Return to Nazareth
by Ray Fowler (used with permission)
This is the capstone of the Christmas story. Jesus was a Nazarene! He lived in humility, he was raised in obscurity, he suffered contempt – all so that we could be brought into the family of God. What a wonderful Savior!
Even though Advent and Christmas are over, we still have one passage left in our Christmas story from Matthew. When we last left Joseph and Mary, they were still living in Egypt awaiting further instructions. King Herod had tried to kill Jesus, but God had told Joseph to stay in Egypt until God told him otherwise. So there they were, living in Egypt, waiting for a fresh word from the Lord. And that word finally came in Matthew 2:19-23.
This final passage in Matthew is crucial to understanding what happened to Jesus after his birth. Remember, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there was a star in the sky for all to see. Magi from the east came to worship him. Herod wanted to kill him. All of Jerusalem knew that he had been born. This child was a celebrity! Surely with such miraculous and tumultuous beginnings, Jesus was destined to grow up famous.
Now, we said each of these places associated with Christ had an important Biblical meaning. Jerusalem was the center of worship and power. Bethlehem was the birthplace of the Messiah. Egypt was the place of bondage and slavery. Israel was the land of promise. So what was Nazareth?
Nazareth was nothing! It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. It is a tiny town located in the hills of Galilee about 80 miles north of Jerusalem. No one important ever came from Nazareth. No great events ever took place there. No great buildings adorned its landscape. There was no downtown Nazareth. It was sticksville. It was poor people living in poor surroundings surrounded by poor circumstances. And it is exactly where God chose for Jesus to be raised.
Nazareth stood for three things in Jesus’ life: humility, obscurity and contempt. First of all, humility. Jesus was born in humble surroundings, and he was raised in humble surroundings. He was born King of the Jews! He should have been raised in a palace in Jerusalem, but instead he was raised in the humble town of Nazareth. Jesus was raised in humility.
Secondly, Nazareth stood for obscurity. Jesus had a high-profile birth in Bethlehem, but he lived a low-profile life in Nazareth. For thirty years Jesus would labor in obscurity as the son of a carpenter. For thirty years the Son of God who created the universe would work and eat and play in a small town on the corner of nowhere. Jesus was raised in obscurity.
Thirdly, Nazareth stood for contempt. When Jesus finally began his public ministry and people found out he was from Nazareth, they were not impressed. Trust me, you did not want Nazareth on your resume. When Philip told Nathanael he had found Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael responded with utter contempt: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. (John 1:46) Jesus was raised in a place that stood for humility, obscurity and contempt.
So why did God do this? Why did God choose Nazareth for Jesus’ hometown? We find the answer in the second half of verse 23: So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:23b) It was to fulfill Scripture.
Now Jesus was most certainly called a Nazarene. Throughout his life he was not known as Jesus of Bethlehem or Jesus of Jerusalem but rather Jesus of Nazareth. When Jesus died on the cross, Pilate put up a sign saying: “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.” (John 19:19) When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, the apostles continued to preach him as Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and raised from the dead. (Acts 4:10) And when Jesus spoke to Paul from heaven, he even took the name upon his own lips when he said, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 22:8)
Foretold by the prophets (Judges 13:5; Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5; Isaiah 53:2-3). So Jesus was most certainly called a Nazarene. He was identified with Nazareth in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. He would forever be associated with Nazareth. The question becomes, where in the Old Testament was this prophesied? Because you might remember we said earlier that the town of Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. And indeed this particular phrase: “He will be called a Nazarene,” never appears in Old Testament Scripture. So what prophecy is Matthew referring to?
Some people suggest that this was an unwritten prophecy that had been passed down verbally, but I don’t find that convincing. Matthew always seeks to ground the life of Jesus in Scripture.
Notice that Matthew does do something differently with this quote. Usually when he quotes the Old Testament he says, “This was to fulfill what the prophet said,” where he uses the singular word “prophet,” or sometimes he even names the prophet, such as “This is what the prophet Isaiah said.” But here the reference is much more general: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets.” Notice how he uses word “prophets” here; he uses the plural word. And so Matthew is not thinking so much of one specific prophecy in Scripture as a general revelation about Jesus that was present in a number of prophecies in the Old Testament.
So what were these prophecies? Some people point to the similarity between the words “Nazareth” and “Nazirite” and see in these words a fulfillment of the word originally spoken about Samson in Judges 13:5: “You will conceive and give birth to a son … the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5) Jesus was not a Nazirite, but he was certainly set apart to God from birth, and he worked a much greater deliverance than Samson.
Others see a similarity between the word “Nazareth” and the Hebrew word for “sprout” or “branch.” So Matthew may have been thinking about those prophecies which spoke of the Messiah as a Branch. There are six of these prophecies in the Old Testament – two in Isaiah, two in Jeremiah, and two in Zechariah. (Isaiah 4:2, 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5, 33:15; Zechariah 3:8, 6:13) Let me share just two of them with you here. Isaiah 11:1 – “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” (Isaiah 11:1) And Jeremiah 23:5 – “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.” (Jeremiah 23:5)
And then there are those prophecies that spoke of Jesus coming quietly and humbly. I think of Zechariah 9:9: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” Or there is Isaiah 53 which speaks not only of humility but also of derision and contempt: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” (Isaiah 53:2-3)
So what did these prophecies tell us? That the Messiah would come humbly and quietly. Like a branch or a shoot out of dry ground there would be nothing remarkable about him to draw our attention to him. In fact we would treat him with contempt, as if he were less than nothing. In other words, we would treat him exactly like someone who was raised in the dirt town of Nazareth.
Jesus came not only to be with us but to become like us. And the beautiful truth we learn from these verses is that Jesus came not only to be with us but to become like us. There are two prophetic names given to Jesus here in Matthew – one at the end of chapter one, and another here at the end of chapter two. At the end of chapter one Jesus is called “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23) And at the end of chapter two he is called a Nazarene, which means he has become one like us. (Matthew 2:23)
“God with us” is a beautiful truth, but God can be with us and still separate from us. God was with Israel in the wilderness, but he was not like Israel. He was highly exalted in the flame and the cloud, and he dwelt in the tabernacle apart from men.
But the beautiful truth of this passage is that God is not only with us, he became like us. He became one of us. Jesus was God in the flesh, incognito, undercover. There was nothing about his appearance to signal to you that he was God – no shimmering halo, no other-worldly glow. His feet walked in the dust, and his hands gathered blisters.
He was an ordinary person like you and me. He was raised in an ordinary town, and lived an ordinary life, far from the power center of Jerusalem, far from his birthplace in Bethlehem. He lived in obscurity. He was not known as Jesus of Bethlehem, which would have had Messianic implications, but Jesus of Nazareth, a term filled with contempt. He made himself nothing and became a servant for us. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. He who was born a King was raised a Nazarene.
And as Jesus lived in humility, so he died in humility. He humbled himself and become obedient to death, even death on a cross. The meaning of the Nazarene passage is that Jesus became a nobody so you could be somebody. Jesus became like us so we could become like him. He made himself of no reputation, so that you could be known as a child of God – holy and righteous, destined for glory.
Thank God for Jesus the Nazarene!
© Ray Fowler. Website: http://www.rayfowler.org
Find the full text at www.rayfowler.org/sermons/matthew/the-nazarene