Can Any Good Thing Come From Nazareth?

Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
And Nathanael said unto him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
Philip saith unto him, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).

Location factors heavily into our assumptions and judgments about people. Imagine you are told about a group of people: one person grew up in Appalachia, another in Manhattan in New York City, another in south Alabama, another in Texas, another in Wisconsin, and another from rural Nevada. In all likelihood you have already come up with some concept of who these people are based on their location of origin and raising. Yes, there will be times when those assumptions will prove false, yet how much more often do they prove true?

This tendency is nothing new; it went on in first century Israel as well. People would be judged based upon whether they grew up in Judea, Samaria, or Galilee (cf. Acts 2:7), whether in more urbanized areas or more rural areas. And, then as now, the more remote and less urban the location, the more likely people were to look down on those who came from there.

So it is with Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee itself was seen as remote, away from the epicenter of Judaism in Jerusalem, not known for erudition or much civilization. Within Galilee itself, Nazareth barely registers, receiving no mention from Jewish sources before the third century of our era. This insignificance led some skeptics to doubt whether Nazareth existed at all in the first century CE, but archaeological evidence does indicate the place was inhabited. It is now believed that Nazareth was a village of no more than 500 in the days when Jesus grew up there. Nazareth is about 16 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee; it is not near the Mediterranean Sea and would not be on a lot of travel routes. It is evident why Nazareth would easily be despised in the eyes of others: it is in the backwoods or out in the sticks, a small village. In the eyes of more educated and urban Jews, the Nazarenes would have been judged as ignorant at best and perhaps as simple-minded sinners at worst.

Philip is a Galilean whom Jesus had called, hailing from Bethsaida on the coast of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:43-44). Based upon what he has seen and/or heard, he is immediately convinced regarding who Jesus is: he finds Nathanael and tells him how he has found the “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote,” otherwise known as the Messiah, which was the hope of all Israel in these days. We can imagine how excited Nathanael would be at the prospect of meeting the One whom God had promised! And then Philip identifies who He is: Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:15).

For Philip, “of Nazareth” is not meant to be degrading or demeaning, but simply a way of identifying which Jesus is being described. Both “Jesus” and “Joseph” were quite popular names among the Jews of the first century; therefore, to say then that Jesus is the Messiah would likely prompt the response, “Which Jesus?”. “Jesus the son of Joseph” would likely accurately describe many other Jewish men of the day. Yet “Jesus of Nazareth” was unique: if nothing else, no other Jesus in Nazareth was known for doing anything that might make him to be considered a possible Messiah.

Nevertheless, all Nathanael now knows about Jesus is that his friend Philip thinks He is the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote in the Hebrew Bible, and that He is from Nazareth. And so he asks his famous question: can any good thing come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?

Nathanael’s reaction is honest; perhaps such is what partly prompts Jesus’ declaration that Nathanael is an Israelite “in whom is no guile” (John 1:47). There is some dispute as to whether Nathanael asks the question on account of Nazareth’s relative insignificance or possibly because Nazareth has a reputation for sinfulness or immorality. The answer depends on whether “good thing” should be understood in a “moral” sense or in a more “qualitative” sense. He also might have the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem in view as well (cf. Micah 5:2, John 7:40-52): how can such a good thing as the Messiah come out of Nazareth or even Galilee, since the Messiah is to come from Bethlehem and ostensibly grow up in the environs of Jerusalem? Since we do not know a whole lot about Nazareth’s reputation in the first century, we cannot know for certain, but we can see clearly that Nathanael is judging the situation based upon the stereotype and/or geographic prejudice.

But Nathanael does not allow that prejudice to get in the way: he does not dismiss Philip’s claim out of hand, and he quickly ascertains how special Jesus is, to the point of making similar declarations regarding Him as Philip did (cf. John 1:47-51). Nathanael learned quickly that yes, a good thing can come from Nazareth; in fact, the greatest thing of all has come from Nazareth!

Nathanael’s story provides good reminders for us about judgment. It is easy to fall prey to snap judgments about people based upon many factors, including geography and the culture inherent in geography, but geography need not be destiny. It remains true that stereotypes exist for a reason, but not everyone fits the stereotype. Imagine if we had been in Nathanael’s place so long ago: if we strictly judged everyone by their place of origin, we would have rejected Jesus the Christ, confident in our misguided assumption that no good thing could come out of Nazareth. How terrible would have been our fate!

Jesus warns us about judgment (cf. Matthew 7:1-4), encouraging us not to judge by appearance but to render right judgment (John 7:24). We may not be able to resist every caricature or stereotype, but we have no right to condemn the lot of a group of people on account of superficial factors. Let us maintain a spirit like Nathanael’s, willing to judge on the merits and character of a person, and so honor and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jesus’ Brothers

For even his brethren did not believe on him (John 7:5).

For many of us, the one refuge we can count on in life is family. Even if everyone else is against us and berates us, we like to think that our family members will still accept us and believe in us.

Yet, on the other hand, our family tends to know us all too well. They watched us grow up and many have rather “incriminating” stories about our pasts. Sometimes family members refuse to see any growth or change in us; in their eyes we are still quite young, quite inexperienced, or quite mischievous, even if we have grown up and have learned our lessons.

Jesus had no ordinary beginning, and while we are not given much information about His early years, we have little doubt that they were not very ordinary, either. Contrary to certain religious traditions, it does not seem as if the household comprised only of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. We are told that He has brothers and sisters– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, and Judas (cf. Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3).

We do not know much about them. It seems as if they are not terribly much younger than Jesus, since they are old enough to have formed beliefs, and they are known in the community of Nazareth. We can imagine, however, what it might have been like to be the younger brothers of Jesus– the One who always seemed a bit different, One with whom they grew up, but now the One who is making rather grandiose claims about Himself and is engaging in work that is well beyond your average Galilean carpenter!

While there is much we do not know, there is one thing that the Gospels make certain– His brothers do not believe in His claims regarding Himself. In Mark 3:21, Mark informs us that “they who were of” Jesus went to Capernaum to seize Jesus because, in their estimation, He was out of His mind. In John 7:3-5, His brothers are all but taunting Him, challenging Him to go up to Jerusalem and prove to be who He claims to be, for they did not believe in Him. Jesus’ responds in ways likely not much less acerbic, declaring that it is not yet His time, and that while the world cannot hate them, it does hate Him (John 7:6-8). Sibling rivalry indeed!

At first, this might seem incredible to us, and it may lead to some doubt. Jesus suffered temptation, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15); wouldn’t His brothers have noticed this in His first thirty-four or so years? Did they not understand how their mother had conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit, and did they not hear about all of the signs that accompanied His birth (Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2)? How could they not believe in Him?

Yet, when we think about it, we can make some sense of it. There is a reason why it is said that familiarity breeds contempt. With the exception of Jesus at the Temple when He was 12, we do not get the impression that Jesus was active in ministration until His baptism and temptation (cf. Matthew 3-4). If you know Jesus as your older brother who lives in Nazareth of Galilee and who works as a carpenter, perhaps even working together with you in that trade, and then all of a sudden He claims to be the Son of God, abandons the trade for at least a portion of the year, gathers twelve fishermen, zealous, tax collectors, and others around Him, and starts proclaiming this message of the impending Kingdom of God, we can see why they would think Him a little crazy. This is Jesus, from the backwaters of Galilee, the carpenter. Who does He think He is? Why is He doing things that very likely will get Him into trouble, and by extension, His mother and brothers? We can see why Jesus spoke as He did in Matthew 13:57/Mark 6:4: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household”!

So Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. That was probably not a good testimony for Him, but we get no indication that He compelled or coerced them into believing. They had as much of a chance to share with Him in the work of God as everyone else did (cf. Matthew 12:49-50).

Jesus’ brothers were good Jews, however, and they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover in that fateful year when their elder Brother would be crucified. And then we learn something extraordinary.

[The eleven] with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14).

Wait a second! Here Jesus’ brothers are listed as in prayer with their mother, the other women, and the eleven disciples. Something clearly happened. But what?

The Gospels do not provide direct testimony, but later on, Paul mentions that when Jesus was raised from the dead, He appeared to over five hundred brethren, and then to James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-7). James here is the same James who is listed as Jesus’ brother in Matthew 13:55!

How all of this happened is not detailed precisely. It is entirely possible that Jesus’ brothers came around at some point during His ministry, but there’s no evidence of such. They would have seen Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and we know that at least James, and likely the rest of His brothers, saw Jesus in the resurrection.

And that is the power of the resurrection– unbelievers are often made believers! James will become a prominent elder in the Jerusalem church and the author of the letter bearing his name; according to Josephus, he is martyred at the hands of the Jews (Acts 15:13, 21:18; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9). Judas, otherwise known as Jude, is responsible for the letter bearing his name. Both of them refer to themselves as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1, Jude 1:1). Can you imagine? Those who once did not even believe in the claims of their older Brother, who thought Him crazy, now call Him Lord and are willing to be known as slaves of their elder Brother!

Jesus is Lord, and the proof is in the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the difference that changed recalcitrant brothers into willing servants. Has Jesus’ resurrection changed your life? Let us trust Him as Lord and do His will!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Prophet in His Hometown

And all bare him witness, and wondered at the words of grace which proceeded out of his mouth: and they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
And he said unto them, “Doubtless ye will say unto me this parable, ‘Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in thine own country.'”
And he said, “Verily I say unto you, No prophet is acceptable in his own country. But of a truth I say unto you, There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
And they were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things; and they rose up, and cast him forth out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong (Luke 4:22-29).

Humans have a strange affinity to their place of birth and/or raising. Even though, in truth, dirt is dirt, and all the earth belongs to God, we have an attachment of sorts to the land where we are “from.”

Oftentimes this affinity is a result of the comfort we feel in regards to “home”– a place where we were known by people and things did not seem so scary or daunting or big. While there can be comfort from such familiarity, there is also the other edge of that particular sword– familiarity can breed contempt.

There is in all of our lives a place where we go and we are still a small child– or at least we are made to feel that way. It is entirely natural: when we remember someone at a particular age, it is very easy to keep remembering them as being that age despite the fact that they grew up. It is part of yet another generational cycle.

In these terms Nazareth of the first century was little different than any other community. It would not have been a large community, and there is little doubt that everyone would know everyone else– and, more likely than not, everyone else’s business.

It was in this community that Jesus, the Son of God, was raised (cf. Luke 2:39-40, 51-52). The townspeople would have known Him from the days when He was a baby. They would see Him grow up alongside His half-brothers and half-sisters (Matthew 13:55-56).

Then Jesus began to do mighty works after His baptism and temptation in Capernaum and in other parts of Galilee (Luke 4:14-15). After some time He returns to “home” in Nazareth.

His fellow inhabitants of Nazareth were certainly astounded at what they were seeing and hearing– but it was not, on the whole, paired with true faith. Instead, they marveled that it was Jesus of all people doing these things! The same Jesus who was the son of their carpenter Joseph, the Jesus who grew up before their very eyes. Surely Jesus was not guilty of sin or any malfeasance as many a teenager has done, but nevertheless, when they see and hear the Man Jesus, they remember the Child Jesus. Because they had always known Jesus they did not believe (Matthew 13:58).

Jesus rebukes them sharply for this disbelief, condemning both them and Israel as a whole in the process. Since they would not believe He did not bother demonstrating His power (cf. Matthew 13:58, Luke 4:23-24). He then presents two pieces of evidence to strike at the “soft spot” of Israel– Elijah residing with the widow of Zarephath and Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian (1 Kings 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5:1-27). Jesus rightly points out that there were widows and lepers in Israel in those days, but God only provided relief to those who would trust in Him– and they happened to be outsiders, a Canaanite and an Aramean, respectively.

This is too much for the people of Nazareth– not only has Jesus become “uppity,” He also is speaking in censorious terms to His fellow townspeople. They want to push Him over a cliff, but it is not yet His time.

A prophet is not acceptable in his own country– this is the takeaway from Jesus’ time not just in Nazareth but also with the Jews in general. Jesus attracted large audiences in Galilee in general but not in Nazareth. Many of the poor and dispossessed and sinful would listen to Jesus while the religious authorities despised Him. And as the message of His Gospel would go out into the world it would find softer hearts among the nations than among the Jews (cf. Acts 13:46-48, 28:24-28). There may be “comfort” in home, but that comfort can also lead to contempt!

We believers suffer from such things also. It is often most difficult to reach our closest friends or family with the Gospel, for they remember us as when we were smaller or when we were not acting as we should, and the word is not respected. It is many times difficult for a preacher to preach the Word in the city in which he was raised– the congregation remembers him when he was little and may not give due reverence to the truth of the message he preaches. It is also many times difficult to reach our fellow Americans with the Gospel because they, as the Jews, have believed themselves to be the people of God for so long that there is contempt for any attempt to point out difficulties or challenges or for any attempt to exhort people to return to their Creator God.

A disciple is not greater than his master (cf. Matthew 10:24), and so it is with Jesus and ourselves. There are times when we will not be heard because of people’s familiarity with us as the messengers. And, if we are honest, there have been times when we have held others in contempt or in less respectful manner because we are quite familiar with them. Nevertheless, let us persevere, looking toward Jesus, and always being willing to humble ourselves so as to receive His grace!

Ethan R. Longhenry