A Great Light: Matthew 4:12-17

the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.

Matthew 4:16 (NRSV)

Matthew has gone a little bit without an Old Testament quotation, so it’s about time to bring us back into his wheelhouse.

One interesting thing about this passage are the bits around it.  John the Baptist gets arrested, so Jesus flees to Galilee – about as far away from Jerusalem as you can get and still be in the region of Israel.  At the end of the passage, we see Jesus “from that time” proclaiming John the Baptist’s message.  This all seems to suggest that Jesus and John have been associates.  Perhaps they were a “ministry team.”  Perhaps even teacher and student.  For some reason, John’s arrest makes things unsafe for Jesus, and Jesus picks up John the Baptist’s message, so some kind of association seems to be present.

We also know from later texts that Jesus had a very good acquaintance with John that seems to imply a relationship beyond just the baptism episode.  In Matthew 11:11, Jesus says that “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”  In Matthew 17:13, after explaining to his disciples that Elijah had already come to prepare the way for the Son of Man, they understood that he was talking about John the Baptist.  Matthew also records the letter John sent from prison to Jesus in Matthew 11 and Jesus’ response.  Matthew doesn’t tell us any details about John’s relationship with Jesus other than the baptism, but these passages and Jesus’ activity in chapter 4 seem to indicate the two men were closely associated.

When Jesus flees to Galilee, he makes his home in a small fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Totally incognito.  But if his intent is purely to hide, he does a poor job of it by going around announcing John’s message.  That’s not very low profile.  So, while part of Jesus’ migration may be to let the heat die down from John’s arrest, part of it also suggests that he’s going to try to get the mission up and running from here – far from Jerusalem and the Pharisees and Sadducees.

This places him in lands traditionally thought to have been settled by the descendants of Zebulun and Naphtali – tribes of Israel.  This is gold for Matthew, who will take an episode from Israel’s history and use it to explain what’s happening in Jesus.

This word comes to us from Isaiah 9 as part of the larger event that begins with the birth of Immanuel.  The birth of this child is a sign that God will be with Israel (Judah, at this time) in her oppression by Assyria, and He will deliver her from them.  Isaiah 9 is a description of the king who will save Israel from Assyria, which is almost surely Hezekiah.  Although he certainly didn’t save Israel through massive military might, he did throw off Assyria’s authority and Assyria, despite a massive invasion, never took Judah back.  A number of religious and social reforms as well as an expansion of territory happened under Hezekiah.  So profound was his effect on the world at the time that he is one of the most well-attested Old Testament figures in the literature and artifacts of surrounding nations.

But whether Isaiah is talking about Hezekiah or not, the fact remains that this prophecy describes something very concrete – faithful Israel is about to be smoked by Assyria who is the power over them, but God is with His people and will stand against Assyria.  God used Assyria to judge the northern kingdom, but now He would judge Assyria.  And in the aftermath, even the regions He once judged in the north would be liberated.

So, here you have all the themes – a people of Israel that God once judged by allowing the oppressors to rule them will now overthrow those oppressors and liberate His people, and a mighty king will be a key instrument of this plan.

As he has done many times until now, Matthew takes this event from Israel’s history and uses it to explain Jesus, with one of those literal hooks he loves – Jesus is actually in the lands of the north.  That event reaches its zenith in what Jesus is going to accomplish by being the king who liberates his people from a corrupt Temple hierarchy and an oppressive Roman Empire.

Consider This

  1. From Isaiah’s point of view, the northern kingdom being conquered by Assyria and their deliverance from Assyria were both part of God’s plan for His people.  How do you think Isaiah was able to reconcile these things, knowing how terrible the Assyrian invasion and dominion was?
  2. Do you think God is just as in control of the bad things that happen to us as He is of the good things?  How do you reconcile that?  Does this give any more meaning to the difficult things?