The Names of Jesus #10

"He Shall Be Called a Nazarene"

May 31, 1998 / Matthew 2:19-23

Among the various names and titles given Jesus in the New Testament documents, one has been distinctly problematic. "So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ĎHe will be called a Nazareneí " (Matt. 2:23b).

Which of the prophets was Matthew citing here? There is no text in our Old Testament saying the Messiah would be from Nazareth. In fact, there is no mention of Nazareth anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. There is no solution to this mystery that uniformly satisfies textual scholars.

But I favor a very simple and straightforward explanation to the question: Nazareth was not a prominent city associated with messianic expectations, and Jesusí appearance from there fulfilled a variety of biblical predictions that the Christ would emerge from humble obscurity and provoke the disdain of those he came to save.

Something Good from Nazareth?

Nazareth wasnít exactly a hick town in the backwater. It was situated along an ancient caravan route from Damascus to Egypt. Sometimes called The Way of the South, this road through Nazareth was the one Joseph had traveled into Egypt after his brothers sold him to a group of traders passing through the region. Three centuries before Jesus, Alexander the Great had marched his legions along the same route.

The fact remains, however, that Nazareth was itself a pretty unspectacular place. It was certainly not a politically important place. It didnít have the status of a Jerusalem or Bethlehem in the biblical text. And recent estimates are that it was a town of only about 500 people when Jesus lived there.

Thus Jesus grew up not as the cosmopolitan "Jesus the Jerusalemite" and not even as "Jesus the Bethlehemite" ó with the Davidic and messianic notions that title might have conjured up ó but as Jesus the Nazarene. Jesus was such a common name of the time that people wearing it would often be identified by their hometown and/or parentage. What an unimpressive introduction and identification to be labeled as a citizen of nondescript little Nazareth.

Andrew, Peter, and Philip had become disciples of Jesus. In his enthusiasm, Philip sought out his friend Nathanael and invited him to join in following Jesus. "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote," he exclaimed. Then, in good form for the time, he identified Jesus to Nathanael by both his hometown and parentage: "[He is] Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45). You get a glimpse of what it meant to be from Nazareth in Nathanaelís reply to his enthusiastic friend: "Nazareth! Can any good thing come from there?" (John 1:46). You can hardly miss the sneer and derision in his words.

When Christians were referred to in Acts as the "Nazarene sect" (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthewís point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised.1

Indeed, there are several texts in the Hebrew Bible about the derision Godís Anointed One would encounter from those he came to save. The favorite preaching text of the early church contains these lines:

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.
Like one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not. . . .
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken (Isa. 53:2-3,8).

In his Gospel, Matthew picks up on this theme of Jesusí rejected and impoverished lifestyle. Thus he has Jesus say of himself: "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (8:20). He points out that Jesus was castigated as "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and Ďsinnersí " (11:19). "Jesus the Messiah, Matthew is telling us, did not introduce his kingdom with outward show or present himself with the pomp of an earthly monarch, In accord with prophecy he came as the despised Servant of the Lord."2

In the Gospels, Jesus attracted such "unsavory characters" to himself that respectable, church-going people gave him a hard time about it. "Now the tax collectors and Ďsinnersí were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ĎThis man welcomes sinners and eats with themí " (Luke 15:1-2).

Unfortunately, the world has always had people nobody wanted. Some of them are sick in body and others in mind. Some are "burdens" on their families. Some are not the brightest, and many are not the prettiest or best-mannered. Then there are the bad-smelling homeless people. Add to all these the alcoholics, people with AIDS, prisoners, and unwanted elderly people. Then there are the babies somebody decides to rip from the womb because they are inconvenient or embarrassing. And donít forget the people who do the aborting. The number is getting quite large now.

Do you know who would fit best among all these outcasts and unwanted folks? Wouldnít it be someone who was himself an outcast and unwanted? Thatís the very reason Jesus chose to be identified with Nazareth rather than Jerusalem, New York, or Paris. He is not a trendy-chic Savior who hangs out in the best places with the best people. He is like a physician who goes in among his sick patients to help and heal them without thought for his own safety from the infectious agent that is taking lives. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick," he once said. "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32).

Jesus sees himself as the seeker of the lost. Far from avoiding them, he seeks them out. Far from avoiding us, he sought us out. Anyone who has borne the scorn of being a Nazarene-outcast in his own time is not ashamed to claim any among us who will come to him for salvation. Surely it is part of the total Good News message that Jesus he is an Equal Opportunity Redeemer!

Somebodyís Daughter

William Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for the book Ironweed. He later adapted it for the screen, and Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep played the lead roles. No box-office smash, it was probably too heavy and too theological to be a hit. It is certainly too powerful to be "enjoyed."

In one scene from the movie, the two lead characters stumble across an old woman lying in the snow. She appears to be drunk, as they are. They stand there and debate what to do about her.

"Is she drunk or a bum?" he asks.

"Just a bum," comes the reply. "Been one all her life."

"And before that?"

"She was a whore in Alaska."

"She hasnít been a whore all her life. Before that?"

"I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess."

"Well, a little kidís something. Itís not a bum and itís not a whore. Itís something. Letís take her in."

So the two drunken vagrants see the old woman through the eyes of grace ó even if they are blurry and unfocused eyes. Where others saw only a bum and a whore, grace saw "a little kid" and showed mercy. More than that, she was somebodyís daughter ó pure and precious on the day of her birth, deserving love she may never have received from family or culture.

From a Christian perspective, couldnít we see such people as persons made in the image of God? No matter how marred the image, it is still there in alcoholics, thieves, liars, and murderers. Itís even there still in elder-brother church members and preachers.

But how do those persons believe in themselves enough to allow God to touch them? To take them in? To heal and nurture them back to health? It just might help some of them to know that Jesus was a Nazarene. People had nothing good to say about him. They presumed the worst. His very background put him under the curse of their contempt. But he had been just "a little kid" once. More than that, he was the son of the Father in Heaven ó regardless of whether others knew or honored that fact about him.

To All the Despised

Everybody messes up. Everybody fails at some things. Everybody sins. When those failures are exaggerated and one of us crosses the line between appropriate guilt and inappropriate shame, all our perspectives are skewed. We no longer see God, others, or ourselves correctly. God is seen only in terms of his law, his justice, and his judgment; we fail to see him as forgiver of sins. Others are seen as opponents, critics, and hypocrites; we can no longer accept that anyone believes in us, loves us, wants to give us another chance. And we turn on ourselves. Feeling such terrible shame, we see ourselves as failures, give up on ourselves, want to die.

Guilt must be met with Godís grace and othersí love before Satan takes advantage of us to destroy hope! I canít deal with my failures except by the healing love you give me. Otherwise I will either die spiritually or so harden my heart that I may as well be dead. And you canít deal with your failures except as you let some of us in to love, affirm, and support you when you are at your lowest.

When you mess up, there are three positive things you can do. First, admit it to whomever you need to. Confess it to God. Go to the person whose confidence you betrayed or whose heart you broke. If it is something so broad and painful that there is no one person to whom you can go, take the matter before the entire believing community. Let the whole church know how heavy your heart is, and let us pray for you and bear some of your burden. "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each otherís burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:1-2).

Second, when youíve confided and confessed your sin, get with just a few of the most mature Christians you know to think through the choices you made that got you into trouble. What made you feel the way you felt? Why did you think the way you thought? Why did you act the way you acted?

Third, donít accept anybodyís "label" for yourself ó worthless, hopeless, no good. You are Godís child who sinned, who has been forgiven, and who has a future! You are "in process" and "under construction" with God. You have changes to make ó changes that God will implement by the power of the Holy Spirit and that might upset some people when they are put into place. But there is no reason for you to believe less about yourself than God affirms for you.

There are, after all, two kinds of pride. One is the opposite of humility, and the other is the opposite of shame. The first is not acceptable for Christians, but the latter is necessary. It is what gives rise to a sentiment like this one: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).

Being a Christian is not just a matter of getting something; itís a matter of being someone. A Christian is not simply a person who gets forgiveness, who gets to go to heaven, who gets the Holy Spirit, who gets a new nature. A Christian, in terms of our deepest identity, is a saint, a spiritually born child of God, a divine masterpiece, a child of light, a citizen of heaven. Being born again transformed you into someone who didnít exist before. What you receive as a Christian isnít the point; itís who you are. Itís not what you do as a Christian that determines who you are; itís who you are that determines what you do.3


Jesus was able to live as a despised Nazarene and to endure the sneers of people because he was secure in his identity. He knew his true identity. He knew he was the Son of God. And he knew his relationship with the Father was impossible for anyone to take from him. Now he is able to understand and help you through your uncertainties.

Jesusí identification with us was total so that ours with him could be equally complete. Christian, you are somebodyís child, Godís child. And nobody can take your relationship with your Father from you. Rejoice in it. Live positively. Walk with a confident stride.


1 D.A. Carson, "Matthew" in The Expositorís Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p. 97.
2 Ibid.
3 Neil T. Anderson, Victory Over the Darkness (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1990), p. 43.

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