12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17 ESV
Once again, it seems that Matthew fast-forwards his account of the life of Jesus, skipping over about a years worth of ministry. A comparison with John’s Gospel reveals that not long after His baptism and temptation, Jesus had made His way to Galilee (John 1:19-2:12), where He began His public ministry. But then He returned to Judea in order to attend the Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:13-3:21). John reveals that sometime after Passover, Jesus made His way into the Judean wilderness, where He performed baptisms, just as John had been doing.
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). – John 3:22-24 ESV
After this brief time in the Judean wilderness, Jesus and His disciples made their way through the region of Samaria, where Jesus encountered the woman at the well (John 3:22-4:42). It was after this that they returned to Galilee, and this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story.
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. – Matthew 4:12 ESV
It seems rather significant that Matthew would choose to begin His recounting of Jesus’ earthly ministry with the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest and imprisonment of this well-known cult figure would have been the talk of all Judea. If you recall, John had amassed quite a following.
Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:5-6 ESV
Even the religious leaders of the Jews had been showing up in the Judean wilderness, seeking to be baptized by John. So, his arrest would have caused quite a stir, especially when you consider the reasons behind it.
…it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. – Mark 6:17-20 ESV
This has all the trappings of a modern soap opera script. Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John had called him out on it in public. And while Herod had a healthy fear of John, Herodias wanted him silenced. So, Herod had him imprisoned. And this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story. But why?
The apostle John provides us with at least a partial answer, and he does so by relaying the words of John the Baptist himself.
At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. (This was before John was thrown into prison.) A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.”
John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:23-30 NLT
It’s unlikely that John the Baptist knew the prophetic nature of his words. He fully understood that Jesus was the Messiah and that his own role was subordinate and subservient. He knew his job had been to prepare the way for the anointed one. Yet, when John the Baptist found himself in jail and heard all that Jesus was doing, he seemed to have second thoughts or at least some doubts about Jesus’ actions.
John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Matthew 11:2-3 NLT
Perhaps John was a bit surprised and disappointed that Jesus was not displaying the characteristics of a Messiah. Like the rest of the Jews of his day, John may have been expecting a slightly more regal demeanor from the long-anticipated Messiah. But Jesus seemed to be doing the very same things John had done before His arrest. He was even preaching the very same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).
But the arrest of John the Baptist provided an immediate end to his ministry. He was removed from the scene, and his followers would now be forced to choose between following him or Jesus. John had performed his role faithfully and well. He had done what he had been sent to do. Now, the focus was shifting from the preparatory work of John the Baptist, who heralded the coming King, to the King Himself. The Messiah had come.
And Matthew records that this inaugural phase of Jesus’ ministry was accompanied by a change in ministry headquarters.
And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… – Matthew 4:12 ESV
Once again, Matthew wastes no time in linking the details of Jesus’ life with the Old Testament prophecies that told of a miraculous future for the nation of Israel. He picks up a key passage found in the writings of Isaiah and associates it with Jesus’ decision to relocate His ministry headquarters to Capernaum.
Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.
The people who walk in darkness
will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT
And the apostle John would recognize and relate this prophetic link between Jesus and the light.
The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9 NLT
And Jesus would pick up this theme, describing Himself in terms that reflect His understanding of His prophetic mission.
“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” – John 8:12 NLT
“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark.” – John 12:46 NLT
But Jesus provides a sobering assessment of the world’s response to His arrival.
“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” – John 3:19 NLT
The Light of the world had come, but the residents of the world preferred the darkness over the Light. And Jesus makes it clear that there will be those who will run from the Light out of fear of having their sins exposed. But there will be others who will find life in the Light invigorating and liberating.
All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:20 NLT
In a sense, John the Baptist’s light was fading. His job was complete, and now it was time for Jesus to shine. Even Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, had been given a Spirit-inspired insight into his son’s future role. At the news of his son’s birth, Zechariah had prophesied:
“And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.