September 18, 2005

Matthew 23:37 Calvinistically Considered

NKJ Matthew 23:37 " O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!

The following is a modified version of a discussion that took place on a discussion board. The other person started out with a denial that Jesus wanted to gather the leaders in Matthew 23:37. He was using James White’s argument (and White got it from John Gill's hyper-Calvinistic book The Cause of God and Truth--he cites some of Gill's "exegesis" on this verse favorably in The Potters Freedom) that there is a distinction between "Jerusalem" (the leaders) and the "children". He said that the verse teaches that Jesus wanted to gather the children, not the leaders (Jerusalem). The leaders were unwilling.

I replied:
How do you know that Jesus did not want to gather the leaders, i.e. "Jerusalem"? Why did God send prophets and wise men to the leaders from generation to generation? After all, verse 34 says:

NKJ Matthew 23:34 "Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city,

Was God's motive exclusively to judge them? Or was it to also to give them his revealed will that they may be saved? It seems like both to me, and thus their guilt is compounded since they sin against God's well-meant sending of the prophets. The rejection of Jesus by the leaders in that generation was typological of the rejection of Christ in the prophets in all the previous generations. It seems more reasonable to think that Jesus wanted to gather all of the people THROUGH the leaders, but the leaders were a hinderance rather than a help, therefore they were judged as wicked since they despise well-meant goodness. The same principle is in Romans 2:4-5:

Romans 2:4-5 4 Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? 5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,

Underlying your interpretation are two assumptions:

1) Jesus did not want to gather the leaders.
2) The "Children" are the elect from within Israel.

These two assumptions exist because the passage is viewed through a decretal lense. I addressed problems with the 1st assumption, but I would also ask the following: Why was Jesus rebuking them? What's the point of the rebuke? Is it only to reveal judgment? Or is it also to reveal the will of God that they would repent? Jesus was speaking to both the crowd and his disciples (23:1). Jesus wanted the disciples to fear God and obey. He wanted all of those in the crowd to do the same, including the leaders. God's patience was finished, and judgment was revealed. Is there not a sense of grief along with anger expressed in this passage? If so, don't these things presuppose a sincere desire for the obedience of all of them, including the leaders? After all, these were men of great influence in the land. God wants leaders to repent with a view to their subjects repenting. God works through authority structures according to scripture, and this passage is consistent with that principle.

I asked who the "children" were, and the other person states that the "children" were the elect in the city who were under the authority of the Jewish leaders (Jerusalem).

I said:
This deals with your second assumption. I don't see any warrant to leap from the term "Children" to "the elect within the city." I think it's clear that your theological system is driving your interpretation to unwarranted conclusions here. Please pause and consider that rather than immediately dismissing it.

I asked if the "children" were gathered, and how he might know this based on what the text says. He replied with a statement about other passages showing that Jesus will save all the elect. He also said that "gather" might refer to a desire on Jesus’ part to fellowship with his elect in the city, rather than meaning "to save them."

I replied:
Yes, we know that Jesus will save all of his elect, but why must Jesus' desire to "gather" here necessarily have that efficacious sense? The term "children" seems very general like his audience here. I don't see any need to give the term "gather" a decretal connotation. You hint at some uncertainty in your response when you say it "might mean a desire on Jesus' part to fellowship with his elect in the city." It seems more like a decretal stretch to give it that sense. Jesus is rebuking the leaders for hindering his message to go freely out to all of Israel. They were acting as false and corrupt shepherds of Israel. The undershepherds should have opened the door for the Chief Shepherd to minister to Israel, but they acted to the contrary, therefore they were judged. That's the point of this passage.

It's true that the term "gather" has intimate connotations of fellowship, but it also carries soteriological force. God has always wanted to gather disobedient Isreal in order to be their Father and Rock of Salvation. It was God motivating Paul to desire the same thing:

NKJ Romans 10:1 Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.

and God says :

NKJ Romans 10:21 But to Israel he says: "All day long I have stretched out My hands To a disobedient and contrary people."

This stretching out of the arms to a disobedient and contrary people is what went on in Jesus' day, particularly at the leadership level. Was God only stretching out his arms to the children but not to the leaders in every generation? I think it's to both, and I think the bible is clear on that. I would also add that God wants to gather the children THROUGH the leaders since he normally works through authority structures scripturally.

The other person admits that there is some sense in which God desires the salvation of every person without exception. Ezekiel 33:11 is said to prove this, contrary to some who deny common grace and the free offer of the gospel. However, it is claimed, one cannot use Matthew 23:37 to argue that God desires the salvation of every person, nor could one argue the opposite position.

I replied:
I am glad to see that you say the above. Many on this board have fought against the principles that you state above. All I am contending for in this passage is that God is seen to desire the salvation of people who were not ultimately saved. I am not saying that this passage teaches that God desire the salvation of every person on the face of the earth. That may be an implication of the sense and principles in the passage, but I don't think that is explicitly stated here. I am just contended that the revealed will of God is in view here, and not merely the decretal. It's not one or the other, but both are seen in this passage. According to God's revealed will, he wanted the leaders and the children to obey his commandments, particularly the commandment to believe in his Son. Ultimately, it's the Son of God speaking in and through the prophets from generation to generation that was rejected. When he was manifested in the midst of the leaders, they showed themselves for what they really were, liars and false shepherds. Nevertheless, God's arms were outstretched to all of them, leaders and children alike in the revealed will of God. Therefore, I conclude that there is a sense in which an inefficacious will is presented in the text regarding those people who finally perished. The Arminian uses this passage to argue that this (what the Calvinists call the revealed or preceptive will) is the only will of God. God is viewed as equally desiring the salvation of every man, but it's left to their free will decision. That's a major error. Since Arminians harp on this text to underline an inefficacious will (as understood from within their own paradigm), some "Calvinists" seek to make it conform to a decretal sense in reaction. They end up stretching the language of the passage to fit a preconceived system. In the back of their minds they know that this passage does not undermine God's ultimate decree, but they are reluctant to admit any inefficacious will here. That's also a mistake, and the result is that the High Calvinists and the Arminians speak past one another since they represent half-truths. Their respective theological paradigms warp the sense of the text. I'll explain further. Both God's decretive and preceptive will are seen in the context. One motive in God does not nullify the genuineness of the other. Jesus, as the perfect image of God in his person, really desired to gather those people who were not gathered. This is no threat to historic Calvinism, nor does it prove the Arminian scheme. As you say, Jesus will in fact save his elect, and this is the case because God has decree to do so. However, God has not decreed everything he, in some sense, really wills. God really wills for everyone to obey his commandments, but that is not always done. Jesus really willed that the leaders obey him, even though it was not the decree that they do this. Still, they owned their own disobedience. God did no violence to their wills by his decree.

I asked the other person the following question: What in the text would disallow the interpretation that Jesus desired to gather the children through the leaders (i.e. that he wanted to gather both parties), but that the context stresses judgment on the leaders for being disobedient and false shepherds of Israel (unfit instruments for gathering) who blocked others from coming? He replied that he didn’t think there was any evidence for this kind of interpretation. Jesus only says that he wanted to gather the children. He claimed that there is no suggestion that He wanted to gather the leaders too.

I replied:
I gave some arguments above for the interpretation. The text doesn't merely say that the leaders just stood in the way. It says that Jesus was really angry with them for their disobedience (this presupposes a desire for their obedience). He warned them over and over and over, and this passage is the climaxing rebuke to them. Were his warnings and exhortations to repentance well-meant or sincere? If so, then this text implies much more than you are saying, i.e. that they were just standing in the way. If their standing in the way is faulted, doesn't that presuppose disobedience to God's command? Of course it does. We see both the secret and revealed will of God in display here. There is, then, no problem with admitting an inefficacious sense of "gather" here. Your position presupposes that Jesus did not want to gather the leaders. It's because you are looking at the text through a decretal grid, therefore you see "children" as having an elect sense. Pause and look at the passage through God's revealed will in the Calvinstic sense. It does not entail anything like Arminianism, and it will help you to see the language normally. "Children" does not mean the elect within the nation. It means the people of Israel, whoever they are. The leaders are disguished from the rest in this passage because of the degree of their guilt in suppressing the prophetic wooing of the masses. Not only that, but their hinderance was coupled with the propogation of a works based system. Also, they prided themselves in being the chosen ones, and that they would be saved no matter what.

Here is an excerpt from John Murray's The Free Offer of the Gospel regarding this passage:

Matthew 23 :37; Luke 13:34. In this passage there should be no dispute that the will of Christ in the direction of a certain benign result is set in contrast with the will of those who are contemplated as the subjects of such blessing. These two stand in opposition to each other—I have willed (or wished), ye have not willed (or wished).

Not only so. The will of Christ to a certain end is opposed to that which actually occurred. Jesus says he often wished the occurrence of something which did not come to pass and therefore willed (or wished) the occurrence of that which God had not secretly or decretively willed.

That which Jesus willed is stated to be the gathering together of the children of Jerusalem, as a hen gathers together her chickens under her wings. This surely means the gathering together of the people of Jerusalem under his saving and protecting grace. So we have the most emphatic declaration on the part of Christ of his having yearned for the conversion and salvation of the people of Jerusalem.

It might be said that Jesus is here giving expression simply to his human desire and that this would not indicate, therefore, the desire or will of God. In other words, it might be said that we are not justified in transferring this expression of his human desire to the divine desire or will, either in respect of Jesus' own divine consciousness or the divine consciousness of the other persons of the Godhead.

Christ was indeed truly human and his human mind and will operated within the limitations inseparable from human nature. His human nature was not omniscient and could not in the nature of the case be cognisant of the whole decretive will of God. In his human nature he wrought within limits that could not apply to the specifically divine knowledge, desire and will. Hence it might be argued that on this occasion he gave expression to the yearnings of his truly human will and therefore to a will that could not be aware of the whole secret purpose of God. Furthermore, it might be said that Jesus was speaking of what he willed in the past before he was aware, in his human consciousness, of the judgment that was to befall Jerusalem, stated in verses 38, 39. A great deal more might be said along this line that would lend plausibility to such an interpretation.

We are not able to regard such an interpretation of our Lord's statement as tenable. It is true our Lord was human. It is true he spoke as human. And it is true he spoke these words or gave utterance to this lament through the medium of his human nature. The will he spoke of on this occasion was certainly one that engaged the total exercise of his human desire and will. But there is much more that needs to be considered if we are properly to assess the significance of this incident and of Jesus' utterance. Jesus is speaking here in his capacity as the Messiah and Saviour. He is speaking therefore as the God-man. He is speaking of the will on his part as the Messiah and Saviour to embrace the people of Jerusalem in the arms of his saving grace and covenant love. The majesty that belongs to his person in this unique capacity shines through the whole episode and it is quite improper to abstract the divine aspect of his person from the capacity in which he gives utterance to this will and from the prerogative in virtue of which he could give expression to the utterance. What needs to be appreciated is that the embrace of which Jesus here speaks is that which he exercises in that unique office and prerogative that belong to him as the God-man Messiah and Saviour. In view of the transcendent, divine function which he says he wished to perform, it would be illegitimate for us to say that here we have simply an example of his human desire or will. It is surely, therefore, a revelation to us of the divine will as well as of the human. Our Lord in the exercise of his most specific and unique function as the God-man gives expression to a yearning will on his part that responsiveness on the part of the people of Jerusalem would have provided the necessary condition for the bestowal of his saving and protecting love, a responsiveness, nevertheless, which it was not the decretive will of God to create in their hearts.

In this connection we must not fail to keep in mind the principle borne out by Jesus' own repeated declarations, especially as recorded in the Gospel of John, namely, the perfect harmony and coalescence of will on the part of the Father and of the Son (cf. John 12:49,50; 14:10, 24; 17:8). To aver that Jesus in the expressed will of Matt. 23:37 is not disclosing the divine will but simply his own human will would tend towards very grave prejudice to this principle. And, viewing the matter from the standpoint of revelation, how would it affect our conception of Jesus as the supreme revelation of the Father if in this case we were not to regard his words as a transcript of the Father's will as well as of his own? We can readily see the difficulties that face us if we do not grant the truly revelatory significance of our Lord’s statement.

In this lament over Jerusalem, furthermore, there is surely disclosed to us something of the will of our Lord as the Son of God and divine Son of man that lies back of, and is expressed in, such an invitation as Matthew 11:28. Here we have declared, if we may use the thought of Matthew 23:37, his will to embrace the labouring and heavy laden in the arms of his saving and loving protection. And it is an invitation to all such to take advantage of that will of his. The fulness and freeness of the invitation need not now be argued. Its character as such is patent. It is important, however, to note that the basis and background of this invitation are supplied by the uniqueness of the relation that he sustains to the Father as the Son, the transcendent commission that is given to him as the Son, and the sovereignty, coordinate with that of the Father, which he exercises because of that unique relationship and in that unique capacity. We should not fail to perceive the interrelations of these two passages (Matt. 23:37; 11:28) and to recognize that the former is redolent of his divine prerogative and revelatory of his divine will. Verses 38 and 39 confirm the high prerogative in terms of which he is speaking, for there he pronounces the divine judgment. And in this connection we cannot forget John 5:26,27, "For as the Father hath life in himself, even so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself. And he hath given to him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man."


Tony Byrne said...

This is from R. L. Dabney's God's Indescriminate Proposals of Mercy:

"The yet more explicit passage in Luke 19:41-42, has given our extremists still more trouble. We are there told that Christ wept over the very men whose doom of reprobation he then pronounced. Again, the question is raised by them, If Christ felt this tender compassion for them, why did he not exert his omnipotence for their effectual calling? And their best answer seems to be, That here it was not the divine nature in Jesus that wept, but the humanity only. Now, it will readily be conceded that the divine nature was incapable of the pain of sympathetic passion, and of the agitation of grief; but we are loath to believe that this precious incident is no manifestation of the passionless, unchangeable, yet infinitely benevolent pity of the divine nature. For, first, it would impress the common Christian mind with a most painful feeling to be thus seemingly taught that holy humanity is more generous and tender than God. The humble and simple reader of the gospels had been taught by them that there was no excellence in the humanity which was not the effect and effluence of the corresponding ineffable perfection in the divinity. Second, when we hear our Lord speaking of gathering Jerusalem's children as a hen gathereth a chicken under her wings, and then announcing the final doom of the rejected, we seem to hear the divine nature in him, at least as much as the human. And third, such interpretations, implying some degree of dissent between the two natures, are perilous, in that they obscure that vital truth, Christ the manifestation to us of the divine nature. "He is the image of the invisible God;" "He is the brightness of his glory, and express image of his substance;" "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father, and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?" (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3; John 14:9.) It is our happiness to believe that when we see Jesus weeping over lost Jerusalem, we "have seen the Father;" we have received an insight into the divine benevolence and pity. And therefore this wondrous incident has been so dear to the hearts of God's people in all ages. The Church has justly condemned Monothelism more than a thousand years ago. Yet, while we are none of us Monothelites, we cannot admit any defect of concert and symphony between the will of the perfect humanity and that of the divinity. It is, indeed, in this harmony of will that the hypostatic union most essentially effectuates itself, "yet without conversion, composition, or confusion." For it is in the will of a rational essence that its unity consummates itself, as the combination and resultant of its prevalent states of intelligence and of activity. The' divine and human will was, so to speak, the very meeting-place at which the personal unity of the two complete natures was effected in the God-man.

Some better solution must be found, then, of this wondrous and blessed paradox, of omnipotent love lamenting those whom yet it did not save. Shall we resort to the Pelagian solution, and so exalt the prerogatives of a fancied "free-will," as to strip God of his omnipotence over sinful free agents? That resort is absolutely shut; for knowing assuredly that man is originally depraved and in bondage to sin, we see that the adoption of that theory undermines the hope of every sinner in the world for redemption, and spreads a pall of uncertainty and fear over heaven itself. The plain and obvious meaning of the history gives us the best solution that God does have compassion for the reprobate, but not express volition to save them, because his infinite wisdom regulates his whole will and guides and harmonizes (not suppresses) all its active principles."

Tony Byrne said...

Here is a related Calvin quote:

"1) And yet notwithstanding, behold, God loves us so greatly, that to express the love which he bears us, and to witness his goodness towards us, he likens himself to a bird, and us to his little ones. Since we see this, let us learn to magnify the goodness and finite grace of our God better than we have done heretofore, and let every [one] of us awake and enforce himself to consider them thoroughly. For wherefore is it such sort, but to reprove our unthankfulness, because we be so over gross and dull-headed, as we let the benefits slip which he bestows upon us, and digest them not to conceive the goodness of them, and to take heed of them? That is the cause why he sets before us after a fashion. And we see how our Lord Jesus speaks of himself, in bewaying the destruction of the City of Jerusalem (Mat. 23:37). How oft (says he) would I have gathered the little ones under my wings, and thou would not? There the Lord Jesus speaks not as a man, but shows that inasmuch as he is the everlasting God, he played the part of the hen towards the Jews, and had his wings stretched out to have brooded them: and that they on their side played the wild beasts that would not be tamed." Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 7, 1:29-33, pp., 38-39.

Tony Byrne said...

Two more related Calvin quotes:

"Therefore let us so benefit ourselves by this promise, that whensoever we be astonished, or in any way doubt or grief, of mind, we always have recourse thither and say, “Our God is mighty.” And why? Wherein will he utter his mightiness? Alas, it is true that he might well utter it in confounding & destroying us: but he is patient, gentle, & meek, and he will not have us to fee his force to our harm: but rather he will have us to feel his passing fatherly goodness. All of his desire is to gather us under his wings as a hen that broods her little chickens (Marr. 23:37). And it is a singular comfort unto us, when we know that he will be so loving and favourable towards us, and yet nevertheless will be known to be mighty and terrible in the overthrowing of our enemies, and in the overthrowing of all things that are against us." Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 56, 7:19-24, p., 338.

"But in the meanwhile we are far little better by this lesson. For although we be warned sufficiently of our infirmities, yet do we not cease for all that to be blinded with presumption, insomuch as every [one] of us thinks to maintain himself well enough. And by that means we hold scorn of the help of our God. Or else we be so full of distrust, that although he call us to him with all gentleness that can be devised: yet we cannot find in our hearts to come to him, bit do always stand in doubt of him. And that is the cause why our Lord Jesus Christ finds fault with the city of Jerusalem, that when as he would have gathered her chickens together, she would not (Matt. 23:37). He makes even a complaint of it in the way of lamentation, saying: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as the Hen stretches out her wings to gather her young chickens to her & though has despised that great benefit, thou has not vouchsafed to shroud thyself under me. I have been desirous to make thee to feel my power to the maintaining of thee in thine state. But what? Thou has been fain to feel heretofore many chastisements because of thine unthankfulness: but the time will come that thou shall be utterly destroyed. Let us beware that God have not like cause to find fault with us nowadays, and to pour out this vengeance upon us after he shall have borne with us a long time. For the foresaid threatening which our Lord Jesus Christ made, befell not out of hand. God had many ways assayed to gather the city of Jerusalem unto his obedience: and when he saw them so stubborn that they were past amendment, he punished them according to their desert. Therefore let us not tempt the patience of our God, but when we see him spread out his wings to gather us unto him, let us run to him, & let necessity drive us thereto: For what shall we do if our Lord keep us not? Again, let not fearfulness or doubting keep us back from him. For what can he do more, than abase himself after the manner of a chicken, to the intent that his majesty should not be terrible to us and scare us away?

Let us mark further, that God plays the part of the clock-hen in all points, to gather us under his wings. For on the one side he calls us unto his tuition by the preaching of the Gospel, promising us that the power of the Holy Spirit fail us, but that it shall defend us against all the assaults of Satan, according as it is said that all the fortresses of hell shall be able to do nothing to us, if we be grounded upon the faith of the Gospel." Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy, Sermon 181, 32:11–15, p., 1122.

Tony Byrne said...

"In this verse [Matt. 23:37], Jerusalem evidently refers to the people of that city. It may have the leaders (denounced in the previous verses) especially in mind, but they were not solely responsible for the death of the prophets, or even of Christ himself; nor did the judgment fall only on them, as many ordinary people perished in the fall of Jerusalem."

David Silversides, The Free Offer: Biblical & Reformed (Marpet Press, 2005), p. 50.

Tony Byrne said...

There are a couple of quotes HERE (click) by John Flavel that pertain to this verse as well.