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Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002

See Back to Galilee (2012)


Galilean Ministry in Matthew

After the genealogy and birth in Matthew 1, the visit of the wise men, the escape to Egypt, and the massacre of the infants in Chapter 2, Joseph returns with Mary and the child Jesus from Egypt. Chapter 3 recounts the proclamation of John the Baptist and records the baptism of Jesus. In chapter 4, one reads of the temptation of Jesus to settle for safety and practical interests rather than commit to his dangerous mission. According to Matthew, Jesus leaves Nazareth and begins his ministry in Capernaum in fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah. Among the Gentiles, Jesus proclaims  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”  4.17). By the sea of Galilee, he begins to attract his followers Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John. The crowds begin to follow him:

23 Jesus  went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news † of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.  24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

What we know of the teaching of Jesus, we find recorded in large part in Matthew 5-7. Here are sounded the keynotes of a new age, an age in which the kingdom of God is achieved on earth within the heart open to divine activity.  The culmination of this kingdom remains, however, futuristic, subject to the limitations of spiritual understanding and commitment.  Few will presently enter that kingdom—only those meek of heart, pure, the peacemakers and merciful, those reviled and persecuted by the world, those hungering and thirsting after righteousness, those mourning and so reduced in spirit that only the kingdom of God remains for them. Such as these, Jesus says, God will make the salt and light of the world.  What cannot be said easily in words Jesus captures in simile and metaphor: such committed individuals are the very taste and sight of that which is spiritual. It simply is not true, Jesus urges, that his mission includes abolishing the law and the prophets; rather, he comes to fulfill, to live out that law and prophecy within his own body. For Jesus, the law is active rather than passive; commitment to it demands mind, soul, and spirit.  He is about more than superficial observance and ritual; what God demands is a living sacrifice.

So what about the rules, the “do’s and don’ts” so revered by the religious establishment?  Anger: be reconciled before you come for religious observance. Be subject to accusers, council, and judges.  Pay the last penny owed. Adultery: command your body parts before they wantonly err. Divorce: observe the laws and grant certificates, but divorce for unfaithfulness, unchastity, only.  Oaths: let your words be a simple yes or no. Retaliation: go beyond any boundaries you have set for yourself, turning yet another cheek when struck, giving more than the cloak that is taken from you, giving to beggars and not refusing borrowers. Love: you know the great commandments, to love God and neighbor; I tell you, love your enemy. To pattern yourself after God means to love perfectly as God does. Almsgiving: do it without expecting public applause. Prayer: pray to God and not an audience. Your Father in Heaven knows your need: recognize Him: My Father in heaven, your name is sacred to me. May the earth become as heaven with your will being done and your kingdom being established. Give me my basic needs: food, freedom from debt, trial, and evil. Teach me to forgive others so that I can be forgiven. Fasting: Don’t make a public show of yourself. Riches: don’t set your mind on the temporal wants of life.  Practical considerations require you to keep yourself healthy: if your eye takes in darkness, you will see darkness; seek then the light. Worry.  Why let it consume you?  How much do you need—life, food, clothes.  All the worry in the world will add nothing of any of these.  Work for the kingdom of God, not perishable things. Remember for all your worrying, “tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (34). Judging others: look at yourself first to find the log in your own eye compared to the speck in that of your neighbor’s. Observing the sacred: don’t reduce it to commonality, to be mauled by dogs and stumped by swine. Questing: ask, search, knock; God hears His children. Interacting with others: whatever you want for yourself, do it first for them. Travel: enter through the gate admitting few, the road less traveled; the way to God is not the way of the crowd.  Truth: watch for actions and results.  Self-deception: to enter the kingdom of God, you must do what is the will of your Father. The works of most people have foundations in sand; see that you build upon the rock.

Chapters 8 and 9 record the activities of Jesus. Whatever else one reads in Matthew, the remarkable balancing is that of contemplation (teachings) and works (activities).  Jesus mediates between the two great extremes of human life: inactivity and activity, reflection and action, thinking and doing; this must be, among other arguments, why Jesus continues to be par exempla the ideal human being at the same time he must be seen as God’s revelation, God incarnate.   At Peter’s house, Jesus heals the unclean and distanced leper, the centurion’s servant, and, in doing so, attracts “would-be” followers.  These “would-be” followers commit early and passionately, but fall away, good seed sown upon shallow ground.  When pressed, each has an excusable excuse… “my father died…, I must bury him.”  Jesus knows that the pressing urgency of the kingdom is to leave the pressing needs of the routine and immediate, to forego the comfortable and routine.  Jesus knows that his mission sets him apart from all that is worldly, that his very presence torments all that is not committed to realizing God’s perfect kingdom.  Everything that opposes him must set itself apart as opposite: 29 Suddenly they shouted, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”  30 Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them.  31 The demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.”  32

How understandable that the disciples of  Jesus, “would-be, true” followers would pray, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”  26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (25) or that Jesus should get up and rebuke the winds and the sea to a dead calm, or that his disciples should be   27 amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

Chapter 10 again picks up the teachings, records Jesus’ thinking concerning John the Baptist, and records a prayer of thanks to God. More importantly, though, this chapter serves as a transition from mission declared to mission understood.  In chapter 12, Jesus calls his true followers, the disciples, to himself.  At this point, he has twelve assembled: These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;  3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; †  4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. They are assigned responsibly to the narrow mission of the one they follow: they are to go to the Jews and not the Gentiles. They are to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. Jesus, as he works in Galilee, is very much a man within his culture and religious traditions; he is Jewish.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,  6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ †  8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, † cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.  9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts,  10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.  11 Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave.  12 As you enter the house, greet it.  13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.  15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town

Jesus knows his disciples will be accepted no better than he himself has been, so he warns them that they go as sheep in the midst of wolves, that they will be torn apart, handed over to the courts and flogged, that their actions and commitments will set them apart from their own families, and that they will be put to death for their commitments. Jesus reminds them that they will be treated no better than the one they have followed, that if he has been called “Beelzebub,” they will be known as followers of Beelzebub.  Still, Jesus instructs his disciples, you are not to fear: the only ultimate denial or rejection is that of God.  The kingdom of God, in fact, demands a separation:

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

11 For I have come to set a man against his father,

and a daughter against her mother,

and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

11 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and ; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

The reward promised is not temporal: whoever is rewarded least will receive, in the end, the greatest of recognitions, 40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

Chapter 12 again focuses on the actions and teachings of Jesus, with a series of parables. He returns to his hometown Nazareth and is rejected by his family. The reaction here makes quite clear the truth that an individual is often reduced by familiarity and routine into a complacency on the part of those about him:

54 He came to his hometown and began to teach the people † in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power?  55 Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”  57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”  58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.

Jesus is plagued by the demands of religious ritual.  The “do not’s” include not working on the Sabbath, and Jesus reminds his taunters that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.

You’re well versed in the scripture, he tells those gathered about him; well, recall, 3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  4 He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless?

Jesus signals immediately that his mission takes him beyond the letter of the law, beyond study into practice:

s to eat, but only for the priests.  5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless?  6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.  8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

He points to the truth that the temple, foretold by Jeremiah, is not the seat of God; rather than ritual sacrifice, God demands mercy and forgiveness.  In fact, the mortal Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.  That is, the temple is itself seated within the human heart, and spirit prevails over ritual. Too long, the temple has been a place of exclusivity, particularly for Gentiles and for women.

  Is Jesus the servant of God or Beelzebub? After curing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, Jesus is taken to task about his mission,

whether it is of God or Beelzebub. Are you the one prophesied, Jesus reminded his accusers of Isaiah:

11   “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,

my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.

I will put my Spirit upon him,

and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

11 He will not wrangle or cry aloud,

nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

11 He will not break a bruised reed

or quench a smoldering wick

until he brings justice to victory.

21  And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Whatever else Jesus see or thinks of himself at this point, he is, in fact, servant of God, chosen, beloved, and God is pleased with him, proclaiming justice to anyone who will listen, broken by those who will not hear his voice, but steadfastly committed to bringing justice and victory so that even the lost in his name will eventually find hope.  Or, is Jesus Beelzebub?  Jesus replies to this simple accusation that an individual should be known by his actions.  Is he performing the works of the servant of God or the servant of Beelzebub? He heals a demoniac: is it by the power of God or Beelzebub? Jesus, convinced and true to his mission, reads the questions within the hearts of those who doubt him and replies:

 25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.  26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?  27 If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your own exorcists † cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.  28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.

At no time does Jesus lose the focus of his mission: the kingdom of God come.

In Chapter 14, the death of John the Baptist is sandwiched between the continuing actions of Jesus, the feeding of five thousand, and Jesus’ walking on water, and continued healing of the sick on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This recounting of actions continues in Chapter 15 with Jesus being reminded that he is breaking with the traditions of the elders, and reminding those who accuse that for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word † of God” (15.6). In contrast to the ritual washings for cleanliness, Jesus reminds his accusers that what is inward defiles:

“Are you also still without understanding?  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?  18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 

19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

This chapter importantly includes the record of Jesus’ responding to a Gentile woman’s faith; while his mission is to his own people, this episode makes clear that Jesus encourages the rewarding of faith wherever it is found. He continues with his cures around the Sea of Galilee and feeds four thousand.

As Jesus continues his teaching, he is beset by the traditionally religious Sadducees and Pharisees who continue to ask for physical signs to mark his mission as authentic. Jesus tells them the only sign they will see is the sign of Jonah.  One simply has to read into this the mission of Jonah, the meaning of his name as dove, and the symbol of the dove at the baptism of Jesus.  Jesus is concentrating at this point on what he has committed to as the mission of his life: the realization of God in the present kingdom of the world. This spiritual meaning, the religious miss altogether, thinking Jesus is talking of ordinary bread when he says to beware of the stirrings-up by the religious establishment.  Peter, it would seem, begins to understand divine workings, for when he is asked who Jesus is, he replies “the Messiah.”  Did Peter mean the traditionally expected Messiah, or did he see spiritually and proclaim that Jesus was Messiah in spirit. Upon this rock of faith, Peter is told, Jesus will build his church.  The Old Testament has consistently spoken of faith as a rock. This faith, however, it would seem is short-lived, for when Jesus confides to Peter that he will suffer and be killed, then rise again, for his mission, Peter rebukes the Messiah for even thinking such a thing.  Peter clearly is thinking of the grand destiny proclaimed in the Jewish faith, but Jesus sees in it a temptation, “for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (23). Jesus tells his disciples they must reverse their thinking, that to save a life is to lose it, to lose a life is to save it.  If they are to understand his teachings about the kingdom, Jesus confides to his disciples, 28 “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (28). A literal, rather than spiritual, expectation, of course, causes much difficulty for the church evolving after the physical death of Jesus.

Six days after Peter has confessed that he sees Jesus as embodying  Messiah, he, James, and John witness the transfiguration of their spiritual leader. On the 19,000 foot high Mount Hermon, the disciples hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved; † with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  (6).  One could easily title this story “Dizziness on the Mountain.”  Exactly what the disciples saw and heard, they alone are testimony to, but what the reader gleans from the record is that they conclude from their conversation with Jesus that John the Baptist had been the expected Elijah and that Jesus himself is to be regarded as the Son of Man. One should recall that Ezekiel’s famous “O Mortal” conveys closely this title Son of Man. Ezekiel carries the heavy burden of having to warn his people of oncoming judgment.

The capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. was a decisive factor in Ezekiel’s ministry. The oracles of warning (Ezekiel 1–24) are to be dated before the fall of Jerusalem. The oracles of hope (Ezekiel 33–48) belong after the fall of Jerusalem. The oracles against the foreign nations (Ezekiel 25–32) belong to the middle period of Ezekiel’s ministry (587 to 585 b.c.; but Ezekiel 29.17–21 dates from 571 b.c.). (Oxford Notes to Daniel). 

Following this revelation, Jesus continues his activities by healing a man with a demon, an act the disciples have not been able to accomplish, due to weak faith.  Jesus reminds them of the tiny mustard seed that grows into a prolific and fertile plant, a concrete picture of what their faith could become.  That, however, divine activity does not fully release them from human constraints, Jesus points out by paying the temple tax, even if by the non-routine performance of doing so with a coin from the mouth of a fish. In short, the provision supplying the physical need is spiritual.

Still enroute to Jerusalem, Jesus continues to instruct his disciples, telling them that greatness comes only when the recipient is humbled, that stumbling in faith is not only something the individual must guard against in himself but also from causing others around to falter. He also explains that the desire of God is that no one be lost, that rejoicing occurs always when one lost one returns to faith. When, however, any offense is against the individual, Jesus explains in Jewish fashion that two witnesses are needed to make the case. Still, the ideal is that one forgive seventy times seven if the occasion calls for it.  In fact, Jesus tells his disciples, the very principle of justice itself calls for forgiveness: 35 “O my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister † from your heart.”

With two chapters to go before Jesus enters into Jerusalem, Matthew keeps Jesus teaching and acting. As Jesus has left Galilee for the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, he has attracted a crowd of followers. The Pharisees ask him about divorce, and Jesus reminds them that only the hardness of the individual heart necessitates the law.  “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery”  (9). Marriage is consistently used in Scripture to picture an ideal unity. Jesus is clear with his disciples that ideally, one is to marry: 10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”  11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.  12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

Jesus then reminds his disciples that those with the trusting faith of children make up the kingdom of heaven and that, sometimes, it is the very accumulations of a lifetime that prevent one from becoming part of that spiritual kingdom.

Just before entering Jerusalem, Matthew has Jesus again foretell his growing and foreboding sense of impending doom in Jerusalem, his sense that he will be condemned to death, and probably even the despicable Roman-imposed hanging on a cross.  He insists, however, that death will have no hold over him and that, by the third day, he will have proven himself victorious to bodily death.  How disappointed he must be by the continuing clamoring of his disciples about who is greatest in the temporal world. Jesus reminds them of the paradox that 16 “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  This same section, as written about by Matthew, teaches that the roles of slave and the great must also be reversed.  In short, Jesus is telling his disciples that God does not recognize or reward in degrees. God, as God, is allowed to do what He will do, apart from human constraints.  The servant in the kingdom of God for only a short time will be rewarded with a full day’s pay.

In reflecting upon Jesus’ Galilean ministry, the reader will recognize that clear differences between Mark and Matthew exist in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus and in the fuller account by Matthew of the sayings and works of Jesus.  Matthew is twice as long as Mark in everything but conciseness. What in Mark is reduced to a pithy saying in Matthew is rounded out into full teaching.  Matthew is the writer who clearly shows his readers that they who would understand the spiritual kingdom must read on two levels at once—and thus, he introduces the parable, an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.

See Mission to Galilee in Luke.