Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict (Matthew 12:14-21)

What can we learn from Jesus about how to handle conflict?

Open Matthew 12:14-21 and Isaiah 42:1–4.

How do you handle conflict? Fight? Or flight?

Some of us are fighters. We stand our ground. We’re warriors for justice, for ourselves and for others. We’ll never stand by and let evil take the reins.

Some of us avoid conflict. We keep the peace at all costs. We take the way of the cross: it’s more godly to suffer wrong than to demand rights.

Funny thing is that both groups conscript Jesus. Justice warriors look up to a Jesus as a leader who stood up for the poor, the outcasts, the unacceptable “sinners.” He trained his followers to handle confrontation, bringing not peace but a sword (10:14-39). He announced woes on the Galilean towns that rebuffed his kingship (11:20-24). He confronted the Pharisees so vehemently and persistently that they wanted to destroy him (12:1-14).

Then, suddenly, Jesus suddenly quits the confrontation and withdraws (12:15). And this isn’t the first time. When John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus withdrew into Galilee (4:12). This non-confrontational Jesus was not what John expected the Messiah to be (11:3). Jesus didn’t rescue John. John was beheaded, and Jesus withdrew again (14:13).

So what’s all this withdrawing? Is this another side to Jesus? Is this the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of children’s lullabies?

Matthew seems to think it is. He quotes Isaiah’s message about God’s tender sensitivity for fragile people, portraying Jesus as the embodiment of God’s heart. What a contrast to the rulers of this world! Jesus doesn’t quarrel or raise his voice to get his demands met. You never hear him barking his orders across the street (12:19). He’s so conscious of his people’s struggles. He’s so gentle that he wouldn’t break a bruised reed along Galilee’s shore. He sees the one who’s struggling to find their way through the dark, the one whose lamp is a smouldering wick in the buffeting wind (12:20).

Divine authority is a banquet of justice served with gentleness. Justice confronts those who have power: that power must be given over to God for the kingdom of God to be established. But Jesus will bring justice without the collateral damage, without force, without war, without harming the people in the trenches. That’s why it takes so long.

Jesus fights for justice, but he won’t let the fight become violent.

That’s why he stopped fighting and withdrew at this point. The fight had taken an unproductive turn. It ceased being about the issue (Jesus’ kingship) and became personal (12:14). It’s time to withdraw when the fight turns to destroying people.

If you tend to avoid conflict, look at Jesus and learn how to fight for justice. It matters.

If you tend to fight, look at Jesus and learn when to withdraw. Collateral damage matters. Every bruised reed. Every smouldering wick.

Jesus is leading us to justice, without war. We follow him in the fight that destroys injustice without destroying anyone. That’s the future our king is leading us to, guided by his Holy Spirit.

This is the gospel of our Lord — the only ruler who gives hope even to enemies!

Matthew 12:14-21 (my translation)
14 As they left, the Pharisees colluded against him, how they could destroy him.

15 Jesus knew, so he withdrew from there. Many followed him. He healed them all 16 and warned them not to disclose him.

17 That’s how the word declared through the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled:

18 Look, my servant whom I chose, the one I love, the delight of my life,
I will place my spirit on him and he will deliver justice to the nations.
19 He won’t quarrel or shout. No one will hear his voice across the streets.
20 A bruised reed he won’t break; a smouldering wick he won’t extinguish,
until he successfully establishes justice.
21 The nations will place their hope in his authority.


What others are saying

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 445:

The Suffering Servant’s advance of justice will not break those who are abused, nor will it smother those who are nearly out of resources; rather, he will provide the ultimate victory for those who respond to the invitation to enter the kingdom. …
But it is not only for Israel. All “the nations” will put their hope in the name of this Servant, the One who Matthew declares is none other than Jesus of Nazareth (cf. 2:23; 12:21). The “name” in 12:21 stands for the whole of the person, including his identity and mission. Jesus Messiah is a Suffering Servant who is Spirit-endowed and who offers hope, because the advance of the kingdom of heaven promises victory for all the nations of the world.

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 144:

The nations—and, alas, Israel as well, as becomes clear in Matthew’s story—are bent on violence and arrogance. Those who want peace and who work for it are always, in the end, shouted down by those who want more money, more land, more security, more status, and are prepared to fight and kill to get it. Those who are great and mighty in this world’s terms make sure their voices are heard in the streets. Those who shout loudest get obeyed the soonest. But that’s not the Servant’s way.

So, too, those who want to get ahead in this world tend to push others out of the way. If they see a weak link—a rod that’s bent and could break, a candle that’s almost gone out—they will trample on it without a thought. That’s not the Servant’s way. The nations are used to arrogance. Here is a Servant who is the very opposite. He is the one shining light, the one hopeful sign.

[previous: The message of Jesus’ miracles]

[next: Who is “the Servant of the Lord”?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

4 thoughts on “Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict (Matthew 12:14-21)”

  1. Beautifully articulated Allen, a word for the warrior and for the person who flee’s.
    A word in season for me today
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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