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Jesus the Nazarene

In Matthew 2:23 we read:

And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:23 is a puzzling verse for a number of reasons. First, why did Matthew include this quotation in his narrative? Was Matthew merely attempting to prove that the Old Testament was right in predicting that Jesus would live in Nazareth? Second, regardless of the reason for Matthew’s inclusion of this quotation, it is found nowhere in the Old Testament. Furthermore, Nazareth isn’t even mentioned in the Old Testament and was likely a settlement that became a town during the Intertestamental Period.

Since this quotation is not found in the Old Testament, why does Matthew present it as such and what does this prophecy mean? To understand what Matthew is doing in this passage we have to first consider the reputation of Nazareth. Although the reasons are not entirely clear, the New Testament bears witness that Nazareth and the Galilee region in general were not looked upon favorably by Jews outside the area. Nazareth was despised by many Jews. Here are a few examples.

Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” John 1:46

Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” John 7:41

They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” John 7:52

“For we have found this man a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes.” Acts 24:5

The Jews were correct to understand that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (Mic 5:1-2), but only identified Jesus as a Nazarene; therefore, they missed that he was the Son of David. Moreover, the mention of Paul as the “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” was meant to be one of ridicule and scorn, which further supports the prevailing attitude about Nazareth and all those associated with it.

The other important feature of Matthew 2:23 is that Matthew uses the word “prophets” rather than “prophet” to refer to the source of the quotation. Since there is no direct quote found in the Old Testament (or other Jewish Literature) stating that the Messiah would be a Nazarene, the reference is likely to the sort of person he will be rather than where he would live.

For various political, social, and economic reasons Nazareth was despised by many Jews and viewed as a place incompatible with the Jewish expectation of a King. However, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee and lived in Nazareth for this very reason. He lived and associated with the despised, poor, and unlovely because he became these things in his identification with humanity. The prophets of the Old Testament predicted that Messiah would be a man despised by men.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help. Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. Psalm 22:6-13

For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that dishonor has covered my face. Psalm 69:7

Reproaches have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. Psalm 69:20

Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Isaiah 49:7

I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. Isaiah 50:6

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. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Isaiah 53:2-3

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? Isaiah 53:8

These Old Testament texts testify to the fact that God’s Anointed One would be despised and hated by men. Jesus identifies himself with the despised of Israel by making his home with the poor, destitute, and lowly. The predictions of the Old Testament that he would be despised by men is demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry as he is hated for welcoming sinners, prostitutes, and tax-collectors; while condemning the rich, powerful, and religious elite.

What Matthew has done for us by making his statement a quotation from the Old Testament is give us a picture of what Jesus will be like. Jesus is not only the King (we see this picture throughout Matthew’s account), but he is a humble servant who identifies with humanity in their most desperate place.

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:26-28

The second person of the Trinity became a man, humbled himself, took on human flesh, subjected himself to the ills of humanity, and offered his own life for God’s people (Phil 2:5-11; cf., Eph 4:7-10). He was born in a barn, lived among the despised, had no possessions, and died with criminals. What the world views as despised we, by God’s grace, consider lovely and what the world views as foolishness we boast in (1 Cor 1:18-31; Gal 6:4). As I think about the reality of Jesus’ humiliation and suffering I can only say one thing in response: “Amazing love! How can it be, that thou, my God, should die for me?”

Categories: New Testament
  1. October 5, 2009 at 10:33 am

    Very insightful, Chad. I really appreciate this look into our Lord as “Jesus of Nazareth”. You’ve provided another helpful example of how it is that the NT sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the OT. Jesus doesn’t simply “fulfill” certain independent verses or even passages of the OT, He fulfills the meaning and purpose of the entire OT as God’s paints the portrait of the “Seed of the Woman”.

    Thanks Chad.


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