Understanding the names of Jesus in the Christmas story (3)
Jesus, the Nazarene
What significance does the name “Jesus of Nazarene” have? Rev Dr Casey Ng expounds.
What’s in a Name?
What’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? That may be true for Shakespeare’s Juliet but untrue for the ancient world of biblical times. In the biblical world, “[a] person’s ‘name’ embodied his or her character and very being” (Fee and Hubbard 2011, 359). If that is so, then what significance does the name “Jesus the Nazarene” have?
The name “Jesus the Nazarene” came about when Joseph, obeying the instructions given to him in a dream, resettled his family in Galilee, in a place where he resided before, the city of Nazareth (Matthew 2:19–23). Being a resident of Nazareth, it would not be unusual for Jesus to be known as “Jesus the Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23) or even “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matthew 26:71). So, does this name only denote the place of his residence? Well, if names embody a person’s essence, then there must be something more than meets the eye. Let us then focus on two incidents in John’s gospel—John 1:45–51 and 18:1–9—that may help us unpack the significance of this name.
John 1:43–51 Jesus Is the King of All Believers
One fine day, Nathanael was sitting under the shade of the fig tree in his garden. His friend Philip came to him excitedly and said, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45 NASB). Probably with a smirk on his face, Nathanael asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 NASB).
Nathanael lived in Cana in Galilee, a neighboring city of Nazareth (John 21:2). Nazareth was probably an obscure little town with few rich and famous people that the Hebrew Scriptures omitted its name. Not only did Nathanael the outsider thought little of this insignificant place, even the residents of Nazareth could not accept Jesus teaching them (Luke 4:16–29).
Not wanting his friend to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience, Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see” (John 1:46 NASB). What Philip urged Nathanael to do was a common practice of the people looking for rabbis, to search for a solution to a problem together. For all we know, there may be “something new or important” for us to discover (Morris 1995, 145).
It is likely that Nathanael listened to the advice of his friend and let go of his prejudices and followed Philip to see Jesus. In his brief encounter with Jesus, Nathanael’s biases were removed, and eyes were opened. He could only proclaim: “Rabbi, YOU are the Son of God, YOU are the King of Israel” (John 1:49; emphasis in the Greek text). Nathanael was able to receive a progressive revelation of Jesus’ identity and submit to Jesus as King. Thus, Jesus wants to reveal himself to us if we set aside our biases against him.
John 18:1–9 Jesus Is the Great “I Am”
The time was around midnight. A platoon of Roman soldiers rushed off on a critical mission, codenamed Capture Jesus the Nazarene Secret Mission. Armed with lanterns, torches, and weapons, together with some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, they followed Judas Iscariot to the garden where Jesus was. The soldiers must have wondered what kind of criminal Jesus was since there were about two hundred of them on duty that night (Klink 2016, 734).
Jesus, knowing their intent to arrest him, approached them, and asked them, “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4 NASB). In reply, they said, “Jesus the Nazarene” (John 18:5). Jesus answered, “I am” (egṓ eimi in the Greek text of John 6:20). Upon this majestic declaration of Jesus’ identity, the soldiers “drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6 NASB). This reaction of the soldiers is astonishing. Instead of rushing forward to arrest Jesus, the soldiers momentary retreated. As Edward Klink III (2016, 736) remarks: “At the sound of his voice, they fell to the ground ‘as if vanquished by a greater army’” and it could only be “an act of fear and reverence, even worship.”
We are familiar with the seven “I Am” sayings in John’s Gospel. These sayings describe the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, when Jesus identifies himself simply as “I am,” something miraculous takes place.
In John 6:16–21, after Jesus had fed the crowd of five thousand, his disciples were in a boat headed for Capernaum. It was dark and windy, and Jesus was not with them. When they had rowed about 4.5 to 5.5 km, they saw Jesus walking towards them on the sea. To allay their fears, Jesus said, “I am; do not fear” (egṓ eimi in the Greek text of John 6:20). “So they were willing to receive Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going” (John 6:21 NASB; italics mine).
Can you believe it? Teleportation. This is not science fiction. This miracle happened when Jesus said, “I am.” Just as Jesus was at the garden, the absolute “I am” saying, without any predicate, exhibits the power of the Almighty God.
The Roman soldiers had a spectacular encounter with the Almighty God. Yet they missed the message and tried to oppose God’s purpose by arresting Jesus the Nazarene instead.
The Roman soldiers had a spectacular encounter with the Almighty God. Yet they missed the message and tried to oppose God’s purpose by arresting Jesus the Nazarene instead. However, nothing can thwart the purpose of God. Ultimately, at the name of Jesus, the “I am,” every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10–11).
What does Jesus the Nazarene mean to you?
Jesus the Nazarene is that ordinary guy from the humble town of Nazareth. What good thing can come out of that? He is the Son of God, the King of all who believe in him, the one who knows everything about us.
Jesus the Nazarene is also that dangerous wanted criminal that about two hundred soldiers were assigned to arrest him. What good thing can come out of that? He is the Almighty God himself who deserves to be worshiped and obeyed.
What does Jesus the Nazarene mean to you? As you encounter Jesus, will you be like Nathanael who acknowledged his lordship, or the soldiers who opposed his lordship? May we allow Jesus the Nazarene to be the Lord of our lives!
Rev Dr Casey Ng (PhD, Asia Graduate School of Theology Alliance), an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God of Singapore, is the President of ACTS College, Singapore. He has served as an educational consultant, lecturer, pastor, and missionary for forty years in Asia and Europe. His passion is teaching the New Testament and empowering leaders through education.