Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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Does Matthew 23:37 Teach the Well-Meant Offer?

Rev. Angus Stewart


O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! (Matt. 23:37).



This text has been abused by Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, Arminians and Well-Meant Offer men to teach that God desires to save all the people of Jerusalem (and, by extension, everybody in the world) but many of them perish. "See," the Well-Meant Offer men say, "Christ wished to save Jerusalem, but they would not let Him. Here is a universal desire of God for the salvation of everybody." The Arminians go a step further: "Thus there is no reprobation of some and no election of others. Also God’s grace must be resistible, for, though God wanted to save everybody, man’s will stopped Him."

However, Christ does not say that He willed to gather Jerusalem but Jerusalem resisted. Nor does He say that He willed to gather Jerusalem’s children but Jerusalem’s children resisted. Christ says that He willed to gather Jerusalem’s children but Jerusalem resisted. Christ speaks here of two different groups: Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s children. He says different things about these two groups: Jerusalem killed and stoned God’s prophets and messengers; Christ willed to gather Jerusalem’s children; Jerusalem did not will that Christ gather Jerusalem’s children.

What is meant by Jerusalem here? Jerusalem refers to the religious leaders of Israel, the scribes and Pharisees. Read Matthew 23; Christ denounces the "scribes and Pharisees [as] hypocrites" (cf. esp. vv. 13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). They are Jerusalem, as the religious representatives of the people. This form of speech is used frequently, for example, "Washington" is often used for the political leaders of the US. Jerusalem’s children are not the leaders but those led—the common people. Like children, the common people were not learned and needed religious guidance. They are the ones Christ willed to gather under His wings of salvation (cf. Ps. 17:8; 91:4). To speak even more precisely, they are the true children of the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26), the ones whom the Son of man "came to seek and to save" (Luke 19:10), the ones given to Christ by His Father (John 6:37, 39).

Christ willed to save Jerusalem’s children, but Jerusalem (the religious leaders) did not will it. This does not mean that they thwarted Christ’s will. After Christ says that He willed to gather Jerusalem’s children, He does not say that they thwarted Him. Instead, He says, "ye would not!" These words alone do not say whether or not the scribes and Pharisees managed to stop Christ gathering His children. Instead, they expose the wickedness of the religious leaders. Their whole calling, as teachers in God’s church, was to work for the gathering of God’s children. But when the Messiah came to gather His children, they opposed His work: "ye would not!" No wonder Christ cursed them: "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Matt. 23:38).

The scribes and Pharisees did all they could to stop the Messiah from gathering His elect chickens. They asked Him questions trying to trip Him up (Matt. 22). They said that His teaching contradicted Moses and that His miracles were done by the power of the devil. They agreed to excommunicate those who confessed Him as Christ (John 9:22). Jesus cried, "But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in" (Matt. 23:13). Yet their calling was to point the people to Christ!

Some claim that, though Christ willed to gather Jerusalem’s children (true), Jerusalem stopped Him (false). The text itself does not say whether or not Christ was successful in gathering Jerusalem’s children. It merely teaches that Christ desired to gather His people and that the scribes and Pharisees did not will it. Whether He did gather Jerusalem’s children or whether He failed must be ascertained from elsewhere.

We know that Christ gathered Lazarus, Mary and Martha, blind Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, etc. As Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:27-28). Also, "the sheep follow [Christ]: for they know his voice. And a stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers" (John 10:4-5). Christ came to do God’s will (John 4:34; 6:38) and God’s will is always done: "But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased" (Ps. 115:3). "Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven and in earth" (Ps. 135:6).

As Augustine put it:

Our Lord says plainly, however, in the Gospel, when upbraiding the impious city: "How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" as if the will of God had been overcome by the will of men, and when the weakest stood in the way with their want of will, the will of the strongest could not be carried out. And where is that omnipotence which hath done all that it pleased on earth and in heaven, if God willed to gather together the children of Jerusalem, and did not accomplish it? Or rather, Jerusalem was not willing that her children should be gathered together, but even though she was unwilling, He gathered together as many of her children as He wished: for He does not will some things and do them, and will others and do them not; but "He hath done all that He pleased in heaven and in earth" (The Enchiridion, xcvii).


Many reckon that Christ uttered these words with love and tender pity, but the context reveals that He is denouncing the scribes and Pharisees. Seven times He curses them, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matt. 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). He calls them "blind" "fools" (vv. 16, 17, 19, 24, 26). He asks, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" (v. 33). He designates them as murderers (vv. 34, 35, 37). Our text is a "warning" (Thomas Manton) and an "upbraiding" (Augustine) uttered in "indignation" (Calvin) against the wicked religious guides. The emphatic repetition, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem" (v. 37), was uttered in righteous displeasure against the corrupt leaders who had perverted the law (vv. 2-30) and were ripe for judgment (vv. 31-39). Thus He adds, immediately after our text, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (38).

Some teach that Christ’s words, "how often would I have gathered thy children ... and ye would not," imply that Christ’s will to gather Jerusalem’s children was frustrated. However, "how often" simply tells us that the religious leaders ("Jerusalem") opposed Christ’s gathering His elect ("Jerusalem’s children") many times. They did this for several years, right through His public ministry. They opposed Him in His miracles (attributing them to Beelzebub); they opposed Him in His teaching. They opposed Him with the tradition of the elders; they opposed Him with their erroneous interpretation of Moses. They opposed Him in the countryside; they opposed Him in Jerusalem; they opposed Him in the temple precincts; they opposed Him at His trial. They opposed Him by hiring Judas to betray Him; by whipping up the crowd to cry out, "Crucify him!" and by putting pressure on Pilate to have Him executed. How often they opposed Him, and yet He gathered blind Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus and all the rest!

The wicked leaders so strongly opposed Christ’s gathering His people that they had Him executed on trumped-up charges as a criminal. Yet the cross was the very means God ordained to save His elect! O Jehovah, even the wrath of man shall praise thee (cf. Ps. 76:10)! Psalm 2 is similar: The kings and rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Christ (vv. 1-3). They nail Him to the tree. But God laughs at them (v. 4), for this is the very way in which He brings His Son to His universal dominion: "Yet have I set my king upon my holy mount of Zion" (v. 6).

Thus Matthew 23:37, instead of teaching the well-meant offer (a frustrated desire of God to save the reprobate), is Christ’s indignant upbraiding of wicked religious leaders who tried to stop Him from saving His people. How this Word needs to be heard! Liberal ministers and Roman priests try to prevent their church members from hearing the true gospel. They slander the Reformed faith. Many unbelieving husbands, wives and family members oppose believers attending church services. Yet the good news is that Christ the king gathers all Jerusalem’s children by His irresistible grace!

For faithful exegesis of this text from fine theologians, see "Quotes on Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34."