Understanding the context of Matthew 2:23
Matthew 2:23 states: “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’”
This verse comes at the end of Matthew chapter 2 which details Jesus’ early life. Joseph and Mary had taken Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree to kill all male infants.
After Herod’s death, they decided to return to Israel, but were afraid to settle in Judea because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling there.
So instead, they went to the region of Galilee and made their home in the city of Nazareth. Matthew concludes this account by saying this fulfilled what was spoken by the prophets that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.
However, there is no specific Old Testament prophecy that states the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.
This has caused much confusion over what Matthew was referring to. There are several possibilities that scholars have proposed:
The prophecy could refer to Jesus being from Nazareth
One common explanation is that Matthew is not quoting a specific prophecy, but is summarizing a theme found in several prophecies that the Messiah would come from humble, unlikely origins.
Nazareth was an obscure, insignificant village in Galilee with a reputation for being uneducated and rebellious (John 1:46). So by being from Nazareth, Jesus fulfilled the prophetic theme of the humble and lowly origins of the Messiah.
Some of the prophecies that point to the Messiah’s lowly roots include:
– Isaiah 53:2 – He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.
– Zechariah 9:9 – Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
– Isaiah 11:1 – There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Jesse was the father of David and the family lived in Bethlehem.
But the prophecy refers to just a shoot or branch coming from humble beginnings in Bethlehem.
So while there is no specific prophecy that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene, the prophets did foretell that God’s chosen one would come from very humble, lowly origins.
Matthew summarizes this theme by saying the prophets foretold the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.
It could refer to being despised and rejected
Another view is that Matthew is referring to prophecies that the Messiah would be despised and rejected.
This is based on the negative reputation Nazareth had (John 1:46). So being called a Nazarene was a reference to being despised and looked down upon.
Some of the prophecies of the Messiah being rejected include:
– Psalm 22:6-8 – But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
– Isaiah 53:3 – He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
– Isaiah 49:7 – Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation, the servant of rulers: “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
So Matthew could be summarizing the prophetic theme of the Messiah being despised and rejected by referring to Jesus as a Nazarene.
It may allude to the Nazirite vow
Some connect Matthew’s statement to the Nazirite vow described in Numbers 6.
A Nazirite was someone who took a special vow of consecration and separation to the Lord for a set time. This required them to abstain from wine and grapes, refrain from cutting their hair, and avoidcontact with dead bodies.
When a person completed their Nazirite vow, they had to bring offerings to the temple.
Their hair that had grown long was cut off and burned as part of the sacrifice (Numbers 6:13-21). This long hair was called the “crown of the Nazirite” (Numbers 6:19).
Some of the similarities between a Nazirite and Jesus include:
– Nazirites were holy and dedicated to the Lord, as was Jesus.
– John the Baptist is said to have drank no wine (Luke 1:15), like a Nazirite.
– Jesus was called a “Nazarene” which sounds like Nazirite.
– In Acts 18:18 and 21:23-24 Paul takes a Nazirite vow, showing the practice continued into New Testament times.
– The suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is said by some to have made “himself an offering for guilt” (Isaiah 53:10), which alludes to a Nazirite making an offering after their completed vow.
So some scholars propose that Matthew is drawing a connection between Jesus and the Nazirite vow of special dedication to God.
Jesus being the ultimate fulfillment of that Old Testament practice.
However, this explanation is uncertain since there is no clear prophecy associated with Nazirites that Matthew could be referring to.
It may refer to the Nazarene sect of Judaism
There is an ancient Jewish tradition that the Messiah would come from a sect called the Nazarenes.
This is recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of the Nazarenes which states:
“For Isaiah said; ‘A Nazarene will blossom, and a Nazarene will fill the world with fruit.’” (Gospel of the Nazarenes 5:1)
Some scholars theorize that Matthew is drawing from this tradition in saying Jesus was called a Nazarene.
However, there is no evidence that such a prophecy existed in Isaiah or any other biblical book. The Gospel of the Nazarenes was written much later and this prophecy likely does not have an authentic source.
Therefore, most modern academics have abandoned this explanation.
It may refer to being ‘despised’ by a play on words
A more recent explanation takes the Hebrew word for branch (“netzer”) and shows how it played on words like Nazarene and Nazareth.
In Isaiah 11:1, the Messiah is called a Branch (“netzer”) from the stem of Jesse.
Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, so he was possibly making a play on words between “netzer” (branch) and Nazarene/Nazareth.
The idea being that as the Branch, Jesus was despised and rejected, as something insignificant from little Nazareth.
Through this play on words, Matthew summarizes the prophetic theme of the humble origins of the Messiah who was despised and rejected.
This view takes into account the wordplay that would have been obvious in the original Hebrew but is lost in Greek and English translations.
The mystery of the missing prophecy
In the end, the prophecy Matthew refers to remains somewhat of a mystery.
There does not seem to be any single prophecy in the Old Testament that matches what Matthew says.
For this reason, scholars have offered several theories on what broader theme or wordplay Matthew was summarizing regarding the prophets foretelling that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.
The variety of explanations given illustrates that we cannot be completely certain what exact prophecy Matthew had in mind.
But his main point still remains – that by being called a Nazarene, Jesus was fulfilling the prophetic picture of the lowly and despised Messiah who would bring salvation.
The humble origins of the incarnate Son of God are important in God’s redemptive plan.
This passage continues to spur interest and debate today regarding Messianic prophecy and typology in the Bible.
It provides an intriguing verse for Bible students to analyze from many angles. Ultimately Matthew accomplished his purpose in showing that Jesus the Nazarene fulfilled prophecy, even if we do not fully grasp which specific prophecy he was referring to.
The broader themes of a suffering, rejected Messiah clearly fit with who Jesus was and what He accomplished.
Jesus’ early years in Nazareth
Although Nazareth did not figure prominently in biblical prophecy, it did come to have great significance in Jesus’ life and ministry.
Matthew mentions the family settling in Nazareth after returning from Egypt. Nazareth was a small agricultural village of only a few hundred residents.
It was located in the hilly countryside of Galilee, about 70 miles north of Jerusalem.
Joseph and Mary originally lived in Bethlehem in Judea. But after Herod’s death made it unsafe for them there, they relocated to the region of Galilee.
Galilee was considered something of a backwater region by the Jewish elite in Jerusalem. Nathanael’s remark in John 1:46 shows the prevailing attitude – “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
But Jesus spent much of His childhood and young adult years in Nazareth before beginning His public ministry:
- Luke 2:39-40 – And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.
- Luke 2:51-52 – And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
So the prophets foretold the Messiah would come from a lowly place, not the royal palace in Jerusalem.
This was fulfilled in Jesus growing up as a peasant in little Nazareth. He identified with the common, ordinary people of Israel in His early years.
Jesus is scorned and rejected by His hometown
When Jesus embarked on His public ministry, He initially met resistance and unbelief from the people of His hometown Nazareth.
They took offense that someone they had known growing up in their village was now claiming to be the Messiah. They saw Him as just the son of Joseph the carpenter, not the Chosen One of Israel.
We see this attitude on display when Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30:
- Luke 4:22 – And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
- Luke 4:28-29 – When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.
So Jesus faced disbelief and hostility from the people of His very own hometown of Nazareth.
They viewed Him as inferior because of His ordinary origins there. The Gospels record this rejection early in Jesus’ ministry.
In this, the prophecies were fulfilled that the Messiah would be despised and rejected by men. Nazareth was intended to be the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry to all Israel.
But He is scorned by those of His hometown who think they know Him and His family.
Jesus moves His ministry headquarters to Capernaum
Because of this rejection, Matthew 4:13 records that Jesus left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea:
– Matthew 4:13 – And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Capernaum was a town on the Sea of Galilee which became Jesus’ base of operations for His Galilean ministry:
– Matthew 9:1 – And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. (Referring to Capernaum).
– Mark 2:1 – And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.
So while Jesus was known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, His ministry was centered in Capernaum after being driven out of His hometown.
The importance of Nazareth in Jesus’ life was limited to His first 30 years before beginning His public ministry.
Jesus is identified with Nazareth
While Nazareth played a lesser role during Jesus’ ministry years, His identity continued to be tied to His hometown. He was regularly referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth”:
– Mark 1:24 – What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.
– Luke 24:19 – And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.
– John 18:5 – They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.
– Acts 2:22 – Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know…
So despite Jesus moving His ministry to Capernaum, He continued to be identified by His hometown of Nazareth throughout His life.
This demonstrated the fulfillment of prophecy that the Messiah would come from humble, obscure origins not the royal city of Jerusalem.
The significance of Nazareth
To summarize the key points regarding Nazareth and Jesus:
– Nazareth was an insignificant village in Galilee with a negative reputation.
– By being from Nazareth, Jesus fulfilled the prophecies that the Messiah would come from humble, lowly origins.
– The people of Nazareth rejected Jesus because of His local origins which fulfilled the prophecies that the Messiah would be despised and rejected.
– Jesus moved His Galilean ministry to Capernaum after this rejection.
– But He continued to be identified as “Jesus of Nazareth” throughout His ministry.
So while Nazareth was not central to the events of Jesus’ public ministry, it did play an important role in fulfilling the prophetic picture of the Messiah’s background and reception. Jesus came as the humble Messiah from ordinary roots in Nazareth.
Jesus the Messiah accepts all people
An important theme that emerges from Jesus’ identity as a Nazarene is that He came to identify with ordinary, marginalized people.
He was not just for the wealthy elite and powerful. His origins showed He came for poor commoners, like the residents of Nazareth.
In fact, some of Jesus’ most devoted followers came from similar humble roots in Galilee:
– Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen working around the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18-22).
– Matthew was a tax collector in Capernaum despised by Jewish society (Matthew 9:9).
Jesus looked beyond status and reputation to extend salvation to all who would believe.
As Paul later wrote:
– 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 – 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.
The prophecy of the Messiah’s Nazarene origins finds its fulfillment in Jesus compassionately identifying with the lowly and outcast to redeem all people.
Jesus is still identified with the marginalized
Just as Jesus embraced the lowly in His ministry, so the Christian faith has often thrived among marginalized societies ever since. Despite persecution, the Gospel has spread rapidly among minority populations considered insignificant by the surrounding culture:
– Slaves and women in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
– Barbarian tribes on the fringes of the Roman Empire.
– Lepers and the disabled in Medieval Europe.
– Peasants and the urban poor during the Reformation.
– Slaves and native peoples under colonialism.
– Societal outcasts and developing nations in the modern era.
Jesus’ identity with the common folk of Nazareth established a pattern for the faith worldwide.
Christianity transforms lives wherever it takes root because Jesus came to seek and save the lost, regardless of their status and reputation.
The obscurity of Nazareth was part of God’s strategic plan to show His grace and power through those the world considers unimportant.
The prophecy of the Nazarene origins of the Messiah continues to inspire hope for abundant life among the marginalized across the globe.
The prophecy referred to in Matthew 2:23 that Jesus would be called a Nazarene has been the source of much scholarly debate.
While no single prophecy matches this statement, Matthew likely had in mind the prophetic theme of the humble status of the Messiah.
Nazareth was an insignificant and disreputable town. So for Jesus to be from there and called a Nazarene fulfilled prophecies like Isaiah 53 that the Messiah would be lowly and rejected.
This message continues to be relevant today as Christianity spreads among the marginalized and less affluent worldwide.
Jesus’ identity with the common residents of Nazareth shows His care for the downcast and overlooked. No one is excluded from the hope of salvation, no matter their background or status in society.