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Matthew 12:15-21 meaning

Matthew tells us that Jesus is not harmed by the Pharisees’ plot to destroy Him at this time. He continues to heal people, but is careful to keep His identity as the Messiah a mystery. Matthew highlights how this is another rich fulfillment of one of Isaiah’s prophecies.

The parallel gospel account of Matthew 12:15-21 is found in Mark 3:7-12.

 Jesus knew what the Pharisees were conspiring. He was aware that they were plotting how they might destroy Him because He had shamed them publicly when they challenged His authority over the Sabbath. So, He left and withdrew from there (v 15). Matthew indicates that Jesus certainly left the synagogue where He had restored the man with a withered hand, but Jesus also may have left that town or region and withdrew to somewhere else in the Roman province of Judea. Where exactly He went, Matthew does not tell us.

 Wherever He went, many followed Him. Mark reported where the many who followed Him came from. They came from Galilee (northern Israel), Judea (southern Israel) and the city of Jerusalem, the region of Idumaea (further south of Judea, beyond the Jordan in Perea), and from the Mediterranean coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon to the northwest (Mark 3:7-8). This means that the people who followed Him originated from a radius of a hundred miles or more.

They were drawn to His miraculous powers or perceived that He might be the Messiah. As they followed Him, Jesus continued to use His power and He healed all of them who came.

But as He healed the sick among the multitudes, and as they speculated about His Messianic identity, Jesus warned them not to tell anyone who He was (v 16). Perhaps this was because He did not wish it to be broadly known that He was the Messiah until His time had come (John 7:6). Jesus gave this warning to the exorcised demons who shrieked out that Jesus was God's Son (Mark 3:11-12).

Matthew next told his readers that this shielding of His identity was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet (v 17). Matthew again is demonstrating through Old Testament scriptures to His primarily Jewish audience that Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew cites Isaiah 42:1-4 with a few modifications. Matthew wrote:

 Behold, My Servant whom I have chosen;
My Beloved in whom My soul is well-pleased;
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel, nor cry out;
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
A battered reed He will not break off,
And a smoldering wick He will not put out,
Until He leads justice to victory.
And in His name the Gentiles will hope (vv 18-21).

 There are four noteworthy differences between Mathew's citation and Isaiah's words. The first is that Matthew describes the Servant as My Beloved while Isaiah describes Him as "My chosen one." The second is that Matthew alters Isaiah's tense in the third line to read I will put my Spirit upon Him (v 18) instead of "I have put my Spirit upon Him." The third difference is Matthew interprets Isaiah's descriptions of "nations" and "the coastlands" to mean Gentiles. This is an interesting choice for Matthew whose purpose for writing this Gospel narrative was to show how Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah sent from God. The final noteworthy difference is that Matthew omits two of Isaiah's lines, "He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed." These differences do not materially alter the substance or meaning of what Isaiah prophesied, rather they provide insightful points of emphasis, fresh focus, and an additional perspective of Isaiah's original prophecy.

Isaiah's prophecy in Isaiah 42:1-4 is actually the end of an extended quotation from the LORD God of Israel that begins in Isaiah 41:25, runs through Isaiah 42:4. The fuller passage describes how no one in the history of Zion has listened to God (Isaiah 41:26), and that there is no counselor among them able to speak to them on God's behalf (Isaiah 41:28-29). And then the LORD says the part of the prophecy which Matthew quotes (Isaiah 42:1-4).

The LORD describes the Messiah as My Servant (Isaiah 42:1/Matthew 12:18). Jesus came as a servant. He served His Father's will in perfect obedience (Matthew 26:39, John 6:38, Philippians 2:5-8). And He came to serve all of humanity by suffering on their behalf to make their redemption available (Matthew 20:28).

In Isaiah He is called "My chosen one" (Isaiah 42:1). The Greek Septuagint uses the word "ekletos," meaning "chosen" or "elected." Matthew writes, "My Beloved," ("agapetos") indicating the close relationship that Jesus shared with His Father. Jesus was both chosen by God the Father for the divine task and He was dearly beloved by Him. Both Isaiah and Matthew follow this description with an affirmation of how pleasing the Messiah is to God's soul. At Jesus's baptism, Matthew wrote that "a voice from the heavens," declared, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17).

The next line of Isaiah's prophecy reads, "I have put My Spirit upon Him (Isaiah 42:1)." It is of interest that the Isaiah prophecy states this utterance in the past tense. It is common in the Old Testament for a prophecy of something that will occur in the future to be stated in the past tense in order to emphasize the certainty that God will bring it to pass. The idea is that because God has spoken it, its occurrence is certain. In this instance, it could be argued that this part of the prophecy has already taken place, since Jesus is God. More likely the passage is predicting that God will become Human, and be subject to the leading of the Spirit.

We know that this Servant is Jesus, God's Son, and the Word of God who was with God in the Beginning (John 1:1). It was not widely understood by the Jews in Isaiah's day that God is Three-in-One. This is one of a number of places where the Trinity appears in a subtle manner. It gives a subtle reason for a Jew to pause when reading it.

As mentioned above, Matthew alters the tense from past to future for this thought, writing, I will put My Spirit upon Him (v 18). The common practice in their era was for readers to read the scriptures to the people. This was due to lack of access to the scripture scrolls, it was common for each synagogue to have one, and for the people to commit it to memory. The reader would translate from Hebrew to Aramaic (the common language of Jews at that time) as they read. It could be that the readers translated this as future tense, since that is clearly what is indicated from the context. It is clear that the future coming of the Messiah is what is in view.

Isaiah writes, "He will bring forth justice" (Isaiah 42:1), which is something that the Jews would have expected the Messiah to do among themselves. But Isaiah does not stop there. He says, "He will bring forth justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1)." "The nations" is a euphemism for those who are not God's chosen people, the non-Jews, the Gentiles. Matthew modifies "bring forth" to proclaim and removes the euphemism and explicitly states Gentiles. God is making a point through Isaiah's prophecy. His point is that because the people of Zion have refused to listen and obey God, He will send His Servant to bring justice among the Gentiles (instead of them).

Interestingly, the word that Matthew uses that is translated as justice in this passage is not the typical one. The normal Greek word for justice is "Dikaiosuné," which is often translated as "righteousness." "Dikaiosune" emphasizes harmony or the good or right ordering of things. The Greek word translated as justice in this passage is "krisis." From this word we get our word "crisis." This word is usually translated as "judgment." A more descriptive translation of Matthew's meaning might be "vindication." The thrust of this prophecy stresses that God's Servant, the Jewish Messiah, will vindicate or validate the Gentiles by graciously including them into His plan of redemption. This judgement or "krisis" will bring justice and be the Gentiles' great hope.

It is fitting how Matthew mentions this prophecy at this particular moment in his narration. He brings it to mind in the middle of four confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders of Judea. They too behave like their forefathers and refuse to listen and obey God. They will eventually lead the nation to reject Jesus as Messiah. They did this even though Jesus was the Jewish Messiah: an everlasting priest in the order Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4, Hebrews 6:20); a prophetic lawgiver among their brethren like unto Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18, John 1:45, Acts 3:22); and a King in the line of David (2 Samuel 7:11-16, 1 Chronicles 22:9-10, Psalm 89:3-4, 89:35-36, Jeremiah 23:5-6, Matthew 1:1, 1:17, 9:27, 12:23, Luke 1:32-33, Acts 15:15-17).

Jesus is also Savior of the entire world (John 3:17, 4:42, Romans 1:16, Titus 2:11, 1 John 4:14).

Jesus was foretold to the Jews. And He came as a Jew unto the Jews. But when the Jews rejected their Messiah, Jesus offered His salvation and His kingdom to the Gentiles and unto all who would believe and follow Him, as was partially foretold in Isaiah's prophecy. In Romans 9, 11, Paul argues that in God's mystery He is using the apostle's ministry of sharing Christ among the Gentiles to "move to jealousy my countrymen and save some of them" (Romans 11:14).

As appropriate as it was to include this particular prophecy from Isaiah at this moment because of the Pharisees' rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, this does not seem to be Matthew's main reason for doing so. His main reason appears to be to explain why Jesus warned the many who followed Him to not tell who He was (v 16). Matthew says this was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet (v 17). In other words, Jesus warned others (at least in part) because it was necessary to fulfill this prophecy. The next lines, which form the heart of Matthew's quote of Isaiah 42 (verses 2 and 3) make this clear:

He will not quarrel, nor cry out;
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
A battered reed He will not break off,
And a smoldering wick He will not put out, (vv 19-20)

When seen in this light, we see that God's Servant does not make a big scene about Who He is. He does not quarrel (v 19) or attempt to prove Himself to others by arguing with them. He does not demand or insist that others recognize His true identity. He does not scream nor cry out that He is the Messiah. People do not hear His voice in the streets promoting His name as the Christ (v 19). He will reveal Himself humbly. He will reveal Himself so gently that He will not break off a battered reed (v 20). His voice will be so quiet that He will not put out a smoldering candle wick (v 20).

Instead of loudly announcing Himself as the Messiah, Jesus will let His miracles, His character, His moral teachings, and prophecies (such as this one) proclaim His identity for Him. This leaves others the opportunity to accept and love Him for themselves by faith. Had Jesus fully unveiled Himself and His identity, then no one would have had a free choice to come to Him. Everyone would have been overwhelmed by His presence and the inescapable terror that He was God, and been compelled to acknowledge Him. In the future, at His second coming, Jesus will unveil His glory and compel all to acknowledge Him as King (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10-11). But during Jesus' first advent, He came as a servant. And He made certain people had a free choice whether or not to believe. In coming as He did, He gave more than enough evidence to plainly demonstrate His identity, while leaving enough space for people to accept or reject Him as they chose.

Matthew then omits two of Isaiah's lines. "He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not be disheartened or crushed" (Isaiah 42:3-4). It is possible that he left these out because they refer to Jesus's second advent, when He will return to earth to execute justice, and bring in everlasting righteousness (Revelation 19:11). In His first advent, Jesus was crushed and rejected. He had injustice done to Him.

Old Testament prophecies are not always evenly told in a historical linear sequence of events. Foretold events are often mixed and jumbled out of order or with irregular gaps in time. This appears to be the case in this Messianic prophecy from Isaiah. He is talking about two comings of the Messiah, the one that occurred when Jesus was born in the first century A.D. and the other when He returns to earth in the future. In explaining this passage, Matthew seems to primarily focus on how Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophetic utterances that pertained to the Messiah's first advent.

Matthew ends his quote of Isaiah's prophecy with Until He leads justice to victory. And in His name the Gentiles will hope (vv 20-21). The until serves as an important warning. God's Servant will not forever remain so gentle and mild. He will not be disheartened or crushed in His second Advent. One Day He will be anything but mild. When He appears to His friend John in Revelation, Jesus is a terror to behold (Revelation 1:14-17). Jesus will ferociously lead justice to victory when He returns to wage war against "the beast and kings of the earth and their armies assembled… against Him" (Revelation 19:19). There will be nothing gentle about Him then. Matthew again lets it be known that Isaiah is saying God's Servant will be a hope for the Gentiles (v 21). Mathew likely included this foretelling of Jesus judging the world because it is clearly written as a future event.

This is the twelfth time Matthew has explicitly pointed out how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. (The previous eleven are found in Matthew 1:22-23, 2:5-6, 2:16-18, 2:23, 3:1-3, 4:4-6, 4:13-16, 8:17, 10:35-36, 11:10. This list does not include the three additional Messianic prophecies that Jesus alludes to in Matthew 11:5-6).

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