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Ancient narratives about popular teachers (as opposed to more aristocratic figures who often disdained the masses) praised them by emphasizing their popularity (for example, Philostr. V.A. 1.40; Robbins 1992:122 n. 74). Matthew is also interested in the geographical distribution of this popularity. Josephus indicates that many Jews lived in Syria in Jesus' day (Jos. War 2.461-68); if Matthew writes to believers in Syria (see Meier 1980:36; see also introduction), he may use the mention of Jewish followers from Syria (Mt 4:24) to encourage his own audience.
In the context of the whole Gospel, however, Jesus' popularity in this passage provides a warning. God's call demands faithfulness with or without popularity. Jesus had awaited God's time for him to minister (4:12); now word about him was spreading quickly. Subsequent narratives in this Gospel, however, warn that momentary popularity is just an opportunity to convey the word to those who really have ears to hear. Popularity does not always translate into deep commitment in the end (27:20). Thus Matthew warns his first audience and us as well not to build our assurance of God's call on others' responses to our message; our knowledge of our God-given mission in life must go unshakably deeper than that (3:16-4:11).