Upon hearing of John the Baptist’s arrest, Jesus returns to minister in Galilee (Matt. 4:12). It is important to note that this is a “new phase” of ministry, for our Savior does not enter Galilee immediately after His baptism. According to John’s gospel, Jesus has already spent time ministering in Jerusalem and Judea after His baptism (1:29–42). In fact, the ministry of our Lord and His forerunner actually overlap (3:22–24), if only for a brief period.
When Jesus comes to Galilee, He settles in a small village on the northwest edge of the Sea of Galilee named Capernaum (Matt. 4:13). Matthew tells us this fulfills biblical prophecy, specifically the words of Isaiah 9:1–2, which the evangelist paraphrases in Matthew 4:15–16. The original setting of Isaiah’s text helps us understand how Christ fulfills this passage. Isaiah predicted that God would use the Assyrian empire as His rod to judge the northern kingdom of Israel (chap. 7–8), and as was foretold, Israel fell and the people were exiled over a period of many decades culminating in 722 b.c. (2 Kings 15:29; 17:7–23).
However, our Father also said this sad state of His people would not last forever. He said that He would raise up a Son of David who would restore the glory of the nation, beginning first with a restoration of joy in the north (Isa. 9:1–7). In some sense this began when the exiles returned to their land in 538 b.c., but the full restoration had to wait for the coming of the Christ. John Calvin comments, “The commencement of this light, and, as we might say, the dawn, was the return of the people from Babylon. At length, Christ, ‘the Sun of Righteousness’ (Mal. 4:2), arose in full splendor, and, by his coming, utterly ‘abolished’ (2 Tim. 1:10) the darkness of death.” Since Jesus is ministering in the north and bringing God’s light to a dark land, He must be the long-awaited Messiah who comes to restore His people. This is Matthew’s point in 4:12–17.
Scripture often uses light to refer to the knowledge of God and obedience to Him (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 4:18). As the light of the world (John 8:12), Jesus gives us true knowledge of our Creator (12:44–50) and frees us from sin’s oppression (Rom. 6:17–18), which makes us unable in and of ourselves to serve the Lord.
Today’s passage is a powerful example of God’s grace. Those who sit in darkness get to see the light, not those who think they are in the light already. Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous (Luke 5:32). This does not mean that there are some who are righteous in themselves. It means that He saves only those who confess their darkness and admit their need of His light. Do you understand your desperate situation apart from God’s grace?
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