In Matthew 11, Jesus encourages John's disciples and vindicated him to those who submitted themselves to his baptism. Then he turned to the Pharisees and lawyers and rebuked them as spiritual bullies and dictators who expect people to dance to their tune and mourn to their dirge.
The Pharisees and disciples of John represent the extremes of culture, the bookends on the religious spectrum. John’s disciples knew the will of God and were committed to doing it, even in the midst of difficulty and trial. They were weak and timid and in need of leadership and constant encouragement. They are a representation of God’s people throughout history!
The Pharisees are the opposite end of the spectrum. They are religious, but they are fulfilling the Devil’s will by proxy as they fulfill their own will. They are wealthy and powerful with strong ties and connections to powerful people. They are able to get the ear of leaders and sway public opinion to accomplish their own will.
Jesus has spoken to both sets of men and now turns his attention to the unrepentant cities in which he has been ministering. Have you ever been in a situation where the folks around you are getting in trouble and you try to make yourself small to stay out of trouble? I remember when I was little, I would get into some sort of trouble with my brother and sister and my mom would be reading them the riot act and I would think, as she was winding down, that I might get out of it… but then, as I was slinking away, mom would say to me, “Not so fast, mister.”
That is what Jesus does in our text tonight. He speaks to the cities who had heard his teaching and seen his miracles. They have not chosen sides, but have decided to remain largely indifferent. This message is for those who think they can be a pretty good person and tiptoe past God’s judgement. Jesus says, “Not so fast…”
Matthew 11:20-24, “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.”
There are six cities that Jesus deals with in the text. Three of them were in existence in Jesus’ day and three of them had been utterly destroyed. Every city has its own culture and distinctions. Not one of them is the same as another and they were handpicked by God for this lesson.
While each of the six cities in our text have many differences, there are some overlapping commonalities, not the least of which is this: They are each one, unconditionally, condemned by God. Worse yet, they are being condemned by the one who came to offer them salvation. Not because they rejected Christ as King of Israel, but because they did not repent and accept Jesus as King over themselves.
I will mention each one with some comments and then get into the message.
Chorazin was a beautiful and rich place located about 2 ½ miles North of Capernaum on a hill above the sea of Galilee. The name “Chorazin” means, “the secret” in Hebrew. It’s kind of like how we call certain cities, “the best kept secret.” It is only mentioned twice in Scripture and both times it is in relation to its condemnation by Jesus.
Archaeologists have uncovered a lot of remains within the 25 acres which comprise the city. Because it was formerly a volcano, the area is rich with fertile ground and basalt (buh-salt) from the ash and magma. The fertile ground made the city prime real estate for agriculture and the basalt yielded many beautiful statues and architecture. From the buildings and statues archaeologists have uncovered, we see the city was full of skilled, wealthy, and religious Jews.
For instance, around the synagogue there are many benches carved out of basalt and carved stone steps leading up to one of Moses’s seats. Those things are still preserved along with a plaque to the presiding Rabbi that says, “May Yudan, the son of Ishmael, who contributed this colonnade and its stairs from his property, be remembered for good. May he have a portion with the righteous.” Jesus mentions this type of seat in Matthew 23:2-4.
Archaeologists claim Bethsaida is about one and a half miles northeast of the sea of Galilee. The Bible speaks more of this city than Chorazin. Philip, Andrew, and Peter were from that city (John 1:44). When I read that verse, it made me consider that some of Jesus' disciples were probably from Chorazin as well, since Matthew 11:1 tells us that Jesus was on a preaching tour of his disciples’ hometowns.
There is some controversy as to where Bethsaida is located. Some scholars point to the location I mentioned earlier, while others claim that this site is too far from Galilee to serve as a fishing village they believe it to be. It is their claim that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand happened in this place. But a careful reading of that story in Mark 6 shows that after Jesus feeds everyone, he sends his disciples away to go to the city of Bethsaida in verse 45.
Bethsaida was quite big, however, and could have reached from the sea to the current site. Luke 9:10 tells us that Jesus sent his disciples away into a private place which belonged to the city of Bethsaida, so it must have been a large city with many regions (E.g. Kenmore, Firestone Park, & Goodyear heights are all in the same city…)
3 & 4. Tyre & Sidon
I’m mentioning these cities together because they get mentioned together often. These sister cities were united in the 10th and 9th century BC, but then were divided in the 7th century. They were capital cities of the ancient Phoenicain government and were typical seaport towns known for their progressive, sinful attitudes. But, they were even considered extreme in their sinfulness by other heathen of their day.
These ancient cities were condemned by God multiple times (Ezekiel 28:16-19, Jeremiah 25:22, 47:4) in the Old Testament for their wickedness, violence, and idolatry (steeped in Baal worship). They were spiritual strongholds which were constantly antagonistic towards God’s people. The king of Tyre was even used by Ezekiel as a picture of Satan in Ezekiel 28:11-15. They warred with God’s people, carried many away and sold them into slavery (Amos 1:9-10)!
Capernaum was a beautiful, successful fishing town that was also located on the north side of the sea of Galilee. It was the home of Peter’s mother-in-law and a city where he performed many of his miracles recorded in Scripture: The healing of the demoniac, the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter, healing the nobleman’s son, the woman with the issue of blood, and many more.
But they did not only receive miraculous miracles. Capernaum was the city Jesus preached in more often than any other city. The three existing cities in this lesson have been dubbed as, “the Evangelical Triangle” due to the fact that Christ did most of his work and teaching (80% +/-) in these three places (as our text bears witness.).
All of this effort given on the north coast of the sea of Galilee was done to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy,
Isaiah 9:1-2, “Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”
In a way, these people, who trusted in their works and religion, were in greater darkness than the idolatrous nations. When Jesus came, he concentrated great light for over three years in this small region. It should be little wonder that our text records Jesus saying that Capernaum was, “exalted unto heaven.” Capernaum was literally brought to heaven’s doorstep and stood on the threshold for three and a half years.
Lastly, Jesus mentions Sodom. This town’s name has become a by-word for the worst kind of sexual depravity and sin. Whenever we speak of sins involving the lowest kinds of human depravity with children, one another, or beasts, it falls under the name of this city.
Even after God rescued Lot and his wife and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, the books of the Kings speak about there being Sodomites in the land of Israel. This speaks, not of their nationality, but of their behavior. They loved religion and idolatry, and were fans of art (2 Kings 23:7), but God commanded Israel to not allow that kind of behavior to take place in their land. God’s reason for this was that they corrupted the land by reason of the fact that they seek to recruit others (especially the most vulnerable, like children) to their cause.
Let’s be plain. Sodomy is a sin and a choice. When someone says, “I can’t control who I love.” I might agree, except whenever sodomites speak of love, they mean sex, which makes me disagree. Everyone has a choice with whom they have intercouse. It doesn’t happen by accident. It is a choice. If it were not a choice, we could not condemn rapists. But it is a choice and we do condemn rapists and all who abuse the wonderful gift of the marriage act.
Sodomites are known for their wealth, idleness, and pride over sin. (Ezekiel 16:49) They had been given so many gifts from God and spent them all on themselves. Not only that, but they worked hard to feel good about their sinful actions. We call that pride. But you don’t have to take my word for it. They call it, “gay pride.”
This kind of selfish, inward-turned love has a deranging effect. As the greatest kinds of love are outward, giving love, so the most depraved kinds of love are self-love. Once our love turns inwards, it perverts and corrupts everything and becomes filthy, vile, and against nature and nature’s God. In the end, it produces cultures that become violent against anyone who will not bow to their unnatural will because they are so convinced they are right.
Like Tyre and Sidon, Sodom was condemned unequivocally by God. There can be no question as to God’s opinion of these nations and their sins because he was so plain. God sent fire down from heaven to consume Sodom and send them into an eternity of pain-filled judgement.
It would be easy for Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin to criticize these ancient nations or to feel superior. But Jesus brings judgement against them and says that they are not only worse, but they will be judged more harshly by God on the final day of judgement.
Let me bring out 3 assertions Jesus makes in our text: Jesus is the Light of the World, Jesus is the Judge of the World, Ignoring Jesus is Rejecting Jesus.
1. Jesus is the Light of the World
If Isaiah’s prophecy will teach us anything it should be that without Christ, all men are in darkness. There is no light without Jesus. Spiritual light is the ability to see moral and spiritual realities with clarity. Jesus and the apostle speak of the blindness of men and mean that it is impossible for the natural man to discern spiritual truth.
Jesus came, both in the manger and in the form of the Holy Spirit: to give men light. Not only delivering spiritual truth, but also giving the ability for sinners to see and understand it.
John 8:12, “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
Jesus is also the dispenser of light. He chooses where and when to shine. I was struck by the phrase, “most of his mighty works” in verse 20. Jesus picked spots to shine brightly while he was here. Of course he chose to do his Father’s will, but he could have gone anywhere.
Why choose these cities to shine brightest? Why not go somewhere else? Why not give more light to Tyre or Sidon? It seems that if Jesus had given more light to Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, they would have been pushed past their tipping point into repentance. It also seems that Jesus is aware of that. What is he trying to teach us?
Firstly, God is not obligated to give light to any man. No one deserves any grace. That is why we call is grace! If you think, “Well, the savage in the jungle deserves just as much light as the guy in some western society with free access to the Bible.” You would be right. That is to say, “None of them deserve ANY light at all.”
Secondly, the light God gives is enough. Enough for what? Enough to condemn us. All men have the light of creation and conscience, enough to tell them there is a good God who loves them and that they have sinned against him in some way. Creation and conscience tells us those things. The cross tells us that God has satisfied his justice in his own body on the tree. Not all men have that knowledge, but all men have “enough.”
Thirdly, the amount of light God gives a person does not necessarily contribute to their salvation. Consider Rahab when she met the spies. Her entire city and culture in Jericho were corrupted and condemned, but all the light she needed came in the form of two spies and some gossip about a nation wandering in the desert!
Consider the city of Nineveh and the message that their violent city would be overthrown. It was enough for every person, from the king to the poorest beggar, to repent. They wore uncomfortable, itchy sackcloth and covered their bodies with ashes to shew their remorse and the regret of their sin and did the same with their animals.
For Nineveh and Rahab, the light of certain judgement was enough to bring them to repentance, while that same message did not lead Tyre, Sidon, or Sodom to repentance. Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have repented with the kingdom preaching and the promise of restored wholeness that Jesus brought. And yet, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum did not repent at either the pronouncement of judgement or the restoration of wholeness and relationship with God the Father.
Jesus doesn’t say, “if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they could have repented.” Just like the cities in the evangelical triangle, they could have repented with the knowledge that they had been given. They didn’t need more light than they had. They needed to respond to the light that God, in his grace, had offered. God brings people to a place, whether it’s Rahab or Nicodemus, where they have enough knowledge to know they must exercise faith. When the heart cries out to God and seeks him through faith, God blesses that heart with more light.
We are accountable for the light that we have been given. To whom much light has been given, much shall be demanded. Jesus asserts in this text that he is the light of the world AND that he is the Judge of the world.
2. Jesus is the Judge of the World
Jesus uses two phrases to speak of two forms of judgement: eternal and temporal.
It shall be more tolerable for [them] at the day of judgement than it will be for [you]. (Matthew 11:22, 24)
It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to understand what Jesus is saying. John reveals clearly the day of judgement in Revelation 20:11-15. At this event, the righteous Judge will bring out every thought, action, and motive into the light and will judge men according to their deeds. Although this is not plainly spelled out in the apostles’ doctrine, Jesus pulls back the curtain just enough for us to see that there will be levels of punishment in eternity.
This is the same kind of language Jesus used back in Matthew 10:15. It will be more tolerable (easier to endure) for ignorant, wicked, pagan, prideful sinners in hell than it will be for moral, religious men who hear the gospel and decide they are good enough for God and heaven without Christ.
Johann Bengel, an eighteenth century commentator wrote, “Every hearer of the New Testament truth is either much happier or much more wretched than the men who lived before Christ’s coming.”
Thou shalt be brought down to hell. (Matthew 11:23)
Jesus points to eternal judgement with this phrase, but also uses it in conjunction with the phrase, “Which art exalted unto heaven,” not to say that they went to the actual, spiritual heaven, but to say that heaven had come to them. They were as close to heaven on earth and eternal life as anyone throughout history had been.
The presence of Christ lets a nation experience heaven on earth, but his absence makes life in a nation a type of hell on earth. David said,
Psalm 9:17, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.”
And Solomon said,
Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.”
We can boldly say that every nation rises or falls based on what it does with Jesus Christ. These statements of Christ indicate that he is able to judge the nations and that he has been given the assignment. Jesus said,
John 5:22, “For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son:”
Jesus, the Son of God is Judge. He is the righteous, all-knowing Judge. He is the one who has said that he will trample sinners in his fury and their blood will be sprinkled upon his garments and stain all his raiment in Isaiah 63:3. He is the most gracious, patient, giving, and forgiven Being (Person) you will ever meet. But his patience does not last forever. When his extended patience is expired, he is the most vengeful, retributive, punisher of evil.
And it’s okay for him to be that way.
3. Ignoring Jesus is Rejecting Jesus
We have this idea that a secular culture is an indifferent culture. We think that our Muslim neighbors have chosen a side and that our Jewish or JW neighbors have chosen a side, but there’s this vast sea of people who are simply secular and they just haven’t chosen a side. That’s not true. Even moralistic, secular people have taken a side. Like it or not, everyone has taken a side.
Jesus was more harsh with these cities than he was with the Pharisees and the lawyers. You may think that’s odd. They weren’t hostile to Jesus. They flocked to hear him; found him interesting, inspiring, and even entertaining. Why would such a severe judgement come upon them, one that’s worse than what’s coming to the violent, Gentile pagans?
Would you please find your place in Hebrews 10 while I give you some foundation: God gave his Son for us, he gave us a way of salvation by grace through faith, and he has given a window of time to search and find him. We deserve none of that. As God’s creation, our sins are all against him. As the beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice, all of our sins are sins against grace, love, and the kindness of God. It’s a kind of stacking of earned judgement. We are debtors to grace and deserve hell. It’s okay for him to give it to us. But what about these three cities?
They repented not. That’s all. Their response to bright light was the same as Tyre, Sidon, or Sodom’s reaction to dim light. They repented not, but they had more light. They loved darkness because their deeds were evil, but God gave them more light. The author of Hebrews speaks to people who wilfully sin against the light of God,
Hebrews 10:26-31, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Friends, I fear for our nation. Not because there isn’t enough light, but because we have had so much light and done so little with it. America has rejected more light than most of the world has had in its history. So what do we do? The author of Hebrews has already given us the antidote for this evil heart of unbelief.
Firstly, let us cling to Christ.
Hebrews 10:19-23, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;)”
We have a new and living way into the presence of God. Cling closely to him for full assurance of faith. In these final, evil days, Jesus wonders if he will find faith on the earth. We may not have much, but we must have faith. Do you seek God for faith to trust him? How much time have you spent seeking the Lord on your own behalf? Are you walking with him in this very moment by faith? If not, repent! Do not be like the indifferent nations who would not repent. Turn to God and cling to Christ.
Secondly, let us cling to one another!
Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”
It is time for every Bible believer to be in church. Not for what you can get. Every person who has forsaken the assembling of themselves together in recent days (who could be in attendance… that’s the point of forsaking) has done it because they came to church for what they could get. They may use Covid-19 or work as an excuse, but their ideas of church are wrong.
May God teach us to come to church to be the church, to exhort one another and to provoke each other to love and good works! We don’t attend for what we get (only), but for what we can give! Do you attend church, on purpose, to provoke others to love and good works? If not, repent!
Thirdly, let us pray for our nation and call sinners to repentance. Joel said,
Joel 3:14, “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.”
The day of the Lord’s judgement is near. It could literally be today for any person living. None of us know when our time is up. But it does not seem as though our country has much longer. It’s possible that time is running out on God’s big clock too. Do you pray for your country? Do you pray earnestly for sinners? Do you call sinners to repentance? If not, repent.
Let us cling closely to Christ. Let us love one another and provoke each other to good works. Let us pray for our nation and call sinners to repentance.