Christ is the cause of the greatest division but he is also the medium of the greatest union.
What does it mean to carry the label, Nazarene? For some, it is just one of the more obscure labels for Jesus or His followers. For many today it can mean the most extreme persecution and terrifying uncertainty. For all of us, it should prompt us to consider the One who invested the label with such profound significance.
Let’s look at Matthew 2:19-23 – the conclusion of Matthew’s infancy narrative, but the biblical launch of this unusual label:
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Matthew’s Gospel begins with his infancy narrative – a familiar section since we read excerpts every Christmas. After the opening genealogy, we meet Joseph as he faces the biggest crisis in his young life: his betrothed was pregnant! The angel Gabriel brings him both an explanation of the pregnancy and naming instructions. This child is Immanuel – He is God with us.
The second chapter begins with a passing mention of the birth, continues with the visit of Magi, the immanent threat from King Herod and Joseph taking his young family to Egypt. After the horrific ‘killing of the innocents’ we come to the concluding verses of the story. Is this a low-key transition to the important material to follow, or is it a culmination and fitting climax for the whole birth narrative?
The flight to Egypt was short-lived. The aged tyrant Herod died shortly after the atrocity in Bethlehem. Yet again Joseph saw an angel in a dream, this time with instruction to return to Israel. As always, Joseph obeyed and so the family returned to Israel.
Yet things were not all well. Herod had died, but his replacement stirred fear within Joseph. So another dream directed him back to Galilee and the town of Nazareth. It took divine direction to return to Nazareth. Joseph knew of the challenges facing the family in the town that thought it knew Joseph and Mary all too well. How would he rebuild his business when everyone thought they understood the truth about the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception? How could Joseph gain respect when everyone doubted his word on this most important of issues? And how would Mary face the snickers and gossip that inevitably would accompany the return of ‘the virgin’ with her little boy?
So Joseph’s initial plan was to return to Bethlehem and set up home there. They probably had family in the town. Furthermore, they had lived there for some months after the birth of Jesus. It would not take much work for him to support his new young family. But news of Herod’s death was tempered by news of his replacement.
King Herod was never settled on who should succeed him. His six wills attest to that. On his deathbed he ordered the execution of one son, then changed his will again, appointing Archelaus in place of the older Antipas over the half of his kingdom that included Judea. Archelaus was like his father in respect to both personal vices and weaknesses, but lacked some of his father’s political guile. Upon taking charge he ordered the slaughter of 3000 Jews at the Passover – those he deemed to be opponents and threats to his reign.
In light of this news, perhaps Galilee made sense to Joseph after all. Still, it took divine direction for him to head there and go back to Nazareth. This would not be easy, but it was God’s plan.
There is a progression of locations in this short passage. Joseph is directed to Israel, the land of the Jews. Then he is directed to Galilee. This was also Jewish territory, but it had a high number of Gentiles and was scorned by the ‘better Jews’ of Judea. This was ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’. So Matthew again reinforces the notion that this Messiah was not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. In fact, with His growing up in Nazareth, we will see that He was for all of us.
The Place of No Good Thing: Nazareth
After this section, Nazareth is mentioned three more times in Matthew’s Gospel. In chapter 4:13-16 it is mentioned in association with other Galilean towns as the place of darkness wherein a great light dawned, the region of Galilee of the Gentiles.
In chapter 21:11, the city of Jerusalem was stirred by the triumphal entry of this Jesus, so they asked the crowds who He was. The crowds (probably largely Galilean in composition as they were arriving on that side of town) replied that this was the prophet Jesus, specifically the one from Nazareth in Galilee. This answer may not have thrilled the Jerusalem folk!
Finally in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when a servant girl saw him and identified him as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there any venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted, this time betrayed by his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!
Nazareth was five miles from Sepphoris, the strongest military centre in Galilee. It was on a branch of the great caravan route to Damascus. For traders, soldiers and travellers, Nazareth was just a rest stop on the way to somewhere better.
Essentially, Jesus grew up in Nowhere, Galilee. Was this the next best thing since God’s plan A (Bethlehem) had been thwarted by troublesome Herodian rulers? Not at all. God directed Joseph so that Mary was brought back to Nazareth, and Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. This meant that the Messiah born in Bethlehem would always be called the Nazarene.
The Prophets Fulfiled
So which Old Testament passage is being fulfilled here? This has caused some consternation among scholars. Where does the Old Testament say the Messiah will be raised in Nazareth? Nowhere. But somehow Matthew points to fulfilment in Jesus being a Nazarene. It is worth noting that Matthew here refers to the prophets, plural. Perhaps several options should be combined to get a composite sense of Matthew’s subtlety here:
Jesus was, perhaps, to be considered a Nazirite (Nazir)—a chosen holy one set apart for God’s service from His mother’s womb, just like Samson the deliverer (Judg. 16:17; note also that the divine/angelic announcement to Samson’s parents referred to his ‘saving Israel’); and Samuel the priest (note the parallels between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song in Luke 1).
Furthermore, Jesus was the Messianic ‘branch’ (Neser)—the Davidic branch of Jeremiah 23:5 and 33:15, who would reign in righteousness over the earth; the branch who would rebuild the temple and bear royal honour in Zechariah 6:12; the branch from Jesse’s stump anticipated in Isaiah 11:1 as part of the great royal Immanuel section.
Perhaps instead of choosing one over the other we have two of Matthew’s great themes converging: for again, Matthew weaves together priest and king in the description of the deliverer Jesus. Again, Matthew brings us back to Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy with which he began his sequence of fulfilments at the end of chapter 1.
Joseph called His name Jesus in chapter 1, and by the end of chapter 2 it is Joseph that brings Him to Nazareth so that all would call Him a Nazarene. This child, the son of Abraham, the son of David, the son of God, is to be known by all people, forever, as Jesus the Nazarene!
But was Matthew more directly and deliberately pointing to a location, rather than pointing the reader toward the subtlety inherent in the name itself? Indeed he was, for every Old Testament citation in this second chapter pointed to a geographical location: Bethlehem, an allusion to ‘the nations’, Egypt, Ramah, and now, Nazareth.
Perhaps another Old Testament reference can come into play here – Isa. 53:2.
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
This verse offers no reference to geography, but uses the associated terminology of ‘a root’ in underlining the lowliness and obscurity of this holy priest-king.
A Reputation Worth Carrying?
Jesus knew the life of the poor (as seen in His parables of sowing and reaping, sparrows, children at weddings and funerals, women grinding at the mill, etc.). Jesus experienced the fullness of human life and society. He was not sheltered in some rich ivory tower, protected from the ‘dross of society’. He lived in the midst of it all, and He carried it as His label.
Jesus was a very common name at that time, so He needed an identifier. Who was His Dad? That was complicated. What was His job? Again, not easy. So where was He from? Nazareth became the label so often appended to His name.
In the only childhood glimpse of Him we see Jesus leaving behind a child-prodigy role in the temple to live in submission to His parents in Nazareth (Luke 2:51).
At the start of His ministry, when Philip wanted to introduce Nathanael to Jesus, he used the Nazareth label. The guile-less Nathanael replied with a sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:45-6). Jesus returned from His base in Capernaum to His hometown synagogue in Nazareth, where His reading of Isaiah and commentary on some Gentiles being blessed in the Old Testament received a warm reception, in both senses of the term (Luke 4:16). His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees Him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that He is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once His heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).
As His ministry progressed, down south near Jericho, blind Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is nearby and launches into loud pleading toward the Son of David (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38).
At His arrest, John describes the dignified Jesus walking out to meet the arresting party. Who is it they are looking for? Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ response ‘I am He,’ declares both His divine identity (this repeated ‘I Am’ statement, concludes the lesser known sequence of ‘absolute I Am’s’ in John’s Gospel). At the same time he does not shy away from the geographical label. ‘I am He’ (18:5).
During His trial Jesus’ label was used disparagingly of Peter in the courtyard of Annas’ house (see also Mark 14:67). In his death, John’s record has Pilate’s inscription identifying the ‘criminal’ as ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’.
After His resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.
But we also read of the very angel in the tomb itself using the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with a better label!? (See Mark 16:6.)
Even after His ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s presentation of Pentecost culminates with Jesus as both Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22). The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers refer to Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 6:14). Peter declares to Gentiles that God anointed and was with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 10:38). Then we discover that Jesus used the label of Himself when He appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers had to bear the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).
God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in His willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in His arrest, His crucifixion, His resurrection and even in His ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’
Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that He could be for us. And He is forever with us, for He still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.
“God With Us, God Like Us: A Nazarene” is Chapter 12 in Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation, by Peter Mead (Christian Focus, UK release date: September 2014). For more information on the book, please visit www.trinitytheology.net [Used with permission from Christian Focus.]