“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
The reason I have decided to single out this verse is because it is commonly misused to support the view that Christ desires the salvation of every individual but leaves the choice to them. I believe a plain reading of the text will provide the meaning of it. Let’s first look at the text [in red], then how it is commonly misread [in green] by those who hold to free will:
“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
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather you together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling.” –Matthew 23:37
“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, but you did not let me.” –Matthew 23:37
The first example portrays Jesus as desiring to save people throughout all time, but they weren’t willing to accept the free offer of the gospel. The second example portrays Jesus as being desirous to save people, but was held back by the leaders of Jerusalem – those “who killed the prophets and messengers.” We can plainly see a problem because the way these verse are read differ from what the text says. In both examples, Jesus is rendered powerless to have what He wants. This is smoothed out by the explanation that Jesus is being a “gentleman” – He doesn’t “force” love on people, because that isn’t what true love is about. It is interesting that quite the opposite is explicitly taught in Scripture, and that a judgment passage such as Matthew 23:37 must be appealed to in order to support an unbiblical doctrine. Is it any wonder that such an unbiblical doctrine would state a horrendous thing as the inability of God? So, what does this text mean?
Matthew 23:37 comes at the end of a stern rebuke given by Jesus toward the scribes and Pharisees. They were the teachers of Israel, and represented the state that Israel was in spiritually. Jesus spent much time teaching of the destruction that would soon befall Jerusalem. Pharisees often tested Jesus, and He answered them sternly. His feelings toward the scribes and Pharisees are never recorded to us as they are in this chapter. This Jesus is far from what seems to be the common depiction of Christ. His words are vigorous, cutting, precise, and judgmental. Jerusalem had been plundered before for her adulteries, and history was soon to repeat itself. They preached the doctrines of men, laws that were too heavy for even the scribes and Pharisees to carry. They hated the message of the gospel. It is the antithesis of law keeping. It is the antithesis of bondage. It is the antithesis of darkened human conclusions. They hated Christ and would hate his disciples, just as their fathers hated the prophets. Their fathers killed the prophets, and they would kill Christ and his disciples. He told them that they were hypocrites in thinking that they were any different from their forefathers. What follows this rebuke? Matthew 23:37. Let’s look at it again, and take it apart.
“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
I. Jerusalem, Jerusalem
Though Jerusalem is filled with individuals, Jesus does not regard her in this way. No guessing games necessary here. He gives us the meaning of Jerusalem. It is the “city” that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her.” This is the continuation of what Christ had said just a few verses earlier:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. – Matthew 23:29-32
Jesus does not go from rebuking the scribes and Pharisees for 36 verses to suddenly rebuking all of the Jews for not coming to Him when He wanted them to. Matthew 23 is consistent all the way through. Jesus did not say, “Israel, Israel.” He said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” the holy city where the temple was located. Jerusalem stood for the teachers of Israel – the scribes and Pharisees who were doing what their fathers did before them – murderous in their hatred for the message of God.
II. How often I wanted to gather your children together
These “children” were all of those who were being taught by the scribes and Pharisees, and their fathers before them.
This statement of Jesus is completed with, “and you were not willing.”
III. And you were not willing
This first half of the statement is normally read as though Jesus is expressing something He never had. “I really, really wanted to but…” All Christ is speaking of is the frequency of His wanting to gather the children together. No where does the verse say that the children did not come. It is followed with a “but” you were not willing, or “and” you were not willing. This second half doesn’t provide a reason for why Jesus couldn’t gather the children, rather it only says that these murderers were unwilling for Jesus to gather the children. This is painfully clear in the 36 preceding verses. They are law givers. Jesus gives grace. They are the older brother who is angry that the wayward son has returned (Luke 15:28). They are the tenants of the vineyard who killed the man’s son and the man’s servants (Mark 12:8).
Their message was not Christ’s message. In other words, instead of understanding the verse: “I wanted to, but you didn’t let me so I didn’t,” it should be understood, “What I wanted and what you wanted were different.” “You give law, I give grace.”
“Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:25-28