Is the Genealogy Really Such a Let Down?

To the first-time reader, the Old Testament can feel like a confusing collection of laws and awkward stories.  Before too long it becomes an amazing epic retelling of God’s preparation for the arrival of his Son into our world.  If you have eyes to see, then the Old Testament becomes a treasure trove of God’s presence and God’s promise.  It is certainly not about heroes of the faith, for God’s people were consistently faithless, and yet God’s faithfulness outshines their wretchedness.  Where God had every right to declare his promises null and void, instead he kept adding to the promise and moving toward the arrival of the Messiah.

Then there is a blank page.  This is it.  This is the moment in a Bible read through that should make your heart leap.  So, you arrive in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1.  Here it is!  This is the good news!  And then you find . . . a genealogy.  Disappointing to say the least.  Surely God could have launched the New Testament with something more exciting than a list of old names?

Actually, the genealogy at the start of the New Testament is a reason to celebrate.  More than that, it gives us reason to press on in our ministry.  Here are three reasons to be thankful for the genealogy that launches our New Testaments:

1. The good news that we proclaim is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in history.  

The arrival of God the Son into our world is not announced with a “Once upon a time,” introduction as we would expect of a fantasy tale.  It is announced with a “This is the genealogy of…” that we would expect of a historical figure.  This is so important.  In the midst of our preaching and pastoral care of souls we can forget how alien the good news of Jesus actually sounds to people.  It can sound like a fairy tale that we think might offer hope in the “real world.”  But let us never forget that the Gospel is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in actual events.

The Gospel is not a mythical tale that we speak into the real world to give people a purer perspective by which to live, or a touching tale that sets an example for us to follow in our infinitely more complex experience.  The Gospel is not a suggestion for how we should live.  It is an announcement of what God has done.

Real historical figures had real flesh and blood children who gave birth to actual children, and so on.  This genealogy offers forty-two touchdown points in history as preparation to the touchdown point that transforms history.  If Jesus was merely a myth, or only an example, or somehow just a fairy tale to inspire us, then all this would be so unnecessary.  If Jesus were a fairy tale, then he need be no more than a heavenly interruption in our normal world.  Instead, he really entered right into our normal world.

It is important to note that Matthew’s genealogy is carefully crafted.  He is deliberately selecting generations in order to build a shaped list, rather than an exhaustive one.  He is also tracing a line that diverges from the line that Luke includes in his Gospel.  It is not a contradiction, after all, your genealogy could also take any number of lines down through the centuries.

Read through the genealogy and ponder your ministry.  They faced struggles and uncertainty, yet they were part of God’s great story in ways most could hardly imagine.  We too don’t see the end of our story, but we know we are part of his story.  Thank God that the Gospel is rooted not in myth, but in history.  He came into our world and now we can live and serve him in that same history.  Real people, living real lives, facing real struggles, and always part of his story!

2. The good news that we proclaim is not shaped by our culture’s needs, it is shaped by God’s promise plan.

If we were to try and write the story of a God-sized fix to our hellish plight, we would probably make it a story of an other-worldly super-hero coming to our aid.  We wouldn’t have that hero becoming one of us, and a lowly one of us at that.  We would surely not trace a line down through two millennia of dysfunctional families, men who gave their wives away, men who stole other men’s wives, women of ill-repute, and disobedient nationals humiliated by deportation.

And yet there is a shape to this genealogy.  It is a deliberate shape that Matthew introduces in verse 1 and underlines with summary sums in verse 17.  This is the Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus genealogy.  What is significant about Abraham, David and the Exile?  Surely it is not the giving wife away (twice), stealing a wife and having her husband killed, and the humiliation by deportation … surely these are not the high points of the story?  Actually, no, but as we will see in the next point, this background certainly adds a unique colour to it all.

What is significant about this shaping of the genealogy is that these are three points in history where God leaned forward and added detail to his great promise plan.  God had promised to rescue humanity from sin back in Genesis 3:15.  That promise was developed when God promised to make Abram’s name great and to bless all the families of the earth through his seed.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down.

King David was blown away by further development on that promise, that his throne would endure forever and his greater son would ascend to it in the future.  Tick, tock, the clock continued to count down.

The prophets spoke in the context of national failure, in the context of Israel’s flaws being fully revealed by the Old Covenant that the day was coming when God would establish a New Covenant that would change everything.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down and this genealogy shows us where it ends.

Jesus.

The fulfillment of God’s great sin-conquering, life-giving, problem-solving, Satan-defeating, promise plan was Mary’s son, baby Jesus.

What an encouragement this is to us as we continue to minister two thousand years later.  It is easy to see the mess of humanity.  And it is easy to miss that God has a greater plan being worked out in his own timing.  We can trust him, we must trust him.  We have no other hope besides him.

3. The good news that we proclaim is not coloured by human success, it is coloured by God’s grace for sinners.

We could put on rose-tinted spectacles and see the good in this list.  After all, Abraham was eventually a man of faith.  David was a man after God’s own heart.  Jacob was at least productive when it came to building a nation, and Boaz was an all-around good egg.  There are others we could name in the list, people of noble character, including Ruth, not to forget Joseph and Mary, of course.  Definitely some good people, or in many cases, some good moments.

Nevertheless, the more you study the list, the more you see the sin.  This is not a list of Israel’s finest and greatest.  This is a list of ordinary people who stumbled and messed up and blew it and sinned.  This is not a bland list of empty suits – positions celebrated without recognition that it was real humanity in those roles.  This is not a list brightened by human success, but rather a list coloured in by God’s grace to fallen people.

Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob deserve to receive God’s good promise?  Obviously not, if you read through Genesis.  Did David deserve to have his throne established over the whole world forever?  Definitely not, if his story is heard in full.  Did Israel deserve the New Covenant?  Not in a million years.

God’s grace transforms human mess.

And perhaps the greatest colour in the genealogy?  Surely it is the colour added by the unusual inclusions … Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah.  Four women. Probably four foreign women.  Most importantly, four women with significant question marks over their moral purity.  Tamar dressed up as a shrine prostitute to trick her father-in-law into giving her a son.  Rahab’s name always comes with the title of her profession.  Ruth was a wonderful women, but she did get a man drunk and slip under the covers at midnight.  And Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, was involved in the greatest scandal ever seen in Israel’s royal court.  They weren’t all bad, in fact, all of them were women of faith.  But they all had that question mark hanging over them.

And that is the colour that sets up the final woman in the list – Mary.  A woman of faith.  And yet a woman with her moral purity questioned by all.  She was pregnant before her wedding.  It was a scandal, even in a sin-stained place like Nazareth.  But this was not more of the same human mess.  This was God’s answer to the human mess.

The genealogy might first appear dull, then at a closer look it seems to contain some great names, but if you keep looking you see the mess of those lives, and if God opens our eyes to see, we start to see the glorious grace of God shining through it all.

That is where this post ends, but it is where hope begins.  When God gives us eyes to see the beauty of his glorious grace shining in the mess of humanity.  The genealogy prepares us for the coming of Jesus, the Christ.  Maybe this genealogy prepares us to press on in our messy ministries too – knowing that God’s great promise plan and glorious grace has already entered our world and brought the hope we all so desperately need.

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A couple of years ago I wrote Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation – I hope you can get hold of a copy and enjoy a light biblical read on this critical subject of God’s Son becoming one of us so that we could be one with Him!  It is not just a subject to study at Christmas.  The incarnation is in the very DNA of the Christian faith.

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Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Life Now

Life2We can easily make the Martha mistake.  I don’t mean the Martha in the kitchen mistake though.  At the end of Luke 10 we see Martha graciously rebuked by Jesus for desperately trying to love her neighbor as her first priority, when she should have first loved the Lord and allowed Him to minister to her before she tried to minister to others.  We easily and maybe regularly make that Martha mistake, but I am not referring to that.

We can easily make the Martha in the street mistake.  In John 11 we see Jesus at a key point in his ministry coming to Bethany where Lazarus was ill and then died.  Martha runs to Jesus and expresses her grief, that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would not have died.  Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But now Lazarus was dead and buried, Jesus was too late, and Martha understandably made a mistake.  What was it?

Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again. What do you say to a grieving sister?  Maybe this was just one of those platitudes that we hear at Christian funerals.  Comfort, but distant.  Martha took it that way.  She assumed that Jesus comes to us and points off into the distant future – comfort for the by and by.  She was mistaken.

When Jesus told Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was not just referring to the far off future.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was about to reinforce the Jerusalem leadership’s decision to kill him.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was soon to enter into death deliberately and with dignity.  And what she didn’t know was that in a few weeks this person stood before her would stand up and walk out of his own tomb as the conqueror of death.

If Martha could have seen the next few weeks, then she might have anticipated more in the next few minutes.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and Lazarus was about to be miraculously resuscitated after four days of stone cold death.

We can easily make the Martha mistake.  We can assume that Jesus comes to us in the tough times of life and ministry in order to point our hearts into the future – that far off time when we will be with him and all the tears will be wiped and the presence of sin dusted away and we will forever enjoy what we were made for, fellowship with the Trinity.  This is all true.  But this is not all.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of hurt, and sorrow, and challenge, and struggle, and betrayal, and fatigue, and tears . . . and he comes to give us life now.

Too many gospel presentations offer only a ticket to heaven when you die. And too many Christians are walking around with hope of comfort tied exclusively to that end of life anticipation.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who comes to us, by his Spirit, in the midst of the mess we experience.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who gives us life now.

Martha misunderstood the physical implications of Jesus meeting her that day.  We can misunderstand the spiritual implication of Jesus meeting us today.

As conqueror of death and Lord of life, what is it that Jesus offers us today as his beloved friends and family?  He offers us hope for the future and a new standing with God, of course.  But never let the good news diminish into a merely status-based future hope.  Jesus offers us the loving intimacy of the Trinity by the Spirit poured out into our hearts reassuring us of God’s love, urging us to call God our Abba.  Jesus offers us eternal life now, which is to enjoy fellowship with God our Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.  Jesus offers us transformed hearts, filled hearts, tenderly loved hearts.  Jesus offers us his presence, his comfort, his concern and his companionship.  Jesus offers us life, now.

I thank God for Martha.  Her mistake in the kitchen in Luke 10 is a mistake I make all the time.  Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha resonates deeply as a loving rebuke for me.  And her mistake in the street at Bethany in John 11 is a mistake I make all the time.  I too tend to live my life as if Jesus’ presence is nice today, but the difference Jesus offers lies off in the distant future.  Jesus lovingly corrected Martha’s grieving error by giving her the embrace of her brother that day.  Jesus lovingly wants to correct our similar error by giving us his embrace, today.  That is life, eternal life.  It is not only life forever then.  It is, in the midst of all the mess I experience, life now.

Preaching Christ Reveals the Father

crucifix2Too much preaching presents a false division between Father and Son.  That is, the Father can sound like an angry and distant despot who is grudgingly appeased by the Son’s sacrifice on behalf of sinners.  That is exactly wrong.

Jesus came not only to fulfil the mission of sacrifice, but also to fulfil the mission of revelation. If you have seen Jesus then you have seen the Father.  What does that mean? It means that Jesus died on the cross in our place in total humiliation because that is the heart of the Father for us. It means that in Christ we come to the Father as loved as the Son, not tolerated because of the Son. It means that the Father Himself loves us and hears our prayers.

Let’s not fall into the confusion of negative Father and friendly Son. Jesus reveals the Father to us, His humility, His love, His selflessness.

Star Wars, The Force of Nostalgia Awakens (and Preaching)

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens**There are no spoilers here**

The Force of Nostalgia Awakens. I jumped at the chance to go to the cinema and see the new Star Wars. I won’t spoil the storyline in this post, but I do want to ponder the key ingredient of this film’s success.  Nostalgia.

It is a very good film. Decent story. Good acting. Well made. But what is making this movie probably one of the most profitable of all time is its effective use of nostalgia. There is something profoundly satisfying about seeing familiar characters, familiar scenery, familiar scenes,  and familiar storylines.  (If you haven’t seen Star Wars yet, think about Rocky revisiting the ice rink in Rocky Balboa, the first glimpse of The Shire in The Hobbit, etc.  Nostalgia seems to be a growing currency in Hollywood!)

Now I could suggest that if the many very satisfying moments of nostalgia were removed from Star Wars, then it might not be lauded so highly, but that would be both unwise and unfair. Unwise because I would probably face a host of fans wanting to fight me to the death with their light sabers. Unfair because this Star Wars never asked to be judged minus the nostalgia.  (Unlike the previous 3 episodes that tried to build the franchise with poor stories and disappointing characters, this one has good story, good characters, etc., and deliberate use of the force of nostalgia.)

So with a good thumbs up to the movie, let’s ponder what we can learn in respect to our preaching and “nostalgia.”  In reality nostalgia is only a small part of what I am describing here – it is really the force of relational connections, our identification with characters. For the sake of simplicity, I will go with the term “nostalgia” because that was the overriding emotion generated in Star Wars.

1. Nostalgia is powerful.  There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of literature. Even non-narrative literature is part of the big narrative of the Bible. If we can tell the stories well, then nostalgia can become part of the force in preaching. This is not automatic, however. We need to think about preaching biblical material in such a way that people are engaged emotionally and not just cerebrally. Too much preaching rehearses old truths, but does not ignite the imagination of the listeners. Most people, in most of the world, for most of history, have had far more engaged imaginations than we do today. This means we need to pay attention to how we help listeners imagine and engage with the biblical story.

2. Nostalgia is never generated by facts alone. If Star Wars simply referenced facts from episodes 4-6, then we would not be discussing the force of nostalgia in this post. There is some traction in familiar scenery, scenes, score, and plotlines, but the force really awakens when characters are enfleshed. To see Han Solo and Chewbacca walk onto the screen is where viewers find themselves deeply stirred.  Why? Because we feel like we know them – old friends who we never thought we would see again, but they’re back!  The human heart engages with other persons in a unique and powerful way. When we preach, we too easily reduce characters to fact-lists. Nicodemus was a curious and maybe sympathetic Pharisee. Zaccheus was a diminutive rogue. Zechariah was a faithful priest. And even, God is a holy deity.  All very factual, but the person is not evident when the description is too flat. People’s hearts will respond to real people, but sadly many churchgoers encounter more “real person” in a brief encounter with a waiter at a restaurant than they did at church during the preaching of a biblical narrative.

3. Nostalgia is not universally forceful. While we would do well to ponder the potential impact of “nostalgia” in our preaching, this is no magic pill.  Nostalgia alone would not make Star Wars successful. In fact, for a first time viewer who doesn’t have a host of emotional ties to scenes from over three decades ago, this Star Wars would have to engage on a completely different level. In the same way, we can’t rely on “familiarity” or assumed character development from previous exposure when we preach. Let’s learn to preach so that listeners engage with characters and experience the stories so that there is opportunity to tap into the force of nostalgia, but good preaching has to be targeted at first-time hearers too. Be sure to preach in such a way that first-time hearers will encounter the Key Character in the Bible,  be drawn to Him and become candidates for nostalgic responses in future biblical preaching!

Christmas Preaching and the Nitty Gritty of Life

day 15Too easily our Christmas preaching can slide toward quaint and familiar yore. The Christmas story can feel like a very familiar old fable with all its beautiful and eclectic characters. Yet the first Christmas was a time of great confusion.

Let’s not rush to a post-Christmas presentation of the Gospel, or a present-day application of the Gospel. Let’s consider how entering into their world could give us profoundly relevant insights into the good news of Jesus’ birth.

The shepherds needed guidance from the angel to know that they could even go and meet this child born to be king. If it weren’t for the information about the manger they would have remained in the fields impressed by the vision they’d seen.

The journey of the Magi might have been longer than a lifetime of our journey’s put together. All because of a star and some prophecies in potentially foreign documents – that was quite the complex situation.

For Mary and Joseph there was the information from Gabriel, which answered the big and obvious question, but it left a lot unsaid. What would they say to others? Would they ever be able to live life in the town they knew? How would things go with their families, and those who Joseph relied on for work? So many questions in the nitty gritty side of life.

And yet the Christmas story gave them what they needed. They knew about God’s kindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s with-us-ness, God’s plan to deliver people from their sins, etc.

As we preach Christmas this Christmas, lets think about tapping into the reality of that first Christmas to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mary, with Joseph, etc., and to look toward Jesus and all that he means. Let’s feel the complexity of their lives and discover that in the numerous unanswered questions in our lives we can also share their soul posture and trust God.

Let Christmas Improve Your Preaching

designI just wrote a brief devotional post stirred by the quote from Pleased to Dwell in the image. You can click here to go to that post. This quote stirs a preaching thought:

How can Christmas improve our preaching?

Think about Moses for a moment. Moses was a great prophet. Not because he was eloquent (he was not). Not because he was confident (again, he was often not). If you boil it down, Moses was a great prophet because we read of how he, time and again, met with God face-to-face. Moses could speak of the God he was representing because he knew that God. It wasn’t just a knowledge of Scriptures or theology, it was a personal repeated encounter with God himself.

Most of us have probably never had the experience Moses enjoyed. But that does not mean we should preach as purveyors of facts. We are called into God’s presence in a way that was not possible in Moses’ day. We are called to know God in a way that was not possible back then.

Christmas has changed things. The greater prophet than Moses, one who has spent far more time watching the Father and hearing his words, the ultimate prophet has come into our world. Jesus not only brings us the ultimate revelation, he has also created the ultimate access. Because we can be united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can boldly approach the heavenly throne at any time. Because we are united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can know the heart of God more clearly than ever before.

Christmas is critical to understanding the ministry we now have. We don’t speak facts only about a distant God. We speak of a God we can know personally. We speak of a God we can meet with day by day and speak with as a man speaks with his friend. And when Christmas so saturates our understanding of everything that we dwell closely with the God who wants to dwell with us, then when we preach we will be able to represent him better than ever before.

Let Christmas Preaching Point Deeper

AdventDay2Christmas sermons can feel a little bit superficial. Nostalgic Christmas card scenes described with platitudes about peace on earth, etc. If we are not careful, we can miss a great opportunity to preach the gospel to visitors who may only come to church at this time of year.

The traditional way to get to the Gospel in our Christmas preaching is to paint an arrow from the crib to Calvary. This is certainly an important link to make. By all means let folks know why Jesus chose to come and where it was all headed.

But maybe in our eagerness to move the story forwards, we may be missing something. After all, our listeners may not be as surprised by the cross as we seem to think they will be.  Maybe they anticipate hearing about those old Bible stories and maybe they find Christmas and the Cross to be two of the familiar facts about Jesus. If so, then it can still all feel very “long ago and far away.”

Perhaps people might be surprised to discover that Christianity actually speaks to the heart of their daily struggle.

For instance, ever since the Fall we have all been saturated in the brine of self-solutions. I can get my act together. I should work my way out of this. I need to turn over a new leaf. I am the master of my own destiny. I, I, I.

Add in the Gospel and people may find it slightly foreign and a little irrelevant.  Maybe Jesus can bring peace on earth in some hypothetical future, but how does that help this week? It doesn’t stop wars today and my life is still a struggle.

So this Christmas, instead of simply drawing a line from Jesus’ birth to death, why not pause and ponder if there is a way to reveal an underlying theological issue that people feel. How about this – Christmas points away from “what-must-we-do” to “who-can-we-trust.”  And we need that.

Please take a look at a brief devotional post on this issue, it might help with your Christmas preaching this year.  Click here to go to the site dedicated to Pleased To Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation.

God With Us: A Nazarene?

Pleased-to-Dwellv5Would you carry the label, Nazarene?  For some, it is just one of the more obscure labels for Jesus or His followers.  For many believers in the Middle East today, it means the most extreme persecution and terrifying uncertainty.  For all of us, it should prompt us to consider the One who invested the label with such profound significance.

Matthew’s infancy narrative ends with Joseph taking Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)  Is this a low-key transition to the rest of the Gospel, or is it a fitting climax for the whole birth narrative?

Moving Back To Nazareth

Joseph’s flight to Egypt was short-lived. The tyrant Herod died shortly after the massacre in Bethlehem. So God directed Joseph back to the land, specifically to Nazareth.  Joseph knew of the challenges facing the family in the town that thought it knew Joseph and Mary all too well.

How could Joseph rebuild his business when everyone doubted his word on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception? How would Mary face the comments as she returned, ‘the virgin’ with her baby boy?

Perhaps Joseph planned a fresh start in Bethlehem, but Herod’s replacement made that difficult.  Maybe Galilee made sense after all. Still, it took divine direction for Joseph to go back to Nazareth.

Joseph was directed to Israel, the land of the Jews. Then he was directed to Galilee. Still Jewish territory, but Galilee had a high number of Gentiles and was scorned by the ‘better Jews’ of Judea. This Messiah was not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. In fact, by growing up in Nazareth, we will see that He was for all of us.

The Place of No Good Thing: Nazareth

Matthew mentions Nazareth three more times. After a passing reference in 4:13-16, then comes 21:11. Jesus’ triumphal entry so stirred Jerusalem that the locals asked the crowds who He was. The visiting Galilean crowds replied that this was the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth. Probably not what the locals wanted to hear!

Finally, in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when he was identified as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted due to his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive thing in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!

Nazareth was five miles from Sepphoris, the strongest military centre in Galilee. It was on a branch of the great caravan route to Damascus. For traders, soldiers and travellers, Nazareth was just a rest stop on the way to somewhere better.

Essentially, Jesus grew up in Nowhere, Galilee. Was this the next best thing since God’s plan A (Bethlehem) had been thwarted by troublesome Herodian rulers? Not at all. God directed Joseph so that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. This meant that the Messiah born in Bethlehem would always be called the Nazarene.

The Prophets Fulfilled

Where does the Old Testament say the Messiah will be raised in Nazareth, or be called a Nazarene? Nowhere. Interestingly, Matthew refers to the prophets, plural, when he writes of prophetic fulfillment (2:23). Perhaps several options should be combined to get a composite sense of Matthew’s subtlety here:

Jesus was, perhaps, to be considered a Nazirite (Nazir)—a chosen holy one set apart for God’s service from His mother’s womb.

Furthermore, Jesus was the Messianic ‘branch’ (Neser)—the Davidic branch of Jeremiah 23:5/33:15, who would reign in righteousness; the branch who would be a priest and a king, rebuilding the temple, as in Zechariah 6:12; the branch from Jesse’s stump anticipated in Isaiah 11:1 (part of the great royal Immanuel section).

Maybe we don’t have to choose, perhaps Matthew is making two great themes converge: the deliverer is both priest and king.  Perhaps we have come full circle back to the Immanuel prophecy of 1:22-23.

Joseph called His name Jesus in chapter 1, and by the end of chapter 2 Joseph brings Him to Nazareth so that all would call Him a Nazarene. This child, the son of

Abraham, son of David, son of God, is to be known by all people, forever, as the Nazarene!

Actually, was Matthew pointing to a location, rather than a subtlety in the name? After all, every Old Testament citation in Matthew 2 pointed to a location: Bethlehem, an allusion to ‘the nations’, Egypt, Ramah, and now, Nazareth.

Whether it is a reference to his person, or his hometown, the label is stunningly unimpressive.  This priest-king is exceedingly lowly.

A Reputation Worth Carrying?

Jesus knew what it was to be poor. He was not sheltered in an ivory tower, protected from the ‘dross of society’. He lived in the midst of it all, and He carried it as His label.

Jesus was a very common name at that time, so He needed an identifier. Who was His Dad? That was complicated. What was His job? Again, not easy. So where was He from? Nazareth became the label typically appended to His name.

We see Nazareth mentioned in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51); as He called His disciples (John 1:45-46) – remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’; as the location of choice for launching his preaching ministry (Luke 4:16).

His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees Him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that He is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once His heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).

As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus recognizes the Nazareth label (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38); then it is used in His arrest, (John 18:5); during Jesus’ trial it is used disparagingly of Peter (see also Mark 14:67); and even in His death, Pilate’s inscription reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

After His resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.

But even the angel in the tomb used the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with something better!? (Mark 16:6)

Even after His ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s Pentecost sermon climaxes with Jesus as Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22).

The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers use the label (Acts 6:14). Peter tells Gentiles that God anointed and was with the Nazarene (Acts 10:38).

Then we discover that Jesus used the label of Himself when He appeared to Paul at His conversion (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers bore the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).

Conclusion

God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in His willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in His arrest, His crucifixion, His resurrection and even in His ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’

Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that He could be for us. And He is forever with us, for He still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.

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Adapted from Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation, by Peter Mead (Christian Focus, September 2014).  For more information on the book, please visit www.trinitytheology.net  [Used with permission from Christian Focus.]