The Sea of Galilee
Tom M. Roberts
"...Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.' And as He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And immediately they left their nets and followed Him" (Mark. 1:14-18).
So begins the remarkable, but short, life of Jesus in Galilee as he began the ministry which led to his crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and coronation as King of Kings.
Born in Bethlehem (Luke 2:4-7), just outside Jerusalem, Jesus was raised in Nazareth (after his sojourn in Egypt to escape Herod, Mt. 2:13-15, 23; Lk.2:39-40) and remained there until the time of his baptism. After the death of John, Jesus moved to Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and began to preach the "good news" of the coming Kingdom.
Situated on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum became the city of Jesus, just as it had been the "Kafer Nahum" (village of Nahum). From this location, he went throughout the cities and villages of Galilee, along with his apostles, proclaiming "the gospel." Though Jesus lived at Capernaum, it was often necessary for him to come in contact with the nearby Sea of Galilee and we see this small body of water intertwined with the last three years of his life.
Galilee is both a northern district of Israel and a small lake. The lake is situated in the watershed of the Jordan River, 690 feet below sea level, its headwaters rising near Mt. Hermon. It is a part of the "Great Rift Valley" which continues south into the Red Sea. Called by many the "cradle of the gospel," it was known by the Roman conquerors as Tiberias, or Genesseret (Genesareth) and on its shore was situated many homes of the wealthy Jews, Herodians and Romans. About 14 miles long and 6 miles wide (depending on rain or drought conditions), it is shaped roughly like a heart, receiving water from the upper Jordan and discharging water into the lower Jordan, ultimately, into the Dead (Salt) Sea, 1300 feet below sea level.. Surprisingly small, though looming large in the gospel accounts, one can see from east to west across the body of water. Hills slope down to the shoreline, steeply on the east but more gently on the northwest, where it is very fruitful, supplying olive, figs, palms and other trees as well as a variety of vegetables.
Mark's gospel records that as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, his brother, fishing. They immediately followed Jesus. A little farther from there, he saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, "who also were in the boat mending their nets" (Mk. 1:19). When called, they too, left their father and the hired servants in the boat and followed Jesus.
The gospel accounts reveal that Jesus preached in all the cities and villages around Galilee and often sailed the waters from one place to another. During one of the sudden storms that characterize the sea even today, Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea "and there was a great calm" (Mt. 8:26). Shortly after reaching the eastern shore (Gergesa), Jesus cast demons out of two men into a herd of swine. The swine ran down the steep place where they were into the sea and drowned (8:28-34). When the inhabitants begged Jesus to leave their region, "he got into a boat, crossed over, and came to his own city" (9:1). Matthew reveals to us that Jesus walked on the waters of the sea (14:24-32), but Peter sank when attempting to do the same. Mark tells us that Jesus taught the multitudes on the seashore and, when they crowded him, he sat in a boat so that the crowd could see him (Mk. 4:1). Near the sea, Jesus fed 5000 on one occasion and 4000 on another (Mk. 8:17-21). John relates that the apostles were unsure of matters shortly after the resurrection and Peter said, "I am going fishing." While they were in the boat, Jesus appeared: "After these things Jesus showed Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and in this way He showed Himself. Simon Peter, Thomas, called Didymus, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, 'I am going fishing.' They said to him, 'We are going with you also.' They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore, yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus" (Jn. 21:1-4).
Forever connected to the ministry of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee fascinates multitudes today. Tourists by the millions visit Tiberias (a thriving city, even yet) and the ruins of Capernaum, Chorazin and other villages that rejected Jesus as Messiah. "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes...And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades, for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day" (Mt. 11:21-23). Like Jerusalem, these cities that ringed the shores of Galilee suffered destruction because of their deaf ears and blind eyes to the Majesty that walked in their midst.
But, "There is a sea, that day by day, receives the rippling rills, and streams that spring from wells of God, or fall from cedared hills. But what it thus receives it gives, with glad unsparing hand. A stream more wide, with deeper tide, flows on to lower land" (Song: "There Is A Sea," written by Lula Klingman Zahn). These same tourists eagerly climb into boats and, filled with awe and reverence, experience the sights and sounds of a body of water that Jesus knew very well.
Strangely, the Sea of Galilee fades out of the Biblical narrative after the church begins. No more is this inland sea the center of attention as the Kingdom of Heaven is set in place (Acts 1-2). No more a Jewish commonwealth, the Lord's church is universal in nature, allowing both Jews and Gentiles alike to be citizens (Eph. 2:11-22). It is fitting, therefore, that the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the seven seas, hear the saving message of the gospel: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations..." (Mt. 28:18-20). No, the Sea of Galilee is not holy anymore, but holy things happened on it and around it. It is still fascinating to visit for it has never moved, sitting in the same place where it was when Jesus walked on it and taught the multitudes around it. If you can visit Israel, be sure to include the Sea of Galilee. You will never read your Bible with more complete understanding than when you touch the waters of Galilee.
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