Taking the Role of Servant, Matthew 12:15-21

If you look around, it is not hard to find people who are quietly trying to make their way through life. They don’t get on TV or find themselves as the subject of a best-selling book. Perhaps you are one of those quiet, diligent people.

On the other hand, we also have those seeking to be the center of attention, making frequent selfies, posting their smallest movements on Facebook and otherwise wanting to be noticed and highly valued by others.

Though the world of the first century was very different from ours, these two types of people were still around. The quiet people trying to get through their lives were among those coming in throngs to find Jesus and get help. The more self-concerned and self-assertive group was led by the Pharisees and scribes in their constant effort to be seen as godly men helping — or making! — others be godly too, at least according to their rules for godliness.

Which groups did Jesus identify with? What kind of man was he?

Matthew 12:15-21

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21 In his name the nations will put their hope.

What did Jesus tell the people he healed?

Commentary

As we have seen, Jesus declared that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath and did just that by healing a man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:13). What Jesus considered lawful, the Pharisees considered awful — I couldn’t resist — so they began plotting to kill him (Matthew 12:14). These were the facts occupying Jesus’ mind as we begin verse 15.

Osborne provides a sound overview of verses 15-21 by saying, As the Pharisees plot violence against the Son of God, Jesus takes the lowly path, serving God and humankind.[1] This contrast is a key point of the section.

In saying that Jesus “withdrew from that place,” Matthew uses a Greek verb (anachoreo) that indicates a retreat to safety, something Jesus has already done several times to avoid direct conflict with his opponents. The day will come (in Jerusalem) when he will confront the Pharisees and put them to shame, but now such action would misdirect his mission. It would lead to premature trial and crucifixion, if not his outright murder.

Sometimes withdrawal from conflict can better serve God's purposes. For example, maintaining unity within a group of believers might require avoidance of conflict. What similar examples occur to you?

Instead of dealing with the Pharisees and their endless plotting, Jesus spent his hours healing illnesses among the large crowd that followed him (verse 15b). He commanded them to be silent about their healing (verse 16) so that no further trouble might erupt; the Pharisees were right on the point of behaving with violence. Matthew shows us that Jesus, in taking this peaceful, caring approach, was fulfilling the role of God’s special servant, as revealed by the prophet Isaiah many centuries earlier (verse 17).

By quoting this famous passage from Isaiah, Matthew implies a question: who is behaving like the servant of Yahweh? In theory, there might be two alternatives: either the Pharisees or Jesus. The Pharisees certainly see themselves as God’s servant and want honor from others as well. Matthew has shown us that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Messiah had long been considered a prime candidate to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. So, Matthew is obviously presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of this role. To demonstrate that Matthew is right, we need to examine the prophecy itself.

Matthew 12:18 (“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations”) corresponds to Isaiah 42:1. This part is easy because in Matthew 3:17, at Jesus baptism by John, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus, and the Father declared him to be his Son in whom he was well pleased. While we have not yet had many developments about the nations, the healing of the Roman centurion’s servant was accomplished along with a declaration from Jesus that many would come from the east and the west to take the place of the Jews who were disloyal to God (Matthew 8:513). Obviously, Jesus has satisfied this prophecy, while the self-declared defenders of the faith, the Pharisees, have not.

How does replacing disloyal Jews with loyal Gentiles demonstrate proclaiming justice to the nations?

Matthew 12:19 (“He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets”) corresponds to Isaiah 42:2. It is easy to show that the Pharisees have been regularly initiating disputes with Jesus and his disciples. Matthew 9:1-15 has the dispute over Jesus healing and forgiving sins as well as the controversy over his eating with tax collectors and sinners. We also recall Jesus teaching on the mountain to beware those who pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5), a clear reference to the Pharisees.

Matthew 12:20 (“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory”) matches Isaiah 42:3. France gives us great clarity here.[2] A cracked or bent reed could no longer serve its intended purpose; the same was true of a barely smoldering lamp wick. Many would throw these broken or spent things away without a thought. But the reed and the wick are metaphors for broken and hurting people, the very ones Jesus was busy healing and restoring to a meaningful life.

This image of brokenness represents so many of us. How did Jesus rescue you from a desperate life, going nowhere? If that is not your story, how has the great healer improved your life?

The final clause of verse 20 (“till he has brought justice through to victory”) needs explanation. Jesus will continue to lift up those broken people seeking him until the day when final justice is achieved through his victory over sin, death and Satan. It is easy to understand why the nations will put their hope in Jesus (verse 21) because no one else can bring about justice!

In short, we have the Pharisees busy plotting murder while Jesus is busy healing and caring for deeply hurting people. The contrast could hardly be greater, and it is obvious who is fulfilling Isaiah 42:3 (Matthew 12:20).

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)462.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)472-73.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!