The Nobody Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth and Messianic Expectations

“and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:23)

When Herod the Great died there was great confusion about what should happen because he had drafted several wills, many of which were in conflict with one another. It was not until the conflicted family members appeared in Rome that Caesar divided Herod the Great’s rule amongst three of his children.

Archelaus was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace the Samaritan, who received the largest portion and highest title within the realm of Judea. Archelaus ruled as ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea (biblical Edom). His two brothers, Antipas and Philip were given less desirable portions of the territory and lower titles as tetrarchs. After roughly nine years, in response to Jewish unrest under Archelaus’ cruelty and also as a means of bringing the province of Judea directly under Roman rule, Archelaus was deposed by Roman Emperor Augustus.

Joseph and Mary avoid Archelaus by heading far north into the area known as the Galilee to a town called Nazareth. The region of Galilee was governed by Archelaus’ brother, Herod Antipas, who also controlled the Transjordan territory of Perea. Antipas, or Antipater, is the Herod we hear about later in the gospels, who arrests John the Baptist and later has John executed at the request of his wife, Herodias.

Nazareth was a small town of only about 500 people during Jesus’ day. Its obscurity only increased as Antipas rebuilt Sepphoris, another city only four miles away, as the capital of Galilee. Its growth in size and Gentile influence made it a very different place than little, old Nazareth.

Matthew tells us all of this to explain how it could be that the Messiah of the Jewish people could arise from Galilee of all places. Matthew mentions that this serves to fulfill “what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” This obscure statement is not clearly pulled from any one Scripture, but is most likely a combination of two different portions of Scripture.

The first of those is from the prophet Isaiah:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. (Isaiah 11:1)

The Hebrew word for ‘branch’ here is nēser. Quite probably, Matthew is referencing this Messianic branch that would spring up from the stump of Jesse, something echoed in other portions of Isaiah, such as 4:2-3.

The second of the Scriptures woven in here is likely Judges 16:17, where Samson speaks of his dedication unto the Lord at birth:

“No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb.” (Judges 16:17)

Thus, in a bit of wordplay, Matthew brings together imagery of the Nazirite dedicated to the Lord with the Branch springing up from Jesse’s stump, and connects that with the geographical location of Nazareth. All of this serves to basically say, “This Jesus is dedicated to the Lord but it shouldn’t surprise you that He came from nowhere-Nazareth to bring salvation…God is doing a new thing in bringing life where it seems as if no life could ever be. And it will exceed your wildest imaginations.”

Jesus is a refugee Messiah who springs from nowhere to bring salvation, blessing, and deliverance.

The One Who is to Come: Jesus Like Isaiah

Listen to me, you islands;
hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. (Isaiah 49:1)

Isaiah the prophet was raised up for a purpose: to speak the words of God and to glorify God before all the nations. But this passage is not about Isaiah, but about Israel. Israel was called from the womb by God as the infant Jacob, renamed Israel after wrestling with God. Israel was also a a people set apart since the calling of Abraham to be birthed into the world for the blessing of the nations. This people would strive with God and glorify God before all people. Ultimately, however, this people would falter in their calling.

Yet out of the womb of Israel would come the true Servant of the Lord, “one who is to be the ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old” (Micah 5:2). “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him…and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2, 3). This One, set aside by God from the womb of Abraham and Sarah, from the womb of Jacob and Rachel, from the womb of the Virgin Mary, will come to bring good news of God’s kingdom, manifest the power of God, and bring blessing to the nations. He is a prophet like Isaiah, but more than a prophet. He is God’s servant but faithfully, even to the end. He is a son of David, but also the One before whom very knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. He is the Word made flesh and Immanuel. He is Jesus the Messiah, and we worship Him.

Mighty God

This past weekend I enjoyed the opportunity of preaching at Elmbrook Church as part of their series on the names of God from Isaiah 9:6-7. This was the second week of that series, focused on the second title listed for the Messiah: “Mighty God.” I built much of the message around Philippians 2:5-11, which served to illuminate the nature of Jesus’ might as the Messiah.

It is always a privilege to be at Elmbrook, where I served as the College Pastor for 5 years (2003-2008). I helped to run a multi-campus college ministry called “The Ave,” which met during the school-year near Marquette University’s campus in “the big red church” at 10th and Wisconsin and back at Elmbrook campus during the summertime.

You can view the message video here and the outline is included below.


“And he will be called…Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6)

Mighty Enough to Let Go

  • resisting the corruption of power
  • Jesus and the temptation in the desert
  • Philippians 2:5-7

Mighty Enough to Enter In

  • a different sort of might; childlike power and wonder’
  • a might that chooses less
  • Philippians 2:7-8

Mighty Enough to Make a Way

  • Light shining in the darkness
  • Exodus and salvation
  • Philippians 2:8

Mighty Enough to Reign

  • Isaiah 9:7
  • Advent and the expectation of the returning king
  • Philippians 2:9-11

The Heart of God’s Deliverance: a word from John Oswalt on Isaiah 9

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

I came across this eye-catching word from John Oswalt while studying for an upcoming message from Isaiah 9:6-7:

How will God deliver from arrogance, war, oppression, and coercion? By being more arrogant, more warlike, more oppressive, and more coercive? Surely, the book of Isaiah indicates frequently that God was powerful enough to destroy his enemies in an instant, yet again and again, when the prophet comes to the heart of the means of deliverance, a childlike face peers out at us. God is strong enough to overcome his enemies by becoming vulnerable, transparent, and humble—the only hope, in fact, for turning enmity into friendship.

John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, chapters 1-39, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 245.

Knowing Who We Are and Who We’re Not: a lesson from John the Baptist

John the Baptist

One of the most gripping commendations Jesus ever offered was about John the Baptist when He said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). There was really no one quite like John, and Jesus recognized that.

Of course, the other part of that statement was this: “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John knew who he was and also knew who he wasn’t, and that shaped the way he lived.

At one point in his ministry, John said to a group of his disciples and gathered onlookers: “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him'” (John 3:28). John knows who he is and knows who he is not.

John the Apostle sets us up for this in the first chapter of his gospel when he says that John the Baptist is not “the Light”:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (1:6-8)

Later on, when John is questioned by religious leaders, he knows that he is not the Messiah,  Elijah or the long-awaited Prophet:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not.’
‘Are you the Prophet?’
He answered, ‘No.’

Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”‘ (John 1:19-21)

John clearly knew who he was and who he was not.

Not only that, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he, John, was not Jesus:

  • John was not the light, but, as we read in John 1:9 – “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” – Jesus is the light
  • John was not the privileged son, but, as we read in John 1:14, “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” – Jesus is the One and Only Son.
  • John was not the Messiah, but more than once he exclaimed to his followers when Jesus passed by, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)

John knew that he was not the awaited one, but that Jesus was the one the world was waiting for.

So, when John the Baptist’s followers come to him feeling out of sorts because Jesus’ ministry is increasing, John is not really bothered. In fact, he knows this is the way things are supposed to be. He knows that all of what he is doing is really about Jesus.

John the Baptist is a powerful example for all of us who follow Jesus. He reminds us that not any one of us is the Messiah, and we should live accordingly. I am not the Messiah. You are not the Messiah. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, be everywhere at once, or be the one to save the world. That was Jesus’ job. Believing this and live out of this belief  is a significant part of our discipleship.

We are not here to replace Jesus, but to display Jesus in our life on earth. The difference seems slight, but it is gargantuan in practice. In our lives we are not trying to be the Messiah, we are trying to direct people to the Messiah.

John the Baptist knew who he was and who he was not, and it set him free to minister as God would have him regardless of the outcome.