Jesus' Cultural Context

Woohoo! Welcome to the New Testament! And welcome also to any new readers who may have joined us on this journey. We are glad you’re here. So you know, I try to post my article every Friday by noon and will let you know if I need to skip any weeks. So, if you see nothing posted by dinner on Friday, then just assume things got busy and offer a prayer for me. Thanks in advance for your prayers and understanding.  


As I read through Matthew 4:12-25, I was struck by how Old Testament history shaped the culture in which Jesus was nurtured, the scope of our Lord’s influence and the connections I saw to our own day.  


Matthew’s earliest chapters provide some interesting backstory to how Jesus ended up in Nazareth. We know that Joseph and Mary brought their little boy back from Egypt. When they learned that the ruthless Archelaus now ruled over Judea and Bethlehem, they bypassed his kingdom and chose to settle in Nazareth. In doing so they fulfilled what was said through the prophets, “He will be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:19-23).


Have you ever wondered why Joseph chose Nazareth? Was he trying to fulfill prophecy or was something else in play here? Well, I don’t’ think he was trying to fulfill prophecy. I think there is a good chance he chose it because of family and a job. Nazareth was Mary’s hometown (Luke 1:26, 27) and it was only a short distance from the provincial capital city of Sepphoris, which at that time was under construction and a perfect match for his vocational skills. So, Joseph’s decision was likely more logical than theological. If you think about it, the fact that God uses secular governments, family presence and job availability to unfold His story might just give us food for thought and comfort in our own day.


When Jesus was about 30 years old, He was baptized by the last Old Testament prophet (John) and affirmed by His Heavenly Father (3:17). Having received the Holy Spirit, He was led by that same Spirit into the desert to experience physical deprivation and be tempted by the devil (there are many interesting parallels and lessons for us here). After John was imprisoned and removed from ministry, Jesus returned to Galilee and began to preach the very message John had been preaching—picking up John’s ministry and taking it to places that great prophet could never go.

Galilee was an interesting region. Several centuries earlier the victorious Assyrians sought to weaken any remaining Jews by diluting their culture with refugees from other conquered areas. So, Galilee and Samaria had been resettled by exiles from other lands who intermarried with the remaining Jews. The dilution effort was so effective that this formerly Jewish area came to be known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”


In Jesus’ day, Galilee was inhabited by a mix of devoted Jews, pagans and those who merged Jewish and pagan practices. This mixing of people groups is also a primary reason why folks from Galilee spoke with an accent, a detail that later played a part in Peter’s denials (26:73). If you think about it, the fact that God uses devastating losses and forced human migrations to unfold His story might just give us food for thought and comfort in our own day.


Upon returning from the wilderness temptations, Jesus bypassed Judea and established His ministry headquarters within Galilee—an area containing spiritual and moral darkness. This underrated region received more of His presence and miracles than did the pure and privileged Judea. Since Jesus was sent to both the Gentiles and the lost sheep of Israel (Isaiah 42:6; Matthew 15:24), this was the perfect place for Him to be. If you think about it, the fact that spiritual and moral darkness exists in our neighborhoods, country and world might just give us food for thought as to how God could use us where we are to express the reality of His kingdom come.


Verses 24 and 25 outline the scope of Jesus’ early influence, and it is stunning. According to Matthew, Jesus attracted large crowds from a vast area even before the twelve disciples had been named (Matthew is not called until chapter 9)! He was known from Syria to 20 miles south of Jerusalem and from the Mediterranean to 10 miles east of the Sea of Galilee. Pull out a map and look at it. This is an amazing influence for one who was just starting out and did not have social media to help His cause!


Now, there is one very interesting area that is not mentioned in verse 25, even though it is surrounded by places that are. Did you catch it? Where is Samaria? The Samaritans and the Jews were in constant conflict and, at this point in Jesus’ ministry, they were not going to have anything to do with Him. We will cover more about this conflict later in our journey, I am sure.


God placed His Son into a region that was known for its sin, its religious compromise, its diversity and its corrupt leaders. He gave Him a less than handsome appearance (Isaiah 53:2) and an accent that identified Him as someone who did not have much to offer (John 1:46). Even so, something beautiful happened as the Son of God met the people where they were and loved them as they were.


The Spirit of this same Jesus now lives in you. So, what further resource do you need to be faithful to His call? If we lack anything—social position, bank accounts, appearance, eloquence or even wisdom—it really doesn’t’ matter. God is not thwarted by what we don’t have. If you think about it, the presence of the Spirit in us can give us food for thought, courage and comfort in our own day.


When placed in this light it seems like there is not much difference between Jesus’ ministry context and our own. He is not at all surprised by the cultural context you live in. So I wonder, how might God be asking you to participate in proclaiming the good news of His kingdom in your own world today?


All this in just the first few chapters of the first book. Just imagine what might be around the next bend in the road!


Anticipating with you,