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Nazareth Revisited


From Jacob's Well to Capernaum, via Cana and Nazareth.

Bidding farewell to the Samaritans of Sychem, Jesus, resuming his journey, passes from the shadow of Mount Gerizim, into the open hill-environed country to the north of that mount, traversing which, with his (at this time) very small band of disciples, he enters the gorge at the southeastern extremity of the Carmel range, and emerges upon the plain of Esdraelon, and shortly afterwards enters Galilee. He and his little company of fellow-travellers would be seen by many an indifferent eye as they moved along the dusty toilsome road northwards. Little would the casual on-looker in field and vineyard suspect the greatness of the ordinary-looking band of men that for a moment was visible on the road, and then disappeared as other passers-by. There would be nothing in their outward mien to distinguish them from the ordinary Jewish foot passengers, who traversed the land in great numbers, about the time of the feasts, to and from the Holy City. Jesus had to be seen in the act of teaching before the difference between him and other men was apparent. And even then, at this stage of his work, he would but appear as an unusually grave, dignified, and earnest Jew. It required subsequent events to manifest the true greatness of him in whom at first Israel saw no beauty that they should desire him.

Arrived in Galilee, Jesus made straight for Cana, where he had wrought his first miracle. He had not been long there when the news got abroad that he had returned from Jerusalem. The news reached Capernaum, where the son of an eminent citizen, styled "a nobleman," and said to be one of Herod's officers, lay at the point of death. This man, hearing of it, went to Cana where Jesus was, to ask Jesus to come and heal his son. Why should he suppose Jesus could do this? He must have heard of the miracles of healing he had performed at Jerusalem. He had probably made the acquaintance of Jesus during his first visit to Capernaum already referred to, and acquired some idea of who he was. He would doubtless be aware of John's ministry, on which he would probably be an attendant; and would not be ignorant of the testimony borne to Jesus as the Messiah. For some or all of these reasons, he had confidence in Christ's ability to disperse the shadow that lay on his house; for his son "was at the point of death." He "besought Jesus that he would come down and heal his son." But Jesus did not meet the nobleman's request with the ready and sympathetic compliance he showed on other occasions. He rather held the man off with something of a chiding manner. "Except," said he, "ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." There must have been a reason for this. Probably the nobleman's importunity was too much of the self-interested order, like the push of a crowd for some advantage. Possibly, also, there was an unacceptable element of challenge in it, as much as to say to Jesus that if he were the Messiah, he was bound to do this. Likely also, with many others, he showed more interest in the signs than in the thing indicated by them. So Jesus uttered a reproof which, however, did not check the natural ardour of the man. "Sir, come down ere my child die." He expected Jesus would have to go down to Capernaum. It was literally a going down, for Capernaum lay on the margin of the sea of Galilee in the Jordan valley, while Cana was among the hills to the west. Perhaps Jesus would have gone down (as he did in other cases) had the man's attitude been such as to command his entire approval, but he did not do so. He granted his request without going. His power was greater than the nobleman knew. "Go thy way; thy son liveth." The nobleman's faith in Christ was strong enough to place the most implicit faith in this brief word. He started at once for home, twenty miles off. His mind being at rest, he probably rested for the night at one of the wayside inns; for it was next day when he reached the neighbourhood of Capernaum. He was met outside the town by his servants with the good but not surprising news that his son was all right. He asked them when the improvement began. They told him the hour -- "Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him." The father recognised this as the very hour at which Jesus spoke the words of healing, "and himself believed with his whole house." How could it be otherwise?

Was ever such power seen on earth before ? It was power superhuman that turned water into wine on the spot at Cana, and that cured the sick people brought to his presence at Jerusalem, of which the Galilean people had been witnesses (Jno. iv. 45); but here was healing performed at a distance of 20 miles with the rapidity of lightning -- simply by the utterance of a word. Peter afterwards spoke of "miracles and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know" (Acts ii. 22). This is the all-sufficient and only explanation of the marvel. God alone has command of the universal, invisible, inscrutable energy of creation, in which all things subsist, out of which they have been made by His contriving power and commanding word. To Him distance and locality are no impediment. The impulse of His will is equal to the instantaneous accomplishment of anything, anywhere. He places His power at the disposal of His servants when His work and wisdom require -- sometimes angels -- sometimes men. To manifest His existence and power to Israel and the Egyptians, He placed His power in the angel that appeared to Moses, who exercised it at the prayer and signal of Moses by appointment. To establish Jesus as His Name-bearer in the midst of Israel, He placed His power in him by His presence. Jesus, as the Son of David, did not the works, as he said, "The Father that dwelleth in me, He doeth the works." It was needful that the works he did should be such as should truly bear witness of him -- that is, that they should be works beyond the range of human accomplishment. For had they been such as man, by any contrivance, could do, they would not have constituted the proof that was necessary; the way would have been open for men to think that perhaps Jesus did them as a man of contrivance, and that, therefore, God was not with him. It was needful that the foundation of faith in him, as the Saviour, should be laid in a manner admitting of no doubt. It was, therefore, necessary that he should do works beyond all human possibility. It is his doing of such works that leaves men no excuse for not believing in him. Jesus would have no fault to find with men for not believing in him if he had only done ordinary things. This is what he said: "If I had not done among them works which none other man did, they had not had sin" (Jno. xv. 24). That he did such works will be realised by all who give attention to them. There have been manypretenders of one kind or another; and they have done wonderful things in their way: healing, and demon-out-casting, and sign-working of a certain sort, Jesus admitted to be on the list of their accomplishments (Mark xiii. 22; Matt. xii. 27). But which of their achievements will compare with those of Jesus and his apostles, who with a word could even raise the dead at any distance?

After remaining a short time at Cana, Jesus makes what would appear to be a farewell visit to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and where he was well known to all the townspeople, only as such could know him -- that is superficially, as a person with whose face and figure they were familiar, whose family and affairs they knew, but whose inner man they could no more know or fathom than they could plumb the dizzy depths of the universe. As the proclamation of the gospel was afterwards by his orders to "begin at Jerusalem," so his own part in the work was to "begin at Nazareth." "As his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read." There was a good attendance. It was no strange or striking thing for them to see Jesus rise to read. They were to hear strange and striking things before they dispersed. They had heard strange and striking rumours about him and his doings at Cana, Jerusalem, and Capernaum: but the effect was only to fill them with disgust and envy at his presumption. "They were offended at him." Their state of mind was indicated by the question, "Is not this Jesus, whose father and mother we know? and are not his sisters here with us?" True, O small-minded people of Nazareth, who have kindred in all the earth in every age. This was the Jesus of your acquaintance, but not of your knowledge: you did not and could not know him. You could know the colour of his eyes, the shape of his face, the contour of his person, the sound of his voice; but you could not enter into his mind or understand or sympathise with his loves and aims. You could but know the outside, and even this not accurately. His father and mother you knew: yet his father you did not know: for as Jesus afterwards said, 'Had ye known me, ye would have known my Father also.' Ye thought that he, Jesus, was the mere son of Joseph -- a mere Jew like yourselves: ye knew not that he was 'the Word made flesh,' the son of the everliving and only true God."

And so when he stood up to read in their synagogue, they were very little in a mood to receive what he had to say. People whose self-esteem is overshadowed and hurt are liable to be incapable of discerning greatness when it is before them. They were privileged to hear the Son of God read a portion from the prophet Isaiah; but it was no music in their ears to hear these words: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound: to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." He would read this with impressive deliberation and significant intonation, he read no more. He closed the book or roll, and handed it back to the officiating rabbi and sat down, -- with gravity and dignity. Doubtless all eyes were now upon him. His manner, coupled with the rumours that were afloat, accentuated their attention. What would he say or do next? He spoke. His words were brief, but not ambiguous. "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." There could be no mistaking the meaning of this. It was plainly to say "I am he to whom Isaiah refers." Most of the audience saw this, and were for the moment impressed with his words;but their prejudiced feelings soon began to get the upper hand. "Is not this Joseph's son?" As much as to say, how can a man who is Joseph's son, whom we know, be the Christ, whose origin when he comes no man will know? (for this was the tradition -- John vii. 27). A hum of sceptical conversation passed around. They began to suggest "surely he will shew us some miracles." Jesus anticipates and answers their line of thought. "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do here in thy country." Well, what had he to say to this apparently unanswerable challenge? Only this, that the gift of God is not for all, in this state of sin: that He doeth as it pleaseth Him: working all things after the counsel of His own will. But He does not put the fact in this naked form, which would have had no force with them. He does it by reference to the Scripture history in which they trusted: "Many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land. But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha, the prophet, and none of them was cleansed saving Naaman the Syrian" (Luke iv. 25-27). The inference arising from this citation was obvious enough to sting severely. A greater than Elijah or Elisha was before them, but it did not follow that the power of God which was with him would be put forth on their behalf. Israel's disobedience in the days of Elijah and Elisha had withheld from them the good that might have come: and the same cause might produce a like effect now.

Why did Jesus adopt this austere attitude towards them? We are told that, as a matter off act, Jesus "could do no mighty works there because of their unbelief" (Matt. xiii. 58); not that their unbelief disabled him for the performance of anything he might choose to do, but that their negative state put it out of the question that he should do works which he never performed except good was to be done by it. No good is to be done with some people; and this was the case with the inhabitants of Nazareth, who had been too familiar with Jesus from his infancy to admit of their estimating him truly. It was an illustration of a rule that is almost universal. As Jesus told them, "No prophet is accepted in his own country." The current mediocre mind is incapable of distinguishing between appearances and realities. The first, local and limited impressions take shape as the permanent truth of a thing or person, and from this they never can emancipate themselves, or open their minds to discern the true and actual worth of a man whom they have known from the beginning. On the other hand, this same class of mind, from a similar incompetence acting in another way, is easily impressed and even captivated by the pretensions of a stranger, who may be an empty wind-bag of pomposities, or plausibilities. Loud-sounding humbug is liable to succeed in this shallow world, especially if bedecked with the meretricious attractions of title and fame. On this principle, false Christs have succeeded where the true was crucified. The true Christ was modest, and glorified his Father; the false were arrogant and self-assertive. Hence the popularity of Barchochebas, where Jesus was hated. As Jesus said beforehand, "I am come in my Father's name, and ye receive me not. If another come in his own name, him ye will receive."

The words of Christ had the reverse of a soothing effect on the audience in the Nazareth synagogue. To soothe and please, you must put people on good terms with themselves; and to do this, you must flatter -- that is, say undeserved good things to or of them. This was what Jesus did not -- could not do. His words had an exasperating effect. The people, "when they heard these things were filled with wrath," and their wrath was not noisy harmless wrath -- noisy enough very likely, but not harmless. With the excitability and impetuosity of the Jews, "they rose up" en masse and laid hold of Jesus and turned him out of the building, and tumultously led him to the edge of the steep hill on which Nazareth was built, and which is to be seen, as travellers tell us, to this day. There their purpose was to throw him down headlong, and so destroy him; but they strangely failed in their purpose. When they reached the spot, their resolution or their skill forsook them. Jesus, releasing himself from their hands, simply made his way through them, and no man felt able or disposed to stop him. They opened the way for him, and he went his way down the upper slope of the hill in the direction of Capernaum, 20 miles off, to which he repaired. The fact is, he was under a protection which, though invisible, was invincible; and through that protection no man could break till permission was given. As it is written on another occasion, "His hour was not yet come;" and until that hour had come, he was under the shadow of Jehovah's hand, hid in which he was as safe in the midst of the threatening, surging multitude as in the solitude of the mountain top to which he of times resorted for prayer.

In Capernaum, to which he now removed, Jesus was no stranger, and here he spent quite a considerable time before departing on the extensive journey which he afterwards undertook. His plan was to get at the public ear of Capernaum through the synagogues. This was easy for him to do. The synagogues were open to all Jews, but especially to a Jew of whom such strange reports were in circulation, and of whom such high expectations were beginning to be entertained by many. The Jews assembled in the synagogues for reading and exhortation out of the law and the prophets every sabbath day, and Jesus availed himself of this opportunity, taking several synagogues by turn, sabbath by sabbath. Large audiences listened to him every sabbath. "They were astonished at his doctrine, for his word was with power" (Luke iv. 32). The sense in which "his word was with power" is explained by the statement of Matthew, that "he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." The scribes would be like our modern clergy -- the mechanical rehearsers of dead formulas, without the snap and ardour that come with intelligent conviction. Jesus taught with emphasis and fire -- quiet and grave, but with the animation and pointedness of tone and gesture that result from certainty and knowledge. He likewise taught with a simplicity that enabled him to say much in little, and to be easily understood. "The common people," we are told, "heard him gladly." They will never hear his like again till Christ send forth a host of similar teachers in the happy day of his kingdom. But it was his miracles that imparted the principal zest to what he had to say. The people never knew what he might do. At every little interval, some great work of power would be performed, and that, too, of a kind that conferred benefit on the subjects of it.

He had not been long in Capernaum, when, on a certain sabbath, in one of the synagogues in which he was discoursing, the quiet of the assembly was broken by the shout of a madman in the audience. "Let us alone," said he, under the excitement produced in a disordered mind by the impressive words of Christ: "What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us ? I know thee who thou art: the Holy one of God." We can imagine the momentary tumult that would be produced in the audience by this outburst. It was soon stopped by Christ. The man's madness is described as having been "a spirit of an unclean demon." To this the words of Christ were addressed as distinguished from the helpless sufferer from the dementing disorder: "Hold thy peace, and come out of him." On this the man leaped forward into the midst of the synagogue, and after a momentary paroxysm, in which the disordering spirit worked its way out of his organism, he was seen to be quite himself, cured of his madness. The people present were naturally amazed at such an exhibition of power. "What a word is this?" exclaimed they among themselves, "for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out."

The belief was almost universal in the days of Jesus, that mental malady of every kind was due to the presence of a demon, which had taken up its abode in the man, perverting his faculties. What a demon was, according to this belief, is only to be learnt from the writings of the Pagans (Greek and Roman), but even these do not give us any clear conception, beyond this, that demons were invisible, intelligent, immaterial beings, inhabiting the air, and fulfilling a sort of mediatorial function between the gods and men -- working in the latter the will of the former -- for good or evil, but mostly evil. Of their origin, they have nothing beyond the suggestion that many of them were once men. The whole conception is, of course, a thoroughly heathenish one, and foreign to the scheme of things exhibited in Moses and the prophets. Jesus took no pains to confute the idea. His mission was to show the power of God, and not to demolish heathen theories of human woes. He took things as he found them, and spoke of popular things in the popular style without committing himself to popular views. Beelzebub was the prince of the demons, according to popular thought, and by league with him, it was supposed Jesus exorcised the demonised. But there was no Beelzebub in reality. He was one of the imaginary gods of the Philistines. Yet Jesus argued as if Beelzebub were a reality, saying: -- "If I by Beelzebub cast out demons, by whom do your children cast them out?" So in the curing of madness in its various forms, he spoke as the people spoke, without meaning to endorse their foolish thought. In a sense, he could do so without impropriety. When a man is in a state of lunacy, there is literally an unclean spirit in him -- that is, a diseased electric virus, the extraction of which restores him to soundness. It applies to other things besides madness. In various kinds of diseases, an evil spirit or influence exists, and can be taken out and transferred from one to another. Cure by mesmeric application has made us familiar with this. I remember curing a person of an acute rheumatic pain which lodged itself in me the moment the person lost it, and remained with me several days. Jesus brought all kinds of unclean spirits out of people by a word. He could, therefore, use the language of the time, as in a rough way expressing a fact, without, however, meaning to sanction the heathenish idea in which it had its origin. In all cases, the afflicted were the speakers of the things imputed to the demons. It is a diseased man that is before us. The incidents and the utterances are all within the boundary line of a medical explanation. The one or two cases that may seem an exception to this we shall have under our notice as we proceed. In the case before us, a madman is in the audience. Madmen were to be met with frequently in those days -- not that madmen were more numerous than now, but that no system had been adopted of collecting and having them in asylums. They would be under private restraint here and there, but mild cases would be allowed at large, and easily might a harmless lunatic obtain admission to a synagogue where Christ was to be heard. Christ's preaching had a powerful effect upon his weak and deranged intellect; but the principal part of this effect would be due to the prevalent excitement caused by the report circulated everywhere that the Messiah had appeared. Of this excitement, a weak-minded man would have more than his share. The Messiah's appearance, it was well known would not be an unmixed blessing. John the Baptist had declared that "his fan was in his hand and that he would thoroughly purge his floor, and burn up the chaff with fire unquenchable." There would, therefore, be a strong ingredient of apprehension in the public anticipation that existed. A sense as of impending judgment would rest on many. This explains the madman's ejaculations. He went with many others to hear one who was said to be the Messiah. He listened to him in a crowded and heated synagogue. He instinctively felt as he listened to one who "spake as one having authority," that this was indeed the Christ. His fear grew to excitement. His ungovernable feelings boiled over. It was the natural language of such a state of mind for him, speaking as one of the audience, to say, "Leave us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art; the Holy One of God."

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