Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23

Mat 4:12  And when Jesus had heard that John was delivered up, he retired into Galilee:

“And, when Jesus had heard that John was delivered up,” handed over to Herod by the Pharisees, from a feeling of jealousy, on account of the Baptist’s influence and character among the people, and cast into prison by Herod out of pique, and from a feeling of personal offence, in consequence of the Baptist, reproaching him for his incestuous, adulterous connexion, with the wife of his brother Philip. The Evangelist refers here, by anticipation, to the Baptist’s imprisonment, which he describes in its several details and circumstances, (14:3, &c.)

It is also to be borne in mind, that the events recorded here did not occur immediately after the temptation. St. Matthew, as well as St. Mark and St. Luke, omits several incidents in our Lord’s early missionary life recorded by St. John (1, 2, 3, 4), such as the embassy of the Jews to the Baptist (John 1); also the sending by John to Christ to inquire if He were the Messiah (11); the miracle of Cana; the expulsion of the buyers and sellers from the temple; the conversation with Nicodemus, &c. Hence, St. Matthew dates the history of our Lord’s public mission from the incarceration of the Baptist. Before this event, our Lord left to His precursor the great duty of preaching, although He had Himself engaged in the ministry of baptizing. But after John’s imprisonment our Lord commences, as the sun following the day star, to preach publicly and solemnly. Our Lord, in order to avoid being delivered over to Herod—“His hour having not yet come”—retired into Galilee, to commence His preaching there, and thus fulfil the oracle issued regarding Him (15, 16); and by commencing to preach His Gospel in the most obscure and contemptible province of the whole kingdom, He wished to show that His success was solely the work of God, and not to be ascribed to human or worldly influences.

But why retire into Galilee to avoid Herod, as this Herod Antipas, or Antipater, son of the infanticide Herod the Great, was Tetrarch, not of Judea, but of Galilee? Was he not putting himself directly in his power? In reply, some say, that it was by the Scribes and Pharisees, who possessed great influence in Judea, the Baptist was, out of envy and malice, delivered up to Herod, whom they knew to have a strong, personal feeling against him; and Herod, under the pretext of a dread of revolution and public disturbance, probably, feigned at the suggestion of the Scribes, put him to death; for, it seems, they had a hand in the Baptist’s death (17:12). Hence, our Redeemer, to avoid being delivered over by them to Herod, with whom, being by religion a Jew, they had great influence, retired into Galilee from Judea. He had no fear of Herod, to whom, unlike the Baptist, He had given no cause for personal offence. While in Judea, the Roman Governor had direct jurisdiction over him. It is most likely, that it was with his own connivance, the Pharisees handed over John to Herod.

Others, with Maldonatus, say, that it was to Upper Galilee, or Galilee of the Gentiles, which was outside Herod’s jurisdiction, He retired. His native place, Nazareth, was in Lower Galilee, and subject to Herod. Here there is question of His second return from Judea to Galilee, and is the same as that mentioned (Mark 1:14; Luke 4:14; John 4:3–43). The first is recorded (John 1:43).

Mat 4:13  And leaving the city Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capharnaum on the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and of Nephthalim;

“And leaving” that is, passing by, declining to enter “the city, Nazareth,” or dwell there. Our Lord did not wish to begin His mission in Nazareth, for the reason assigned (John 4:44); and, moreover, He wished to verify the prophecies regarding Him.

“Capharnaum,” situated in Upper Galilee, on the north-western side of the Lake of Genesareth. There was a great concourse there of Jews and Gentiles, engaged in traffic, and it suited as a good place for preaching the Gospel. There were two Galilees; Lower Galilee, situated on the south-western side of the Lake of Genesareth, and Upper Galilee, called also “Galilee of the Gentiles,” because bordering on Phœnicia, it was inhabited by many Gentiles as well as Jews. Capharnaum was the dwelling-place of our Lord and of His disciples; hence, called “His own city” (9:1). It was conveniently situated, for the purposes of our Lord’s missionary excursions, into the districts of Lower Galilee also; and being the chief town of Upper Galilee, and a great emporium of traffic, to which strangers flocked in crowds for commercial purposes, from all quarters, it was a fit place for giving extensive circulation to our Redeemer’s works and teachings, and diffusing, far and wide, the light of the Gospel among Jews and Gentiles. Here, our Redeemer performed several miracles—healed the paralytic (Matt. 9:2); restored sight to two blind men; healed the mute demoniac (Mark 1:21–28); cured the Centurion’s servant (Luke 7); cured the woman suffering from an issue of blood; raised to life Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:25); cured Peter’s mother-in-law; miraculously procured the tribute money, &c. But, as the people of this city, thus favoured, were deaf to the calls of heaven, being addicted to the pursuit of gain and pleasure, and abused such signal graces; hence, our Lord’s unsparing denunciations of them (11:23).

“On the sea coast.” The Sea of Tiberias, or of Galilee.

“In the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim.” It was situated in the tribe of Nephthali, near where, at its southern part, it meets the eastern part of Zabulon, in Lower Galilee.

Mat 4:14  That it might be fulfilled which was said by Isaias the prophet:

“That it might be fulfilled,” &c. Our Lord preached in this district, so that, from His doing so, the prophecy of Isaias, in following verse, would be fulfilled.

Mat 4:15  Land of Zabulon and land of Nephthalim, the way of the sea beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles:

“The land of Zabulon,” &c., that is, the portion of the land assigned, in the distribution of Palestine, to the tribes of Zabulon and Nephthali.

“The way of the sea,” that is, through these districts lies the great high road, by which the merchants and travellers from the Eastern countries, reach the great city of Tyre, and the Mediterranean “Sea,” here referred to.

“Beyond the Jordan,” which conducts from the East to the country beyond the Jordan. “Beyond,” is said relatively to those living Eastward, especially the Assyrians, to whom, in its literal and primary signification, the prophecy refers. Relatively to the greater portion of the Jewish, people, it was, this side, of the Jordan, cis Jordanem.

Maldonatus thus explains it. He says—The Jews, when coming up from Egypt, spoke of the country, which most of them were to occupy, as, trans Jordanem, as it really is, relatively to those coming up from Egypt; and when they were in possession of it, and lived in the country, they retained the same phraseology, and still called it trans Jordanem, although for them, it was, cis Jordanem.

Others understand “the sea,” to refer to the Sea of Galilee or Tiberias, on the borders of which Capharnaum was situated; and “the way of the sea,” to the district or country on the sea, situated on the off-side of the Jordan. “The way of the sea,” is read in the accusative in Greek (ὄδον της θαλασσης). The Hebrew of Isaias (9:1) may be read nominatively, and so would be interpreted, as in apposition with “land of Zabulon,” &c., with a conjunction “(and) the way of the sea,” as if it referred to the other maritime districts—Capharnaum, Tiberias, Bethsaida.

“Galilee of the Gentiles,” called also by this name for the reasons assigned (v. 13). “Capharnaum” is said, by the Evangelist, in verse 13, to be “on the sea coast,” as if the Prophet Isaias (9:1) meant by it, “the way of the sea,” the borders or coast of the sea, which would be verified only of the Sea of Tiberias. Hence, the second interpretation is the more probable.

This prophecy of Isaias is understood by many (among them Jansenius Gandavensis, Calmet, &c.) to refer, in its primary and literal signification, to the providential liberation of Jerusalem, in the reign of Ezechias (Hezekiah), from the hands of the Assyrians. The people of Jerusalem were in the greatest straits; nay, in the very shadow of death, when suddenly “a great light” shone upon them, and, in one night, the Angel of the Lord slew 185,000 of the hosts of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35). In its mystical sense, as being an expressive type of the redemption through Christ, it is quoted here by the Evangelist; and, most likely, the Prophet himself intended, primarily, the mystical sense, or, the liberation through Christ; for, he at once bursts forth with the words, which have manifest reference to our Divine Redeemer, “For a child is born to us,” &c. (Isa. 9:6). The tribes “of Zabulon (Zebulon) and of Nephthali (Naphtali),” the first deported by the Assyrians (2 Kings 15:29), are referred to here by the Prophet; for they, also, were the first of the Jewish tribes to follow our Redeemer.

Mat 4:16  The people that sat in darkness, hath seen great light: and to them that sat in the region of the shadow of death, light is sprung up.

“Saw a great light.” God Himself in the flesh, or rather, the bright light of the Gospel, in contradistinction to the feeble, glimmering light of the Law and the Prophets.

“Sat in darkness,” denotes their ignorance, despair, and despondency.

“Shadow of death,” densest darkness, like that of the land of death or hell; or rather, like that in which they, who are approaching death, are hopelessly involved, such as is described by Job (10:21, 22).

The Evangelist, when speaking of the light of the Gospel, which, before pervading the entire earth, was first to commence from Galilee, adduces the quotation from Isaias, as if the Spirit of God meant to convey that Zabulon and Nephthali and all Galilee, which first felt the exterminating fury of the Assyrians, would be the first to have the Sun of Justice shine upon them, in the personal residence and preaching of Christ. While these people of Zabulon and Nephthali were, like all the other nations of the earth, sunk in darkness, they saw, all at once, not an ordinary light, but “a great light,” that essential light, which “enlightens every man that cometh into this world.” St. Chrysostom remarks that, while in this state, literally sitting in the shadow of death, they themselves did not seek for the light, but “it sprang” up for them. This displays the infinite mercy of the Sun of Justice, who, eclipsing, as it were, the splendour of the Divinity in His Incarnation, displayed the light of His truth, in a manner suited to their capacity.

Mat 4:17  From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

“From that time,” i.e., from the time that John was imprisoned, and our Lord took up His abode in Capharnaum, “Jesus began to preach,” publicly and unceasingly. No doubt, He had already preached among the Samaritans, and had baptized by His disciples, and, most likely, the miracles He had performed (John 2:23; 4:45) were accompanied with instruction. But, it was not till after the imprisonment of the Baptist, and the work of the precursor was accomplished, that the Sun of Justice publicly appeared, and our Lord publicly entered on the mission of preaching everywhere through Judea and Galilee. “He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place” (Luke 23:5).

“Do penance.” He commences with the same theme as the Baptist’s, to confirm his preaching, and show how thoroughly both were in unison (see 3:1).

St. Mark (1:15) says, our Lord preached, “The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” i.e., the time marked out by God for the coming of His Son, and the accomplishment of all the prophecies—the time so eagerly looked forward to by the entire Jewish nation, who were expecting their deliverer—has arrived. He is now among them, to open the gates of that kingdom so long closed against them. But, in order to obtain these spiritual blessings, now about to be plenteously dispensed, St. Mark adds, that our Lord proposed two things: 1st, to do penance; 2nd, to believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15), which is an abstract of all our duties, both in regard to faith and moral conduct.

Mat 4:18  And Jesus walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea (for they were fishers).

“And Jesus walking by the Sea of Galilee,” near which Capharnaum was built. Our Lord having now entered on His public mission, resolved on attaching to Himself as witnesses—non possumus quæ vidimus et audivimus non loqui (Acts 4:20)—of His doctrine and miracles, a body of men to whom He was to delegate the plenitude of the power given Him by His Eternal Father, to be transmitted by them to faithful men, who were to be in succession, to the end of time, charged with the government of the kingdom, He was to establish, viz., the kingdom of His Church. Hence, in view of the withdrawal of His visible presence, He sets about choosing His followers and representatives; and these He takes from the foolish, base, and contemptible things of this world, to prove that the wonderful success of the Gospel was solely the work of God, and not of man. While “walking,” our Lord was meditating on the means of establishing and consolidating this kingdom.

“Sea of Galilee,” so called, because on the confines of Upper and Lower Galilee. It is a fresh-water lake, about thirteen miles in length. The river Jordan flows through it. It is also called “the Lake of Genesareth” from the country of that name on its western shores; or from a town of that name, whose site was afterwards occupied by the city of Tiberias; also “the Sea of Tiberias,” from the name of the town close by it. All large collections of water were, by a Hebrew idiom, termed seas.

“He saw two brothers, Simon,” &c. This calling of Peter and Andrew is quite different from the introduction to our Lord, of Andrew, who before was a disciple of John, and the introduction, through him, of Peter to our Lord, recorded (John 1:42), as this latter can hardly be termed a vocation at all. The Baptist was not then in prison.

It is disputed whether the vocation recorded here, as also in Mark (1:16–20), be the same, as that recorded in Luke (5:1–11). Some expositors, with St. Augustine, Maldonatus, &c., say it is not. These maintain, that there were three calls of Peter, &c. The first (John 1:42), when there is question of a call to the knowledge and faith of Christ. The second (Luke 5:1–11), a call to familiar intercourse with our Lord. The third, the call to the Apostleship referred to here and Mark (1:16–20). Maldonatus maintains, that, although on the occasion recorded by St. Luke, the Apostles “leaving all things, followed Him,” and attached themselves to Him as His friends and disciples, and had been present at His miracles at Cana and Judea (John 2:2, 11, 23; John 3:22; 4:2; Acts 1:21, 22); still, they were not called to the Apostleship, save on the occasion referred to here by St. Matthew, who expressly says, “He called them.” With this call, they faithfully corresponded, never again leaving Him nor resuming their former occupation as a profession, save only for recreation and diversion, to banish the grief caused by His death (John 21:3). It is, however, more generally held, and seems more likely, that however, Matthew here and Luke (5:1–11) may differ in detailing circumstances, they both refer to the same event. They both agree in detailing one fact, viz., that “leaving all things, the Apostles followed Him” (Matthew 4:20–22; Luke 5:11); and it is by no means likely that, having once followed Him, they again putting their hand to the plough, looking back, rendered themselves unfit for the kingdom of God. The difference in the detailed account of circumstances given by Matthew and Luke in reference to the same event may be easily reconciled, if it be borne in mind, that it is usual with St. Luke to detail events more fully and circumstantially, while he refers to the order of events, only in a general way. Whereas, Matthew is more particular in detailing the order of events than the circumstances; and in the history of the Gospel, it is observable, that one Evangelist describes certain circumstances often omitted by the other, even when speaking of the same thing, and, vice versa; so that, by connecting both, we generally have a full and detailed account of the events they record. And, in reference to this call of the Apostles, one Evangelist in describing it, does not deny what the other records. When St. Luke says, “they followed Him,” after the miraculous draught of fishes (5:11), he does not say that this happened at the same instant. Hence, he does not contradict St. Matthew’s narrative regarding the short interval between the call of the brothers, Simon and Andrew, and John and James, and the successive order in which they were called, “and going on thence” (v. 21).

The miraculous draught of fishes recorded by St. Luke as preceding, and leading to, the call of the Apostles (c. 5), St. Matthew only omits, but does not deny.

When St. Matthew says, our Lord saw “two brethren casting a net into the sea,” his words may be verified of His own command to them to do so, as St. Luke (5) states.

The sons of Zebedee having assisted Simon and Andrew in the haul of fishes, were afterwards found by our Lord mending their nets, and then called by Him, who before that had called Simon and Andrew; and the former, having “left their nets and their father” (v. 22), which is put for all their possessions and occupations, and equivalent to the words of St. Luke, “leaving all things” followed Him.

The order of events, then, was this: Our Lord was walking along the Sea of Galilee, and, pressed by the crowds who wished to hear Him, He entered Peter’s boat moored to the beach, and from it taught the multitudes. He then performed the miracle, and immediately after called Simon and Andrew. The words (Luke 5:10), “from henceforth thou shall catch men,” are perfectly similar to those (Matt. 4:19), “I will make you to be fishers,” &c. For, when our Lord says that a thing will be, it is equivalent to His doing it. Then, proceeding a little further on, where the sons of Zebedee, who had before that assisted in the miraculous draught of fishes, had returned to mend their nets, He called them also, who, leaving all, followed Him.

“Walking by the Sea of Galilee,” and “seeing two brothers casting a net into the sea,” need not be understood to have occurred at the same time. He saw them casting the net after He Himself had commanded them to do so. (Luke 5)

Mat 4:19  And he saith to them: Come ye after me, and I will make you to be fishers of men.

“Fishers of men,” that is, destined to bring men into the Church and to life eternal. This is said in allusion to their former occupation. Our Lord is fond of borrowing examples from the ordinary occupations of those He addresses. The words are in accordance with the prophecy (Jer. 16), “Behold I shall send many fishers, and they shall fish them; many hunters, and they shall hunt them,” &c.

It is not undeserving of remark, what St. Luke pointedly records, viz., that it was up into Peter’s ship, our Lord went to teach; that it was to Peter. He specially applied the words, “eris capiens homines” (c. 5:10), all, no doubt, strikingly significative of the special prerogative of primacy of jurisdiction, granted afterwards to him, over the universal Church (Matt. 16:18, 19); “lambs and sheep,” i.e., pastors and people (John 21:15).

Mat 4:20  And they immediately leaving their nets, followed him.

Recognising His voice, in whom they believed, on the testimony of John, whose miracles they witnessed, especially the latest one, in the capture of the fishes, they at once, while the Holy Ghost interiorly enlightened them, obey His call, generously resigning themselves to His Fatherly protection and providence, for all their future wants and necessities.

Mat 4:21  And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets: and he called them.

“James, the son of Zebedee,” to distinguish him from James, the son of Alpheus, called James the lesser, “and John, his brother,” the Evangelist.

Mat 4:22  And they forthwith left their nets and father, and followed him.
Mat 4:23  And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom: and healing all manner of sickness and every infirmity, among the people.

“Went about all Galilee,” accompanied by the four disciples referred to. He did not confine Himself, like the Baptist, to any particular place, where the people flocked to Him; but He Himself, the heavenly Physician, who came to save what was lost, went about in quest of those who needed Him.

“All Galilee,” which we learn from Josephus (Lib. iii. de Bel. c. 2), was very populous.

“Teaching in their synagogues,” out of the sacred books, the doctrines of salvation, and the meaning of their sacred oracles, so as to prepare them for the Gospel, and also “preaching the Gospel of the kingdom” i.e., proposing to them the joyous tidings regarding the near approach of the kingdom of Heaven (see 3:1). The word “Synagogue,” according to etymology, like the word “Church,” means assembly or congregation; and generally, as here, the word, denotes the place, where the Jews were wont to assemble on Sabbath and festival days for religious purposes, prayer, reading the Holy Scriptures, explanation of the Law and the Prophets, &c. The use of synagogues is supposed by many to take its origin from the Babylonish Captivity, when the Jews, far away from the Temple, assembled together for religious purposes, especially in the houses of the Prophets, or of some other holy men, to hear religious instruction, or the reading of the sacred books (Ezek 14:1; 20:1; Dan. 6:1). After their return from captivity, they had similar places specially set apart for religious purposes, for reading and explaining the law, and for prayer. They had only one place for sacrifice, viz., the Temple of Jerusalem. But, they had several synagogues. According to Josephus, the erection of synagogues was more ancient in other countries than in Palestine, where they appear, for the first time, under the Asmoncan Princes. At the time of our Lord, wherever a congregation of Jews could be found, there was a synagogue. They were to be found in every town, and more than one in large towns or cities. It is said that, in the time of our Lord, Jerusalem alone contained 480 synagogues. Although, by law, the right of teaching belonged to the Priests and Levites; and by custom, to the Scribes; still, any one learned in the law might be invited and allowed to teach there (Acts 13:15). Hence, our Lord, although He belonged to neither class of Priests or Scribes, taught in the synagogues, as most suitable for propounding His doctrine, which He did not choose to preach in a corner, but in places most frequented, where it might reach all. He also preached outside the synagogues, wherever an opportunity of addressing large multitudes presented itself.

“And healing all manner of sickness,” i.e., inveterate habitual bodily distempers of every kind, whether curable by the healing art or not, “and every infirmity,” i.e., the languor and debility which precede inveterate confirmed bodily diseases.

Mat 4:24  And his fame went throughout all Syria, and they presented to him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and such as were possessed by devils, and lunatics, and those that had the palsy, and he cured them:

“Fame,” the rumour of His doctrine and wonderful miracles. “All Syria,” a very extensive district, bounded by Cilicia, on the north; Egypt, on the south; the Mediterranean, on the west; and the Euphrates, on the east. In a word, it comprised all the countries between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. It embraced Idumea, Palestine, Syro-Phœnicia, Syria of Damascus, Arabia, Judæa, Pærea, Galilee, and Samaria.

“And they presented to Him,” owing to the fame of His miracles, all kinds “of sick people, that were taken with divers diseases, and torments,” i.e., persons whose limbs were contracted from excruciating, torturing pains similar to those caused by being distended on the rack, “and such as were possessed by devils,” whom the devils bodily possessed and tortured. Of these demoniacs, we have several instances in the Gospel. The fact of their corporal possession is shown from the preternatural acts they performed, and the language they indulged in, and the mode in which our Redeemer employed, on more than one occasion, for expelling them, and the effects of such expulsion. “Lunatics” and epileptics were, in some cases, considered to be under demoniac influences; but, here “lunatics” are distinguished from demoniacs. The signs which showed the working of demons are mentioned in several cases in the Gospel. Our Redeemer recognises the operations of the evil spirit, whom He rebukes and chastises. Hence, the fact of demoniac possession did not rest on a mere popular persuasion. “Lunatics,” who suffered from changes of the moon, such as epileptics afflicted with the fallen sickness; “those that had the palsy,” paralytics, who suffered from paralysis of the limbs.

“And He cured them all.” He confirmed His doctrine by miracles wrought to alleviate the miseries of the people, and bring comfort to the miserable and afflicted.

Mat 4:25  And much people followed him from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

“From Galilee,” which had tracts of land each side of the Jordan.

“Followed Him,” in His missionary excursions among the people, attracted by the fame of His miracles.

“Decapolis,” the district of the ten small cities on the east of the Upper Jordan, and the Sea of Tiberias, including also a portion of Southern Galilee, around Scythopolis. Authors are not agreed in numbering them. The principal of them is called by Josephus (de Bel. Jud., c. x.), Scythopolis, or Bethsan.

“Judea,” strictly speaking, comprised Juda and Benjamin, the southern part of Palestine, between Samaria and Idumea.

“Beyond the Jordan,” the districts of Ruben, Gad, and half tribe of Manasses, and the country east of the Jordan.

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