Nazarene – What a Label!

Would you carry the label, Nazarene?  For some, it is just one of the more obscure labels for Jesus or His followers.  Actually, 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).  To get a copy of the book, please click here if you are in the UK, and click here if you are in the USA. [Used with permission from Christian Focus.]

Preaching as Connecting

There are some obvious ways in which the idea of connecting might relate to preaching.  We could think about connecting the world of the Bible with the world of today’s listeners.  Or we could think about connecting God’s will with our lives – sort of a “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” idea.  We could even move things down to a more practical level and think about connecting preacher with listeners, or biblical truths with relevant applications.  But in this post I am not doing any of these.

In preaching we get to make connections that are theologically critical, but typically remain separated in the minds of most believers.  How about these three to get us started:

1. Connect the cross of Christ with the life of Christ.  Too easily we can think of Jesus’ life and ministry as being somehow distinct from the cross.  It is as if the cross was a necessary but difficult diversion from what he was previously doing in his healing and teaching ministry.  So, we can think of Jesus as a great example and leader in his ministry, but as a victim of malevolent human agency on the cross.  Actually, the character that is constantly showing in his encounters with hurting people is the character that is presented in stark relief in the hours of extreme hurt on the cross. 

The cross is not a distasteful interruption to his ministry of revealing God’s character to us – it is actually the moment of greatest clarity.  It is that humble Jesus, that selfless Jesus, that giving Jesus that is constantly doing his revelatory work.  That is true beside the Sea of Galilee, as it is true beside the road in his crucifixion.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the life of Christ from the death of Christ.

2. Connect the life of Christ then with the ministry of Christ now. In church world we have done a good job of helping people to know about Jesus’ three years of ministry two millennia ago, but a lousy job of helping people to know that that same Jesus is praying for them today.  I was really struck by Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly.  That book really builds the readers confidence that the Jesus who was so approachable, so humble, so kind, so gracious, so present with both sinners and sufferers in the stories we know so well from the Gospels is the same Jesus that we sinners and sufferers living our stories today can still approach. 

A lot of Christians have a massive disconnect between the Jesus they read about in the Gospels, and the saviour they are trusting with their lives today.  Jesus was so stirred by the battered fallen creatures of back then, but we assume he is impatient and frustrated with us today.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Jesus of today.

3. Connect Christ with God.  Hopefully this one is the most jarring of all.  Theologically I hope that Christians know that Christ is truly God, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are truly God.  Also it should not be a stretch to hope that Christians know Jesus is the one who reveals the Father to us.  And yet so many still seem to have a mental distinction between the demeanour and character of Jesus in the Gospels from what we know to be true of God the Father in heaven today.  Too many gospel presentations have inadvertently reinforced the error – the angry judge in heaven is only appeased by the pleas and sacrifice of our kind advocate Jesus. 

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, or when we gaze at the cross and see the Son suffering there, we are seeing the heart of the Father revealed to us.  I wonder how many Christian lives would be revolutionized if people actually dared to believe that the Father’s heart is as for them as Jesus’ heart was for the sinners and sufferers he encountered in the Gospels?  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Father he came to reveal to us.’

There are probably more theological truths that so easily become disconnected in our thinking.  As preachers, let’s help people to put back together what should never have been separated at all.

Jesus Was Not 50% Human

FiftyPercentbThere is a phrase that I suspect we would do better without.  It is only introductory to another thought, but it tends to lead somewhere potentially unhelpful.  It goes like this, “Jesus, in his humanity…” or “Jesus, in his divinity…”

I understand why we use these phrases.  There are times when you are preaching a Gospels text and you want to underline the fact that Jesus fully entered into our world and experience (albeit without sinning), so the first phrase is used to highlight some aspect of the true humanity of Christ.  There are other times when we preach something in the Gospels and we want to underline that this isn’t “just” a human, but he is also God.

God the Son did step fully into our world via the Incarnation and this is a glorious truth, but I suspect the introductory phrase often undermines the fullness of the union.  That is, Jesus is fully God, fully man, and fully one.  But often we can give the impression it was a 50:50 split.  That is, look at the human side, then later, let’s look at the divine side.  Let me give an example that will hopefully help.

Here we see Jesus, who, in his humanity, … is feeling compassion for the crowds stood before him.”  Or “…is dreading the forthcoming agonies of the cross.” Or “…is angered in the face of death.”

Yes, we do see Jesus’ humanity as he sheds tears of compassion for a shepherd-less people, anticipates the agonies of Calvary, or is stirred by the sheer wrongness of a funeral.  We see Jesus’ humanity in every episode of the Gospels.  But we also see Jesus’ divinity in each one too.  Jesus told his slow to believe disciples that if they had seen him, they had seen the Father.  I think I am slow to believe too.  Here I am, two millennia later, still falling into wrong assumptions about God the Father, despite reading the Gospels so many times.

When we see Jesus feeling compassion for the crowds, in Matthew 9 or Mark 6, we are seeing God’s heart for the people.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed.  When we see Jesus feeling the weight of what lay before him at the cross and in separation from perfect communion, we see the heart of God revealed.  When we see Jesus respond in both empathy and anger at the death of Lazarus, God’s heart is shining out for all to see.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed in him.

But when we use the introductory formula, “in his humanity…” then we can inadvertently hide the Father.  Jesus, in his humanity, is feeling … but the Father remains aloof and unmoved, without passion, compassion, anger, empathy or true love?  And before we know it, without even saying it, we have reinforced the traditional view that the true essence of God is completely opposite to all we know and experience, and therefore God is really out of reach.  We should think long, hard, and biblically, before we choose to stay there theologically, or imply this homiletically.

John 1:18.  John 14:8. Colossians 2:9.

Incarnation Series Review

I am really thankful to everyone who contributed to a great series.  I hope that these posts helped to stir an appetite for the wonderful subject of the Incarnation.  In case you missed it, here is the page to go for information on Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation.  And here are the posts: we started with an Introduction to the Series.  Then . . .

HindleyJohn Hindley

Let the Wine Flow! (John 1-2)

 

darrell_bockDarrell Bock

Lessons about the Incarnation from Luke 1-2

 

Glen-321A-300x267Glen Scrivener

Incarnation, The True Turning Point

 

a9a01de9-2aa2-44ea-a921-0f1077786e8b-220Bruce Fong

Incarnation and Expository Preaching

 

OrtlundDane Ortlund

Life As It Was Meant to Be

 

tts-portrait-jordanscheetz-300x300Jordan Scheetz

The Incarnation in the Old Testament

 

comontPeter Comont

Jesus Wept

 

murray__005_400x400David Murray

Rehearsal for Calvary

 

Frost webRon Frost

A Stirring Love

 

Rick McKinley

Where’d Jesus Go?

 

Peter Comont – Jesus Wept

comontPeter Comont is  the Senior Pastor of Trinity Church Oxford, a new church plant in heart of the city of Oxford.  He is involved with several initiatives to teach, train and nurture the next generation of leaders including Living Leadership, the Porterbrook Seminary and the South Central Ministry Training Course.  Peter and I met at a conference in Asia several years ago and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversations during those days.  In today’s Incarnation Series guest post, Peter offers us a really helpful reflection on the subject of the incarnation, God and what constitutes an authentic Christian life:

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During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus wept (John 11:35)

For the writer to the Hebrews the tears of Jesus are important.  His incarnation was not just bodily, whilst somehow his mind and heart remained serenely immune to suffering.  Rather he identified with our human condition in all its dimensions, including the emotions.

That full identification was important for our justification as the writer to the Hebrews makes plain.  Jesus became fully human to stand in our place as both a priest and a sacrifice for our sins  (e.g. Heb 7:26-27).  But in Hebrews 5:7 the mention of Jesus’ tears emphasises that his priestly role also involves a profoundly emotional connection with us.  In Jesus, God comes alongside us in all the rich complexity life.  Because of his tears he is able to ‘deal gently with us’ (Heb 5:2).  Because of his tears others knew he loved his friend Lazarus (John 11:35-36).  The tears of Jesus are witnesses to a deep emotional connection between God and man.

Some theologians like to talk about God’s impassibility, suggesting that he does not suffer or feel pain.  Though this may have some truth to it in a limited technical sense, the Bible’s picture of Jesus, – who is the ‘exact representation of [God’s]  being’ (Heb 1:3) – points in a different direction.  Christians believe in a God who is deeply and emotionally engaged with all the joys and trials of our world.

The Bible also describes the Christian life in deeply emotional terms.  There is joy (e.g. John 16:24), but there is groaning too (Romans 8:18-27).  To be adopted as sons of God means to be united with Jesus, as we cry out Abba father (Romans 8:15 cf Mark 14:36) experiencing the same range of emotions that Jesus displayed on earth.  Both the joy and pain of our life now can be true manifestations of being united with Jesus.

Jesus shows us that an authentic Christian life is not shorn of emotion, nor is does it need to fear painful emotions, because they are both part and parcel of our present life as adopted sons of God.  Thank God that the Son of God wept.

Bruce Fong – Inspirational Incarnational Influences on Expository Preaching

a9a01de9-2aa2-44ea-a921-0f1077786e8b-220My first ever seminary class was with Dr Bruce Fong sixteen years ago.  It was such a joy to walk through half the Bible under Bruce’s contagious laugh and delight in the Scriptures.  We have both changed jobs a couple of times since then, but he is now the Dean of Dallas Theological Seminary’s Houston Campus.  Bruce blogs regularly on brucefong.com.  As we continue this series marking the release of Pleased to Dwell, Bruce shares with us some thoughts on the difference the Incarnation makes to expository preaching.

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Every preacher is challenged to build a bridge between the sermon and the souls of people.  These two worlds of earth and eternity were stunningly linked by the life of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself when He was incarnated at His birth.  The Scriptures tell us that He gave up the expression of who He was as the Son of God in order to identify with mankind and ultimately sacrifice His life on their behalf.  This incarnation of the Christ to be Jesus of Nazareth is a model for every preacher to do the same.

When an expositor successfully follows the example of Jesus’ incarnation they ultimately blend culture with the Gospel by way of four emphases.  He modeled each of these qualities in His coming to earth. They are humility, a new mind, a renunciation and a new identification.

First and foremost of these incarnational elements is Christ’s example of being sent to be born as a human.  He did not argue, complain or resist the Father’s plan.  Instead, He humbled Himself and became human so that He could die as a substitute for sin in our place.  The expositor lives a humble life in compensation, Spartan lifestyle and public affirmation.

Second, somewhat related to His humility Jesus Christ demonstrated a new way of thinking.  His incarnation led to an existence that was never self-absorbed.  He did not worry about losing public status but instead was absorbed with an unending interest in His assigned mission, bringing the Gospel to the whole world.  In the same way expositors by virtue of their mission selflessly bring attention to their Lord.

Third, before Christ came to earth as a Galilean Jew He first “emptied himself”.  This was a sacrifice.  He renounced His status, his independence and his immunity.  Voluntarily He set aside what was rightfully His.  Pride and the pursuit of fame has no place in the life of an expository preacher who is following the incarnational model of the Savior.

Fourth, Jesus had a genuine solidarity with man by becoming a true human, sharing in the limitations of flesh and blood, through both life and death.  He lived among the people, embraced them and served them.  Expository preachers will be more effective when they live among and embrace the people to whom they bring the Word.

The incarnation that Jesus followed and modeled is our example of His devotion for us.  Furthermore, it is the example that should be the driving motivation for every expository preacher.

Christmas Preaching 2: Beyond Matthew and Luke

Yesterday we thought about preparing messages on the familiar Christmas passages.  Here are some thoughts on preaching for Christmas beyond the normal presentation of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.

1. There are other ways to preach the narratives themselves.  You don’t have to simply talk your way through the text.  Consider the possibility of preaching the emphasis of the text from the perspective of a contemporary character – Anna, Simeon, a shepherd, etc.  Consider a bit of “in hindsight” first person preaching – Joseph looking back, or Luke having done his research.  Remember though, if you have a “manger scene” play with children involved, your going into character may feel like too much of a good thing, even though you will surpass their preparations.

2. Why not preach all four Gospel introductions?  We tend to dwell in Matthew or Luke or a blend of the two.  Why not introduce people to Matthew’s introduction, then Mark’s (why no birth narrative, where was this all headed anyway, why is Mark 1:1-13 such a stunning intro to his gospel?)  Then give them the visitation, prophecy, Mary focused and children prepared emphasis of Luke’s opening chapters.  And who wouldn’t want to preach from John 1:1-18 right before Christmas (or any other time for that matter!)  All four are stunning pieces of inspired text!

3. There are other New Testament passages that explain the Incarnation and Christ’s mission to the world.  Perhaps it would be helpful to offer some explanation from other parts of the New Testament.  What did the preachers of Acts say about why Christ was sent into the world?  What about Paul’s explanation of the timing of it all in Galatians 4?  There’s plenty on Christmas beyond Matthew and Luke.

4. Why not tap into the mine that is Old Testament prophecy?  Where to start?  Most people dip into the Old Testament at Christmas to read Isaiah 9:6-7, or Micah 5:2.  Why not help people understand the richness of those texts and others like them in their context?  What were the Jews waiting for when the first Christmas dawned?

5. Perhaps it is worth encountering a Christmas Carol and its theology?  Not my typical approach, but people know the carols.  Perhaps it would be worth helping people to understand the richness of the second verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing biblically?

Tomorrow I’ll offer another handful of yuletide ponderings.

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