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The Hidden Meaning of "What Good Can Come From Nazareth?"

Have you ever wondered about Nathanael's strange remark in the Gospel of John? When told about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael responded "What good can come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46) Since there are no throw-away phrases in the Gospels, especially in John's Gospel, what could this mean? 

Was it just that Nazareth was a rural, backwater sort of place? No, there's much, much more. 

In the very last verse of his Gospel, John wrote this: "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). 

If this is true, we know John wouldn't just waste space with a useless line. So what gives? What insight does this give us into the mysteries of Christ? Stay tuned! This seemingly inconsequential phrase is actually the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy.

First off, let's dig into this mysterious passage from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (in red): 

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Beth-sa′ida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathan′a-el, and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 

Who is "Him of whom Moses" and the prophets wrote? Moses wrote at Deuteronomy 18:15 that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren—him you shall heed." Interesting side note: what was the name of the leader of the Israelites who immediately followed Moses? Joshua. Guess what the name Joshua translates to in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke! "Joshua" translated to Yeshua or "Jesus." More on this a bit later ...

This "prophet like unto Moses" is what Philip is referencing (more on what the Prophets wrote in a minute). So Philip is announcing the arrival of the long-prophesied, long-awaited New Moses, the Messiah, who will lead a New Exodus to a New Promised Land via a New Passover ... but Nathanael doesn't seem too excited:

Nathan′a-el said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathan′a-el coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” Nathan′a-el said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathan′a-el answered him ... (1:43-49 RSV-CE)

"You mean you were spying on me? That's sorta creepy!" No ... that's not what Nathanael said. Pay attention when Scripture zags when it seems like it should zig. Something important is always about to happen. This is how Nathanael actually answers Jesus: 

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”(1:49-51 RSV-CE)

Whoa, Nathanael! That's a big flip-flop, isn't it? We know, as Nathanael exclaims, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of David and the "Son of God", the "King of Israel" and the "King of Kings," whose coming was prophesied by IsaiahJeremiahZechariah, and every prophet worth his salt -- but where did Nathanael suddenly come up with all that? What caused Nathanael's turnaround on Jesus? How did Nathanael go from poking fun at Nazareth to announcing the arrival of the Messiah? 

The Prophesy of the Righteous Branch

To get to the answer, here is one of the many times the great prophet, Jeremiah, announced the coming of the Messiah:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’" Jeremiah 23:5-6 

Jesus would be the son of David, i.e. a descendant of David, according to the flesh, according to Romans 1:3. This is why we are given the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of Mathew’s Gospel. But what of this “righteous Branch”? 

The great prophet, Isaiah, also had something to say about this “branch”, cf. Isaiah 11:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 

The “stump of Jesse”? What is that and who is Jesse? Jesse is David’s father. The tree that grew from Jesse was David and the lines of kings which succeeded him. When the line of kings was broken, the tree was cut down, leaving only a stump. A "shoot" springing forth from the "stump of Jesse" is the New David, the Messiah, who will restore Israel. Make sense?

So what does this have to do with what good, bad, or ugly comes out of Nazareth? Here's one last oracle from the Prophets. This time, we read from Zechariah

Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men of good omen: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. For behold, upon the stone which I have set before Joshua, upon a single stone with seven facets, I will engrave its inscription, says the Lord of hosts, and I will remove the guile of this land in a single day. In that day, says the Lord of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor under his vine and under his fig tree.” (Zech 3:8-10)

What?! Did you just hear that thunderclap? Remember "Joshua" from above? Remember "guile" from the Gospel passage? Does "under the fig tree" sound familiar? Nathanael, too, probably heard that same thunderclap when, at last, he understood Jesus' words, and that he, Nathanael, was now living the fulfillment of Zechariah's oracle. 

But there's still MORE ... What about this Branch we keep hearing about? How does that fit in with Nathanael and "What good can come from Nazareth?"

What, Not Where, is Nazareth?

This brings us to the best part. How does the nowhere town of Nazareth fit in to all this? The town of Nazareth is only a couple centuries old at the time of Christ. It's too far from Jerusalem, far removed from the center of action. It's too new to have been mentioned by the Prophets, much less Moses. Or is it?

What are we to make of the following verse from the Gospel of Matthew? "And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He shall be called a Nazarene.'" 

What? When did the Prophets ever mention "Nazareth"? The town came into existence long after the deaths of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah. In fact, there is no such prophesy anywhere in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be called a "Nazarene." 

... Or is there? What if the Prophets have been talking about "Nazareth" all along? 

The question is what does "Nazareth" mean in Hebrew? Better yet, what is the word for BRANCH in Hebrew? The answer is the same! The Hebrew word for "branch" is netzer, which is spelled NZR, same as "Nazareth." "Nazareth" means "branch" in Hebrew! Jesus shall be called the "Righteous Branch" - "He shall be called a Nazarene." 

This realization, along with the significance of sitting "under the fig tree", is what came flooding over Nathanael when he began speaking with Jesus. This is why Nathanael responded with the exclamation, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus is the Branch, the Netzer, shooting up from the Stump of Jesse. He is the New David, the New King of the New Kingdom of the New Israel.

Can you imagine how foolish Nathanael must have felt later, when he remembered saying to Philip "What good can come from Nazareth?" Can you imagine the facepalm? He had unwittingly made a great pun, but the joke was on him. I'm sure Philip must have reminded his friend of it many, many times. That's probably why it became part of the Gospel! 

If you enjoyed this article, you will love Dr. Scott Hahn's 6-part Bible study on the Gospel of John. It's available for free at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Also, here are some more great resources that draw out this and other amazing links in Scripture: 

Please remember to share this article and comment below. To help with the comments, but also to help those of you who are using these posts as a Bible study, I've provided some Discussion Questions below: 

Discussion Questions

1. Has God ever taught you a lesson in the manner of Nathanael? Have you ever been the butt of your own joke? 

2. Has God ever invited you into a deeper knowledge of Scripture with a puzzling phrase or passage like "What good can come from Nazareth"? What other passage first appeared to you as puzzling and then became the key to a much greater understanding? 

3. St. Augustine said that the "The New Testament lies hidden in the Old Testament, and the Old is unveiled in the New." How do you find this to be true in the above passage from the Gospel of John? 

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  1. I saw "Whoa" and zig zag and was in!
    A kindred in this kingdom family of benefactors to His preposterous grace, Kate

  2. Thanks, Kate T! Haha, yeah, I guess it reads a bit like a Batman comic, lol!

  3. Today i was like eeeh...okey...its just showz you how powerful God and gives more enlightment as isaiah 46:9-10.He makes the end in the beginning and beginning after the you

    1. Thanks for your comment! It's important that Christians can point to these supernatural prophecies and their equally-powerful fulfillments.

  4. Thank You sir! I am just wonder stuck! Its a beautiful commentary. Thank you and God Bless you.

  5. This Article still does not answer the reason why nothing good was considered to particularly come out of Nazareth. However, it is very enlightening in many aspects. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out! I was supposed to have said something about Nazareth being considered a "backwater".

    2. I just made a little edit at the beginning about Nazareth. Maybe that will help.

  6. Brother Scott can you expound on backwater, it seems like Nazareth was the ghetto and Nathaniel thought how can anything good come out of a God forsaken place, if this be the case I can be encouraged because my mom was an orphan and I am a bastard yet God seen fit to deliver and present us Holy

    1. Hey, brother! Thanks for your comment! Sure, but even more than Nazareth's remoteness or perceived backwardness, Jesus' own bloodline included Rahab, the prostitute, so for sure, God can make all of us holy. Does that help?

  7. This is too awesome! Wonderful insights! enjoyed thoroughly .

  8. Thank you for this! I was led here by reading Acts 2, where the multitudes were amazed that those speaking to them in their own languages were from Galilee.

    1. You're welcome, Craig! Thanks for leaving your note.

  9. Brilliant---but one question. "No guile": could and should this not refer to Jesus, not Nathaniel? I have always tended to this belief- but your article seems to strengthen that possibility.

  10. Scott, thank you for fleshing out the scriptures and connecting the dots. Reading John A Beck's "The Basic Bible Atlas" and appreciated the way you fit right into his narrative.

  11. Replies
    1. I am amazed by the explanations, I have always wondered what John 1:46 meant, thank you for enlightening me Scott.

    2. You're so welcome! Thanks for letting me know. Yes, every verse of John's Gospel is bottomless.

  12. Wow this is great and insightful ... Thank you.

  13. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. Thank you for your web-site. ( Isn't 'prophesy' a verb and 'prophecy' the noun?)

  15. Hi Scott, I have two reasons for searching Nazareth. I’m doing a study in Matthew. And I wondered about Nathaniel’s remark because it keeps coming up in The Chosen series and now today in my study. I’ve been in Matthew 1&2 for four days and still finding amazing connections to the OT! Yesterday was Rachel weeping and her burial place (2:18)! I know there’s many verses from Genesis to Malachi about Jesus, but finding even more amazing detail! I love knowing the connection to the Branch! Thank you! Sue

  16. This is very deep I leant that Nazareth was not in existence untill after the people of Israel return from exile, thanks for this write up

  17. Awesome! Great exposition. More grace to you

  18. Thank you so much for this. I heard the Bible Readiing from the Gospel of John 1: 43 to end. in church yesterday. Our rector ( priest vicar) explained it in a similar way, but less detail and she mentioned that the people of Israel would go to sit under the shade of the fig trees, to read Scripture or to PRAY to God, which is probably what Nathanael was doing.
    The comment to guile or deceit, our rector, referenced to the deceit of Jacob to deceive his birth father to obtain the birthright of his brother, Esau. This deceit or guille was known of course to almighty God and the ' tussle Jacob had afterwards in ' arguing ' with God to justify his actions. Eventually this was to God to tell Jacob to change his name to Israel which means peace . This now asks the question from me are the people of Israel to live in peace?
    I did consider why the comment was made about Nazareth as must be significant and decided to look this up
    Thank you so much for this as it has revealed words of Scripture which further confirm the New Testament as the fullfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament to our Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
    The WORD of GOD IS the ' ARMOUR ' ' all Christians need, now more than ever to defend Christian faith, so to defend and OBEY the Word of God and Jesus as the Righteous Saviour for everyone , as the risen Lord, our good Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of almighty God is the only true intercessor to almighty God in the New Covenant of God with His creation of humans created in His image and VIRTUES.