Luke 24:19 "Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,"
Jesus of Nazareth.
If you enter "Jesus of Nazareth" into a search engine on the internet you’re virtually guaranteed that one of the first links you see will be to the Franco Zeffirelli film of 1977. Perhaps you have seen it. I don’t recommend the film but I do want to encourage you this evening to think about the character behind the film’s title: Jesus of Nazareth.
I imagine that to describe Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth" would be unlikely to provoke much of reaction. On the one hand it is something that is widely known already I wonder how many people having heard of Jesus at all would not know him as Jesus of Nazareth. And I imagine that those who had never heard of him would find nothing threatening or remotely challenging even in such a description.
It is of course a Biblical a description with the NT using it some thirty times. And it is the subject we are considering this evening. We will take our time this evening to consider just how the title/description is used and what we are to make of it.
Why do we call him "Jesus of Nazareth"?
There are several answers to such a question:
Firstly, his parents both came from Nazareth:
Lk.2:39 "And when they (Joseph and Mary) had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth."
Although Jesus was not born in Nazareth he would, after a brief sojourn in Egypt, spend the majority of his life there. It was the place he grew up.
Lk.2:40 "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him."
We don’t have much information at all concerning Jesus life before he entered the public arena around the age of thirty – in fact there is just the one incident recorded of a trip to Jerusalem when he was 12 years old. There his parents "lost" him only to find him some days later in the Temple. He was about his Father’s business. Nevertheless at the close of the incident we are told that he went back with his parents to Nazareth once again where he happily submitted himself to their authority as he continued to grow up.
Lk.4:16 "And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up."
For these reasons people associated Jesus with Nazareth. Even when he moved from Nazareth to set up his ministry base in Capernaum he continued to be referred to as Jesus of Nazareth.
And yet his home town wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about him. You’d have thought they’d have got behind the "local-
Well what are we to make of all this?
Well one thing jumps out: it is possible to live a godly life in the worst of environments! And environments didn’t get much worse than Nazareth! Do you remember how Nathanael responded to Philip when Philip told him they’d found the Messiah – in Nazareth?
"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
That was Nathanael’s question – it was how people thought about Nazareth. It was no honour to be identified with that place, in fact it was the exact opposite.
And this gives us the explanation of an earlier comment that Matthew had made in his gospel acvcount when he described the return of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Nazareth:
Mt.2:23 "And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene.""
If you were to take up a concordance you wouldn’t find a verse in the OT that says exactly what Matthew here affirms. Did Matthew make a mistake? No, of course he didn’t – he was referring to the general teaching of the prophets, teaching such as is contained in Is.52 where we read:
To be described as "of Nazareth" was to have lost the postcode lottery. It was a despised place – Nathanael knew that – the people there were unreasonable and violent – witness their attempt to kill Jesus for a sermon they didn’t like.
Do you understand now? To call Jesus "of Nazareth" was no mere means of distinguishing him from other men called Jesus in the first century of the Christian era. To be known as "of Nazareth" was not neutral it was an obstacle to be overcome.
How was the title employed?
On the surface the title itself seems to suggest nothing more than a simple geographical reference and as such provides a very human touch but it was used in a wide variety of different ways.
We find the title being used by evil spirits. What a way to try to put down the One they also knew to be the Holy One of God:
Mk.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." (cf. Lk.4:34)
Desperately needy folk would also hear Jesus spoken in a similar way – and they too knew that he was more much more than merely a man from a grubby town in Galilee. We read the incident concerning blind Bartimaeus earlier. To him Jesus was not really Jesus of Nazareth at all – much more honourable titles are to be used. So Bartimaeus addresses Jesus as:
Son of David; Rabbi; Lord (Lk.18:41)
Jesus, himself, did not reject the appellation "Jesus of Nazareth". In the garden of Gethsemane when they came to arrest him it was he who took charge of the situation. "Who do you want?" he asked and when the reply came "Jesus of Nazareth" he didn’t hesitate to tell them that he was their man. He quickly added that if they were really after him then they should allow his disciples to go free. What a picture this is of the very reason he came into the world for in the first place!
No, Jesus wasn’t either ashamed or frightened to be identified as "Jesus of Nazareth". But what was true of him wasn’t true of Peter. Peter had tried to stand up for Jesus by wielding his sword in the dark garden but not long after he was totally undone by a few words of a servant girl in a courtyard with a burning brazier which lit up the shadows. Peter was scared and denied even knowing the man from Nazareth, the Nazarene.
Pilate used this title for Jesus too. Pilate had been played by the Jewish leaders and he knew it. They had manipulated him and he couldn’t do anything about it: Jesus had to be condemned. But he was aggrieved and wanted to somehow get his own back even if he could only do this in some small and petty way. Ah, he knew how to do it: he’d put up a sign over Jesus’ head – you know what the sign said don’t you?
"Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" Jn.19:19.
A nice put down for the Jews and the Jewish leaders didn’t like it. Oh, they didn’t mind Jesus being called "Jesus of Nazareth", there was no honour in that, but they did object to the description of him being a king. But Pilate wouldn’t be moved and answered their objections with his famous "what I have written, I have written". (Jn.19:22)
But the next time the title was employed it is no done so as a put down but now it has been transformed into something of a badge of honour. After the resurrection the title is found in the mouth of an angel!
Mk.16:6 "And he said to them, "Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him."
While some of those who used the description did so in a derogatory manner, Jesus actually transformed it into to something very different. It emphasised just how low Jesus was prepared to stoop in coming into the world to become our Saviour! We should glory in this title and not simply gloss over it. This is right in line with what Paul wrote about to the Christians in Philippi when he addressed the subject of Christ’s wonderful example of humility in "making himself nothing, taking the form of a servant."
Jesus of Nazareth in the rest of the NT
Outside of the gospels the title "Jesus of Nazareth" is only found in the Acts of the Apostles and there just seven times. On four of these occasions the man who accepted this humble, lowly description of himself is stated at the same time to be a man of great power and attested by God. What a contrast!
At Pentecost Peter preached with authority and effect. He called upon his hearers to pay serious attention to what he had to say:
Not long after this Peter and John were making their way to the Temple at the time of prayer when they encountered a lame beggar. They had no money to offer him but something far better than that. Peter again was the spokesman:
Acts 3:6 "I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!"
The Jewish authorities were far from pleased but Peter made it abundantly clear that the lame man who was lame no longer had been healed by this same Jesus:
Acts 4:10 "let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well."
The gospel concerning this man continued to spread. The time came for the good news to spill over from the Jews and be proclaimed openly to the Gentiles as well. Once more the main man was the apostle Peter. God was at work and it was arranged for Peter to visit Cornelius. To those gathered in Cornelius’ home Peter began to preach but it was not long before he was interrupted: the Spirit of God came down on the Gentiles who were hearing and responding to the message about Jesus. But Peter had got far enough in his sermon to explain what his Lord had been doing:
Acts 10: 37-
To some the name meant little – a geographical marker to distinguish him from someone else.
To others the name was more of a measured insult.
To yet others it was a wonderful name highlighting just what this man had come to do and how he had gone about it – a measured insult became a badge of honour.
And who is Jesus of Nazareth to you?