The Spirit Is upon Him Gentle for Now

Palm Sunday

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets; he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory; and in his name will the Gentiles hope.

As I have tried to prepare my heart to meet Christ on Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Resurrection Day, a series of pictures has come back to my mind again and again. Let me try to describe it for you.

A Vision for Holy Week 

A little lamb was born all wooly-white with skinny legs and a wet nose, pretty much like all the other little lambs. But as the lamb grew into a sheep, the other sheep began to notice a difference. This sheep had a strange lump on his forehead. At first they thought he'd been hit, but the lump never went down. Instead, a large pad of deep, white wool grew over the lump and made it very soft and firm. And even that might have stopped attracting attention except for the fact that this sheep began to use the lump on his head in very strange ways. For one thing, the lump seemed to weigh down his head so that he always looked like he was bowing and showing reverence to some invisible king. Then he began to seek out other sheep that were sick or wounded. He would use the firm, soft lump on his forehead to help the weak onto their feet and to wipe away tears.

Whole flocks of sheep started to follow him around, but the goats laughed him to scorn. Sheep were disgusting enough, but a sheep with a queer lump on his forehead was more than they could take. They harassed him all the time and made up jokes and taunts: "How come you hang your wooly head? Your lump made out of woolen lead?" And it just infuriated them that he would walk away from them and keep on doing his quiet works of mercy.

So one day the goats surrounded him and rammed him with their horns until he died, and they left him alone in the field. But as he lay there something very strange happened. He began to get bigger. The bloody wool fell away and revealed a sleek, white, horse-like hair. The soft pad of deep white wool dropped off his forehead and straight out of the merciful lump grew a mighty horn of crimson steel unlike any horn that has ever been or will be again. And then as if by command the massive Unicorn leaped to his feet. His back stood eight feet above the ground. The muscles in his shoulders and neck were like marble. The tendons in his legs were like cables of iron. His head was no longer bowed, and when he looked to the right or to the left, the crimson horn slashed the air like a saber dipped in blood.

When the sheep saw him, they fell down and worshiped. He bowed and touched each one on the forehead with the tip of his horn, whispered something in their ear, and soared away into the sky and hasn't been seen since.

That's the vision in my mind as I enter Holy Week this year, and I think the reason it is there is that this morning's text has been simmering on the back burner of my mind since January. It's a portrait of Jesus Christ painted by Isaiah under the inspiration of God and put on display by Matthew in the 12th chapter of his gallery. Like every good work of art this portrait has a purpose, and the purpose is to cause us to set our hope on Jesus Christ. And I am praying that this will happen in your life this morning, because I know that everything else you set your hope on will let you down in the end. But if you hope in Jesus Christ, he will be honored in your life and you will never regret it.

Matthew's Portrait of Jesus 

So let's highlight some of the features of this portrait in Matthew 12:18–21. The setting of the portrait is that the Pharisees have just taken counsel to kill Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath (v. 14). Instead of taking up arms to protect himself and establish his kingdom by force, Jesus quietly withdraws. It's what you might call a tactical retreat until the proper time. But even in retreat he continues to heal the sick (v. 15). "Many followed him and he healed them all." But just like he tries to avoid violence with the Pharisees, he also tries to avoid notoriety and prestige with the people. He orders them not to make him known (v. 16). He refuses violence and he refuses ostentation, and quietly goes about his works of mercy. This prompts Matthew to take Isaiah's ancient portrait of Jesus and put it on display here in verses 18–21.

Three Features of Jesus' Life and Ministry 

Let's notice three features of the portrait.

  1. First, the spring or source of his life (v. 18),
  2. second, the spirit of his ministry (vv. 19–20),
  3. third, the success of his struggle (vv. 20–21).

1. The Spring of Jesus' Life 

First, the spring of his life. If you climb along the stream of Jesus' life back up to its highest source, what do you find? In verse 18 God speaks and says, "Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased." The spring of Jesus' life is that he was chosen, loved, and enjoyed by God. It's a remarkable thing to be chosen by God. God's choosing is not like our choosing. We are given options. God is not given options; he makes options. He did not canvas the Jewish candidates for Messiah and choose Mary's son. He had begotten from all eternity the only One who could bring hope to a lost world. Christ came into the world as the eternally chosen one.

But the spring of Jesus' life is not just that he is chosen; he is also loved. "Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved." And specifically the kind of love that God the Father has toward the Son is not a disinterested benevolence or a dutiful debt of honor; but a deep pleasure in God's soul: "Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased." Surely what God means when he speaks of delighting in Jesus with his soul is that this joy, this pleasure is part of his very nature. Or to put it another way, God the Father loves the Son with spontaneous pleasure. When he beholds the Son, he sees that which by nature brings forth his most passionate enjoyment. Which means that God the Father would be an idolater unless what he saw in his Son was the image of his own glory. Jesus is God's greatest delight because Jesus is God. And the spring of Jesus' life is that he is chosen, loved, and enjoyed by God as God. From that relationship flows everything that he is and does.

2. The Spirit of Jesus' Ministry 

The second feature of Jesus' portrait I want to highlight is the spirit of his ministry. Verses 18–20 continue: "I will put my Spirit upon him and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud nor will any one hear his voice in the streets; he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick."

The Surprising Way of the Kingdom of Christ

What makes this feature of Christ's portrait so amazing is that Jesus Christ holds the most privileged position in the universe. He has absolute authority over every creature. If any ruler ever had a right to reclaim his own kingdom by force of arms and battle shouts, it was Jesus Christ. But when God anointed him with the Holy Spirit, the result was very different from that. "He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets." He will not deal with his enemies now by desperate quarreling or loud disputes or uproars in the streets. When the river of your life runs deep, the waters can be peaceful.

Too many people today are trying to show the fullness of the Spirit by loudness and harshness and much show. Jesus simply did his work and tried to avoid notoriety. "In quietness and trust will be your strength" (Isaiah 30:15). The kingdom of Christ is not of this world. If it were, there would be clashes in the street, loud disputes, and battle cries of violence (John 18:36). But instead the kingdom comes like a mustard seed, like leaven in a lump of dough. It comes as righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). It is received like a child (Mark 10:15). It conquers by the force of truth, love, and spiritual power.

The Expansive Gentleness of Jesus

The spirit of the ministry of Jesus is the spirit of tenderness with people who are broken and weak. Verse 20 is a beautiful stroke in the portrait of our Lord: "He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick." Picture an amaryllis bulb—the kind that grows about an inch a day and has a huge beautiful flower on top. Then imagine a toddler coming along and pulling the tablecloth so that the plant turns over and the stem is bent. You try to stand it upright but it flops down every time as though it had a hinge. The flower may be pretty now but it is really done for. So we break off the stem and hope for another.

But not Jesus. He does not break a bruised reed. Not that he doesn't ever do some painful pruning in our lives (John 15). He does. But when life has dealt us a devastating blow and we are deeply bruised in spirit and our head is on the ground with desperation, Jesus does not come along and say, "O well, too bad for this one." Clip! I've talked with some bruised reeds in our congregation recently. And I have been so glad to be able to read Psalm 34:18, "The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit." The Spirit is upon Jesus gentle for now. The servant of the Lord uses splints and props and soft bandages. He does not kick you when you are down. He does not trample the oppressed. He does not break a bruised reed.

"Nor quench a smoldering wick" (v. 20). My guess is that this morning some of you feel like your spiritual lamp has almost gone out. For some the flame is burning very low. For others all that's left is a smoldering wick. The word of the Lord for you this morning is that Jesus does not quench the little spark of spiritual life left in you. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him gentle for now. As long as this life lasts the atmosphere of Jesus is all oxygen. The faintest spark of spiritual life will glow and grow when it comes into contact with Jesus. "God sent not the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved." Jesus did not come to snuff out your struggling flicker but to fan it carefully into a torch for his glory.

Jesus' Different Tone with the Unrepentant

These are comforting words from God's Word. But for whom? Who should be comforted by them? Jesus did not speak tenderly to everybody. The bruised reed and the smoldering wick are the penitent sinners who are crushed by circumstances or by their own failures. They are despairing of their own wisdom and resources to make anything worthwhile out of life. They are the poor in spirit who mourn (Matthew 5:3, 4). They are the publican who cries out "God be merciful to me, a sinner!" For these there is great tenderness, forgiveness, healing, comfort.

But the tone of our Lord is very different toward the unrepentant. There are a lot of people today who feel just as miserable as a bruised reed and a smoldering wick but who have no intention of forsaking their sin. When Jesus told the rich young man, "Sell what you possess and give to the poor," the man turned away sorrowful (Matthew 19:22). He hung his head like a broken Amaryllis. He was like a bruised reed, but he would not submit to Jesus' command. There are many such people and these words of Isaiah in Matthew 12 are not intended to comfort them in their rebellion. It is not a loving thing to comfort unrepentant sinners in their sin. Loving words for the unrepentant are words of warning, not words of comfort: "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:23). But for the poor in spirit, who humble themselves and cry out for mercy and turn from their sin, Jesus is a tender healer and life-giver. "He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick."

3. The Success of Jesus' Struggle 

We have seen that the spring of Jesus' life is that he is chosen, loved, and enjoyed by God (v. 18). We have seen that the spirit of his ministry to the broken and weak is a spirit of tenderness and mercy. And now finally we look at the success of his struggle. The last part of v. 20 says that Jesus will pursue his ministry "Until he brings justice to victory; and in his name will the Gentiles hope." As long as impenitent people prosper and penitent people who trust Christ are bruised and crushed, justice has not come to victory.

But God promises that one day justice will come to victory. The tables will be turned. The meek shall inherit the earth. Those who mourn will be comforted (Matthew 5:4, 5). The weeds will be gathered and thrown into the fire and the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father (Matthew 13:41–43). Isaiah gives us his own commentary on this part of the portrait. Isaiah says in 11:3–4, "He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked." Justice will finally come to victory when the wicked who do not repent are punished and the bruised reeds are vindicated and raised to glory.

So the text closes with a world-wide promise, "In his name will the Gentiles hope." The message of Christ's forgiveness and tenderness is not limited to the bruised reeds of Israel. Even though Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the good news of his final victory over evil will reach to every nation; and there will be people from every tribe and tongue and nation who set their hope on Jesus Christ.

Three Implications for Our Lives 

We close with some implications for our lives from these three features of Jesus' portrait.

1) The spring of his life is that he is God's greatest delight. Therefore, if we want to see and hear what delights God, we should look at Jesus and listen to his teaching. And if we ever hope for God to delight in us, we must trust and obey Jesus and be filled with his Spirit.

2) The spirit of Jesus' ministry is a spirit of tenderness and forgiveness and healing for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. He is only severe with the unrepentant and even then the way is open. Therefore, take heart, you are never beyond healing unless you are beyond humbling.

3) The success of Jesus' struggle is that he will triumph over all the forces which bruise reeds and quench wicks. Therefore, no matter how much it costs to follow him in this life, we should set our hope only on him. The attempt to find happiness in life by pinning your hope on something other than obedience to Jesus is like a lamb trying to satisfy its thirst at the nipple of a mother wolf. The source of your brief satisfaction will eat you for supper when evening comes. We were made to magnify the glory of Jesus Christ. We will never have fullness of joy unless we set our hope fully on him and follow his example.

Do you remember the last meeting between the magnificent Unicorn and the worshiping sheep? He bowed and touched each one on the forehead and whispered something special in their ear. This is what he said:

I touch you with my crimson horn,
And raise my lump upon your head
To signify you are new-born
With power that raised me from the dead.

I send you now as I was sent
To fan the wick and heal the reed,
Take mercy to the world's extent
And you will reign with me indeed.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org