Following the Nazarene: Holiness, Puns, & How to Be a Saint

Photo by Clemslize

After Joseph and family left Egypt to return to the Promised Land,

“Being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee. Then he went and settled in a town called Nazareth to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets, that He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:23, HCSB)

It’s one of Matthew’s stranger assertions, because there is no such statement anywhere in the Old Testament. It wasn’t for nothing that the Pharisees were able to call Jesus’s identity as the Messiah into question on the basis of his being from Nazareth: “Search and look,” they said; “No prophet arises from Nazareth.”

But we’ve already learned that the prophecies of Matthew are not just straight predictive statements: they include typology. And in this case, they include puns.

God plays with words. That shouldn’t surprise us, maybe, given that he created the whole world with them. But he does. God puns.

The closest Old Testament parallel to “He will be called a Nazarene” is an Old Testament holy order called the Nazirites. A Nazirite vow set one apart for a time — in a few rare cases, a lifetime — during which he or she was under strict restrictions.

A Nazirite was forbidden to touch anything dead or otherwise become ceremonially unclean, even under extreme circumstances like a death in the family; to cut his or her hair; and to drink wine.

The Bible’s most famous Nazirite is Samson, who blew off all the vows imposed on him at birth, but there are others — Samuel, and almost certainly John the Baptist.

Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t a Nazirite as far as we can tell. He drank wine and touched dead and unclean people (at which time they became alive and/or clean, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he doesn’t seem to have been under a holy vow not to touch them in the first place.)

The pun — and I believe the key to this statement of Matthew’s — lies in the Hebrew root of the word Nazirite, which is a close soundalike — a pun, remember — to the root word for the town name Nazareth and by extension the designation “Nazarene.”

The word is “nazir,” and it means to consecrate or separate. “All the days of his separation he is holy to the LORD” (Numbers 6:8, ESV, on the Nazirite vow).

From the very beginning, in the prophecies and strange events surrounding his birth, the Messiah was consecrated to the service of God.

As a twelve-year-old boy he was found in the temple, busy “about my Father’s business.” He was not merely A “consecrated one” but THE Consecrated One — a man separated from the world even as he lived within it, served within it, carried out his relationship with God within it.

It’s interesting that early followers of Jesus were called Nazarenes (and even today, in the Middle East, the designation continues — we’ve seen it in the Arabic letter “n” used to mark out Christians for destruction under the invasion of ISIS).

We too are Separated Ones, consecrated people, holy to the LORD.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. [Set them apart] in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I [set myself apart], that they also may be [set apart] in truth. (John 17:14-19, ESV; “set apart” is the literal Greek usually translated “sanctify” or “consecrate”)

“In the world but not of it” may be one of the most misused phrases in the Bible. Jesus’s separation from the world never meant isolating himself or creating a new “holy code” for dress or other externals.

Instead, Jesus knew that being set apart from the world was a matter of living in wholehearted relationship with God, doing his work and worshiping him in Spirit and in Truth.

He knew too that the only way to save the world is to separate from it. That’s a principle seen throughout human culture: think of a Marine, who separates himself from civilians in order to defend them; or even of a politician or celebrity, who at once represents the people and is not one of them.

Leadership by its very nature separates. Serving and saving separate. Relationship with God separates.

Like Jesus, we are called holy ones — “saints.” We are in the world, but not of the world. At the same time, we are here not to condemn but to save — not to isolate ourselves from the rest of humanity, but to consecrate ourselves to the service of God as he serves that same humanity in mercy and truth.

If we want power to change our world, we’ll find it in consecration to God. We’ll find it by becoming Nazarenes and following the Nazarene.

Interestingly, “nasar,” the word at the root of “Nazarene,” means “watchtower.” As consecrated servants of God, we are empowered to watch — to guard, to protect, and to herald the coming of the kingdom of God, even as Jesus did. In our consecration is a place of safety for the world.



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