Jesus opens His mission at Capharnaum

Anthony Zimmerman
March 29, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea (Mt 4:12),

No lovelier spot exists on earth than Capharnaum by the sea. Behind it rises the grassy slope that leads gently, step by step, toward the majestic tableland on top, shaded by trees, providing a panoramic view of the Sea below. It was from there that Jesus proclaimed the greatest sermon ever made on earth, the Sermon on the Mount.

The city is a stone's throw from the Sea of Galilee, and like the Sea, the lake shore is warm through winter and summer in a mild climate 700 feet below sea level. The Lake teems with fish, and its warm waters invite one for a boat ride and a swim. But as the apostles knew so well, sudden storms can swamp a boat so watch the weather forecasts before you "launch into the deep."

You might ask why Jesus did not start His mission in Nazareth, His home town, where Mary probably kept the house in good order, and the "brothers and sisters" of His extended family had their home base. We have the answer from Jesus Himself: "No prophet is accepted in His homeland." Furthermore, Nazareth was a town off the beaten track, whereas Capharnaum was the New York and Tokyo of the area. a central metropolis situated on the north shore of the lake, with many towns within walking distance. The Roman road also passed through the town, and it was likely there that Matthew sat in a road-side tax booth. The language commonly spoken was Aramaic, but Greek was known also. The name Simon given to Peter is the Greek form of the more ancient Hebrew Simeon, and Andrew is a Greek name (see the International Bible Commentary, 1269). The tax collectors probably knew a smattering of other languages as well.

Peter's house was next to the Lake, and it is there that Jesus cured the mother-in-law of the apostle. The ruins of a synagogue stand almost next door, where Jesus once preached. It is likely that it was in this house of prayer that His healing on the Sabbath precipitated an altercation with the scribes and Pharisees. We can sympathize with the keepers of the synagogue because the healing disturbed the calm atmosphere of the Sabbath. That was true enough, but the riotous excitement that followed the healing advertised the advent of Jesus all the more. The keepers of the synagogue should have welcomed this coming of Jesus instead, by now marching with Him out of the Old Testament into the New.

Here Jesus began His public life with the simple words that brought heaven down to earth: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand":

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naph'tali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles -- the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 4:12-17).

Matthew, being sensitive to the culture of his fellow Jews, used the term "kingdom of heaven" in preference to the other term, "kingdom of God." Jews felt that the word "God" was too holy for daily use, mindful of the scene in which God had revealed His name to Moses. From the fiery bush that was not consumed the Lord had spoken to Moses to come no closer because the ground on which he stood is holy ground. He should also take off his shoes and stand in an attitude of reverence. Then it was that God revealed His name: "I AM."

Then Moses said to God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, `I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:13-14).

Maybe we ought to take a cue from Exodus by entering the portals of churches with a sense of awe, keeping silence therein, and leaving business and visiting for outside of the sacred interior.

Mark, Luke, and John, on the other hand, favor the term "kingdom of God." In either case, Jesus was inaugurating His own proper kingdom. As He spoke, the people listened with spell-bound attention. He spoke with assurance and power, yet with home-spun words and stories that did not frighten the listeners with pyrotechnics like to those of the divine display on Mount Sinai. His human demeanor, lighted up by divinity within, attracted great crowds who were charmed by His words. Though He was the living God, He kept a discreet veil over His awesome Divinity and appeared to all who saw Him as no more than an outstanding citizen of the land. His comely manners and the charm of his words surely reflected the education that His outstanding mother had given to him; and His balanced assurance reflected the manly stance that He had absorbed while working side by side with His foster father Joseph, a businessman and professional carpenter, fully acquainted with the ways of the world.

The sonorous words that Matthew intones here are like a flourish of trumpets: "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." For this was the historic moment when the cosmos turned on its hinges. From the moment that Christ commenced his proclamation of the kingdom there in Capharnaum, from that moment He strode on the platform of the cosmos and took charge of it. The Church-to-be was now in the making, and the cosmos had received its new CEO. Saint Paul tells us how Christ would be in charge of the cosmos henceforth, until He would deliver it up to His Father at the end of time:

For God has put all things in subjection under his feet. But when it says, "All things are put in subjection under him," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one (1 Cor 15: 27-28).

At Capharnaum He began to rule in His kingdom. At the close of the age He will call us together, give His judgment to those on the right and to those on the left, and then escort us into the kingdom of heaven, leaving behind the cosmos exploding in its final spectacular conflagration.

Christ's salvific works in the Old testament

It appears that God found it proper to bestow grace upon man only by way of the Mediator, Jesus Christ. He must be a river of love gushing from the Heart of the Blessed Trinity to each one of us, as the river that Ezekiel saw flowing to the East from the temple. He is the Way of God to man, and the Way of man to God. It follows that whatever works of salvation existed prior to his coming in history was also the work of Christ (see Dominus Jesus No. 12). For example, "And all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:4; see also 1 Peter 1:10-12).

Saint Irenaeus intuited that God did not deem it proper to raise humans to the state of grace and divine adoption unless the Son of God would first become one of us.

For this reason did the Word of God became man ... that man, mingled with the Word of God would receive adoption and become a son of God. For we could not otherwise have received imperishability and immortality unless we had been joined to imperishability and immortality" (Ad. Haer. III,19.1).

The same saint and pioneer theologian identifies the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as the one who walked with Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall, who also appeared in various divine apparitions recorded in the Old Testament:

And so fair and goodly was the Garden, the Word of God was constantly walking in it; He would walk around and talk with the man, prefiguring what was to come to pass in the future, how He would become man!s fellow, and talk with him, and come among mankind teaching them justice" (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 12, trans. Joseph F. Smith, S.J.).

The Bishop of Lyons goes on to expound further on the activities of Christ before the Incarnation:

For Christ did not come just for those who believed him from the times of Tiberius Caesar, nor did the Father exercise his providence just for the men who live now, but for all the men who from the beginning feared and loved God as they were able and lived in justice and piety toward their neighbors and desired to see Christ and hear his voice (Ad. Haer. IV, 6.7 trans. John Saward).

Pope St. Leo the Great likewise taught that Christ was at work with His Spirit in ages past:

"When the Holy Spirit filled the Lord's disciples on the day of Pentecost, this was not the first exercise of his role but an extension of his bounty, because the patriarchs, prophets, priests, and all the holy men of the previous ages were nourished by the same sanctifying Spirit... although the measure of the gifts was not the same" (Sermon 76, PL 54, 405-406).

Christ, the one bridge from earth to heaven

The meaning of Christ's appearance among us is to draw us into the kingdom of His grace: "It is only because the Son of God truly became man that man, in him and through him, can truly become God" (Novo Millenio Ineunte: No. 23). In other words, Christ is the one bridge that exists over the great gulf between heaven and earth. "The Fathers have laid great stress on this soteriological dimension of the mystery of the Incarnation", namely that only because God became man, can man become God "(ibid).

Christ inaugurated His kingdom at Capharnaum to extend His rule not only into the future until the end of time, but also by now historically making His own the past events of creation, when God detonated the Big Bang to produce our cosmos over thirteen billion years ago. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee He took into His hands the reins of cosmic government, of ages past, present and future. For if we walk our logic backwards, we understand that God would not have created the world if there would be no Christ and Incarnation to give it meaning.

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent (Colossians 1:15-17).