George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(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 Messiah’s character.

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 wicked men.

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 reign.)

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 himself:

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.

“Despised and rejected”

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 man”;
Psalm 69:7,8: “A stranger to my brothers”; and
Isaiah 53:2,3: “A root (shoresh) out of dry ground”.

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 judge.

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 listening.”

* * * * *

“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).

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