We are studying Matthew 4:12-22 for Sunday, March 31 – our second look this quarter at Jesus’ calling of the disciples Simon [Peter], Andrew, James, and John. This time we’re looking at Matthew’s version of the story – which is very similar to Mark’s, but not identical! But, before we get to that, there’s a preface and introduction to Jesus’ preaching ministry (Matthew 4:12-17) – which includes a quotation very similar to Isaiah 9:1-2, but not identical! So looking into this lesson has involved a lot of flipping back and forth in the Bible … and here are my longer-than-usual study notes [with study questions here] to prove it:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Matthew 4:12(-22) picks up after Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan (3:13-17) and then spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness (4:1-11).

That all happens after the first part of Matthew’s gospel, featuring: the genealogy of “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1, 2-17), account of the annunciation to Joseph (1:18-25) and birth narrative featuring magi, along with the massacre of the innocents and flight into Egypt (all of Matthew 2), which ends up with Jesus making his home in Nazareth (Matthew 2:23).

Then there’s Matthew’s account of John the Baptist and his ministry (3:1-12). Probably significantly, John’s initial proclamation is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2) This is also going to be Jesus’ initial proclamation in Matthew 4:17.

Everything else in Matthew’s gospel follows the text we’re studying.

In other words: this text is where a big shift in focus takes place, and the narrative turns away from what might be considered “prologue” and turns towards the focus on Jesus’ ministry.

Capernaum was a small fishing village in Bible times; today it is the site of a beautiful 4th century synagogue ruin. Here is more on Capernaum, from Bible Odyssey. (From there, it’s one click to a nice article on fishing on the Sea of Galilee.)

The best map of the towns with context seems to be at Bible Hub, which shows Nazareth (a ways to the west and south), along with the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum (right on the lake) – and also shows Bethsaida, which figures prominently in the Gospel of John’s call narrative, off to the east. With all this flipping back and forth in the Bible, it’s nice to see all these places on one map. They seem near one another, but before cars were invented they may have felt less so. According to the ecotourism people at the Jesus Trail, at a suggested tourist rate of about 10 miles (16 km) a day, the 40 mile (65 km) hike from Nazareth to Capernaum makes a nice 4-day trip.

Zebulun and Naphthali, mentioned in vv13 and 15, are
(a) two of the sons of Jacob, aka Israel (for which, see Genesis 30, in particular verses 8 & 20);
(b) two of the 12 tribes of Israel that received allotments of tribal land in Israel – part of Naphthali’s eastern border was the Sea of Galilee [here’s a map]; so,
(c) regions of the “land of Israel,” more or less in “the north,” which would have included the western edge of the Sea of Galilee;
(d) lands that were annexed by the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser in 732 BCE with the defeat of what we think of as “the Northern Kingdom,” or “Israel” in contrast to “Judah.”

The New Oxford Annotated Bible notes that

the Assyrian provinces of Dur (Dor, the way of the sea), Gal’azu (Gilead, the land beyond the Jordan), and Magidu (Megiddo, Galilee of the nations), areas just south and west of Zebulun and Naphthali, were also carved out of Israel at this time.” (note on Isaiah 9:1)

In other words, the prophet Isaiah’s nearest contemporary reference for the prophecy in Isaiah 9:1-7 would have been to formerly Israelite lands that were being occupied by the Assyrians. By Jesus’ time, though, the Assyrians were long gone and the whole “land of Israel” was being occupied by Imperial Rome.

CLOSER READING: These verses really focus on Jesus, who does almost all of the action.

John – the one who was baptizing people, including Jesus, in chapter 3 – gets arrested. Literally, this is something like “turned over” or “given up,” and it will happen to Jesus in chapter 26.

The disciples are presented as doing some work, which they leave to follow Jesus in vv18-22, so they each get 3 verbs apiece.

The first thing Jesus does is withdraw to Galilee – maybe from the wilderness, or maybe from being on his way back to where John was baptizing – after he heard that John had been arrested. It suggests pulling back … we might wonder why?

He makes his home in Capernaum, which looks on a map like it would have been in the territory of Naphthali, if Naphthali still had any territory. As Matthew tells it, Jesus does this so that Isaiah’s prophetic words can be fulfilled. That might suggest that Jesus is doing this on purpose. Or that someone is.

He proceeds to begin proclaiming, saying, to walk, see, say, and call. Jesus is doing a lot of walking and talking. I have to wonder whether it is a complete coincidence that Matthew uses the verb for “walking” in v18 – what the Greek philosophers did while they were teaching – in contrast to Mark’s verb choice, translated “passed along,” at the corresponding point in his version of the story. Just have to wonder that.

According to the study Bibles, V14 is a “prophetic fulfillment formula,” of which there are 14 in Matthew, and of which this is number 7. So … right in the middle. Could it be relevant that Matthew has already counted off by 7’s and 14’s in his genealogy? I don’t know what it would mean, though. Maybe we should leave that for the numerologists.

The quotation that follows in vv15-16 is … almost exactly a quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2. It would be even closer if we had the Septuagint’s version of Isaiah instead of our modern Bibles. The Septuagint Isaiah uses the language of the “region and shadow of death” as Matthew does, instead of the NRSV Isaiah’s “deep darkness.”

Matthew is still the one who comes up with the people sitting in darkness, rather than “walking” or “living” in it, as they do in Septuagint Greek and English. (Jesus is the one who is walking and living in this region, now, in Matthew’s version. He does the “living” in v13, and the “walking” in v18.)

Matthew also cuts a few verbs from Isaiah 9:1, to make the place references into a kind of label, rather than quoting Isaiah’s “before and after” version. We might argue that he does not drastically change the sense of the text by doing that: in both Isaiah and Matthew, these places’ status is shifting from darkness to light. On the other hand, Matthew’s changes soften the sense that seems present in original Isaiah that Zebulun and Naphthali were purposely subjected to the darkness they were in.

Another possibly significant word change is Matthew’s use of risen (or, as NRSV says, “dawned” – because technically, yes, it is the kind of “rising” the sun does) in v16, as a synonym for “shined” in Hebrew and Septuagint Greek Isaiah. Because, really, should we think making a symbolic reference to resurrection in a story the climax of which is going to be Jesus’ resurrection, and changing the source text to do it, is just a literary accident?

Should we also suppose it is a literary accident that Matthew is quoting a portion of Isaiah that leads in to what Christians understand to be prophecy of the Messiah? I doubt that, too.

In other words: Matthew is using Isaiah here to make a big literary and theological point, right at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, and he evidently feels free to massage the source text a bit to bring that point into even clearer relief.

Jesus’ proclamation in v17 is identical to John’s in 3:2.

If we were first time readers, we might be asking ourselves what people need to “repent” of, and what Jesus means by “the kingdom of heaven.” If we did that, we might find that the rest of the gospel begins to answer that question …

Vv18-22 present two almost perfectly parallel episodes. Each involves two brothers – which Matthew emphasizes specifically, something Mark doesn’t do. (Why does he do this?)

In each case, the first brother is identified somehow – like we could be confused about “which Simon” or “which James.” This Simon is the one being called Peter; this James is literally the one of Zebedee. In each case, the other workman is his brother.

In each case, the pair of brothers is doing some kind of work. Peter and Andrew are
throwing a casting-net. James and John are mending nets – a more general word, evidently, although they still might be the same kind of nets. Each pair of brothers leaves what they’re working on or in or with when Jesus calls: the net, the boat, their father.

In each case, they follow Jesus.

In each case, they do this immediately (vv20, 22), as they do in Mark’s version of the story.

It looks to me like Jesus says to Simon and Andrew in v19, literally, “I will make you fishermen of human beings.” Or maybe fishers, if we want to be gender-inclusive. That is, it looks to me like the words of the VBS song “I will make you fishers of men” is closer to the text here than the NRSV use of a verb. [If I’m mistaken about this, perhaps a kindly koine Greek scholar passing by will let me know … that would be nice.]

That is, it looks to me like Jesus is offering to change the about-to-be disciples’ identity, something that they ARE, more than he is offering to change their activity, something that they DO.

Granted, in the end, it may amount to the same thing. Especially as Aristotle said, “we are what we repeatedly do.”

But … the kind of “making” that Jesus is offering to do in v19 is, as in Mark, that creative kind of “making” that people do when they make poems (a word that COMES FROM the Greek word Matthew is using here, poieō). Or dinner. It is not the kind of “making” that we use as a synonym for “causing” or “forcing” or “coercing.” And the end result of that kind of “making” Jesus is offering to do is something more like a work of art or craft. So, it feels to me like this could make a difference in the way we read this verse.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. 4th edition. Michael D. Coogan, Editor. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew