Rejected Again in Nazareth (Matthew 13:53-58)

This particular visit by Jesus to his home synagogue is also told by Mark (6:1-6). Another visit, which occurred earlier after his period of temptation in the desert, is recorded by Luke (4:16-30). On that previous occasion, the people of Nazareth were so incensed by Jesus’ address that they tried to throw him over the cliff near the edge of the town. This caused Jesus to move his home to Capernaum. So here we have him returning to Nazareth for a brief visit.

Why did Jesus return to Nazareth on this occasion? Perhaps he wanted to visit his family who still lived there and who had tried to get him to move back there. Or he would have wanted to give spiritual blessings to those he had lived alongside for years in that town. Given that Jesus did everything out of love we can be assured that this was a major reason why he went back. Despite its previous rejection of him, Nazareth had a place in the affections of Jesus.

The earthly family of Jesus

This paragraph is of interest for many reasons. One obvious detail is that here we are told about the members of the earthly family of Jesus. The question that the hearers make about Joseph could indicate that he was still alive. It is often assumed that he had died before Jesus commenced his public ministry because he is not mentioned as present with his wife when her involvement in various places is described. Yet Joseph could still have been alive but had become too frail to move around.

Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. His brothers did not believe he was the Messiah before his resurrection, after which he appeared in a special way to James who then believed. James was to become a martyr after serving for many years as a leader in the church in Jerusalem. He wrote the letter called James, which many regard as the first book of the New Testament to have been written.

Judas also wrote one of the New Testament letters, the short letter called Jude. Given that he is mentioned last in the list it is likely that he was the youngest of the brothers, even as the placing of James as first indicates that he was the oldest of the four. Two grandchildren of Jude are mentioned by Eusebius in his church history and that they were leaders in the church who suffered martyrdom in the second century. Some years before then, they had been brought to court and asked about what they thought of Jesus. They replied that the kingdom of Jesus was heavenly and that he would return at the end of time to judge the world. There is also the possibility that a great-grandson of Jude was a leader in the church in Jerusalem.

The obvious comment that can be made about the brothers of Jesus is that a good example by itself does not convert sinners. These brothers had seen the flawless example of Jesus in the family home. For years, they had seen what he did and heard what he had said, yet they did not think that he was the Saviour. The example of Jesus does not seem to have impressed them.

Of course, it is very important to be a good example. Peter reminds his readers that they are to follow in the steps of Jesus. Paul tells the Philippians to imitate the example of humility that Jesus showed. Yet more is needed in order to bring a sinner to seek mercy. It is true that the Lord can use a good example as part of the process of how a person comes to faith. Yet we know that thousands of people witness good examples every day and don’t become Christians.

In addition to being a good example, we need to engage in other duties in order for conversions to happen. Prayer is necessary. I wonder how often Jesus prayed for his earthly family. The human mind of Jesus had to pray about relationships and daily activities. He would have prayed lovingly for them, yet he had to wait for many years before they showed a spiritual interest in him.

If God had decreed that the human prayers of Jesus would bring about the instant salvation of his brothers, then that would have happened. Instead, the plan of God is for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of sinners and reveal to them who Jesus is. This was as necessary in the home of Jesus as anywhere else.

Nevertheless, there is something of great comfort here for Christians who have prayed for loved ones for a long time, and the comfort is that Jesus knows what such a situation is like. Although he is now highly exalted, he remembers what life was like for him down here. He is able to sympathise intelligently and experiencially. And that is very good to know.

This does not mean that the brothers were not responsible to respond correctly to the good example of Jesus. They should have followed his example. Of course, there were differences between him and any other godly person they knew. They lived with a brother who never sinned throughout all the years he had been in the family home. We live with family members who are sinful and we see their faults.  Yet inasmuch as do what is right we should follow their example. That is our responsibility.

The church life of Jesus

Matthew tells us that on this occasion Jesus taught those who attended the synagogue. Synagogues are like churches in the sense that people gathered there to worship God in their community. They would pray, someone would read from the Old Testament and someone would explain a passage. On a previous visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read the passage for that Sabbath and then told the people that it was fulfilled in his ministry.

In that previous passage, we are told that it was the custom of Jesus to do that, which means that he was a regular teacher/preacher in the weekly gatherings. We do not know how often he had been engaged in this role but perhaps he had been doing so for about a decade. How many sermons would he have preached there during that time? Yet we can see that the audience had not received any spiritual benefit from listening to the greatest preacher who ever declared God’s message. The sermons were perfect, yet more was needed. The power of the Spirit is required in order for a sermon to be blessed.

The obvious lesson is that a great preacher cannot get success merely by his preaching. Sometimes churches think that if they could only get such a person as their preacher their church will grow. He may attract Christians, but what about those who are spiritually dead? They need to hear the message, but hearing the message is not enough. 

Imagine being in a synagogue of which Jesus was a member, or even attending on a visit. I wonder what changes in behaviour others present would have put on in case he said something about them. Did they pretend to be devout because he was there? Or did his manner and method of worship annoy them? Whatever the answers to those questions, it is the case that the mere act of watching him in worship did not lead people to trust in him. This was the case even although none ever worshipped like he would have done.

The response of the congregation

Matthew mentions three features of the response – astonished, offended and unbelief. They were astonished at his ability, but were offended by his message, and the root cause was unbelief. In one sense, those responses are not unique because we could imagine listeners being impressed by a politician’s speaking ability but opposed to his message because they did not believe in what he was advocating. Of course, there is a huge distance between Jesus and his message and a politician with his message.

Many a person has been impressed by oratory without having grace. Benjamin Franklin loved to hear George Whitefield preach, but he did not love the gospel that Whitefield preached. It obviously was not difficult for people to be impressed by the voice of the Saviour. On one occasion, those sent to arrest Jesus by the authorities returned confessing ‘that never man spoke like this man’. But they were not converted by what they heard.

The factor that made the response of his hearers serious was that they ignored the evidence of his miracles that pointed to him being the Messiah. During his message on the previous occasion he had told them that the Holy Spirit was upon him in order to do the work of the Messiah and Jesus had been engaged in that ministry for over a year. They refused to believe in him despite the evidence that was causing others to believe in him.

Most people who refuse to believe in Jesus do so despite the evidence that has been shown to them. They ignore the evidence of those who say that Jesus has changed them through his grace. They ignore the evidence of fulfilled prophecy, both with regard to what happened at his first coming and what has taken place in the worldwide growth of his kingdom. They ignore the evidence that comes from recognising the superiority of the teaching of Jesus over any other form of teaching. 

Jesus may have cited a proverb to explain the situation: ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his hometown and in his own household.’ Perhaps the townspeople took their lead from what his household – his brothers and sisters – were doing at that time. Why should the villagers believe in Jesus if his own family refused to do so? Jesus has used a shorter form of this possible proverb against them during his previous visit (Luke 4:24) and at least the repetition would remind them of their ongoing hostility.

The people of Nazareth could not accept that Jesus was sent by God. They did not know that this was the last time Jesus would visit them (it is also the last time he is said to be in a synagogue). Their blindness was caused by their prejudices, and prejudices are a frequent cause of spiritual blindness. They had made up their minds beforehand as to what kind of Saviour God would send, so when the real Saviour was with them they could not see who he truly was.


The act of judgement

Matthew says that Jesus ‘did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.’ Sometimes that statement is regarded as implying that somehow human faith enables Jesus to do something, which is a wrong deduction. Jesus does not need any help in performing a mighty work. Whose ‘faith’ helped him when he raised Lazarus from the dead? Rather he refused to do any further mighty works in Nazareth because the previous ones had not caused the people to accept he was the Messiah. In an act of judgement, he removed from them the evidences that indicated who he was. He never went back to Nazareth before he died. The day of their opportunity had passed and they had not profited from it.

Some lessons

The way to discover suitable lessons is to ask what the first disciples would have learned from this incident. The first one is that we should not be surprised if our witness is rejected because the best witness ever borne was rejected by those who heard and saw Jesus. Rejection is a common feature of the Christian life.

A second lesson is that we need more than our contribution in order to be effective in the lives of sinners. If the Holy Spirit does not come in power, nothing lasting will happen. This means that in addition to activity there must be earnest prayer for his presence and action.

A third lesson is to recall the sympathy of Jesus. Are you in a family in which some or all of its members dismiss Jesus and his mercy? Jesus understands your situation from experience. Have you been to a church service in which the intentions of the gospel have been ignored and instead people argue about the merits of the preacher? Jesus understands.

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