RETURN TO NAZARETH
When Herod died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. “Rise,” he said, “and take the little child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel. For those who seek the little child’s life are dead.” So he rose and took the little child and his mother, and went into the land of Israel. When he heard that Archelaus was king in Judaea instead of Herod, his father, he was afraid to go there. So, when, he had received a message from God in a dream, he withdrew to the districts of Galilee, and he came and settled in a town called Nazareth. This happened so that the word spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled– “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
In due time Herod died, and when Herod died the whole kingdom over which he had ruled was split up. The Romans had trusted Herod, and they had allowed him to reign over a very considerable territory, but Herod well knew that none of his sons would be allowed a like power. So he had divided his kingdom into three, and in his will he had left a part to each of three of his sons. He had left Judaea to Archelaus; Galilee to Herod Antipas; and the region away to the northeast and beyond Jordan to Philip.
But the death of Herod did not solve the problem. Archelaus was a bad king, and he was not to last long upon the throne. In fact he had begun his reign with an attempt to out-Herod Herod, for he had opened his rule with the deliberate slaughter of three thousand of the most influential people in the country. Clearly, even now that Herod was dead, it was still unsafe to return to Judaea with the savage and reckless Archelaus on the throne. So Joseph was guided to go to Galilee where Herod Antipas, a much better king, reigned.
It was in Nazareth that Joseph settled, and it was in Nazareth that Jesus was brought up. It must not be thought that Nazareth was a little quiet backwater, quite out of touch with life and with events.
Nazareth lay in a hollow in the hills in the south of Galilee. But a lad had only to climb the hills for half tile world to be at his door. He could look west and the waters of the Mediterranean, blue in the distance, would meet his eyes; and he would see the ships going out to the ends of the earth. He had only to look at the plain which skirted the coast, and he would see, slipping round the foot of the very hill on which he stood, the road from Damascus to Egypt, the land bride to Africa. It was one of the greatest caravan routes in the world.
It was the road by which centuries before Joseph had been sold down into Egypt as a slave. It was the road that, three hundred years before, Alexander the Great and his legions had followed. It was the road by which centuries later Napoleon was to march. It was the road which in the twentieth century Allenby was to take. Sometimes it was called The Way of the South, and sometimes the Road of the Sea. On it Jesus would see all kinds of travellers from all kinds, of nations on all kinds of errands, coming, and going from the ends of the earth.
But there was another road. There was the road which left the sea coast at Acre or Ptolemais and went out to the East. It was the Road of the East. It went out to the eastern bounds and frontiers of the Roman Empire. Once again the cavalcade of the caravans and their silks and spices would be continually on it, and on it also the Roman legions clanked out to the frontiers.
Nazareth indeed was no backwater. Jesus was brought up in a town where the ends of the earth passed the foot of the hilltop. From his boyhood days he was confronted with scenes which must have spoken to him of a world for God.
We have seen how Matthew clinches each event in the early life of Jesus with a passage from the Old Testament which he regards as a prophecy. Here Matthew cites a prophecy: “He shall be called a Nazarene”; and here Matthew has set us an insoluble problem, for there is no such text in the Old Testament. In fact Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament. No one has ever satisfactorily solved the problem of what part of the Old Testament Matthew has in mind.
The ancient writers liked puns and plays on words. It has been suggested that Matthew is playing on the words of Isaiah in Isa.11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The word for branch is HSN5342 – netser; and it is just possible that Matthew is playing on the word Nazarene and the word Netser (HSN5342); and that he is saying at one and the same time that Jesus was from Nazareth and that Jesus was the Netser (HSN5342), the promised Branch from the stock of Jesse, the descendant of David, the promised Anointed King of God. No one can tell. What prophecy Matthew had in mind must remain a mystery.
So now the stage is set; Matthew has brought Jesus to Nazareth and in a very real sense Nazareth was the gateway to the world.
THE YEARS BETWEEN
Before we move on to the third chapter of Matthew’s gospel there is something at which we would do well to look. The second chapter of the gospel closes with Jesus as a little child; the third chapter of the gospel opens with Jesus as a man of thirty (compare Lk.3:23). That is to say, between the two chapters there are thirty silent years. Why should it have been so? What was happening in those silent years? Jesus came into the world to be the Saviour of the world, and for thirty years he never moved beyond the bounds of Palestine, except to the Passover at Jerusalem. He died when he was thirty-three, and of these thirty-three years thirty were spent without record in Nazareth. To put it in another way, ten-elevenths of Jesus’ life were spent in Nazareth. What was happening then?
(i) Jesus was growing up to boyhood, and then to manhood, in a good home; and there can be no greater start to life than that. J. S. Blackie, the famous Edinburgh professor, once said in public, “I desire to thank God for the good stock-in-trade, so to speak, which I inherited from my parents for the business of life.” George Herbert once said, “A good mother is worth a hundred schoolmasters.” So for Jesus the years passed, silently but mouldingly, in the circle of a good home.
(ii) Jesus was fulfilling the duties of an eldest son. It seems most likely that Joseph died before the family had grown up. Maybe he was already much older than Mary when they married. In the story of the Wedding Feast at Cana of Galilee there is no mention of Joseph, although Mary is there, and it is natural to suppose that Joseph had died.
So Jesus became the village craftsman of Nazareth to support his mother and his younger brothers and sisters. A world was calling him, and yet he first fulfilled his duty to his mother and to his own folks and to his own home. When his mother died, Sir James Barrie could write, “I can look back, and I cannot see the smallest thing undone.” There lies happiness. It is on those who faithfully and ungrudgingly accept the simple duties that the world is built.
One of the great examples of that is the great doctor, Sir James Y. Simpson, the discoverer of chloroform. He came from a poor home. One day his mother took him on her knee and began to darn his stockings. When she had finished, she looked at her neat handiwork. “My, Jamie,” she said. “mind when your mither’s away that she was a grand darner.” Jamie was the “wise wean, the little box of brains,” and his family knew it. They had their dreams for him. His brother Sandy said, “I aye felt he would be great some day.” And so, without jealousy and willingly, his brothers worked in the bakeshop and at their jobs that the lad might have his college education and his chance. There would have been no Sir James Simpson had there not been simple folk willing to do simple things and to deny themselves so that the brilliant lad might have his chance.
Jesus is the great example of one who accepted the simple duties of the home.
(iii) Jesus was Teaming what it was like to be a working man. He was learning what it was like to have to earn a living, to save to buy food and clothes, and maybe sometimes a little pleasure; to meet the dissatisfied and the critical customer, and the customer who would not pay his debts. If Jesus was to help men, he must first know what men’s lives were like. He did not come into a protected cushioned life; he came into the life that any man must live. He had to do that, if he was ever to understand the life of ordinary people.
There is a famous story of Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, in the days when the storm of the French Revolution was brooding over the country before it broke. Men were starving; the mob was rioting. The Queen asked what all the uproar was about. She was told: “They have no bread.” “If they have no bread,” she said, “let them eat cake.” The idea of a life without plenty was an idea which did not come within her horizon. She did not understand.
Jesus worked in Nazareth for all the silent years in order that he might know what our life was like, and that, understanding, he might be able to help.
(iv) Jesus was faithfully performing the lesser task before the greater task was given to him to do. The great fact is that, if Jesus had failed in the smaller duties, the mighty task of being the Saviour of the world could never have been given to him to do. He was faithful in little that he might become master of much. It is a thing never to be forgotten that in the everyday duties of life we make or mar a destiny, and we win or lose a crown.
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