When Jesus heard that John the baptizer had been imprisoned, he left the Jordan valley and went north toward the district of Galilee (Matt 4.13). His baptism by John in the river had been the turning point of his life. From here on everything would be different. Jesus had lived a private life; now he would become a public person. He had earned his living as a carpenter selling his goods in Nazareth and likely Sepphoris, a larger, more affluent city a few miles away; now he would become a preacher of the Kingdom of God, healing and making disciples throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria and the Decapolis. He had grown up in Nazareth; now he would leave behind his hometown and settle in Capernaum.
But why did Jesus go north to Galilee? Why didn’t he head straight for Jerusalem, the city of prophets? Well, the answer is simple. He was guided by Scripture. Hundreds of years before Mary labored and gave birth to her male child, the prophet Isaiah had foreseen a day when hope returned to the land mortally wounded by invaders from the north. He prophesied:
Isaiah 9:1-2 (NASV) But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish; in earlier times He treated the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali with contempt, but later on He shall make it glorious, by the way of the sea, on the other side of Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. 2 The people who walk in darkness Will see a great light; Those who live in a dark land, The light will shine on them.
Jesus knew the Scriptures. He understood that the renewal was to begin up north, in the ancestral lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, districts known in his day as Galilee. That was only right in the justice of God because it was these regions that fell first to Assyrian and Babylonian aggression. The villages and towns first to fall and walk in darkness were to be the first to have the light shine upon them. Jesus was that light. Capernaum would become his city.
Rather than return to Nazareth, his hometown, the Gospels tell us that Jesus “moved” to Capernaum and made it the headquarters of his ministry. Capernaum was a village on the north-west corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was the home of two sets of brothers–Simon and Andrew, James and John. Fishing provided their families a living on the Sea of Galilee. The sea also provided plenty of fresh water for the people residing there. Population estimates during Jesus’ day for the village have conservatively been set between 1200-1700 inhabitants. Although most of Capernaum’s citizens were Jewish, there is evidence some non-Jews also made it their home. Still this is no thriving city. Unlike larger cities it had no wall to protect it, no aqueducts, no colonnaded streets, no administrative buildings and no theater. Its only significant public space was a synagogue that served as both a place of worship and a community center. Had Jesus not made Capernaum his base of operations, it is likely most would never have even heard of it.
Join me next for Part 2 of Jesus and Capernaum.