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!
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,
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."