Who is “the Servant of the Lord”? (Matthew 12:17-21)

What Isaiah said about Israel, Matthew says about Jesus. How can he do that?

Open Matthew 12:17-21.

Years ago, I ordered the plans to build a 2-seater kit plane. It was fun pouring over the plans, but I didn’t really have the time or resources to commit to such a project. I took on pastoring instead.

Building community is nothing like building an aircraft. You only get one chance to get the critical things right in a plane, but you can stress-test the parts and be mathematically sure it’s good to fly.

Human beings are nothing like that. They decouple mid-flight and fly off in their own direction. There can be no blueprints for building community: the “parts” are living and constantly changing. A leader is always adapting the plans, reshaping and redesigning. Mid-flight!

But God knows all about this. In seven days, he designed a brilliant community called “earth” where we could live in harmony and justice under his kingship. We were designed as God-images — the community that received his care, and reflected it in our management of his creatures and creation (Genesis 1–2). But humanity decoupled from his kingship and flew off. As you’d expect, this out-of-balance community didn’t fly too well, spiralling down into violence (Genesis 3–6).

But God didn’t give up on the earth as a failed community project. As a wise master builder, he adjusted the strategy needed to take us there. He started over through Noah (Genesis 7–9). While nations and kingdoms fought each other for power (Genesis 10) and tried to usurp his authority to rule the world (Genesis 11), God adjusted the plan. He established a nation through whom the other nations could see the blessing they’d lost (Genesis 12).

Jacob’s descendants were a privileged people, the only nation directly ruled by God. But they weren’t chosen to be the only ones. They were chosen to be YHWH’s servant to the nations, a living witness that life was meant to be lived under YHWH’s kingship, a light to the nations that floundered in the dark.

Isaiah 40–55 is all about the Lord’s kingship over all nations, and Israel’s vocation as his servant. It’s a powerful message — precisely because the Israel phase of God’s project had also crashed. The nations (Assyria and Babylon) had taken over God’s nation. Israel had gone dark, unable to be a light to the nations. Israel was exiled from their land, unable to witness to YHWH’ kingship.

But the failure of his servant is not the failure of the Lord. That’s the message of second Isaiah. YHWH promised that he himself would be their king (Isaiah 40). He would stretch out his own arm and complete the task given to his servant (Isaiah 50). Since Israel had been unable to complete the task, the servant’s role moved to someone who enters their failure and completes it on their behalf (Isaiah 53).

And Matthew says that Jesus is the person who finally fulfils the servant role for God’s people:

Matthew 12:17-18 (my translation)
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. …”

Some modern critics accuse Matthew of misusing Scripture, since the servant of Lord was clearly Israel (Isaiah 41:8-9; 42:19; 44:1, 21; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3-5). Those critics don’t understand how Jesus fulfilled Israel’s role, on their behalf.

If we don’t understand that, we won’t understand that it’s our role too. We who are in the Messiah — the people who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and willingly live under his kingship — are still the servant of the Lord. He calls us to be the living image of his kingship, the servant empowered with his Spirit, the living expression of his justice among the nations.

As the servant of the Lord, we declare his kingship with gentleness, showing respect for those who don’t understand it yet, without quarrelling or shouting. We cannot be demanding. We cannot bark orders at people on Facebook or Twitter. As his servant, we must be aware of bruised reeds and smouldering wicks, and treat them as he does. It’s the only way justice will ever be established in this world.

Matthew was right. Jesus fulfilled Israel’s role as the servant of the Lord, the role originally intended for all humanity. In the Messiah, God is bringing his earth-community project back on track. The servant of the Lord: it’s who we are and what we do.

Jesus put himself in our shoes. Read Isaiah’s text again as our identity, the vocation we have in him:

Matthew 12:18-21
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

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 360–361:

In context Isaiah 42:1–4 refers to Israel (44:1, 21; 49:3). But it is not hard to see how Matthew interprets Isaiah 42; despite the skepticism of some of his modern critics, Matthew read the larger context. God’s servant Israel failed in its mission (42:18–19), so God chose one person within Israel to restore the rest of his people (49:5–7); this one would bear the punishment (cf. 40:2) rightly due his people (52:13–53:12). As in 12:1–14, Matthew here provides a hermeneutical key for his entire Gospel; his interpretation of Isaiah may explain the Israel typology predominant in texts cited in the editorial asides of his infancy narratives

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 444:

Matthew uses his typical fulfillment formula (cf. 1:22; 2:15) to introduce the longest Old Testament quotation in his Gospel, which identifies Jesus with the messianic Servant in Isaiah 42:1–4: “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant whom I have chosen the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.’ ” The context in Isaiah’s prophecy is the section often called the Servant Songs (Isa. 40–52). The identity of the Servant is perplexing, because it vacillates between the nation of Israel as the Servant (41:8–10; 44:1–3, 21; 45:4 [49:3?]) and an individual who leads the nation (42:1–4; 49:5–7). That individual emerges as the Servant Messiah who has a ministry and mission both to Israel and the nations.

[previous: Face or flee? What Jesus did with conflict]

[next: What I learned from Djuki Mala]

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). Discipleship Trainer • Riverview Church

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