The Gentle Servant – Matthew 12:15-21

Pastor Scott L. Harris
August 15, 1993

The Gentle Servant
Matthew 12:15-21


Ask people how they can achieve success in our society and among the answers will be “having power.” We live in a world in which having power is seen as being of the utmost importance. In business, in politics, and even in social clubs having power is a key part of getting things changed to the way you want them. We should keep in mind that the push by certain groups for “their rights” is not about equality, but about gaining power.

In the quest for power we find many people who will do almost anything to attain it. In business, we find people that will trample all over co-workers in order to attain the next higher position. Some will compromise their personal integrity in order to get ahead. In social settings, pandering is used in order to get close to those in power, and then gossip is also used to strike down the competition. Politics is filled with those who will say anything in order to get elected. All of us are aware of elections in which the victor was the one who could lie the loudest and the longest. The truth is unimportant in comparison to winning the seat of power.

The situation becomes even worse when these people do achieve the power they were after. They become self-important, all wise and knowing in their own eyes. They abuse those they have power over and they rant and rave against their opponents.

Now there is nothing wrong with Christians rising to seats of power and using that power properly, but there is great danger for Christians to gain and use that power according to the world’s example. The sad fact is that power can and often does have a corrupting influence even on Christians. History is filled with examples of people being mistreated and abused by those who claimed to be Christians. That ought not to be because that is not the example Jesus left us. Jesus had all power available to him, yet His example is that of a gentle servant.

Turn to Matthew 12:15-21. As we examine this text this morning, we are going to find in Jesus the example we need to follow. Success for the Christian does not come through attaining positions of worldly power, though God often does put Christians in those positions, for success for the Christian is not in having power, but in being a faithful servant of the omnipotent God. Jesus never attained any position of worldly power. He never sought such a position; instead He was God’s gentle servant. He was merciful, meek, chosen of God; quiet, sympathetic and unlimited in whom He would minister to as God’s representative.

Follow along as I read this morning’s text. “But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there, And many followed Him, and He healed them all, and warned them not to make Him known, in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, might be fulfilled, saying, ‘BEHOLD, MY SERVANT WHO 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 PUT OUT, UNTIL HE LEADS JUSTICE TO VICTORY. AND IN HIS NAME THE GENTILES WILL HOPE.'”

Matthew 12:15 sets us back in the context of this passage. “But Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there.” This refers to the plot that was being put together by the Pharisees and the Herodians to come up with some plan to kill Jesus. At this point in Jesus’ ministry, the religious leaders have risen in severe opposition to Him because He would not follow their traditions. As we saw last week, they had circumvented the Law of Moses with their own minutia of regulations, and they had in fact turned the Sabbath, which was given as a sign of God’s covenant with Israel and for man’s benefit in order that he might rest and celebrate in worship of God, into the most oppressive day of the week.  (See: The Lord of the Sabbath).

Back in the beginning of the chapter, the Pharisees came criticizing Jesus because he had allowed His disciples to pick and eat some of the ripe grain that was in the fields through which they were walking. What the disciples had done was in complete accord with the Mosaic Law, but it was against the traditions the Rabbis had set up. Jesus had admonished them that they were unjustly accusing the innocent of breaking the Sabbath, because not only should they have been aware from their study of the Old Testament history that the law could be breached, as in the example of David given in Matthew 12:3, 4, but also that the law had exceptions, as seen in Matthew 12:5 which points out the duties of the priest. In addition, God’s desire and the very purpose of the law was compassion, not ritual (Matthew 12:7), and furthermore, Jesus said that He was the Lord of the Sabbath.

We need to keep in mind that legalism is a killer. It is a killer of God’s law, a killer of man’s spirit, and a killer of man being able to walk with God. Legalism is exchanging the rule of God for the rule of man and following man’s dictates rather than the Holy Spirit’s conviction. We still have it around today and it manifests itself in its hypocritical nature just as it did back then. It is man’s self-righteous nature that proclaims, “I am good because I do not go to movie theaters,” but the truth is that the same movies are rented and watched on the VCR. “I am righteous because I don’t drink,” yet the same person is in such emotional turmoil they need drugs to keep themselves on an even keel and to sleep at night. “I am holy because I do not smoke,” yet the same person has such a strong addiction to caffeine that they are a bear until they get their first cup of coffee. Still another claims, “I am virtuous because I attend all the church meetings,” but the rest of their non-working time is spent in pursuit of being entertained. In reality, for them church is just part of the entertainment because they do not put into practice what is taught there. Legalism is dangerous!

Jesus would not bend to the legalism of His day. He proclaimed Himself Lord of the Sabbath which equated Himself with God and the Pharisees knew it. In Matthew 12:9-13, Jesus gave a positive demonstration that He was ruler over the Sabbath when He positively broke their legalistic traditions and demonstrated true compassion by healing the man with the withered hand. They should have rejoiced over the good thing done for this man, but instead they were incensed that Jesus would not bow to their legalism. Jesus would not submit Himself to the regulations of man that were against the Law of God. Instead of rejoicing, the Pharisees, the legalistic traditionalist, joined together with their normal enemies, the Herodians, who were the Jews that followed Greek/Roman culture and were political supporters of King Herod, and they plotted to put Jesus to death.

Someone who was seeking after worldly power would have used the advantage just won in the rebuke of the Pharisees to rally the support of the people and put an end to them. Instead we find that Jesus, aware of their plotting, withdraws from there. Jesus is not after the acclaim of the people and gaining the power the Pharisees held. He is interested in being:

A Merciful Servant

Matthew 12:15 continues, “And many followed Him, and He healed them all . . .”. One of the marks of the godly is mercy. We saw that in the Sermon on the Mount in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”  (See: Blessed are the Merciful) . Jesus did not seek after confrontation nor did He seek to escalate conflict. He often avoided it when possible. Jesus had proclaimed the truth, the Pharisees and Herodians were meeting to plot together to kill Jesus, but it was now time for Jesus to continue His ministry to the people. Those who recognized the compassion demonstrated in healing the man with the withered hand would come after Him, and we find that Jesus’ compassion extended to all for “He healed them all.” Jesus made no demands of them except to come to Him for healing. If Jesus had been after earthly power, he would have extracted from them oaths of loyalty and organized them into an army that would proclaim Him throughout the land so that the Pharisees would be thoroughly discredited and no longer a threat. Instead, we find that Jesus was a

A Meek Servant Matthew 12:16, 17

“. . . and warned them not to make Him known, in order that what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, might be fulfilled, saying . . .”.

Meekness is another characteristic of the truly righteous that we saw in the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Meekness is not weakness, but power under control. A meek servant is one who strives only to please his master.  (See: Blessed are the Meek). Jesus’ interest was not His own glory. That will come in due time when God exalts Him, but Jesus’ concern was doing God’s will just as He declared in John 6:38, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”

There were probably several reasons for Jesus not wanting the people to make Him known. Among them would be the fact that such a proclamation by the people would have distorted why He was here. Jesus came to save souls, not to dispense physical healing. The physical healing was both part of the attesting miracles that backed up His claim to be Messiah and the natural outworking of His compassion. In addition, such a proclamation at this point would have inflamed zealous enthusiasm and it was not yet the proper time of His exaltation. In John 6:15, an incident is recorded where the people were so enthused that they wanted to come and take Him by force and make Him king. But Jesus did not come the first time to be the conquering king, but the suffering servant that would take away our sins (Isaiah 53).

The stated reason that Jesus warned the people not to make Him known was so that He could fulfill the prophecy concerning Him given by Isaiah. Jesus did not just happen into human history; He came because He was sent by God the Father as:

A Chosen Servant Matthew 12:18


This is an accurate paraphrase of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, of Isaiah 42:1-4 which stresses the nature and purpose of God’s chosen servant being sent to mankind. The first verse of the quote stresses the relationship of the servant and God. The word translated here as “servant” is not the usual term used, but is a more restricted term denoting an especially intimate servant who was trusted and loved as a son. In fact, it is often translated as “son.” In secular usage, it was used of a child adopted into a family as an heir that could never be disenfranchised. God the Father had chosen His beloved Son to be His divine servant who would redeem man. God the Father was pleased with Jesus and had filled Him with the Holy Spirit as was demonstrated at His baptism where the Holy Spirit descended as a dove upon Him and a voice from Heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16,17 – See: The Baptism of Jesus – 2/2/92). That was repeated again at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5 – See: A Glimpse of His Glory – 2/27/94) which we will examine in the months to come.

Some have questioned Jesus’ deity based on the idea of the Holy Spirit coming upon Him. They ask if Jesus is already God, why is the Holy Spirit coming upon Him? The reason is simple. Jesus was fully God, but He was also fully man. As a man Jesus was tempted in all points as we are yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). As a human child Jesus grew in wisdom, stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). Jesus had human feelings and emotions. He had times of hunger, thirst, fatigue, pain, and sorrow. Jesus’ humanity received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit so that His humanity would function in accordance with His deity.

Having the Holy Spirit upon Him was a mark of His messiahship. It was prophesied in Isaiah 42 and 61 (which Jesus quoted in Luke 4 as being fulfilled in Him) that God’s chosen servant would have the Spirit upon Him.

Among the purposes of His coming was to “proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” Jesus came to proclaim what is right and true and in accordance with God’s will to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. This was another area that provoked the Jewish religious leaders of that day toward hatred of Christ. They were very ethno-centric and believed that God was for the Jews only. Only on rare occasions did any one of Israel fulfill God’s desire in taking the message of God’s interest in the Gentile nations to them. Jonah reluctantly did so, and even then his desire was that God would destroy Nineveh rather than reform Nineveh.

Jesus came as God the Father’s chosen servant who was filled with the Holy Spirit and He came with a message of hope for the Gentiles as well as the Jews. And the manner in which He would proclaim that message to both the Jews and Gentiles would be as

A Quiet Servant Matthew 12:19

“He will not quarrel, nor cry out; Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.” To “quarrel” ( erizw / erizw) denotes wrangling, hassling, disputing, arguing in strife manner. To “cry out” (kraugazw / kraugazw) means to shout or scream excitedly. The kind of noise that would occur in a drunk’s yelling or a dog’s barking. Jesus had many confrontations with the self- righteous religious leaders of that time, but he never entered into a shouting match or clamorous arguments. Jesus would debate with them, but since He was here to do the Father’s will and not His own, there was no anger except righteous indignation when God Himself was profaned by them such as when He drove the money changers out of the Temple (John 2:14,15). The indication would be that He rarely raised His voice.

What a lesson for us! How true Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 9:17, “The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” A crowd can be worked up for a short time by a railing man who works on their emotions, but long lasting change comes from ideas that sink into the mind and heart. A contemporary example of that is the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR.

Jesus did not enter into emotionally charged debates and arguments with anyone, including His opponents. He simply presented the truth in a quiet and controlled manner and let the truth, not charged emotions, do the work. It is the same with us. Yes, I know that when we get into a discussion about eternal matters with someone who does not know the Lord your heart can beat a little faster, the adrenalin can start pumping, and our emotions can get involved. And that is fine, but emotions do not need to control us. Even when the other person gets emotionally charged because you are starting to step on their beliefs, you can still remain calm and answer them softly. The goal in Christian witnessing is not that the other person is going to give their life to Christ right then and there. If that happens, wonderful, but that is not the goal. The goal is to give accurate testimony to the truth and be faithful in presenting what God has done for you and for that other person in the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot save them. Their salvation is between them and the Holy Spirit. You can only be faithful in proclaiming the gospel to them. If they reject your message, it is not a personal matter with you. It is Christ they are struggling with. Does that mean that we become stoics who talk to others without care, concern, or emotion? Not at all. We never need get upset, but we certainly care and can be emotional. We follow Jesus’ example who as a

A Sympathetic Servant – Verse 20

“A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not pull out, until He leads justice to victory.” This is figurative language describing the Messiah’s sympathetic nature.

A reed could be used for many purposes including making music. Shepherds would make a flute-like instrument with them and play soft music while watching the sheep. But once that reed became soft or cracked it was useless. A bent or battered reed would be broken up and thrown away.

When a lamp wick burned down to its end, it could not soak up enough oil to keep a flame going, yet it was still capable of keeping an ember smoldering. A smoldering wick did nothing of value and spread smoke, so it would be extinguished.

This figurative speech (specifically a litotes) conveys a positive truth by telling the negative of its opposite. The battered reed and smoldering wick represent the bruised, battered, broken, and worn out people, the outcasts of society. The people ignored by the Romans and despised by the Pharisees. Jesus came with genuine sympathy and tender concern for these people. He came to heal the sick (Matthew 12:15; etc.), seek and save tax-collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:9, 10), comfort mourners (Matthew 5:4), cheer the fearful (Matthew 14:13-21), reassure doubters (Matthew 11:2-6), feed the famished (Matthew 14:13-21), and pardon the sins of the repentant (Matthew 9:2). Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost (Matthew 19:10).

We are to have genuine sympathy, tender compassion, and true concern for the lost. We weep over them and for them as Jesus did over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37). We cry and weep, we plead with them to come to the truth. There is a lot of emotion in that. But we never respond in anger or try to argue them into the kingdom, for that cannot be done. We present the truth lovingly, tenderly, compassionately, and sympathetically. We are to continue in this personally as long as we are alive. This ministry will continue by Christ’s church until Jesus’ triumphant return when He takes His wrath out on the ungodly and sin and its consequences will be banished to Hell. That is when He will lead justice to victory.

The sympathetic ministry of God’s people is to be long-term and it is to include the outcasts of society and not limited to those who are like us in social standing or social habits. Jesus was

An Unlimited Servant Matthew 12:21

“And in His name the Gentiles will hope.” The time was fast approaching when the command to not make Jesus known (Matthew 12:16) would end and Israel’s savior would be proclaimed as the savior of the world. We who are here today are evidence of this because there are only a few people in the room that are not Gentiles. The Lord Jesus Christ is the only hope there is for mankind. But is the message of that hope getting out to those that need to hear it the most? It is wonderful to come to church and hear the message over and over again, but it is the lost that need to hear the message. Jesus has given us the example of how to take that message to the lost, but are we doing it? That is not the pastor’s job. It is the responsibility of every Christian. Yes! The Holy Spirit will empower you as you faithfully tell others the truth that though they deserve Hell, their sins can be forgiven and their lives changed through Jesus Christ.

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