Matthew 12: 15-21 Embodying Israel for the Sake of the Nations

Isaiah From the Knesset Menorah Jerusalem

Matthew 12: 15-21

Parallel Mark 3: 7-12; Luke 6: 17-19

15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is 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. 19 He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 20 He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. 21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Jesus is rejected by one portion of Israel and embraced by another. While the group of Pharisees we encountered at the beginning of this chapter are seeking to destroy him, the crowds follow him. Matthew responds to this complicated reception by the lost sheep of Israel by reference to Isaiah 42, one of the ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah as a key to understanding the mixed reception by his own people. The New Testament spends a lot of time dwelling on the rejection by many in Judea and Galilee while the nations seem to embody faith in surprising ways. Jesus, and those around him, continue to take on the vocation of Israel to be a light to the nations.

Isaiah 42: 1-4, which is quoted by Matthew, is one of the servant songs in Isaiah[1]. These ‘songs’ are named because they all refer to a ‘servant’ of the LORD who is tasked with proclaiming the LORD’s judgment and justice not only to Israel but to the nations. Many Christians have heard within the language of the servant songs a foreshadowing of the ministry of Jesus and while particularly in the songs classically called servant songs by Christians are used by the writers of the New Testament to describe the ministry of Christ we often miss what the majority of the references to the servant of the LORD in this section of Isaiah are: references to Israel. When you look at Isaiah 41-53 most references to the servant are explicitly to Israel:

But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend. (41: 8)

But now hear, O Jacob, my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! (44:1)

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you though you do not know me.  (45:4)

Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob!” (48: 20)

Some of the references, like 42: 1-4, 49: 1-6 and 52: 13 – 53: 12 may refer to the prophet or another individual figure, but they also reference one whose work is the work of Israel. I would argue that with the adoption of the language of the ‘servant’ who is proclaiming justice to the Gentiles that Jesus and how he is healing them Is embodying the vocation of Israel as the light to the nations.

The quotation of Isaiah 42 also takes us back to the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3: 17 where the voice from heaven declares these words “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The textual linkage while not exact is closer than most English translations indicate. The word translated ‘servant’ here is again child in Greek (in the Hebrew for Isaiah 42: 1 it is servant/slave but in both Matthew and the Greek Septuagint the word is child[2]).  Again Jesus’ identity is joined to the identity of Israel and his work of healing while charging the crowds not to reveal him is interpreted in light of the servant of the LORD who proclaims hope and justice to the nations.

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have seen that the hope Jesus embodies is not limited to the people of Israel and that the representatives of the nations will often demonstrate a faith not seen in Israel. This trajectory will climax at the end of the gospel where the disciples are commissioned to make disciples of all nations (same word translated nations is Gentiles here). In the pluriform manner of attempting to capture through titles, scripture and narrative we have Jesus embodying the vocation of Israel for the sake of the nations as another facet of understanding the identity and importance of Jesus.

If Jesus and his followers take on the identity and vocation of Israel throughout the gospel, then what happens to Israel? This is a question that Matthew does allude to towards the end of the gospel in a surprising way (in a way often misunderstood by Christian interpreters). Without dwelling at length here about the overall perspective of this reading of Matthew, I can say that the embodiment of Israel’s vocation by Jesus, the events at the last supper and crucifixion, and the commission of his disciples to the nations do not represent a rejection of Israel for Matthew. Matthew who has spent more time than any other gospel writer attempting to understand Jesus’ ministry in light of the law and prophets would not easily abandon God’s chosen people. Matthew’s gospel doesn’t spend the time in reflection of Paul in Romans 9-11, but I do think there are some parallel thoughts when Paul reflects:

So I ask, have they (Israel) stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean! Romans 11: 11-12

If in the embodiment of Israel’s vocation by Jesus will bring the Gentiles hope and justice then we can also trust that God will not forget Israel, God’s servant the beloved or Jacob the chosen, the offspring of Abraham the friend of God.

[1] The classical list of the ‘Servant Songs of Isaiah’ includes four poems from Isaiah: 42: 1-4; 46: 1-6; 50: 4-7; 52: 13-53:12 and sometimes 61: 1-3 which are classically used by Christians as references to Christ. I would argue that looking at the language of Isaiah 41-53 that, for reasons that will become clear above, that the servant songs actually include most of the poetry of these twelve chapters in Isaiah.

[2] The Greek pais typical meaning is child, it can mean servant in terms of subordinate but when possible I’ve gone with the most direct translation of terms.

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