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Nazareth Revisited



In seven days after the departure of the shepherds, the time arrived for the circumcision of the child; and circumcision was accordingly performed -- probably in Bethlehem, by some official of the local synagogue. Why should "Christ the Lord" be circumcised? Because he was the seed of Abraham and of David, according to the flesh (Rom. i. 3: Matt. i. 1). But why should that be a reason for circumcision? Because it had pleased God, in carrying out His purpose towards the house of Israel (not yet fully accomplished), to proceed by covenant, and to appoint circumcision as the sign of that covenant in all their generations (Gen. xvii. 10-14; Rom. iv. 11). Any descendant of Abraham neglecting circumcision was outside the covenant, as God told Abraham, and would be cut off from Jehovah's regard (Gen. xvii. 14). Jesus was a descendant of Abraham, and in a preeminent sense, "the seed" of Abraham (Gal. iii. 17), whose special mission it was to "confirm," or make sure the promises made unto the fathers (Rom. xv. 8). For circumcision to have been omitted in his case, therefore, would have been for the covenant to have been broken in its most essential application. But this failure was not possible; therefore the child Jesus was circumcised.

His name was published in connection with the ceremony according to the Hebrew custom. We are not told if it caused any surprise, as in the naming of John the Baptist. There was the same reason: "There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name." But probably Joseph and Mary's acquaintances would be all at Nazareth; and so the family strangeness of the name would not be known in Bethlehem to the few who would be present at the performance of the rite. The fact remains in all its power that the name was not derived from the family pedigree, and that Jesus "was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb." This fact is one of the many evidences of the divinity of Christ. The fact cannot be questioned, for it has been on record since the first century in writings of purity and truth, and is embedded in such surroundings as to be undetachable from the system of truth of which it forms a part. No other explanation of the name of Jesus can be given. Men may scoff and assert, but facts are not destroyed by that process. The concurrent agreement of the apostolic age cannot be disposed of. The very reason given for the bestowal of the name Jesus is sufficient to place it beyond the range of human invention; "for he shall save his people from their sins." It is not according to the habit of men to be governed by so large and so pure an idea. Human enterprise or inventiveness runs in the channel of human sympathies and passions; "the things that be of men" are visible in all their ways and thoughts. But here is a reason that relates alone to "the things that be of God," and is therefore self-evidently from a divine source.

It was not a new name in the sense of never having been used before: but it was new in Mary's circle, and in her use of it to name her son, it probably received for the first time its true application, of which previous uses were the typical adumbrations. For as the least informed may be aware, it is a Hebrew name in which the Creator's name is the leading ingredient -- Joshua or Yah-shua -- Jehovah shall save. Jehovah saved Israel by Joshua, the successor of Moses, and again by Joshua, who took a prominent part in the restoration from Babylon. But in these cases, the work was transitory, and performed indirectly. In the case of this newly-born child, the work was to be for ever in those for whom it should be effectual: and it was to be done in a direct manner by God himself, who was the Father of the child, and who made him what he was, and dwelt in him by the Spirit, working and speaking through him, as Jesus repeatedly testified afterwards, and as indeed was manifest from the nature of his words and works. It was most fitting, therefore, that he should be called Yah-shua or Jesus: also Emmanuel -- "God with us." He was, without much figure, "the Word made flesh" -- the wisdom and power and fiat of the Father become incorporate in a man of the house of David, that sin might be taken away, and the way opened for friendship, love and life for evermore.

In a little over a month after the circumcision, the time came to present the circumcised child to the Lord, as the law enjoined. Thirty-three days were required to run for the mother's purification and recovery (Lev. xii. 3), after which, in the case of a first-born son, it was needful to discharge the claim the law had on him under Ex. xiii. 12: Num. xviii. 15. God slew the first-born of the Egyptians on the night of Israel's deliverance from Egypt, on which event he established a memorial claim for every male first-born of Israel, to be sacrificed to him afterwards, unless redeemed in the way appointed. This claim lay on Jesus at the very start of his life on earth: and from this (being "under the law" Gal. iv 4), he had to be redeemed like every first-born male child of Israel. There were two modes of redemption -- one for the well-to-do, and the other for the indigent (Lev. xii. 8). The first was by the sacrifice of a lamb; and if the mother was not able to bring a lamb, then she was to offer two turtles, or two young pigeons. From Luke ii. 24 it would seem that Mary offered the latter, from which we have an incidental clue to her position in life.

The distance from Bethlehem to Jerusalem would be seven or eight miles -- a distance not inconvenient for Mary, after the lapse of 40 days. The path lay through the beautiful mountainous district lying to the south of Jerusalem. On the back of a mule or ass, accompanied by Joseph, she would perform the journey with her first-born son, all undistinguishable in appearance from other first-borns, which might arrive at Jerusalem at the same time for the same purpose. How great the difference really was, Mary knew, though it is probable her very familiarity with the child in all her motherly offices would prevent her from having a very distinct sense of the difference. Arrived at the temple, she presents her offspring to the officiating priest, with the "two turtles or two young pigeons" (either brought with her from Bethlehem, or, which was more likely, purchased at those "seats of them that sold doves," which were afterwards so unceremoniously overturned by her babe grown to manhood). To the priest, it was an ordinary child, and he probably went through the ordinary routine with the indifference natural to official repetition. But it was not so with all. "There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon," to whom it had been revealed "that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (Luke ii. 25). This man was no carping theorist or idle lounger. He was "just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel." To such only does God draw near in loving and revealing confidence. "The Holy Spirit was upon him," and on the particular day when Mary arrived at the Temple with her little charge, the Spirit had drawn him to the same place, with the intimation that one of the children to be presented that day was he upon whom the hopes of just and devout Israelites had been for ages fixed. We can understand with what interest Simeon would take up his position and watch the mothers who came to present their little ones; and when Mary, accompanied by Joseph, stepped forward with her child "to do for him after the custom of the law," the Spirit, making known to Simeon who she was, the old man, with what must have been a cordial and emphatic movement, took up the child in his arms, to the surprise of all parties, perhaps, and said: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel."

It cannot but appear most fitting that such an incident should attend the official presentation of the newly-born Messiah to the Lord. It was a new testimony from God to the divinity of Jesus -- one of a series of testimonies divinely delivered at every well-marked stage of his introduction -- first, at the conception: then a few months further on when Joseph was distressed: then at birth: now at the presentation: afterwards at other seasons. The reason for such a testimony will be apprehended when we realise that a foundation was being laid for faith in the most important transaction that had ever taken place among men. There was no aim to impart the kind of eclat that is associated in the popular mind with prodigies and wonders. There is a total absence of omens and auguries: no comets, swinging open of doors, or unnatural occurrences. But the divine attestation, was a necessity for the object in view, and this attestation was given at every stage, and in chaste and suitable form -- in this case, by the movement of the Spirit in an old man of the divinely approved type, whose utterances, though devoid of power to impress bye-standers at the time, helped, at a suitable moment, to complete the divine endorsement of the work being done.

Not only Simeon, but Anna "a prophetess," "of a great age," was used for the same purpose. "She, coming in that instant," gave thanks likewise to the Lord, and spake of him (the newly presented infant) to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. Joseph and Mary "marvelled at those things that were spoken." They knew that the babe was "Christ, the Lord;" but they evidently had not the large views opened out in the prophetic utterances of Simeon and Anna. There was an element in Simeon's words addressed to Mary that would perplex and trouble them in the mere rudimentary knowledge they had: "This child is set for the fall and the rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be spoken against (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also)." The expectations associated with the appearance of the Messiah were those of blessing and prosperity only. It must consequently have appeared a curious darkening in the midst of light to speak of Israel "falling," and of gain-saying against the new born Messiah, and a sword piercing his mother's soul. Events soon showed the meaning of these painful prophetic allusions: but for the moment they must have been of difficult significance to Joseph and Mary, and must have increased the obscurity inevitable to their partial comprehension of the transaction in which they were being instrumentally employed.

It is by no means beside the point to note how signally the prophetic foreshadowings of Simeon have been realised. It must have appeared in the highest degree improbable that the helpless carpenter's babe which he held in his arms would affect public events in the land of Israel: or that such a child could ever have any relation to the Gentile world as a "light." Looking back, we see how entirely the natural improbability has become historical fact. Though the world sits in darkness, we are eye-witnesses to the fact that the brightest name in Gentile estimation is the name of Jesus, and that what little alleviation of natural barbarism the nations experience in these civilized times, is traceable to him whose infant form Simeon upheld. We refer to this fulfilment of his words rather than to the "fall" of many in Israel that followed Israel's rejection of him; or to the cruel sword which his crucifixion plunged in Mary's heart, because the reader might feel that these events were too near the time of the prophecy for him to feel quite sure that the fulfilment came after the prophecy. There can be no such reservation on the subject of enlightening the Gentiles (though we have not yet reached the full enlightenment contemplated). Simeon's prophecy has been on record for over 1,850 years; and the ascendancy and light-giving power of the name of Jesus is a fact before our eyes at the present moment. Whence this wonderful fulfilment of the word of Simeon? The narrative says: -- "The Holy Spirit was upon him." This is a complete explanation, and contains within it a guarantee of the divine reality of all the rest. The result of any attempts to explain it on any other principle can only show by their weakness the truth of Luke's explanation alone.

Joseph and Mary, having "performed all things according to the law of the Lord," "returned into Galilee to their own city Nazareth." So Luke informs us. Matthew seems to say they went to Egypt (ii. 14). Whence this apparent inconsistency? It evidently arises from Matthew omitting notice of the matters recorded by Luke, and speaking of a later occurrence. That it is a later occurrence of which he speaks is manifest from a comparison of the leading features of the two accounts. In the case of Luke, all that is recorded happened within the first six weeks of the Lord's life. In the case of Matthew, the period was sufficiently extended to make Herod go as high as two years for the maximum age of the children to be slain ("two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men," Matt. ii. 16). The details require a considerably extended period. It was "when Jesus was born in Bethlehem" that wise men came from the east. Their journey must have taken some time. They did not start till they had seen the star, and the appearance of the star coincided with the birth of Jesus, as would appear from Matt. ii. 7. They enquired on their arrival at Jerusalem, "where is he that is born King of the Jews?" Their enquiry troubled all Jerusalem. This must have been a work of time; so must the summoning of the "chief priests and scribes" by Herod, to ascertain from them the locality of the birth of Christ according to the prophets; and the departure of the wise men to find the child. All these things could not have come into the six weeks elapsing from the Lord's birth to his presentation in the temple. Therefore, they must have transpired afterwards. If it be asked, how could that be, seeing that the wise men found the child in Bethlehem when, according to Luke, it had been conveyed to Nazareth, there are two suggestions, either of which may yield the answer. Either of them would allow a place for Matthew's incidents in the narrative of Luke, viz: either in Luke ii. 39, or between 39 and 40. The first is, that when Luke said "When they had performed all things according to the law," he only meant "after" they had "performed all things, &c.," without intending to indicate how soon after, and that, in fact they stayed a while, during which they received the visit of the wise men, and then went to Egypt, and then to Nazareth. On this supposition, Luke simply leaves the Egyptian episode out of the record, as having been already fully narrated by Matthew, with whose Gospel he would be acquainted before he began to write his own; giving prominence rather to details of which Matthew says nothing. The room for it, on this view, would he in Luke's word "returned" in verse 39: they "returned" (via Egypt) on their journey to which, he deemed it superfluous to say anything.

The other suggestion is that if Luke meant that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth immediately after the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, then they must have returned to Bethlehem sometime afterwards (possibly to complete the business of the family enrolment.) There is no record of a second visit having been made; but Matt. ii. is evidence of it, if they departed to Nazareth when Jesus was six weeks old; because it shows them in Bethlehem when he must have been an infant of months "according to the time which Herod had diligently enquired of the wise men." One or other of these hypotheses is necessitated: either Joseph and Mary did not return to Nazareth immediately, or they came back from Nazareth to Bethlehem after having returned. A class of critics suggest a third, viz.: that Matthew's account is an interpolated myth. But this is inadmissible every way. The mere existence of apparent difficulty does not justify it; and as for the omission of these chapters from certain early manuscripts, the circumstance is of no weight, seeing the omission was challenged as a corruption at the time of its appearance (see comments on the Ebionite and Hebrew gospels by Epiphanius and Origen in the third century). The manuscripts in which these omissions occur differ in other features from the received gospel of Matthew, and contradict Mark, Luke, and John in details with which the received gospel of Matthew agrees. If they are of no authority in the other features, they are of no authority as to the first two chapters of Matthew. The received gospel of Matthew is founded on the concurrent evidence of a great number of ancient MSS. and versions (translations) supported by quotations made by the very earliest Christian writers, as well as by the internal evidence of the chapters themselves, against which no earnest man could place one or two manuscripts which were pronounced mutilations at the time they appeared, and which bear internal evidence of interference on the part of those who compiled them for their own purposes. Those who compiled them rejected parts which they could not receive. for no other reason than their inability to reconcile them with their ideas of things. Consequently, to make the omissions in their documents a reason for omitting from ours would simply be to adopt their arbitrary prejudices against the weight of evidence. The only admissible course is to accept Matthew as much as Luke, and find a place for both in the mutual adjustment of the circumstances they narrate.

On this principle, we have to note the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem, while Joseph and Mary remained for a short time in Bethlehem after the presentation in the Temple, or during their second temporary residence there, no longer in "the inn," but in a "house" (Matt. ii. 11). Who these wise men or magi were need not be a subject of any concern. They may have been Israelites belonging to the deported ten tribes who were taken eastward; or they may have been Chaldean students, with a smattering knowledge of the prophets, and the hope of Israel growing out of them. In either case, they stood related to the truth. It may seem strange that a star should be mixed up with their enquiries after Christ. It looks as if they had been astrologers, but it may not have been so. The star they saw was evidently not of the ordinary heavenly bodies. It was neither a "fixed star," a planet, nor a meteor. Its motion was local and slow and steady, and subject to an intelligent guidance, which caused it to "stand over where the young child was." This was a phenomenon entirely outside ordinary astrological occurrences. The idea that the star they saw was an appearance caused by the brilliant conjunction of leading planets at their perihelia, cannot be maintained if we are to accept Matthew's account (as to which we hold there can be no true question.) An appearance so caused would not travel before the eastern visitors and locate itself over a particular house. The suggestion is particularly to be objected to on account of the implication associated with it, viz., that an unusual natural appearance was misinterpreted and exaggerated by the writer of Matthew, and applied in a legendary manner to the events connected with the birth of Christ. There may have been a conjunction of leading planets about the same time. It would seem from an astronomical calculation that there was: but to call this "the star of Bethlehem" is to beg the question. There is no reason why we should not take the narrative just as it stands. Its unusual or miraculous character need be no obstacle. The whole situation of which it forms a part was miraculous. The birth of Christ by a virgin -- the introduction of Emmanuel upon the scene -- the announcement thereof by an angel and its celebration by a multitude of the heavenly host -- the activity of the spirit of prophecy in Mary, Zacharias, Elizabeth, Simeon, &c. -- surely all was miraculous: and why not a miraculous star, if to divine wisdom it seemed necessary or suitable? A cloud, which at night turned to radiance, went before Moses and the children of Israel when they came out of Egypt: why not a star in connection with the work of the prophet like unto Moses? There is nothing to be said against it except that it is strange and unusual, and apparently superfluous: but there is no weight in this against the testimony of Matthew whom the spirit guided into all truth, as Jesus promised.

These "wise men from the east" were evidently God-fearing men on the watch for the Messiah, whom many beside them in that age were expecting to appear, on the strength of Dan. ix. And this travelling star appears to have been given them as a sign. Even if it could be proved they were astrologers, this would not dispose of the attested fact that in this matter of looking for the promise, God had regard to them and communicated with them at a time when angelic communications on the subject were rife. Balaam was a soothsayer, and yet was the subject of true revelation on a certain occasion when appropriate use could be made of him. So the witch of Endor was used to make known the truth of Saul's doom. There would have been nothing more incongruous in God employing a company of the kind of men that were popularly supposed to be learned in occult things, in garnishing the situation that witnessed the birth of his beloved Son.

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