Capernaum: The Lord’s Own City

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

The town of Nazareth is secluded among the surrounding hills of lower Galilee. Nazareth remained in relative obscurity until it became famous in New Testament times as the childhood home of Jesus. 

The insignificance of Nazareth is evident in the disparaging remark from Nathanael—“Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46)—when Philip said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v. 45). Nevertheless, the New Testament identifies Jesus as the prophet “from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matt 21:11).

Nazareth was the residence of Joseph and Mary (Matt 13:53-58; Luke 1:26-27; 2:39) and the place where the angel Gabriel foretold Jesus’ birth (1:26-38). Jesus was probably two years of age when the magi visited  to present Him with gifts (Matt 2:1-12), and when Herod ordered the slaughter of “all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under” (v. 16). The gifts of the magi were God’s provision to finance the sojourn from Bethlehem to Egypt (vv. 14-21); they also prefigure the wealth of the Gentile nations that the Old Testament prophets said would be given to Israel’s Messiah (Ps 72:10-13; Isa 60:5, 11; 61:6; 66:20; Zeph 3:10; Hag 2:6-9), which is yet to occur in entirety at Messiah’s return.

When circumstances appear desperate, it is good to remember the Lord’s gracious actions toward His people. He often provides in an unexpected manner. God is not absent! He not only superintends His creation, but also directs history for His purposes. Humanity and the world are not ruled by chance or fate; rather, it is God who directs creation and history toward His determined and ultimate goal. There is no reason for despair or doubt in regard to God. Believers should expect and seek the Lord’s providence.

When the Lord’s family returned from Egypt, it was in Nazareth where Jesus grew to manhood (Matt 2:23; Luke 4:16). Jesus lived there for approximately 30 years of His life (Luke 2:39-51). He taught at the synagogue in Nazareth (Matt 13:54; Luke 4:16), and it would be the place from which He began His public ministry (Mark 1:9) and the site of His first rejection on the part of the hometown people (Luke 4:16-30). Although He was born in Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-6), the Lord’s extended association with the town of His childhood resulted in Him being called Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 1:24; Luke 18:37). The inscription that Pilate affixed to the cross read, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (John 19:19). The Lord’s earliest disciples were known as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).

Few people went to Nazareth, yet it was the ideal place for Jesus to spend His childhood, since He would be protected from anyone seeking to cause Him injury (Matt 2:21-23). When He would begin His public ministry years later, Jesus decided to move from the unexciting town of Nazareth to the lively Capernaum, on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The primary reason for the change in location was the people’s rejection of Jesus in His own hometown. Capernaum then became known as the Lord’s “own city” (9:1) and is featured prominently as a location from which Jesus accomplished much of His public ministry (Matt 4:13; Mark 2:1). Some of the most significant events of Jesus’ ministry occurred in Capernaum.

Jesus chose several of His disciples in the vicinity of Capernaum: the fishermen Peter and his brother Andrew (Mark 1:16-18), who were heirs to a family fishing business based in Capernaum (vv. 21, 29); John and James, the sons of Zebedee, also local fishermen (vv. 19-20); and the tax collector Levi (Matthew), the son of Alphaeus (2:13-14; cf. Matt 9:9). Matthew had a brother, James, who also became a disciple of Jesus (he is often called James the Less to distinguish him from James, the brother of John). Jesus mentioned Capernaum often and performed several miracles there (Matt 8:5; John 6:17-21). He healed the centurion’s paralyzed servant (Matt 8:1-13), cured a fever of Peter’s mother-in-law (vv. 14-15), and healed many others (v. 16), including a paralytic (9:1-8) and those who were demon-possessed (Mark 1:32, 34). Jesus delivered the discourse concerning kingdom greatness in Capernaum (Mark 9:33-37), in addition to the Bread of Life teaching (John 6; cf. v. 59).

Peter had a home in Capernaum (Matt 8:14; Mark 1:29; 2:1) where Jesus resided (Matt 4:13), and He is reported to have taught frequently in the synagogue there (Mark 1:21; 3:1-5; Luke 4:31; John 6:59). Matthew also lived in Capernaum, and thus demonstrated particular interest regarding the city in his gospel (cf. Matt 9:1-9). According to Luke 7:5, the synagogue at Capernaum was built under the auspices of a Roman centurion, whose paralyzed servant Jesus healed and who loved the nation of Israel.

While it may have seemed wiser for Jesus to dwell in Jerusalem or Judea, the Lord dwelled in Capernaum. His departure from Nazareth to settle in Capernaum (Matt 4:13) is not formally noted in the other Gospel accounts, yet the city is mentioned by each of the synoptists (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as the primary base of operations for Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Jesus chose to settle in Capernaum because the city was most suitable for His ministry; particularly because it was a busy town in close proximity to others, in addition to being on the shore of a sea with an abundance of fish. It was also situated on both sides of the international highway named the Via Maris (“way of the sea”), which extended from Syria (Damascus) to Egypt along the Mediterranean coast (thus providing a commercial advantage with regions to the north and south). Capernaum was sort of a border town, as it was situated between various territories. Tax and trade were important in Capernaum, which explains why Matthew was “sitting in the tax collector’s booth” when Jesus “said to him, ‘Follow Me!’” (Matt 9:9), and why there was also a military outpost under the command of a centurion (8:5-13).

Matthew noted that Jesus’ selection of Capernaum was “to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet” (4:14). Jesus “began to preach” once He was settled in Capernaum (v. 17). Other cities existed along the shore of the Sea of Galilee that could have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, yet it is evident that Jesus’ choice of Capernaum was quite purposeful. “A great light” had come to a region that was mostly populated by Gentiles, and Isaiah 9:1-2 prophesied just such a ministry of the Messiah. Jesus chose a city with a persistent contingency of people who could bear witness to His message in many other locations, which is precisely what occurred. “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee . . . [and] the news about Him spread throughout all Syria” as a result (vv. 23-24). Travelers not only conveyed reports of the Lord’s ministry to the north in Syria, but also spread that message by means of other roads into “Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan” (v. 25).

Even though Capernaum was the site of many events in the life of Christ and proofs of His identity, the people were not repentant. Thus, Jesus denounced the town, in addition to several other cities (11:20-24). Sometimes the best use of time for the Lord’s glory involves a change in geography, as occurred with Jesus’ ministry. He proclaimed woe unto Capernaum, “for if the miracles” that occurred there “occurred in Sodom . . . it would have remained to this day” (v. 23). In fulfillment of Jesus’ words, Capernaum is in ruins. Visitors to Capernaum today can still see the remains of what was likely a first century synagogue, which is very probably the one in which Jesus taught. Archaeologists have excavated a site that may have been the location of Peter’s home. The remains are located just south of the synagogue at the bottom of three layers of construction.

The city of Capernaum is an example of how many people respond to the gospel message. They may enjoy religious activities and consider themselves spiritual as a result. Familiarity with Jesus and even certain biblical accounts, may provide a false sense of assurance that a person has been redeemed, when in reality he or she will hear the Lord say, “I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS” (Matt 7:23). Even though Jesus performed many miracles in Capernaum and the people heard Him speak of Himself as the Bread of Life in the city’s synagogue (John 6:59), they nevertheless refused to repent.

Capernaum was given a greater opportunity to believe in Jesus than most cities, which is why its residents will be judged more severely than others who did not enjoy such privileges. In a similar manner, all people will be judged according to the knowledge of the truth available to them (cf. Rom 2:12-16). The fact that God did not spare the people of Capernaum, due to their lack of faith and repentance, is proof that He will condemn for eternity those who today hear the gospel message and witness evidence of the Lord’s eternal power and divine nature, yet reject His Son (cf. Rom 1:18-20; Heb 6:4-6; 2 Pet 2:4-10).

Midnight Call - 04/2023

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