Jesus the Servant of God – Matthew 12:15-21

In Matthew 12:1-14 there are two Sabbath controversy stories followed by a quotation of Isaiah. Matthew declares this Scripture is fulfilled when Jesus “withdrew from that place” and warned those who are healed to not tell others about him (12:15-17). Matthew also quotes a passage from Isaiah as after three healing stories (8:1-13).

Isaiah's Servant of the Lord

It appears Jesus does not want to engage with the Pharisees and risk a further public confrontation. He is not avoiding controversy (since he will still engage the Pharisees later in this chapter), but he wants to “keep it at bay” (Wilkins, Matthew, 443). This may also be the motivation for commanding those healed to not tell others. In both cases, Matthew sees this as a fulfillment of an important messianic text from Isaiah 42.

Matthew declares that Jesus is Isaiah’s Servant (Isaiah 42:1-4). These are the words of Matthew, the author of the gospel rather than Jesus. Matthew’s use of his text as an editorial comment on the withdrawing and/or ordering silence. This is the longest quotation of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Matthew.

It is not an exact quotation, and it varies from the Septuagint. Leon Morris therefore suggests Mathew is making his own translation from the Hebrew (Matthew, 310; cf. Davies and Allison, 2:321). The main point of the quotation at this moment in the gospel is to clarify what kind of Messiah Jesus is going to be. He does not conform to the Pharisees expectation, nor will he be a military Messiah who puts down Israel’s enemies.

So who is the Servant of the Lord?

The servant is God’s chosen servant.

“My servant” (ὁ παῖς μου) is an important title in Isaiah 40-55. Matthew used a noun which refers to a person younger than puberty; a child or a youth. In a few cases in the New Testament, it refers to a child (Matt 2:16, the children in Bethlehem, 17:8 a demon-possessed child). In the New Testament the word more often refers to a slave, although some examples are ambiguous (Matthew 8:6, 8; the centurion’s slave or child?) But the phrase “my servant” never refers to a child in the Septuagint, even though there is clear father/son language in the Matthew context.

The verb translated “chosen” (aorist active indicative from αἱρετίζω) is a rare word, only here in the NT.  In the LXX Haggai 2:23, Haggai calls Zerubbabel for “my servant” and “my chosen.” In secular Greek the word can have the sense of adoption (BrillDAG), so in Haggai Zerubbabel the chose servant could mean God has adopted him as his own son, in the same sense as the king is a son of God in Psalm 2.

The servant is God’s beloved, in whom he is well pleased.

This phrase appears in Matthew in two other important contexts, the baptism (3:17) and the transfiguration (17:5). The words evoke the baptism scene, as Jesus comes up out of the water the voice from heaven announces, “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17) and at the Transfiguration the phrase is repeated, with the addition of “listen to him” (Matt 17:5). The “beloved son” may allude to Abraham and his beloved son (Gen 22).

The servant has God’s Spirit in him.

One of the key themes in Isaiah is God’s servant chosen by God, and the sign of the choice of an anointing with the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah 61, the Spirit of the Lord anoints the servant to proclaim good news; this is the passage Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue and declared fulfilled in his ministry (Luke 4:14-21). Matthew’s verb “I will put or place” us unusual since it is not the verb used Isaiah 42 I either the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint. Once again, Psalm 2 may be in the background: God has enthroned the king in Zion and called him his son (2:6-7)

The servant will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

The ESV translates the noun ἔθνος as Gentiles, the NIV has nations. Although these are more or less the same thing, translating the word Gentiles may be taken as a hint of the future inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God. Rather than looking forward to the salvation of the gentiles, Matthew may intend this as the future judgment of the nations when the messiah comes and establishes his kingdom.

Justice (χρίσις) can be positive (proclaiming justice to those who are suffering injustice). But in Matthew this word is associated with eschatological judgment (Matt 10:15; 11:22-24; cf., Rev 14:7). “means judgment that goes against a person, condemnation, and the sentence that follows” (BDAG). Perhaps this also alludes to Psalm 2:8, “ask me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.” In Psalm 2:10-12 the kings of the earth are warned to “kiss the son” and recognize his sovereignty.

The Meekness of the Servant (12:19-20)

He will be silent rather than quarreling (v. 19). Although he does engage the Pharisees in conversation, at this point he has withdrawn from conversation and is not in conflict with them. The verb ἐρίζω only appears here in the New Testament and refers to quarreling, competing with someone, “to affirm in an argumentative manner, maintain harshly or obstinately” (BrillDAG). The verb κραυγάζω is also rare in the New Testament, used here and in a few contexts where the Jews are extremely upset over Jesus (Acts 22:23, they are shouting and throwing off their cloaks, etc.; cf., John 18:40, 19:6, 12, the Jews crying out to crucify Jesus. In Luke 4:41 the verb is used for the speech of a demon as Jesus casts it out. In secular Greek it is used for the bark of a dog (Plato, Republic 607b) or the croaking caw of a crow (Arrianus, EpictD 3.1.37).

He will do no harm at all (v. 20a). These are the opposite characteristics one would expect from a conquering Messiah, he will not argue nor will he harm his enemies at this time. There are two metaphors for the meekness of the servant. He will not break a bruised reed or snuff out smoldering wick.” For many interpreters, this refers to Jesus reaching out to the underclass of Galilee. John Nolland, for example, takes the original context of Isaiah 42 as a reference to the exiles as “displaced and devalued people,” the servant will value these people and gather them to the land (Nolland, Matthew, 494).

But the servant will render justice in the future: “until he brings justice to victory” (v. 20b). “In victory” probably means something like “successfully,” so that despite his meek approach to his opponents, he will be ultimately successful. This description of the messiah fits well with the context. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus describes his yoke as easy and his burden as light, in contrast to the Pharisees’ traditions about the Sabbath (12:1-14, cf. 23:1-4).

Jesus will not be goaded into a confrontation with the Pharisees over Sabbath or any other issue. He intends to go to Jerusalem to die at the proper time and nothing will derail him from that mission. The messiah will render judgment on the nations, but not until the appointed time.

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