The Gospel writers portrayed Jesus as the center of attention in the midst of large crowds. Yet, Jesus’ attention—even when surrounded by thousands—was upon those nearest and most committed to Him. The events in Matthew 11-13 provide a panorama of how various groups within the crowds responded to Jesus’ ministry (chs. 11-12) and how Jesus reserved the truth of the kingdom for those who believed His message (ch. 13). Phrases from the Old Testament resound throughout these chapters.
(1) In Matt 11:10, Jesus quoted Mal 3:1 to affirm John as His forerunner—and by implication—His identity as the Messiah. While John heard that Jesus performed acts of messianic benevolence, in accord with expectations established in Isa 35:3-10 and 61:1-3, John was yet in Herod’s prison. When would Jesus come to his aid? So strong was John’s concern that from prison he even sent messengers to ask Jesus if He was in fact the Messiah—or if he and his disciples should expect another (Matt 11:2-6//Luke 7:18-23). Jesus retorted that John’s disciples should tell the Baptist all they observed: the blind regained sight, the lame walked, the diseased were healed, and the poor heard the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus went on to praise John as second to none amongst humanity, reassuring John that though he was suffering in prison, the kingdom had indeed dawned. John was the messenger Malachi prophesied in Mal 3:1. Though Malachi’s audience enjoyed the privileges of life back in Judah after the exile, they lacked zeal for God. In Mal 2:17-3:6, the prophet called the people to repent and announced the Lord was sending His messenger to prepare God’s people for the day of judgment. By citing Mal 3:1 in Matt 11:10//Luke 7:27 to establish John as God’s forerunner, Jesus implicitly proclaimed that He was the Messiah and that the day of judgement was at hand.
(2) In Matt 12:7, Jesus quoted Hos 6:6 to justify His allowance for the disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath. Hosea prophesied before the Lord sent Israel and Judah into exile. The people thought they were safe, and Hosea had to convince them that their hypocrisy and idolatry placed them in danger before the Lord. Hosea told his hearers that the Lord wanted loyalty and faithfulness more than sacrifices offered at the temple; He wanted Israel and Judah to know Him more than He wanted to receive their burnt offerings (Hos 6:6). The Pharisees had been watching Jesus so when He did not rebuke His disciples for harvesting grain and partaking on the Sabbath, they were indignant (Matt 12:1-8//Mark 2:23-28//Luke 6:1-5). Jesus noted that the priests in the temple were exempt from interpretations of the Sabbath that forbade work for the sake of food preparation and consumption. Jesus proclaimed not only that His disciples were free from Sabbath strictures but that He was Lord of the Sabbath. A more shocking statement is hard to imagine.
(3) In Matt 12:18-21, Matthew said that Jesus’ healing ministry in Galilee fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy of a Servant who would liberate the afflicted (Isa 42:1-4). Isaiah 40-66 rings of glorious hope for the redeemed people of God. Isaiah announced that God’s Servant would come with blessings and power even though He would suffer for the people (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 52:13-53:12). In the midst of debating with the Pharisees over His preeminence, Jesus continued to display messianic kindness to the lame and ill—prompting Matthew to record the fulfillment of Isa 42:1-4: “Here is My Servant whom I have chosen, My beloved in whom My soul delights; I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will proclaim justice to the nations…He will not break a bruised reed, and He will not put out a smoldering wick, until He has led justice to victory” (Matt 12:18, 20).
(4) In Matt 13:14-15 and 35, Jesus quoted from Isaiah and Psalms to explain why He taught in parables. Isaiah recorded his call experience in Isaiah 6. In the year that king Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord lofty and exalted, and heard the angelic host proclaim, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of Hosts; His glory fills the whole earth” (Isa 6:3). The Lord informed Isaiah that He was sending the prophet to a hard-hearted people; though Isaiah preached, the people would not understand (Isa 6:9-10). Jesus knew what Isaiah experienced. In Matt 13:10, the disciples asked Jesus why He spoke in parables and the Lord answered in Matt 13:14-15 by quoting Isa 6:9-10 (see also John 12:37-40). The point of the parables, Jesus said, was to ensure that those who had not been given understanding would continue to be dull and those who had been awakened, the disciples, would grasp the message of God’s kingdom. In the midst of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, Jesus quoted Ps 78:2 as an Old Testament follow-up to Isa 6:9-10. In Psalm 78, the psalmist recounted God’s redemptive works for Israel from the exodus to the reign of David. The psalmist introduced his survey of Israel’s history saying, “I will declare wise sayings; I will speak mysteries from the past—things we have heard and known, and that our fathers have passed down to us” (Ps 78:2-3). Jesus cited Ps 78:2 in Matt 13:35 to amplify the power of parables. Jesus’ method of teaching was both a filter and a funnel: parables ensured that the hard-hearted would not enter the kingdom and that the disciples would understand their place in salvation history and the kingdom of God. At the conclusion of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, Jesus asked His disciples, “Have you understood all these things?” (Matt 13:51). When they answered Jesus’ question affirmatively, Jesus emphasized for them again the reality of the storyline of Scripture, saying, “Every student of Scripture instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who brings out of his storeroom what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52). Jesus intended His disciples to go on teaching the fulfillment that had arrived in Him (Matt 5:17-19), the kingdom of God in all of its nearness (Matt 4:17).