God's Sovereignty: The Foundation of Mission

Sermon by David Strain on Feb 23, 2014

Matthew 11:25-30

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Now let me invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to the gospel according to Matthew, chapter 11. Matthew’s gospel chapter 11.  We’re going to be focusing our attention on the last section of the chapter, verses 25 to the end; you’ll find that on page 816 of the New Testament sections of your Bibles.  Before we read God’s Word, we’re going to bow our heads if you would please as we seek His blessing.  Let’s pray.

O Lord, we confess to You that we are oftentimes reluctant to obey the call of the Lord Jesus to be His witnesses and we throw up every kind of objection and we feel our inadequacy deeply and we find excuses and we duck His summons.  And so here before You now we pray, Lord, would You begin to deal with us.  By Your Word, take hold of us and if we are children of Yours, change our hearts by the provisions of Gospel grace in this text so that we might be willing instruments of Yours in the work of Jesus Christ to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth. And if any are here who are not yet children of Yours, we pray very simply that You would take away their hearts of stone and that today You would give them hearts of flesh.  Help them to come to Jesus and to find rest for their souls, in Jesus’ name, amen.

Matthew chapter 11 at verse 25.  This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God:

“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 we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and sufficient Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

The “Problem” of Sovereignty and Evangelism

Sometimes you will hear it said that if God is sovereign in salvation, if He chooses to save some and pass others by and leave them in their sins and we are powerless to rescue ourselves from our bondage to spiritual death and sin, well then what’s the point of evangelism?  If God saves and we cannot move ourselves one inch toward heaven or one inch from hell under our own resources and strength, if God saves, well then what’s the point of mission?  In a now infamous episode, 1786, the father of the modern missionary movement, William Carey, gave classic expression, or rather an objection to a question of his, gave classic expression to that point of view: that the sovereignty of God and a passion for mission cannot belong together in the same heart.  Carey was at a gathering of ministers and there he raised the question whether it wasn’t after all the duty of all Christians to bring the Gospel to bear upon men and women, boys and girls of every class and every background, everywhere across the world indiscriminately preaching Christ to all.  A man called John Collett Ryland, one of the elder statesmen in the group, stood up and said, “Sit down young man!  If God chooses to save the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine!”  You see, he thought, “If you believe in the sovereignty of God, evangelism, mission, is redundant.  It’s not necessary.  God will get His work done without the help of anyone else.  The sovereignty of God cancels out mission and evangelism.” 

In his now classic book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Jim Packer says, “The sovereignty of God, the doctrine of divine sovereignty, is thought to paralyze evangelism by robbing one both of the motive to evangelize and the message to evangelize with.  The supposition seems to be,” says Packer, “that you cannot evangelize effectively unless you’re prepared to pretend while you’re doing it that the doctrine of divine sovereignty isn’t true.  But,” he says, “actually so far from inhibiting evangelism, faith in the sovereignty of God’s government and grace is the only thing that can sustain it, for it is the only thing that can give us the resilience that we need if we are to evangelize boldly and persistently and not be daunted by temporary setbacks.  So far from being weakened by this faith, therefore, evangelism will inevitably be weak and lack staying power without it.”  That, I think, is very well said.  All I want to do with you together this morning is to back up Packer’s point from Matthew chapter 11:25-30 and provide some Scriptural argument for it.

God’s Sovereignty: The Foundation for Mission in the Face of Every Obstacle

I want to show you not only can a passion for the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation and a passion for mission and evangelism to all the world coexist in the same heart comfortably, not only that, but actually the sovereignty of God who alone chooses to save whomever He will is the only thing that can sustain and provide confidence and boldness in evangelism in the face of every obstacle and overcoming every challenge.  It is, if you like, the scaffolding that holds the edifice of world mission in place, no matter the discouragements and the opposition that might confront it.  And so we’re going to be looking at Matthew chapter 11 in the last section there, but we might just as easily have camped out together for this opening session of our missions conference in Matthew chapter 10, because Matthew chapter 10 is actually all about missions.  He, Jesus, sends the twelve disciples at the beginning of the chapter to go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel - verse 6.  He’s sending them on a mission trip.  They are to go as sheep among wolves - verse 16.  They are to proclaim in the light, that is, publically and openly the things that Jesus had told the disciples privately - verse 27.  They were to fight the fear of men which will come over them, no doubt, as it comes over you and me when we try to obey the call of Christ, to speak for Him.  Fight the fear of men with a superior fear of God - verses 28 to 31 of chapter 10.  And it’s going to be a costly cross-bearing mission they will be sent on - verses 34 to 39 - and yet an immensely rewarding one - 40 to 42.  Mission is the big idea in chapter 10 and as chapter 11 opens we find that Jesus, having sent the twelve, is not idle Himself.  He also, verse 1 of chapter 11, is going throughout their cities preaching and teaching.  Mission is the big idea; evangelism.  Chapter 10 would be a great place for us to camp out together at the beginning of our missions conference. 

But my guess is, that most of us do not need to be exhorted to obey the duty to speak for Jesus in every opportunity that comes to us.  Most of us know that we have an obligation to be witnesses to Christ and to do evangelism wherever we can, in our own context among our neighbors and friends and colleagues.  And with that sense of obligation, if you’re like me at least, will come a significant sense of guilt because we feel inadequate because we’re not sure quite how to put it because we feel scared.  We worry about reprisals and the reactions of the people to whom we try to share our faith, with whom we try to share our faith.  And so we’re not going to be in chapter 10, which is all a challenge to go and be missionaries, but chapter 11, which is all about encouragement and resources that will enable us to go and face down the opposition of an unbelieving world and be obedient nevertheless.  What we most urgently need in this whole area of mission and evangelism, I suspect, is not another summons to go share the Gospel so much as it is a reminder of the help available to us if we will only venture enough on Christ, trust Christ enough to open our mouths, and, stutteringly and stammeringly and with fear and trembling, speak for Him.  We need a reminder, don’t we, that God is with us and will help and sustain us, of the truths that will sustain evangelism in the face of opposition. 

Powerful Preaching and Fruitless Response

So let’s look at chapter 11 and if ever you needed an antidote to simplistic triumphalism and overconfidence when it comes to evangelism, a quick survey of chapter 11 will immediately provide it, because chapter 11 shows us Jesus’ ministry - the greatest evangelist who ever lived - and it has very little fruit to show for it, at least in this chapter.  And I think that, I’m sure you do too, actually rather reassuring.  Even Jesus, even Jesus, as He goes preaching and teaching, meets with, at best, mixed results.  Look at the passage in verses 1 to 6.  The mighty John the Baptist sends an embassy to Jesus to say, “You know, I’m not terribly sure You are the Messiah.” It turns out that of all people, not even John is all that sure about Jesus.  And then in 7 to 18, Jesus exposes the fickle unbelief of the crowds among whom He has been ministering.  John and Jesus, very different styles of ministry, and they reject them both.  It’s a gloomy picture and one in which the darkness becomes almost impenetrable in verses 20 to 24 where, in response to the near wholesale rejection of Christ and His message, Jesus pronounces judgment on the cities among whom He has been preaching - Bethsaida and Chorazin and Capernaum, woe to you!  Judgments coming.  You do not receive the message.  It will be more bearable for Sodom in the day of judgment than for you!” He says.  It’s a chilling word of judgment.  They reject His mighty words, His Gospel works, and judgment is coming in consequence.

So you get the idea.  There has been no preacher who has ever proclaimed the Word of God with the power and clarity of Jesus Christ, and yet His words did not meet with a welcome reception.  They reject Him.  It’s a profoundly discouraging picture.  Here is Jesus engaged in evangelism and they say, “No thanks; not interested.  I don’t want to hear it.”  It’s a gloomy picture, which is actually why the opening words of our text are so startling and so profoundly helpful as we consider our own attempts to reach the world with the Gospel.  Look at verse 25 please.  “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.’”  Chapter 11 presents us with this unrelenting, bleak picture.  Jesus has come to save them and they don’t want Him. He’s come preaching and healing and ministering mercy and they denounce Him.  His reputation is being slandered; they are hostile. 

Thankfulness in the Face of Hostility

And then He lifts His voice and says, “I thank you, Father.”  The Greek of the text actually makes the connection between this passage and the gloomy passages preceding even more explicit.  Literally it reads, “At that time Jesus answered and said, ‘I thank you, Father.’”  Jesus answered and said, to which we respond, “Well what was the question?”  Jesus answered; well what was the question?  To what is Jesus responding here as He lifts His voice to the Father in thanksgiving?  He’s responding to the almost complete unbelief and hostility with which His message has been met.  It’s His answer to the gloom and darkness of relentless unbelief; it’s His answer to hearts that seem to be impervious to His message.  It is, perhaps, even His answer to the temptation facing Him in His evangelistic efforts to be discouraged and disappointed.  As He seeks to summon the world to repentance and faith, they don’t want Him.  He answered and said, “I think you, Father.”  That is stunning.  Or look down at verse 28.  The people don’t want Him; they reject His message.  They resist His person.  He says to the Father, “I thank you, Father” and then He says to them, to the crowds that are hostile towards Him, “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  They don’t want Him and what is He doing?  He just keeps on preaching and pleading and inviting and asking them, “Won’t you turn, won’t you come, won’t you rest on Me?  I can deliver you.  I am a Savior for you.  Won’t you come to Me?” 

The Foundation for Persevering Boldness

And so here’s my question.  How is it that Jesus is not overcome with discouragements but instead bursts out in a word of thanksgiving to the Father and persists in evangelizing the very people who have made it very clear they don’t want Him?  How does He do that?  Why isn’t He like Elijah, sulking in the desert, when no one listens to His message?  Why doesn’t He throw His hands in the air at the end of verse 24 and say, “You know, I’m through with you people!  I gave it My best shot!  You don’t want it?  That’s fine.  We’re done.  I give up.”  Why does He keep inviting them to come and why can He be thankful in the face of a reaction like that?  What’s the foundation for Jesus’ persevering boldness in mission?  What is the scaffold supporting the edifice of evangelism in Jesus’ ministry?  The answer of our text is the absolute sovereignty of God.  The foundation of thankfulness and perseverance, of joyful persistence in the work of telling the world about Jesus Christ rests in a profound confidence in God’s unconstrained freedom and power to save whomever He wills. 

I. The Principle: God Alone Saves

Jesus makes that very point simply and plainly in verses 25 and 26, doesn’t He?  Here, first of all, is the principle of God’s sovereignty stated.  Look at it with me - 25 and 26.  “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.”  Upon what does God rest His saving work of revealing Himself to sinners?  Upon nothing other than His gracious will.  He chooses whom to save.  God’s own good pleasure, His unconstrained choice - that is the principle.  God alone saves. 

Hidden from the Wise and Understanding

But do notice the conclusions Jesus draws from that.  First He says God’s sovereignty in salvation actually helps explain why it is that the wise and understanding to whom Jesus has been preaching do not respond to His message. He’s been inviting them to come to Him; He’s been explaining the coming of the kingdom of God among them.  And the only response He has been met with is disdain.  And here’s why - “You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding.”  The truth cannot be uncovered by the ingenuity of human deductive reasoning.  There’s no scientific method that can compute the saving calculus correctly.  Human wisdom and understanding can do many things - produce a Sistine ceiling, a St. Paul’s Cathedral. It can help us count the stars and measure the mass of the sun.  It can unravel the mysteries of human DNA, but it cannot compute the data, it cannot put the equation together in such a way that we can get ourselves out from under the just judgment of God upon our sin.  When it comes to the issues of eternity, our best intellect falls flat.  According to His eternal purpose, God has hidden salvation from the wise and the understanding. 

Revealed to Little Children

It also explains, despite all of that however, that there are still some who respond to Jesus’ message that are saved.  They are a surprising bunch, aren’t they, according to Jesus?  Look at the text.  They’re not the wise and understanding.  Who are they?  They are the little children.  That is, those to whom God chooses to reveal Himself feel their weakness, their smallness, their vulnerability, their impotence, their inadequacy, and to such hopeless and helpless cases, God gives saving grace so that no one may take the credit and say, “I did this.  It was me.  No, it was all the intervention of the sovereign grace of Almighty God.  He has delivered and redeemed us.  It was all Him.  We were helpless and He rescued us.  We were lost; He found us.  We were dead; He made us alive.”  So Jesus faces down the hostility of the world and He bursts out instead in a word of thanksgiving and praise.  He gives thanks to the Father because He knows salvation belongs to the Lord.  And despite the opposition His ministry faces, God will save some, some unexpected, unlikely, improbable souls, “little children,” He calls them - the weak and the inadequate and the poor and the blind and the broken.  God’s gracious will is to grant a saving revelation of Himself to hopeless cases that all the glory might be His.

The Fuel for Persevering Boldness

How can we rejoice and be thankful in the hard, slow work of evangelism and mission?  How can we keep going when the odds are stacked against us and the response we meet with is either antagonism or apathy?  How do you join Jesus in the face of all of that and still say, “I thank you, Father,” to God, and, “Come to Christ” to the world?  You do it the way Jesus did it.  You get hold of the absolute sovereignty of God in choosing to save unlikely candidates and improbably cases.  Some of us have some improbably cases on our hands, don’t we?  We’ve been praying for them, we’ve been trying to reach them for a long time.  Some of us live with spouses that seem to us impervious to the Gospel message.  Some of us have covenant children and we’ve wept over them and prayed with them and taught them and they’ve heard the good news about Jesus countless times and they have rejected everything they have heard.  Some of us have neighbors and colleagues who, every time we try to share our faith clam up, turn hostile and cold towards us.  How do you keep loving, keep loving and keep praying and keep speaking for Christ among improbable cases?

You cling to the great fact that God alone saves and He loves to save unlikely candidates.  You cling to the fact that the effectiveness of your witness does not lie in the dynamism of your presentation or the brilliance of your arguments or the sophistication of your reasoning or your ability to roll your “Rs.”  That was a joke; no one laughed at the earlier service either.  The effectiveness of your ministry lies in no talent of yours.  It lies in the omnipotent working of the One whom Jesus calls the Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Almighty Sovereign who reigns who is mighty to save.  Salvation belongs to the Lord.  You cling to that, you trust that, and you will see how God will work, using even you, for His great ends, taking our poor, lisping stammering tongues and doing the same thing He did at the graveside of Lazarus.  Through you as you speak for Jesus, the Lord Jesus Himself will summon the dead to life and Lazarus’ will come forth.  The unbelief of the world is no barrier; the hostility of the world is no barrier to the sovereignty of God who has a purpose to save a people to Himself from every tribe and language and nation.

II. The Pattern: How the Plan of God is Executed

Then look with me at verse 27.  Twenty-five and 26 give us the principle of God’s sovereignty in salvation.  Verse 27 outlines the pattern, the way in which the plan of God is to be executed.  Notice, first of all here, Jesus’ unique authority from the Father in the first half of verse 27.  “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.”  Jesus is talking about the eternal covenant of redemption, in which, before there were stars hung in their places, He was appointed Savior for sinners, the Mediator of God’s covenant purpose, the Executor of His predestinating plan.  “He is no amateur Savior,” Spurgeon says. He is officially delegated.  He is the authorized Savior, the One to whom all redeeming authority has been committed.  The entirety of the saving plan of the Father has been entrusted to Him.  That means Jesus saves to the uttermost all who come to God by Him because He executes the Father’s will to save.  He is the One to whom a people have been given, of whom He has lost none and for whom He dies. 

Unique Authority and Intimacy

He has unique authority from the Father but more than that we learn here too that Jesus has unique intimacy with the Father.  Look at the text again.  “No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son.”  John the Baptist wasn’t too sure about Jesus in verses 1 to 6.  The crowds in 7 to 24 reject Jesus. The disciples, as the Gospel records make abundantly clear, again and again and again misunderstand Jesus.  Even you and I who profess to love and follow Jesus, don’t we so often misconstrue what He is doing in our lives so that trusting Him is sometimes very difficult for us indeed?  The world misunderstands Him, does not know Him, but that’s not how it is with the Father, Jesus says.  The Father knows the Son, encyclopedically, comprehensively, precisely and exhaustively.  And in one way, of course, that’s hardly surprising.  That’s what God does, right?  He knows all things.  He knows everyone intimately, exhaustively, comprehensively - better even than we know ourselves.  The Father knows the Son in a way no one else does - that’s not really news.

What Jesus says next, however, is stunning.  Not only does the Father know the Son, but the Son has the same knowledge of the Father.  There is an exact parallel, mirror image, between the Son’s knowledge of the Father and the Father’s knowledge of the Son.  Exhaustive, comprehensive, complete.  They know one another.  There is reciprocity and intimacy and interpenetrating fellowship and communion between the Father and the Son in the unity of the blessed Trinity.  It’s breathtaking.

A Sovereign, Triune God and an Unfailing Mission

Now why is Jesus telling us all of that in the context of a conversation, a discussion, about evangelism?  Why talk about the covenant of redemption and the union and communion of the persons of the blessed Trinity?  Couldn’t He have just given us a four-step plan for better evangelism and be done with it?  Well verse 27 explains what the point really is.  Why does Jesus’ unique authority from the Father and Jesus’ unique intimacy with the Father help us give thanks and press on in the work of evangelism with evangelism is hard?  Look at the text. “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”  That Jesus has unique authority from the Father and unique intimacy with the Father means Jesus is uniquely placed to reveal the Father to whomever He wills.  God the Son, just like God the Father in verse 25, chooses whom He will save.  He chooses those to whom He will reveal the Father.  The Son decides to open blind eyes and unstop dead ears and make the dead live.  He is able to take stubborn, unbelieving, seemingly impervious wills and change them so that they now gladly and joyfully run to the very truths from which they once fled and embrace them with delight. 

And now at last we know why Jesus is able to be thankful and press on in evangelism.  When everyone around Him seems hostile to His message, He knows salvation belongs to the Lord and He knows the Lord has committed all authority and all power to Him and He is able to save any and all whom the Father has given Him.  His mission cannot fail.  His mission cannot fail.  And now we know how we can open our mouths and speak for Jesus in our workplace tomorrow when doing so will make you a laughing stock.  Now we know how we can fight the discouragement of prevailing unbelief with thanksgiving in our hearts and keep saying to our own unlikely candidates and improbably cases, “Won’t you come to Jesus?  He has rest for your weary soul.  Won’t you come to Jesus?”  We can cling to the glorious truth that God alone saves and Jesus performs the Father’s will perfectly.  All His people will be gathered to Him.  All those for whom He died will be found in that great company that no one can number on the last day singing His praises, for they have been purchased by His blood and they will be gathered in.  No matter the opposition of the world, no matter the indifference of society, no matter the odds stacked against the Good News, however feeble our efforts may be, however meager we feel our resources, however fearful and trembling our hearts, Jesus Christ will build His Church; He will.  He will find the Father’s little children and He will save them.  And He will do it when you open your mouth and tremblingly but humbly and really leaning on the resources of heaven, say to a lost world, “Come to Jesus and find rest for your weary soul.”  And a miracle will happen as you do.  The Lord Jesus will do a Lazarus job on some among whom you will preach and among whom you will minister.  Some will come from death to life because He saves; He is mighty to save.

So let me ask you, “Will you trust Him enough to venture from these four walls and from your comfort zone to speak for the Savior, trusting in God’s sovereignty not your resources and Christ’s sufficiency not your own wisdom?”  Will you pray with me?

Our Father, we praise You for the Gospel of grace and for the sovereignty of our Savior’s reign.  We pray that You would use us, O that you would use us, to advance His kingdom and to gather in the lost sheep.  For we ask this in His name, amen

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