Matthew 12:15-21

Text Comment

v.15     The paragraph is linked directly to the statement in v. 14 that the Lord’s enemies were now plotting to kill him.  Christ’s withdrawal from that place was an effort to avoid further provocation.  However, he didn’t sneak away.  The crowds knew where he was and brought their sick to him that he might heal them.  As many as the Lord healed, you can be sure that some relatives of the plotters were healed by the Lord.  Such is the viciousness of man’s rebellion against God that the Lord’s supernatural power on behalf even of their loved ones would not have altered their intention to be rid of him.

The “all their sick” reminds us that there never was a failure on the Lord’s part.  He never tried and failed to heal someone.  As many as came to Jesus for healing received it.

v.16     Here again we have what we have learned to call “the messianic secret.”  While Jesus could not keep such extraordinary events under wraps – his miracles drew great crowds and provoked great excitement – he did what he could to minimize the provocation of his enemies.  He had a schedule to keep and by this means he kept it.  He did not provoke the crisis that would lead to his crucifixion until its time had come, what Jesus in the Gospel of John refers regularly to as “his hour.”

But there is another reason for his efforts to minimize publicity.  It was his calling as the Messiah to proceed gently, quietly, without fuss or bombast.  So by seeking in various ways to quiet the furor that his ministry created he was fulfilling Scripture and following the course marked out for him.

What follows is the longest quotation of Scripture in the Gospel of Matthew and it is important for Matthew because it brings out the kind of person Jesus is and the way he does his work.

v.18     The citation is of Isaiah 42:1-4 either in a free translation by Matthew himself or from some other Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that is now lost.

Jesus is God’s chosen and beloved servant with a special commission to fulfill, a special endowment of the Holy Spirit, and a world-wide mission.  The Lord’s mission to the world is not greatly emphasized in the Gospel of Matthew, but it is provided for in a number of places, and, as you remember, the Gospel ends with the Great Commission, the Lord’s charging his disciples to make disciples of all nations.

v.19     In other words, the Servant of the Lord will not be like most world leaders.  He will not conduct himself in the way people expect of a world leader.  He will not draw attention to himself and he will not attempt to control events by force.

v.20     Gentleness, sympathy, and compassion will be the hallmarks of his approach.  A reed is used to describe a human being because, as one scholar points out, “The reed, growing by the millions in every marsh and riverside, was a [symbol] of commonplace insignificance.”  The natural thing is to discard a damaged reed.  One can get plenty more where it came from. [Glover in Morris, 311]  The same is true of the smoking wick, which was a nuisance – it didn’t give good light and filled the room with smoke.  Snuff it out, throw it away and replace it with a properly functioning wick.  Wicks are a dime a dozen after all.  In other words, these are things for which people would ordinarily not take the trouble to keep or to repair.  Well, so with regard to many people who do not seem to be worth the time or the effort.  The Lord will care for them and persevere with them.  He wants justice to be done for them as well.

v.21     Matthew includes the last half of Isa. 42:4, passing over the first half of the verse in order to do so.  Emphasis is being placed on the fact that the Lord is the Savior of the world, not only of the Jews.  By the time Matthew was written the Gentile mission was fully underway.

Reading the Gospel from our vantage point as Gentile Christians – thoroughly acquainted with the remainder of the gospel story, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, the proclamation of salvation through faith in him to the world, and so on – we have a hard time appreciating how striking, how stunning really was the point of this paragraph at the time.

Everyone knew, or thought he knew, what the Messiah would do when he appeared in the world.  He would crush the enemies of God, he would establish the Lord’s kingdom in the world, and he would lavish blessings of every kind upon the Jews, the favored and ancient people of God.  The Roman occupation would be overcome in a great battle and Jerusalem once again would be the center of the world as it was in the days of David and Solomon.  The Messiah would put the world right!

But here is Jesus whom people are thinking is the Messiah and he does none of these things.  And what is more striking and more confusing, he has the power to do them and still does not.  He can heal the sick, he can turn water to wine, he can control the weather, and yet, when the Pharisees hatch a plot to kill him, instead of striking them down as Elijah or Elisha might have done, he simply moves to a different place and tries to calm the troubled waters.  He doesn’t even quarrel with his enemies.  He gives solid arguments in reply when they accuse him of some error of doctrine or life, but, far from calling fire down from heaven upon them, he tells them what he thinks and moves on.  Where is the victory of God in all of this?

This was utterly unexpected.  Utterly confusing even to those who were inclined to believe in Jesus and follow him.  What was he doing?  Why did he not act in the decisive way the Messiah was supposed to act.  Even his friends felt about Jesus the way President Lincoln thought about General George McClellan.  He had all of this power and was making no use of it.  Jesus had the power of God at his disposal and was using it just to heal the sick when he might have changed the world.

And so Matthew explains by citing one of the important messianic prophecies of Isaiah.  This passage is of particular importance for Matthew, especially its opening statement.  There we read God say that he loves the servant, has chosen him, and is pleased with what he does for him.   That  statement has already been cited in Matt. 3:17 on the occasion of the Lord’s baptism and it will be cited again in 17:5 on the occasion of the Lord’s transfiguration.

Now, there are at least two reasons for Matthew’s citing this passage here.  The first is to demonstrate that the ministry of the Lord Jesus, however unexpected, however confusing it may be to those who witness it, however unlike what they imagined the Messiah’s behavior to be, was in fact prophesied in ancient Scriptures.  The prophets said that Jesus would do the very things that they were seeing him do; that he would behave in just the ways that they observe him to be behaving.  Remember, the Lord made this point to the disciples of John the Baptist when they came to ask him if he were indeed the Messiah, a question prompted precisely because his ministry was so unlike what John was expecting.  He told them that what he was doing was what the Scripture said the Messiah would do.  It may not be what the people expected the Messiah to do and it may not be everything the Scripture said the Messiah would do, but the preaching, teaching, and healing ministry of Jesus was, in fact, described in the prophets of the OT.  To John’s disciples he cited Isa. 35:5-6.  Here he cites Isa. 42:1-4, but the point is the same.  The prophets predicted this.  Jesus’ ministry, however it defied the people’s expectations, was, in fact, the fulfillment of prophecy.

You know that from the very beginning one of the primary arguments that the church made to prove that Jesus was the Christ and was the Savior of the world was the way in which his life and ministry fulfilled the ancient prophecies.  That same argument is made by Christian apologists today.  Look at the prophecies of Isaiah, or Micah, or Malachi, we say.  See how closely these predictions, made many centuries before Jesus was born, forecast what actually happened.  Where Jesus was born, what kind of ministry he would have, that he would die for sinners in their place, that he would rise from the dead, that he would bring salvation to the world.  Surely there is a challenge posed here for unbelief.  There is certainly nothing like this in other religious literature:  prophecies that were put to the test of historical fulfillment.

Of course, though the argument from prophecy has persuaded some to become believers in Jesus, many from the beginning have remained unpersuaded.  They argue that the prophecies are too vague, can be taken in other ways, that while some seem to have been fulfilled, by the Christians’ own admission, others have not been.  I’m not going to take up this argument at this point, but I will say that the argument is stronger than most unbelievers wish to admit.  And what makes the argument stronger still is that the prophecies, as Matthew argues here, confirm the very truth about the ministry of the Messiah that was hardest for everyone to believe, that was least likely to have been an invention, and ran quite against the grain of messianic expectation among the Jews.  In other words, the OT prophecies are not truisms, not the things we would naturally expect to be said about the coming King of Kings.  There are such things said, to be sure – his conquest of the enemies of the kingdom of God, his bringing justice to the earth, and the like – but there are other things that no one expected, no mere religious thinker would have prophesied, and yet these things also did come to pass and in very striking ways.

We may take all of this for granted, but it was extraordinarily important at the time that the utterly unexpected ministry of Jesus Christ be shown to be, in fact, the ministry that was predicted for the Messiah centuries before he came into the world.  Paradigms of understanding – such as the Jews concerning the Messiah – may blind people to what is actually there in the Bible.

And that leads us to Matthew’s second interest in this prophecy of Isaiah, viz. its vindication of the Lord as a Messiah unlike that expected by men.

We have noticed this before and will notice it again and it is a point of fundamental importance.  Christ was not what the world was expecting in a Savior.  He was not what his own people were expecting in a Savior.  And, it is fundamental to our own understanding of our faith and our proclamation of it to others, that he is not now the Savior that the world is expecting.

He came to solve man’s problem but it wasn’t the problem men thought needed to be solved.  He came to save his people from their sins and they were persuaded that, not only could they manage their sins well enough by themselves, but they had other much more serious problems that the Messiah should take care of first.  Chief among these were the humiliations and oppressions imposed upon the Jews by the government and army of imperial Rome.

The religious leadership was not exorcised about how they might be made right with God.  They thought they knew how to do that.  They were interested in what they saw as larger questions.  There was a great national problem.  If Jesus were the Messiah, why was he not more interested in that and why didn’t he talk about that.  He was always talking about the needs of the soul.  The Samaritan woman wanted to talk about water and he turned it into a conversation about living water for her soul.  Someone mentioned food and he would turn it into a conversation about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  What’s with that?  Who cares about that?  To which Jesus replied in many different ways, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?”  It will avail you nothing if I heal your diseases; it will help you not at all if I break the yoke of Roman bondage and restore freedom to Israel – which I have proved I am capable of doing – but it will avail you nothing if you are not put right with God and do not have the forgiveness of your sins.

Let me remind you of something you know but are inclined to forget.  The chief reason why so many all around you – people in your family, in your neighborhood, people who work with you, who study with you at school – are not interested in Jesus Christ and are not asking you what is required of them that they might come to know him is that the Lord Jesus is not offering to solve what they take to be their real problems, he is not offering to meet what they understand to be their greatest needs.

If Jesus were to appear and begin once again to heal the sick, people would flock to him for healing, but they would still have little interest in what Christ himself came to give them, viz. the forgiveness of their sins.

That is why the bruised reed and the smoking wick loom so large in the Lord’s ministry.  People who are bruised reeds and smoking wicks are far more likely to be people who see themselves as sinners needing forgiveness.  You can’t solve, even God could not solve man’s sin problem by having his Son lead a great army into the field.  He could not solve man’s sin problem by healing his leprosy or his fever or by giving sight to the blind.  That took a cross and a resurrection from the dead.  And without that victory over sin, there could be no final justice in the world, no final vindication of God’s creation, no world once more as it ought to be, no eternal life in heaven.  All of man’s problems reduce to the one problem few men are even willing to admit they have:  that they are guilty sinners in the sight of a holy God and must answer for their sin and their guilt.

It was a failure to understand that that made Christ such a puzzle to everyone, that kept even his disciples from understanding what he said to them when he spoke of going to Jerusalem and being handed over to death and rising again on the third day.  Nothing that Jesus came to do, nothing that he had to do for us if we were to be saved, required the military conquest, the political victory, the world-wide demonstration of his rule that everyone was expecting of him.  Rather it required his humiliation, his sinless life, his teaching of the truth and of the good news of life through his name, and, supremely, it required his death on the cross.  That is why his ministry took the form that it did. No one expected a Messiah with wounds, because no one was expecting a Messiah who would die for sinners and bear God’s wrath in their place.

And the failure of men to understand and appreciate why Jesus did what he did, both then and now, is what keeps people from embracing him, giving their lives to him, following him, worshipping him as Lord and Savior.

If he had come and taught that the way of salvation was to consider his searching moral teaching about what constitutes a truly good life and then to resolve to imitate that teaching, to practice it, there would be very little controversy about or opposition to Christianity.  Men and women would have liked it very much.  There is something very flattering to men in such a message.  It places the issue in our hands, it compliments us by assuming that we have the power and the ability to live such a good life and to obtain God’s favor in that way.  Mankind would have said, “What a great teacher Jesus is.  Let us all follow him!”

But he said something very different and it is not so flattering to human beings.  He said, “If you could have saved yourselves; if you could have lived a life good enough for God, I would never have come into the world.  It would not have been necessary.  My coming is proof itself that you cannot save yourselves.  Your condition is hopeless.  You are inveterate sinners.  I must purchase salvation for you because it is beyond your means.  Far beyond your means.”

And men did not like that message and haven’t since.  And were it not for the almighty Spirit of God changing hearts, not a man would ever have believed it or looked to Christ for salvation.

And today, as we look around the world, what do we see that is any different.  Men concerned about all manner of things, but not about how they might be righteous before God.  See it all over again.  Imagine the Lord Christ in Iraq right now, healing the sick, delivering his great sermons.  Everyone would want to know what he thought about and what he would do about the political crisis there, the violence, the injustice, the uncertain future of the country.  And he would be saying the same things he always said:  “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”  He didn’t come to solve geo-political problems.  Not yet at any rate, he came to bring salvation to sinners.  He did not come to consult with the great men of this world and apply his wisdom to the political crises of the world.  Believe me, the political situation in Judea and Galilee in the Lord’s day was very much like our political situation today:  violent, unjust, engendering deep bitterness, with hardly a light at the end of the tunnel.  And Jesus said nothing about it.  He proposed no solution to the “Roman” problem.  He had not come to deal with that.  That was merely a surface symptom of the true problem, the deep problem:  viz. man’s alienation from God on account of his sin.

The history of the church is the history of even supposedly Christian people constantly reinventing Jesus Christ; constantly remaking him into a Messiah more like what people would naturally expect; more like the Messiah they were looking for in the first century.  Even in the modern evangelical church, Christ is, as we speak, being diminished in the role that the prophets foretold for him, the role that was so unexpected in his own day, his role as the Savior of sinners.  It is invariably the same.  The Christ of the modern evangelical imagination is a Christ more like what people would expect; more like what the Jews in Jesus’ day expected the Messiah to be.  The Christ of modern evangelical culture is not the Christ of Isaiah 42.  He is no longer the suffering servant, but the anchorman, the therapist, and the CEO.  He fills the bill very naturally; just what we 21st century folk would expect. [Ken Myers in a lecture for CMAC]  Suddenly Christ is no longer the one who retires when the Pharisees plot to kill him; no longer the one who will not quarrel with his opponents, no longer the one who retires and does not assert himself in the streets.  We are remaking him into the Messiah they wanted him to be in his own day, the Messiah who came to solve the problems we want solved and to solve them in the way we want them solved; in other words, we are remaking him into the Messiah he refused to be.  That is very unwise, very dangerous.  For we don’t need that Messiah, the Messiah of our own invention and of our own wanting.  We need, everyone needs the Messiah Jesus was and insisted on being even to the disappointment of so many.  If you had slipped, fallen over a precipice, and were hanging onto a narrow ledge with both hands to keep you from falling to your death, you would not care for, you would not welcome someone who wanted to talk to you about your 401k.  You would say, in desperation, you don’t need an investment portfolio, you need a rope!  Well so it is, except so many do not even realize how perilously they cling to the cliff edge. They think they need a 401k when what they need is a rope!

But people will say, “Surely you are asking too much to ask me to believe that the answer to all my problems in life, the solution to my root problem, the problem from which all other problems come, is to hand my life over to a Jewish rabbi who lived, who was crucified by the Romans, and, so you say, rose again, 2,000 years ago.  How can the entire meaning of life be summed up in that one man’s life?  How can the entire meaning of my own life be summed up in my own personal response to that one man and his life?”

And we answer boldly and unapologetically.  The answer to those understandable questions lies in the first verse of Isaiah 42, cited here in v. 18.  The reason he is so much more important than anyone else is that that man is the servant of the living God; he was chosen by the creator of heaven and earth and of every human being for this task and this errand in the world.  It was upon him that the Holy Spirit was poured out in the greatest ever measure.  And God was pleased with him and promised that the only way justice would ever come to the world would be through him.

The one who made you, who gave you breath, the one who is responsible for your existence, this God against whom you have sinned and sinned and sinned your entire life long, has provided a remedy for you.  There is no other remedy because there is no other problem but your sin, no other servant but Jesus Christ, and no other salvation but that purchased by him on the cross.  You need your guilt taken away.  Only the Son of God can do that.

What your soul needs; what every soul needs is what the servant of the Lord came to do for it, came to do for you.  You need, I need what Jesus came to do for us, that and nothing else.  That is the single great fact of human life.  It is man’s failure to reckon with that fact that is the scourge and the tragedy of human life and the fatal index of his rebellion against his Maker.  Don’t you be among those guilty of that failure.  So many were in Jesus’ day; so many have been since; so many are today.  Don’t you be among them.