The Sovereignty of God and Jesus’ Call

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Speaker

Matthew 11:20–30 | November 8 - Sunday Morning,

Sunday Morning,
November 8
The Sovereignty of God and Jesus’ Call | Matthew 11:20–30
Dr. Ligon Duncan, Speaker

This morning that we began last night is Reform still relevant? Is the Reformed faith relevant today? And we gave a resounding yes last night as we answered that question and we pointed to the Word of God and the glory of God and the mission of God and emphasized how the Reformed faith upholds the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God in all things, in salvation and everything for His glory, and the mission of God in the world to make men and women and boys and girls of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation part of the people that Jesus has redeemed and for them to live for His glory in the world.

And we said that’s a very important thing today. The Church needs that message, the world needs that message.

Today I want to continue along with that theme, looking especially at the sovereignty of God in salvation. You’ve already sung several times this morning about the sovereignty of God in all of life.

For instance, you sang Margaret Clarkson’s beautiful hymn “O Father, You Are Sovereign.” One of the lines that you sang is, “O Father, you are sovereign in all the affairs of man.”

By the way, she also has this beautiful line, “O Father, you are sovereign, the Lord of human pain.” That means a lot because Margaret Clarkson suffered from chronic pain and yet she recognized that God was even sovereign in that very, very difficult part of her life.

This is a passage that we’re going to study this morning in Matthew 11 where Jesus acknowledges God’s sovereignty in all things, but especially in matters of salvation. God is sovereign in salvation, and that’s important for our consolation and for our confidence in bearing witness to Christ, in sharing the Gospel to others, and I hope you’ll be helped by this as we meditate upon it this morning.

We are going to be looking at Matthew chapter 11, verses 20 to 30.

Let’s pray before we read God’s Word.

Heavenly Father, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word and grant that we would believe them, that we would trust You. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the Word of God. Hear it beginning in Matthew chapter 11, verse 20:

“Then He began to denounce the cities where most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.'”

“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 write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Jesus in this passage utters some of the most important words ever spoken about the sovereignty of God in salvation, but He does it in the context of denouncing and remonstrating with the cities where He has done so much of His ministry because even though He has done miracles there, even though he has preached and taught clearly, they have not repented of their sin. They have not placed their trust in Christ. They have not embraced the Gospel.

So He begins this passage, if you look at verses 20 through 24, by saying very strong words to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum because they’ve not responded to the Gospel message and mission of Jesus, and then in the wake of that denunciation, He has several very important words about the sovereignty of God in salvation.

Believing in the sovereignty of God is vitally important for our consolation in the Christian life and it is important in our confidence in Gospel ministry. So I want us to look at the five things that Jesus teaches us in this passage.

First look at 20 to 24. Here Jesus says to these cities that if Sodom had heard the preaching that you’ve heard, had seen the works that you have heard, if Tyre and Sidon had seen the works that you have seen and heard the message that you have heard, they would have repented.

It’s a really powerful statement. He’s saying yes, Sodom had the witness of Abraham; yes, Tyre and Sidon had the witness of the prophets; but you have had a greater, clearer, better witness. You have had the Son of God. You’ve had Me doing the ministry and the mission and the miracles and spreading the message of God in your midst and yet you have not repented. Jesus is reminding us that there is such a thing as a sin against light.

Not everybody has an equal exposure to the means of grace, not everybody has an equal exposure to the Gospel. Some people are blessed with the privilege of hearing the Gospel more faithfully, more regularly, more clearly, because of where they have been placed in God’s providence. In this congregation, you have the benefit of being in a church where the Bible is believed, the Bible is preached, the Bible is read, every Lord’s day, and you should not take that as something for granted.

This morning your pastor read from Isaiah as part of the Scripture reading. Do you realize that there are five billion people on this planet who have never heard what you got to hear this morning when your pastor read from Isaiah? That is, the Word of God in your own language as a means of grace in a public service of worship. There are five billion people on this planet that have never heard that. But you get to hear that Lord’s day after Lord’s day. Don’t take that for granted. Don’t sin against light.

Jesus is saying to Chorazin and Bethsaida and to Capernaum, you have had great light in your midst. You have had the Son of God in your midst doing miracles, preaching the Gospel, and you have not repented. And He says it in the striking idiom, the striking figure of speech, that if Sodom had heard and seen what you have seen and heard, if Tyre and Sidon had heard and seen what you have seen and heard, they would have repented.

It just reminds us, my friends, that when we have been preached the Word of God to, when God’s Gospel has been declared to us clearly and powerfully and openly and regularly, it is a serious thing to turn a deaf ear to it. And it’s so easy to take that for granted.

I remember talking to a young man who was not a believer and I heard what congregation that he had grown up in and I thought, “That young man grew up in one of my favorite preacher’s congregations. How could he have not heard and responded to the Gospel in that congregation? I know he heard the Gospel in that congregation, but how could he have not responded to the Gospel?”

Jesus here doesn’t give an immediate answer in terms of why the people in Capernaum and Bethsaida and Chorazin had not repented and rejected His message. The closest He gets, if you look down at verse 25, He speaks of the wise and understanding not knowing these things. In other words, they were wise and understanding in their own eyes. They were spiritually prideful. They didn’t think that Jesus had wisdom to offer to them because they were already wise and understanding in their own eyes. So it could be spiritual pride, unbelief, idolatry, love of their sin.

There could have been all sorts of human reasons why they rejected the ministry of Christ, but let’s think about that for a minute. Sometimes there are people that are near and dear to us that we long to come to faith in Christ and we may want to think, “If I can just be clear enough, if I can just be loving enough, if I can just be winsome enough, surely I can win them to Christ. Surely they will come to Christ.”

But these people had Jesus ministering to them and they didn’t repent, and that should be a consolation to us, my friends. We can’t change the hearts of sinners. Only God can do that and that’s vital for us to remember.

When I was a young professor at RTS in Jackson in the early 1990s, we had a mission professor named Sam Rowan and Sam had grown up in an unbelieving family and he had spent much of his life as a missionary and he really, really wanted his own family to come to faith in Christ. He recounted the stories in the last months of his dad’s life over and over he shared the Gospel with his father. When his father finally died, Sam shared with us in a chapel service at RTS, he said, “I don’t know whether my father ever responded to the Gospel. I shared the Gospel with him, but he never indicated to me as to whether he had embraced Christ alone for salvation as He has offered in the Gospel.” Then Sam said this, and I felt like I was pinned to my pew, when Sam said, Sam clearly loved his father, and he clearly wanted his father to come to faith in Christ and be with him in heaven for eternity, but Sam said this: “I don’t know whether my father ever accepted the Gospel, but I do know this: Wherever my father is today, whatever the Lord has done is right.”

Whatever the Lord has done is right. He accepted God’s sovereignty in the salvation, even of his beloved father, whom he longed to come to faith in Christ, and this very passage should remind us of that reality today.

These people had Jesus as their preacher, and they did not repent. So we should not think that if we can just be clear enough, or just be urgent enough, or just be earnest enough, or just be consistent enough, or just be importunate enough in prayer, we will, surely we will be able to win the people or the persons that we’re sharing the Gospel with, we’ll be able to win them to Christ because here Jesus is ministering amongst these people and they don’t repent.

So there’s the first thing we want to see. There’s such a thing as sinning against light, and that’s what Jesus is denouncing these cities about. They have seen a great light, but the truth of the Gospel has been hidden from their eyes and they have not repented.

Now in the wake of that statement, then Jesus says four other things that just blow your mind.

Here’s the second thing I want you to see. Look down at verse 25. Jesus responds to this by saying, “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.”

Jesus credits the Father with not revealing these things to the people in those cities. He credits the Father with being the One who kept them from seeing these things. “You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding.” He also of course credits the Father for revealing it to those who have repented and who have believed, but He acknowledges that God is the One who has hidden and God is the One who has revealed. God is the One who has closed the heart, God is the One who has opened the heart.

Have you heard passages like that elsewhere in Bible? Yes, you have. Do you remember when God sent Moses to Pharaoh to say, “Let my people go.” He told Moses before he went to Pharaoh, “When you go to Pharaoh to tell him ‘Let my people go,’ I am going to harden his heart so that he will not let my people go.” If you’re Moses, you want to go, “So let me get this straight, Lord. You’re sending me to Pharaoh to say, ‘Let my people go,’ but you’re going to harden his heart so that he won’t let my people go. Have I got that right?” “Yes, Moses, you do.”

If you read that story, you’ll notice that sometimes it said, “Pharaoh hardened his heart” and “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Now which is it? Did Pharaoh harden his heart? Or did God harden his heart? Yes. Both are true.

Jesus is saying, “Father, You in Your sovereignty have not chosen to reveal Yourself to these people who are wise in their own eyes. Their hearts are hard, You are sovereign.” Both are true.

Think how often that happens in the Bible. In Genesis 50:20 Joseph says, “You meant these things for evil but God meant these things for good.” Or we think of Peter’s preaching in Acts chapter 2 where he will say, “Jesus was delivered up by the predeterminate plan and foreknowledge of God, and you nailed Him to the cross by sinful men.”

So which is it? Was Jesus delivered up by the predeterminate plan and foreknowledge of God? Or are the people who were involved in His crucifixion responsible? Yes. Both.

In this passage in verse 25, Jesus acknowledges that God is sovereign in salvation. The opening of the heart and the closing of the heart belongs to God. Only God can enable a dead sinner to come to faith in Christ.

So Jesus emphatically asserts God’s sovereignty in salvation, right after criticizing these cities for not responding in faith, He immediately credits the sovereignty of God in salvation. Only God can change the heart.

Then, here’s the third thing that He does, the next thing that he does is He praises God, He worships God for His sovereignty and salvation.

Look again at verse 25: “I thank You, Father, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and have revealed them unto little children.” I thank You, I praise You, I worship You, I acknowledge You for this. This is a cause for worship to acknowledge Your sovereignty.

So just like Margaret Clarkson can sing, “O Father, You are sovereign, the Lord of human pain,” Father, I’m wracked with chronic pain, you’re the God who made me and I acknowledge that You are sovereign even over my pain and I worship You for that. Or, as Job does when he hears the report of the death of his children, “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” and he fell down and worshiped God.

God’s sovereignty is a matter of our worship. We acknowledge that God is in control not only of all the affairs of men, He is in control sovereignly of salvation, too, and Jesus points us to that reality in His Word when He says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to children.”

But then He has a fourth thing that He wants to teach you about God’s sovereignty. Look especially at verse 27: “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father. 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.”

Now listen to that last phrase: “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” So not only is God sovereign in salvation, Jesus is saying, “I am sovereign in salvation. You cannot know the Father unless I reveal the Father to you. You can’t come to the Father unless I bring you to the Father. I’m the only way to the Father. The only way you can come to God is through Me.”

This is so important for us realize. We call on people to have faith in Christ and we say that faith is the instrument by which they are saved, but that faith itself is all of God’s grace. So when people have faith in God for salvation as He has offered in the Gospel, it is because of God’s prior grace. We believe because God has done a work of grace in us.

There’s an old.. We’ve been singing some wonderful old hymns from the Southern Harmony. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed that this morning in the bulletin notes, but another old hymn from the Sacred Harp in the 19th century was a hymn that you may know that goes like this: “I sought the Lord and afterwards I knew that He moved my soul to see Him seeking me. It was not I who found O Savior true, no, I was found of thee.”

You see what that hymn is saying? At some point in this man’s life he finally, truly sought the Lord by faith. He repented of his sins, he trusted in Christ. “I sought the Lord but afterwards I knew” that you moved my soul, Lord, to seek You. You were the One. I wasn’t the seeker, You were the seeker. You were seeking me and the only reason I ever sought You was because You sought me first.

It’s a little bit like 1 John, isn’t it? We love because He first loved us.

The very reason we ever reach out to God in faith is because He has already reached out to us in grace. Isn’t that the great message of Ephesians chapter 1 as well?

“I sought the Lord and afterward I knew, He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me. It was not I who found You, Jesus, no, You found me.”

You know, C.H. Spurgeon has this wonderful description. He says, “Over the gates of heaven as you enter in are the words ‘Whosever will,’ but when you pass through the portal and look back on the other side, the words say, “Chosen from before the foundation of the world.'” So which is it? Yes. Both.

Jesus says, “I am the only One who can reveal the Father to you. You must trust in Me alone for salvation as I am offered in the Gospel if you want to come to the Father.”

Both of those things are true, and Jesus acknowledges here His sovereignty in salvation.

Then he does something quite remarkable, and it’s what I want you to see in verse 28. This is the fifth thing that I want you to see this morning. Jesus immediately after saying that the Father is sovereign in salvation, the Father hides these things from those who are wise in their own eyes, He is sovereign in salvation, no one can come to the Father unless He reveals the Father, He then immediately says: “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 soul.”

So after acknowledging the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation, He then makes an indiscriminate proposal of mercy to everyone. He says, “Come to Me all.” Come to Me all. He proposes mercy and He invites all to Himself, right in the wake of having acknowledged a whole group of people who have rejected Him. That is so important for us to understand.

You know, who do we offer the Gospel to? Do we have to look for a secret mark that someone is elect on their forehead before we offer the Gospel? No. Come to Me all, Jesus says.

Do you know how think this issue through? You ask yourself the question, “Is this a human?” Yep. “Is he breathing?” Yes. “Offer him the Gospel. Come to Me all,” Jesus says.

There’s a beautiful passage in Calvin’s commentary on John 13. You know, John 13 is where the upper room story is told in the Gospel of John, and Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Before the Lord’s Supper starts, you remember He tells them that the one who is going to betray Me is here at the table with Me. God has appointed this one to betray Me as a son of perdition. So He acknowledges God’s sovereignty even in His betrayal and that He doesn’t name Judas out loud, but He makes it clear that Judas is going to betray Him, and then, you know, the foot washing begins. You know, they get into the room, no servant is there to wash their feet, Jesus takes off His garments, wraps the long towel of an Oriental slave around His waist and starts going around the outer edge of the table where the men are reclining on their sort of little couches, and He starts washing their feet. You remember that He has the incident where He gets to Peter and Peter says, “You’re not going to wash my feet,” and He says, “Oh, yes I am.”

But what Calvin points out is that Jesus washes all the disciples’ feet, including Judas. Did you know that? He washed Judas’ feet. And Calvin commenting on that says, “Though Christ knew that he was appointed as His betrayer, He was opening to him once more the gate of repentance, but he would not enter through.”

So if Jesus can open the gate to repentance to a known reprobate, you and I can share the Gospel with anyone.

We can say with confidence, “You come to Jesus, He will give you rest because God is more willing to forgive your sins than you are to ask for forgiveness.”

God is more ready to forgive your sins than you are interested in giving up your sins. When Jesus says, “If you come to Me, I will give you rest,” He means it, He can deliver.

Isn’t this a marvelous thing that He puts all together? God is absolutely sovereign in salvation. We’re responsible for our actions and for our acceptance or rejection of the Gospel, and we shouldn’t sin against great light when the Lord has put so much Gospel witness in our way, and we are to share the Gospel with everyone and call to come to Christ for life, for rest, for forgiveness, for refreshment, for the place where you will find rest for your souls.

Oh, my friends, the sovereignty of God in salvation is a very comforting and consoling thing; it’s also something that gives us confidence, because if Jesus is sovereign in salvation, He will use our Gospel witness. We don’t know exactly how, we don’t know exactly how many, but we know that He will use our Gospel witness as His means, His instrument, to bring those to faith in Christ that the Father has given Him from the foundation of the world. That is a very encouraging thing.

Let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word, we thank You for the privilege of worshiping You on Your Lord’s Day, of hearing the Word read and proclaimed as a means of grace, and now as we sing truth back to You, we pray that You would work this truth deep into our souls and give us comfort and consolation and confidence as we live the Gospel live. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.