It is clear in our Christology today that if we are truly going to understand Jesus’ ministry while he was on this earth we must understand him as a servant. The Messiah being a servant, and particularly one that would suffer and die, was not a concept that was expected or readily accepted during the time of Jesus. The Gospel writers clearly saw it as an essential part of Jesus’ ministry, however, and they all reference in different ways Jesus as the servant of God. Matthew is no exception. In fact, Matthew seems to look at Jesus’ ministry as servant more broadly than the three other writers do.
Like Mark, Matthew clearly gets most of his understanding of Jesus as servant from Isaiah. From the outset of Jesus’ ministry it is clear that there are some echoes from Isaiah. At Jesus’ baptism a voice from heaven announces, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). It is here that the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove. This is reminiscent of Isaiah 42:1 which says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” Here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his ministry is being declared as one of servanthood.
Matthew differs from the other Evangelists in the breadth of his understanding of Jesus as servant. In Matthew 8 Jesus heals many people of their diseases and casts out many demons. He was doing many miracles. Matthew writes in verse 17, “This was to fulfill what was written through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” That is a quotation from Isaiah 53:4. It is clear then that Matthew sees Jesus’ ministry of miracle working and healing as very much a part of his ministry as servant. This is unique to Matthew.
As Matthew and the other Evangelists have understood Jesus through the lens of Isaiah 53, it seems clear that Jesus very much understood himself in these terms as well. He lived out this model of servanthood even unto death. Jesus was the Son of man. He said so many times. In doing this he attributed authority and even divine authority unto himself. But it seems that his disciples really did not struggle at the times in which he proclaimed himself as one with authority. It were those in authority themselves that had issues with Jesus claiming to have authority over things such as the forgiveness of sins (9:6) or the Sabbath (12:8). But the ironic thing about this authoritative Son of man is that he would have to suffer. In fact, the first time Jesus mentions himself as being the Son of man he brings up the fact that he does not even have a place to lay his head (8:20). Jesus was indeed the authoritative Son of man, but he was also a servant. This meant that he would have to suffer while on this earth. He would not be treated as the king that he truly is. When Jesus told this to his disciples it clearly did not register with them. Peter could not even bear hearing such things (16:22). Jesus had to specifically tell his disciples three times that he was to suffer and die (16:21-23; 17:22-23; 20:17-19). Even though Jesus was the Son of man and he had authority over all things, he had to make clear what it meant to be a servant repeatedly to his disciples. Even in the midst of Jesus’ disciples fighting over who was greater, Jesus explains what it means to be a servant of God. He said in Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV) “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”
Jesus understood his ministry on earth as that of being a servant. What this servant looks like is modeled first in Isaiah 53. Matthew understood this servant ministry even in the areas of his miracle working and healings. Jesus also understood his role of a servant as being one who was to come and suffer and die so that he could be a ransom for many. This is something that his disciples then struggled with, and it is something that we as servants of God must understand.