Missed Opportunities to Find Rest, Matthew 11:20-24

Many who use this blogconsider themselves sports fans. Another large group of our readers prefer movies. If mixed together, these two groups can resemble oil and water in relation to their preferences, but they have one thing in common. Every sports event and every movie comes to an end at a certain time.

Actually, we are all accustomed to this idea on a broader basis. Every day, week, month, year, decade, century, or millennium comes to an end. So does every life. No one takes the streets to protest the end of Tuesday, November 19, 2016.

Why is it that we can get so much pushback from declaring that a day is coming on which this age and this world will end — a day of judgment? Perhaps the difference is that the day of judgment will be personal; there will be winners and losers. Ecstatic winners. Inconsolable losers.

Is there a way to influence the judge in our favor? Who is the judge? Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God, will judge our individual cases, and he has commanded all to repent and submit to the reign of God while each has opportunity.

Some failed to listen or comply, and today we will learn of their end. Or, will it be the end of the beginning, with far worse to follow?

Matthew 11:20-24

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

Commentary

Here our secular society must consider a troubling possibility from their viewpoint: if Jesus actually had the authority and the power to overrule the natural order by working miracles, as all ancient sources say, then might he also have the authority to bring the existing natural order to an end? Those committed to a world run exclusively by humans and not by God will bring every tool of denial and distraction into play to keep that question quiet!

Verse 20 has a hidden quality that I want to bring to your attention. While the NIV’s translation “then Jesus began to denounce the towns” is accurate, the underlying Greek verb emphasizes the subject, Jesus.[1] Criticism is so common in our society that we scarcely give it a thought. But, when Jesus denounces you, it’s time to go to red alert! The initial Greek verb typically means to rule or govern, but that verb takes on the meaning “begin” in many contexts, possibly because a person with authority can begin something that lasts. Jesus began things that no one could stop!

Chorazin and Bethsaida lay to the north and east of Capernaum, neither very far away. Archaeology has shown them to be similar in size to Capernaum.[2] In verse 21, Jesus presents us with an if-clause which is contrary to fact since no such miracles were done in Tyre and Sidon. [Stop and consider the implications of Jesus telling us what would have actually happened in a different place and millennium!] Blomberg explains that Tyre and Sidon, in ancient Phoenicia, were paradigms of Israel’s ancient enemies.[3] So, Jesus is shaming these Jewish cities as less responsive to God than those pagan cities already condemned to terrible retribution.

According to one notable authority, “woe” is an interjection that means “how greatly one will suffer” or “what terrible pain will come to one.”[4] The phrase “woe to you” occurs twenty-two times in Isaiah and always marks those who have set themselves against God and his purposes.

These particular towns received the unique honor of having miracles worked within their bounds to benefit people they all knew. After seeing an astonishing shower of God’s kindness from Jesus, the mass of people and their leaders still failed to heed his call for repentance. As R. T. France suggests, these towns seem content to go on as if nothing has changed; they have no clue what the reign of God means.[5]

Verse 22 should have sent chills down the spines of all in Chorazin and Bethsaida who were not committed to Jesus. For Jews to hear that the historically-hated Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon would find judgment day more bearable than a Jewish town would have resulted in profound shock and anger.

But Jesus saves his most searing rebuke for Capernaum (verse 23). Those Jews familiar with Isaiah’s taunts against the proud king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:13, 15) would have found such mocking words used in relation to the pride of Capernaum in verse 23. Just as Babylon had considered itself above all others and untouchable, so Capernaum swelled with unjustified pride. Was it not only prosperous and favorably positioned but also the home of the great healer and exorcist of Galilee — Jesus?

But, Jesus says that Capernaum, like the proud king of Babylon, will not ascend to the heavens; it will descend to Hades, the place of the dead (verse 23). Why? Because Capernaum failed to repent after seeing the miracles performed by Jesus, miracles that would have brought Sodom to its knees and spared it from total destruction. In Israelite minds, Sodom was the epitome of the wickedness.

There is, apparently, more than one way to receive God’s severe punishment. One is to indulge in the deepest depravity like Sodom (Genesis 19:1-29). Another is to have the greatest possible revelation from Jesus himself and then refuse his command to repent and submit to the reign of God. Jesus firmly declares that those failing to heed his words and his miraculous deeds, performed before their eyes, will receive God’s severest treatment on the day of judgment.

Copyright 2016 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] The Greek verb archo is in the middle voice.

[2] R. T. France,The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 438.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 191.

[4] L&N, ouai, “how greatly one will suffer ,” q.v.

[5] France, Matthew, 438.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!