In the light of the evangelical approach that is commonly advocated in our day, one could readily conclude that the coming of our Lord and His public ministry on earth was not most perfectly timed after all. We might be inclined to conclude that the fullness of time that marks the appearance of Christ in the flesh should have been at the close of this twentieth century instead of two thousand years ago. Take, for example, the thoroughly organized Billy Graham campaigns with all their workers, choirs, stadiums, radio and television support. It is no effort at all for such an organization to reach out to millions of people on a single evening or to send forth their message to the far ends of the earth. If it is true that God loves all men, and that it is His desire to save all men, we can only wonder what Jesus might have done if all these modern inventions like public address systems, radio and television, as well as the automobile and the jet plane had been available to Him in His day.
Or we might even ask why He, Who was able to feed multitudes with a few loaves and fishes, did not find means to feed millions of the earth’s inhabitants with the true heavenly Bread. Why didn’t He travel to Asia Minor, where there were so many synagogues of dispersed Jews; to Greece, the center of knowledge and wisdom; to Rome, where the world power of that day had his throne; and to the ends of the earth, where millions of people were still ignorant of the Gospel? Why did He, who spoke as no man had ever spoken, limit His ministry to that narrow strip of land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea? Why in the three and one half years of His ministry did He spend so much time in the limited confines of Galilee, where He was so coldly rejected? Why did He preach mainly to Jews, and only occasionally to a few Gentiles, if the lost sheep of the house of Israel included all men?
But when we turn to the various Gospel accounts we find that all the emphasis is on the fact that the GoodShepherd lays down His life for His sheep and also very actually gathers His own sheep unto Himself. And in doing so the thoughts of many hearts are revealed, so that some believe not because they are not of His sheep.
At the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Joseph, the angel of the Lord informs him, “And she (Mary) shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save (not, “all men,” but) his people from their sins.” Matt. 1:21. And again, when the angel announces the birth of the Savior to the shepherds, he tells them, “Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. (Literally, “to all the people”).” Luke 2:10. And the angelic response rings forth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Literally, Luke 2:14, “on earth peace in men of good pleasure!”) Isn’t it significant that only shepherds should be recipients of that message, and only a few wisemen would be led by the star to the place where Jesus was? The adorable wisdom of the Most High wanted it exactly that way to reveal His sovereign good pleasure. For Jesus came to save His people from their sins.
Even the aged Simeon spoke of the fact that “this child is set (some versions have “ordained”) for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be spoken against.” Luke 2:32-35.
When Jesus began His public ministry, His, own family, as well as His disciples, and even John the Baptist, were offended by Him. At His first appearance in Jerusalem, He preached His inaugural sermon by driving the buyers and sellers out of the temple with the cutting whiplash of His powerful tongue, saying, “Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.” Even His disciples were shocked until they called to mind that the Psalmist had said of Him in prophecy, “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.” John 2:13-17. And as if He would add insult to injury, He added, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Whatever He meant, the chief priests understood very well that He declared Himself to be the promised Christ. And they were convinced that this was the kind of Christ that they would never accept. (Luke 20:14). They never forgot His pungent statement that they were the temple destroyers and He the Temple Builder. It was brought up at His trial before the Sanhedrin. It was thrown at His teeth when He seemed so shamefully helpless on the cross. But, Jesus’ first sermon in Jerusalem was quite different from the commonly accepted evangelical approach of our day, in which the message of God’s universal love is considered basic for all Gospel preaching. And that already at the outset of His ministry.
When our Lord came to Nazareth He did the same thing. He took up the Scriptures and read a portion of the prophecy of Isaiah, whereupon He openly declared to His audience that He was the fulfillment of that prophecy. For a while the people listened in rapt attention. Never, yet had they heard anyone speak with such conviction, and power as this man spoke. Then it gradually dawned on them that they would have to detide whether they, would hail Him as the promised Messiah or brand Him as an atrocious deceiver. They recognized the fact that He was the carpenter’s son, who had been reared among them. They knew His family well. They saw in Him no great potentiality as a public leader or national hero. They voted against Him, and their antipathy became so overwhelming that they even attempted to kill Him. But who would dare to say that Jesus had made the wrong approach?
Just as He had done in Jerusalem and in Nazareth, so also in Capernaum Jesus declared that He was the Christ. And He did it in a most impressive manner. For not far from the city He fed a large multitude of many thousands with five loaves and two fishes. What greater evidence could He produce that He was indeed the Bread of life sent from heaven to feed His people unto everlasting life? But the carnally minded Galileans wanted earthly bread and an earthly king; and therefore when He refused to become their earthly king and told them in no uncertain terms that His kingdom is heavenly, they turned their backs to Him. And yet Jesus confidently declares, even while the thousands are rejecting Him, “All that the Father giveth unto me shall come to me; and him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.” John 6:37. And a few minutes later He informs this same disgruntled audience that, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day,” John 6:44. This is quite different from proclaiming a universal love for all men, a divine desire to save all men, and an appeal to all men to accept the proffered salvation. But at the same time this was a powerful assurance to those who hungered with longing souls for the true Bread of life, informing them that their hunger was the power of divine grace drawing them to Christ as steel is drawn to a magnet. Therefore Jesus puts the soul-searching question to His disciples, “Will ye not also go away?” To which they can only answer, as Peter expresses it, “Lord, unto whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.” And yet they were not all’ sincere, as Jesus exposes the hypocrite among them, saying, “Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?”
We hasten on to John 10. There Jesus declares: “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.” He does not hesitate to emphasize His peculiar ownership, His love and deep concern for those given to Him by His Father. He even adds that He lays down His life for His sheep. He does not preach a universal atonement, as if in some sense He lays down His life for all men, but declares that His sacrifice is for the elect. Even those who must still be gathered unto Him in the future belong to Him as His sheep. For Jesus adds, “And other sheep I have, (not: shall have), which are not of this fold: them also I must bring; and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.” John 10:16. This was Jesus’ Gospel ministry to the poor in spirit, to the broken hearted, and to the prisoners. For the Spirit of’ the Lord God was upon Him to preach good tidings to the meek; to bind up the broken “hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives. Isaiah 61:1.
Later in this chapter we read that Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of dedication, walking on Solomon’s porch. The Jews came to Him and asked Him, “How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.” As if He could have told them more plainly than He did1 But Jesus answered, “I told you and ye believed not. The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me.” And then Jesus adds, “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.” Do not overlook the import of that statement. Jesus does not say, “Ye are not of my sheep, because ye believe not”. But Jesus says the very opposite, “Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep”. The objection might be raised that this denies human responsibility. But Jesus obviously does not think so. For in Matthew 11, Jesus upbraids the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their unbelief which they revealed when so many mighty works had been performed among them. And almost in the same breath He expresses His praise to God for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven to some and hiding it from others. For in verses 25 and 26 we read, “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.”
Therefore it does not surprise us that Jesus taught in parables for the very purpose of bringing separation between the elect and the reprobate, between those who are given grace to believe and those who are hardened in their sins. Much of Jesus’ preaching was done in parables. And when the disciples asked Him, “Why speakest thou to them in parables?,” Jesus answered, “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.” Mark 4:11, 12, Matt. 13:10-17.
In the face of such an overwhelming testimony, it is certainly impossible to maintain that Jesus approached His audiences with a proclamation of a universal love and a divine desire to save all men.
Honesty demands, therefore, that all those passages that might appear to teach the opposite must, on sound exegetical basis, be interpreted in the light of this witness of our Lord.
John 3:16 is often mentioned. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The exegetical question centers about the term “world.” Must “world” necessarily be interpreted as referring to all men, the sum total of the human race? If so, what do we do with the next verse that says, “For God sent His son into the world . . . that through Him the whole world might be saved”? Does that mean that God somehow failed in His purpose to save all men? But if “world” means in this connection that whole glorious and harmonious unity as God conceives of it in Christ, and as it is realized in the new creation, we have no difficulty with John 3:16, nor with verse 17. What a wonderful assurance of God’s love in Christ that realizes its purpose in the elect believers unto the praise of the glory of God’s Name eternally!
Nor should Matthew 11:28 create any problem. Jesus says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Our Lord Himself calls every one in His audience to face the question, “Am I laboring, hopelessly loaded down with the burden of my sin and guilt?” To this the unregenerated sinner proudly answers: “Not I, nor will I come, for your rest does not appeal to me.” That is obvious from the reaction of many to Jesus’ public ministry. (Rev. 3:17). But those who have. learned to know their sin and misery hear the voice of Jesus calling, drawing them, and they come to find rest for their souls. For Christ’s word never returns void.