(13) “He Will Be Called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23)
We remember that after the child-murderer Herod
was dead, Joseph the foster-father of Jesus had been visited in Egypt by an
angel. The glorious messenger had reassured him that it was 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.
Did Joseph and Mary decide that Judea and Jerusalem would be the proper home for
the “Son of the Most High”? 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. Thus it must have been with some surprise that Joseph heard the Divine
command turning himself and his dependents toward Galilee:
“And he went and lived in a town called
Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be
called a Nazarene’ ” (Matt. 2:23).
This is a passage of some difficulty, inasmuch as
there is no such direct statement in any prophetic Scripture. Matthew would not,
however, quote with authority any noncanonical 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 that “what was said” 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.)
Second, “he will be called...” is
really a Hebrew idiom signifying “he will be...”
“Nazarene” was not to be the literal name of Jesus any more than was
“Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14), “Wonderful, Counselor”, etc.
(Isa. 9: 6,7), or “Branch” (Jer. 23:5). All these names are to be
understood as Divine descriptions, each one telling us something more about the
Not a Nazarite
Now to the major points. A Nazarene is not a
Nazarite (a man who dedicated himself to God’s service by refraining from
the fruit of the vine, allowing his hair to grow uncut, and avoiding all
contamination with dead bodies: Num. 6). The two words are distinctly different
in the Hebrew and the Greek. Also, we know that Christ drank wine (Matt. 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 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 was providentially protected from the wrath of Herod first, and from
all harm later, until the appointed time for his deliverance into the hands of
As a noun, netzer means a new plant, or
shoot, which springs from an old root. The word is translated
“branch” in Isaiah 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
In Isaiah 11 we read that this netzer was
to receive the spirit of wisdom, so that he might judge the needy and the poor
of the earth vv. 2,4). He was to be the champion of all the weak ones of
creation, causing the lamb, 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
or 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 Savior of the
weak and oppressed, for he had once been weak and oppressed
Jeremiah 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.
Zechariah 3:8; 6:12: In these passages the man
Joshua, clothed with filthy garments, an object of ridicule and rejection, is
cleansed and elevated, and given the prophetic name, “My servant, the
Branch”. All of this is, no doubt, a type or pattern of the
“Joshua” to come.
Nazareth was a city of poor repute, a despised
place. It was a proverb in Israel: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from
there?” (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:
“How can the Christ come from
Galilee?... Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of
Galilee” (John 7:41,52).
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 nations [Gentiles]”, in
Isaiah 9:1, 2 ?) Hiram promptly protested, naming them “Cabul”,
“good-for-nothing”, or “dirty and displeasing” (1 Kings
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 (2 Chron. 8:2). 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:
Psalm 22:6,7: “A worm, and not a
Psalm 69:7,8: “A stranger to my
Isaiah 53:2,3: “A root (shoresh) out of dry
In the fullest and most meaningful sense, he was
a Nazarene. 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, the lame, the poor and the forgotten. 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.”
So it was best that God’s Son grew 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
The little that we know of Jesus’s youth
teaches us that no man need ever be ashamed of where he comes from, how he makes
a living (if it is honest!), what accent he speaks with, what he wears, or where
he lives. Neither should he ever “glory” in such things.
“This is what the LORD says: ‘Let
not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or
the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that
he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice
and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the
LORD” (Jer. 9:23,24).
A little boy climbs a hill outside the village.
With each step his horizons grow wider, and in joy and wonder he soaks up the
scenes. Now he has reached the top.
What a view it is ! To the north there is
snow-topped Hermon, dramatic symbol of God’s stored-up blessings. One day
those blessings will be lavished upon His people. To the east is the sea of
Galilee, a translucent “sea of glass”. One day he will walk by its
shores and call simple, humble fishermen to follow him. To the south, beyond the
hills, lies Jerusalem the city of David. There, one day, crowds will shout his
name, some in hatred, but others in love. To the west there is the Great Sea,
and beyond — other lands where men have never heard of the God of Israel
— but one day they will.
So much to do; but for now, he is only a little
boy, a special little boy, obedient and intelligent, thoughtful and kind. He
observes the clouds as they sweep like chariots across the sky, the flowers of
the field in massed formation, and the birds as they soar overhead. He feels the
wind upon his face.
Patiently he waits, a silent prayer in his heart:
“Speak, Father, for your Son is
* * * * *
“O the depth of the riches both of the
wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His paths
beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his
counselor?... For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be
the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:33,34,36).