Jesus is from where?! (Matt. 2:19-23)

[Sermon audio here.]

Status is a big deal in our society.  And status is often measured in very superficial terms: like according to what kind of clothes you wear, what kind of car you drive, the house you own and where you live.  The people that our popular culture idolizes and regards as successful are those who possess the right outward symbols of status, power and wealth.

But this is not only a modern phenomenon.  As the author of Ecclesiastes once wrote: There is nothing new under the sun.  In the first century Greek and Roman world, the church was to a large extent mirroring the value system of pagan culture by looking for a Messiah-king with social, political and celebrity status.

In Chapters 1-2 of Matthew we read about a new king born in the powerful and prestigious city of Bethlehem.  His name is Jesus.  How does he stack up against the popular Jewish expectations of their Messianic king?

Jesus the social revolutionary come celebrity?

Well, so far there is not a whole lot to suggest that Jesus is not destined to be the social and political revolutionary the church was hoping for.  Besides the “small obstacle” of an insanely jealous and murderous Herod, Jesus is fairing quite well so far.  By the legal adoption of Joseph, Jesus has fulfilled OT prophecy as the promised son of Abraham and the son of king David.  Jesus has also fulfilled Messianic expectations by being born in the city of David.  And what is more, Matthew is already hinting that Jesus is the new Moses who will accomplish a Second Exodus for the people of God.

Now, as a royal son of David and one born in the city of David there were understandably certain expectations of Jesus – expectations that were shaped by the OT history of great kings that ruled in the Promised Land, like David and his Son, Solomon.  If you remember, these kings had massive amounts of wealth and they ruled with great displays of outward power and might.  To a degree, then, you cannot blame your average Jew for expecting a Messiah-king who would famously re-establish his throne in Jerusalem and drive all of Israel’s foes into the backcountry of Assyria and Babylon.

However, there are already clues in the birth story of Jesus so far that suggest Jesus will execute his kingship in a way that doesn’t quite line up with the popular Jewish newspaper headlines of the day.

Shaking up the status quo

One clue that starts to raise eyebrows is the fact that the parents of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, are not people of status and influence.  They are nobodies.  They are both from an obtuse place called Nazareth: a village with a population of about 480 hidden away in the hills of Galilee.  And Joseph is a lowly carpenter.

And then there is the odd turn of events in which Jesus finds refuge from Herod in Egypt of all places.  Now, from a purely superficial perspective, no one would have batted an eyelid at this.  It was common at the time for exiles to flee to Egypt for safety.  However, what would have piqued the interest of the Jews, who knew their OT, is the fact that Jesus escapes from Bethlehem – the symbol of wealth and prosperity, and the center of the church – to Egypt, the OT symbol of spiritual bondage and evil.  This reverses the OT Exodus story where Moses escapes from Egypt to Midian for safety in Ex. 4.

So by this stage Jesus already has a few check marks on his status report.  

Is this Jesus someone being groomed for success?  Will he turn heads?  Will the masses flock after him and adore him, like people do a pop star or a newly crowned king in our day?

In Matt. 2:19, we read that after the death of Herod an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in Egypt and tells him that it is now safe to take Jesus and his mother, Mary, back to “the land of Israel.”  So, again, verse 21, Joseph obeys the Lord and he returns with his family to the land from which he came.

But Joseph quickly finds out upon his return to Judea that Herod’s son, Archelaus, who shared political power with his two brothers, is a chip off the brutal block of his father. The historian Josephus tells us that Archelaus begun his rule by massacring some three thousand Jews celebrating Passover.  In verse 22 the Lord instructs Joseph, in yet another dream, to “withdraw to the district of Galilee.”

However, the real jaw-dropper and the status killer for Jesus comes in verse 23, which reads:  “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.””

Now, it would have been one thing for Joseph and Mary to be from Nazareth and then try and improve upon their stroke of bad luck once they realised that their son is the king of Jews!  But they do not.  Why?  Because God has a different plan for Messiah and Joseph is a God-fearing and obedient man.  If Joseph and Mary were able, and if they had been listening to popular culture of their day, perhaps they would have got with the times and taken up residence in more respectable (and “with it”) part of Galilee.  However, God directs them to the out-of-the-way and little-known village of Nazareth instead.

To fulfill the prophets

And this was to fulfill what the prophets had spoken.  Here, we have the final of the five fulfillment quotations or formulas found in the first two chapters of the gospel of Matthew.  These quotations provide proof that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah-king of the Jews.  However, this last formula is different for one obvious reason in particular.  Nowhere in the OT does a prophet say that Messiah will be called a Nazarene.  So what is going on here? Is this a slip of the pen? 

Well, a lot of ink has been spilled by theologians throughout church history in trying to figure this one out.  This fact, however, should not knock our confidence in God’s Word as divinely inspired and without error.  While the central gospel-message is clear, there are nevertheless some parts of the Bible that are more difficult to understand than others.  Sometimes this is because we lack familiarity with the original historical context that gave rise to a particular passage, as well as the nature of its first intended audience.

In the case of Matt. 2:23, some Biblical scholars have argued for a parallel with Samson who is called a Nazarite in Judges 13.  But it is a stretch, among other things, to call Samson a Messiah-like figure considering his record of blatant immorality. What is more, Jesus never abstained from strong drink and haircuts, like a true Nazarite. Then there is the proposal that “Nazerene” was a first century term for a Christian, which had already become commonplace among the Jews at the time.

The most compelling interpretation, however – which dates as far back as Jerome in the 4th century – builds on evidence in our text, which can easily be overlooked by us modern readers – but would have raised flags for the original audience.  That is, this fulfillment quotation is the only one so far which is not made by a single prophet, but rather prophets in the plural.  This fact seems to support the suggestion that Matthew’s prophetic allusion here is not an unknown singular instance, but rather a repeated theme found in the OT prophets in general.  So what, then, is this theme?

Well, I think we already have insight – paradoxically – from the fact that Nazareth does not exist in the OT!  Therefore, to call someone who claims to be Messiah a “Nazarean” is to ask for ridicule.  In other words, because Nazareth was for the most part unknown, calling someone a Nazarean was the equivalent of dismissing him, or even hurling verbal abuse at him.

Think about it.  It’s like being at a party and you are asked what you do for a living, and you respond: “I work for a sewage farm.”  And the next thing the conversation is over.  Or you are talking to your mates in the school playground and one asks where your parents live.  You give your answer and then wonder why suddenly you are not quite as popular as you once were.

We get a similar kind of reaction from Nathanael in response to Philip’s suggestion of a Messiah from Nazareth in John 1:46.  Nathanael asks: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  The only other time the term Nazareth is used in Matthew is in Matt. 26:71 where we read about Peter trying to escape the crowds after denying Christ, and a servant girl catches him out with a tone of ridicule by saying that Peter “was with Jesus of Nazareth.”

But, now, where is the OT prophetic support for this idea that what we have in our passage is, on one significant level, a kind of derogatory name-calling?

While there is no doubt a strong and dominant royal or kingly strand of prophecy concerning Messiah in the OT, there is also alongside it the significant expectation that this same Messiah will nevertheless be largely unrecognized and not be taken seriously by his own people.

Take for example, the Messianic portraits we have in Zechariah, Chapters 9-14.  Here he is at once a royal figure and unexpectedly humble.  He is a shepherd whose authority is not accepted by his sheep.  He is one who is pierced by the people of Jerusalem and struck down by the sword of God.

You get a similar impression from some of the so-called Messianic Psalms, especially Psalm 22 and 69, which speak of the “righteous sufferer.”

This theme of non-recognition and disdain is perhaps most clearly development in the Isaiah’s account of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52-53.  Here the prophet speaks very graphically of his unimpressive appearance, which leads Messiah to be despised and rejected by the people, and held of no account.

In Isaiah 53:2, we read that the servant will spring up like a root out of dry ground.  This image of a despised plant already has precedent in Is. 11:1, where it is prophesied: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”  It is worth noting that the Hebrew word for “shoot” here is “nezer,” which has led some commentators to suggest that by calling Jesus a Nazarene, Matthew is making a subtle play on words, which evokes the image of Isaiah’s suffering but holy servant.

Messiah will grow up out of apparent nothingness: the nothingness of Nazareth. Like a tender shoot or branch, he will grow out of the remains of the nation of Israel after its destruction by Assyria.

The bottom line here is that this theme of humiliation is not incompatible with Christ’s title as royal Messiah.  This fact has been confirmed to us by OT prophesy.  And it will be a theme that continues to be developed throughout the rest of the gospel until it finds its climax with Christ’s public degradation and disgrace on the cross at Golgotha.

Jesus, the royal son of David who was born in the city of David is also the Jesus of Nazareth.

Where are you from and where are you going?

So, let me ask you: Where are you from and where are you going?  Perhaps you are ashamed or embarrassed about your past or your present, or both, because it is not impressive according to the world’s standards.  Perhaps you get very little recognition in this life.  Maybe you don’t have the right status symbols to fit in or be considered a success.  Or perhaps you are just plain sick and tired of the superficiality of the status parade that confronts you everyday.

But notice how Jesus and his gospel turn the values of this world upside down!

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:26-29)”

Brothers and sisters, children, the Son of God humbled himself and took to himself the frailty of human flesh, and lived a life of public shame and disgrace.  Why?  So that he might identify with us in our sin and suffering – in order to overcome it.  Jesus became nothing for nobodies; Jesus was rejected for the rejected; Jesus became sin for us.

Beloved, this is your Saviour.  He has confounded the world by conquering through weakness: from the embarrassment of being called a Nazarene to the curse of being nailed to a cruel Roman cross. And he did it for your forgiveness and to earn you eternal life.

May the Lord strengthen us with this gospel message as we, like Jesus, are despised and counted as nothing in this world.  May God grant us the grace to see things as they truly are.  Yes, we as Christ’s church are counted as fools and losers by the world.  But in Christ we are triumphant.  And one day we will rule over all things with him in glory.

It does not matter where you are from in this world.  What matters is where you are going.  If you have faith this morning, you are going to heaven.  Let his be your hope and joy. For: “… [N]o eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has “prepared” for those who love him”” (1 Cor. 2:9).  Amen.

 Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service, 9 June 2013

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