Journeys of Jesus: Capernaum to Gadara

We have been looking at Jesus’ ministry in and around the Sea of Galilee. His home base has been Capernaum. In the next couple of weeks, Jesus will take a dramatic turn towards Jerusalem, but before we get there, I want to go back to a journey that I should’ve covered earlier, from early in his Galilean ministry.

The journey we are looking at today is recorded in Matthew 8:23-28, Mark 4:35-5:2, and Luke 8:22-27.

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let’s go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the multitude, they took him with them, even as he was, in the boat. Other small boats were also with him. 37 A big wind storm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so much that the boat was already filled. 38 He himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion, and they woke him up, and told him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are dying?”

39 He awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?”

41 They were greatly afraid, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

5 They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes.

(Mark 4:35 – 5:1)

I’d like to focus on two geographical features in this story.

The obvious one is the destination. Matthew records it as the country of the Gergesenes, and Mark and Luke call it the country of the Gadarenes. There is some conjecture about the source of the name Gergesenes. I think the most likely is that Gergesa was a town near the Sea of Galilee in the general vicinity of Gadara. We have previously mentioned Gadara as one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis.

Gadara was about 6 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Given the story reported in the gospels, it is unlikely that Jesus actually visited that city, but where He and His disciples landed would’ve been considered within the region of Gadara. As with the rest of the Decapolis, this was largely a Gentile area, as evidenced by the herd of pigs being fed there (Mark 5:11,14). Jews would have nothing to do with these unclean animals (Leviticus 11:7).

This herd comes into play in the miraculous exorcism shown here (Luke 8:33). Afterwards, the man Jesus had rescued from the demons wanted to go with Him, but Jesus sent him to share the good news of the gospel with his own people:

“Return to your house, and declare what great things God has done for you.” He went his way, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:39)

The second geographical feature worth examining is the Sea of Galilee itself. On this journey, we see a storm suddenly arising on the lake, which is a demonstration of the unique characteristics of this body of water.

The Sea of Galilee is really a medium sized lake. It is thirteen miles long (north to south) and seven miles wide at it’s broadest (east to  west). To give you a sense of context, that’s about the same size as Clear Lake in California, Table Rock Lake on the Missouri-Arkansas border, or Cayuga Lake in New York.

The Sea of Galilee is surrounded by hills. It is fed by the Jordan River flowing in from the north. The Jordan continues south of this lake, continuing down to the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the lake at the lowest elevation in the world, and the Sea of Galilee is the second lowest at about 700 feet below sea level. The Dead Sea is a salt water body, but the Sea of Galilee is fresh water – the lowest freshwater lake on earth. At its deepest, it is about 140 feet deep.

The hills surrounding the lake make it susceptible to rapid weather changes, with violent storms surprising sailors as we see in this passage.

Christ mercifully calms the meterological storm on the lake, but by doing so, he raises storm clouds in the minds and hearts of his disciples. Have you come face to face with this One who is sovereign even over the wind and sea? Do you know Him? 

Put your faith in Him and do not fear the storms of this life.

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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain.

Journeys of Jesus: Decapolis to Magdala

The last couple of posts have followed Jesus as He has ministered in Gentile territories, first in the region of Tyre and Sidon, and then in the region of the Decapolis. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew both record these journeys, but they handle what comes next in ways that are subtly different, so that the next journey is not exactly clear.

In Matthew’s account, the Gentiles saw Jesus’ miracles and “glorified the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31) and then the writer immediately flows into the miraculous feeding of the 4,000 (Matthew 15:32-38). If this occurred in Decapolis, these almost definitely would be mostly Gentiles.

In Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7 ends with the miracles referenced in Matthew 15:31 (Mark 7:37) and chapter 8 begins with “In those days” (Mark 8:1), implying that the feeding of the 4,000 that follows is not immediate, but generally during the times of His ministry around the Sea of Galilee. The location is much less clear. 

In either case, this was an amazing miracle, demonstrating Jesus’ divinity and sovereignty over creation. Immediately following this miracle, Jesus and His disciples sailed across the lake to Magdala (Matthew 15:39) or the region of Dalmanutha (Mark 8:10). Dalmanutha is an otherwise unknown place. One archeologist has claimed to have found it, very near Magdala.

(Note that, in the map above from the game Journeys with Jesus, as I’ve previously mentioned, I placed Gennesaret on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, when in fact it was located between Magdala and Capernaum. I did this, in part, to avoid crowding it in, while maintaining the close proximity of all these towns to each other and keeping them all located on the shore of the lake. We don’t know where in Decapolis the events of Matthew 15 and Mark 7 took place, but it’s logical they would be somewhere along the coast between Bethsaida and Gadara, so the white path shown connecting Gennesaret and Magdala may actually be very close to the route of the journey from Decapolis to Magdala.)

While the location of Dalmanutha is a mystery, Magdala is fairly easy to find. Today it is called Migdal. But we probably are more familiar with the name because many scholars believe that the name Mary Magdalene means Mary from Magdala.

This Mary was one of several women who travelled with Jesus (Luke 8:1-3) and served Jesus and His apostles from their own resources. Jesus had exorcised seven demons from her. She was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:55-56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25), His burial (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47), and was the first to see our risen Savior (Mark 16:9, Matthew 28:1, Luke 24:8-10, John 20:1-18).

As significant as Mary Magdalene is in scripture, we know little of her hometown.

(The following paragraphs include affiliate links to Amazon. If you choose to buy using these links, my company will receive a very small commission from Amazon.)

To give you a sense for my process for learning about these places, I often start with Who’s Who and Where’s Where in the Bible by Stephen Miller.  I like this book because it is easy to use, with many people and places listed alphabetically. I usually like to verify the information here from other sources, but it’s a good starting point. There are two paragraphs in this book about Magdala, with the only “new” information being the unsurprising fact that it was a fishing village.

I often next turn to Understanding the Land of the Bible by O. Palmer Robertson.  This book is almost the opposite of Miller’s book, with long narratives giving a sense of the flow of geography and land and less details about specific places. I really like how it puts everything in a context that makes sense. Unfortunately, there’s no mention of Magdala in this book.

Third, I turn to a very old copy of The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands, which I bought at a library sale and this edition has a 1967 copyright. This one falls roughly between the two I’ve already mentioned. It is organized by region and has longer descriptions of the regions and their history, but also has entries for specific places in those regions. It has good indexes, including a Scripture Index. It often strikes me as being written from a skeptical perspective, giving more credence to secular perspectives than what we know from scripture, so again, I verify what I read there as much as I can.  This book does have a one paragraph section on Magdala, telling me that it was 2 miles north of Tiberias, was known to the Greeks as Tarichea, and was at the junction of the lake road from Tiberias and a road coming down from the western hills.

Next I turn to The Holman Bible Atlas. This book is mostly organized by biblical chronology, starting with the Old Testament and then covering the New Testament. Places that show up at different points in the Bible will show up in multiple places in this book, so it can take a little more work to pull together the information on any given place. The index lists Magdala on 4 different pages. Here we learn that the Greek name for Magdala suggests a place where fish were salted and so it was the center of the salted-fish industry for this area around the Sea of Galilee.

Finally, I turn to the ESV Bible Atlas. The first two thirds of this big book are organized like Holman, chronologically, but the last third is why I love this one – big beautiful detailed maps and a very helpful map index (with latitude and longitude coordinates). There’s one reference in the text to Magdala, but it doesn’t give me any new information.

Of course, the most important reference is the Bible itself. The search function at Bible Gateway helps me find all references to any place in dozens of different translations of the Old and New Testament.  It appears that Magdala is only mentioned once, in Matthew 15:39 (which we’ve already seen).

Let me know if you have other favorite references or ideas that might be helpful.

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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain.

Journeys of Jesus: Tyre and Sidon to Decapolis

In our last post, Jesus visited the Gentile (and wicked) region of Tyre of Sidon in the Roman province of Syria as reported in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. The account of his visit is brief and it appears that He and His disciples almost immediately returned to the area around the Sea of Galilee.

Again he departed from the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and came to the sea of Galilee, through the middle of the region of Decapolis. (Mark 7:31)

Specifically, Jesus was in the region known as the Decapolis. Decapolis literally means ten cities. Each of the cities in the Decapolis were Hellenized (Greek) city-states under the authority of Rome, but with a fair amount of autonomy.

There is some debate as to the specific cities and about the level of coordination between the cities. In 77 AD, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, listed ten cities of the Decapolis:

  • Gerasa
  • Dium
  • Scythopolis (Beit She’an)
  • Hippos
  • Gadara
  • Pella
  • Philadelphia
  • Canatha
  • Raphana
  • Damascus

The only one of these cities west of the Jordan is Scythopolis. Most of the rest are east of the river and south of the Sea of Galilee in what today is Jordan.

Philadelphia had previously been called Rabbath Ammon, the capital of Israel’s bitter enemies the Ammonites (e.g. 2 Samuel 11:1). Uriah the Hittite was killed at the gates of the citadel of this city to fulfill David’s murderous orders (2 Samuel 11:18-21). Today, this city is Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Damascus is the capital of modern day Syria and is known as the oldest capital in the world. Damascus is about 35 miles north-east of Caesarea Philippi.

To get a sense for how far this collection of 10 cities stretched, look at the map above. Damascus is about 25 miles east of the top-most red dot on the map. Philadelphia/Amman is about twice as far south of the Sea of Galilee as Pella.

In the verse above we read that Jesus came “through the middle of the region of Decapolis” “to the sea of Galilee”, so he must’ve stayed in Gentile territory, passing to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee.

The rest of Mark 7 describes what Jesus did in this region:

They brought to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech. They begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside from the multitude, privately, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat, and touched his tongue. 34 Looking up to heaven, he sighed, and said to him, “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” 35 Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was released, and he spoke clearly. 36 He commanded them that they should tell no one, but the more he commanded them, so much the more widely they proclaimed it. 37 They were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!” (Mark 7:32-37)

Although He continued to focus His ministry on His fellow Jewish countrymen (some of whom recognized Him as Messiah [Isaiah 35:5-6]), the good news was proclaimed widely, setting the stage for the Gospel’s and the church’s future spread to Gentile believers. Praise God!

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Journeys of Jesus: Gennesaret to Tyre and Sidon

Last time, we left Jesus in Gennesaret as reported in Matthew 14 and Mark 6. In both accounts, the following chapter begins with encounters between Jesus, Pharisees, the people, and His disciples.

The text doesn’t tell us where these exchanges took place. Logically, these things probably happened in Capernaum, although we aren’t told. The next geographic information we are given is a bit of a surprise:

Jesus went out from there and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. (Matthew 15:21, cf Mark 7:24)

Gennesaret was a rather obscure place. Tyre and Sidon were not. Each are mentioned about 50 times in the Old and New Testaments. Both were in the region of Syria. (Specifically, they are located in what today is the modern nation of Lebanon.) This is the only time recorded in the Gospels when Jesus’ ministry took him beyond the borders of Israel, into a distinctly Gentile territory.

It is worth spending a few minutes looking at this region. The region of Syria is along the northeastern coast of the Mediterranean, just north of Israel. You may recall stories from David and Solomon’s reigns that at least hinted at the seagoing strength of Tyre, and the abundance of cedar wood from the nearby forests of Lebanon.

Tyre reached its peak of power during the period of Phoenician independence (1200-800 BC) which included David and Solomon’s time. But you’ll also recognize the names of other major people groups that dwelt in Syria over the centuries: including the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites.

In fact, just like Israel, Syria is on the natural route connecting Africa, Europe, and Asia. All of the major ancient empires swept through this region: Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, Chaldea, Persia, Greece, and Rome. And many of these confrontations are reported for us in the Old Testament.

So, the region of Tyre and Sidon was militarily and politically strategic, and at times it was a great power, but it was not good. In 1 Kings 11:1 we read that Solomon took a Sidonian wife, and a few verses later we read:

For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. (1 Kings 11:5)

So Solomon’s wife from Sidon likely played a key role in Solomon’s backsliding.

It is also worth noting that in 1 Kings 16 we read of King Ahab: 

As if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. 32 He raised up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. 33 Ahab made the Asherah; and Ahab did more yet to provoke Yahweh, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. (1 Kings 16:31-33)

And so, I find it surprising that Jesus would pick this place to visit in the middle of his active years of ministry. We aren’t told why Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon and we only read of one encounter that Jesus had there. 

A woman described as “a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race” (in other words a Greek speaking Gentile from Syria/Phoenicia). She asks Jesus to heal her daughter, but his response indicates that His blessings are only for the Jews. Her wise, humble, and faithful response earns His respect.

Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour. (Matthew 15:28)

I myself am a Gentile by birth. I thank God that He has given us this picture of Jesus’ mercy on a Gentile with faith. Even more, I am eternally grateful for God’s mercy to me in His gift of faith that I may be grafted in to His kingdom!

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Journeys of Jesus: Bethsaida to Gennesaret

In our last post, Jesus and His disciples had travelled to Bethsaida on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Today, they travel across the lake to Gennesaret.

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. … 34 When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret. 35 When the people of that place recognized him, they sent into all that surrounding region and brought to him all who were sick; 36 and they begged him that they might just touch the fringe of his garment. As many as touched it were made whole. (Matthew 14:22,34-36)

We don’t know much about Gennesaret. It is only mentioned three times in the Bible – here in Matthew 14, in the parallel passage in Mark 6, and Luke 5 where the Sea of Galilee is referenced as the lake of Gennesaret.

According to Wikipedia, it was originally named Kinneret, but was Grecized to Gennesaret. The place name refers both to a small village, but also to a fertile plain along the west coast of the lake. As indicated in Luke 5, the Sea of Galilee was sometimes called the Lake of Gennesaret. It was also sometimes called the Lake of Galilee, the Sea of Gennesaret, the Sea or Lake of Kinneret (or Kinnereth) and the Sea or Lake of Tiberias. (More about this lake in a future post.)

Although we don’t know much about the place, archeologists are pretty sure of its location – on the northwestern shore of the lake – between Capernaum and Magdala. In the Journeys with Jesus game, I have placed Gennesaret on the south east coast of the Sea of Galilee. I did this in large part because the northwest corner of the lake was becoming very crowded on the gameboard. Since the gospels only reference traveling to and from Gennesaret by boat, making this town be on the Sea of Galilee and reachable by boat seemed a fair representation.

Jesus’ ministry in Gennesaret doesn’t stand out from much of his Galilean ministry. With just a touch He heals the sick.

But in the passage quoted above, I left out a big chunk, and this is what you probably remember best about Jesus’ journey to Gennesaret:

After he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into the mountain by himself to pray. When evening had come, he was there alone. 24 But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, distressed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. 25 In the fourth watch of the night, Jesus came to them, walking on the sea. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It’s a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Cheer up! It is I!  Don’t be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the waters.”

29 He said, “Come!”

Peter stepped down from the boat and walked on the waters to come to Jesus. 30 But when he saw that the wind was strong, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!”

31 Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand, took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got up into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 Those who were in the boat came and worshiped him, saying, “You are truly the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:23-33)

On our journeys, may we keep our eyes fixed on Christ, trusting Him to save us, and knowing that he is truly the Son of God!

If you haven’t yet heeded Jesus’ command to come to Him, may you do it now, fully trusting that with Him nothing is impossible. No matter how far you have fallen, He can save you!

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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain. 

Journeys of Jesus: Capernaum to Bethsaida

We have been looking at Jesus’ Galilean ministry, based out of Capernaum and today we visit the nearby town of Bethsaida.

The apostles, when they had returned, told him what things they had done. He took them and withdrew apart to a desert region of a city called Bethsaida. (Luke 9:10)

Americans who only speak English may not have an appreciation for place names. So many of our town and city names are borrowed from the places where the settlers originated (e.g. Plymouth, New Hampshire), or were named to show loyalty to European monarchs (e.g. Jamestown, Carolina). Some places retain names from the original inhabitants of the land (e.g. Manhattan, Kansas). But some were descriptively named in the language of the European explorers and settlers (e.g. Los Angeles, Vermont). 

Similarly, when we look at names in the Bible, they often were named very logically in the language of the time. Bethsaida is Greek for House or Place of the Fisherman. Jesus’ disciples Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip were all fishermen from Bethsaida (John 1:44).

Josephus described Bethsaida as being on the Sea of Galilee, but there is great debate over specifically where the town actually was located.  That’s not unusual for places that existed thousands of years ago. What we do know is that it was on or near the northern shore of the lake, and it was fairly close to Capernaum. 

Although it doesn’t mention Bethsaida as the destination, Mark 6 seems to be a parallel passage to Luke 9.

Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. 31 And He said to them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. 32 So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. 33 But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. (Mark 6:30-33)

So, it appears that Bethsaida could be easily reached either by boat or by foot. We may not know exactly where this fishing village is, but we do know that Jesus performed a great miracle in its deserted region. In both Mark 6 and Luke 9, when the multitudes arrive, Jesus teaches them all day, and at the end of the day He miraculously feeds 5,000 men with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish (Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17).

May we be eager to follow Jesus wherever He leads, not because we seek bread for our bellies, but rather that which springs up into everlasting life.

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Journeys of Jesus: Capernaum to Nain

In our last post, Jesus came to Capernaum and made it the base for his ministry throughout Galilee and beyond. Today we look at one of the trips he made from Capernaum.

Soon afterwards, he went to a city called Nain. Many of his disciples, along with a great multitude, went with him. (Luke 7:11)

Nain was not a significant city. It is not mentioned anywhere else in either the Old or New Testament nor in any other known writings of the period. It still exists as a small Arab village called Nein.

It was like many towns and villages throughout Galilee. And yet, Jesus chose to visit and while there, he performed an amazing miracle (Luke 7:12-15). The town was on the very southern edge of Galilee and we are told that news of the miracle was heard “in the whole of Judea, and in all the surrounding region” (Luke 7:17). 

How could something done in a small village have such a big impact? The short answer, of course, is that God accomplishes all of His holy will. But specifically, Jesus came to Nain with perfect timing, and the village was perfectly located for this miracle to be reported far and wide.

I would imagine that Nain was normally a quiet city with the relatively few citizens going about their own affairs, but on the day that Jesus chose to visit, there was a major public event happening that had the attention of the whole community. The text tells us that “many people of the city” had gathered to grieve with a widowed mother in her immeasurable sorrow. Although we aren’t told, it would not be surprising if others from nearby towns were also there. All of these witnesses were able to join in her immeasurable joy when Jesus raised the woman’s only son from the dead.

Undoubtedly this would have a big impact on this small city. But because Nain was particularly situated, the impact spread far beyond its borders.

Nain is at the foot of the Hill of Moreh, on the northern edge of the Valley of Jezreel. This valley is also called the Valley of Megido, the Plain of Jezreel, and the Valley and Plain of Esdraelon (the Greek rendering of Jezreel).

The name Jezreel may sound familiar. The town of Jezreel was not far from Nain and was where evil King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel had his royal palace. Naboth had his vineyard there. Jehu carried out the Lord’s vengeance on Ahab’s family in Jezreel, killing Ahab’s son Jehoram, who had succeeded him to the throne, Ahab’s wicked wife Jezebel, and Ahab’s grandson Ahaziah, the king of Judah (and more) (2 Kings 9-10).

Because of Ahab and Jezebel, it’s natural that we have a negative view of Jezreel, but the name means “God sows”, and the valley of that name was broad and fertile. It stretched from Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast to the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.

Because the valley cut through the highlands, it was an easy west-east path across the land. It became a route for invaders and the scene of important battles in Israel’s history. 

In Judges 6 we read that the Midianites and Amalekites would wait for the Israelites to raise their crops, then they would invade and take it all as spoil (Judges 6:3-5), but God raised up Gideon who miraculously delivered Israel from these invaders (Judges 6:33-34; 7:12, 22).

Later, King Saul set his armies at Jezreel, while the Philistine armies marched through the valley from the west to meet them (1 Samuel 29:1). Saul’s army retreated to Mount Gilboa where they were defeated and Saul and his sons were killed (1 Samuel 31:1).

And other battles were fought here, both victories and defeats for God’s chosen people. Symbolically, the book of Revelation even refers to Megiddo (Revelation 16:16) in describing God’s great final victory. 

But perhaps more relevant to the spread of the news of Jesus’ miracle was that, the Via Maris, passed through this valley, very near to Nain. Travelers stopping in and near Nain would’ve heard of God “visiting His people” in this place and would spread the news to all the surrounding region.

Perhaps you feel like you are in an insignificant place and time. Don’t be fooled. God can use you to accomplish His good and holy will. Spread His good news to all around you!

The map at the top of this post is a snapshot of a portion of the gameboard for Journeys with Jesus.  Note that, for gameplay purposes, in the game, there’s not a direct connection between Magdala and Nain, although in reality, the Great Trunk Road would be along that path.

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Journeys of Jesus: Nazareth to Capernaum

As I’ve said before, it is difficult, if not impossible, to perfectly determine the chronology of events reported in the four different gospel accounts. The beginning of Jesus’ life is easy, and the end of His life is easy, but in between it gets a lot more complicated.

For the past several posts, we have focused on the events reported early in the Gospel of John. Last week those reports took us from Judea, through Samaria, and back into Galilee, the region where Jesus had been raised. This week I’m going to shift my focus over to the synoptic gospels which all focus heavily on Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee.

I think the second half of Matthew 4 does a good job of setting the stage for this phase of Jesus’ ministry:

Now when Jesus heard that John was delivered up, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he came and lived in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying,

15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
toward the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
16 the people who sat in darkness saw a great light;
to those who sat in the region and shadow of death,
to them light has dawned.”

17 From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

18 Walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers: Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers for men.”

20 They immediately left their nets and followed him. 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. He called them. 22 They immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 The report about him went out into all Syria. They brought to him all who were sick, afflicted with various diseases and torments, possessed with demons, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them. 25 Great multitudes from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan followed him.

(Matthew 4:12-25)

We see here four important movements:

  1. Jesus returned to Galilee (presumable to His hometown of Nazareth).
  2. He moved from Nazareth to Capernaum.
  3. He called disciples to follow Him, specifically Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
  4. He went about Galilee, preaching the Gospel, and news of it spread throughout Syria and to Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and “beyond the Jordan”.

I won’t spend a lot of time on the return to Galilee. We’ve talked before about Nazareth and Galilee. Nazareth was a fairly insignificant village in the hills of Galilee. God chose it as a safe place for Jesus to grow, become strong in the spirit, be filled with wisdom, and to experience the grace of God (Luke 2:40).

But for the public phase of His ministry, Jesus fulfilled Biblical prophecy (Matthew 4:13-14) by moving to a city that was much better positioned for the light to dawn (Matthew 4:16) upon not only Jesus’ Jewish brothers, but the Gentile world as well (Matthew 4:15). We have talked before about the significance of Capernaum’s location both on the Sea of Galilee and on the Via Maris highway. And so now, Jesus has come to this place, perfectly positioned in time and space, for the gospel to go forth to the known world.

But Jesus not only wants to leave the good news as words to be written down by eyewitnesses, He is also going to establish His church. And so He begins to call the first leaders of that church to their new ministry. In this passage (and in the parallel passage in Mark 1:16-20) Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow Him. But wait, didn’t we already read about Andrew and Peter and others following Jesus back when Jesus was where John the Baptist was baptizing (John 1:40-42)? It would appear that they had returned to their work as fishermen, but now Jesus went looking for them and called them to leave that work and to begin building His church (becoming fishers for men).

And Jesus began to preach: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” From His base in Capernaum, He went all over Galilee teaching, preaching, and healing. And the word spread. The news spread north to Syria. It spread south to Judea. It spread west of Capernaum to all of Galilee. And it spread to the southeast to Decapolis and the region beyond the Jordan. And people came and followed Him.

Have you heard the news? The Kingdom of Heaven has come! Repent and believe and follow Jesus!

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Journeys of Jesus: Sychar to Cana

In my last post, Jesus and His disciples started in Judea and headed towards Galilee, but they had to pass through Samaria. There Jesus encountered a woman at Jacob’s well, near Sychar. He called her to Himself and spent two days there leading a great revival. 

After the two days he went out from there and went into Galilee.  … Jesus came therefore again to Cana of Galilee, where he made the water into wine. (John 4:43,46a)

This is Jesus’ second visit to Cana. We have already looked at this village, but we haven’t looked very closely at Galilee as a whole. The bulk of Jesus’ ministry, as reported in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), is spent in this region, so today I want to focus on what we know about this part of Israel.

It has always been curious to me that Judea is a prominent area for the Jews, Samaria is not, but then Galilee is again. What is the story here?

In his excellent book, Understanding the Land of the Bible, O. Palmer Robertson describes Galilee almost poetically:

Slopes descending from the mountains of Samaria connect Galilee with the rest of Palestine. Intermittent passes open this northern territory to the flat coastal plains along the Mediterranean that lead to Egypt and the rest of North Africa. Prominent among these passes was the one guarded by the fortress city of Megiddo, always ready to stand against advancing armies. … A second prominent feature of Galilee’s terrain are the broad plains running west to east on a slight diagonal from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. Broken here and there with mountains, such as Gilboa where Saul fell and Tabor where Deborah assembled her troops, these broad expanses known as Jezreel (or Esdraelon) provided fertile soil for crops to grow and ample space for chariots to maneuver. … Across these plains marched the Assyrian armies of Sennacharib and the Babylonian troops of Nebuchadnezzar. The Medo-Persian, the Greek, the Roman, and the Crusader armies each in their turn trudged over this same soil. … But more significant than all these goings and comings of rising and falling nations was the strategic role of this same Galilee of the Gentiles in the spread of the Gospel of God to all the nations of the world. … Jesus opened his public ministry by deliberately situating himself at Capernaum so he could reach out to touch all nations with his Gospel. At this locale he could preach to all the peoples of the world — not simply the Jews — about the worldwide “kingdom of heaven” that was near (Matt 4:17).

Robertson hints at some of the key history of this region, but let’s dive a little deeper. 

The area known as Galilee largely aligns with the tribal allotments for Asher, Zebulun, and Naphtali. After the conquest, Judges 1 describes the success of each of the tribes in driving out the original gentile inhabitants. The description starts well with Judea in the south, but as it moves north it gets worse. First, we encounter pockets where the Israelites fail and the gentiles continue to live among them (e.g. Judges 1:21), but by the time we get to Asher (Judges 1:32) and Naphtali (Judges 1:33), the script is flipped and the Israelites live among the gentiles.

King Solomon also gave 20 cities to Hiram, the gentile king of Tyre (1 Kings 9:11), although Hiram wasn’t impressed. He called the cities Cabul, or good-for-nothing (1 Kings 9:13).

And thus, from the very beginning, Galilee was “of the gentiles”, as Isaiah described it (Isaiah 9:1, quoted in Matthew 4:15).

But, as Robertson noted, perhaps most significantly, the history of Galilee was shaped by the fact that it was the northern frontier of the promised land. The entry point for all of the invading armies. They were the first conquered and the first carried away captive (2 Kings 15:29). There is no record of these northern tribes ever returning to the land.

As we read last week, a remnant was left in Samaria who intermarried with imported gentiles and intermixed religions, but Galilee was left barren and eventually resettled by various gentile peoples who gradually moved in.

It appears that Jews didn’t return to Galilee until the time of the Hasmonean dynasty, which gained independence when the Seleucid Empire collapsed around 100 BC. The Hasmoneans expanded north out of Judea into Samaria and Galilee. They settled many new cities in the conquered territory, bringing in Jews from the south and perhaps converting many of the gentiles to the Jewish faith. For example, Joseph’s family was clearly from Judea, and Mary at least had cousins in Judea.

And so, by the providence of God, in the fullness of time, God prepared the way for Jesus to preach throughout Galilee of the gentiles, and for the gospel to spread from there to the nations.

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Journeys of Jesus: Judean Countryside to Sychar

In this week’s post, Jesus spends time in Samaria. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the woman at the well, then you have undoubtedly heard about the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans. But I think it’s worth taking a broad look at this region.

But first, let’s start with John’s account of Jesus’ visit:

Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself didn’t baptize, but his disciples), he left Judea and departed into Galilee. He needed to pass through Samaria. So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son, Joseph. Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being tired from his journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. (John 4:1-8)

Let’s start with geography. The region of Samaria was between Judea in the South and Galilee in the North.  The region largely aligns with the tribal allotments of Ephraim and the half of Manasseh that was west of the Jordan, (the two half tribes of Joseph).

The Jewish historian Josephus describes Samaria this way:

Now as to the country of Samaria, it lies between Judea and Galilee; it begins at a village that is in the great plain called Ginea, and ends at the Acrabbene toparchy, and is entirely of the same nature with Judea; for both countries are made up of hills and valleys, and are moist enough for agriculture, and are very fruitful. They have abundance of trees, and are full of autumnal fruit, both that which grows wild, and that which is the effect of cultivation. They are not naturally watered by many rivers, but derive their chief moisture from rain-water, of which they have no want; and for those rivers which they have, all their waters are exceeding sweet: by reason also of the excellent grass they have, their cattle yield more milk than do those in other places; and, what is the greatest sign of excellency and of abundance, they each of them are very full of people. 

When traveling between Judea and Galilee, most Jews would take one of two routes. Many would take the road along and to the east of the Jordan River in order to avoid Samaria, but the faster route often was along the Patriarch’s Way straight through the heart of Samaria. The Via Maris is a third route, largely along the Mediterranean coast, but this did not pass near Jerusalem, so for most travelers, this would be the longest route. It appears that Jesus often took the Patriarch’s Way, as He did on this journey, and that brought Him and His disciples to Jacob’s Well near the town of Sychar, which brings us to the history of Samaria.

In Genesis 12, we read: Abram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go into the land of Canaan. They entered into the land of Canaan. Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time, Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:5-6)

So, when Abram first entered the Promised Land, he came to a place called Shechem.  Shechem is very close to the location of the town Sychar in Jesus’ day. God spoke to Abram and made Him a promise: “I will give this land to your offspring.”  In response, Abram built his first altar to God in the land here (Genesis 12:7).

Later, Jacob came to Shechem when he returned to the Promised Land with his wives and his children (Genesis 33:18).  At some point, he must’ve dug the well referenced in John 4. Joseph also passed through Shechem on his fateful journey that ended with him as a slave in Egypt (Genesis 37:13). Centuries later, Joseph’s bones were buried in Shechem (Joshua 24:32). So, this area was prominent in the lives of the Patriarchs.

Shechem was in the valley between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal.  Through Moses, God commanded that, when Israel entered the promised land, that half the tribes should stand on one mountain to pronounce the blessings of the law and half on the other to pronounce the curses (Deuteronomy 11:29; 27:11-15). And that they did (Joshua 8:33). Joshua set Shechem apart as one of the cities of refuge (Joshua 20:7). At the end of his life, Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem (Joshua 24:1) where he gave his great “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” speech (Joshua 24:15) and in response the people made a covenant with Joshua to serve God (Joshua 24:25). 

Much later, after Kings David and Solomon died, Solomon’s son Rehoboam came to Shechem to be made king of Israel (1 Kings 12:1), but there he was confronted by Jeroboam. Rehoboam chose bad counsel, responded poorly, and as a result, 10 of the 12 tribes were torn from his hand, as God had promised (1 Kings 11:31,35) — the kingdom was split in two. The southern kingdom, ruled by David’s descendants was known as Judah and the northern kingdom, ruled by a long line of ungodly kings, starting with Jeroboam, was known as Israel or Ephraim. The first capital of this northern kingdom was Shechem (1 Kings 12:25), but later it moved to a new city called Samaria (1 Kings 16:24,29). From that point on, Shechem became unimportant. In time the name Samaria at times was used to describe the northern kingdom.

Jeroboam feared that the people would return to Rehoboam when they went to Jerusalem to worship God, so he set up false gods for worship, one in Bethel (a little south of Shechem) and one in the far north in Dan  (1 Kings 12:28-29). He chose his own priests and his own worship rituals, not as God had revealed through Moses. This began the false worship that the woman at the well identified as separating the Samaritans from the Jews. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (John 4:20)

In time, God brought judgment on the northern kingdom. Most of the people were carried away by the Assyrians, but some were left. They also brought in people from the other nations they had captured (2 Kings 17:24). The people intermarried and they mixed the worship of God with worship of the false gods of these other nations (2 Kings 17:41). 

Later, God also punished the unfaithfulness of the southern kingdom and the Jews of Judah were carried away by Nebuchadnezzar to Babylon. But later after Persia conquered Babylon, Cyrus sent Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-3).  The Samaritans tried to join with them (Ezra 4:1-2), but the Jewish leaders would not allow them to pollute the pure worship of God, and so the Samaritans did all they could to stop the restoration of the pure worship of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:4-5).

It is this enmity that caused the woman at the well to be astonished that Jesus would speak with her (John 4:9). 

But Jesus quickly focused the discussion on what really matters — not the physical state of things, but rather the spiritual.

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” … Jesus answered her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13-14)

The woman saw her sin, knew her need for a Savior, believed in Christ, and told her neighbors. Jesus led a great revival in that place.

From that city many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the word of the woman, who testified, “He told me everything that I did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they begged him to stay with them. He stayed there two days. 41 Many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.” (John 4:39-42)

The apostle Paul would later explain how, in Christ, the walls of this world that formerly separated us have been demolished when we trust in Christ and are reconciled by Him.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Hallelujah! Praise God!

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Note: all scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the World English Bible which is in the public domain.