The Surprising Humility of the Hidden God (Jesus the Servant, Pt 1)

But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. He warned them not to tell others about him. 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.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.”
(Matthew 12:14-21)

This is a significant moment in the plot of Jesus’s story. The Pharisees had challenged Jesus before now, but this was the first time their challenges really took shape as something more decided — and more violent.

Rather than just questioning, they had reached a verdict and decided on a sentence. As far as they were concerned, Jesus could not be tolerated at all. He had to be destroyed.

This startling response of the Pharisees is a warning to all of us. When new creation arrives, we too might decide against it. Faced with an offer of life, we might choose to rally behind the forces of Death. Rather than surrender to a new order, we might try to enforce the old.

Jesus, meanwhile, was not strident in the way he enacted his own agenda. I can’t help wondering how he would conduct himself in our age of influencers, of Internet celebrities and personality brands. According to Matthew, Jesus was beginning to draw enormous crowds, many of them seeking physical healing — and he healed them all.

But rather than command everyone to go around spreading the word about him, he asked them to say nothing.

In fact, he “warned them” not to say anything about him, even while he was doing works so miraculous that they couldn’t help but create a large following.

We might posit various reasons for this, ranging from the pragmatic (Jesus was trying to exercise crowd control, or stay under his enemies’ radar) to the moral and philosophical. Matthew gave a different reason: Jesus was acting prophetically, “to fulfill what was spoken.”

The Servant Revealed

Counterintuitive as it was, Jesus’s behavior fit into a prophetic framework laid centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah. Earlier in this series, we looked at Isaiah’s mysterious “Servant,” a possibly messianic figure who would come to carry out the will of God in puzzling but world-changing ways. (See “The Mystery of the Servant Songs” and ”The Mystery Revealed” in the “Refiner’s Fire” miniseries, or get the book here.)

The Servant had always been a prophetic enigma — one who would suffer, yet triumph; possibly an individual, possibly a metaphor for the whole people of Israel; possibly the Messiah, possibly not.

But Matthew, describing the actions of Jesus, did not hesitate to declare that Jesus was the Servant of Isaiah. Quoting Isaiah 42:1-4, the first of four “Servant Songs” found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, he made this identification explicit.

“Here is my servant,” Matthew and Isaiah declare together in the Holman translation. “Behold,” other translations say. The Servant, so long a mystery, now stands before us to be “beheld” — to be seen.

And wonderfully, mysteriously, what we behold in the Servant — in Jesus — is not merely a man, but the very face of God. In Jesus’s actions and attitudes, we see the invisible God revealed.

John the Beloved later wrote concerning Jesus:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us … (1 John 1:1–2, ESV)

Although there certainly were good pragmatic reasons for Jesus’s reticence to be publicly recognized, I’m not sure Jesus ever did anything without revealing God to us in some important way.

And in his hidden, humble, and gentle approach to public ministry, the revelation is truly profound.

The Surprising Humility of a Hidden God

First off, in his role as “Servant,” Jesus displayed the humility of a God who often prefers to be hidden.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urged us to pray in secret, where our Father is (Matthew 6:6). Proverbs 25:2 declares that “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,” and the glory of kings to search it out.

The hiddenness of God is not just an unhappy accident or consequence of the fall; in some sense, it’s part of his character — of his humility and his preferred way of dealing with us, which is always invitational.

This is clearly seen in the life of Jesus, who was the eternal God in human flesh — visible, tangible, and audible, as John the Beloved pointed out.

Jesus as God-with-us wasn’t loud, pushy, flamboyant, or power mad. He was gentle. He didn’t push himself on anyone, but invited them in — “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest … I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves” (Matthew 11:28–29).

Come to Him and Look

Just as the identity of the Servant was hidden in the prophecies of Isaiah, so Jesus’s identity was hidden in the way he lived and worked.

To hearken back to John the Baptist again, it was a great frustration to John that Jesus didn’t openly proclaim himself to be the Messiah, much less the Son of God.

And even today, people are commonly tripped up by this! We’re asked why Christians worship Jesus as God when he “never claimed to be God.” The answer is that he did, in a way that’s plain to anyone who will seek it out (and his closest followers, the apostles, made it crystal clear throughout the New Testament), yet he always chose a hidden way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called us to “ask, seek, and knock” if we wanted to discover the kingdom, and he warned us not to throw our peals before swine (Matthew 7:6–8). And he practiced what he preached. He healed people with miraculous, heaven-endued power. He clearly revealed the Father to anyone who would look, and he taught heavenly law with heavenly wisdom. Yet he “warned” people not to go out and blast the message about him all over the countryside.

He invited everyone who wanted to see God to come to him and look. “Behold, my Servant, with my Spirit upon him.” And yet he canceled his own PR campaigns before they even began.

Jesus made God fully available, accessible, and visible. And yet he never made him unavoidable. In his humility, he always remained hidden.

The Gentleness of Jesus

Along with this surprising humility, the passage Matthew quotes also highlights a reason for it: the Servant is gentle. And in this way, again, he reflects and represents the nature of our eternal, all-powerful Creator.

He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

It sometimes strikes me how often, in our prayers for revival or personal growth, we ask God to do violent things. We want him to “break in” or “break out”; to “come like a fire or flood”; to “move in power,” to take over. A popular worship song proclaims that in his pursuit of our souls, there’s “no wall he won’t kick down.”

To be clear, all of these are appropriate prayers and expressions of desire for God, in some contexts and to a point.

But I think the contrast with Jesus’s approach is telling. In a way that’s contrary even to our own wishes, he is careful in the way he handles human souls — which probably tells us that he understands us and our needs better than we understand ourselves.

Jesus went about his mission with utmost care. And he still does. I have sometimes wanted him to break down the walls or bust down the doors in my own life, and I’ve asked him to. But most of the time, that’s not his style; and I have to believe it’s for the best — that if he were to enter my life with violence, the eternal result would not be grace but damage.

Certainly, there are times in history when God acts violently, and there are people whom he approaches in that way. He knows each one of us and how we are best wooed. He knows who is a smoking flax, in danger of being snuffed out, and who is a raging fire that needs taming. He can tell the difference between the adulterous woman at his feet, in need of unconditional protection and love, and who is a Paul who needs to be knocked off his feet and blinded for a while.

And even these contrasts constitute incredible revelation. That Jesus approaches us so carefully and individually is itself a tremendous insight into the love of God and the dignity of human beings.

“Here is my servant whom I have chosen,” Isaiah declared, speaking on behalf of God the Father seven hundred years before Jesus was born: “the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”

Jesus’s mission was great, and it delighted the Father even as it revealed the Father. Yet it was carried out with the same kind of gentle hiddenness that has always characterized the primary dealings of God with human beings.

Had we been miraculously healed and then warned to tell no one about it, it’s unlikely we would have been successful in keeping it to ourselves. The gospels indicate that this was true for the crowds who came to Jesus; most ignored his warnings and spread the word.

Their actions had consequences, heightening the enmity and hatred of Jesus’s foes and hampering Jesus’s mobility.

Yet what strikes me most in this story isn’t human failure, but the humility of God — a God who is worth knowing, worth seeking, worth finding, no matter how hidden and humble the circumstances in which he may be found.


This is Part 210 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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