The first time I went to Israel, I found myself in awe. I was overwhelmed when I first saw the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus spent so much of His earthly life and ministry. Stunned by the breathtaking view of the old city of Jerusalem from atop the Mount of Olives. Intrigued by the history and the heartache of the mountain fortress of Masada. Heartbroken by the sense of horror and grief I felt as we spent time at the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
With all that wonder, however, it was surprising how underwhelmed I was by two of the best-known places in the Bible lands—Bethlehem and Nazareth. They were ordinary. They were unimpressive, dirty cities, far from the quaint “little town of Bethlehem” I had envisioned each year at Christmas. I was unprepared for the commonness that I saw in those historic sites.
Despite my personal disappointment, that ordinariness is precisely what makes them so significant. They are something of a metaphor Jesus whose mysterious and inexpressible incarnation gave significance to those sleepy, ancient villages.
It was appropriate that Jesus’s earthly life would be connected to such ordinary places. Despite the true glory of his identity, he was (and is) often seen as too familiar and ordinary.
The prophet Isaiah warned of this:
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (ISAIAH 53:2).
That’s an unexpected description for the savior of the world. That there was nothing desirable in his appearance speaks to the way that the Messiah and Son of God would present himself—common.
As a boy, I remember my dad taking me to see the move King of Kings. Jesus was played by Jeffrey Hunter, who was a very handsome man. In his portrayal of Christ, Hunter had long, flowing, auburn hair and piercing blue eyes—which made a compelling impression.
But Jesus didn’t come with movie-star good looks. In fact, the immediate implication of Isaiah’s words is just the opposite. He was an average, ordinary, run-of-the-mill first-century Jew with dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin. Isaiah was preparing the people for Messiah to come as he did, but they didn’t grasp the significance of his words.
The commonness with which Jesus intentionally presented himself extended to the commonness of where he lived—Nazareth. Bible teacher Adam Clarke wrote:
We may suppose that Nazareth, at this time, [had] become so abandoned that no good could be expected from any of those who dwelt in it, and that its wickedness had passed into a proverb: “Can anything good be found in Nazareth?”
This thinking certainly would explain Nathanael’s reaction to Philip’s statement about finding someone special from Nazareth:
Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip (JOHN 1:45–46).
There was more than a little stigma connected to being from Nazareth in the Galilee. Galileans were regarded as being backward and ignorant, especially by the religious aristocracy in Jerusalem. So someone from Galilee would not be considered a worthy candidate for the role of Messiah. Notice:
On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.”
41 Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? 42 Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” (JOHN 7:40–42).
Their final analysis of Jesus’ heritage is recorded in John 7:52 when the religious leaders said to Nicodemus: “Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
The reality of the incarnation teaches us that what people saw in the outward appearance of Jesus was not the whole story. The rest of the story is alluded to in Matthew 17.
Jesus had gone up on a mountain in the Galilee with three of His disciples (Peter, James, John). Matthew’s record of their moments on the mountain is stunning in its description of the true nature of the Jesus who was thought to be so common.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified (MATTHEW 17:1–6).
The true nature of Christ was endorsed by the remarkable appearance of Moses and Elijah. But even more important, that nature was revealed in the display of his glory (“transfigured”) and the declaration of the Father (“My on”). The majesty of Christ was put on full display on that mountain.
Despite his common appearance, common upbringing, common lifestyle, and common background, there was absolutely nothing ordinary about Jesus. His majesty was undiminished by the ordinary way he revealed himself.