God’s Chosen Servant

Read: Matthew 12:15-21

As he nears the mid-point of his gospel Matthew sums up Jesus’ ministry—who he was, what he came to do, and how he will do it—by quoting a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah. It’s all about “God’s Chosen Servant.”

This series of programs has been focusing on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. As we near the end of this section of Matthew we find that things are growing increasingly dangerous for Jesus. The first two stories in Matthew 12 are about controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees over the observance of the sabbath day. Jesus, exasperated by the Pharisees’ narrow-minded, inhumane legalism, performs an “in-your-face” healing of a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the sabbath. And Matthew concludes his account of this incident with an ominous statement: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14).

The Messianic Secret

Next we read this: “Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known” (vv. 15-16). When Jesus learns about the conspiracy that is plotting his destruction, he actually does two puzzling things.

First, he runs away. Matthew says Jesus “withdrew from there,” which we assume means that he went into a kind of hiding, at least temporarily. Does that seem a bit cowardly? Jesus could have dealt with this threat to his personal safety in other ways. He could have exposed what the Pharisees were up to, for example, so that his numerous supporters would rally to his side. He could have formed a personal army to defend himself. Or he could have asked God to send a legion of angels to protect him. Simplest of all, Jesus could have called down fire from heaven and utterly consumed all his enemies. But instead Jesus chose to slip away quietly.

And the other unusual thing here is Jesus’ order to the people who followed him away and whom he healed. He told them to keep quiet about him; “not to make him known,” as Matthew reports. That was the sort of thing Jesus repeatedly said to those whom he helped.

So how do we account for this behavior? After all, the Messiah was supposed to be a powerful figure, a leader of men, a bold, conquering champion. He was expected to take his enemies head-on in combat, not run away and hide from them. His mission was to set things to rights. He should have been trumpeting his great good works far and wide in order to enhance his reputation and gain even more followers, not telling people to keep his wonder-working power a secret.

So why does Jesus behave so strangely? Well, perhaps strange isn’t the right word. Different, yes; Jesus is a different kind of Messiah. But strange? Not really, once we come to understand his true mission. You see, Jesus isn’t like every other worldly leader. His kingdom won’t be established by deploying superior combat power, the way military leaders operate. Jesus will not win his victory by inflicting violence, but by suffering it.

Because peoples’ expectations were so different from Jesus’ plan, he is content to remain for now a hidden Messiah, to limit the knowledge of his true identity, until the moment comes for him to die and rise again. And only then would the truth about him be publicly proclaimed far and wide.

“Behold my Servant”

Matthew sees the key to understanding Jesus’ different kind of ministry in a long quotation from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. The reason for Jesus’ quiet, non-confrontational approach was actually spelled out centuries before by this greatest of the prophets. Matthew writes:

This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope. (Matthew 12:17-21)

The quotation from Isaiah 42 opens with the Lord drawing our attention to a person, a person he calls his servant: “Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.” This invitation to look and see, to consider, to give regard to a person is made all the more compelling by the impressive language God uses to convey the pleasure he takes in this servant of his. The servant is one whom God has specially chosen; in whom he delights, on whom he depends, to whom he gives support and strength, upon whom he has poured out his Spirit in boundless measure. Who could that servant be?

Christians have never had any trouble identifying the perfect Servant of the Lord of whom Isaiah prophesies. Matthew speaks for all who have ever met Jesus Christ when he says that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah points straight to Christ. Jesus is not just God’s Servant but God’s Son. The same voice that cried, “Behold my servant” in Isaiah said later in Matthew, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 3:17, 17:5-6).

“He Will Bring Forth Justice”

The reason for paying attention to the Lord’s Servant/Son isn’t just because of who he is, but also because of the important work he will do. Matthew’s quotation offers a summary description of Jesus’ mission, a mission that can be summed up in one word: “justice.” The servant of the Lord will proclaim justice to the nations (v. 18); he will not stop until he brings justice to victory (v. 20). And all the world, all the Gentile peoples, will hope in him.

Another way of translating this word is “judgment”; in Greek it is krisis, from which we get the word crisis. Jesus’ coming is the whole world’s crisis, the decisive moment, the turning point. From now on everything is different. Everyone must now decide, either for him or against. The Old Testament talks about doing justice, meaning doing God’s will and obeying his righteous commands. The righteousness that the Servant of the Lord will establish in the world is the holy and perfect will of God, the positive will of God according to which the blind will see and captives will be released, and no one will be oppressed, and all will be well.

And then Matthew, also following Isaiah, tells us something about how the Servant will accomplish his work. Jesus’ way is not the world’s way, and two distinctive things about his method are singled out here. First, Jesus will do his work and accomplish his mission quietly. “He will not quarrel or cry aloud,” we read, “nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.” When the crowds wanted to take Jesus and publicly crown him as king he slipped away from them. When people wanted to spread his name and reputation everywhere he told them to keep still. Jesus has no use for propaganda. He isn’t into advertising. He’s not interested in maximizing his media coverage and waging a successful public relations campaign, the way modern politicians are. His work as the Servant of the Lord requires another approach. He has to take a different way, the way of humiliation, suffering, and death, in order to establish righteousness and justice on the earth.

The second thing we learn here about Jesus’ messianic method is equally distinctive. He will carry out his mission not only quietly but gently:

a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the nations will hope. (vv. 20-21)

Most human leaders want people working with them and for them who are strong and effective. Generals want tough soldiers; politicians look for skilled assistants; business executives hire productive workers; professors prefer gifted students. Human enterprises have little use for weak or ineffective people. Broken sticks and dim lights get short shrift in most organizations. But Jesus makes such people his special concern. He deals especially tenderly with those who have been hurt by life or broken by disappointment, people whose faith and hope are flickering and about to go out. The poor, the weak, the hurting, the needy, the sick and sorrowing – these are just the ones for whom the Lord has special regard, the people he came to save, and he cares for them, especially tenderly.

What Can We Do?

If that’s the case, doesn’t it follow that such folks should be our concern as well? We now have a greater understanding of God’s plan for the world. Christ died and rose again to satisfy the righteousness of God and reconcile us all to him. In Christ God has created a new people, a new community, transcending cultural, racial, and social barriers. The church can begin to mirror God’s new society, to establish justice in the world. Justice means many things. To comfortable middle class people like me, it usually means law and order. But that’s only part of it.

To the poor and oppressed of the world justice looks quite different. To them justice means freedom from want and fear, release from captivity to prejudice and violence, a setting right of the inequalities of society. We cannot bring justice to the world by ourselves. Only God can do that, and he will do that once and for all on the day of Christ’s return. One day he will come back to complete the work of the Servant of the Lord. And his glorious reign in the new creation will usher in the kingdom of God in all its fullness, and the knowledge of God will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea. But right here, right now, you and I can work toward justice. We can anticipate the kingdom, and begin to live by its values, and reflect its presence in our lives.

And we can pray daily, “Thy kingdom come.”

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.

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