Our Gentle Savior: Matthew 12:14-21
There are two ways to overcome opposition. One way is to crush those who oppose you. The other way is to convince those who oppose you. One way is to force compliance; the other is to change the heart. Of these two methods, history reveals that the first is by far the most popular. It certainly brings about the quickest results. Winning battles is in some sense easier than winning hearts and minds.
Now God has the absolute right to crush all who oppose him. The universe is his realm; he is the King over all. When we sin, we are not simply messing up, we are putting ourselves in opposition to God. We are rebels against God’s holy, just, and good government. He would be completely just and good and holy to put an end to our rebellion by condemning us to eternal judgment.
And the fact of the matter is that there is coming a day when this will happen to all who refuse to lay down their arms and submit to Christ. There is coming a day, according to the last book of the New Testament, when all will be judged: “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12- 15). A day is coming when mercy and long-suffering will no longer be available. A day is coming when it will be everlastingly too late to turn to God. On that day, all God’s enemies will be finally and definitively defeated.
But that day has not come yet. Right now mercy is still extended to all who will receive it. And though we all ought to be looking for the Second Coming of our Lord, yet at the same time we ought also to be thankful for God’s long-suffering, since “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s long-suffering is the reason why those of us who have believed have not perished.
In our Lord’s time, people were waiting for the Messiah. But they weren’t looking for a merciful Messiah and they missed the fact that the Messiah was not only a conquering King but also a suffering servant. They wanted a Messiah who would crush all opposition. And so when Jesus came and did not fit that bill, they rejected him. In the end, they killed him. At this point in Matthew's gospel, the conspiracy to kill Jesus begins: “Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him” (ver. 14). The irony is, however, that though they wanted a conquering king, what they needed was the suffering servant. They rejected him for being the very thing that they needed the most.
You see, though we look around and see only enemies external to us – people, most of all, who make life difficult and miserable and unbearable for us, or circumstances that we wish were different – the fact of the matter is that our worst enemy is staring at us in the mirror every morning when we brush our teeth. The real opposition in our lives that needs to be defeated is not someone or something outside of us, it is the opposition that lies in our own hearts and minds and affections and thoughts. It is the sin within, not just the evil without, that needs to be crushed. This is what our Lord tried to get the people in his day to see: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32). But they didn’t get it, because to them, they didn’t see the chains forged by sin that wrapped around their hearts: “They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?” And so our Lord tells them the truth about sin: “Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (33-34). We are all the servants to us until the Son makes us free (36).
Which means that what we really need is mercy and grace and long-suffering. We don’t need a Christ who has come to destroy his enemies, but a Christ who has come to save his enemies. We need grace just as much as we need justice. And that is what our text this morning is about. It tells us that Jesus Christ came with great compassion and long-suffering. And this is something worthy of our meditation and which should call for the joy of our hearts. As Calvin put it, “When Christ is thus pleased to condescend to our weakness, let his unspeakable goodness be embraced by us with joy.”
The first way that Matthew points us to the gentleness and compassion of Christ is first, by reminding us of his healing ministry (ver. 15-16). By pointing to his healing ministry, Matthew reminds us of those whom society could not help and in many ways had cast off. Jesus healed them all. However, it was not only what he did, but how he did it that underscored his compassion. Our Lord knew that at the end of the day, “the hour” for which the Father appointed him meant death for him so that his people could be saved. The temptation to short-circuit the path to the cross was constantly before him. The easiest thing in the world for our Lord to do – especially in light of the conspiracy and rising opposition of the religious leaders – would have been for him to leverage his popularity (note Matthew’s comment that “great multitudes followed him” in verse 15) in order to avoid persecution and the horrible death of the cross. He certainly could have done it. And yet he never did. Instead, he quietly withdrew and charged those he healed to not make him known and waited for the hour to come (15-16). His love for his people led him to reject the easy path and willingly choose the path to the cross.
The second way that Matthew points us to the gentleness and compassion of Christ is by pointing us to the prophet Isaiah in verses 17-21. Here he is quoting from Isaiah 42:1-3, which is about the Suffering Servant. In doing so, Matthew proves that this is not a version of the Christ that he or others have made up; this is the authentic Christ.
Isaiah’s picture of the Messiah was way out of step with many of the current ideas in our Lord’s day of what he was supposed to be like. And yet, though many rejected this notion of the Christ, he is the one the Father had chosen (18). Note that God through the prophet says essentially the same thing three different ways: “I have chosen this one.” Instead of a king who will crush all who oppose him, and especially the Gentiles, the God of Israel anointed his Servant, who would proclaim justice to the Gentiles (18) and in whose name the Gentiles would hope (21). Here was someone who would not cry aloud or quarrel in the streets (19), and who would deal gently with the weak (20).
What I want to do in the remainder of this message is to meditate with you on the gentleness of Christ, and what it means to you and me.
First of all, it is the gentleness of Christ that opens a door of mercy for us. We live in a time when everyone thinks that they are owed something. And when it comes to God, things are no different. We tend to think that God owes us a good life here and a perfect one hereafter. People can’t imagine a God who would send a person to hell.
But the fact of the matter is that God doesn’t owe us anything. God doesn’t even owe us the opportunity to be saved. He would be perfectly just if he took every sinful human being and consigned them to everlasting destruction. And that’s all of us. So why is anyone saved?
Salvation is possible because of the grace and gentleness of God in Christ. I say gentleness as well as grace, because this is the perfect description of the way God holds the door open for us. God does not come to us in anger, he comes to us in the Gospel. He pleads with us: “We pray you, in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God!” (2 Cor. 5:21). He reasons with us: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as scarlet, though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18). He invites us: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). He doesn’t force us kicking and screaming against our will into the kingdom; rather, he changes our hearts so that we willingly receive eternal life. He is gentle. No wonder our Lord underlined his invitation with the words, “for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:29).
The apostle Paul is a perfect example of this. Here was a man who was a persecutor of the church. He hated Jesus and all of his followers. He had nothing but disgust for Christianity. And yet notice the way in which the Lord confronts him on the road to Damascus. He does not rail at him for all his sins, but asks him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” That question does not exude anger; it conveys compassion for Saul the persecutor. That’s gentleness. And it opened the door of mercy for him. Many of us can testify to the same experience.
Second, it is the gentleness of Christ that he does not hold our sins against us. Once we are saved, and justified and forgiven, the battle for sin has in one sense on begun. The greatest of saints have committed the greatest of sins. One of our problems, I think, is that we can forget how loathsome sin is. We can forget that sin is an offense to God. We can become hardened in our hearts toward the Savior. And we can backslide, sometimes for long periods of time. Instead of bearing fruit that glorifies God, we produce brambles that cause others to stumble.
And we shouldn’t think that God just overlooks this. These things really are grievous to him. God can have “somewhat” against us (cf. Rev. 2:4). And yet, the Scriptures plainly say that if we confess our sins, God will forgive them (1 Jn. 1:7). It doesn’t matter how many times we come to him in genuine repentance, God forgives. This is incredibly difficult for many of us to understand and to grasp because we are all willing to forgive a certain number of times, and then forget it! But our God is a God of grace and meekness, and for that we ought to be exceedingly thankful.
Jesus does not hold grudges against us. He is not bitter against his people because of their past sin, no matter how great it is. If we repent and in our heart we turn away from that which has grieved him, he will receive you again. Think about the church at Laodicea. Our Lord said that their sin was so bad it made him want to throw up (Rev. 3:16). They were “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). And yet – our Lord still affirmed his love for them: “As many as I love, I rebuke, and chasten: be zealous therefore and repent.” Then he says this: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he will me” (Rev. 3:19- 20). It’s important for you to realize this because if you don’t believe that, it will keep your from coming back to him. Look, your sin will not keep Christ from receiving you as long as you are willing to let go of your sin. It is not how bad our sins are that keep us from Christ; it is how badly we want to keep our sins that keeps us from Christ.
Third, it is the gentleness of Christ that he is long-suffering towards us. Perhaps you may think that though you may not sinned so greatly, yet because you have sinned for so long that the Lord will not forgive you or love you or receive you. Perhaps you have reasoned that you have been away from the Lord for so long that there is now no way to come back. But my friend, that is not so.
Consider the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is the story of a man who leaves his father and goes into a “far country” to waste his father’s inheritance in wicked living (13). We are not told how long he was there, but it was long enough for him to spend everything; it was probably a long time. It was only after he has come to the bottom of the barrel that he realized his foolishness. Now it is an unfortunate fact that many people have fathers who would never receive such a son back. And in fact this son wasn’t so sure: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (18-19). But the father was willing to receive him with his whole heart. In fact, he had been looking for him to come back (20, ff). Our Father is just like that. In fact, this parable was meant to illustrate the joy that is in heaven when one sinner repents (7,10). Praise God for his long-suffering towards us!
Finally, it is the gentleness of Christ that orders the events of our lives in order to grow us in grace. David referred to this in 2 Sam. 22:36, when we wrote, “Thou hast also given me the shield of thy salvation: and thy right hand hath holden me up, and thy gentleness hath made me great.” Now that’s interesting when you consider who wrote that. David didn’t spend his life in a penthouse. He spent a lot of it in caves and on the run. In many ways, he had a difficult life. And yet, according to 2 Sam. 22:1, this psalm was written near the end of David’s life, after all the difficulties had come. This was from the perspective of someone who wore the scars of a lot of battles (literally and figuratively). And yet when he looks back over his life, he sees the gentleness of God leading him along.
We need to realize that, especially when we are in the heat of a battle. We need to realize that God guides us, even in the hard times, with gentleness. He knows exactly how much we can handle. And his grace always comes in to bear us up in our difficulties: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). God is holding us in the palm of his hand. He will never leave us or forsake us! A bruised reed he will not break and a smoking flax he will not quench (Mt. 12:20).
So what shall we say to this? How then shall we live? Well, I think the first appropriate response is that which is indicated in verse 21 of our text: “And in his name shall the Gentiles trust (hope).” If this is our Savior, then let us hope in him. He is meek and lowly. He is not harsh or bitter or angry; he is loving, and compassionate, and long-suffering and inviting. We can come unto him and we ought to come unto him. Our greatest need is not power to overcome our difficulties; our greatest need is to surrender to the gentleness of our Lord and Savior who does for us what we cannot do. He forgives our sins, he frees us from sin’s power, and he redeems us from the power of death. Let us hope in him!
But then of course this ought to affect the way we live. It ought to affect the way we interact with others. And so it should come as no surprise when we are confronted in the New Testament with the command to become meek and gentle people. For example, Paul instructs Timothy, “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all me, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:23-25). He tells Titus that believers are “to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, shewing all meekness unto all men,” reminding us of the redemptive reasons why this must be so: “For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared. . . .” (Tit. 3:2-4). The apostle James writes that “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (Jm. 3:17).
Let us so trust in Christ, and so look to him, that we become more like our Savior.