We believe both in God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Dr. Ligon Duncan preaches a chapel message on Matthew 11 at RTS Jackson. The sermon is entitled “Salvation: Hidden, Revealed, Offered.”
If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew 11. We’re going to be concentrating on verses 25 to 30, but I would like you to look back at verses 20 to 24 to get the context of what Jesus says in this passage. Jesus has been denouncing cities in which he had done mighty acts, cities in which he had proclaimed the gospel and the kingdom and the truth, and they had not responded. If you look at verses 20 to 24, you will notice several things that Jesus does, and these are remarkable things. They’re arresting things. They’re baffling things.
For instance, Jesus clearly indicates that not everyone has the same exposure to the gospel in verses 20 to 24. This is the root of his denunciation of Tyre and Sidon and Capernaum. I mean, just think of it, my friends. If there had been one place that you wanted to be on the planet earth in Jesus’s time, Capernaum and Jerusalem would have been one of the places you would have wanted to be to hear the gospel. And yet Jesus says Tyre and Sidon and Sodom will rise up and denounce the citizens of Capernaum and Jerusalem, who had heard the Lord Jesus Christ himself preach. That’s a sober, sober thing.
Furthermore, Jesus indicates that some would have repented had they had more light. Now you think about that. And even though his figure of speech here is designed to prick consciences, it raises a question: why do some people repent and others don’t? We’re going to sing about that before we’re done today, but Jesus himself raises that question.
And then in verse 25, he thanks his Father for actually hiding spiritual truth from some people, although he will later invite all people to come to him. How do you put those together? In verse 26, he attributes the distinction simply to the Father’s pleasure: my Father decided to do this. And in verse 27, he says that no one can even know the Father, unless he decides to reveal him, and that no one truly knows him except the Father.
This is a mysterious passage, but it is a passage well worth those who are going to devote their lives to gospel ministry reflecting upon. There are two or three things that we need to learn for certain out of this passage and keep with us in our hearts all the days of our lives.
Because if Jesus thought these things in the midst of the frustrations of a rejected ministry, how much more will we think these things when we are faithful to the Word, faithful to the gospel, zealous for souls, desirous to see men and women and boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people in nation come to faith in Christ, and we don’t see the conversions we want under our ministry? Or we face rejection from people who we deeply love and care for? Or we look into our own family and as we are sharing the gospel with the world we see a son or a daughter who is a stranger to grace? We better learn the lessons of Matthew 11:25–30.
Let’s pray again before we read God’s Word and ask for his help and blessing.
Heavenly Father. If the things that Jesus says here have been hidden from the wise, are hidden even from the wise, then we need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes because we do not number ourselves among the wise. We ask then, O God, that you would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in your Word and that you would press them deep into our hearts so that we understand them and believe them and live by them. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it in Matthew 11, beginning in verse 25:
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word, may he writes its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
How to Believe in Both God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility
We are at Reformed Theological Seminary. That means a lot of things. One thing it means is that confessionally, we say that we are committed to believing the truth that the Bible articulates about both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We don’t choose between those two things. We believe both those things. We believe that God is sovereign in salvation, but we also believe that sinners are responsible for their sin. We believe that God sovereignly uses means to draw sinners to himself, and we know that those things go together. But we don’t always or completely understand how. By faith, we accept what is plainly stated in the Word of God, and then we bow our heads and sing the doxology, not being able to answer all the questions that others might ask us or even the questions of our own soul quietly spoken to God.
We believe that God is sovereign in salvation, but we also believe that sinners are responsible for their sin.Well, this is a passage in which Jesus himself wrestles with that question. I want you to take that in. This is Jesus, God in the flesh, the only begotten Son of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, musing in his ministry on the sovereignty of God and human rejection of the gospel. Take that in for a minute. Jesus is looking at his own ministry and he’s asking, with as much as these people have seen and heard why didn’t they come to faith?
Do you ever ask that question? Have you ever asked that question in desperation? This is not some sort of little theological exercise for Jesus. This isn’t a classroom assignment in ST 2 or 3. This is real; you know that from what he says in verses 20 to 24. The tone of what Jesus says in 20 to 24 is bafflement and exasperation.
We know that Jesus deeply cared about people who rejected him. When the rich young ruler went away sorrowing, the Gospel writer tells us that Jesus felt a love for him. When Jesus later in this Gospel looks over the city of Jerusalem who has rejected him, what does he say? “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have wanted to gather you like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not have it.”
We know that Jesus deeply cared about people who rejected him.He is profoundly touched by rejection of the gospel because he profoundly cares about human beings created in the image of God who face an eternal destiny of separation from God and judgment and just condemnation in hell. Here he is meditating on the fact that his ministry has been rejected in his hometown and in the capital city of his people.
What would you say if that were you? You know, I’ve seen more than one faithful minister frustrated to the point of quitting by nonresponse to the gospel. I’ve seen ministers become doubtful, bitter, angry because of what has not happened. Good things that they wanted to happen through their ministry that have not happened.
In the Face of Rejection, Jesus Acknowledges the Father’s Sovereignty
Look at how Jesus responds to this. Three things—I can’t possibly touch on all the things that are here in this passage, but three things that I want you to know. The first thing you see, especially in verses 25 and 26, Jesus, in the face of the rejection of his ministry, unhesitatingly acknowledges that God, his Father, is sovereign in salvation. In the face of the rejection of his ministry, he acknowledges that his Father is sovereign in salvation. Listen again to the words: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
I won’t even dwell on that word “gracious will.” That’s a sermon in and of itself, isn’t it? It was gracious for him to hide this? That’s another sermon. Right now, what I want you to see is that in the context of these unrepentant cities in which Jesus’s heart was frustrated, baffled, and we could even say downcast by their unbelief, he lifts up a prayer of thanksgiving to his Father. He’s frustrated that people hadn’t been saved, and he immediately turns to thanksgiving to his father.
When we are discouraged, we ought to take encouragement in the fact that God is in control.My friends, that teaches us something when we are facing a nonresponse to our gospel ministry. When we are discouraged, we ought to take encouragement in the fact that God is in control. That he is working his purposes out, that he has designs that we do not understand. That his decree, his wisdom, his faithfulness is good. Thanksgiving to God is an answer and an antidote to dark and disquieting thoughts in life and ministry. The acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty may be used to silence those thoughts, and Jesus himself is teaching us that way.
He references God as the Lord of heaven and earth. That’s an acknowledgment and a reminder of his sovereignty. He points out that while the wise have rejected the truth, babes have received it. He glories in the fact that the Lord has revealed this mystery in the fullness of time, and that he’s revealed the gospel to the humble. In other words, he’s pointing out the unexpected ways that God works.
Thanksgiving to God is an answer and an antidote to dark and disquieting thoughts in life and ministry.You would have expected that the people who knew their Bibles best—the scribes, the Pharisees—would have been the first ones to believe. You wouldn’t have expected the unlearned to have been the ones to have responded to Jesus’s Bible exposition, but that was the way it was. In other words, Jesus, in the face of frustration at the rejection of his ministry, both acknowledges God’s sovereignty over it all and that God’s grace and mercy is actually revealed and magnified in that the wise did not accept the gospel but the humble.
In other words, Jesus points to the distinguishing favors that are on display in Capernaum in Jerusalem. James says that God is opposed to the proud, but he gives grace to the humble. This is a living display of that truth. So often it is the intelligent, the educated, the self-sufficient who reject God in the gospel: “I have no need of what you offer.”
You know what J.C. Ryle says about this passage? “One thing, at all events, stands out in Scripture as a great practical truth to be had in everlasting remembrance. Those from whom the Gospel is hidden are generally “the wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.” Those to whom the Gospel is revealed are generally humble, simpleminded, and willing to learn.”
Note this my friends. The more you learn and the more you know the more you need to apply yourself to that particular truth lest your knowledge blind you rather than opening the eyes of your heart.
Jesus Proclaims That Salvation Comes Exclusively Through Him
Second thing I want you to see, what Jesus says here is no less astonishing than his statement in John 14. You may you may think that “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me,” is the most unilateral declaration of the deity and uniqueness of Christ in salvation ever made. But you know what? Matthew 11:27 comes pretty close. What does he say? “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Four remarkable statements.
“Everything has been put under me,” just like Paul says in Ephesians 1:10. The Father is bringing all things under the headship of Christ. “Everything has been put under me.” That’s not a statement that a mere mortal makes. That’s not a statement that a prophet makes. “Everything’s being brought under me.”
Second, “No one knows me except the Father. No one knows the Father except me. And no one knows the Father unless I decide to reveal him.” Now, in light of what he’s just said, you just cook on that for a little while. “I thank you, Father, that you’ve hidden these things. But by the way, nobody can see you unless I reveal you.” Just think about that.
If life is found in the true and saving knowledge of God, and it is, then there is only one way in to that knowledge.He asserts four things: his exclusive and absolute authority, his exclusive relationship with the Father, the Father’s exclusive understanding and relationship with him, and his exclusive ability to reveal the Father.
What Jesus is saying is this: if life is found in the true and saving knowledge of God, and it is, then there is only one way in to that knowledge, and it comes right through me, Jesus is saying He might as well have said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me.” That’s exactly what he says in other words, right here. In other words, we see in verse 27 Jesus unapologetically assert that he is sovereign in salvation. It’s not just the Father who is sovereign and salvation. Jesus is sovereign in salvation.
Jesus Still Proclaims the Gospel to All Out of His Own Humility and Love
Now what does that cause Jesus to do? To decide he’s never, ever going to preach the gospel to the nonelect again? To screen people at the door? What are his next words? “Come to me, all.”
You have here one of the strongest assertions of the sovereignty of God that you’ll ever find in Jesus’s ministry right alongside one of the clearest assertions of the universal well-meant free offer of the gospel. Side by side, with no explanation and no apology. Jesus does not back down on that gospel offer one bit. “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy, laden and I will give you rest.”
Jesus names his heart in this passage. He tells you what is in his heart. You see what he says? “I am gentle and humble in heart.” Is that not amazing? The wise have hidden from their eyes salvation. The humble have it revealed. And now the revealer of that salvation says, “By the way, I too am humble. I’m the sovereign God on whom all things rest. Everything has been given to me. And I’m humble and gentle of heart.” He holds out two reasons why we ought to come to him. One, he is gentle and humble. Two, he will give us rest.
Jesus Knows What It Is Like to Feel Rejected as a Minister
Jesus is showing us some truths here that we need to know for life in ministry. You will preach the gospel, and some will come, and some will not. And you will wonder sometimes, “Why her? Why not him? Why them? Why not those?” And the only answer there will be is, “It was well-pleasing in the Father’s sight. The Son did not choose to reveal to them the Father.” And when you ask yourself that question and when you’re frustrated by that answer, just remember that the Jesus who revealed those two answers asked the same question himself.
Your Savior knows what it’s like to live in your skin as a gospel minister.Your Savior knows what it’s like to live in your skin as a gospel minister. He knows what it’s like to live there. He knows what it’s like to see people that you thought had come to faith in Christ fall away, never to return. He knows what it’s like to see somebody that close but never accepting. And he knows what it’s like to face those kinds of frustrations and still say, “Come to me all, and I will give you rest.”
He’s our example of what we ought to do in gospel ministry at that point. Trust the sovereignty of God. Never stop offering the gospel. Wait for God to show how he is gracious because he is. Sometimes that will be all that you have. It will be all that you have. There’ll be no other explanations. And when you’re there just remember that 2,000 years ago, Jesus himself was there before you, asking the same question you’re asking now.
Trust the sovereignty of God. Never stop offering the gospel. Wait for God to show how he is gracious because he is.Remember God once said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Listen to him on Matthew 11:25–30 as well. And it will give rest to your souls. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, these are easy things to say and really hard things to believe and live out, especially when we yearn for people that we love to embrace the Savior as he’s offered in the gospel. So help us be gospel people that never give up on sharing the gospel and gospel people who never, ever give up on believing in the gracious sovereignty of God. We ask these things in Jesus’s name, Amen.