Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23
In its narrative context, this pericope reveals a number of things about the person and ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
1. Jesus’ ministry is aligned with God’s purpose as it is revealed in the Scriptures.
After John’s arrest, Jesus leaves the Judean wilderness (where he had been tempted by the devil, Matthew 4:1-11) and settles in Capernaum, “so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (Matthew 4:13). This is one of more than a dozen formula citations in Matthew that signal to the reader that Jesus’ ministry stands in line with God’s purpose as revealed through the Old Testament prophets (see, e.g., Mathew 1:22-23; 2:17-18; 8:17; 12:17-21, etc.). It is not so much that a long-ago prophecy has now come true (although that is certainly one of the functions of prophecy in Matthew; e.g., 1:23), but rather that Jesus’ return to Galilee is “filled with meaning,” especially for the people “who sat in darkness” (Matthew 4:16). Jesus’ departure from the Judean wilderness to his “home” in Capernaum represents the dawning of a new day as he proclaims the coming of God’s realm (the “kingdom of the heavens” in Matthew.)
2. When Jesus’ ministry is threatened, he sometimes withdraws from the threat to a place of relative safety.
“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew (an-akh-o-reh’-o, Matthew 4:12) to Galilee.” The verb an-akh-o-reh’-o is typically used in Matthew when there is movement from one place to another in the face of threatening circumstances. For example, after following the star to Bethlehem, the magi left (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 2:12) for their own country by a different route, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Jesus’ parents went into Egypt (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 2:14) after the angel warned them to flee, and they went away to Galilee (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 2:22) upon their return after a similar such warning. Jesus departed from the synagogue (an-akh-o-reh’-o, 12:15) after becoming aware of a threat against him by the Pharisees. Later, after hearing that John has been killed, Jesus departed to a deserted place (an-akh-o-reh’-o,14:13) to be alone. Thus, the pericope’s opening verse is not simply a way to mark time, but it signals that John’s arrest is a dangerous situation for Jesus, and he must choose how to respond. There will come a time, later, to face such threats head-on (particularly when Jesus goes to Jerusalem prior to the crucifixion), but for now Jesus pulls away in order to carry out his ministry of proclamation in and around Galilee.
3. Jesus’ light is manifested among his followers.
Unlike the Gospel of John, Matthew does not identify Jesus as the light of the world. Nonetheless, the prophecy from Isaiah makes clear that Jesus’ return to Galilee will be the occasion for those who sit in darkness to see “a great light” (Matthew 4:16-17). No doubt Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing is the basis for that light. At the same time, however, as the gospel narrative proceeds, readers learn that it is the followers of Jesus who bear his light in the world by their own (collective) way of life. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the people, “You (plural) are the light of the world,. . . Let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Jesus’ proclamation that the realm (kingdom) of heaven has come near is the first flicker of a light that will grow and burn among his followers until they are able to “proclaim [it] from the housetops” (Matthew 10:27).
4. Jesus calls people as they are, from where they are, being who they are.
As Jesus walks beside the water, the soon-to-be-disciples are engaged in their everyday jobs: earning a living for themselves and their families by fishing in the Sea of Galilee. They are probably at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder; their work is dirty and physically challenging, and it demands their attention from sunup to sundown. Jesus does not seem to be bothered by their grimy fingernails, their wet and dirty clothing, not even by their low social status or lack of political power. The One with the kingly pedigree (see the birth narrative) does not demand that they shower up before joining his mission, nor does he ask questions about their education, their abilities, nor their availability for an extended time away from home.
To Simon and Andrew, Jesus promises to expand their skills: these men who cast nets for fish will one day catch people, instead. As for the sons of Zebedee, James and John, they receive only a call: no hints about what follows, no details about the mission, no promises of success. Remarkably, all four of these people, just as they are, follow after this stranger who interrupts their daily routine. All that is asked of them at this point is simply that they follow: as they are, from where they are, being who they are. As is true for the followers of Jesus who come after them, the meaning of their choice will unfold only over time.
5. God’s call invites and empowers choices.
Jesus might have preferred to stay in the Judean wilderness, where “the angels came and waited on him” (Matthew 4:11). When the news comes to him about John’s arrest, he makes a different choice, however, by withdrawing to Galilee, where he calls his first disciples, preaches the Sermon on the Mount, begins his ministry of healing, and teaches what it means to be the Messiah who is “God with us.” Those first disciples, for their part, might have preferred to keep their jobs, to remain with their families, to stay with the life that they knew. When they see Jesus and hear his words to them, they make a different choice, however; they take a risk, step out in faith, leave behind that which is comfortable and secure. They choose to follow Jesus.
1 See the discussion of these two uses of prophecy in Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 82-83.