Jesus’s Compassion for Sinners

It is Monday on Holy Week. Jesus has pronounced woes on the Pharisees after answering the Sadducees. He now broadens His attention to Jerusalem as a whole. We know that God is good. We know that He is patient with the worst of sinners, not revealing His wrath in haste and never taking pleasure in the destruction of the wicked (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). In my own life, I have sinned against God so much and still He shows his love for me and continues to be with me. I wonder, is there a point at which God will simply hand us over? Is there a point at which it is too late for anyone to repent and believe and receive eternal life?

Our first reaction is to say, “Of course not!” It’s never too late! We may be correct, but I think it is important to see what the Scriptures say. Thus, we consider Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling.

Matthew 23:37 NASB

Here, Jesus speaks as God and describes His own desire throughout the history of Israel to gather Jerusalem under His wings. Jesus did not begin to exist when He was born. He was God and was with God in the beginning (cf. John 1). He takes credit, here, for being the Angel of the Lord who always contended with Israel—even wrestling Jacob. Even though it is God who elects according to His own perfect will and purpose, He is compassionate, graceful, and merciful toward those who are unwilling to be gathered under Christ. I find the language in this passage interesting because Matthew has made it a point to show the sovereignty of God and Lordship of Christ in salvation. Then, he says Christ wanted to gather the children of Jerusalem (here meaning her citizens) but they were unwilling. It is almost as if were they willing, Christ would have gathered them with His spiritual people. There is a real tension in the text for those trying to determine whether salvation is monergistic (a work of God alone) or synergistic (our working with God to accomplish our salvation). Someone once asked Charles Spurgeon how he reconciled the sovereignty of God with the free will of man. He answered by saying he never tries to reconcile friends. Others have asked me in response to my teaching about the sovereignty of God in salvation, “If God hasn’t chosen someone, does that person not have a chance even if he desires to be saved?” That’s not how salvation works. See, at the moment of conversion, a person experiences what we refer to as regeneration or being born again (cf. John 3). Someone is born again (regenerated) and then is able to see the kingdom of heaven and believe upon Christ. If a person is not born again, his will is set against God’s. So, the unregenerate will never repents and believes. The regenerate will does. This means that our actions and belief depends on regeneration. One cannot choose to be born again just as one cannot choose to be born. There is a reason Christ uses that illustration when talking to Nicodemus in John 3. 

It is no surprise, then, that Jerusalem is unwilling. Many of her citizens have not been born again. The most interesting part of Jesus’s statement, though, is His revelation of His own want to gather the people of Jerusalem. If Christ wills to do it, will He not accomplish it? Yet, He did not because the people were unwilling. Is Christ not king? Is He not sovereign in salvation? Does He not command men’s spirits to be born again? Why is His will not accomplished here? In election, the will of God is certainly being done. The Greek word used to denote Christ’s will in this verse, θελω, can carry both objective and subjective connotations depending on its literary context. Here, the meaning is subjective and can be stated as such, “I would have gathered you if you were willing. But, you were not.” Through the statement, we gain some insight into the way God thinks about and perceives the reprobate. He is not malicious toward them. He has a purpose for not electing them to salvation. He does not rejoice over their damnation. If they were able to come to Him on their own, He would gather them with His people. But, without being born again, people are unwilling—they cannot see the kingdom of Heaven. God laments that reality. Since He is just and perfect in all He does, and has a purpose for the reprobate, He does not change His plan or essence. He loves His enemies. He cares for the worst of sinners, even the worst blasphemer who will never repent or believe in Christ. This is the God we serve. This is the Christ we see in Matthew 23—sovereign but not coldhearted or distant—lamenting the fall of those not gathered under Christ.

I can speak from my own experience, here. Before I was converted, before I experienced being born again, I had my heart set against God and against His church. Yet, God still miraculously healed me of asthma in a moment after someone prayed for me. God is good to sinners. I was not yet in Christ. God is simply good.

Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’

Matthew 23:38-39 NASB

In verse 39, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118. Interesting how Jesus uses the Old Testament to verify His own claims. This Psalm is about God’s lovingkindness. It is about how God’s discipline and mercy brings His people into life. It is about how the Lord works together people’s rejection and acceptance of God’s servants (and of God Himself, see especially Psalm 118:23-25). God is so good to all people and He truly has mercy on all. In His lament, Christ judges Jerusalem, a judgment that will be repeated in John’s Revelation. Jerusalem will become desolate—a reality to be realized explicitly in AD 70 (within the generation Christ speaks to; cf. Matthew 23:36; 24:34). Though God has not changed, something in history has. From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) onward, Christ wrestled with national Israel. Even though they killed His prophets and stoned His sent ones, God contended with His chosen nation. Now, Christ has come to establish His kingdom. The forever king in David’s lineage has arrived. This is the theme of Matthew’s Gospel. The Gentiles will be grafted in and the dead branches of Israel will be cut off (cf. Isaiah 19:25; John 15:2). From this moment on, Israel will not see Christ as she did throughout the Old Testament period. He is handing the nation over until the nation blesses the one God sent—His Messiah, the Christ, whose name is Jesus.

I want to notice a couple things. Jesus’s pronouncement is about a nation, not about individuals. He has handed the nation over. Even on a national level, the nation will repent and bless Christ in response to the salvation of the Gentiles (cf. Romans 11:4, 11, 23). So, we see the demeanor of God. He hands nations over to their own wills until it is time for them to repent. During their season of self-willed pursuits, He prepares the way for their repentance or dissolution. God has a purpose for handing nations over, particularly His chosen nation Israel. If this is true for nations, how much must it also be true for individuals? When Christ hands us over to our own wills (cf. Romans 1:24ff), it is for the purpose of either bringing about our repentance or providing for our self-condemnation. God does not abandon anyone, neither the elect nor the reprobate. He is working in all people. He cares for all people. He cannot depart from anyone because He is omniscient (all knowing), omnipresent (everywhere), and omnibenevolent (all good). Even in Hell, He is there (cf. Psalm 139:8), and perhaps that is why it is hell for those who do not love Him.

So, no. While we are alive on this earth, it is not too late for God to cause us to be born again, lead us to repent and believe, and grant us eternal life. We understand, He must do it. We cannot choose to be born. Since God is mighty to save, there is real power when we pray for unbelievers. There is real power when we love our enemies. There is real power when God wakes people up. Today, may we say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord—Jesus.”

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