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Go to Bible: Matthew 4
Mat 4:1

“Then Jesus.” The record of Jesus’ being tempted in the desert is in Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1-13.

“led up.” The Greek is anagō (#321 ἀνάγω) and means, to lead or bring from a lower to a higher point; thus, lead up, bring up. This shows us conclusively that Jesus was led into the desert of Judea immediately after his baptism in Matthew 3. The Jordan River is the low point in that area, being around 900 or so feet below sea level, and the Judean desert was above it to the west, with some mountain summits approaching 1,500 or more, and over 2,000 as one gets close to Jerusalem.

“by the spirit.” The Greek text reads, hupo tou pneumatos (ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος), using the preposition hupo followed by “the spirit,” in the genitive case. Thus here, hupo denotes agency and tells us that Jesus was led “by” the spirit. It is difficult to decide whether we should say “by the Spirit,” i.e. “by God;” or “by the spirit,” that is, by the gift of God that Jesus had just received 2 verses earlier. The ancient texts were all capital letters, so it was up to the reader to decide what PNEUMATOS (Spirit or spirit) meant. Because English forces the translator to choose between “Spirit” and “spirit,” modern translators have to make a decision for the reader and hope to educate the reader via commentary.

Actually, in this case, it is likely that both “Spirit” and “spirit” are true, and this is an example of the figure of speech amphibologia, where there are two meanings, both of them true. God, the Spirit, led Jesus into the desert, communicating and leading him “by the spirit,” just as He had done for millennia with Moses, Joshua, David, and the prophets and prophetesses. What actually happened was that Jesus was led “by the Spirit by the spirit.”

[See figure of speech “amphibologia.”]

“desert.” The Greek is erēmos (#2048 ἔρημος), and it means a solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited place, a desert, a wilderness, a lonely region. However, the word erēmos can refer to an uncultivated region fit for pasturage, even though that area may be right next to fields and houses, thus the title of Gertrude Bell’s book, The Desert and the Sown. Areas in the Middle East were thought of as being good for farming or pasture, and a valley used for farming might butt right up to a hillside used for pasture. This situation always produced the tension that existed between the shepherds and the farmers.

“to be tempted.” Here in Matthew, the Greek text uses the infinitive tense of the verb peirazō (#3985 πειράζω), so “to be tempted,” as the English translations say, is a good translation. The infinitive clause expresses purpose. It is God who leads Jesus into the Judean wilderness “to be tempted,” but it is the Devil (Slanderer) who does the tempting. It can be confusing at first to see that God led Jesus into the desert “to be tempted,” but there are good explanations for it.

For one thing, we must realize that both God and Jesus knew that a showdown between the Devil and Jesus was inevitable. For millennia the Devil had been aggressively trying to prevent the Messiah from even being born. Then, when he was born, he tried to kill him as an infant through his evil servant, Herod the Great. So it was better for Jesus if he met the Devil head-on and dealt with him personally at the beginning of his ministry. It accomplished many things.

One thing the temptation accomplished is that it cemented in Jesus’ mind who the Devil was and what he wanted: to be in God’s place and to be worshiped. The Devil is like the Wizard of Oz. He makes himself look much larger and more powerful than he really is, and controls people by threats, fear, lies, etc. The prophet Isaiah tells us that when the Devil meets his doom and we get to see him for what he really is, we will say, “Is this the man who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble, the man who made the world a desert, who overthrew its cities and would not let his captives go home?” (Isa. 14:16-17). When the Devil met Jesus face to face, it gave Jesus a chance for him to see who he was really dealing with. And the Devil, for his part, revealed his crafty and evil nature perfectly for Jesus to see.

Another thing it did was make Jesus stronger in the spiritual battle. It is commonly said that what does not kill us makes us stronger, and successfully enduring temptation does make us stronger. Facing the Devil’s temptations cemented in Jesus’ mind that he did not need the world’s fame, or power, or even food. He could rely on God—on God’s provision and God’s timing. This was a huge lesson to learn. And even though Jesus had certainly learned to rely on God in the first 30 years of his life, talking to God via the gift of holy spirit would have bolstered his confidence, and things such as the angels coming to minister to him after the Devil left would have helped also (Matt. 4:11).

Another thing it accomplished was to cement for Jesus, and show us, the absolute necessity to know and understand the Word of God, and to use it in our lives to fight the spiritual battle. Jesus resisted each of the temptations by saying, “It is written,” and quoting Scripture. This set the tone for how he would deal with opposition from that time forward, and it sets the tone for how we must act if we are going to be successful in the spiritual fight. Furthermore, it shows us how important it is to use Scripture as a “measuring tool” to determine good from evil. How did Jesus know what was right and what was wrong? Via Scripture, and anything contrary to the proper interpretation of Scripture must be resisted.

Another thing it accomplished, and continues to accomplish, is that it lets everyone know that just as Christ resisted the Devil and overcame his temptations, so we too can have victory in Christ. Believers do not have to be victims of the Devil, we stand against the Devil and win even as Christ did.

Also, although there is no way to know this for sure, Jesus made it clear to the Devil that he was not going to be simply fooled or led astray, and there are no more direct encounters between the Devil and Jesus mentioned in the Gospels. The Devil realized he would have to kill Jesus to get rid of him, and he tried in multiple ways to do that: from inciting mobs such as at Bethlehem, to trying to drown him via storms on the Sea of Galilee. He thought he won when he finally engineered his crucifixion, only to find like Haman in the book of Esther, that he had killed himself via his own stake.

“tempted.” The Greek word peirazō (#3985 πειράζω) can mean several different things depending on its context. It is used for (1) tempting and (2) testing (i.e., trying, examining, proving); its semantic range also includes (3) “attempting to do something,” like when Paul and Timothy tried to go into Bithynia but were prevented (Acts 16:7); and (4) trying to “entrap through a process of inquiry,” such as the Pharisees testing Jesus with questions.a The differences in meaning are found not in the word itself, but in the circumstance and especially the motive behind the one who is tempting, testing, attempting, etc. The distinction between testing and tempting, then, is this: testing comes from a desire to see the person prove himself true, to pass the test, and to gain confidence from the victory; temptation, on the other hand, is when evil is placed before someone in hope that he or she will fail. Thus God never tempts people (Jam. 1:13) but he does test people (Gen. 22:1; Heb. 11:17). Both temptation and testing are meant to see what is in a person, whether they will obey, but temptation is meant to make someone fall while testing is to raise them up. God always tests in order to reward or bring about good (Deut. 8:16). Hence, Jeremiah 17:10 says, “I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (ESV).

“by the Devil.” “Devil” is a transliteration of the Greek word, diabolos (#1228 διάβολος), which literally means “Slanderer.” A primary attribute of the Devil is slander, and slander is so central to who the Devil is and how he operates that one of his primary names is “the Slanderer.” “The Slanderer” works hard to slander others and destroy them and their reputation. He has no regard for law or honesty, and uses many different illicit means to discredit and destroy people.

The literal Greek phrase in this verse is “of the Slanderer,” a genitive of origin, the Slanderer being the source of the temptation, so “by the Slanderer” (by the Devil) is a good translation.

[For more information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.”]

BDAG, s.v. “πειράζω.”
Mat 4:2

“40 days and 40 nights.” Here Jesus is clearly being shown as a new Moses, who had twice spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai (First time: Exod. 24:18, which was retold in Deut. 9:9; Second time: Exod. 34:28). Jesus also spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, and is now the new Lawgiver, superior to Moses. Jesus brings a “better hope” (Heb. 7:19); initiates a “better covenant” (Heb. 7:22; 8:6) that is based on “better promises (Heb. 8:6); and is a “better sacrifice” (Heb. 9:23).

Mat 4:3

“If you are.” The Devil did not doubt who Jesus was, and neither did Jesus. The Devil, called “the Tempter” in the verse, is goading Jesus, prodding and poking him in order to get him to act rashly. He was trying to get a reaction from Jesus like, “I am the Son of God, and I’ll prove it to you,” and then do something stupid. This event is historical fact, but we must learn from it because the Devil and those who follow him use the same tactic every day, poking at people until they get angry and do something stupid. We are to be peaceful and controlled and not be victims of the Devil’s tricks.

“the Tempter.” This is a name for the Slanderer (the Devil). The Greek is peirazō (#3985 πειράζω; pronounced, pay-'rah-zō), which means to tempt, to put through an ordeal. It can also be used in a good sense, to test with the idea of the one tested being successful, but that is not its meaning here. The Tempter is an apt name for the Slanderer because he is constantly at work to set traps and temptations up so that people will fall. The Adversary comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), and often he sets the stage with a temptation so that we end up destroying ourselves.

[For other names of the Devil and their meanings, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.”]

Mat 4:4

“It is written: Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Jesus’ quotation of Deuteronomy was not exact, but was very close. He never claimed to make an exact quotation. It is noteworthy that Deuteronomy 8:3 is about people living by what God said in the wilderness when they were hungry and wanted a variety of food, and here Jesus quotes the verse when he is in the desert and hungry.

Mat 4:5

“Devil.” The Greek is literally “the Slanderer,” and we know him as “the Devil.”

[For more information on the Devil, see commentary on Matthew 4:1. For more information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.” For this temptation actually being the last of the three temptations and Luke 4 having the correct order of temptations, see commentary on Matthew 4:8, “showed him all the kingdoms.”]

Mat 4:6

“Son of God.” This is the first time the phrase “Son of God” is ever used of Jesus Christ, and its use in Scripture is one of the pieces of evidence that Jesus is not God and the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the Bible. The doctrine of the Trinity is that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and the three of them are co-equal and co-eternal and together make up “one God;” and that Jesus is both 100% man and 100% God with both Jesus’ human and divine natures co-existing in the human body of Jesus.

God was not born, but is eternal. In contrast to the eternal God, Jesus Christ is “begotten.” Jesus had a beginning. Jesus is the “Son” of God, and children have a beginning. Although many orthodox Trinitarians say that Jesus was “eternally begotten,” that phrase is not in the Bible. It is a made-up phrase that is both nonsensical and self-contradictory. The only reason the phrase “eternally begotten,” exists at all in theological circles is that the Bible says Jesus is the Son of God, and Trinitarians assert that Jesus is eternal God, so they assert that Jesus must be “eternally begotten.” But Jesus is God’s “Son,” and nowhere in the Bible does God state the word “Son” does not have its common meaning when it comes to Jesus. In fact, the opposite is true. The angel Gabriel told Mary that God would impregnate her, and “for that reason” the child Jesus would be called “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

A study of the theological concept of “eternally begotten” reveals that a debate has raged for centuries about whether Jesus is in fact “the eternally begotten Son.” There are a number of Trinitarians who admit that Jesus cannot be an “eternal Son,” many of them noting that a “Son” had a beginning. However, rather than saying that there was a time Jesus did not exist, they say that Jesus existed as God, but not as the Son, before he was born of Mary. However, the Bible has no description or explanation of how that could have been. God is a spirit, so was Jesus spirit before he was human? The Bible never says. We assert that the reason that the Bible never speaks about the kind of being Jesus was before his birth is very simple: before God impregnated Mary, Jesus did not exist except in the mind of God and as part of God’s plan.

The Jews of the Old Testament never thought that their Messiah was somehow alive. The Messiah was coming in the future. Dustin Smith writes: “Jesus is certainly not alive and active anywhere within the pages of the Hebrew Bible. …In fact, the author of Hebrews argues that God used to speak through prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us through a Son (Heb. 1:1-2) indicating that God didn’t speak through a Son in the Hebrew Bible.”a

The prophecies of the Old Testament always spoke of the Messiah as one who was coming in the future, not someone who was already there. He was to be the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15). He would be a descendant of Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). He would be from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10). He was still far off, but a star coming out of Jacob (Num. 24:17). He would be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:12-13; Isa. 9:7; 11:1). He will rule over the world (Ps. 2:8; Dan. 2:44). He would be both a king and priest (Ps. 110:1-4). The Jews were well aware that God was with them, but there is no indication that any of them thought of their Messiah somehow with them too; that he was with them as some kind of spirit being, but would later come and be with them in the flesh.

The phrase Son of God is simple and straightforward. God impregnated Mary while she was still a virgin and she bore God’s son, making Jesus “the Son of God.”

[For more on Jesus having a beginning, see commentary on Matthew 1:18.]

Irons, Dixon, and Smith, The Son of God: Three Views on the Identity of Jesus, 27 (emphasis Smith’s).
Mat 4:7

“the Lord.” A rabbinic abbreviation for “Yahweh” appears in the Hebrew manuscript of Matthew as well as in the verses of the Old Testament that Matthew quoted. There is evidence that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew and could have used the name Yahweh, so we have put it here in the commentary in the REV (see commentary on Matthew 3:3).

Mat 4:8

“Devil.” The Greek word is diabolos (#1228 διάβολος), which literally means “Slanderer,” but diabolos gets transliterated into English as our more familiar name, “the Devil.” Slander is so central to who the Devil is and how he operates that one of his primary names is “the Slanderer.”

[For more information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.”]

“lofty.” The Greek adjective hupselos (#5308 ὑψηλός) has a basic meaning of “high” (as in Matt 17:1, Mk. 9:2, and Rev. 21:10). However, it can also have the connotation of “proud” or “arrogant.” We see this in Romans 12:16 when we are told to “not mind high things” (μὴ τὰ ὑψηλὰ φρονοῦντες), i.e. not be proud. The LXX uses this sense in Isaiah 2:12-14: “the LORD of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty…against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills.” It is possible that here in Matthew the adjective has this connotation implied; the Devil tempted Christ to ‘mind high things’ by taking him to a ‘proud’ mountain, showing him all the splendor of ruling the kingdoms of the world. In English, the word “lofty” captures both the sense of altitude and arrogance.

“showed him all the kingdoms.” Matthew and Luke both record the 3 temptations that the Adversary tempted Jesus with, but worded slightly differently and in a different order. We believe Luke has the order correct because Luke says he recorded things “in order” (Luke 1:3). However, it makes sense that Matthew, which emphasizes Jesus’ role as the king, would have the temptation about ruling over the world as the last temptation because to a king, the domain and people over whom he rules is of primary importance.

Commentators differ as to whether Matthew or Luke has the order of events as they actually happened. We suggest that another reason that Luke has the correct order is that it makes sense that to the Devil, the most desirable outcome would be to have Jesus worship him, but if he could not accomplish that, to kill Jesus and be done with him. The order of temptations in Luke accomplishes that goal. The second temptation would result in Jesus worshiping the Devil, and if that failed the third temptation would have resulted in Jesus’ death.

Mat 4:9

“worship.” The Devil wanted Jesus to reverence him as he reverenced God. Thus “worship” is appropriate here. See commentary on Matthew 2:2, “pay homage.”

Mat 4:10

“For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” The quotation is not exact. Deuteronomy 6:13 says, “You shall fear Yahweh your God.” Jesus correctly gets the sense of “fear” in that context, and so brings it forward as “worship.” This is not a case where Jesus was quoting the Septuagint and it read “worship,” because both the Hebrew text and LXX read “fear.”

It is sometimes stated that since we are to worship only God, and because we are also supposed to worship Jesus, therefore he must be God. That argument is not valid and is based on a false understanding of the word “worship.” While it is true that we are to worship God in a special way reserved only for Him, there is no Greek or Hebrew word that represents that fact. It is an issue of the heart and cannot be represented on the written page. The words for “worship” in both the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are used of both people and God. In fact, the entire temptation of Christ by the Devil proves that Jesus was not God. God cannot be tempted (James 1:13). Also, if Jesus were God, the Devil would never have asked Jesus to worship him. God is worshiped, but there is no evidence He worships anything else at any time. It was for desiring to be like God (and thus be worshiped like God) that the Devil was thrown out of heaven in the first place (Isa. 14:12-15), and it is unreasonable to think that the Devil would have believed that God could now be persuaded to worship him.

In the biblical culture, the act of worship was not directed only to God. It was very common to worship (i.e., pay homage to) men of a higher status. Sadly, almost always this fact has been obscured by the translators of the Bible and therefore is impossible to see in the English translations. The translators usually translate Hebrew or Greek words that relate to worship as “worship” when they refer to God or a pagan god, but as some other word, such as “bow before,” or “pay homage to,” when the worship involves men. This double standard of translation does not allow the English reader to see what any person reading the Hebrew or Greek text can see: that “worship” is not just reserved for God. A few examples should make our point.

  • Exodus 34:14 NIV84: “Do not worship [#07812 שָׁחָה shachah] any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
  • Genesis 19:1 NIV84: When Lot saw the two strangers, he got up to meet them “and bowed down [#07812 shachah] with his face to the ground.”
  • Genesis 27:29 NIV84: Isaac said to Jacob: May…peoples bow down [#07812 shachah] to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down [#07812 shachah] to you.
  • Exodus 18:7 NIV84 “So Moses went out to meet his father-in-law and bowed down [#07812 shachah] and kissed him.
  • 1 Samuel 1:19 NIV84 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped [#07812 shachah] before the LORD.
  • 1 Samuel 2:36 Then everyone left in your family line will come and bow down before him [#07812 shachah] for a piece of silver and a crust of bread.
  • 2 Samuel 1:2 On the third day a man arrived from Saul’s camp…. When he came to David, he fell to the ground to pay him honor [#07812 shachah].

The above list confirms what has already been pointed out—that the translators used the word “worship” when the worship was to God or pagan gods, but never used the word “worship” when people were “worshiping” other people, even though the Hebrew text used the same word for both types of worship. And the above list is only a tiny sampling of the examples that could be given, or of what one will see if he studies the subject for himself. “Worship,” usually expressed by bowing down before someone, was a part of the culture and a way of showing respect or reverence. However, because of the theological position that only God should be worshiped, translators have avoided the English word “worship” when people worship people, in spite of the fact that it is clearly in the original text. We assert that not translating into English what is clearly in the original text has created a false impression in the Christian community and supported the belief that “only God can be worshiped, so if Jesus is worshiped he must be God too.” It is very clear in the biblical text that people “worshiped” other people who deserved that worship, and no person deserved worship more than Jesus Christ.

There is a sense, of course, in which there is a very special worship (homage, allegiance, reverent love, and devotion) to be given only to God, but there is no unique word that represents that special worship. Rather, it is a posture of the heart. Scripturally, this must be determined from context. Even words like proskuneō, which are almost always used of God, are occasionally used for showing respect to other men (Acts 10:25). And the word “serve” in Matthew 4:10 is latreuō, which is sometimes translated worship, but used of the worship of other things as well as of the true God (Acts 7:42 - KJV), “worship the host of heaven” and Romans 1:25, “served created things”). Thus, when Christ said, “You shall worship the Lord thy God and Him only shall you worship,” he was speaking of a special worship of God that comes from the heart, not using a special vocabulary word that is reserved for the worship of God only.

Once we understand that in the Bible both God and men are worshiped, we are forced to look, not at the specific word for “worship,” but rather at the heart of the one doing the worship. It explains why God rejects the worship of those whose hearts are really not with Him. It also explains why there are occasions in the Bible when men reject the worship of other men. In Acts 10:26, Peter asks Cornelius to stand up because Cornelius was paying homage to Peter in a way that made Peter uncomfortable even though Cornelius felt Peter worthy of it. In Revelation 19:10, an angel stops John from worshiping him. In these cases, it is not the “worship,” per se, that was wrong, or it would have been wrong in all the other places throughout the Bible. In the aforementioned accounts, the one about to be worshiped saw that it was inappropriate or felt uncomfortable in the situation. Actually, the example of John in Revelation is another strong proof that men did worship others besides God. If it were forbidden to worship anyone besides God, the great apostle John would never have even started to worship the angel. The fact that he did so actually proves the point that others besides God were worshiped in the biblical culture.

It is clear why people fell down and worshiped Jesus while he walked the earth and performed great miracles: people loved him and respected him greatly. It is also clear why we are to worship him now—he has earned our love and our highest reverence. He died to set us free, and God has honored him by seating him at His own right hand above all other powers and authorities. Just because we worship God and worship Jesus, does that mean they are the same or receive the same worship? No, it does not. We reserve a special place in our hearts for God, for Jesus, and frankly, for those other people who deserve our “worship” in the biblical sense of the word.

[For more information on Jesus being the fully human Son of God and not being “God the Son,” see Appendix 10, “Jesus is the Son of God, Not God the Son.” For more on “the Holy Spirit” being one of the designations for God the Father and “the holy spirit” being the gift of God’s nature, see Appendix 11, “What is the Holy Spirit?”]

“the Lord.” A rabbinic abbreviation for “Yahweh” appears in the Hebrew manuscript of Matthew as well as in the verses of the Old Testament that Matthew quoted. There is evidence that Matthew could have written his Gospel in Hebrew and used the name Yahweh, so we have put it in the REV commentary (see commentary on Matthew 3:3).

“Adversary.” The Greek word for Adversary is Satanas (#4567 Σατανᾶς), which has been transliterated into “Satan” in most versions. This causes the meaning of the word, which is important, to be lost. For more information on it, see commentary on Mark 1:13. [For information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.”]

Mat 4:11

“Devil.” The Greek word is diabolos (#1228 διάβολος), which literally means “Slanderer,” but diabolos gets transliterated into English as our more familiar name, “the Devil.” Slander is so central to who the Devil is and how he operates that one of his primary names is “the Slanderer.”

[For more information on the names of the Devil, see Appendix 14: “Names of the Devil.”]

“behold.” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20.

“were ministering.” See commentary on Mark 1:13.

Mat 4:12

“he withdrew into Galilee.” Herod Antipas imprisoned John at his palace-fortress of Machaerus, which was in Perea, the area beyond Jordan where John had been baptizing according to John 1:28. When Jesus knew John was imprisoned there, he went north into Galilee.

Mat 4:13

“And leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum...” Jesus left Nazareth after the people there tried to kill him (Luke 4:28-31). He made Capernaum his home

[For more information, see commentary on Mark 2:1.]

Mat 4:14(top)
Mat 4:15

“The Road of the Sea.” This major trade route that went right through Capernaum (there is a Roman mile marker now on display at Capernaum) is most often known by its more modern name that comes from the Latin, the Via Maris. The Via Maris is the ancient trade route linking Egypt with Damascus and all Syria, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Mesopotamia. Its early name was “Way of the Philistines” (Exod. 13:17) because after leaving Egypt it ran north along the coast of Israel through the territory of the Philistines. The name “Via Maris” is much later and based on the Latin Vulgate translation of Matthew 4:15. It means “the Way of the Sea,” or “the Road of the Sea.” The history of the Via Maris is long and the main road changed during different periods. For example, before the Roman period, the Via Maris went from Capernaum north to Hazor and from Hazor it crossed the Jordan River at Jacob’s Ford then went over the Golan Heights to Damascus. This road still existed in the time of Christ, but recent archaeological evidence suggests that in Roman times the road left Capernaum and headed east to Bethsaida-Julius and then northeast to Damascus.

The Via Maris goes from Egypt across Sinai, through the Philistine Plain and the Plain of Sharon through the cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Joppa. At Dor it branches into two roads. One continues directly north along the Mediterranean coast, and the other follows an inland route by Megiddo, through the Jezreel Valley, then to Old Testament Beth-shean (which is New Testament Scythopolis, a city of the Decapolis). From there it branched, and one branch ran on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, passing through Tiberias, then continuing north through Migdal and Capernaum. The east branch crossed the Jordan south of the Sea of Galilee and ran along the east coast of the lake until Hyppos (Susita) when it turned northeast and climbed over the Golan and then continued down to Damascus. The fact that the Via Maris passed by Capernaum helps explain why that city had a tollhouse (Matt. 9:9) so revenue could be collected from the passing caravans. That money needed protection, so it was also a Roman outpost and had a centurion and troops (Matt. 8:5). Also, it shows us that when Jesus Christ chose Capernaum to be his hometown after he left Nazareth, he chose a cosmopolitan town where there would be plenty of opportunity to share the Word and reach others, as well as opportunity for others to more easily reach him.

Mat 4:16

See commentary on Matt 4:15.

Mat 4:17

“The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.” This message was spoken by both John and Jesus. Neither of them knew that the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven would be more than 2,000 years in the future. The parallel passage to Matthew 4:17 is Mark 1:15 (see commentary on Mark 1:15).

[For more on the many different ways that Jesus said the Kingdom of God was coming soon, see commentary on Matt. 16:28. For more on what Christ’s kingdom on earth, the “Kingdom of God,” will be like, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.”]

Mat 4:18

“Sea of Galilee.” The “sea” of Galilee is actually quite a small lake, only 7 miles (11.2 km) across and 12 miles (19.3 km) long, and the entire lake can be seen from the escarpments on both the east and west sides. The Greek word thalasso, lake, sea, or ocean, does not really refer to the size of the body of water, and thus has to be translated into the English “lake,” “sea,” or “ocean” by knowing the body of water that is being referred to. Because the body of water is historically known as, and called, “the Sea of Galilee” we leave that name intact when its proper name is mentioned. However, when it is not referred to by name, we refer to it like it actually is—a lake. The “Sea of Galilee” is the only freshwater lake generally referred to as a “sea.” Technically, “seas” are saltwater.


Additional resource:

Video expand/contractThe Calling of the Disciples of Jesus (19:40) (Pub: 2015-01-16)

By examining the calling of Jesus’ disciples, we learn some amazing truths about culture, history, timing, and experience. Brotherhood, friendship, and experience play leading roles in determining how the disciples built total trust in and commitment to Jesus’ imperative call to “Follow Me!”

Verses: John 1:35-51; 2:1, 2; Matt. 4:18; Mark 1:16; Luke 5:10; 21:15

Teacher: John Schoenheit

Watch on Youtube popout

Mat 4:19

“Follow me.” See commentary on Mark 1:17. The word “follow” here is a different word from “follow” in Matthew 4:20. The disciple would follow behind the teacher in the biblical culture.

“I will make you fishers of people.” For more on Jesus’ metaphor about being fishers for people, see commentary on Mark 1:17.

Mat 4:20

“And they immediately left their nets and followed him.” The Gospels contain records of Jesus calling his disciples which can be very confusing. To understand Jesus’ calling of his disciples, one must read all four Gospels and piece the records together. Furthermore, it is important to have some knowledge of the first-century rabbinic practices. The four Gospel records we will compare are: Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:4-11; and John 1:29-2:2.

If we start by reading the record in Matthew 4, we can see that Jesus’ calling of the disciples can be confusing. It seems as if Jesus just walks by the area where the men are working, calls out “Follow me,” and they leave their fishing business and follow Jesus. This behavior of Peter, Andrew, James, and John seems abrupt and even reckless. If we start reading at Matthew 1:1 and read until 4:20 and 4:22 when the disciples left their work and followed Jesus, it seems Jesus had never met those four men before. Just because a rabbi, even a powerful one, said “Follow me,” who would leave their profession?

The key to understanding Matthew (and Mark and Luke) is to read it in the context of all four Gospels and pay close attention to the details. When we read all four Gospels, we see that Peter, Andrew, James, and John knew Jesus, and knew him well. In fact, they were already his disciples when he called them from their boats. Actually, as this study develops, we will see that he called them from their boats on two different occasions. The key to the records in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is the Gospel of John.

Andrew and Peter were brothers and were deeply spiritual men, something that is obvious from reading John 1. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist before he ever met Jesus (John 1:35-40). That speaks volumes about Andrew. As a disciple, not just a “listener” or someone in John’s audience, Andrew understood the message of the Baptist, which included that the Messiah was coming soon. Of course, there would have been many things John taught about the spiritual situation of the times, and so Andrew would have seen through the religiosity and corruption of the spiritually bankrupt Pharisees and Sadducees. John the Baptist’s opinion of those religious leaders is clear from when he met them because he called them “offspring of vipers” (Matt. 3:7). Furthermore, John would have taught his disciples much more about the truth and error of the religious system of his time. The Four Gospels do not say much about the teaching of John. This is understandable since the Gospels are about Jesus, not John. Nevertheless, John was a great prophet, and since his followers were actual “disciples,” John would have taught the truth on many different subjects.

One of the great truths that John would have taught his disciples was that he was the forerunner of the Messiah who was to come shortly. We know this because he openly proclaimed it. When asked who he was, John said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23, a quotation of Isaiah 40:3). The “way of the Lord” was the road the Lord would travel on. The word “way” is also “road” in both Hebrew and Greek, and in the USA many small roads and paths use the designation “way.” Roads in the Middle East were fixed up (“made straight”) for passing dignitaries, but they deteriorated quickly, so there was no need to repair the roads until just before the arrival of the dignitary. The fact that John declared that he was the voice who shouted to repair the road of the Lord meant the Lord would come on the scene shortly after he did.

When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “Look!, the Lamb of God,” (John 1:36), Andrew believed his teacher. But before going to Jesus, he first went and got his brother Peter and said, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Then Peter and Andrew both went to Jesus, who immediately changed Peter’s name from “Simon” to “Rock” (“Cephas” in Aramaic, “Peter” in Greek; John 1:42). In the biblical culture when a person changed someone’s name, it meant that he had some kind of control over the person’s life. In the Old Testament, God, as well as other rulers, changed people’s names; for example, Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5); Sarai to Sarah (Gen. 17:15); Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28); Joseph to Zaphenath-Paneh (Gen. 41:45); Eliakim to Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34); Mattaniah to Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17); Pashhur to Magor-Missabib (Jer. 20:3); Daniel to Belteshazzar (Dan. 1:7). That Peter would accept what Andrew said and also immediately accept the new name Jesus gave him shows us that Peter was a deeply spiritual man too, and immediately willing to become a disciple of Jesus.

[For a deeper study of God or a ruler changing someone’s name, see commentary on John 1:42.]

The next day Philip and Nathanial began to follow Jesus, along with Andrew and Peter, and this was before John was arrested and before Jesus started ministering in Galilee (John 1:43-51). This is important because it shows that Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanial were “following” Jesus, and even believed he was the Messiah before John was arrested, and that was before Jesus called them from their boats the first time (Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20). Jesus called the disciples from their boats after John was arrested, so they had already been following Jesus for some time (Matt. 4:12-22). The record shows us that Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanial were following Jesus, and we can also assume that since James and John were business partners with Peter and Andrew, and also deeply spiritual men, they believed what Peter and Andrew said about Jesus.

But if Peter and Andrew were following Jesus before John was arrested, why were they fishing when Jesus called them? In the biblical culture, a person could be a disciple or follower of a rabbi without giving up his occupation. Although some men were full-time disciples, discipleship often did not require that. For example, Andrew was a disciple of John (John 1:35-37) but still made a living as a fisherman, which is what he was doing when Jesus called him (Matt. 4:18). Chronologically, then, Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanial first became aware that Jesus was the Messiah and became his disciples while they were in Bethany beyond Jordan where John was baptizing, and yet they still worked for a living. This was before Jesus lived in Galilee. Then, after Jesus moved to Capernaum (Matt. 4:13), Jesus called them to intensify their discipleship with him, which they did (Matt. 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20). Jesus told them “Follow me, and I will make [future tense] you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19; cp. Mark 1:17). Even after this calling to more intense discipleship, however, they still continued to fish for a living.

The final time Jesus called Peter and the other fishermen is recorded in Luke 5:1-11. This record is significantly different from the records in Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, and Peter and the others were in the boats fishing or washing nets. In Luke, Jesus was teaching the people and the boats were empty, while the fishermen were washing their nets from the previous night’s work. This time Jesus got into the boat with Peter, and James and John were close by, likely in another boat so they could help with the nets. This time, in Luke 5, Jesus calls the apostles from fishing to being full-time disciples. He said, “From now on you will be catching people.” Jesus’ words, “From now on” are important—they mark the start of the apostles’ full-time discipleship. So it was at this time the apostles left fishing to others and followed Jesus on a full-time basis.

This last calling of the apostles was associated with a miracle—the catching of such a huge haul of fish that those professional fishermen were amazed. It seems certain that this miracle was designed to comfort and encourage the disciples, who had families to take care of. It was as if God was saying by this miracle, “You can leave your human wisdom and your fishing and I will take care of you and your loved ones.” The disciples were comforted and convinced and left their boats and equipment to the care of others while they followed Jesus.

Wisdom and logic are a part of good biblical interpretation, and they are certainly necessary when understanding the calling of the disciples. When Luke 5:11 says they “left everything and followed” Jesus, it does not mean they just walked away from the fish they had just caught, leaving them in the boats. It is a summary statement, summarizing what happened after catching all the fish. The apostles did not just abandon their boats or leave the fish to rot in the sun. The fish would have been divided up as usual so the families were provided for, and the fishing equipment would have been given into the care of others. But it is clear that this calling in Luke was the turning point at which those future apostles started in full-time ministry.

Even so, it is likely that these future apostles never completely left the fishing business; it seems likely that they simply handed their business over to managers or other family members so they could then follow Jesus on a full-time basis. That would explain how they could go back to fishing so quickly after Jesus was crucified (John 21:3). While acquiring the boats, nets, and other equipment for successful fishing would have certainly taken at least a few weeks and perhaps longer, simply stepping back into an ongoing business would have been something they could have done very quickly.

Realizing that Peter never actually gave the fishing business up completely not only explains how he could get back into it so quickly after the crucifixion, it also explains Jesus’ final call to Peter. When Jesus met Peter at the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection, he said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [fish]?” (John 21:15). Even after seeing the resurrected Messiah both individually (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5), and as part of various group appearances (cp. John 20:19ff), Peter returned to the fishing trade rather than continuing in the footsteps of Jesus and making disciples—which admittedly was a risky business. So Jesus met Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and challenged him: “Do you love me more than fishing?” Peter said “Yes,” and Jesus pressed forward, asking three times if Peter loved him, always following it with an exhortation to feed the sheep, that is, to become the shepherd for the new and at that time very confused and frightened flock of the developing church. Their conversation led to Jesus giving Peter the command, “Follow me!”

In summary, many of the apostles, certainly Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathaniel, and likely James and John as well, became followers of Jesus before he lived in Galilee, while John the Baptist was alive. Months later, after Jesus had performed many miracles and John the Baptist had been killed, Jesus told some of the Apostles he would make them fishers of men, and their discipleship intensified. At some time after that, in Luke 5, Jesus said, “From now on you will be catching people,” and at that time the disciples started into full-time ministry. So when we study the full chronology of the calling of the Apostles, Jesus did not simply tell people who barely knew him to give up their occupations and follow him. He cultivated a relationship with his future Apostles, discipled them to some extent, and then finally called them into full-time ministry.

The full account of how Peter and Andrew came into full-time ministry is helpful to those of us today who are not aware of the customs and processes involved in becoming a disciple of Jesus, or for that matter, of any rabbi of that time period. We can see that it was not an instantaneous and mysterious event in which Jesus just said “Follow me” to total strangers who then gave up the work that supported them and their families and trotted off to follow someone they did not know. Understanding that, we should also understand that the Bible does not need to give us an account of the discipleship process of all the Apostles. For example, we do not know how Matthew became a disciple of Jesus, but we know by custom and logic that it was not magical or mystical. Jesus and Matthew somehow developed a relationship, and then at the right time, Jesus asked Matthew to follow him. The fact that the Bible does not give us the details of how Matthew became a disciple does not mean it was a mystical experience. Quite the opposite! If the process was ordinary, normal, and usual, then the Bible would not have to say anything about it because the reading audience would understand the process from their culture. However, if the calling of the disciples was mystical and unusual, then we should expect the Bible would say something about that for the benefit of the reading audience.

Mat 4:21(top)
Mat 4:22(top)
Mat 4:23

“the good news of the kingdom.” The “good news of the kingdom” primarily refers to the coming of the Millennial Kingdom of Christ, and the fact that Christ (and John the Baptist) was teaching that it was near (Matt. 4:17). The coming Kingdom of God was the primary subject of Christ’s teaching (cp. Matt. 4:23; 9:35).

[For more on the Millennial Kingdom, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth.”]

Mat 4:24

“into all Syria.” “Syria” can refer to the Roman province of Syria, or to the territory belonging to the Syria (Aramea) of the Old Testament, and that is likely given its use here in contrast to Galilee (Matt. 4:23). Jesus had been healing all over Galilee, immediately south of Syria, and it would be natural for the news of this miracle worker to spread far and wide and not just stop at a political border. And while there were Jews in Syria who would have wanted to be healed by Jesus, there were Gentiles who wanted to be healed too, such as the Syrophoenician woman of Matthew 15. So it is quite natural that both Jews and Gentiles would come from Syria to be healed, and Jesus responded by healing them.

Mat 4:25

“Decapolis.” The Decapolis was a loosely associated league of ten cities (Deka means ten; polis means city) and is also the name of the area where these cities are located. By 200 BC the Greeks had occupied towns like Gadara and Philadelphia, and in 63 BC the Roman General Pompey liberated Hippos (Susita), Scythopolis (built on the ancient site of Beth-shean), and Pella from the Jews and gave them municipal freedom, allowing them to answer directly to the governor of Syria. About 1 BC they formed a league, even minting their own coins. Although the number of cities was probably ten at an early date, with time the number of cities changed. The Roman historian Pliny named the ten cities as Damascus, Philadelphia (modern Amman, Jordan), Canatha, Pella, Hippos, Gadara, Dion, Raphana, Gerasa (modern Jerash), and Scythopolis (ancient Beth-shean and the only city west of the Jordan River). In the second century AD, Ptolemy named 18 cities in the Decapolis, and another source mentions 14 cities. Hence the number of cities varied from time to time.

The original Decapolis was settled by Greeks who migrated into the area shortly after the conquest of Israel by Alexander the Great. For the most part, they either founded a city or moved into a city that did not have a large population and became the dominant influence there. Jesus is never mentioned as going into any specific city of the Decapolis. Nevertheless, he did minister in the area of Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis, so he well may have been in a Decapolis city (Mark 7:31), even though he primarily ministered to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Also, when word about Jesus and what he was doing reached the cities of the Decapolis, “large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and the region across the Jordan followed him” (Matt. 4:25). Thus, the teachings and miracles of Jesus clearly caught the attention of the Greeks as well as the Jews.

“the region across the Jordan.” Since the list specifically mentions the Decapolis, the region across the Jordan River refers to Perea, the territory controlled by Herod Antipas, who was the son of Herod the Great by his wife Malthace (Herod had 5 wives in his lifetime). Herod Antipas married Herodias, who divorced his half-brother Herod Philip to marry him, and it was Herod Antipas who imprisoned John the Baptist in his castle at Machaerus when John confronted Herod Antipas and told him it was against the Law of Moses to marry his brother’s wife.


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