A Prophet Without Honor


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Matthew 13:53-58

The chapter divisions, you remember, are not original to the Bible, being added a thousand years after the New Testament was completed.  We now realize that Matthew has organized his material in alternating sections of narrative and teaching.  The third of the teaching sections in the Gospel ended at 13:52 with the last of the seven kingdom parables given in chapter 13.  The end of the teaching section and the beginning of the next narrative section is signaled with the familiar formula:  “When Jesus had finished these words, or, in this case, these parables…”  So the chapter should begin here, at 13:53, as it did, interestingly, at the last instance of this formula in 11:1.

In the last narrative section, you remember, we were treated to a series of incidents that illustrated the various responses made to Jesus and his ministry.  We have more of those in this next section.  Indeed, the parables of the kingdom dealt with the theme of division between true and false disciples in the kingdom of God and that theme is now illustrated in incidents that reveal an increasing polarization in people’s views of Jesus.  [France, 231-232]

Text Comment

v.54     Jesus hometown was Nazareth.  This is the last recorded visit of Jesus to a synagogue.  What happens next may explain why he was no longer able to make the synagogue in various towns and cities a place of ministry.  It seems that from this point the Lord’s ministry was carried on “outside official Judaism.”  [Morris, 365]

Once again, there was no and could be no doubt about the power that the Lord was exercising in his miracles or about the authority and wisdom of his teaching.  These were objective facts and everyone had to take note.

v.55     Mark says explicitly that Jesus was himself a carpenter.  Matthew only implies that, for the son would ordinarily have followed his father  into his trade.  James and Judas, of course, we know from the rest of the NT as leaders in the apostolic church and authors of books of the New Testament.  But of Joseph and Simon we know nothing more.

It is the ordinariness of the Lord’s background that proves a stumbling block.  The Messiah should not be a carpenter and should definitely not come from Nazareth, or Puyallup!  Where did he get this power and wisdom, certainly not from Nazareth, nor from his family.  He was wise and powerful beyond the capability that his background would have granted him.  Now, v. 58 tells us that he did not do many miracles there.  We don’t know whether they are responding to a miracle he performed before their eyes, or simply the reports that they had heard or what some of them had observed him do elsewhere.  They do not deny the power or the wisdom, they couldn’t, they only question the source, just as the Pharisees had done, you remember, when they attributed these things to the Devil’s power.

v.56     The Lord was a part of a large family.  Four brothers and it sounds like several sisters.  Remember, we are told in the Gospels that his siblings did not believe in him during the days of the public ministry.  They did not become their brother’s followers until after his resurrection and, so far as we know, they all did then.  But, in context, this mentioning of Jesus’ family, his humble background, was their way of cutting him down to size.  [Morris, 366]  He was an ordinary fellow from an ordinary family.

v.57     “Took offense”, that is, they were “put off” by Jesus.  It is the same word used in 13:21 and 11:6 and translated “fall away” in the NIV.  Miracles or no, he didn’t meet their expectations.  He was a disappointment.  Perhaps they thought him uppity, a villager like themselves, claiming to be so much.  And, that being so, they were offended at his teaching which, in effect, required them to follow him and acknowledge him as the Messiah.  They found it intolerable that Jesus spoke as he did, with the unmistakable implication of his own importance.  In John 6:42, on another occasion, we have the same offense taken and identified more specifically:  “They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, “I came down from heaven?”’”  In other words, familiarity and preconceptions often predispose a person to a bias and a prejudice that keeps them from seeing what is before their very eyes.  [Hagner, i, 406-407]  Humanly speaking, this will explain, in part, the fact that the Gentiles proved to be much more ready to receive the good news about Christ than the Jews had been.

When I was at Maxwell AFB recently I sat in on a briefing on Iraq by a four star general.  As I say with 100 colonels in the hall waiting for the briefing to begin, suddenly the lights flicked off and on, the room snapped to attention, and who walked in but my brother – my little brother (now a two star general himself).  I thought that is the little brother I beat all the time when we played football on our knees in the hallway of our home; the brother who grew up behind me.  I thought if they salute him they should salute me!  That’s something of what is going on here in a more serious level.

It is not known for sure whether the saying of the Lord here, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country,” was a proverbial saying in that time, though that is widely supposed to have been the case.  But we must appreciate the importance of what the Lord is saying.  To refer to himself as a prophet was to make an extraordinary claim, for there had not been prophets in Israel since Malachi 400 years before, men with the authority to speak for God.  Both John the Baptist, about whom we are to hear next, and Jesus were prophets in the old, strong, theological sense of the term.  Of course the prophets of the ancient epoch also had a difficult ministry precisely because, by and large, they suffered the same sort of rejection Jesus suffered.  It is not for nothing that someone defined a prophet as “God’s man for evil days.”

v.58     Mark says explicitly that Jesus did do some miracles.  He laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.  But the Lord met the unbelief and outright rejection of the people with a refusal on his part to bless them with a display of God’s power.  As before, in 12:38-39, Jesus will not perform miracles to counteract unbelief.  That is not their purpose.

Although the text does not say this explicitly, this return trip to Nazareth must have been a particularly momentous occasion for Jesus.  [Hagner, i, 405]  Capernaum had been his home base since the commencement of his public ministry.  The other larger towns of Galilee, especially the seaside towns, had been the focus of his preaching and healing.  Nazareth, the Lord’s hometown, the town of his boyhood and growing up, was smaller and less consequential.  By the time he returned there on this occasion, he was already famous, already a controversial figure, already the object of both immense enthusiasm and interest and deepening opposition.  No doubt his disciples expected, if Jesus himself did not, a warm, even a tumultuous welcome from his hometown.  Local boy made very, very good!

But, in fact, it was not to be.  Despite the undeniable works of power that he performed, a few even among them, and the extraordinary tone of authority in his teaching, his hometown folk treated him with contempt, with derisive disinterest.  He had gotten too big for his britches in their view.  Who did he think he was to make these grandiose claims and to expect them to hang on his every word?  They knew his family for goodness sake.  They had seen him grow up.

Now in that response we come face to face with a fact, for fact it is, that we all find it difficult to accept.  We find it almost impossible to take with full seriousness the true and genuine humanity of the Lord.  We know that he is perfect God and perfect man in one person.  That is our biblical theology of the person of Christ.  We are taught that his manhood, his human nature, was authentic and that he lived the life of a genuine human being, a human being just as human as you or I.  But, try as we might, we find it hard really to believe this.  We can’t help but think that his deity was always coming in to assist his humanity.  If he were a man, he must have been, so we think, a superman.  He can’t have lived a life like ours, not really, because he was God the Son at the same time.  He was omnipotent, omniscient, all-powerful and all-knowing.  That is no human being we know!

But we are wrong to think that and it is a capital mistake.  We must work to root that way of thinking about Jesus out of our minds and, still more, out of our hearts.  The Bible is at pains in many places to tell us that he really was a man, he lived his life as a man, he managed to conduct his ministry as a man, with the powers and with the limitations of a human being.  It was essential that he be a true man and live a true human life to save us from our sins.  “He was born of a woman, born under law, that he might redeem those under law.”  And so he lived and died as a man.  He bested the devil in the wilderness with no other weapons than those that we have been given:  the Word of God, prayer, and a present Holy Spirit.  He is able to sympathize with us in our struggles, we are taught, precisely because he passed through struggles of the same kind as a man and so knows what such struggles are like for a human being.  He lived his life by faith and not by sight, as we must live ours.  He died when his heart stopped beating, as men do.

However the two natures – one divine, the other human – co-exist in the same person – and the Bible never reflects on that great mystery, never tells us what to think about it, it is and must be a truth far beyond us – those two natures remain, as the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 famously reminded the church with four Greek adverbs, unconfused, unchanged, undivided, and unseparated.  That is, the human nature in the person of Christ was not confused with the divine, it was not changed by its presence with the divine nature in the same person of Jesus Christ, the two natures were not mixed together to make a divine man, and, at the same time, those two natures were not divided or separated, as if Jesus were two persons.  What was meant by Chalcedon was precisely that, taking the teaching of the Bible together, we are required to believe that the distinction between a human and a divine nature was in no way abolished because those two natures existed in the single person of Jesus Christ.  His human nature remained an entirely human nature.  The characteristic properties of that human nature remained unaffected by the divine nature of Christ.  This is a great mystery – next to the triple personality of the one God the greatest of all mysteries – but essential for us to believe if we are to understand and appreciate what Jesus did for us.

And now come the Gospels to remind us of this fact, even to startle us with this fact, time and time again.  We read here and there that Jesus didn’t know things.  As God he was omniscient, but as a man he learned things like we do and didn’t know what would happen tomorrow.  We see him getting tired, exhausted even.  We find him afraid and sweating in his fear.  None of this we associate or can associate with Almighty God, but we certainly know such things are characteristic of man.

And, then, there are passages like the one we just read.  Were you struck by the implication of the words of the people of Nazareth?  Jesus was to them an ordinary villager.  Why?  Well, because he had grown up among them.  They had known him from his early boyhood, as soon as he had returned to town from the family’s adventures in Bethlehem and Egypt at the beginning of his life. And growing up before them he had seemed to them a normal boy.  We think: but he was sinless!  Indeed he was.  But that apparently did not mark him out as something wonderful and other-worldly to these people.  Perhaps he was a quiet boy.  He certainly wasn’t working miracles among them as later apocryphal writings claimed he had.  They had no expectations, watching him grow up, that he was the Savior of the World.  They never imagined that he was the Messiah that had been so long promised in the ancient Scriptures.  As far as they were concerned, Jesus was just a village boy who followed his father into the family business.

We have a hard time believing that!  We think that anyone should have been able to tell what an extraordinary person Jesus was.  But it was not so – it was not supposed to be so – and therein hangs a tale.  Remember, in the Old Testament it was already prophesied that the Messiah would be easy to miss because there would not be anything about him that would mark him out as the world’s greatest man, as the deliverer sent from God.  As we read in Isaiah’s immortal servant song:

            “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out

of dry ground.  He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”  [53:2]

In other words, he was going to look like most other people and be taken to be like most other people.  What is more, he would not naturally be viewed as among the great.  He would be a commoner, someone no one would naturally expect to do great things.  And all of that is confirmed by the opinion expressed by the people of his hometown.  Who is this upstart, who thinks that he came down from heaven, when we watched the boy grow up, helping his dad in the family’s little construction business?  Who is he to think himself better than his brothers and sisters, much less better than the rest of us?  Who is he to say that he is our Lord and Master?  I don’t care whether he heals the sick, I’m not going to bow down before a kid I watched grow up.

Theologians talk about the two states of the Mediator:  the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation.  Our catechism defines the state of humiliation this way:

“Wherein did Christ’s humiliation consist?  Christ’s humiliation consisted in his being born, and that in a low condition, made under the law, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross, in being buried and continuing under the power of death for a time.”

Well, that is the Lord’s humiliation in bare bones only.  It is ours from the Scripture to fill in the detail.  Christ was born and that in a low condition.  To be sure.  He was born to a no account family who lived in a no account town.  The family was poor enough that they qualified, when Jesus as a baby was consecrated to the Lord as Joseph and Mary’s firstborn son, to offer the poor people’s sacrifice:  not a lamb, that cost too much money, but two pigeons.  He was raised not in the capital but in a town in Galilee so inconsequential that scholars have to scour the literature of the period to find any mention of it at all.  It is not mentioned in the OT or the Apocrypha, it is not mentioned by Josephus or anywhere in the Talmud. Even the Jews had a low view of the town.  When Nathaniel was first told about Jesus and learned that he was from Nazareth, his first instinct was to say, “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?”

“Undergoing the miseries of this life.”  Yes, to be sure, and in many ways.  In the carpenter shop he hit his thumb or finger with his hammer just as any other young carpenter will.  He had to put up with other people’s sins.  People didn’t pay him on time, or at all.  But, much more than this, he remained all this while completely incognito.  He was unrecognized.  We don’t know ourselves, even now, when it was that Jesus came fully to realize the nature of his calling or his extraordinary identity.  His human nature was unmixed with the divine and in the Gospels, with only a few notable exceptions – chiefly the transfiguration – we see him and encounter him only as a human being.  He was the creator of the world but no one recognized him as such.  That is humiliation!  As Paul would later write in his great Hymn to Christ in Philippians 2:

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be held on to, but made himself nothing, Taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in human form he humbled himself…”

What is true about all servants, slaves really in this case, is that no one mistakes them for the master.  They don’t look like a master, they don’t act like a master.  They look and act like the servants that they are.  And so it was in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  He remained unrecognized as the Son of God sent from heaven.  Even after the ministry began and he had begun to perform his mighty works of power, people still couldn’t see him in any other way than that of an ordinary villager of Galilee.  He looked like one; he talked like one; they had watched him grow up from boyhood as one. That was how completely and really he was and lived as a man.

But, now, turn this around and ponder for a moment what this meant for Jesus himself.  How was it like for him?  Here the humiliation bites still more cruelly.  It is not only that he remained unrecognized as the Messiah, but his teaching, his claims made people everywhere take offense at him.  They thought of him as an upstart, a know-it-all on a power trip, as someone who thought he was better than everyone else, who had the gall to summon them to believe in and follow him.  Who was he to make such statements as he was always making?  Who was he to set himself so high above his own folks and the people among whom he had grown up.

I don’t know about you, but I suspect it is as true of you as it is of me.  I hate it when people don’t like me, when they criticize me, when they accuse me of being proud, arrogant, or a know-it-all.  I am, often enough, all of those things, to be sure.  But, I’ll make this confession to you – more easily made because I suspect it is as true of you as it is of me – when someone says something critical and negative about me, I can’t sleep.  I can’t get it out of my head.  It bothers me.  It makes me ashamed or angry or depressed, depending on the particular circumstances.

Jesus was a man just like you and I are men, human beings, with all our frailty and weakness.  He had no sin, but he was still a real human being.  And I guarantee you that what those people in Nazareth said about him and said to him hurt him deeply.  I guarantee you that, a man who can sympathize with us in our weakness because he also lived a truly human life, had a hard time getting to sleep that night after his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth.  It was embarrassing to him to have people think that he was uppity, that he was arrogant.  He wasn’t and he knew that, but it hurts just the same when people think bad things about you and then say them out loud.  No one likes it when people take offense at him.  Jesus didn’t either.  He was that much a true human being and that much living a true human life.

Here is the Son of God, come from heaven to save the world, and those who know him best, who have known him longest, can’t see even in the miracles a scintilla of evidence that he really is the Messiah.  He seems far too ordinary to them ever to believe that about him.  That had to hurt and hurt deeply!

And all of that hurt, and that embarrassment, and that rejection by the very people who knew him best, was for you and for me.  It was part of the suffering that paid for our sins.  Christ did not begin to suffer when he went to the cross.  The cross was the culmination of years of humiliation.  And being a true human being, probably nothing cut more deeply or hurt more than simply the fact that so many thought so little of him while he was about the salvation of the world.  Why, so far from thinking him the Messiah and the Son of God, they didn’t even think he was a good man!  And for a man for whom godliness and goodness was the supreme commitment of his life, that must have cut him to the quick.  God would have known, God the Son did know, precisely how all of that fit into the grand scheme of things, but the Son of Man did not know that nearly so well, not the Jesus we meet in the Gospels.

“The workings of our Lord’s human mind, the affections and the emotions of our Lord’s human heart, and all the spiritual experiences of our Lord’s human life – take Jesus Christ in all these things, and He is the most absorbing, the most satisfying, and the most sanctifying study in all the universe.”  [Whyte, The Walk, Character, and Conversation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 181]  And of all those emotions and experiences of the Lord’s life, the heart-breaking ones, the painful ones, are the ones we must take the greatest care to ponder and to apply to ourselves and our own hearts.

What did the prophet long before say the Messiah would say about his own human life and his own human experience?

            “…I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by

the people.  All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking

their heads…”

That is what happened in Nazareth that day.  That was a bitter day.  Had he been on any other errand than your salvation and mine, he would not have endured this humiliation.  But he did.  It bothered him much, much more than it would bother us because he cared so much more about his holiness and his reputation as a man of God.  It cut him to the quick to be thought an arrogant fool by so many, including his own family and his friends from home.  That must have hurt very deeply.  But that humiliation was the cost of our redemption and he paid it.

We can hardly understand these things.  We hardly know what we are saying when we speak of the Lord’s inner life as the life of a true human being unaffected by the divine nature co-existing in his person.  But it is imperative that we think about this, that we ponder what it means to the extent that we can.  But when he came into the world as a man and lived and suffered humiliation as a man for us and for our salvation, the very least we can do is try, at least try, to understand a little of what that cost him.