Matthew 4
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

(1) The narrative of the Temptation is confessedly one of the most mysterious in the Gospel records. In one respect it stands almost, if not altogether, alone. It could not have come, directly or indirectly, from an eye-witness. We are compelled to look on it either as a mythical after-growth; as a supernatural revelation of facts that could not otherwise be known; or, lastly, as having had its source in our Lord’s own report of what He had passed through. The first of these views is natural enough with those who apply the same theory to all that is marvellous and supernatural in our Lord’s life. As a theory generally applicable, however, to the interpretation of the Gospels, that view has not been adopted in this Commentary, and there are certainly no reasons why, rejecting it elsewhere, we should accept it here. Had it been based upon the narrative of the temptation of the first Adam, in Genesis 3, we should have expected the recurrence of the same symbolism, of the serpent and the trees. Nothing else in the Old Testament, nothing in the popular expectations of the Christ, could have suggested anything of the kind. The ideal Christ of those expectations would have been a great and mighty king, showing forth his wisdom and glory, as did the historical son of David; not a sufferer tried and tempted. The forms of the Temptation, still more the answers to them, have, it will be seen, a distinct individuality about them, just conceivable in the work of some consummate artist, but utterly unlike the imagery, beautiful or grand, which enters into most myths. Here, therefore, the narrative will be dealt with as the record of an actual experience. To assume that this record was miraculously revealed to St. Matthew and St. Luke is, however, to introduce an hypothesis which cannot be proved, and which is, at least, not in harmony with their general character as writers. They are, one by his own statement, the other by inference from the structure and contents of his Gospel, distinctly compilers from many different sources, with all the incidental variations to which such a process is liable. There is no reason to look on this narrative as an exception to the general rule. The very difference in the order of the temptations is, as far as it goes, against the idea of a supernatural revelation. There remains, then, the conclusion that we have here that which originated in some communication from our Lord’s own lips to one of His disciples, His own record of the experience of those forty days. So taken, it will be seen that all is coherent, and in some sense (marvellous as the whole is), natural, throwing light on our Lord’s past life, explaining much that followed in His teaching.

Led up of the spirit.—Each narrator expresses the same fact in slightly different language. St. Luke (Luke 4:1) “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led in the wilderness.” St. Mark (Mark 1:12), more vividly, “Immediately the Spirit driveth Him into the wilderness.” What is meant by such language? The answer is found in the analogous instances of seers and prophets. St. John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10). The Spirit “lifted up” Ezekiel that from his exile by the banks of Chebar he might see the secret sins of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:3). The “Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip” (Acts 8:39). Those who spake with tongues spake “by the Spirit” (1Corinthians 14:2). The result of this induction leads us to think of the state so described as one more or less of the nature of ecstasy, in which the ordinary phenomena of consciousness and animal life were in great measure suspended. That gift of the Spirit had on the human nature of the Son of Man something of the same overpowering mastery that it has had over others of the sons of men. A power mightier than His own human will was urging Him on, it might almost be said He knew not whither, bringing Him into conflict “not with flesh and blood,” but with “principalities and powers in heavenly places.”

To be tempted of the devil.—We are brought, at the outset of the narrative, face to face with the problem of the existence and personality of the power of evil. Here that existence and personality are placed before us in the most distinct language. Whatever difficulties such a view may be thought to present, whatever objections may be brought against it, are altogether outside the range of the interpreter of Scripture. It may be urged that the writers of what we call the Scriptures have inherited a mistaken creed on this point (though to this all deeper experience is opposed), or that they have accommodated themselves to the thoughts of a creed which they did not hold (though of such an hypothesis there is not a particle of evidence), but it would be the boldest of all paradoxes to assert that they do not teach the existence of an evil power whom they call the Enemy, the Accuser, the Devil. Whence the name came, and how the belief sprang up, are, on the other hand, questions which the interpreter is bound to answer. The name, then, of devil (diabolos, accuser or slanderer) appears in the LXX. version of 1Chronicles 21:1, Job 1:6; Job 2:1, as the equivalent for the Hebrew, Satan (the adversary). He appears there as a spiritual being of superhuman but limited power, tempting men to evil, and accusing them before the Throne of God when they have yielded to the temptation. In Zechariah 3:1-2, the same name appears in the Hebrew and the LXX. connected with a like character, as the accuser of Joshua the son of Jozedek. In Wisdom Of Solomon 2:24, the name is identified with the Tempter of Genesis 3, and as that book belongs to the half-century before, or, more probably, the half-century after, our Lord’s birth, it may fairly be taken as representing the received belief of the Jews in His time.

Into conflict with such a Being our Lord was now brought. The temptations which come to other men from their bodily desires, or from the evils of the world around them, had had no power over Him, had not brought even the sense of effort or pain in overcoming them. But if life had passed on thus to the end, the holiness which was inseparable from it would have been imperfect at least in one respect: it would not have earned the power to understand and sympathise with sinners. There was, as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches, a divine fitness that He too should suffer and be tempted even as we are, that so He might “be able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).

The scene of the Temptation was probably not far from that of the Baptism, probably, too, as it implies solitude, on the eastern rather than the western side of the Jordan. The traditional Desert of Quarantania (the name referring to the forty days’ fast) is in the neighbourhood of Jericho. The histories of Moses and Elijah might suggest the Wilderness of Sinai, but in that case it would have probably been mentioned by the Evangelists.

And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
(2) Forty days and forty nights.—Here we have an obvious parallelism with the fasts of Moses (Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1Kings 19:8), and we may well think of it as deliberately planned. Prolonged fasts of nearly the same extent have been recorded in later times. The effect of such a fast on any human organism, and therefore on our Lord’s real humanity, would be to interrupt the ordinary continuity of life, and quicken all perceptions of the spiritual world into a new intensity. It may be noted that St. Luke describes the Temptation as continuing through the whole period, so that what is recorded was but the crowning conflict, gathering into one the struggles by which it had been preluded. The one feature peculiar to St. Mark (who omits the specific history of the temptations), that our Lord “was with the wild beasts” (Mark 1:13). suggests that their presence, their yells of hunger, their ravening fierceness, their wild glaring eyes, had left, as it were, an ineffable and ineffaceable impression of horror, in addition to the terrors and loneliness of the wilderness as such.

He was afterward an hungred.—The words imply a partial return to the common life of sensation. The cravings of the body at last made themselves felt, and in them, together with the memory of the divine witness that had been borne forty days before, the Tempter found the starting-point of his first attack. Of that attack there may well have been preludes during the previous time of trial. Now it came more distinctly.

And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
(3) When the tempter came.—Nothing in the narrative suggests the idea of a bodily presence visible to the eye of sense, and all attempts so to realise it, whether as Milton has done in Paradise Regained, or as by rationalistic commentators, who held that the Tempter was, or assumed the shape of, a scribe or priest, are unauthorised, and diminish our sense of the reality and mystery of the Temptation. The narrative is not the less real and true because it lies altogether in the spiritual region of man’s life.

If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.—“These stones,” as if in union with glance and gesture, pointing to the loaf-like flints of the Jordan desert. The nature of the temptation, so far as we can gauge its mysterious depth, was probably complex. Something there may have been, suggested from without, like that which uttered itself in Esau’s cry, “What profit shall this birthright do to me?” (Genesis 25:32). Hungry, exhausted, as if life were ebbing away in the terrible loneliness of the desert, the “wild beasts” around him, as if waiting for their victim, what would it avail to have been marked out as the Son of God, the long-expected Christ? With this another thought was blended. If He were the Son of God, did not that name involve a lordship over nature? Could He not satisfy His hunger and sustain His life? Would He not in so exercising the power of which now, for the first time it may be, He was the conscious possessor, be establishing his status as the Christ in the eyes of others? That thought presented itself to His mind, but it was rejected as coming from the Enemy. It would have been an act of self-assertion and distrust, and therefore would have involved not the affirmation, but the denial of the Sonship which had so recently been attested.

But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
(4) It is written.—The words of all the three answers to the Tempter come from two chapters of Deuteronomy, one of which (Deuteronomy 6) supplied one of the passages (6:4-9) for the phylacteries or frontlets worn by devout Jews. The fact is every way suggestive. A prominence was thus given to that portion of the book, which made it an essential part of the education of every Israelite. The words which our Lord now uses had, we must believe, been familiar to Him from His childhood, and He had read their meaning rightly. With them He may have sustained the faith of others in the struggles of the Nazareth home with poverty and want. And now He finds in them a truth which belongs to His high calling as well as to His life of lowliness. “Not by bread only doth man live, but by the word, i.e., the will, of God.” He can leave His life and all that belongs to it in His Father’s hands. In so losing His life, if that should be the issue, He is certain that He shall save it. If His Father has given Him a work to do, He will enable Him to fulfil it. As this act of faith throws us back on the training of the childhood, so we trace its echoes in the after-teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-32), of Matthew 10:39, yet more in that of John 6. The experience of the wilderness clothed the history of the bread from heaven with a new significance.

Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
(5) The order of the last two temptations is different in St. Luke, and the variation is instructive. Either St. Luke’s informant was less accurate than St. Matthew’s, or the impressions left on the minds of those to whom the mystery had been communicated were slightly different. Especially was this likely to be the case, if the trial had been (as the narratives of St. Mark and St. Luke show) protracted, and the temptations therefore recurring. St. Matthew’s order seems, on the whole, the truest, and the “Get thee behind me, Satan,” fits in better with the close of the conflict.

Taketh him up into the holy city.—The use of this term to describe Jerusalem (Luke 4:9) is peculiar to St. Matthew among the Evangelists, and is used again by him in Matthew 27:53. St. John uses it in Revelation 11:2 of the literal, in Revelation 21:2 of the heavenly, Jerusalem. The analogy of Ezekiel 37:1; Ezekiel 40:2, where the prophet is carried from place to place in the vision of God, leads us to think of this “taking” as outside the conditions of local motion. As St. Paul said of like spiritual experiences of his own (2Corinthians 12:2), so we must say of this, Whether it was in the body, or out of the body, we know not, God knoweth.

A pinnacle of the temple.—Better, the pinnacle. The Greek has the article. The Greek word, like “pinnacle” is the diminutive of “wing,” and seems to have been applied to any pointed roof or gable. In this case, looking to the position and structure of the Temple, we may think of the point or parapet of the portico of Herod overlooking the Valley of Jehoshaphat, rising to a dizzy height of 400 cubits above it (Jos. Ant. xv. 11, 5). Our Lord’s earlier visits to Jerusalem must have made the scene familiar to Him. In past years He may have looked down from that portico on the dark gorge beneath. Now a new thought is brought before Him. Shall He test the attestation that He was the beloved Son by throwing himself headlong down? Was there not a seeming warrant for such a trial, the crucial experiment of Sonship? Had not the Psalmist declared of the chosen One of God that His angels should bear Him up? This seems a far truer view than that the point of the temptation lay in the suggestion that He should work a sign or wonder by throwing Himself, in the presence of the people, from the parapet that overlooked the court of the worshippers, and so obtain power and popularity. The answer to the Tempter shows that the suggestion tended, not to vain glory, but to distrust simulating reliance. It is a somewhat curious coincidence that James the Just, the brother of the Lord, is said to have been thrown down from “the pinnacle of the Temple” into one of its courts (Euseb. H. E. ii. 23).

And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
(6) If thou be the Son of God.—In this case, as before, the temptation starts from the attestation of the character of Jesus as the Son of God. With this there is now joined an appeal to familiar and sacred words, and the subtlety of the Tempter lay in his perversion of their true meaning. Here, too, the words throw light on the previous spiritual life of the Son of Man. As in all analogous temptations (and the history would have but little significance or interest for us if it were not analogous to many human experiences) the words which were presented to the soul, with their true meaning obscured and perverted, must have been precisely those that had before been most precious. We can think of Him as having fed on those words, found in them the stay and comfort of His life, without ever dreaming (if one may venture so to speak) of putting them to the test by devices of His own imagining.

In their hands.—Better, on. The angelic hands are thought of as sustaining and up-bearing.

Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
(7) It is written again.—The words are, as already stated, from the chapter that contains one of the passages written on the phylacteries, that were probably used by our Lord Himself. As the words stand in Deuteronomy 6:16, their general meaning is specialised by an historical reference, “Ye shall not tempt the Lord thy God, as ye tempted Him in Massah.” In the history thus referred to, the sin of the people had been that they questioned the presence of God with them until they saw a supernatural proof of it. They asked, “Is Jehovah among us, or not?” and that question sprang from unbelief. To have demanded a like proof of His Father’s care now would have identified the Son of Man with a like spirit of distrust, and the history of that temptation was therefore a sufficient answer to this. Here, too, a light is thrown on the future teaching of the Christ. The lessons of the wilderness taught Him (the word may seem bold, but it is justified by Hebrews 5:8) to commit Himself absolutely to His Father’s will. We find almost an echo of what is recorded here in the words which tell us that He forbore to pray for the twelve legions of angels which the Father would have sent him (Matthew 26:53).

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
(8) An exceeding high mountain.—Here, if proof were wanted, we have evidence that all that passed in the Temptation was in the region of which the spirit, and not the senses, takes cognisance. No “specular mount” (I use Milton’s phrase) in the whole earth commands a survey of “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.” St. Luke’s addition “in a moment of time,” in one of those flashes of intuition which concentrate into a single act of consciousness the work of years, adds, if anything could add, to the certainty of this view. Milton’s well-known expansion of this part of the Temptation (Paradise Regained, Book III.), though too obviously the work of a scholar exulting in his scholarship, is yet worth studying as the first serious attempt to realise in part, at least, what must thus have been presented to our Lord’s mind.

And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
(9) All these things will I give thee.—St. Luke’s addition, “For that is (has been) delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will I give it,” is full of significance. The offer made by the Tempter rested on the apparent evidence of the world’s history. The rulers of the world, its Herods and its Cæsars, seemed to have attained their eminence by trampling the laws of God under foot, and accepting Evil as the Lord and Master of the world. In part, the claim is allowed by our Lord’s language and that of his Apostles. Satan is “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; John 14:30). His hosts are “the world-rulers (κοσμοκράτορας) of darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). In this case the temptation is no longer addressed to the sense of Sonship, but to the love of power. To be a King like other kings, mighty to deliver His people from their oppressors, and achieve the glory which the prophets had predicted for the Christ;—this was possible for Him if only He would go beyond the self-imposed limits of accepting whatsoever His Father ordered for Him.

Wilt fall down and worship me.—The latter word properly expresses, as apparently throughout the New Testament, the homage offered to a king rather than the adoration due to God.

Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
(10) Get thee hence, Satan.—Once more the answer to the Tempter was found in the words of the Tephillim and the lessons of childhood. No evidence of power could change the eternal laws of duty. There came to the Son of Man the old command, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God,” as an oracle from heaven, and this, rather than an attempt to refute the claim of sovereignty, was that on which He took His stand. Others, dealing with the same temptation, as the writers of the Book of Job and of Psalms 73, have discussed the question of the apparent triumph of evil in the world’s history, and have pointed to its ultimate downfall, to the sure though slow retribution which even that history records, to the redress of the anomalies of this life in a life beyond the grave. Here we have a truer and simpler answer. Even though they cannot solve the problem, the true wisdom of men who follow in the footsteps of Christ is to recognise that their allegiance is due to God and to Him only. Here, once more, the truth thus affirmed reappears later on. When the chief of the Apostles sought to turn his Master from the appointed path of suffering, he was met, as renewing the same form of temptation which had been thus resisted, with the self-same words. Even Peter had to hear himself rebuked with “Get thee behind me, Satan” (Matthew 16:23). The use of the formula here, for the first time in the conflict, is significant as implying that in the previous temptations Evil had presented itself in disguise, making sins of distrust appear as acts of faith, while now it showed itself in its naked and absolute antagonism to the divine will.

Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
(11) Angels came and ministered unto him.—The tenses of the two verbs differ, the latter implying continued or repeated ministrations. Here also we are in the region of the spiritual life, and must be content to leave the nature of the ministration undefined, instead of sensualising it as poets and artists have done. What is instructive is, that the help of their service, the contrast between the calm and beauty of their presence and that of the wild beasts and of the Tempter, comes as the reward of the abnegation which refused to make their ministry the subject of an experimental test. In this case, also, we find strange coincidences. The fact recorded by St. Matthew explains the words recorded by St. John (John 1:51) as uttered but a few days later, and which speak of “the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The words with which St. Luke ends his record of the Temptation may well be noticed here: “And having finished every temptation, the devil departed from him for a season” (literally, till a season). The conflict was not yet ended, and was from time to time renewed—now in the passionate prayer of the disciple (Matthew 16:22), now in the open enmity of the prince of this world (John 12:31; John 14:30).

Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee;
(12) Between the 11th and 12th verses there is a great break, and it is well to remember what passed in the interval: (1) the return to the Baptist, and the call of the six disciples (John 1:29-51); (2) the marriage at Cana, and the visit to Capernaum (John 2:1-12); (3) the cleansing of the Temple; the interview with Nicodemus, and the last testimony of the Baptist (John 2:13 to John 3:36). At this stage comes in the imprisonment of John (mentioned here, but not narrated till 14:3-5) and the consequent journey through Samaria to Galilee (John 4:1-42). The verse now before us may be noted as implying a ministry in Judæa, which for some reason the writer does not narrate.

And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim:
(13) Leaving Nazareth.—The form of the name in the older MSS. is Nazara. St. Matthew records the bare fact. St. Luke (Luke 4:16-30) connects it with His rejection by the men of this very place, where He had been brought up, and their attempt upon His life. St. John (John 2:12) states a fact which implies (1) that Capernaum had not been before the home of the mother of our Lord and of His brethren, and (2) that there were ties of some kind drawing them thither for a temporary visit. The reasons for the choice of that city lie, some of them, on the surface.

(1.) The exact site of Capernaum has long been one of the vexed questions of the topography of Palestine, but the researches of the Palestine Exploration Society have identified it with the modern village of Tell-Hûm, where their excavations have disinterred the remains of an ancient building of the Roman period, which is supposed to have been the synagogue of the city; possibly, therefore, the very synagogue, built by the believing centurion (Luke 7:5), in which our Lord worshipped and taught (John 6:59). Its position on the shore of the lake, as a town with a garrison and a custom-house, made it the natural centre of the fishing-trade of the Lake of Galilee. As such, it fell in with the habits of the four first-called disciples, who, though two of them were of Bethsaida, were already partly domiciled there. (2.) It was within an easy day’s journey of Nazareth, and so admitted either of another visit thither, as if to see whether those who dwelt there were more capable of faith than they had shown themselves at first (Matthew 13:54), or, as in Matthew 12:46-50, of visits from His mother, and His brethren, when they were anxious to restrain Him from teaching that seemed to them perilous. (3.) Even the presence of the “publicans and sinners”—the latter term including Gentiles, the class of those who had flocked to the preaching of John, and were to be found in the half-Romanised city, and were not to be found in the more secluded villages—may have been one of the elements which led to the decisive choice. (4.) Lastly, St. John’s narrative supplies another link. The healing of the son of one of the Tetrarch’s officers at Capernaum (John 4:46-54) had secured there a certain degree of protection and of influence.

The chronology of John 5:1 is uncertain (see Notes there), but at some time before, or shortly after, this migration to Capernaum, we must place the visit to Jerusalem, and the miracle at Bethesda, which St. John there records.

That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying,
(14) The light in which the fact of the migration presented itself to St. Matthew was, as with other facts, that it agreed with what had been spoken by a prophet. The abode of Nazareth had thus fulfilled one prediction, that at Capernaum fulfilled another.

The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles;
(15-16) The citation is remarkable as the only reference in the New Testament to what seems to us the most wonderful and majestic of all Messianic prophecies; and still more remarkable as dwelling, not on the words so familiar to us, “Unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given . . . ,” but on the merely local imagery which is a prelude to that great utterance, and on that, in a version which is neither a true rendering of the Hebrew, nor a correct citation from the received Greek version. We have to recognise the fact that the Evangelist did not study prophecy as we study it. Books were scarce, and the publican of Capernaum, though his occupation implied some clerkly knowledge, probably had few, and heard rather than read the Scriptures which he quotes. What strikes a man who learns in this way is the coincidence of single words and phrases with familiar facts. He speaks not of what has been written, but of what has been spoken. He is not careful about the context. When St. Matthew looked back on the change that had come over Capernaum in the arrival of the prophet of Nazareth—a change extending to his own life—these words seemed the only adequate description of it. Here was the very scene of which Isaiah had spoken, the old border country of Zebulon and of Naphthali. To him and to others who had been in the darkness of spiritual ignorance, neglected and uncared for, as sheep gone astray in the dark valley of death, there had sprung up a marvellous Light. Unconsciously he adds his testimony to that of St. John, that the presence of Jesus was felt to be that of the “true Light” that “lighteth every man” (John 1:9).

From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
(17) From that time Jesus began to preach.—We have in these words St. Matthew’s record of the commencement of our Lord’s Galilean ministry. It is important to remember that it had been preceded by a ministry of some months in Judæa; that that ministry had been outwardly like that of the Baptist (John 4:1); and that He had withdrawn from it upon John’s imprisonment because He knew that His own growing fame had attracted the notice of the Pharisees. Taking the data given by John 2:13; John 2:23; John 5:1; and John 6:4, we are able to fix the time of His first appearance as a prophet in His own country in the autumn or winter of the interval between the Passover of A.D. 26 and that of A.D. 27.

Of the usual method of our Lord’s synagogue-preaching, Luke 4:17-21 gives us a representative example. To read the prophetic lesson for the day, to make that His text, to proclaim the necessity of repentance and the good news of forgiveness following on repentance, to bear His witness that “the kingdom of heaven” was not in the far-off future, but nigh at hand, in the midst of them—this we must believe was, at this time, as ever, the substance of His teaching and preaching. (See Notes on Matthew 4:23.)

And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.
(18) And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee.—In no part of the Gospel history is it more necessary to remember St. John’s record as we read that of the Three, than in this call of the disciples. Here, everything seems sudden and abrupt. There we learn that those who were now called had some months before accepted Him as the Christ (John 1:35-43), and had, some or all of them, been with Him during His visit to Jerusalem. Simon had already received the surname of Cephas or Peter or the Rock. Putting these facts together, we have something like a clear outline picture of their previous life. The sons of Jona and the sons of Zebedee had grown up in Bethsaida (probably on the north-west shore of the Lake of Galilee), and were partners in their work as fishermen. The movement of Judas of Galilee, in his assertion of national independence, had probably served to quicken their expectations of a good time coming, when they should be free from their oppressors. When they heard of the preaching of the Baptist, they joined the crowds that flocked to hear him, and received his baptism of repentance. Then they were pointed to the Lamb of God, and received Him as the Christ. Then for a short time they were His companions in His journeyings. When He began the first circuit of His Galilean ministry He was alone, and left them to return to their old calling. They could not tell whether He would ever care to use their services again, and it was under these circumstances that the new call came. St. Matthew’s narrative and St. Mark’s (Mark 1:16-20) agree almost verbally; St. Luke’s presents more difficulty. Is it another and fuller version of the same facts? or, if different, did what he records precede or follow the call which they relate? The first view seems the most probable, but see Notes on Luke 5:1-11.

And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
(19) Follow me.—The command came, as we have seen, to those who were not unprepared. Short as it was, it was in some sense the first parable in our Lord’s teaching, the germ of an actual parable (Matthew 13:47). It suggested a whole circle of thoughts. The sea is the troubled and evil world (Isaiah 57:20), and the souls of men are the fish that have to be caught and taken from it, and the net is the Church of Christ. The figure had been used before (Jeremiah 16:16), but then it had presented its darker aspect, and the “fishers of men” were their captors and enslavers. The earliest extant hymn of the Church, by Clement of Alexandria, dwells on the image with a rich and suggestive playfulness. Christ is thus addressed:—

“Fisher of men, the blest,

Out of the world’s unrest,

Out of sin’s troubled sea

Taking us, Lord, to Thee;

Out of the waves of strife,

With bait of blissful life,

Drawing Thy nets to shore

With choicest fish, good store.”

And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
(21) Mending their nets.—On the assumption that the facts in St. Luke preceded what we read here, the “mending” might seem the natural consequence of the “breaking” there described, and be noted as an undesigned coincidence. It must be remembered, however, (1) that the “mending” as well as “washing” flowed naturally even on a night of unsuccessful fishing, and (2) that the Greek of St. Luke does not say that the nets actually broke, but that they were on the point of breaking, and were beginning to do so.

And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
(22) Left the ship and their father.—St. Mark adds, with the hired servants,” a fact of interest as showing that the sons of Zebedee were probably, in some measure, of better means and higher social standing than those of Jona. The absence of the name of the latter suggests the inference that he was no longer living.

The sacrifice of the disciples seems, perhaps, small as compared with others in the history of saints; yet to leave all, to give up the life of home, and its regular occupations, requires, in any case, an effort more or less heroic; and beyond it there lay the future, as yet undiscerned, with all its possible trials and sufferings, to which, by that one act, they pledged themselves. (Comp. 19:27.)

And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.
(23) Preaching the gospel of the kingdom.—As far as regards St. Matthew this is the first occurrence of the phrase. It tells of a vast amount of unrecorded teaching, varying in form, yet essentially the same—a call to repentance—the good news of a kingdom of heaven not far off—the witness, by act for the most part rather than words, that He was Himself the Head of that kingdom.

Healing all manner of sickness.—In the Greek, as in the English, sickness implies a less serious form of suffering than “disease,” as the “torments” of the next verse imply, in their turn, something more acute. St. Matthew’s first mention of our Lord’s miracles cannot be read without interest. It will be seen that they are referred to, not directly as evidence of a supernatural mission, but almost, so to speak, as the natural accompaniments of His work; signs, not of power only or chiefly, but of the love, tenderness, pity, which were the true marks or “notes” of the kingdom of heaven. Restoration to outward health was at once the pledge that the Son of Man had not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them, and often, we cannot doubt, served to strengthen that faith in the love of the Father, some degree of which was all but invariably required as an antecedent condition of the miracle (Matthew 13:58).

And his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.
(24) Throughout all Syria.—The word is probably used popularly, rather than with the definite significance of the Roman province with which St. Luke uses it in Luke 2:2. Our Lord’s ministry, with the one exception of the journey to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21), was confined to what is commonly known as Palestine. Traces of the wider fame are, however, found in the mention of hearers from Idumæa, and Tyre, and Sidon among the crowds that followed Him (Mark 3:8); in the faith of the Syro-Phœnician woman in His power to heal (Mark 7:26); perhaps in the existence of disciples at Damascus so soon after the Ascension (Acts 9:2); perhaps, also, in St. Peter’s appeal to the friends of Cornelius at Cæsarea, as knowing already the broad facts of our Lord’s ministry and miraculous working (Acts 10:37).

Possessed with devils. . . . lunatick.—The phenomena of what is called possession, and the theories to which the phenomena have been referred, will best be discussed in dealing with the great representative instance of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matthew 8:28). Here it will be enough to notice (1) that the word rendered “devil” is not the same as that used for the Tempter in 4:1, but “demon” in the sense of an evil spirit, (2) that the possessed with demons are at once grouped with the “lunaticks,” both exhibiting forms of mental disease, and distinguished from them. The latter term implies in the Greek, as in the Latin and our own, “moonstruck madness”—the belief that the moon exercised a disturbing influence on the brain (a coup de lune being dreaded by Eastern travellers almost as much as a coup de soleil), and that the intensity of the disturbance varied, when the disease had once set in, with the moon’s changes.

Those that had the palsy.—Here the word (literally, the paralytics) points, not to a view of the cause of the disease, but to its conspicuous phenomena—the want of muscular power to control motion, and the consequent “looseness,” in popular phraseology, of limbs or head.

And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.
(25) Decapolis.—The district so named was formed by the Romans on their first conquest of Syria, B.C. 65, and, speaking roughly, included a tract of country east and south-east of the Sea of Galilee. The ten cities from which the region took its name are given by Pliny (v. 18)—though with the reservation that the list was given differently by others—as Scythopolis, Hippos, Gadara, Pella, Philadelphia, Gerasa, Dion, Canatha, Damascus, and Raphana. Of these Gadara (Matthew 8:28; Mark 5:1; Luke 8:26), and in some MSS. of the first named passage, Gerasa, are the only two that occur in the Gospels. Damascus is prominent in the Acts, but the statement of Josephus (B. J. iii. 9, § 7), that Scythopolis was the largest of the ten towns, makes it almost certain that he did not include Damascus in the list.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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