A Light In The Darkness

Matthew 4:12-25

The arrival of Messiah meant the salvation of Israel.

That is something that’s made clear in the prophecies of the Old Testament, and especially those written in the years preceding Israel’s exile. “You will be carried away and your kingdom will be taken,” God was continually telling His people, “but one day I will rescue you out of exile. I will send a new king (an “anointed one”) like a new David; He will return you to your land and give you a new kingdom.”

That was the great expectation of the Jewish people in the first century – and that was the expectation Matthew continually reflected on as he wrote his Gospel. But how, exactly, did Jesus fulfill these massive promises given to the Jewish people?

We have already seen Matthew beginning to work through these questions in the first chapters of his Gospel, painting a parallel portrait of Jesus and the story of Israel through his birth, childhood, baptism, and temptation. Now, in chapter 4, as Jesus begins His ministry, these themes continue to develop.

After His temptation, and following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus moves north, to the region around the Sea of Galilee. There his ministry of preaching and proclaiming the arrival of the Kingdom begins.

This is geographically fitting because, as Matthew notes, it aligns with what the prophet Isaiah spoke. Isaiah proclaimed that Israel’s salvation wouldn’t come from Jerusalem, the center of religious and political power, but from the northern regions, bordering the lands of the Gentiles, “beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15; cf. Isa. 9:1).

These lands were part of the northern tribes who had been carried into exile by the Assyrians, and at the time of Isaiah’s prophecy were under firm control of Gentile nations. But that is the “forgotten” land into which God chose to first shine His light: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:16; cf. Isa. 9:2).

The Messiah’s ministry wouldn’t begin in Jerusalem and move outward, spreading the religious or political influence to the rest of the world; it was to begin on the outside, in the very fringes of society and move toward Jerusalem. Jesus’ Kingdom was destined to conquer the world; but first it would have to conquer Jerusalem. It would have to bring about a new, faithful Israel.
And that is exactly what we see happening in the remainder of this chapter. Jesus, by His mere presence and the power of His preaching, begins to shine a light in these dark places of Galilee. He is the new Jacob; the new Israel.

It is fitting then, that He would begin forming a new identity for his new people. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, tribal distinctions in Israel had been all but lost (nine of twelve tribes were carried into captivity, and by the time of Jesus these tribes were nearly forgotten). But now Jesus begins to “reassemble” Israel – calling disciples to Himself beginning with Peter, Andrew, James, and John (4:18-22), the first twelve “new tribes”, to serve as a symbol of the revival of Israel under Christ.

It is also fitting that the first disciples called by Jesus should be fishermen. Jesus is able to use their occupation in a bit of wordplay, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (4:19). Jesus is delving once again into Jewish prophecy.

The prophet Jeremiah, warning of the coming exile, also spoke of a coming restoration: “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where He had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them…” (Jer. 16:14-16).

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry is presented in a way that’s deeply rooted in the history and prophecy of Israel. As I wrote previously, Matthew is continually looking backward and looking forward. We especially see this in the final verses of the chapter, as Jesus’ ministry suddenly flourishes in Galilee.

Matthew writes that Jesus preaches “throughout all Galilee”; His fame spreads as He begins healing and casting out demons and preaching about the Kingdom. This is just how the prophets had said it would happen!

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isa. 35:56; cf. Isa. 32:3-4; 42:7, 16).

As Jesus preaches the arrival of the Kingdom, He also brings about physical restoration. He is signifying not just the arrival of a Kingdom, but a New Creation – a creation in which all of the terrible effects of the fall are being undone!

Matthew then, in these first several chapters of his Gospel, is doing many things at the same time. He is boldly setting the stage for what is to come, lifting up Jesus as a new  Abraham, a new Moses, a new David, and a new Israel. But more than that, he’s also presenting Jesus new Man. A new Adam who has come to restore all things, and finally bring about the true end of exile.