Matthew’s infancy narrative closes with the most intriguing of his claims to a fulfilment of Old Testament promise and prophecy. Matthew 2 ends with what appears to be a wrapping up of events; a denouement to all that has come before.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
Matthew 2:19–20 NIV11
The first news we receive is profound (even though it has already been signalled (Matt. 2:15)). Herod the Great is dead. The King sought to kill the Christ child and yet he is no more. Matthew does not record his manner of death but it is as horrendous as it is legend. Here’s how Josephus’ describes it:
His entrails were also ex-ulcerated, and the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, further, his privy-member was putrefied, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns; he had also convulsions in all parts of his body, which increased his strength to an insufferable degree.
Matthew makes no mention of any of this. It is hardly necessary since his entire readership would have been more than familiar with the story. More importantly, Matthew is making another more important point. Herod “the Great” is great no more and a bare minimum of words are needed to say so. Meanwhile the apparently weak and helpless child still lives.
Nevertheless a threat remains and so Jesus will not return to the town of his birth.
So [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee,and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
Matthew 2:21–23 NIV11
Joseph does not go to his ancestral hometown (the place where the great King David came from) but, rather, to the backwater where he and Mary first departed years before. We are so used to hearing the names “Galilee” and “Nazareth” that we don’t recognise how they would have been received in Matthew’s day. They were nowhere, insignificant and backwards places. Galilee was a Gentile-infested area, hardly the place that a proper Jew would be. This perception becomes abundantly clear when Jesus begins his adult ministry.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee?
They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
John 1:46; 7:41, 52 NIV11
And yet it seems that he does and he will. Matthew wants to make sure we are well aware of just where Jesus comes from honing in on the exact location. Not just Galilee, but Nazareth. A nowhere place in an insignificant land.
And yet, deeply significant.
So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2:23 NIV11
This apparent citation has excited commentators for almost 2000 years, and with good reason. There is no text in the Old Testament that states anything like, “he would be called a Nazarene”.
Two verbal allusions may perhaps be intended. Some suggest that Matthew wants us to see Jesus as a Nazirite, those men who made special vows (including refusing to drink alcohol or cut their hair) to be set apart for God (Numbers 6, Judges 13:1-5).
Others wonder if perhaps there is an allusion here to Isaiah 11:1
“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch (“Netser” נֵ֖צֶר) will bear fruit.”
Isaiah 11:1 NIV11
As appealing as either of these alternatives may be they are not convincing. There is no citation nor do they seem to fit in with the immediate context of the narrative – something that has been striking about the previous “fulfillments”. We must look elsewhere.
A clue to what Matthew has in mind here lies in how he presents this final “fulfilment”. Previously he has used a very precise means of citation. “what God said through the prophet”, “what the prophet has written”, “what the Lord said through the prophet” and “what was said through the prophet Jeremiah”. Now, however, he uses a far looser phrase, “what was said through the prophets“. The greek geeks will also note that, for the first time, he uses the preposition ὅτι to introduce the “saying”.
Everything about how Matthew writes indicates that he has a different formula in mind. He wants us to think not so much about an individual quote from the Old Testament but a general principle in all the prophets. Did the prophets say together than the Christ would be a Nazarene? No, but they did indicate in so many ways that he would be considered a nothing, scorned by those around him, apparently pathetic and yet the greatest of them all. Indeed, his weakness is his greatness and we see this most clearly at the Cross where he dies.
Herod sought to defend his title of “Great” by killing any who got in his way. He very quickly died. Jesus shows us his greatness in the most “Nazarene” of ways. He dies in shame and ridicule for the sake of his enemies (Matt. 27:38-44).
Fulfilled. Just as the prophets said.
May this Christmas season bring the confidence and assurance that come only come from what Jesus has done as he fulfilled all that God foretold through the prophets.