Matthew: Tribute to the Forerunner of the Kingdom, Part 3: God’s Sovereignty and the Free Offer Part 1

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on February 3, 1998

Matthew 11:20-30

Our Father, we thank You for this word.  It is a mysterious word.  Its truths are deep and wide.  We need the help of Your Spirit to understand it and to embrace it.  So we ask, O Lord, that You would open our eyes; teach us the truth of Your word.  What we can understand, help us to understand.  What we cannot, help us to humbly receive because it is from Your lips, trusting that You will show us one day.  In the mean time, may our hope be built upon the word, and may You draw sinners to Yourself by Your word through the work of Christ.  We ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.  

This week we turn to this final section of Matthew chapter 11, and we find in these words one of the clearest expressions of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, side by side, found in all of scripture.  Where in Scripture do you find a better example of God’s sovereignty in salvation, and our responsibility in salvation stated in so few words in one passage almost simultaneously.

Well, here today, we have such a passage, and it’s an excellent passage to prepare us for the missions conference.  We’re going to look at it for two weeks, not only because there’s so much here, but because the passage itself naturally divides into two sections.  The first section we’ll treat today in verses 20 through 24, where the Lord Jesus denounces these cities for their impenitence.  The second section is where the Lord Jesus gives a tender invitation to all who are weary and heavy laden to come to Him. 

But I want you to see that both of these go together.  Both of these reveal to us the majesty of Christ, because we’ve said all along that the real theme of Matthew chapter 11 is not the greatness of John the Baptist, or the wickedness of Chorazin and Bethsaida, or even the wonderful invitation to salvation presented in the end.  The real theme of Matthew 11 is the majesty of Christ.  

And we see the majesty of Christ in His person in this passage.  The majesty of Christ in judgment; the majesty of Christ in being the Savior of sinners.  And neither of those themes takes away from the other.  We never sacrifice one attribute of God in order to emphasize another.  That’s one of the majesties of God, that all of His attributes are mutually complimentary, even these two which seem very difficult to recognize and reconcile in our own mind.  So let’s look, then, at the teaching of this passage, bearing in mind that our theme is still the majesty of Christ.  There’s much truth to learn here, but I’d like to point your attention to two or three things. 

I. We must realize the danger of ignoring the gospel of grace. 

First of all, look in verse 20 where we see Jesus’ denunciation, His reproach against these cities for their unbelief.  We learn in that verse that we must realize the danger of ignoring the gospel of grace.  Jesus sends out a very clear warning in his words there.  Look at them: “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent.”   Let me say, before we say a word about what the Lord Jesus said to these people, let me just remind you that Jesus had been preaching in these cities for a long time.  Capernaum had been His home base.  His disciples had preached in this region on their first missionary effort.  But long before they went out, Jesus had been preaching, tenderly imploring them to turn to God, calling them into the gracious kingdom of heaven. 

So the Lord Jesus’ words of condemnation here are not the words of someone who’s flying off at the handle.  They’re not the words of an impatient Lord.  This man has been imploring them for months and months on end, and their response has been indifference, or their response has been to reject the Lord Jesus Christ and to label Him as a devil and as a heretic.  And it is in that context that the Lord pronounces these words of reproach.  He had been preaching patiently to them for a significant period of time before He brings his words of reproach.  And so, His strong words are not reflective of hot-headedness, or of sinful impatience, but they are born of deliberate pastoral concern.  It’s very important for us to remember this. 

I remember reading a tract by a dear colleague of mine where he talked about seminary students who are bristling with biblical bombs and bullets, waiting to dive bomb the nearest unsuspecting congregation.  That’s not what the Lord Jesus is imploring us to do here.  After patient preaching, now, the Lord Jesus is going to rebuke out of a pastoral concern these people who have not responded to the gospel. 

Understand the Lord Jesus’ concern.  The focus of his concern lies in their lack of response to the gospel.  The Lord Jesus doesn’t say, ‘You people here in Bethsaida and Chorazin, you’re immoral.  I mean, the people of Tyre and Sidon, they’re moral people, but you people are immoral.’  That’s not what the Lord Jesus said.  He said, ‘You didn’t respond to My gospel.’  That’s the criticism that He brings against these people.  He’s not going to tolerate indifference to His gospel.  The Lord Jesus is not very politically correct. 

We live in a day where it’s okay to believe the gospel as long as you don’t expect somebody else to.  If you’ve been in a college dorm room as a student, you may well have had the experience of someone seeing your Bible on the nightstand, and they say, “Well that’s okay for you.  You read your Bible.  That’s fine.  Just don’t you start bringing any of that stuff over on my side of the room.”  Or they say, “That’s fine.  You can get up and you can go to church on Sunday morning.  That’s fine.  Just don’t you wake me up on the way out.  You can believe that, but just don’t impose that on me.”  But the Lord Jesus Christ demands a response to His gospel.  He expects everyone in cities where He and His disciples are preaching to respond to His gospel.  He will not allow them to say, “Well, I’m gonna be on the fence.  Well, that’s okay for you, but that’s not what’s good for me.”  He demands a response to His gospel and there’s so much application of this truth packed up in this chapter that we could spend the whole day looking at it together.  But let me just point to three or four things. 

First of all, notice the words of Jesus to these people.  He is very clear in His rebuke.  In fact, He is going to tell Capernaum in just a few verses, ‘You’re going to hell.’  That’s exactly what He’s going to say to Capernaum.  ‘You’re headed to hell.’  You don’t hear that kind of criticism in many pulpits these days.  You don’t hear those kinds of reproaches and criticisms and denunciations in today’s pulpits.  When I first came to First Presbyterian Church, I had some wonderful opportunities with saints who have been in this congregation a long time, and they shared with me experiences from their childhood and all the way up to the more recent days.  And many of them told me that they remembered Dr. Hutton leaning over the pulpit at the corner of Yazoo and North State, and saying on occasions, “You’re going to hell.”  You don’t hear that very often today from pulpits.  Even in evangelical pulpits you don’t hear denunciations and rebukes that are that clear.  Perhaps, perhaps that is because the inhabitants lack the Spirit of Jesus.  Perhaps it is because they care more about what their congregation can do for them, than they care about the eternal well being of their congregation. 

The Lord Jesus does not use these hard words to be mean.  He doesn’t use these words to tear people down.  He is trying to shake them out of their indifference because He loves them so much.  He loves them so much He doesn’t care whether they get angry with him.  And we need folks who will care about us more than they care about what we think about them.  We need those folks who will administer to us the wounds of a friend.  That’s a scary thing to have to do.  Counselors and ministers and friends have to do it all the time.  After many hours of patient listening, of empathetic understanding, of coming along side, there may come that time when we have to say to our friend, “There is a glaring flaw that I must tell you about in your life if I am to be a real friend to you.” And we know that it may cost us our friendship to do it, but we do it because we love one another; not because we’re mean spirited; not because we want to tear someone down; but because we love them so much we’re willing to risk losing their love for us.  That’s how much we love them.  The Lord Jesus Christ is trying to shake these people awake, spiritually, in the words that He says to them. 

I want you to notice here, also, that the Lord Jesus expects a faithful response to His message.  This message of grace that He is preaching cannot be ignored.  You can’t say, “Ho hum. No big deal.”  You cannot say to this message, “That’s fine for you, but it’s not for me.”  His demand that all respond in faith to the message of the kingdom is an indication both that He is divine and that the message that He preaches is urgent.  Indifference is no different than rejection as far as the Lord Jesus is concerned.  You can be apathetic about the gospel message, and that will get you to the same place that rejection of the gospel message will get you to.  Indifference and rejection of the gospel message are twin sisters.  They’re the flip side of the same coin. 

Notice also, that the very reason that the Lord Jesus uses His strong language is to shake people out of their indifference and into an awareness of their condition.  The people of Bethsaida and Chorazin and Capernaum  were probably relatively moral compared to the people of Tyre and Sidon.  Relatively moral people.  That may have been one of the things that was keeping them from hearing the gospel.  They didn’t feel that bad.  They didn’t think that they were in that bad of shape.  They had not discovered that they were sinners who needed a great Savior.  And perhaps that made them impervious to this gracious message of the kingdom that Jesus was preaching. 

And the Lord Jesus uses this language to shake them into awareness of their condition, and secondly to emphasize the seriousness of the matter.  The Lord Jesus is not trifling with them and He doesn’t expect to be trifled with.  He is using this language deliberately and pastorly to teach them of the urgency of their situation. 

And I want to remind you also in verses 20-24, as you compare it to verses 25-30, what a balanced picture of Christ we have here.  This is a Christ who loves, but this is also a Christ with the courage to condemn when it’s time to condemn.  Often times you get a picture of Christ today as some sort of a glorified Red Cross worker.  He’s the Peace Corps guy who’s shown up.  He’s working in Iraq.  That’s fine.  He’s just there to help folks.  He’s not there to say anything about where we are spiritually or anything else.  But this Christ is both loving and sovereign, and He brings condemnation against those who reject the gospel of grace.  It’s a beautifully balanced picture of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is not to be trifled with, even though He is the Christ of love. 

II.   We must realize the danger of refusal to repent under the gospel of grace.

Notice also, in verses 21 and 22, we see Jesus pronounce woes against these unrepentant cities.  And we learn there that we must recognize the danger of refusal to repent under the gospel of grace.  We must realize the danger of refusing to repent under the gospel of grace.  Jesus says, “Woe to you Chorazin!  Woe to you Bethsaida!  For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago.” 

Notice again, the sin which these cities, the people of these cities, are charged with is not breaking the moral law.  The Lord Jesus didn’t come in and say, “You know, you people are bad citizens.”  He didn’t come in and say, ‘You know, you people are not moral people.  You’re not upstanding people.  You people are debauched like those pagans up in Tyre and Sidon.’  The Lord Jesus doesn’t come in and say, ‘You people are a bunch of open, rampant, vile lawbreakers.’ He comes in and He says, ‘You did not repent when you heard the gospel.’  The Lord Jesus’ charge against them is that they’ve refused to embrace the gospel in their heart and in their lives.

And Jesus adds sting to this accusation by saying that the pagans from Tyre and Sidon, they would have embraced Christ if they had had the same opportunities.  I mean, the Lord Jesus is definitely tweaking their noses here.  I mean, these are good Jewish folk.  They’ve heard the Law and the Prophets, and they are probably much more moral than the people up the road in Tyre and Sidon, those Gentiles who are without the law.  They probably don’t do the things that those people do up there.  It would be like coming to Jackson or Vicksburg in about the year 1862 and preaching a fiery sermon in which you said, “If the messages that had been preached in Jackson and Vicksburg this year had been preached in New York and Boston, they would have repented.  But you people in Jackson and Vicksburg haven’t listened to the gospel.”  That’s sort of the effect it would’ve had.  “Wait a minute.  What are you talking about? We’re a lot better than those people are.”  So the Lord Jesus is trying to wake them up from their slumber and see the seriousness of rejecting His gospel. 

The circumstances, by the way, are directly applicable to us, because we have more light than Tyre and Sidon did.  And we have more light than Bethsaida and Chorazin and Capernaum. We have the very gospel of salvation entrusted into our hands.  Most of us have grown up hearing the gospel preached even if we didn’t grow up in a Christian home.  We have had continual contact from people who preach faithfully the basic truths of the gospel; and if we have not embraced those things, then we are in precisely the same circumstance that Jesus is dealing with in these cities.  He’s speaking to fine, moral, upstanding citizens, who’ve grown up on the Law and the Prophets, but they’ve never embraced the gospel of grace, salvation by grace alone.

We have tremendous spiritual advantages, but have we embraced Christ?  Have we not just believed about him, but have we followed him?  Is He our priority?  That is why Jesus speaks about repentance to these people.  You might have expected Him to say, ‘Woe to you because you didn’t believe in Me!’  But He doesn’t say that because He knew that there were a lot of people out there who would have said, ‘Oh, I believe in Jesus.  I believe that He’s a great prophet.  I believe that He’s a great teacher.  I believe He’s a man touched by God, who has the power of miracles.’  They believed all sorts of things about Him.  They didn’t believe that He was the son of God and Savior of sinners. 

And so He says, “I want to know if you’ve repented.”  In other words, “I want to know if your life has been changed by your faith in Me.”  Has your heart and your life been radically changed?  Have you experienced the life change that only the Holy Spirit can bring about in the life of a man or a woman? It’s an inward and an outward change.  It’s connected with our belief and trust in Christ.  He says, “I want to know if you’ve repented.”  If that hasn’t happened, then the gospel has not come in power in your life.  He’s asking moral people to ask themselves this question.  Have I really embraced the grace of Christ?  Or am I trying to do good all the way to heaven?  Am I trying to earn my salvation by my morality, by my upstanding position in the community?  Or have I embraced the fact that I am a sinner, and there’s only one Savior who can save me, and grace is the way that God has chosen to save me?  The Lord Jesus is asking these folks to ask that question. 

III. We must realize the consequence of refusal to repent under the gospel of grace.

Notice again, in verses 23 and 24, He goes on to make a threat of judgment against Capernaum.  We see His words there.  He asks a question to the folks in Capernaum.  “Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?”  And the implied answer is, “No.”  There He teaches us that we must realize the consequence of refusal to repent under the gospel of grace.  Jesus, again, appeals to these folks’ relative sense of religiosity.  You know, they think, “Well, Sodom is proverbially wicked.  We’re okay.  We’re not bad in comparison.  Besides we have a very active chapter of the Moral Majority here in Capernaum, and we’re a very moral people.” 

And He says to them that they will be condemned because they have not accepted the gospel.  He is telling these citizens that they are ripe for judgment because they are indifferent to the gospel of grace. 

And I want you to note that He stresses the fact that their sin is against the gospel, and He simultaneously pricks their consciences by mentioning Sodom, precisely because these are moral people.  It’d be like coming to the folks here in Jackson and saying, “You know what?  You know those immoral people in Hollywood, and those immoral people in Las Vegas, and those immoral people in Washington?  Well, they would’ve repented before you did.”  He’s stinging their consciences.  He’s causing them to have the hair on the back of their neck raised up and say, “Wait a minute! What are you talking about?”  Because He wants them to realize that the issue is they have not embraced the gospel.

The issue is not whether they are comparatively better than the people who are in Sodom.  The issue is whether they have embraced the gospel; whether they have been embraced by grace, and they’re saying, the Lord Jesus is saying, in fact, that Capernaum is guiltier than Sodom, because Sodom didn’t have the light that Capernaum had.  These are difficult words that Jesus says.  He pulls no punches because He loves them.  Before we apply those words of truth, let me just mention, isn’t it amazing the interplay between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility that we already see in this passage. 

I want you to notice at least three things which raise the issue of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in verses 20 though 25.  First of all, isn’t it interesting that Jesus reminds us here that not everyone has the same exposure to the gospel.  The folks in Bethsaida and Chorazin and Capernaum had more exposure to gospel inducements than did the people in the Old Testament in Sidon and Tyre, and in Sodom and Gomorrah.  They had more opportunities in these cities where Jesus was preaching to hear the gospel than did these people to hear the prophets of the Old Testament.  “That’s not fair,” somebody says.  Jesus said it.  I didn’t say it.  I didn’t write it.  Calvin didn’t write it.  Jesus said it.  That’s the way it is.  They had more opportunities.  Listen to what Matthew Henry says,  “Some places enjoy the means of grace in greater plenty, power, and purity than others.”  That is just the way it is. 

Secondly, notice that Jesus indicates that some would have repented if they had more light. Now, boy, if that isn’t a mental tongue twister, I don’t know what is.  Get what Jesus is saying here.  He is not saying that there would have been, that the reason that some people don’t repent is because they don’t have as much light.  He’s not saying that.  He is, however, saying, as a figure of speech, He’s raising the question, “Why do some people repent and others don’t?”  Now that again, is a question that involves the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of men. 

And then finally, in verse 25, you’ll see thirdly that the Lord Jesus suggests that God the Father has actually hidden repentance from some people, even though Jesus invites all to come to Him.  Now let me just stress again, Calvin didn’t write that passage.  Jesus spoke that passage.  The issues of sovereignty and responsibility are just there in the Bible, and we only ignore them if we want to ignore the Bible.  We’re not ignoring somebody’s manmade theology when we ignore those words, we’re ignoring the Lord Jesus Christ.  And that’s why we’re going to think about that a little bit next week when we come back together. 

But let me apply these words of verses 23 and 24 that we’ve just looked at.  Sitting under the gospel is an awesome thing.  It’s an awesome privilege and it’s an awesome responsibility.  Listen to what Matthew Henry once said, “The stronger inducements we have to repent, the more heinous is our not repenting, and the severer will the reckoning be.”  That’s precisely what Jesus is saying.  When we are exposed to the gospel week after week after week, and if we do not embrace it in our hearts and lives, we increase our condemnation.  When I first came to Jackson, I had the privilege of meeting with some area businessmen for a Bible study on a regular basis. This was a wonderfully encouraging thing because though we were different, we had different jobs, and it was frankly kind of nice to get together and hear someone else’s problems.  It put my own problems in perspective.  And they helped me with good common sense advice and we got to study the word together.  It was a very encouraging thing.  But we read through Thomas Brook’s book, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, and when we were reading that book, I came across something I’d never seen in a preface to a book before.  Thomas Brooks, at the very end of his introduction to his book, asks you not to read it.  I had never seen that in a book before.  I mean, usually an author wants royalties, and he wants people to read his book, and he wants people to brag about him.  And Thomas Brooks says, “One last thing, don’t read this book.”  What in the world does he mean by that?  Let me share with you what he says, “Know that it is not the knowing nor the talking nor the reading but the doing man that will at last be found the happy man.  Reader, if it be not strong upon your heart to practice what you read, don’t read this book.  For to read it would be to increase your condemnation.”  We thought long and hard before we chose that book as our first book to study together, because we knew that reading it together would expose us to rich gospel truth which made a demand on our lives. 

         J. C. Ryle has said, “Let us settle in our minds that it will never do to be content with merely hearing and liking the gospel.  We must go further than that.  We must actually repent and be converted.”  We must actually lay hold on Christ and become one with Him.  And until then, we are in awful danger.  It will prove more tolerable to have lived in Tyre and Sidon and Sodom than to have heard the gospel in Jackson and at last die unconverted.  Embrace Christ just as you are and He will give you rest.  Let us pray. 

Help us, O Lord, to come to You without a plea, and to embrace You by faith, living a life of repentance, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

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