Sunday, November 01, 2020

An Unnecessary Insertion?

In Matthew, the Father declares that he is “well pleased” with the Son three times.

“Three?” you say. “I can think of two.”

Sure: the baptism of the Lord Jesus and his transfiguration. But there is a third reference to the Father’s pleasure in the Son found in Matthew 12. It’s a familiar quote from the book of Isaiah.

“Oh, a quote. That’s kind of cheating.”

Cheating?

I agree. Normally it would be. But through the quirks of Hebrew-to-Greek translation, and then the translation of each language independently into English, it’s a slight variant on Isaiah’s original, and I’m happy we have both in our Bibles.

If we were inclined to be pedantic, we could also argue that this third reference to God’s pleasure is unnecessary. It doesn’t need to be there in Matthew at all, but because it is, I’m convinced it’s not merely incidental.

As he so often does, Matthew is seeking to demonstrate that something the Lord Jesus said or did or had done to him is in absolute harmony with Old Testament revelation. In this case, he wants to point out that the humility and discretion with which Jesus performed his miracles was thoroughly anticipated by the scriptures, which foretold that the coming Messiah would not assert himself or push himself forward.

Quoting Isaiah

So Matthew quotes Isaiah:
“He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench ...”
Matthew needs that part of Isaiah 42 to make his case, and so naturally he quotes it in full. But he precedes it with these two lines from the same passage:
“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.”
From a purely technical perspective this information is quite superfluous. It doesn’t help Matthew’s case. The pleasure of the Father in the Son is not his subject. It has nothing to do with why the Lord ordered those he healed not to make him known publicly. And yet the Holy Spirit just can’t resist slipping in that reference, and I’m very glad he did.

It also reminds us that in expressing his pleasure in his Son in public on the two more familiar occasions, God the Father deliberately did so in the very recognizable words of Isaiah. And of course the irony is that where the Lord Jesus steadfastly refused to make his voice heard or assert himself, the Father stepped in and spoke up on his behalf.

When God Was Not Well Pleased

In Greek, the word translated “well pleased” is eudokeō. A quick scan of the New Testament shows its writers at pains to point out that in times past God was often not well pleased. He took no pleasure in most of the Israelites in the wilderness, despite the fact that he had cared for and nurtured them. He took no pleasure in the burnt offerings and sin offerings that only served as a reminder of sin year after year. And because these were insufficient, God’s answer was the Incarnation: “A body have you prepared for me.” In the perfect life of his Son, God found everything that man to date had been unable to supply.

But eudokeō is a word with a fairly broad range of possible meanings. It was undoubtedly the best and closest Greek equivalent Matthew could find to transmit what Isaiah had written in his native Hebrew, but it is not impossible that we could misunderstand it if all we had to go on were its 21 uses in the New Testament.

For example, Paul uses eudokeō to describe the emotional state in which he sent away Timothy and opted to persevere alone in Athens because he deemed the needs of the Thessalonians more important than his own. That sounds more like choosing the least worst option than “good pleasure”. Bereft of other choices, Paul sent Timothy away, though he would have preferred to have had his company.

When God Was Well Pleased

By way of contrast, translated directly from Hebrew to English, the passage Matthew quoted from Isaiah reads this way:
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”
That’s just a little stronger, isn’t it? I’m glad we have both versions. The Hebrew word Isaiah used under the influence of the Spirit of God is ratsah, the dictionary definition of which is not wildly different from that of eudokeō. However, where eudokeō has a wide range of possible meanings, ratsah is a little more restrictive. Where it is not translated as “delight”, it is most frequently translated “acceptable” and repeatedly used to describe the reaction the Old Testament sacrifices, rightly performed in an attitude of faith, would produce in the heart of God. There was a threshold to be met, and the future servant of God Isaiah describes would exceed it par excellence, where, as Hebrews tells us, so many men and their offerings in that time period could not.

Today we know a sacrifice was only really ratsah in God’s sight when it was offered in faith; that is to say, when the worshiper in some distant, incomplete way apprehended the futility of his own gesture in and of itself and the need for God’s provision in the form of a sacrifice that would be once for all. Offerings that were mere formalities or offered in a spirit inconsistent with the humility and selflessness of the Son brought God no delight at all.

The Point We Can Never Make Often Enough

So then, the Lord Jesus brought to the Father consistently and eternally the satisfaction which the sacrifices of the Old Testament were ultimately inadequate to produce. We know this, of course. I just enjoy seeing it spelled out. Matthew’s point about the pleasure of the Father in the Son may not be necessary to his argument in chapter 12, but it’s a point we can never make to one another often enough.

After all, your salvation and mine depend on it.

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