It is actually a misnomer to refer to Matt 2:23 as a fulfillment quotation because it is not a quotation at all. Let’s refresh our memories with the context.
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, "Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.
23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He shall be called a Nazarene." (Mat 2:19-23)
Don’t let the quotation marks at the end of the passage fool you. Unlike the other quotations in chs1-2, this sentence is not a quotation from the Old Testament. You can search high and low from Genesis 1 to Malachi 4, but you will not find “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
That would seem to present a problem. Matthew clearly claims that Joseph's taking Jesus to live in Nazareth was a fulfillment of something spoken by the prophets. And yet, not only is this sentence not found in the prophetic books of the Old Testament, neither is it in the Pentateuch, Historical, or poetic books of the Old Testament. Consequently, this text is one of the most precious pets of the skeptics out there. So should we, as biblical inerrantists, be embarrassed by this text? Should we concede that, yes, there appears to be an error in the Bible?
Certainly not. If we were to read through the entire text of Matthew, noting all of the fulfillment quotations in the book, we would find that this is the only instance in which Matthew introduces a fulfillment as having been spoken by the prophets (plural) rather than the prophet (singular). This indicates that Matthew was well aware that he was not directly quoting one Old Testament text, but was rather relating a theme running through multiple Old Testament texts.
So what is that theme? Matthew was writing to 1st century Jews, so to understand the statement we need to discover what it would have meant to that original audience. The keyword in the sentence is “Nazarene.” We know from John’s gospel that Galilee in general and Nazareth in particular were regarded as despised locales. One of the arguments cited by the Jewish opposition that Jesus could not be the Christ was the fact that He was from Galilee (John 7:41, 52). Likewise, Jesus’ hometown was reason enough for Nathanael to be skeptical regarding Philip’s claim to have found the Messiah. Upon hearing that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathanael asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
So being from Nazareth in the 1st century was sure to draw the scorn of that small town. “Nazarene” was a label of contempt. Matthew intends to indicate that this young king would be despised.
But is it appropriate to say that this theme that the Messiah would be detested is found in multiple places in the Old Testament? Absolutely. Psalm 22, widely regarded as a Messianic psalm, includes, But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; "He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!" (Psa 22:6-8 ESV). The last part of this section is found almost verbatim in Matthew 27:43, being hurled at Jesus on the cross by the chief priests, scribes, and elders. The psalmist tells us that the Messiah would be regarded as a worm.
Daniel 9:26 predicts that the Messiah would be cut off and have nothing. Isaiah 49:7 refers to the Messiah as “the despised One” and “the One abhorred by the nation.” But the Old Testament passage that provides the clearest picture of a detested Messiah is Isaiah 53: For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:2-4).
So Matthew was communicating an Old Testament Messianic theme in summary form using language that his audience would unmistakably understand. And this fits well with what the gospel writer had already set about to do. He was continuing to portray Christ as a different kind of king. Remember that in ch1, Matthew indicated through the genealogy and the angel’s announcement (“He will save his people from their sins”) that this king was not what the Jews were expecting. They wanted a political and military ruler who would set them free from their Roman oppressors. Instead, He would free them from their own wickedness and the just wrath of God. Here in ch2, Matthew continues that theme by demonstrating that while the Jews were looking for a king that would be adored by the masses, they received One who would be hated by all but a few.
Why did it have to happen that way? He was hated because of the kind of Savior He was. He came to save their people from their sins. The very existence of a Savior like that is offensive to the sinful human heart. That man has sinned is offensive to his prideful desire to be his own standard. That he needs a Savior offends his sense of self-sufficiency and his resistance to be held accountable for his evil actions. It was inevitable that Christ would be hated.
But it was that human hatred that would provide the mechanism for Him to be wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastised for our peace, and scourged for our healing (Isaiah 53:5). So I think this last fulfillment quotation completes the subtle message communicated by the other such fulfillments in ch2. Christ would fulfill all righteousness as Israel could not; He would bring a New Covenant reconciling His people to the Father; and He would do so by enduring the wrath of God through the hatred of men.
May the Lord be praised for this unfathomable gospel, and may we continue to grow in affection for and devotion to the despised Nazarene.
Posted by Greg Birdwell