Ordinary People Called to Do Extraordinary Things: The Backstory

We only one peoplesJesus picked ordinary people right in the middle of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things. He still does.

You don’t have to go to seminary. You don’t have to quit your job. You don’t have sell all of your possessions and move to a remote rain forest. You don’t have to knock on doors, pass out pamphlets, or even go to church. You can continue to live your ordinary life. Jesus will make it extraordinary.

Now that you’re wondering where in the world I’m heading with this, let me fill you in on the backstory. I love backstories.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” ~ Matthew 4:12-17

The writer, Matthew, is telling us about the beginning of Jesus’ public life. His few sentences, if you know what the context, have a lot of information in them. Knowing the context helps us see how ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Galilee was a region of Gentiles. Since Gentiles were non-Jews, devout Jewish people avoided them as much as possible. Jesus intentionally moves to this region which is also controlled by another horrid Herod after the arrest of John the Baptizer.

This area was known as a land of deep darkness, just as Isaiah said. The region was formerly known as the tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (two of Jacob’s sons who became part the Twelve Tribes of Israel). Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel fought numerous wars, targets of ethnic cleansing campaigns of one conqueror of Palestine after another. By keeping the mix of languages and cultures there mixed enough, and people oppressed enough, and no one of them would have the strength or the urge to resist the new overlords. This is why this place was known to Isaiah as the land of deep darkness. And it still was known by that nickname at the time of Jesus. If light is to shine in darkness, this is where Jesus must go. And he did.

We see how this place continues to live up to its ancient reputation. The darkness at the heart of Galilee wasn’t satisfied to keep to its own borders. The tetrarch Herod, like his namesake who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth, was noted for over-extending his power. John the Baptizer lived and worked primarily in Judea, not Galilee. Despite the fact that John was openly critical of Herod’s taking the wife of his dead brother as his own wife, Herod had no real jurisdiction over John. And yet he had John arrested, jailed, and later, we learn, beheaded in Galilee.

That John was arrested and taken to a dungeon in Galilee becomes part of why Jesus headed there, too. He was not running away from Herod, as the phrase “he withdrew into Galilee” (fairly common in English translations) may suggest. A better translation would be something like “he made his home in that region again.” Galilee became home base for Jesus’ public ministry not just because an old prophet said so, but because the people there, governed by a man like Herod who had sought to silence John, desperately needed good news.

And that is what Jesus began to give them. Good news. The core of everything Jesus said and did was represented by “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew uses “heaven” in place of “God,” a sign of his Jewish heritage in what is the most Jewish of the gospels.

That’s the backstory. The next post will be about the contemporary story.

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