20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “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. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 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. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” – Matthew 11:20-24ESV
This whole section of Matthew’s Gospel is intended to point out the Jewish nation’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah. The primary focus of Jesus’ early ministry had been the region of Galilee. His sermon on the mount had taken place on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The miracles chronicled by Matthew up to this point have all taken place in the surrounding area. Even Capernaum, Jesus’ base of operations, was located in Galilee. But in spite of all the miracles He had performed and the message He had proclaimed, the people had refused to accept Him as their long-awaited Messiah. They were more than content to watch Him heal and cast out demons. They enjoyed the perceived benefits of His power, but had no intention of recognizing Him as the Son of God and the Savior of Israel. So, Jesus denounced the cities located in Galilee in which He had performed most of His miracles.
The Greek word translated as “denounce” carries a lot of emotion behind it. It can also mean “to reproach, to upbraid or revile.” The attitude of Jesus toward these Galilean cities was far from tolerant or indifferent. His words make it clear that He was displeased with their reaction to Him. Matthew states that they had refused to repent. This had been the call of John the Baptist. He had pleaded with the people of Israel to repent because the Kingdom of God was near. Even Jesus had begun His ministry with this same message. But the Jews had refused to repent. The call to repentance was a call to a change of mind, a radical realignment of the way one thought about God, the Kingdom, righteousness, sin and salvation. The people loved that Jesus offered physical healing. But they refused to admit their need for spiritual healing. Yes, there had been isolated cases of belief and faith displayed but, for the most part, the Jews in Galilee had been unbelieving and unrepentant. They maintained their old ways of thinking about everything, holding on to their long-held belief that, as Jews, they were God’s chosen people and safe from judgment. They also believed that their righteousness was self-manufactured through keeping the law and following the God-ordained rites associated with the sacrificial system.
But Jesus pronounced a woe upon the people of Galilee. This was an expression of denunciation that carried with it a warning of doom. Jesus specifically addressed His displeasure with the Galilean cities of Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida. But His real issue was with the inhabitants of those cities. They had been given the unique privilege of seeing His “mighty works” but had remained unrepentant because they had remained unbelieving. His miracles, while impressive, had not convinced them of His claim to be the Messiah.
So, Jesus contrasted these three cities with three other, more notorious and well-known cities: Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom. These more distant cities, located outside of Galilee, were renowned for their pagan influences and unrighteous reputations. Sodom had long been regarded as a mecca of sin and idolatry that had been destroyed by God for ts rampant unrighteousness. While Sodom was long gone, the cities of Tyre and Sidon were alive and well, but had not yet had the privilege of hearing the message of Jesus or witnessing His miracles. And Jesus insinuates that had they, their reaction would have been radically different.
“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.” – Matthew 11:21 ESV
Both of these cities had large Gentile populations, but Jesus insists that they would have responded more favorably and remorsefully than the Jews had. Not only that, Jesus prophetically announces that many from these three cities will escape the coming judgment because they will end up placing their faith in Him as their Messiah and Savior. Jesus would eventually remove Himself from Galilee and make His way to Tyre and Sidon (see Mark 7:24). He would perform miracles there, including casting out a demon of a young Gentile girl whose mother was a Syrophoenician. When the woman begged Jesus to help her, He had responded, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27 ESV). But the woman, non-plused by His response, simply said, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28 ESV). And., amazed by the woman’s faith, Jesus told the woman, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter” (Mark 7:29 ESV). The woman believed and her daughter was healed. She did not defend her status or become offended that Jesus had referred to her as a dog. She simply expressed her belief that, in spite of her lowly status as a non-Jew, Jesus would extend mercy and grace to her. And He did.
One of the things that Jesus was looking for from those to whom He ministered was a recognition of their need. That is why He tended to minister to those who came to them with their disabilities, pains, brokenness and extreme sense of unworthiness. That is why Jesus had said:
“Healthy people don’t need a doctor – sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” – Mark 2:17 NLT
A major aspect of repentance is the acknowledgement of sin and the need of salvation – a salvation outside of oneself. The people who came to Jesus for physical healing did so because they had either exhausted all other avenues or their ailment was beyond the scope of human help. They were forced to turn to Jesus in the hope that He could do something about their problem. But the same would be true for those who suffered from the disease and destruction caused by sin. That is why Jesus would offer what has become known as the Great Invitation, which we will cover tomorrow,
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28 NLT
The city of Capernaum was filled with God-fearing Jews who believed they were the chosen people of God and so, in no need of a Savior. But Jesus asked them rhetorically, “will you be exalted to heaven?” And, just in case they they failed to understand that the question was rhetorical, He clarified the answer for them.
“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.” – Matthew 11:23 ESV
They would end up rejecting His message and His offer of salvation. And the result would be judgment and eternal punishment. Their refusal to accept Him as Messiah would have dire consequences. They would remain unrepentant and sadly, unforgiven.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.