At his baptism, the “voice from heaven” called Jesus “my beloved Son,” identifying him as the Messiah and the “Servant of Yahweh” – Matthew 3:17.
A key theme in Matthew’s gospel is fulfillment. In Jesus, the promises from the Hebrew Bible find their fulfillment and their correct understanding. Peter, for example, declared Jesus the “Messiah” but he failed to understand that he must fulfill that role as the suffering “Servant of Yahweh,” the one destined to die on behalf of his people.
In the opening passage of Matthew, Jesus is called “the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He was the descendant of David destined to rule over the nations, and the heir of Abraham who would bring the covenant promises to fruition. Abraham was wealthy, and David was a victorious warrior-king, but how would a humble man from an insignificant village accomplish all that God had promised? What kind of Messiah was he? After his conception, an angel declared to Joseph:
- “Fear not to take Mary for your wife. That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” – (Matthew 1:21).
The angel attributed his conception to the “Holy Spirit,” and from the start, it was the presence of the Spirit that set Jesus apart for his messianic mission.
The name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Joshua’ means “Yahweh saves” or “salvation of Yahweh,” a name that anticipated what God accomplished in his Son. As the Messiah, he would “save his people from their sins.” This last clause echoes the description of the “Servant of Yahweh” from Isaiah, a passage employed several times in Matthew:
- “Behold, my servant shall deal wisely, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high… All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all… Who among them considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due?… He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many; and he shall bear their iniquities… Because he poured out his soul unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
When he was baptized in the Jordan River, the Spirit descended on him “like a dove,” and the “voice from heaven” declared him to be “my Son.” The language and imagery allude to two messianic passages from the Hebrew Bible. In this way, God confirmed his status as Messiah, but He also revealed HOW he would fulfill that calling:
- (Psalm 2:7) – “I will surely tell of the decree of Yahweh: he said to me: You are my Son, today, I have begotten you.”
- (Isaiah 42:1, 6-7) – “Behold, my servant whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations… I, Yahweh, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep you, and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles. ”
Jesus was the royal “Son” and Messiah anointed by the Spirit, and he would indeed reign over the nations. However, he would do so as the suffering “Servant of Yahweh.”
Later in Matthew, the same passage is cited again to describe his ministry, only more fully. Noteworthy is the stress on the Messiah bringing hope “to the nations”:
- (Matthew 12:18-22) – “And perceiving it, Jesus withdrew from thence: and many followed him; and he healed them all and charged them that they should not make him known: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying: Behold, my servant whom I have chosen; My beloved in whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall declare judgment to the nations. He shall not strive, nor cry aloud; Neither shall anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, And smoking flax shall he not quench, till he sends forth judgment unto victory. And in his name shall the nations hope.”
At his transfiguration, the same voice spoke once more, and again, it alluded to the passage from Isaiah – “While Peter was yet speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him” – (Matthew 17:1-5).
But now the voice added the instruction to the disciples – they must “hear” Jesus. Not coincidentally, the transfiguration is preceded by three incidents that prepared the disciples for this revelation.
First, Jesus asked the disciples what others were saying regarding “who the Son of man is?” They responded, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Next, he asked who they believed he was. Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He then called Peter “blessed,” for the Father had revealed the correct answer to him, but Jesus then forbade the disciples from revealing his identity to anyone else – (Matthew 16:13-20).
Second, “from that time,” Jesus began to warn his disciples about his imminent sufferings and death at the hands of the “elders and chief priests and scribes.” Peter found the very idea intolerable and “began to rebuke him.” Jesus recognized Satan’s attempt to thwart him from his calling and rebuked the Devil – (Matthew 16:21–23).
Third, Jesus explained that if anyone wished to follow him, he must deny himself, taking up his cross, and following him. “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Disciples are summoned to the same walk of self-sacrificial service as Jesus. He then told the disciples that some of them would “see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” before they tasted death. In the narrative, these words are followed by the transfiguration – (Matthew 16:24-28).
After his transfiguration, Jesus commanded the disciples to tell no one what they had seen before his resurrection. They then asked why the scribes claimed that “Elijah must come first.” He responded that “Elijah” had come already, alluding to John the Baptist, and to him, the scribes “did whatsoever they would. Even so shall the Son of man also suffer” – (Matthew 17:9-13).
Two themes are prominent in the preceding stories. First, his coming sufferings at the hands of the Jerusalem authorities. By revealing this, Jesus demonstrated exactly what it meant to be the Messiah. Second, the summons for disciples to emulate him by living lives of self-sacrificial service. Despite the glory that the disciples witnessed in his transfiguration, he was still called to suffer and die.
Later, two of the disciples asked Jesus to place them at his side “when you come into your kingdom.” This displeased the other disciples. But Jesus took the opportunity to explain what it meant to follow him, and how “greatness” was measured in his kingdom:
- (Matthew 20:25-28) – “But Jesus called them unto him, and said: You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you: but whosoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whosoever would be first among you shall be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
He pointed to his own imminent sufferings as the ultimate example of what it meant for the disciple “not to be served, but to serve.” In doing so, he again echoed the description of the “servant of Yahweh” from Isaiah:
- (Isaiah 53:5-6, 10-12) – “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes, we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and Yahweh has laid on him the iniquity of us all… Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him; he has put him to grief when you shall make his soul an offering for sin… because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors: yet he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
His self-sacrificial death was the “ransom price” for the redemption of others. Many years later, Paul employed this very image to demonstrate how Christians were to have the “same mind, which was in Christ Jesus.” Unlike Adam, Jesus did not attempt to seize “likeness with God.” Instead, he “poured himself out and took the form of a servant… becoming obedient unto death, even, the death of the cross” – (Philippians 2:6-8).
Shortly before his death, Jesus broke bread and told the disciples to eat it, “for this is my body.” Next, he passed the cup, telling them to drink its contents, “for this is my blood of the covenant.” In these words, he was invoking the image of the suffering “Servant of Yahweh” from Isaiah:
- “I, Yahweh, have called you in righteousness, and will hold your hand, and will keep you and give you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles” – (Isaiah 42:6, Matthew 26:26-28).
At the end of Matthew, Jesus declared that he had received “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He is the “son of David,” the messianic king who now reigns over the nations, and therefore, he is sending his disciples to proclaim the good news of his kingdom to “all nations.” But his exaltation and enthronement only came after his sufferings, death, and resurrection.
Thus, Jesus fulfills the role of the suffering “Servant of Yahweh,” the one who “gave his life as a ransom for many,” and neither his identity nor his mission can be understood apart from it. Moreover, his self-sacrificial service is the model and imperative for how his disciples are to live, and how they are to reign with him over the nations.