Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"IN HIS INFANCY ALREADY THE KING OF THE JEWS WAS REJECTED AND DESPISED – A NAZARENE."
I Peter 2:18-25
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
We feel we can’t quite relate to the refugees in Australia’s detention centers. We live in comfort, have our loved ones around us, have a purpose in our lives, work to do; we’re accepted as members of our community. But the refugees aren’t. They had to flee from their homeland, and now they’re displaced people, scorned, slighted, nobody wants them – and they suffer all the frustration and emotional turmoil that comes with that rejection. No, we don’t really relate to their troubles. We’re just grateful that our circumstances are so very much different….
So it’s interesting to note, congregation, that the Bible presents the Lord Jesus Christ as being a refugee, a displaced person, one scorned by the people and despised – a Nazarene. As we reflect today on Jesus’ tag as a ‘Nazarene’, we do well to recall Jesus’ words to His disciples, "A servant is not greater than his master." If the Master was despised and scorned, abhorred (as a refugee), we should expect the same….
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
IN HIS INFANCY ALREADY THE KING OF THE JEWS WAS REJECTED AND DESPISED – A NAZARENE.
1. Why Jesus was called a Nazarene
Our text this morning, congregation, places us before a problem, and we may as well face it head on. The problem is this: Matthew says in our text that Jesus being "called a Nazarene" is fulfillment of that "which was spoken by the prophets." But: nowhere in the writings of the Old Testament prophets can we find a text that says that Jesus would be called a Nazarene! Even if we go beyond the prophets to include the whole of the Old Testament, we still look in vain for any passage that says that Jesus will be called a Nazarene. It may have struck you in our earlier reading of Matthew that Matthew repeatedly refers to words spoken by the prophets as being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Each time we can find the text to which he’s referring. So, in 2:6, about where the Christ is to be born, Matthew is quoting Micah 5; in 2:15, about Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt, Matthew claims fulfillment of what the prophet Hosea said in Hosea 11:1; in 2:18, about Bethlehem’s response to the murder of the little boys, Matthew claims fulfillment of what the prophet Jeremiah said in chap 31. Point is: we can find the passage he’s referring to. In our text he also claims fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy – but we can’t find anywhere in the Old Testament a passage that says that Jesus would be called a Nazarene. That’s why our Bibles do not print the last six words of our text in italics; our translation recognizes that it’s not a quote like the previous quotes of our chapter.
So we wonder: what does Matthew mean when he says that Jesus being called a Nazarene is fulfillment of prophecy? In an attempt to find an answer, some commentators have suggested that Matthew is actually thinking of Hebrew words from the Old Testament that sound like the word Nazarene. One better known example is the link made with the Old Testament office of Nazirite (Num 6). Then the point would be that Jesus, like Samson, was set apart to the office of Nazarite, not being allowed to cut His hair or drink any strong drink or touch any dead body. If you follow that thought through, you get some interesting and very worthwhile applications for the life of the Christian today. The problem is, though, that the link between Nazarene and Nazirite is far-fetched; certainly Matthew does not give us any indications in our chapter that this is what he’s thinking of when he says that Jesus would be called a Nazarene. Since the Holy Spirit through Matthew didn’t make that connection, we’re not allowed to make that connection.
Does Matthew, then, give any indications as to what he does mean with the word Nazarene? Indeed, beloved, he does. Matthew very deliberately lays a connection between the word Nazarene and the name of the town where Jesus grew up. That’s our text: "he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’" Just as residents of Great Britain are called British, and residents of Armadale are called Armadalians, so residents of Nazareth were called Nazarenes. That also means: Jesus was not the only person in His day to carry the tag of Nazarene; His siblings and His playmates, and all the people of the city, carried it too.
Now, concerning Jesus carrying this tag Matthew writes that this is fulfillment of that "which was spoken by the prophets." We wonder: how did this fulfill any prophecy? I mentioned already that no Old Testament passage says what Matthew quotes in our text. Then again, if we read Matthew carefully, we shouldn’t expect to find this quote anywhere. After all, Matthew speaks of fulfillment of that "which was spoken by the prophets" – plural. In the other places of our chapter where Matthew quotes from the Old Testament, he refers to a prophet in the singular, and so quotes one particular passage. This time he’s thinking of the prophets in general, and of course he can’t quote them all – and so he summarizes in his own words what the prophets-in-general say on the point that Matthew wants to highlight.
So: what’s the point that Matthew wants to highlight? How is the fact that Jesus is "called a Nazarene" fulfillment of what the prophets-in-general had said? Here we need to make it our business to enter into Matthew’s line of thought in the preceding verses.
The account of the Magi in vss 1-12 had told us of heathens coming to worship the King of the Jews – while the Jewish people themselves declined to join in worship. This –we heard it on Christmas Day- was the beginning of Jesus’ rejection. As it is, that theme of rejection comes strongly to the fore in vss 13-23. Look at vs 13: Joseph has to "take the young Child and His mother," and "flee to Egypt, and stay there." That is: it’s not safe for the King of the Jews to remain in the land of the Jews; since His own people do not want Him, He must flee from His own people to preserve His life – a refugee! Just how dangerous His own land was for Jesus is pointed up in Herod’s murder of the little boys of Bethlehem. We understand that the hatred spawning this act of murder was directed specifically at Jesus – that King of the Jews who Herod saw as a threat. And no, Herod was not the only one looking for Jesus’ life; the angel says in vs 20 that "those who sought the young Child’s life are dead" – notice the plural. When Joseph took his family back to "the land of Israel" –and that’s, of course, the legal domain of the King of the Jews- he’s "afraid" (vs 22) to go to Judea. Why? Because Joseph realized that Jesus still wasn’t safe in His own land! So what did Joseph do? "Being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee." "Turned aside," says our translation here. But the word that Matthew uses means "to withdraw", "to take refuge." Joseph doesn’t feel safe in Judea, and so he retreats, takes refuge, hides in Galilee, specifically in the city of Nazareth.
Galilee. Yes, historically it’s part of the Promised Land, the "land of Israel." But, congregation, in the years after the exile, this part of the land of Israel came under heathen influence. The heartbeat of Israel-as-a-people, and the heartbeat of Israel-as-a-land lay in Judea, in Jerusalem. Galilee was remote, was a backwater, was well and truly beyond the black stump. And within Galilee Nazareth was a hick, a no-place, the end of the road…. As Nathanael said to Philip: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46; cf 7:52).
Do you see the picture, beloved, that emerges? The infant of Christmas is a displaced person, a refugee, one who must hide in forgotten corners of the world – lest His life be taken! That’s the picture Matthew paints, that’s the reason why Joseph settles his family in Nazareth. And the conclusion to that picture is: "that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’"
There’s one more item I need to mention. The word ‘Nazarene’ appears some 20 times in the New Testament, in English all spelt the same way. But in the Greek original the word has two different spellings. Why the difference? It’s a question of dialect. You know how it goes. If you want to mock somebody, you copy his dialect – and of course exaggerate it. That’s the reason for the two spellings of the word Nazarene in the New Testament. And the spelling in our text is not the normal one; it’s the exaggerated one, the one that simulates the dialect – and so makes the Nazarene feel despised.
Now the question is: does this picture-from-the-context agree with what the Lord has revealed in the prophets? The answer is definitely yes. Think of Isaiah 53. The Holy Spirit says of the Suffering Servant to come:
"He is despised and rejected by men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him" (vs 3; cf 49:7).
The Psalms say the same thing. In Ps 22 the Holy Spirit describes Jesus like this:
"… I am a worm, and no man;
A reproach of men, and despised by the people.
All those who see Me ridicule Me;
They shoot out the lip, they shake the head…" (vss 6f).
So too Ps 31:
"I am a reproach among all my enemies,
But especially among my neighbors,
And am repulsive to my acquaintances…" (vs 11).
I can mention more texts from the Old Testament, but this suffices to show that the Lord had revealed in the Old Testament that the coming Savior would be scorned by His people, rejected, despised. That is the point that Matthew sees fulfilled in Jesus coming to live in Nazareth, and therefore being called a Nazarene. Jesus is despised, rejected by His own people, a persona non grata – Nazarene!
We call Him our Master, and so, by the grace of God, He is. But: "a servant is not greater than his Master," Jesus once said. So the question presses itself upon us: do you like it, brothers and sisters, that your Savior was called a Nazarene? What do you think: what implications does Jesus’ nickname have for us?
But before we answer that question, let’s first move on to our second point:
2. When Jesus was called a Nazarene.
The answer to the question of ‘when’ appears, at first glance, to be straightforward. Matthew uses the word in relation to Jesus in His infancy, when his father Joseph settled Him in Nazareth. Yet we realize that the shame of a nickname doesn’t hurt an infant, for the infant is not aware. So it is here too. It’s when Jesus is active in His public ministry that the shame of this nickname comes to its own. And see how!
Shortly after Jesus began His public ministry, He was one day in Capernaum, a city not so far from Nazareth, on the Sea of Galilee. He entered a synagogue, I read in Mark 1, "and taught … as one who had authority, and not as the scribes." The result was that the people were astonished at His teaching. Do you know what happened next, beloved? In the audience was a man with an unclean spirit. This demon-possessed man cried out during the Lord’s preaching, "Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? … I know who You are – the Holy One of God!" There, in the Greek, is that nickname from our text: "Jesus the Nazarene!" That’s the first time the Bible record attaches the tag ‘Nazarene’ to Jesus in adult life. And notice who fixes the tag to Jesus! The tag comes from the mouth of an unclean spirit, that is, from the devil! And: it’s done in public. You see, by using this abusive word, Satan would destroy Jesus’ reputation and so break Jesus’ work from the start. After all, who wants anything to do with a Nazarene, with a reject, with a refugee….
The demeaning nickname sticks. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks them whom they seek. Their reply? "Jesus the Nazarene." The Greek form here has the dialect version of the word Nazarene, and that’s the point: the soldiers have come to arrest a scum, a man who should be despised; who would defend a Nazarene?! (Jn 18:5,7) – of course He’s suspect!
In Pilate’s courts, the servant girl uses the name again in her accusation against Peter. "You also," she says, "were with Jesus the Nazarene" (Mk 14:67). Peter denied it, and surely the fact that the girl referred to Jesus with the scandalous term ‘Nazarene’ helped Peter along to deny his involvement with such a person…. Some moments later another girl said the same thing about Peter: "This fellow also was with Jesus the Nazarene!" (Mt 26:71) – and this time the Galilean dialect comes through the way she says ‘Nazarene’. True, how wrong of Peter to deny any knowledge of Jesus, but we can understand something of the pressure on Peter when he’s confronted with the scorn that’s associated with the Nazarene; who wants to be associated with a reject?!
But the humiliation of the nickname, congregation, came to its worst when Jesus was crucified. Pilate had handed Jesus over to the Jews, and prepared for the cross a plaque with the words: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Or, as the text literally says: "Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews," and here Pilate himself uses the dialect form of the word Nazarene! The official reason for Pilate condemning Jesus was Jesus’ claim to be "King of the Jews," and so we can understand that Pilate would print the words "King of the Jews" over the condemned man. But Pilate chooses to say more, chooses to degrade Jesus, to call Him by His nickname –in dialect form too yet!- and so join the masses in their stomping all over Jesus, treading the country bumpkin into the dirt: "Jesus the Nazarene" – scum!
But here, brothers and sisters, it is not, in final analysis, Pilate who scorns Jesus, but God! Pilate is the legal authority, and his action –however wrong it was- was action in the name of God! God rejected Jesus, God scorned Him, despised Him – and that’s because our sins were piled onto Jesus the Nazarene. He was "smitten by God, and afflicted…, wounded for our transgressions..., bruised for our iniquities…" (Is 53:4f).
And now, beloved: how did Jesus respond? How would you respond to such name-calling? Let’s be honest: it’s in us to fight, to defend ourselves, to show we’re not the scum the boys make us out to be. For we loathe being despised, afflicted, scorned…. What Jesus did? Writes Peter: "when He was reviled, [He] did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously" (I Pet 2:23). You see: Jesus did not let the humiliation of the tag get under His skin. He didn’t protest it, didn’t get upset by it. He understood: behind the rejection by the people was rejection from God. And God rejected Him because He was made all sin. So He committed Himself to the righteous Judge, and He bore His shame in peace, in the conviction that His God would defend and honor Him if He did what was right in God’s sight.
What was the result of this attitude on Jesus’ part? Says Peter: "by [His] stripes you were healed" (I Pet 2:24) – that’s one point. And another: God "has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard" (Ps 22:24) – and "therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:9ff). There’s the result: 1, glory for Jesus Christ, and 2, salvation for God’s people!
That brings us to our third point:
3. Who inherit the title today.
Jesus’ response to the scorn He received is so important for us. You see, the servant girl in Pilate’s courts tried to stick the name ‘Nazarene’ onto Peter, and he bucked – to the point of denying the Lord (Mt 27:67ff). But when Jesus was risen, what name did the angel give to Jesus? Listen to the angel’s words to the women: "You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He is risen!" (Mk 16:6). That name of disgrace became a name of honor, because it was through the shame of the cross –rejection, being despised!- that Jesus obtained our salvation! ‘Jesus the Nazarene’, said the angel: that is the Savior – from humiliation to exaltation! So, when Jesus stopped Saul on the road to Damascus, and Saul asked Jesus who He was, Jesus’ reply was, "I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 22:8) – and here Jesus Himself uses the dialect form of the nickname! What once was a name of ridicule and dishonor has now become a badge of honor – for Christ by His triumph on the cross has shown that indeed much good could come out of Nazareth. The rejected and despised infant who grew up in the forgotten no-place called Nazareth has become the King of kings and Lord of lords at the right hand of the Father – and that’s because He bore without protest the wrath of God against sin, and so atoned for His people!
What shall Paul say, then, when the Jews accuse him before Felix the governor of being "a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes"? (Acts 24:5). Shall he, like Peter before him, be offended by the name, be insulted to be associated with such a scum as a Nazarene? Shall the early Christians be offended to be tagged with such a despicable nickname? No, beloved, no! For the scorn of the world is neither here nor there; important is what the Lord of lords says, and God has bestowed on the Nazarene the crown of glory! Blessed, then, are those who are called by the name of Jesus!
We don’t today hear the name ‘Nazarene’ applied to Christians. That doesn’t mean that Christians don’t get other tags attached to them. "Dutchies" we’re called in our community, not because we hail from Holland (some of us don’t), but because we belong to the so-called Dutch church. And yes, the community loads a dose of scorn into its use of the word; ask the children who bike to school how the neighborhood gangs use the word ‘Dutchie’.
But even apart from words, the fact of the matter is that the church of Jesus Christ will always be rejected, scorned, in the unbelieving world. It’s what Jesus said:
"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you (Jn 15).
That is why it can be said today with certainty that Ethan, as long as he is faithful to his Savior, will taste the ridicule and scorn of men in the years that lie before him. And you parents may not protect him for such derision; instead, you need to teach him to carry that ridicule with pride for Christ’s sake! It’s equally why it can be said with certainty that those of us who have a job in the secular work place or pursue an education at a secular institution of learning shall invariably experience the scorn of men. It’s why our children need not be surprised when they bike to school to hear that they are the brunt of jokes and derision. Refugees we are today, as Jesus was, strangers in a strange land, despised and afflicted. Let taunting not surprise you, beloved, nor let it bother you; see it instead as a badge of honor. For with this taunt the world testifies that you are associated with Jesus Christ, and that association is something to be so very thankful about! Hold your chin up, do not return evil for evil nor revile in return; remember that the triumphant Nazarene has declared you "blessed" "when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake." He told us to "rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven" (Mt 5:11f) – even as His was. Amen.