Shining the Light of Knowledge

IN THE SERVICES PREPARING US for the Feast of the Nativity and on the feast itself there are frequent readings from or references to the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. On the Saturday after the feast we read a passage from the Gospel of St Matthew which also cites an Old Testament prophecy, but it is one not usually associated with the Nativity, as it appears only later in the Gospel. It is, however, one of the few prophecies which the Lord Himself says applies to Him.

The Hostility of the Pharisees

We have seen how the Pharisees reacted to the healings which Jesus performed on the Sabbath. They saw these actions as violating the rule that one should not work on the Sabbath. Two such “violations” are recorded in Mt 12. Verses 1-8 relate the incident in the grain fields on the Sabbath, when Jesus’ followers plucked grain and ate it, to the chagrin of the Pharisees. Verses 9-13 tell how the Lord then went into a synagogue and healed a man with a withered hand. Matthew concludes these narratives by saying, “Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him” (v. 14).

In response to their hostility, we are told: “But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there” (v.15). The Lord did not want a decisive confrontation with His adversaries; as stated elsewhere in the Gospels, His hour had not yet come. “Yet He warned [His followers] not to make Him known, that might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet…” (vv. 16-17).

And here the prophecy in Isiah 42:1-4 is quoted:

“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 will declare righteousness to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.  A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, till He sends forth righteousness to victory; and in His name Gentiles will trust.”

The Chosen One

In applying this passage to Himself the Lord in effect answers the question, “Who is this newborn Child?” He assumes the titles Servant and Chosen One which in Isaiah are used repeatedly to refer to the Jewish people (“Jacob my servant, Israel my chosen one”). Many Jews still apply this verse to the people of Israel or even to the modern state of Israel. Jesus here is portraying Himself as personifying the People of God in a unique way. He is the embodiment of God’s Israel; He represents all the hopes and expectations of those Jews who were looking for God to deliver them.

The Greek text of the Gospel adds another note by quoting Isaiah in the Septuagint (Greek) version. The early Christians believed that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Septuagint put forth the best interpretations of the sacred text. Thus, for example, while the Hebrew text of Isiah 7:14 reads, “A young woman will conceive and bear a son…” the Septuagint uses a Greek word for “young woman” which also means “virgin.”

In the Septuagint version of Isiah 42 the word for “servant” is translated as ὁ παῖς (o paees). In the Greek of the day this word could mean servant or child depending on the context. The Gospel writer saw that Jesus completely fulfilled this prophecy because He was both God’s servant and His Only-Begotten Son.

Bearer of the Spirit

The next element in this prophecy which is fulfilled in Christ is the statement “I will put My Spirit upon Him.” The Gospels connect Christ with the Spirit of God from the moment of His conception. When the Holy Virgin questions Gabriel as to how she could have a child, he answers “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). 

The Gospels show that the Holy Spirit was manifested at the Lord’s baptism and in His encounter with the Tempter in the wilder-ness. When He returns to Nazareth and is given the Book of Isaiah to read in the synagogue, He selects the passage, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor…” Closing the book, He says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-22). Jesus is the One who bears the Spirit and, after His resurrection, will bestow this Spirit upon the Church.

A Light to the Gentiles

Another element in the prophecy which Matthew quotes is that the Chosen One is to “declare righteousness to the Gentiles.” He will bring the righteousness of God’s People to those who are not of this People. The “Gentiles” were the surrounding peoples who worshipped the various gods and goddesses of the Middle East and the Greco-Roman world. for Jews like the Pharisees, to declare righteousness to them meant that the Chosen People by observing the Law would make the Gentiles righteous by teaching them to observe the Torah.

An image used in the prophets to express this ministry is to bring light to the Gentiles. As we read in Isiah 49:6 “I [i. e. God] will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” Gentiles would receive salvation when they came to know the true God through the witness of the Jews.

In the Gospel as well, salvation comes from knowing the God of Israel. What the Gospel adds is that the true God is revealed in Christ. He is the true “Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32) as Simeon said of the Infant Christ. Knowing the one true God in Christ is what brings salvation to the ends of the earth.

The fulfillment of this prophecy is what we proclaim every time we repeat the troparion of the Nativity: “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge. Through it those who had been star-worshippers learned through a star to worship You, the Sun of righteousness and recognize in You the one who rises from on high. O Lord, glory to You!” Even as the Church was being persecuted in the Roman Empire, it was thriving among the Persians, the land of the “star-worshippers,” the Magi.

On Breaking the Bruised Reed (v. 20)

“Jesus was loved by God and was pleasing to His Father’s will: the Spirit of God was upon Him. Righteousness was made known to the Gentiles by Him. The reed that was bruised was not broken and the smoking flax was not extinguished. This means that the frail, shaken Gentiles were not allowed to deteriorate completely but were preserved unto salvation.

“This was appointed for a fixed time: ‘when He sends forth righteousness to victory.’ When the power of Death was removed at the return of His splendor [i.e. His resurrection] He would bring judgment to the Gentiles who would believe in His name through faith.” (St Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 12)

“Whoever does not stretch out a hand to a sinner and does not carry a brother’s load breaks the bruised reed. And whoever despises the small spark of faith in children extinguishes the smoking flax. Christ did neither of these: He came to save those who were perishing” (St Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, 2)