Galilee of the Gentiles

Matthew records that Jesus “withdrew” to Galilee to begin His public ministry there after He “heard that John had been delivered up” (Mt. 4:12). Matthew’s typically matter-of-fact style veils the truly remarkable character of Jesus’ withdrawal. Matthew has been presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the Seed of Abraham and Son of David (1:1, 16), Immanuel (1:23), the King of the Jews (2:2), God’s Son (2:15; 3:17; 4:3, 6), the One who baptizes with the Spirit and fire (3:11ff.) — in sum, as the fulfillment of all the Old Testament types and prophecies.

Yet, this Messiah spends a large part of His life in Galilee, Galilee of the Gentiles (4:15). The area known as Galilee was part of the land conquered under the leadership of Joshua, and was given to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. In the 8th century B.C., the land was invaded by the Assyrians, many of the inhabitants were taken into exile, and the region was repopulated with Gentiles. Despite an attempt in the second century B.C. to forcibly circumcise and convert the populace, it remained a religiously and ethnically mixed province. It was here that Jesus chose to concentrate at the beginning of His public ministry.

How could this be? Can anything good come out of Galilee? Matthew, writing as he apparently was for a Jewish audience, had to defend Jesus’ movements from the Old Testament Scriptures. He had to show that Jesus’ Galilean ministry itself was a fulfillment of prophecy. That is the purpose of Matthew’s quotation from Isaiah 9:1 in Matthew 4:15-16; these verses show that the Messiah was to be a light among the Gentiles of the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali.

But, as usual, Matthew’s use of the Old Testament raises difficult questions for the modern reader. True, Isaiah 9:1 mentions the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but Isaiah 9:1 does not say anything about the Messiah’s traveling and living in that region. This objection can be answered rather simply. The Messiah is, after all, the true light (Jn. 1:9), and was expected to be a light specifically to the Gentiles (Lk. 2:32). In addition, Isaiah is obviously looking ahead to the coming Messiah in 9:6-7. Messianic prophecy is never far from his mind. It is, therefore, appropriate for Matthew to use Isaiah’s prophecy to justify Jesus’ movements into the land of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Perhaps, however, we can establish a deeper connection between prophecy and fulfillment. A look at the context of Isaiah 9 reveals that it is first of all a prophecy of Israel’s deliverance from the Assyrian oppression. The Lord promises to break the yoke of the oppressor through a bloody battle. The birth of the Child is prophesied in connection with this battle; this Child would become a mighty warrior to deliver Israel from her oppressors.

What does this context have to do with Jesus’ ministry in Galilee? In what sense is Jesus’ withdrawal into Galilee the fulfillment of a prophecy about the deliverance of Israel from Assyria? In order to understand this connection, we need to recall the context in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ withdrawal took place immediately after His temptation (4:1-11). Jesus, the Last Adam and the True Israel, was victorious in His conflict with Satan. The temptation was the beginning of Jesus’ campaign to conquer the enemy of His people, to deliver them from the slavery that God had justly imposed upon them because of their sins. Thus, His withdrawal to Galilee follows on His triumph over the oppressor. Having dealt an initial defeat to Satan, Jesus went into Galilee to announce His victory, and the coming fulness of the kingdom. Jesus’ conquest of Satan was the reality of which the Lord’s conquest of Assyria was the dim shadow.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.