Geography in the Ancient Near East was a physical representation of transcendent reality.
Mapping things geographically was a visible form of Israel’s theology. For example, since Jerusalem was central to Israel’s worldview, it was also central to the cartography of the time. The temple therefore was not only at the center of religious, economic, or political life, but was in fact the center of the cosmos, the axis mundi (the axis of the world), the point of junction between heaven, earth, and hell.
The more I have thought about geography, the more I realize its theological importance. History, theology, and geography are not separate but intertwined. Geography is not only a setting for history but an articulation of theology and history.
To illustrate this I want to briefly explain how the geographical overlay of Matthew communicates theological truths.
Luke’s Gospel is famous for his journey to Jerusalem, yet Matthew also has a journey to Jerusalem. Most of Jesus’ ministry according to Matthew takes place in Galilee and then Jesus turns to Jerusalem to go to his death. Why does Matthew do this?
Jesus is born in the city of the king. He is born in Bethlehem, the city of David.
Jesus is the Son of David (chap 1) born in the city of David (chap 2). Yet the pseudo king of Jerusalem, Herod, is threatened by this upstart and therefore sends servants to end the life of the rival king.
Yet Jesus escapes, and his family moves him north, to Nazareth in Galilee. He was in a real sense exiled from his home, his kingdom.
Thus Jesus, in Matthew’s presentation, spends most of his time ministering in Galilee (4:17; Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς). This is interesting because John has Jesus going back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem throughout his ministry.
Yet the goal of his ministry is to return home and complete his mission as king. So after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins his return home.
From that time on, Jesus began (Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς) to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (16:21)
Matthew thus assigns the city of Jerusalem a dominant role in the plot of 16:21-25:46. In 19:1 Jesus returns to Judea. This brings the story full circle, with opening and closing mirroring each other geographically.
Arriving at the goal of his journey, he approaches the city gates with the royal “Son of David” acclamation once more on prominent display.
The blind men scream it out and the crowd praises him as the Son of David when he rides into the city on a colt. The scene, as Verseput has put it, can be appropriately described as the return of the exiled king to confront the city of his forefather’s throne.
Matthew completes his geographical framework with Galilee as the place of departure for the worldwide Christian mission.
Matthew has Jesus walking this geographical map because he is communicating that Jesus is walking in the footsteps of Israel. He is exiled from his home, he returns from exile, and brings his people with him out of exile. Yet coming home means coming to his death. The Jews never thought their return from exile would come through sacrifice, although there were hints of it in the OT.
Matthew is a scribe bringing out treasures both old and new. Matthew’s Gospel is about fulfillment and the Jewish king fulfills his ultimate role in the city of king. Yet what is shocking is that the city, along with her religious leaders, reject her own king.
So Jesus expands his mission to the whole world. He will be a light to the Gentiles. The Gospel ends with Jesus on the mountain top, like Moses, looking out over the land and giving commands for reclamation of it. Now the land is not just the geo-political dirt of Israel, but the whole world.
About Patrick Schreiner
Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.