Matthew 11:20-24

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Matthew 11

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.”

Brian Jones has written a book with the interesting title Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) in which he reveals the following:

According to a recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 59 percent of Americans believe in hell. That’s six out of ten people, a slight majority in any room. But another poll narrowed the question even more and discovered that “fewer than half of all Americans (43 percent) thought people go to heaven or hell depending on their actions on earth.” Furthermore, in twenty-five years of being a pastor, I would add that maybe three out of every ten Christians I’ve met truly believe people who die without becoming Christians go to hell.[1]

The implication seems to be clear enough: Americans struggle with the idea of judgment, particularly a final judgment before a holy God. This is not surprising to any even casual observer of modern American life. What is interesting, though, is how very clear Jesus was about the reality and certainty of divine judgment. Matthew 11:20-24 is one of the more startling examples of this clarity.

This is an amazing text in which Jesus compares and contrasts three cities in which He performed miracles with three earlier cities that had received the fiery judgment of God. In an amazing twist, Jesus will tell his undoubtedly offended audience that it will be more intolerable for the cities that received and then rejected Him than it will be for these earlier cities. As we progress through our passage we will see why this is. Our passage is important for establishing a number of important truths about judgment and salvation.

The works of Jesus were not ends in themselves but means to greater transformation.

We begin by noting the ultimate reason why Jesus performed the miracles He performed.

20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent.

This is not a side point. It goes rather straight to the woes that Jesus will announce over the cities who rejected Him. It is also a powerful corrective to a common misunderstanding about Jesus in our day. It reveals that Jesus did not do miracles as an end in and of themselves and that he did not even do them only as displays of His divine power. Rather, the ultimate goal of the healings and works of power Jesus performed was repentance.

How do we know this? Because Jesus points to (a) the presence of miracles and (b) the lack of repentance as the great obscenity that warrants the wrath of God. They not only rejected Jesus, in other words, they rejected Jesus even in the face of dramatic demonstrations of His power and love and identity. These miracles should have led the watching crowds to cry out in repentance! That did not happen and it seems to increase the severity of their coming judgment.

Jesus is not a magician. He is not “The Greatest Showman”! He is God’s Son come among us to demonstrate the Kingdom and call us into it by grace through faith. Repentance is therefore a fundamental aspect of our coming to Christ. You can see this throughout the New Testament. Consider Peter’s response in Acts 2 to the question of the listening crowd.

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Repent and be baptized! It is the same message preached by Christ: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:15).

This should put to rest any and all forms of Christianity that exalt the miraculous and spectacular detached and divorced from genuine heart change. The movements of God are always aimed at the heart of humanity, even if they are exceptionally spectacular. To see the movements and miss the aim is a great tragedy, as our text demonstrates. It also brings judgment upon us.

Proximity to Jesus does not equal a relationship with Jesus.

Our text also demonstrates another truth that the modern church age desperately needs to hear: proximity to Jesus does not equal a relationship with Jesus. Being near Jesus, hearing Jesus, and seeing the works of Jesus—even marveling at the works of Jesus—does not equate to a relationship with Jesus!

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.

23a-b And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven?

Do you see? These three cities—Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum—were all blessed with glorious proximity to Jesus. He was in these places among them performing works of staggering power! Yet they somehow missed Jesus nonetheless. They saw the works but rejected the Savior. Therefore, Jesus pronounces prophetic woes upon them. These woes were undoubtedly shocking to hear as these places had special meaning for Jesus and His disciples, as Michael Card explains:

Verse 21 is the only reference to Chorazin, a city on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee about two miles from Capernaum. Archaeologists have excavated the remains of a large third-century synagogue there. It was almost certainly built over an earlier one in which Jesus would have preached. Bethsaida is less than a mile on the other side of Capernaum. It was the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip. Yet it was apparently unresponsive to the ministry of Jesus.

Finally Capernaum, of all cities, Jesus’ adopted hometown, where Peter lived—even Capernaum is denounced by Jesus…It is difficult to imagine the emotional impact these words must have had on the crowd and even on the Twelve.[2]

My goodness! How could this have happened! Jesus seems to reserve special attention for the scandal of Capernaum’s rejection of him. He does this by separating it from the Chorazin and Bethsaida and then by apparently turning their town motto on its head. Frederick Dale Bruner points out that Capernaum “had almost made a town motto of Isa 14:13: ‘lifted to heaven,’ perhaps from a sense of civic pride in having had Jesus’ ministry based in their town. ‘Lifted up to heaven’ sounded then something like America’s ‘In God We Trust’.” Bruner goes on to argue that this motto may have meant something like this for the people of Capernaum: “The City lifted to Heaven: Home of Jesus Wonder-Worker!”[3]

If this is so—if Capernaum actually boasted of the fact that Jesus had done miracles there—then it does indeed put their rejection of Him in a dastardly light. It means that not only did Capernaum see these works, they turned them into a kind of ancient marketing technique for tourism! That is, they possibly sought to capitalize (and profit?) off of Jesus’ presence…even while they rejected Him!

This boggles the mind, it is true, yet it happens in our day as well. How many pastors have been found and fired and/or imprisoned when it came out that they were simply using the name and power of Jesus for their own personal wealth and pleasure?            How many churches are essentially circuses in which the curious masses plead with God to perform for them? But do these pastors and churches have true heart-change, true repentance?

It is a terrible thing to mistake proximity for relationship. The fact that you know the trappings and externals and accoutrements of the faith does not mean you know Jesus Christ! It is actually worse than this: one may have such proximity to Jesus that they somehow perform miracles (or at least feel that they have done so) and yet not know Jesus Christ! How this can be I do not know, but hear the chilling words of Jesus in Matthew 7:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Christ performed miracles in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, but He did not know them and they did not know Him. That is, He was not in relationship with them. Oh beware the assumption of relationship when in reality you just like a good show!

Hearing and seeing the greatness of Christ brings either a great blessing or terrible judgment.

The upshot of all of this is as disconcerting as it is unavoidable: the presence of Christ in our midst brings either great blessing or terrible judgment. Listen:

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.”

Do you see what Jesus is doing here? He takes three ancient cities that were notorious for their wickedness and that fell under the devastating judgment of God—Tyre, Sidon, Sodom—and says of them that they actually were better than the three cities in which He performed miracles because had He performed the miracles in Sodom that He performed in Capernaum Sodom would have repented!

This would have been an unbelievably shocking and offensive thing for the citizens of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum to hear!

“Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom are better than us?! But we had Jesus in our midst!”

And the answer seems to be: “Yes, you did, and yet you rejected Jesus! But had these ancient cities had Him likewise in their midst they would have believed!”

There appears to be a biblical principle that greater revelation brings greater responsibility and accountability. There is no greater revelation of God than His Son Jesus. If you know the name of Jesus and know the gospel of Jesus and have seen the works of God, you are without excuse! You now have a choice to make! You may self-righteously judge the wicked man of yesteryear who fell in shame under the judgment of God, but do you know what that man might have done had he had the access to the gospel that you have been graciously granted? Furthermore, have we allowed our access to Jesus and the things of God to penetrate to our hearts or have we made them into a kind of entertainment?

One can hear Jesus saying this to His own church, if one listens carefully: “What have you done with the great gift of my presence and my power and my good news? What have you made of it?”

To be in a hospital does not mean one has submitted to the offered care of the hospital. So too with the church. It is possible to haunt the halls of a hospital and never accept the IV. So too with the church!

I will remind us that in Revelation 3:20 these words were not said to pagan peoples in an evangelistic missionary appeal but rather to the church itself: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Let us make no mistake: having Jesus outside your door is a kind of proximity…but He is still outside your door!

It is wise to tremble for Sodom. It is more wise to tremble for yourself.

Are you trafficking in the dressings of the faith or have you given yourself to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith?

The question is not, “Is Jesus your neighbor?” The question is, “Is Jesus your Lord?”

If He is not, then come to Him today. Confess your sins and repent of them. Place your faith in King Jesus and be saved!

 

[1] Jones, Brian (2011-08-01). Hell Is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) (pp. 18-19). David C. Cook. Kindle Edition.

[2] Michael Card, Matthew. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.110-111.

[3] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.1. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.521-525.

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