Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)
Matthew 4:12-23



Jesus’ baptism (3:13-17) and temptation (4:1-11) immediately precede this lesson, so this is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) immediately follows, and constitutes the largest collection of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels.

It is no accident that Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, because Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ teaching ministry. Chapter 4 prepares us to hear the Sermon on the Mount by emphasizing that Christ has brought us into the light (4:16), by calling us to repentance (4:17), by telling us about the call of the first disciples (4:18-22), and by giving Jesus’ teaching ministry precedence over his preaching and healing ministries (4:23).


12Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee.

“Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up” (v. 12a). Matthew links the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with John’s arrest. The word, “heard,” distances Jesus from John. Jesus hears about John from afar. Jesus is not John’s disciple, but is the one who is to come—and who has now arrived. Nor is John Jesus’ disciple. His role is to “Make ready the way of the Lord” and to “Make his paths straight” (3:3) and to baptize Jesus (3:13-17). John is a pivotal figure, the last of the old and the introducer of the new.

“he withdrew into Galilee” (v. 12b). Some might accuse Jesus of withdrawing to Galilee lest he share John’s fate, but Galilee is ruled by the same Herod Antipas who arrested John, so Jesus cannot escape danger there (Soards). Matthew makes it clear that Jesus goes to Galilee as a fulfillment of prophecy (v. 14).

Galilee is small (approximately 25 x 50 miles or 40 x 80 km) but has a large population (204 towns with populations of 15,000 or more people according to Josephus), so it provides opportunity for many people to hear Jesus’ message.

Most of Jesus’ ministry will take place in Galilee. He returned from his baptism in the Judean wilderness at 4:12, and will remain in Galilee until he sets out for Judea at 19:1. He will work his first miracle at Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). Almost all of his teaching and healing ministries will take place in Galilee. Peter will acknowledge him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” in Galilee (Matthew 16:16). Jesus will go to Judea to die, but will return to Galilee after his resurrection (Matthew 26:32), and will deliver his Great Commission in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).

We must assume, then, that Jesus’ affinity for Galilee is not simply the product of his Galilean boyhood, but instead grows out of his deep affection and sense of kinship with “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45).


13Leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying,

15“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
toward the sea (Greek: hodon thalasses—literally “road to the sea”), beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
16the people who sat in darkness saw a great light,
to those who sat in the region and shadow of death,
to them light has dawned.”

“Leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali” (v. 13). Capernaum is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Nazareth, and is located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. We are not told why Jesus moves to Capernaum. Perhaps it is because Peter’s home is there (8:14). Perhaps it is because Capernaum is larger than Nazareth and is located on a major trade route. Perhaps it is because Capernaum is located just across the Jordan River from the Decapolis, a Gentile region, and therefore has a large Gentile population. Jesus will do a good deal of ministry in Capernaum (8:5-15; 9:9; 13:2; Mark 1:21; 2:1-12; John 4:46-54), and Capernaum will be known as “his own city” (9:1). Nevertheless, he will pronounce judgment on it (11:23-24).

“that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet” (v. 14). Matthew is concerned to show that Jesus fulfills prophecy. “This is the fifth of ten fulfillment quotations used by Matthew” (Hagner).

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali” (v. 15a). Zebulun and Naphtali are northern provinces (Capernaum is in Naphtali and Nazareth is in Zebulun), which fell to Tiglath-pileser III in 732 B.C., a full decade before the fall of the other provinces.

Isaiah had prophesied, “There shall be no more gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time, he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the latter time he has made it glorious, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9:1; see also verses 2-7). Now that prophecy is fulfilled.

“toward the sea (Greek: hodon thalasses—literally “road to the sea”), beyond the Jordan” (v. 15b). This “road to the sea” is a Roman road connecting Damascus (northeast of Capernaum) with Caesarea (southwest of Capernaum on the Mediterranean Sea), and is therefore a major trade route (Hagner).

“Galilee of the Gentiles” (v. 15c). When the Israelites first settled in Canaan, God said, “When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:51-52). However, Naphtali, Asher, and Zebulun (three of the five tribes that settled Galilee) failed to drive out the Gentiles, but instead dwelled in their midst (Judges 1:30-33).

In addition, Galilee was surrounded on three sides by Gentiles—Phoenicians on the west along the Mediterranean coast, Aram/Syria to the north and northeast, and Bashan to the southeast. Major trade routes passed through Galilee, and it was often invaded. Galileans, therefore, had more dealings with Gentiles and were more open to new ideas than Judeans (Barclay, 66-67). This resulted in a certain amount of assimilation, which caused the scrupulous people of Judea to hold Galileans in disdain. When Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), his question reflected a general low opinion of Galilee and Galileans.

“the people who sat in darkness saw a great light, to those who sat in the region and shadow of death, to them light has dawned” (v. 16). This is a quotation from Isaiah 9:2. The people to whom Jesus brings his ministry have been sitting in darkness, but Jesus’ coming brings them great light.

Matthew is saying that God has chosen “Galilee of the Gentiles” (v. 15c) to be the place where light will shine–rather than Judea, the home of the temple and the place where darkness will prevail at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:45).

Light and darkness are used in both Old and New Testaments as metaphors for good and evil––order and chaos––security and danger––joy and sorrow––truth and untruth––life and death––salvation and condemnation (Isaiah 5:20; John 3:19-21; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 4:17-18).


17From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say,

For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”
(Greek: engiken—is near).

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (engiken—is near) (v. 17b). Jesus uses exactly the same words as John the Baptist (3:2). The core of Jesus’ preaching is congruent with the core of John’s preaching. It focuses on the Kingdom of Heaven.

“Repent” (v. 17b). Repentance means a change of mind—turning and facing in a new direction—preparation for kingdom life. Scholars disagree with regard to the emotion behind it. Boring says that it does not involve sorrow or remorse (Boring, 167), but Johnson notes that “in the LXX (the Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures) it often stands for a Hebrew word meaning ‘to grieve for one’s sins'” (Johnson, 7). Perhaps the two ideas are not so far apart. We do not easily change the direction of our lives unless we are dissatisfied with life as it is and hopeful about life as it might be. Sorrow for sin provides the dissatisfaction that sparks change.

“for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (has come near) (v. 17b). The Kingdom of Heaven has come near in the person of Jesus Christ.

Matthew almost always uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven” instead of “kingdom of God.” The terms are synonymous. Many Jews prefer “kingdom of heaven,” because of their concern about the potential for using God’s name in vain (Exodus 20:7). The kingdom of heaven is the place where God rules. It is not defined by geography but by hearts given over to God’s rule. Here Jesus promises that the kingdom is at hand. As this Gospel unfurls, Jesus will tell us more and more about it.

Consider for a moment what life will be like where God’s kingdom is fully come. In the kingdom, there will be no need for armies—or prisons—or locks on the door. No police force will be required to enforce proper behavior. People will look for ways to give rather than to grab. There will be no false or deceptive advertising—no manipulation. Wouldn’t you like to live in such a peaceable place! Pray for God’s kingdom to come!

Jesus tells us that this kingdom has come near. We catch glimpses of it in the lives of saintly people for whom the kingdom has truly come. We see their quiet strength and feel their gentle touch. In telling us that the kingdom has come near, Jesus is telling us that we can dwell in this kingdom. We have only to repent—to turn away from the idols that crowd our lives—to let God reign.


18Walking 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. 19He said to them,

“Come after me,
and I will make you fishers for men.”

20They immediately left their nets and followed him. 21Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them. 22They immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will teach with authority (7:29). He demonstrates that authority here as he calls disciples who immediately obey—and as he exercises power over disease and sickness.

“Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother” (v. 18). “James, the son of Zebedee, and John, his brother” (v. 21). Of these four men, three (Peter, James, and John) will become Jesus’ inner circle, privileged to join him at the Transfiguration (17:1) and Gethsemane (26:37).

“Walking 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” (v. 18). In last week’s Gospel lesson, we had John’s account of the call of Peter and Andrew (John 1:35-42). In that Gospel Andrew is mentioned first and goes to get his brother, Simon. Matthew’s account pictures the brothers together at the time of their call, and mentions Peter’s name first, an early clue in this Gospel to the importance that Peter will assume.

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men” (v. 19). Matthew’s gives a brief account of this call. Jesus calls two pairs of brothers, whom he has apparently never seen before, inviting them to become his disciples. The men respond immediately by leaving their nets, their boats, and their father to follow Jesus.

Boring considers this Jesus’ first miracle. Just as God’s word created the world, so also Jesus’ word creates disciples–creates faith (Boring, 169-170).

“Come after me” (v. 19a). This account is unusual in that rabbis do not seek out students but are sought out by those who hope to study with them. Jesus, however, takes the initiative! He comes looking for us.

The invitation is to become a disciple (a learner–a follower). Jesus offers these men the opportunity to observe him at close hand on a daily basis. By doing so, they will learn more than his thinking. They will become familiar with his moods. They will unconsciously copy his manner of speaking—his gestures—his dealings with people. They will see how he solves problems and counters opposition. Slowly but surely, they will become like Jesus in thought, word and deed. That speaks powerfully about discipleship. It is not enough to learn facts about Jesus. We must spend time with him. Discipleship is less an affair of the head than of the heart.

Rabbinical discipleship also demands obedience. A disciple is expected to follow in the footsteps of his rabbi as exactly as possible—and to obey without hesitation or question. Discipleship is not an easy life, but a demanding life.

What kind of person did Jesus call? They were ordinary men–fishermen. He could have chosen scholars or wealthy people or great leaders, but he chose ordinary men. This is in keeping with God’s choosing David and so many others. God often prefers to work with ordinary people, so that people will understand the results as coming from God rather than the people who are serving God. How wonderful! Christ does require us to have great ability, but great availability.

“and I will make you fishers for men” (v. 19b). There are other evangelistic metaphors in this Gospel (Matthew 9:35-58; 13:47-50).

The word evangelism is unpopular in vast swaths of the church today. Those churches hesitate to proclaim Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.” They are especially loath to voice Jesus’ claim, “No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14.6). It is worth noting that those churches are shrinking rapidly and tend to be populated by people with gray hair.

“They immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him” (v. 22). “They come straightway; they come at all cost; they come without a question; they come to quit old haunts; they come to follow their leader without stipulation or reserve” (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, quoted in Boice, 67).

Their boat and father constitute their worldly security. Their boat, of course, represents their livelihood—their way to make a living—probably a comfortable living. Their father represents their connection to family, a precious connection, indeed. The family involves spiritual responsibilities (“honor your father and your mother”—Exodus 20:12), and it also affords the kind of safety net that we now expect governments to provide. If these fishermen were injured or unemployed, their families would help them. If they were celebrating a marriage or mourning a death, their family’s participation would be paramount. To leave boat and father to follow an itinerant rabbi is a bold move.


23Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Jesus teaches, preaches, and heals. Note the order of the verbs. Teaching is first. This is in keeping with Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’ teaching ministry.

Keep in mind that the Sermon on the Mount is waiting in the wings, just waiting for us to finish chapter 4 so that Jesus might come on stage to dazzle us with his teaching. If you have any doubts about the importance to Matthew of Jesus’ teaching ministry, just wait until next week.

Jesus teaches in their synagogues. There is one temple, located in Jerusalem, but every village of any size has a synagogue. It is the place where people gather to worship and to learn. Teaching is at the heart of synagogue life. The service consists of prayers, readings from the scriptures, and an address. The ruler of the synagogue can invite any qualified man to give the address. The synagogue, then, is the natural place for Jesus to begin his teaching ministry.

Translated into a modern setting, one can learn about Jesus in a football stadium or a wooded glade, but one is far more likely to learn about Jesus in a church.


24 The report about him went out into all Syria. They brought to him all who were sick, afflicted with various diseases and torments, possessed with demons, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them. 25 Great multitudes from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan followed him

These last two verses of this chapter, not included in this lesson, emphasize Jesus’ healing ministry and the effect it has on people. Great crowds come from near and far to follow Jesus.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, 2018 Richard Niell Donovan