Beginning of Public Ministry

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle A when our primary gospel source is from St. Matthew. Our gospel passage is placed after the heavenly voice has identified Jesus as the Son of God in whom He is well pleased in the baptism account (3:13–17). It also follows the text where Jesus proves what kind of Son of God he is during the temptations in the desert (4:1–11). In our passage Jesus journeys from Judea to Galilee in order to begin his public ministry (4:12–17). In the course of this journey Jesus will call his core disciples (vv.18-22) and witness to his proclamation with powerful deeds (vv.23-25).  His journey will cover the wilderness of Judea and the towns of Galilee. This begins with the barest of comments: “When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” (v.12) 

From the beginning of Matthew’s narrative up through the “temptation” in the desert (4:1-11) we have been introduced to Jesus of Nazareth, Israel’s Messiah and Son of God. A rich profusion of scriptural quotations and allusions has traced a variety of prophetic themes and connection, which as a whole, point to the coming of Jesus as the time of fulfillment of God’s desire and hopes for his people. Jesus has been marked as the one who will carry the work announced by John the Baptist into the era of judgment and salvation promised from of old by God.  It is here in our gospel reading that the stage is now set for the public ministry of Jesus to begin in earnest.

Following the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus began his own ministry in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, in the region of Capernaum (v.12). While the verse offers the “when” the simple verse does not explain the “why there?” Unlike Mark (Mark 1:14–15), Matthew feels obligated to explain in some detail why the Messiah should begin his public ministry in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem and Judea.

We know that, as Josephus tells us (Antiquities. 18:118), Herod Antipas saw the baptizing movement as a potential source of sedition. If Jesus had inherited that movement, then it is reasonable that Jesus would have been on Herod’s radar. But there is nothing to indicate that such succession was either real or planned. Would there be some risk in being associated with John the Baptist? Perhaps. What is clear is that Jesus “withdrew” from the south. “Withdrew” translates a word (anachōreō) used several times in Matthew and is associated with danger (see Mt 10:23; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21). There is something in Matthew’s use of “withdrew” that points to a “strategic” move. For example, seeing John’s ministry continuing in the South, Jesus focuses the kingdom message of repentance on the north of Israel closer to his home in Galilee.

Matthew uses geographical location to indicate not only change of scene, but also as an indicator of God’s will. As was the case when Matthew tells of the magi, Herod and the flight to Egypt, geography is explained in light of the Scriptures: Jesus’ Galilean ministry is in accord with the words of Isa 9:1–2, and thus in accord with God’s will.

12 When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,  the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16 the people who sit in darkness  have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death  light has arisen.” (Mt 4:12-16) We will explore the idea of geography/fulfillment in a later post.

Image credit: Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain

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