We have here an account of Christ’s preaching in the synagogues of Galilee, for he came into the world to be a Preacher; the great salvation which he wrought out, he himself began to publish (Heb. 2:3) to show how much his heart was upon it, and ours should be.
Several passages in the other gospels, especially in that of St. John, are supposed, in the order of the story of Christ’s life, to intervene between his temptation and his preaching in Galilee. His first appearance after his temptation, was when John Baptist pointed to him, saying, Behold the Lamb of God, John 1:29. After that, he went up to Jerusalem, to the passover (John 2:12-25), discoursed with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), with the woman of Samaria (John 4:1-42), and then returned into Galilee, and preached there. But Matthew, having had his residence in Galilee, begins his story of Christ’s public ministry with his preaching there, which here we have an account of. Observe,
I. The time; When Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, then he went into Galilee, Matt. 4:12. Note, The cry of the saints’ sufferings comes up into the ears of the Lord Jesus. If John be cast into prison, Jesus hears it, takes cognizance of it, and steers his course accordingly: he remembers the bonds and afflictions that abide his people. Observe, 1. Christ did not go into the country, till he heard of John’s imprisonment; for he must have time given him to prepare the way of the Lord, before the Lord himself appear. Providence wisely ordered it, that John should be eclipsed before Christ shone forth; otherwise the minds of people would have been distracted between the two; one would have said, I am of John, and another, I am of Jesus. John must be Christ’s harbinger, but not his rival. The moon and stars are lost when the sun rises. John had done his work by the baptism of repentance, and then he was laid aside. The witnesses were slain when they had finished their testimony, and not before, Rev. 11:7. 2. He did go into the country as soon as he heard of John’s imprisonment; not only to provide for his own safety, knowing that the Pharisees in Judea were as much enemies to him as Herod was to John, but to supply the want of John Baptist, and to build upon the good foundation he had laid. Note, God will not leave himself without witness, nor his church without guides; when he removes one useful instrument, he can raise up another, for he has the residue of the Spirit, and he will do it, if he has work to do. Moses my servant is dead, John is cast into prison; now, therefore, Joshua, arise; Jesus, arise.
II. The place where he preached; in Galilee, a remote part of the country, that lay furthest from Jerusalem, as was there looked upon with contempt, as rude and boorish. The inhabitants of that country were reckoned stout men, fit for soldiers, but not polite men, or fit for scholars. Thither Christ went, there he set up the standard of his gospel; and in this, as in other things, he humbled himself. Observe,
1. The particular city he chose for his residence; not Nazareth, where he had been bred up; no, he left Nazareth; particular notice is taken of that, Matt. 4:13. And with good reason did he leave Nazareth; for the men of that city thrust him out from among them, Luke 4:29. He made them his first, and a very fair, offer of his service, but they rejected him and his doctrine, and were filled with indignation at him and it; and therefore he left Nazareth, and shook off the dust of his feet for a testimony against those there, who would not have him to teach them. Nazareth was the first place that refused Christ, and was therefore refused by him. Note, It is just with God, to take the gospel and the means of grace from those that slight them, and thrust them away. Christ will not stay long where he is not welcome. Unhappy Nazareth! If thou hadst known in this thy day the things that belong to thy peace, how well had it been for thee! But now they are hid from thine eyes.
But he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which was a city of Galilee, but many miles distant from Nazareth, a great city and of much resort. It is said here to be on the sea coast, not the great sea, but the sea of Tiberias, an inland water, called also the lake of Gennesaret. Close by the falling of Jordan into the sea stood Capernaum, in the tribe of Naphtali, but bordering upon Zebulun; hither Christ came, and here he dwelt. Some think that his father Joseph had a habitation here, others that he took a house or lodgings at least; and some think it more than probable, that he dwelt in the house of Simon Peter; however, here he fixed not constantly, for he went about doing good; but this was for some time his head quarters: what little rest he had, was here; here he had a place, though not a place of his own, to lay his head on. And at Capernaum, it should seem, he was welcome, and met with better entertainment than he had at Nazareth. Note, If some reject Christ, yet others will receive him, and bid him welcome. Capernaum is glad of Nazareth’s leavings. If Christ’s own countrymen be not gathered, yet he will be glorious. “And thou, Capernaum, has now a day of it; thou art now lifted up to heaven; be wise for thyself, and know the time of thy visitation.”
2. The prophecy that was fulfilled is this, Matt. 4:14-16. It is quoted from Isa. 9:1, 2, but with some variation. The prophet in that place is foretelling a greater darkness of affliction to befal the contemners of Immanuel, than befel the countries there mentioned, either in their first captivity under Benhadad, which was but light (1 Kgs. 15:20), or in their second captivity under the Assyrian, which was much heavier, 2 Kgs. 15:29. The punishment of the Jewish nation for rejecting the gospel should be sorer than either (see Isa. 8:21, 22); for those captivated places had some reviving in their bondage, and saw a great light again, Matt. 9:2. This is Isaiah’s sense; but the Scripture has many fulfillings; and the evangelist here takes only the latter clause, which speaks of the return of the light of liberty and prosperity to those countries that had been in the darkness of captivity, and applies it to the appearing of the gospel among them.
The places are spoken of, Matt. 4:15. The land of Zebulun is rightly said to be by the sea coast, for Zebulun was a haven of ships, and rejoiced in her going out, Gen. 49:13; Deut. 33:18. Of Naphtali, it had been said, that he should give goodly words (Gen. 49:21), and should be satisfied with favour (Deut. 33:23), for from him began the gospel; goodly words indeed, and such as bring to a soul God’s satisfying favour. The country beyond Jordan is mentioned likewise, for there we sometimes find Christ preaching, and Galilee of the Gentiles, the upper Galilee to which the Gentiles resorted for traffic, and where they were mingled with the Jews; which intimates a kindness in reserve for the poor Gentiles. When Christ came to Capernaum, the gospel came to all those places round about; such diffusive influences did the Sun of righteousness cast.
Now, concerning the inhabitants of these places, observe, (1.) The posture they were in before the gospel came among them (Matt. 4:16); they were in darkness. Note, Those that are without Christ, are in the dark, nay, they are darkness itself; as the darkness that was upon the face of the deep. Nay, they were in the region and shadow of death; which denotes not only great darkness, as the grave is a land of darkness, but great danger. A man that is desperately sick, and not likely to recover, is in the valley of the shadow of death, though not quite dead; so the poor people were on the borders of damnation, though not yet damned-dead in law. And, which is worst of all, they were sitting in this condition. Sitting in a continuing posture; where we sit, we mean to stay; they were in the dark, and likely to be so, despairing to find the way out. And it is a contented posture; they were in the dark, and they loved darkness, they chose it rather than light; they were willingly ignorant. Their condition was sad; it is still the condition of many great and mighty nations, which are to be thought of, and prayed for, with pity. But their condition is more sad, who sit in darkness in the midst of gospel-light. He that is in the dark because it is night, may be sure that the sun will shortly arise; but he that is in the dark because he is blind, will not so soon have his eyes opened. We have the light, but what will that avail us, if we be not the light in the Lord? (2.) The privilege they enjoyed, when Christ and his gospel came among them; it was as great a reviving as ever light was to a benighted traveller. Note, When the gospel comes, light comes; when it comes to any place, when it comes to any soul, it makes day there, John 3:19; Luke 1:78, 79. Light is discovering, it is directing; so is the gospel.
It is a great light; denoting the clearness and evidence of gospel-revelations; not like the light of a candle, but the light of the sun when he goes forth in his strength. Great in comparison with the light of the law, the shadows of which were now done away. It is a great light, for it discovers great things and of vast consequence; it will last long, and spread far. And it is a growing light, intimated in that word, It is sprung up. It was but spring of day with them; now the day dawned, which afterward shone more and more. The gospel-kingdom, like a grain of mustard-seed or the morning light, was small in its beginnings, gradual in its growth, but great in its perfection.
Observe, the light sprang up to them; they did not go to seek it, but were prevented with the blessings of this goodness. It came upon them ere they were aware, at the time appointed, by the disposal of him who commandeth the morning, and causes the day-spring to know its place, that it may take hold of the ends of the earth, Job 38:12, 13.
III. The text he preached upon (Matt. 4:17): From that time, that is, from the time of his coming into Galilee, into the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, from that time, he began to preach. He had been preaching, before this, in Judea, and had made and baptized many disciples (John 4:1); but his preaching was no so public and constant as now it began to be. The work of the ministry is so great and awful, that it is fit to be entered upon by steps and gradual advances.
The subject which Christ dwelt upon now in his preaching (and it was indeed the sum and substance of all his preaching), was the very same John has preached upon (Matt. 3:2); Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; for the gospel is the same for substance under various dispensations; the commands the same, and the reasons to enforce them the same; an angel from heaven dares not preach any other gospel (Gal. 1:8), and will preach this, for it is the everlasting gospel. Fear God, and, by repentance, give honour to him, Rev. 14:6, 7. Christ put a great respect upon John’s ministry, when he preached to the same purport that John had preached before him. By this he showed that John was his messenger and ambassador; for when he brought the errand himself, it was the same that he had sent by him. Thus did God confirm the word of his messenger, Isa. 44:26. The Son came on the same errand that the servants came on (Matt. 21:37), to seek fruit, fruits meet for repentance. Christ had lain in the bosom of the Father, and could have preached sublime notions of divine and heavenly things, that should have alarmed and amused the learned world, but he pitches upon this old, plain text, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. [1.] This he preached first upon; he began with this. Ministers must not be ambitious of broaching new opinions, framing new schemes, or coining new expressions, but must content themselves with plain, practical things, with the word that is nigh us, even in our mouth, and in our heart. We need not go up to heaven, nor down to the deep, for matter or language in our preaching. As John prepared Christ’s way, so Christ prepared his own, and made way for the further discoveries he designed, with the doctrine of repentance. If any man will do this part of his will, he shall know more of his doctrine, John 7:17. [2.] This is preached often upon; wherever he went, this was his subject, and neither he nor his followers ever reckoned it worn threadbare, as those would have done, that have itching ears, and are fond of novelty and variety more than that which is truly edifying. Note, That which has been preached and heard before, may yet very profitably be preached and heard again; but then it should be preached and heard better, and with new affections; what Paul had said before, he said again, weeping, Phil. 3:1, 18. [3.] This he preached as gospel; “Repent, review your ways, and return to yourselves.” Note, The doctrine of repentance is right gospel-doctrine. Not only the austere Baptist, who was looked upon as a melancholy, morose man, but the sweet and gracious Jesus, whose lips dropped as a honey-comb, preached repentance; for it is an unspeakable privilege that room is left for repentance. [4.] The reason is still the same; The kingdom of heaven is at hand; for it was not reckoned to be fully come, till that pouring out of the Spirit after Christ’s ascension. John had preached the kingdom of heaven at hand above a year before this; but now it was so much the stronger; now is the salvation nearer, Rom. 13:11. We should be so much the more quickened to our duty, as we see the day approaching, Heb. 10:25.