Pastor James Hopkins wrote this sermon for the second Sunday of Christmas 1/3/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 11am, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Christmas2 Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the second Sunday of Christmas, click here.
Joseph had been told by an angel in Egypt:
Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead. Matthew 2:20
Then, on his way back, he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod. He thought to himself, “Archelaus is probably just as evil as his father, but he doesn’t rule Galilee. That is still part of ancient Israel and I have a history there, so why not there?” Matthew doesn’t tell us that. That is between the lines. What Matthew tells us is that this move fulfilled another prophecy: Joseph took Jesus and went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that that which was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
This is a difficult passage because there is no clear passage in the Old Testament that says the Messiah will be called a Nazarene or have anything to do with Nazareth. The other three Old Testament quotes in Matthew have been explicit: The Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem according to Micah, Hosea foretells that He will be called out of Egypt, and Jeremiah foretells the suffering of Rachel’s great great granddaughters.
Matthew uses the plural “prophets” rather than prophet. He is talking about something that was repeated. He also varies his formula and how it is presented. Those things, along with the fact that we don’t have a passage that says what Matthew says, make it clear that we are talking about a type rather than a straight rectilinear prophecy.
What we’re looking for is a pattern or a model, some consistent thing in the Old Testament that Christ is embodying and fulfilling, something or person or event that foreshow and anticipates the Messiah. St. Augustine sums it up this way:
In the Old Testament the New Testament lies hidden; in the New Testament the Old Testament stands revealed. St. Augustine, Quaest. in Hept. 2, 73: PL 34,623; Cf. DV 16
The death and resurrection of Christ are the climax of the entire Bible. All of the history of God’s interaction with man is leading toward and working for this single, encompassing event.
So, for example, Melchizedek is a priest without a genealogy in the Bible. He just shows up in the story. Abraham recognizes him and offers tithes to him. Then in Psalm 110, more than four hundred years later, we are told the Messiah will be a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Then in Hebrews it stands revealed that this Melchizedek showed us something of the Messiah. For Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness” and he was the king of the city of Salem, which means he was the king of peace. In those ways he foreshowed that the Messiah would bring us righteousness and peace. So also Melchizedek has no genealogy and is not a descendent of Aaron, yet was a priest to Abraham. So it is that the Messiah, a descendent of David and therefore Judah, is the high priest according to that older order. The Nazarene needs to be something like that.
Many have thought that Matthew presentation of the type of Nazarene was bit of Hebrew word play. He was citing either the fact that the Messiah is said to be the Branch coming out of the stump or that the Messiah is to the fulfillment of the Old Testament Nazarites, chief of whom was Samson. The word Branch and Nazarite both sound a bit like the word Nazarene in Hebrew.
It is certainly right, and even necessary, to identify those passages as prophecies of the Messiah. The question here is not whether or not Jesus is the new Samson or the Branch out of David’s stump. We know that He is. The question is whether or not these are the prophecies that Matthew is quoting when he says: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Some scholars have posited that calling Jesus a Nazarene is a reference to the fact that Jesus will be held in contempt by the world and seen as nothing more than a mere man. In other words, Nazarene stands in contrast to Immanuel. We say that Jesus is Immanuel. He is God with us, God as one of us, God for us in the Flesh of a Man. But Nathaniel under the fig tree says that nothing good comes from Nazareth. The servant girl in the courtyard of Caiaphas says to Peter: “You also were with the Nazarene.” The unclean spirit in Capernaum says to Our Lord: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” And John records that Pilate’s inscription on the cross was: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The Latin abbreviation of which is INRI.
So the prophecies that Matthew is invoking might be all those that foretell the rejection and contempt that the Messiah will suffer, chief of which are the suffering Servant songs of Isaiah. To say that Jesus will be called a Nazarene is to say that the prophets have told us that some people will insist that Jesus is only a man, even if he is a prophet, rather than Immanuel, God-with-us.
Why does this matter? There doesn’t seem to be a pressing need to track down Matthew’s exact point of reference. We can just take it on faith that some prophets somewhere said or meant that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. We could do that and to some degree we should, but it is important because Matthew is teaching us how to read the Scriptures. We should care about the Scriptures and what they say.
Sometimes Christianity is presented to us as though it is a nicer, gentler version of Old Testament religion. The religion of Abraham and Moses was brutal and primitive and maybe superstitious. The God they worshipped was jealous and wrathful. We’re so glad that we’re past all that.
In fact, Christianity is not past that. It is not a nicer, gentler version of the Old Testament religion. It is quite the opposite. Christianity is more extreme, more zealous, more dangerous. For the Lord has come not to abolish the Law but fulfill it. Not one jot or tittle goes away until heaven and earth go away. Whereas Moses said, “Do not commit adultery,” Jesus says: “Do not look at a woman with lust in your heart.” Jesus is more strict. His Law is harder to keep. Circumcision was only for boys, whereas Baptism is for boys and girls and Gentiles. The Passover and Day of Atonement only took place once a year each but the Holy Communion is at least every week and in some places every day. There is no case of the New Testament not making things more extreme, most expansive, and more encompassing.
So the Old Testament call to meditate upon and search the Scriptures is likewise expanded. We are meant to study these things, to discuss them, to pray on them. Daily Bible reading and deep study should be the norm for all Christians.
Such diligence always bears fruit. Maybe it is isn’t strictly necessary in the way of the Law, but there is a promise. God speaks in the Scriptures. Serious consideration of Matthew’s statement that the prophets said that He would be called a Nazarene may not end with a definitive answer, but it opens us many facets of who the Messiah is for us. God reveals Himself to us in the Scriptures and speaks us clean. He shows His heart to us. He draws us closer to Himself. Ultimately what we learn is that Jesus was called a Nazarene for us. Maybe that means that He was the ultimate Nazarite like Samson who gives His life to defeat our enemy, maybe it means that He is a branch that comes unexpectedly out of David’s stump to save us, or maybe it means that He was reviled and hated and tortured as our Substitute and Redeemer. I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter which of those, if any of those is correct, but the journey is important. It gives depth and nuance to the sentence Jesus was called a Nazarene for us.