After being identified as the Son of God in the baptism account (3:13–17) and after proving what kind of Son of God he is (4:1–11), Jesus journeys from Judea to Galilee in order to begin his public ministry (4:12–17). In the course of this journey Jesus will call his core disciples (vv.18-22) and witness to his proclamation with powerful deeds (vv.23-25). His journey will cover the wilderness of Judea and the towns of Galilee.
But all this begins with the barest of comments: “When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” (v.12) The word used for arrest (paradidomi) almost becomes the technical term for Jesus’ “betrayal”. There are parallels between the fates of John and Jesus. At this point we do not know why John was arrested or by whom until (cf. 14:1-12.) Yet, his arrest strongly suggests that the powers from Jerusalem reacted negatively to his practice of baptism, his call for repentance, and the proclamation that the kingdom was upon them. The authorities must have not have shared the hope of the kingdom’s coming but that rather viewed it all as a threat. Jesus’ proclamation (v. 17) is exactly the same as John’s (3:2). It is not likely to go well for Jesus.
Preaching God’s Kingdom – 13 He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled:
Matthew is not introducing a travelogue for ancient Israel. It is in the context of his on-going fulfillment theme that we mentions these towns and specifically connects then to a citation from Isaiah 9:1-2 (see Mt 4:15-16). Matthew actually abbreviates text Isaian text which describes the land from the perspective of an 8th century BCE Assyrian invader. The results of that invasion truly made the area “Galilee of the Gentiles” (v.15) as successive movements of population had given it a predominantly Gentile population until a deliberate Judaizing policy was adopted by the Hasmonaean rulers (1st century BCE), resulting in a thoroughly mixed population. That such an area should be the place of revelation of the Jewish Messiah needed to be justified (cf. 2:23). Matthew sees the justification in Isaiah’s prediction of new light dawning in Galilee after the devastation caused by the Assyrian invasion.
Matthew has already cited Isaiah 7:14 in his Infancy Narrative, and now connects Isaiah’s “dawning light” with the birth of the divine child of Isa 9:6-7. It is in this context that Matthew points to Isa 9:1-2 to geographically locate the ministry of Jesus in Capernaum, located in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, thus having prophetic implications.
With his characteristic fulfillment formula Matthew introduces a quote from Isa 9:1–2. In its original context, Isaiah 7–9 promises deliverance from the threat of Assyria. Matthew has already connected the birth of Jesus with the sign promised to Ahaz (1:23; cf. Isa 7:14; 8:8, 10). Here he connects the political darkness facing Israel in the days of Isaiah to the spiritual problem that caused it. Israel’s defection from the Mosaic covenant had led to her oppression by other kingdoms. But for Matthew, Israel’s dark political prospects were symptomatic of her need for the redemption from sin that was now coming through Jesus the Messiah.
Matthew 4:12 withdrew to Galilee: Jesus made this journey when he learned that John had been imprisoned. “Withdrew” translates a word (anachōreō) used several times in Matthew to describe a strategic withdrawal in the face of danger (2:12–14, 22; 10:23; 12:15; 14:13; 15:21). The arrest and imprisonment of John led to his execution (14:1–12), which in turn led to another strategic withdrawal by Jesus (14:13). Perhaps these two withdrawals by Jesus anticipate the close connection made later between the fate of John and the fate of Jesus (17:12).
Matthew 4:13 Nazareth…Capernaum…Zebulun…Naphtali: Jesus’ first stop in Galilee was Nazareth, the village where he grew up (2:23). Matthew does not dwell on Nazareth (cf. Luke 4:16–30), preferring to stress Capernaum because its location has prophetic significance. Capernaum (cf. 8:5; 11:23; 17:24) is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, roughly two miles west of the Jordan River. Because Capernaum is not mentioned in the OT, Matthew stressed its location in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (cf. Josh 19:32–39); these two are mentioned in Isaiah 8:22- 9:2. The territory of these two tribes was the first to be devastated (733-32 B.C.) at the time of the Assyrian invasion.
Matthew 4:15 Galilee of the Gentiles: Galilee was looked down upon by the Jerusalem establishment and those who supported it. Its population was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles (2 Kgs 15:29; 17:24–27; 1 Macc 5). It was to this darkened place (cf. Ps 107:10; Luke 1:79) that Jesus brought the light of the Kingdom of God. His mission was not to the Gentiles during these early days of the Galilean ministry (9:35; 10:5–6; 15:24), although he did occasionally minister to Gentiles (8:5–13; 15:21–28). It seems, the Gentiles to whom Jesus ministered took the initiative to come to him, suggesting the applicability of Jesus’ message for all the nations (24:14). The beginnings of Jesus’ ministry in a remote, despised place, largely populated by Gentiles, foreshadows the expansion of mission to all the nations at the end of Jesus’ ministry (28:19).