Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law (Isaiah 42:1-4).
One of the more puzzling aspects of Jesus’ ministry on the earth involves His admonishment of many of those whom He healed to not proclaim what He did for them. Why would He do such things but not want them to be made known? And why is He inconsistent about it?
It is not as if the “ban” on discussing what Jesus did was permanent; after all, we read about these events in the Gospel narratives. Jesus told Peter, James, and John to not speak of His Transfiguration until after He rose from the dead (Matthew 17:9). Furthermore, Jesus told the man from whom He cast out Legion to declare to all in his house what God did for him (cf. Luke 8:38-39). What is motivating Jesus to do what He is doing?
Matthew provides us a glimpse into the logic behind Jesus’ actions in Matthew 12:15-21. Matthew tells us how Jesus healed many people, but then charged them not to make Him known (Matthew 12:15-16). Matthew then establishes that He did so in order to fulfill what was spoken of Him by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 42:1-4 (Matthew 12:17-21). But how does Isaiah 42:1-4 relate to Jesus’ admonishments?
The heart of the matter can be found in Isaiah 42:2: He will not cry, nor lift up His voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. This does not seem to be a prophecy of Jesus on the surface; Jesus most assuredly has been active in preaching and teaching throughout Israel (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23, 5:1-7:27, etc.). Matthew, of course, is well aware of this, and yet he is certain that the prophecy does relate to Jesus.
We do well, therefore, to understand Isaiah 42:2 in terms of the “silence” He requests from those of Israel whom He heals. When we consider the entire prophecy, this makes sense: the Servant is in the process of establishing justice on the earth. He is working toward sending forth judgment in truth and victory. But He is not there yet, and there is plenty of room for confusion. If the proclamations were made too soon, the people of God would misunderstand Jesus’ purposes, convinced that He was doing what they expected out of their Messiah. They would make Him into the Messiah of their own desires as opposed to allowing Him to be the Messiah in whom God is pleased, whom God upholds.
This judgment in truth and victory comes with His death and resurrection after which all of these things can be made known and properly understood. The “silence” is necessary because of the lack of understanding of Israel, even among His own disciples (cf. Matthew 16:15-23, John 2:18-22). Through His deeds and His teachings Jesus was setting forth the context for His Kingdom which He was busy establishing; the time was not yet to have His deeds proclaimed among Israel.
Yet this was not the same story among the Gentiles. The Servant came to bring justice to the Gentiles; in Him the Gentiles would hope; the islands, to be understood as people afar off, wait for His law. Such is why He encourages the man from whom Legion was cast out to proclaim what God had done for him (cf. Luke 8:26-39): since he lived across the Sea of Galilee from Galilee, he is in the Decapolis, a mostly Gentile area, and the Gentiles are to hear of the powerful working of Jesus the Servant of God, manifest as well in Acts 10:36-38.
Jesus’ insistence on people not making Himself or His deeds known does seem strange but is a bit more understandable when considering the prophecy. Everything Jesus says and does will make sense after His death and resurrection even if it is hard to comprehend beforehand. As God’s Servant, Jesus is preparing the ground for His Kingdom, the moment when He will send forth judgment unto victory, the hope of Jew and Gentile alike. The time has come to make known to all men the teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth so that all may place their trust in Him so as to obtain eternal life. Let us place our hope in Jesus’ name!
Ethan R. Longhenry