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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Understanding Matthew 23:39

In our study of Matthew 11:25-27, we have not taken much time to address typical objections to the doctrine of election.  There are three main Scripture references that are frequently used to deny that God sovereignly determines who will be saved.  They are 1 Timothy2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, and Matthew 23:37.  Having already written extensively on the first two (you can find those articles by searching this blog), I would like to take a minute to address the third, Matthew 23:37. 

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37 ESV)

The argument is made that this verse indicates that God’s desire concerning salvation can be thwarted by the will of man.  God may desire to save certain persons – in this case, the children of Jerusalem – but if they are not willing, they will not be saved.  (To be precise, this argument speaks more to the issue of effectual calling than to election.  According to Grudem, effectual calling is “an act of God the Father, speaking through the human proclamation of the gospel, in which he summons people to himself in such a way that they respond in saving faith.”[1] In other words, effectual calling teaches that those whom God has chosen to save will inevitably be saved – He will act in such a way as to secure their response in saving faith.)

At first glance, Matt 23:37 may seem to contradict other things that we have been studying together on Sunday mornings.  However, a closer look shows that it is perfectly compatible with Matthew 11:25-27.

First, the concept of God’s “desire” or “will” in the Bible can refer to two different ideas. The first is God’s sovereign will, which refers to His eternal plan that includes literally everything that ever happens.  It always succeeds, it cannot be thwarted, and it is meticulous in nature (Ps 33:11, 115:3; Isa14:24-27, 46:9-10, 55:10-11; Dan 4:25; Eph 1:11). It is impossible for God’s sovereign will to not come to pass.  It is this sense of God’s will that we have been studying in the sermon series on Matthew 11:25-27.

The second sense is God’s moral or revealed will.  It includes all of the moral commands in Scripture, from the moral law in the Pentateuch to the imperative sections of the epistles.  God “desires” that these commands be kept.  It is quite possible for God’s moral will to not be kept – it happens every time we sin.  So, Jesus’ desire to gather the children of Jerusalem must refer to one of these concepts, either God’s sovereign will or His moral will.

To decide between the two, we must ask which makes more sense in the context.  Jesus said, “how many times would I have gathered your children.”  So what has Jesus done in the gospel of Matthew to gather the children of Jerusalem?  He has preached the gospel of the kingdom, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  We have noted repeatedly in our trek through Matthew that this gospel is an imperative, a command.  If it is a command, what sense of God’s will or desire must we be talking about?  It must be God’s moral or revealed will.  God’s sovereign will is not commanded…He simply performs it.  This deduction alone deals with the objection to the doctrines of grace.  This passage is not dealing with the sovereignty of God, but rather with His moral call for all to repent. 

But to be thorough, it would be wise to look at a second important factor in dealing with the objection.  We must consider what is the point of this passage in its context.  It is not to teach that God’s sovereign will can be thwarted, since we have already seen that it deals with His moral will.  Rather, the point is to show that the ground for the condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees is their own rebellion against Christ in leading others away from the kingdom. 

Context is king.  Matthew 23 could be the most confrontational message spoken by Jesus in the Gospels.  In it, He pronounces judgment on the scribes and Pharisees for a number of different expressions of their rebellion:
·      For burdening their people with laws they were not willing to bear themselves (v4)
·      For practicing their righteousness for all to see and for seeking honor (vv5-7)
·      For not entering the kingdom of heaven nor allowing others to enter (vv13-14)
·      For making their proselytes “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves (v15)
·      For being blind guides of morality (vv16-22)
·      For neglecting weightier matters of the law (vv23-24)
·      For being all about outward righteousness while being filled with greed and self-indulgence (vv25-28)
·      For following in the steps of their murderous fathers (vv29-36)

It is only after the pronouncement of these woes that Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  The major sin of the scribes and Pharisees was that of hypocrisy – they pretended to be righteous, yet they led the people away from the gospel of the kingdom.  This is what Jesus is referring to in Matt 23:37.  Notice that Jesus does not say, “How often would I have gathered you, Jerusalem,” but “ How often would I have gathered your children.”  Jesus is not addressing the unwillingness of all the Jews to follow Him in repentance, but rather the Jewish leaders working to prevent the people from following Him.  This verse should not be read in isolation from the preceding woes.  It all goes together. 

So the point is not that the Jews or Jewish leaders prevented Jesus from getting what He wanted.  It is that Jesus desired (in a moral sense) the repentance of all the Jews and the Jewish leaders worked against that repentance.  Therefore, Jesus declares in v38, “See, your house is left to you desolate.”  That is, they are condemned.

This fits well with one truth we saw last Sunday.  When man is condemned for his sin, he alone is blamed, not our sovereign God.  Moral responsibility for the rebellion of the Jews falls at their own feet, for they were doing what they most wanted.  The same is true of those who rebel today.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

[1]Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England : Grand Rapids, Mich: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 693.

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