; 12:41; and cf. 13:15). In the Matthean frame it seems best to understand Jesus’ call to repentance as primarily implicit since the repentance texts represent complaint that it has not happened rather than calls to repent as such. (John Nolland, “Preface” in The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 175.)
the kingdom of heaven: This is a characteristic expression of Matthew. Mark always speaks of the “kingdom of God” (on at least 15 occasions – eg 1:13); Luke follows Mark in mostly using the expression “kingdom of God” (on at least 33 occasions – eg 4:43) but on another 7 occasions he simply uses the term “kingdom” (eg 1:33); John refers to the “kingdom” three times (all of them in 18:36) and the “kingdom of God” twice (John 3:3 & 3:5). Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” in Matthew is exactly the same as that of John the Baptist – see Matthew 3:2.
In 1955 the Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel published a marvelous book called God is Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Hechel reminds us of the central truth of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures: God who takes the initiative, it is God who reaches out to us in love and it is God who enables us to respond. The Covenant is, in essence, no more nor less than the loving embrace of God. The Covenant is the world of grace. St Paul reiterates this often in his letters. For example, he writes to the Romans, “we are living by grace and not by law” (6:15) and to the Ephesians, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (2:8-9).
There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more or less! God loves us because God is God, it is God’s nature to love without counting the cost.
St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) writes: “If a great good is not to be twisted into a great evil it is of paramount importance for everyone among you who seeks God to understand that he anticipates you, and that you were being sought before you sought him. The soul seeks the word, but it was first sought by the Word. …. For whence comes this desire that is in (the soul)? If I am not mistaken, it must be that it has already been visited and sought by the Word.” (St Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on the Song of Songs, 84:2 & 3.)
Jesus is God in search of humanity – you and me. Jesus goes throughout Galilee telling people that there is a whole new way of being on offer: “the kingdom is near”. We do not have to let the inventions of culture and politics, money and status, selfishness and fear, define and entrap us. Yes, they are part of the human condition and will be found in one form or another in all our lives. But there is more. You are worth much more. Allow yourself to be drawn into the world of grace, open your minds and hearts: “Repent!”
There are two very concrete signs in the person who has opened their mind and heart – repented – to the infinite love of God. The first sign is grace. Such a person will embody the truth that the Good News is gift not conquest, it comes through grace not mastery. They will quite literally be gracious. The second sign is freedom. Such a person will be more or less free of the human inventions that can entrap us. They will engender freedom in others. Do you know anyone you could say is gracious and free? Are you?