Jesus lived in the area of the Galilee. We have good evidence that he moved to Capernaum from Nazareth and would have been familiar with the Sea of Galilee, its people and the idioms associated with his culture. Being in the land allows a unique look at what Jesus saw, and perhaps a growing understanding at some of things he said.
The city of Capernaum was in the district of Galilee. It was on a main trade route and would have been very cosmopolitan in awareness, yet very Jewish. Despite its location it would have chosen to be conservatively isolated. The district to the east of Galilee was Gaulanitus, composing a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. In this district we find cities such as Bethsaida. To the south of Gaulanitis is the district of the Decapolis, thoroughly Gentile. In this district is the city of Susita (or Hyppos). And that is where this gets interesting.
The city of Susita is located on a very prominent hill on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. You cannot miss it (see picture above – ancient ruins are on top of the hill). Everyone in the area would have known it in an iconic way. It was like other Decapolis cities, a model for the Hellenistic culture of the Romans, enticing people to “be like them, it’s good for everyone.” Cities like Susita were the “poster children” of the Roman Empire, compelling others by their sophisticated culture. They were living the “good life.”
Jesus teaches some very familiar words on a hillside in Capernaum, in full view of Susita, when he states, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” People would have looked to the example of Susita when he said it. But is Jesus saying just to be good and don’t do anything bad like those pagan cities? Is that the message of the gospel? I believe Jesus has something bold in mind like: take note of how compelling a pagan city has been promoting their Hellenistic culture so effectively, and be like that. “In the same way, let your light shine before men,” but rather promote the culture of the Kingdom of God, bringing goodness and wholeness to a depraved and broken world.
May you be a compelling “city on a hill,” like Susita, so that others may be drawn to the awesome qualities of your Father shining in you.