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Nazarene (Mat 2:23)

When the child-murderer Herod was dead, Joseph the foster-father of Jesus was visited in Egypt by an angel. The glorious messenger reassured him that it was now safe for the little family to return to Israel. And so they came and would have taken up residence in Judea, probably again in Bethlehem the city of Joseph's royal ancestor. Had Joseph and Mary decided that Judea and Jerusalem would be the proper home for the "Son of the Highest"? Here he could converse with noted rabbis and attend the best traditional schools. Here he could celebrate all the feasts in the shadow of the Temple. Here he could have the "best" opportunities and meet the "best" people.

It was the common feeling of the Pharisees of Judea -- among others -- that Judea was the "holy place" while Galilee was at best the "court of the Gentiles" -- an out-of-the-way, backward place of little consequence, only marginally related to the divine worship. It was simply "the wrong side of the tracks". And so it must have been with some surprise that Joseph heard the divine command turning himself and his dependents toward Galilee.

"And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene" (Mat 2:23).
This is a passage of some difficulty, inasmuch as there is no such direct statement in any prophetic Scripture. But it is unlikely that Matthew would quote with authority any non-canonical source; so the answer must be there, in the pages of the Bible!

Let us note two comparatively minor points first of all: First, the stress on "which was spoken" (v 23) possibly suggests something not written, perhaps a well-known (at the time) oral prophecy given by Isaiah or some other prophet. (But we should expect that in the written word we will find at least a general confirmation of this theme of the "Nazarene" to explain why Matthew even mentioned it at all.) Secondly, "he shall be called..." is really a Hebrew idiom signifying "he shall be..." "Nazarene" was not to be the literal name of Jesus any more than was "Immanuel" (Isa 7:14), "Wonderful Counsellor" (Isa 9:6), or "Branch" (Jer 23:6). All these "names", as a matter of fact, are to be understood as divine descriptions, each one telling us something more of the Messiah's character.

Not a "Nazarite"

Now, as to the major points: A Nazarene is not a Nazarite! The two words are distinctly different in the Hebrew and the Greek. Also, Christ drank wine (Mat 11:19; Luke 7:34; John 2:1-11) and touched the dead (Mark 5:41; Luke 7:14). Holiness and separation he exemplified, certainly, but it was of a different and a higher order than that of the legal Nazarite.

A champion of the poor

The name "Nazareth" is from the Hebrew "netzer", meaning primarily "to preserve or protect". Certainly the child Jesus was providentially protected from the wrath of Herod first, and indeed from all harm later -- until the appointed time for his deliverance into the hands of wicked men.

As a noun, "netzer" means a new plant, or sucker, which springs from an old root. The word is translated "branch" in Isa 11:1 -- a branch sprung up from the old root of Jesse. (Jesse is mentioned here, and not David, since at the time of the birth of Jesus the once-prominent house of David had returned to relative obscurity and poverty, where it had been before David's reign.)

In Isa 11 we read that this "netzer" was to receive the spirit of wisdom, that he might judge the poor and the meek of the earth (vv 2,4). He was in fact to be the champion of all the weak ones of creation, causing the lamb and the calf and the baby to dwell at peace among their natural predators (vv 6-8).' Furthermore, this "netzer", this root of Jesse, was to be the ensign or rallying standard for the Gentiles (!) and the outcasts (!) of Israel (vv 10,12). Apparently this fellow was not to be the product nor the friend of the "privileged class", but instead a friend of the friendless, a defender of the defenseless! Certainly not much like the ordinary run of lords and kings'

Other Old Testament prophecies refer to Christ as the "branch" (this is the different, though practically equivalent, word "tsemach"), with much the same emphasis -- as the Saviour of the weak and oppressed, for he had once been weak and oppressed himself:

Jer 23:5,6; 33:14-16: Here certain shepherds have persecuted and scattered the defenseless flocks, but the good shepherd named the "Branch" will gather the frail remnant and they shall fear no more.

Zec 3:8; 6:12: In these passages the priest Joshua, clothed with filthy garments, an object of ridicule and rejection, is typically cleansed and elevated -- and given the prophetic name "My servant the Branch".
"Despised and rejected"

Nazareth was a city of poor repute, a despised place. It was a proverb in Israel: "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46). For that matter, all of Galilee was a poor and dirty place in the eyes of the elite. It was a "dry ground" (Isa 53:2) from which no good "plant" could spring forth:

"Shall the Messiah come out of Galilee?... Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet" (John 7:41,42,52).
Solomon cared little for Galilee; he gladly gave away twenty cities thereof to Hiram of Tyre as wages. (Is this part of the reason for the common name "Galilee of the Gentiles"? -- Isa 9:1,2.) Hiram promptly protested, naming them "Cabul", or "dirty and displeasing" (1Ki 9:11-13). Apparently they were of little value to him, for we read in a parallel passage that he soon returned them to Solomon (2Ch 8:2). And so the despised cities of "Cabul" or "Galilee" became a fitting symbol of the despised son of Galilee, passed in chains from Jew to Gentile and back to Jew again. Truly he was a "Nazarene"!

Any Bible student will readily acknowledge this general theme of the Scriptures -- the Messiah as a suffering servant, a man of sorrows, despised and rejected, the embodiment of all that the Jews saw in Nazareth and Galilee. Particularly is this evident in:

Psa 22:6,7: "A worm, and no man..."

Psa 69:7,8: "A stranger or alien to my brethren"

Isa 53:2,3: "A root ('shoresh') out of a dry ground..."
In the fullest and most meaningful sense, he was a "Nazarene". And we can only bow in wonder at the great love and wisdom of the Father who provided for our salvation such a Son. Jesus came to the outcasts and the Samaritans. He came to the sinners, bent double with their burdens of sorrow. He came to the blind and the lame and the poor and the forgotten. And to each of them... and to us... he says,

'I know you; you are my brethren. Have I not been an outcast, a minority? Have I not been a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief? Have I not been poor and despised and slandered, and forgotten in a tomb of stone? Come unto me, all you Nazarenes, you Galileans, and I will give you rest.'
And so it was best that God's Son grow up in lowly, despised Nazareth, as the "son" of a poor carpenter, with the "shadow" of illegitimacy hanging over him. The scenes of his childhood were remembered by Jesus, and later incorporated into his teachings. They present a grim picture, of a family living on the hard edge of poverty -- the mending of garments, the frantic search for one lost coin, the poor widow pleading with the Judge.

The little that we know of Jesus' youth teaches us that no man need ever be ashamed of where he comes from, how he makes a living (if it's honest!), what accent he speaks with, what he wears, or where he lives. Neither should he ever "glory" in such things!

"Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord" (Jer 9:23,24).
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