Rev. VanderWal is pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, NJ.
The above-mentioned text presents an introduction to the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God incarnate. God has ordained Him for the work, by means of John’s baptism. Tempted by the devil, tried by God, He has demonstrated Himself equal to His weighty calling. Now His works must be recorded.
The place of this work of Jesus Christ, according to Matthew’s gospel account, is the region known as Galilee. Galilee was located to the north of Judea, with the region of Samaria intervening between the two.
One who was born and raised in the region of Judea would hold Galilee in a certain contempt. While Galilee was indeed Jewish, it was the backwaters of Jewry. That region was far from the center of the Jewish world. In Judea was the glorious city of Jerusalem, adorned with Herod’s temple, Jerusalem as the center of influence and culture. The elite of society would never think of living in Galilee. Galilee was in Jesus’ day the same as Isaiah identified it: of the Gentiles.
Such contempt was due in no small measure to the history of that northern region. It was the place of the apostate Northern Kingdom of Israel. Judea could claim that it had remained faithful under the house of David, and the region surely bore that stamp. Galilee, however, as Zebulon and Naphtali, had rebelled against the house of David, and placed itself under the apostate reign of Jeroboam. It was therefore, in Isaiah’s day, a land of darkness. It had also been a land of great affliction. When Jehovah visited affliction upon His people, that affliction came through the land settled by Zebulon and Naphtali. When Asa king of Judah sent to Benhadad for help because of the oppression of Baasha king of Israel, Benhadad brought the forces of Syria to trouble the cities of Naphtali, in Galilee (II Chron. 16:4). The war between Hazael, a later king of Syria, and Jehoahaz took place in the same region (II Kings 13:3, 7, in the light of II Kings 14:25-27). The captivity of the Northern Kingdom, under Tiglath-Pileser of Assyria, also began in Galilee (II Kings 15:29). The forces of Nebuchadnezzer, brought finally against Judah and Jerusalem, passed through Galilee on their way to Jerusalem (Jer. 1:14, 15).
In light of all this history, we can well understand why Judea would hold Galilee in such low esteem.
It was according to God’s good pleasure that such a region should be the center of our Lord’s earthly ministry. It was the fulfillment, again, of the Old Testament Scriptures. As Isaiah prophesied, so it was bound to come to pass. It was his word of comfort to those in that region, that light would arise in the darkness there. But, even more, it was a word of grace. Not in the so-called light of Judea or Jerusalem would the Lord have His earthly ministry, but in the darkness of the region of Galilee. The Lord will not call the righteous, but sinners into His kingdom.
This point gains ever further ground when we remember the identity of those whom Jesus called as His disciples: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They were the residents of this backwater region which sat in darkness. These four were typical of Galilee. They were not the intelligentsia of society. They were not of name or reputation. They wielded no power or influence in the halls of Herod’s temple or palace. They had no wealth, which, when properly applied, might accomplish great things. They were not students pursuing a “higher education.” After all, the exercise of the mind caught no fish, rowed no boats, mended no nets. Such pursuits would be, at most, a pleasant diversion, and, at least, an idle exercise leading away from the day’s work. We would identify them as the least likely candidates for disciples.
There is further contrast. There were others whom earthly wisdom would choose as superior. There was much in the way of learning in Judea, especially in the schools at Jerusalem. There boys were trained in their youth to be rabbis. They were filled, not just with earthly wisdom and learning, but also with the knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. They were taught the interpretation and the application of those Scriptures. The sects of the Pharisees and Saduccees, the Herodians, and farther away, the Essenes, all had their schools. There were plenty of men who had graduated from these schools. At the present, they functioned as teachers of the people. Among these we must number Gamaliel and his protégé Saul of Tarsus.
Earthly wisdom might choose those in political power. In Jerusalem the chief priests and the Sanhedrin had men of stature and power. They had influence with Herod and Pilate. They had a certain power over the people. With them, Jesus might find a way to win the whole nation of the Jews to His kingdom. If the learners would not become leaders, perhaps the leaders might become learners.
None of these did Jesus call as His disciples. They were not qualified. They were vessels already filled, saying nothing about the content. The fishermen of Galilee were qualified, not because of what they were, but because of what they were not. Here, too, is rich grace. Christ will make His own disciples. He will fill them with the treasures of His kingdom. His call demonstrates that preeminently. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Not: “I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” That call-not a condition-these four must follow. For that call follows the work of election in these four. As Jesus later told them, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” As with His choice, so His calling is efficacious. Of Simon and Andrew we read, “And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.” Of James and John we read, “And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.” They neither deliberated nor discussed. The call was compelling. As He had called them, so would He equip them.
With these four now called and following, Jesus proceeded to the work of His earthly ministry. The light must shine throughout Galilee, and even beyond, dispelling the darkness. In this darkest region the light first shines.
Matthew 4:23 gives the proper order of that shining, to the gathering of a great multitude. What we find noteworthy about that light is that it consists first of all in preaching, to which the miracles are subordinate. The work of Christ described by Matthew in verses 23-25 is the continuation of the words of verse 17. The work of John the Baptist is continued in Jesus’ teaching and preaching in the synagogues. The gospel of the kingdom is exactly that it is at hand. There can be no doubt of this. The public work of the forerunner is effectively finished, and the King Himself now takes up the labor. That the preaching of the gospel is itself light must be stated over against the healing acts of Christ. Those wondrous healings serve a subordinate purpose. It is important to understand that subordinate purpose in a definite order.
First, but least, those miracles serve the gospel of the kingdom by giving a picture of the work of the King. He indeed does bring healing, even miraculous healing, in various instances. The mention of all these different things signify that the power of this King is over all. There is nothing too difficult for Him. In this regard, however, they demonstrate the true healing that this King brings, even salvation from the death of sin. Citizens are not brought into the kingdom by any wonder of healing of any physical or psychological or emotional kind. They are not even brought into the kingdom by the casting out of a demon. It is the gospel of the kingdom that brings in its citizens. Where the wonder-working power of God accompanies the preaching, children of the devil’s kingdom are translated into the kingdom of the dear Son of God. There is the real wonder and the true healing.
Second, these miracles had the purpose of gathering a multitude about Jesus. Among the people, Jesus first healed. Then, after the fame of Him had gone out, those dwelling in Syria brought their sick and tormented to Him. Here is an amazing thing. If things were dark in Galilee of the Gentiles, things were certainly dark in Syria. Those living in the realm of the afflictors now bring their afflicted to the land of the afflicted, to have their afflictions removed by this King. No matter how great the affliction, the King healed them all. It is easy to understand why great multitudes would gather about Jesus.
Finally, these wonders sealed the King’s word as true. They signify, they draw, but to seal is their most important function. So many wonders prove that the King carries the authority of God. Therefore, when He preaches and when He teaches, it must carry all theforce and weight of God’s own Word. In order to understand this, we need only consider the bulk of the context. There are three chapters ahead that are all teaching and preaching the gospel of the kingdom. There we must see the true light that destroys the deepest darkness.
1. What things are omitted from this gospel account? How does this omission help us understand the particular emphasis of this account, especially in the light of the inspiration of Scripture? How do these inspired omissions draw attention to the continuity between John and Jesus?
3. What other reasons can you see for Jesus’ call of the four from their particular occupation? How would this underscore the observation made by the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 4:13? How must this observation continue on to the present?
4. Why are so many different afflictions mentioned in verse 24? What is the range and diversity of these as mentioned? What purpose might this range and diversity have in addressing the power of the King?
5. Great multitudes followed Christ, according to Matthew 5:25. Is the “success” of Jesus’ earthly ministry to be defined in terms of these multitudes? Its authority? Must the present church of Christ measure its success by the multitudes that follow? Take into account the subsequent history, especially the death of this King on the cross.