Matthew 11 is our study this morning, and I have been blessed this week in preparation of my heart and mind to share with you from this text. There’s so much here, and such a clear, concise, and important message, that I’ve asked the Lord repeatedly in my prayers to use it in a special way to penetrate hearts. Matthew 11, and we’re looking today at verses 16 through 24, and we’re going to take that as a unit. It includes, really, two features, or two elements, and yet they tie together so well that I want to take them as a unit.
Our Lord expected people to respond to His message, and to properly respond, and so, one of the things that our Lord commonly said appears in verse 15 of this chapter. He said, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” We find that in several other places in the gospel of Matthew. We also find our Lord saying that even from heaven in Revelation chapters 2 and 3, when in the letters to the churches, He repeatedly says, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” In other words, the Lord wants men to properly listen to what He says.
The revelation of God is given with a response in mind; the proper response. And if you remember our last lesson on John the Baptist, you’ll remember that the Lord is calling on the people not only to listen to Him, but to John as well. And if they will listen to John, they will listen to Him, for John speaks of Him. If they had received John, the forerunner, they would then have received the one of whom John spoke, and if they had received the one of whom John spoke, they would have received in their hearts the Kingdom, and if the nation had received Him, they would have received the earthly Kingdom as well.
And so, our Lord has called for them to hear, but while calling, He recognizes that most do not hear; they do not listen. It is basic to biblical truth that men must respond, that men must react, that men are given a choice when confronted with the truth of God; to hear it, to believe it, to act on it, or to reject it. Now, by the time we come to chapter 11 of Matthew, we have had ten chapters of the message, ten chapters of the revelation of Jesus Christ. And now, in chapters 11 and 12, Matthew records for us the various kind of responses to Christ.
Now, we’ve already seen that one of the responses is honest doubt, and honest doubt was really that response that characterized John the Baptist. He believed, and yet he had some doubt, and so, the Lord dealt with that in the first fifteen verses; and now, He’s going to go on to some other responses to Christ that are much more serious. Honest doubt can occur even in the case of a believer, as it did with John. But He’s going to go on to talk about rejection, a superficial kind of amazement and fascination.
He’s going to talk about blasphemy in chapter 12. But in our section today, He’s going to speak of two other responses to Christ that are very common; the first is criticism, and the second is indifference. One talks about what men do, and one talks about what men don’t do, and a man or a woman can be damned to hell just as much by what they do not do as by what they do. When you look ahead to the ultimate great white throne judgment, it is certain that some people are going to say as a defense, “I never did anything.” And that will be their condemnation: they never did anything.
Now, at the end of chapter 11, and the end of chapter 12, mingled in with these negative responses, are two positive sections, in which the Lord calls for the right response. And so, in a real sense, this is a very critical section of Matthew’s gospel. Ten chapters of presentation of who Christ is, now calling for the right response; very essential. Verse 15 really, then, is a call to believe. It’s a call to hear with faith. But this generation, the generation of our Lord’s time, would not hear.
And so, He poses a question in verse 16: “But whereunto shall I liken this generation?” “I call for this generation to hear, but they do not hear.” The majority of them were not interested in listening to Jesus Christ, though His miracles were, beyond question, convincing that He was from God. “What will I liken them to?” He says. And then He launches in, really, to these two chapters, describing all of the negative ways in which His generation responded to Him. The first one He talks about is criticism.
One of the things that characterized them was they were just critical; no matter what He did or what He said, they criticized it. There was no validity in the criticism; they were just looking for something to pick on, and there are people like that today. No matter what the message is, no matter what is said or what is done, by the church or those who represent Christ, they will always criticize it, because they’re not seeking truth. They’re not open to truth. They will not acknowledge their sin.
They are not interested in a Savior, and so they just sit back and criticize. Now, back to that phrase that begins verse 16 for a moment: “Whereunto shall I liken this generation?” That phrase is a very interesting phrase. That question is a very interesting question, for in Jewish literature - in the Midrash, which is the, sort of the compilation of Jewish traditional teaching - that is the most common formula for introducing a parable. Now, all good teachers know that you have to teach in word pictures, or in analogies, or similes, or metaphors, or figures of speech, to make people understand things.
And that was true with the rabbis as well, and so they would commonly say this phrase, “To what is the matter like?” and that is the most common phrase in Rabbinic teaching for introducing a parable. Or, “How can I liken this point to something in life that will make it clear to you? What is it like?” And Jesus is, then, in a very traditional rabbinic way, launching Himself into a parable. “Whereunto shall I liken this generation?” “How can I illustrate what this generation is like?”
And then He begins. “It is like children sitting in the market places, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, ‘We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.’” Now, stop there. That’s very interesting. At first reading, you probably don’t want to - don’t understand what it’s saying. Let me help you a little. In the center of every town and village was a place called the agora in Greek, and the agora means marketplace, and on the market days, the people would come in.
And they would fill up that open space in the middle of town, with all of their carts, and their little lean-to stores, and all of their wares, and they would sell everything in the marketplace. And it was a favorite place for the children to play, when they had free hours or when their parents were milling around in the marketplace, and children would inevitably be scurrying through the marketplace. And, of course, they knew each other, and so, eventually they would all come together, and games would begin to take shape.
Now, this would be very much like a public park, or a town square, and in fact, on the days when the market wasn’t there, it was a great wide-open space, and there would even be more room for the children to play. And children commonly, as children today, then would play the games that sort of mimicked the life of their elders. They would copy what their parents did. And one of the popular games they played was wedding, and another favorite was funeral - a little harder to imagine - but they liked to play wedding and funeral.
You say, “Why?” Well, because those were public social events. Whenever a wedding occurred, there was always a parade through town, a great processional. The bride, the bridegroom, the friend of the bridegroom, and all of the ladies who were waiting on the bride, and everybody else in the wedding, they would come through town. And there would come folks along playing pipes and flutes, and people would be skipping and hopping and dancing with joy, as they went through the town in this procession.
And so, the children would always see this, and they would know it was a part of life. Very likely they would get together, and somebody, that very fortunate little girl, would get to be the bride, and perhaps she would dress herself a little bit fancy, and she would take the role of the bride. And some little fellow would get to be the bridegroom, and somebody else the friend of the bridegroom, and some of the ladies who would be attending the bride, and they would get the whole game going.
And they would be going through town, and somebody who could blow a whistle or play a little flute would be playing, and they would be calling to their friends, and say, “Come on and join the procession.” And then, after they played wedding a little while, they decided to play funeral - which is just as inevitable as wedding - and it was also public. For whenever there was a funeral, they would lift up the body, and carry the body through the city, and all the people involved with the family would come along.
And they would hire certain Jewish women who were paid wailers, and they would come in and wail, and moan, and lament, and the kids would see this. And so, after they played wedding a while, they got tired of that, and they decided to play funeral. And so, they would wail, and scream, and they would beat on themselves. The term that is used means to strike yourselves, and it was very common in funeral processions that the people would beat on their chest, and they’d beat on their heads, and hit themselves all over their bodies.
And so, the little kids would just pick this up. They’d maybe put on some black clothes, and they’d pound on themselves, and as they were playing funeral, they would cry to their little friends, and say, “Come on, and play funeral with us.” But do you know what? There were some kids that didn’t want to play. And that’s why verse 17 says, “We piped, and you didn’t dance; and we mourned unto you, and you didn’t strike yourselves.” I mean, there were a bunch of kids in the parable that were just spoilsports, bad sport.
“We don’t want to play your dumb game.” “So, we’ll change our game. You don’t like wedding, we’ll play funeral” - that’s the opposite extreme. “We don’t want to play that, either. We don’t want to be involved at all.” Peevish children. The sad game, you see, is opposite the glad game, but they aren’t going to play either game; they just stubbornly don’t want to play. They just want to kind of sit on the sidelines and criticize - the sheer perversity of human nature. Now, the principle of the parable is very clear.
There are some people who just don’t want to play, no matter what the game is, right? No matter how you approach them, they don’t want to play. They’ll criticize the wedding, and they’ll criticize the funeral. Nothing satisfies them. They will always find fault, because they are basically unwilling to participate, unwilling to be satisfied. Now, Jesus says, “That is like this generation. You just don’t want to play. No matter what the game is, you will not be satisfied.
“You’re like the children who, when called by their little friends, had no openness, and no interest, just a bitter, critical, contrary spirit.” Now, look at verse 18, and here comes the application: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He hath a demon.’” Now, what is that? John came in a funeral mode. John came austere. John came dressed in a camel’s hair cloak, which would have been black. John came eating locusts and wild honey, having no normal social relationships. He lived in the desert.
By all human definitions, he was a recluse and a hermit. He came pounding away the message of judgment and fiery condemnation. He talked about an axe chopping at the root of the tree. He cried out for repentance, and the demonstration of the fruit of repentance - Matthew 3. I mean, he came in a funeral mode. He came serious and austere. He lived apart from the normal relationships of life. He never entered into social activities at all. He was a voice crying in the wilderness. And you know what they said of him?
“He has a demon. He is possessed. I mean, anybody who acts that weird is possessed.” It’s interesting, isn’t it, that at first it says they rejoiced in his light for a season. They hadn’t had a prophet in 400 years, and they could see that he was great. I mean, he was absolutely the greatest prophet up until that time, according to the former passage of last week, that he was without equal. He had the power of personality to attract them. And they basked in his light for a little season. But the critics among them finally just said, “Ah, he’s nuts.”
You see, they equated madness, mental derangement, with demon possession, and they did that, I think, because that commonly was true. You remember the maniac of Gadara, who was possessed with all of the legion of demons, was also deranged mentally? He was slicing himself up, cutting himself, running around naked, living in caves and tombs. And so, they simply reasoned that anybody who was as deranged as John, to live like he lived, must be possessed of a demon. And you see, that would be the worst thing they could say about him: devil-possessed.
It would have been enough to say, “Oh, he’s - he’s mentally off,” but there might have been a little room for sympathy in that. But when they said, “He’s possessed,” they just pushed it as far as they could push it. Instead of seeing his lifestyle as a rebuke to their indulgence, they just ridiculed him. On the other hand, look at verse 19. Following John came the Son of man - and Jesus uses His human title here. He came in His humanness, “Eating and drinking.” In other words, He was the opposite of John.
He came and got into the flow of social life. He came and had meals with people, and dwelt in their homes, and attended the social activities. He was at weddings, and He was at funerals, and He was at special events, and He was in the synagogue, and He was in the temple. And He walked from village, to village, to village, to village. And He was by the sea with the fishers, and He was in the boat. And He was there where they were, and He was a part of their life, and He shared food and drink with them.
He came in a wedding mode, you see. In fact, in Matthew, chapter 9, the disciples of John, who were used to this funeral mode, you know, this dirge kind of thing, came to the disciples of Jesus, and they said, “Hey, why don’t you fast like we fast?” And the answer was, in effect, “Hey, you don’t fast at a wedding.” In other words, the Messiah is here, this is a celebration. And so, the Lord, in a sense, came in a very different way than John did, and look what they said. They said: “Behold, a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
You see, because He mingled, they criticized that. Because John didn’t mingle, they criticized that. By the way, the phrase a gluttonous man is interesting: anthrōpos phagos. It’s a phrase that uses the term person. It doesn’t even have any - any dignity at all. He was a glutton of a person. It’s a nondescript term. He was a glutton of a person, one who ate in excess, one who just sat around and stuffed food in. And they said He was a winebibber, which simply means He just drank all the time; one who drank in excess.
By the way, I might mention at this point that what the Lord did drink was wine mixed with water, as we learned. Broadus, in his commentary, says that the kind of wine He drank would stimulate about as much as our tea and coffee. That’s just a footnote. But the point is that He came in the normal flow of life, and they said He was a drunkard and a glutton. And then, they went beyond that, and they said - and they put the word friend last in the Greek, and they said, “Publicans” - or tax collectors – “and sinners, He befriends.”
Because He came mixing with all kinds of hurting, needy people, sharing their sorrows and their joy, they said He was a rounder. And because John came living in the desert, fasting, despising food, and isolated from people, they said he was mad and demonic. And the point of the whole deal is that they were just critical, that’s all. There was nothing that could be done that could please them. William Barclay says, “The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth, they will easily enough find an excuse for not listening.
“They do not even try to be consistent in their criticism. They’ll criticize the same person and the same institution from quite opposite grounds and reasons. if people are determined to make no response, they will remain stubbornly and sullenly unresponsive no matter what invitation is made to them,” end quote. And so, our Lord points out that “no matter what we did, you just wouldn’t play. It was just your peevish, contrary, critical hearts.” It’s a bad response, because - the end of verse 19: “Wisdom is justified by her works.”
The best rendering is works here. It is rendered children in Luke 7:35, but here, it’s works. “Wisdom is justified by her works.” In other words, you sit back and you criticize no matter what I do or John does; no matter what our message is, you criticize. But in the end, the truth will justify itself by what it produces. You can criticize Christ, but where you’re going to run into trouble is when you run into the people whose lives He’s changed, right? You can criticize the church, but where you’re going to have problems is when you have to explain why the church has had the impact it’s had on the world.
You see, truth or wisdom ultimately is justified by what it produces, and that is an unanswerable argument. The wisdom of John the Baptist, which insisted on repentance, and the wisdom of Jesus, which insisted on salvation, was shown to be justified by what it accomplished in the hearts and the lives of the people who believed. They rendered the right verdict, they who believed, and they become the testimony to the truth. Some people are just critical, and you meet them, and I meet them. They’re not even looking for the truth.
They just want to find everything wrong with Christ and Christianity, and that’s a tragic response, because in the end, the truth will be justified by what it produces. You see, these people had a smugness that made them sit in condemning judgment, and they were wrong. Now, in those verses there’s a certain gentleness. The rebuke there is mild. When it says, “Wisdom is justified by her works,” that’s a mild thing. I mean, He doesn’t really crash down on the generation of critics. But draw a line in your Bible between verse 19 and 20, because something happens between those two verses. Something dramatic happens.
The gentleness is gone when you hit verse 20. There’s almost a line of demarcation between those two verses. Something dramatic changes, and judgment begins to come with fury in verse 20. And this, of course, accelerates the events that lead to the people crucifying Christ. But there is definitely an open flow of the wrath of God that comes in the next section. Now, we’ve seen the response of criticism, what men did: they criticized. Now, I want you to see the response of indifference: what men didn’t do.
And let me just say this before I go any further; it is so important for you to realize that what people don’t do is enough to condemn them. In Matthew 7:26, Jesus said, “The man who hears My word” - or words – “and doeth them not, is likened unto a man who built his house on the sand, and the rains came and the floods,” and you remember, the fall was great. And why was that man lost in judgment? Because he heard, and did not do. Just not doing it was sufficient. You see, people do not have to do something to go to hell; they just have to do nothing to go to hell.
I think about Josiah’s revival. He brought back the Word of God to the people, and in 2 Kings 22, he said: “Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us.” And why is God so wrathful? “Because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book.” It was what they didn’t do. In Matthew 22, the Lord is likening His Kingdom to a wedding, and sinners are being called to the marriage feast, and this is what He says: “Tell them which are bidden, ‘Behold, I have prepared My dinner: My oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage.’”
Listen to this: “But they made light of it” - they treated it lightly - “and went their way, one to his farm, and another to his merchandise.” Life as usual. They made light of it. Who needs it? And then, in Luke 17:26 and 27, you have that very fascinating passage which says, “As it was in the days of” - what? – “Noah, so shall it be in the days of the Son of man.” What is the parallel? Well, in those days, “They did eat, and they drank, and they married wives, and they were given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.”
And the Lord says, “It will be the same way now. They’ll eat, and drink, and marry, and be given in marriage.” What does that mean? That means life goes on as usual, eating, drinking, getting married. Men will just obliviously go on with the same routine, and you saw it back in Noah’s day. There were some critics who stood around the boat that he was building in the middle of the desert, about the 110th year, and said, “The guy is out of his mind. He’s building a boat in the desert. And he’s talking about rain; what is rain?”
No one had ever seen rain, never had rained - and there were the critics. But then there were the mass of people who just went on eating, and drinking, and marrying, and giving in marriage, the routine of life, until it rained. It’s too late, the door was shut. And the Lord said it’s going to be the same way. Just indifference, just going on with life as usual. Now, those passages illustrate the indifference of men toward God, but not as aptly and as powerfully as does this passage. So, follow along.
Verse 20, “Then began He to upbraid” - it means to reproach, or to speak condemnation against - “the cities in which most of His mighty works were done, because they repented not.” The gentleness of verse 19 is gone now. I mean, they’ve had ten chapters of revelation. They’ve had the fullness of the Galilean ministry, with all of its myriad of miracles - He banished disease from Palestine. I mean, they’ve seen enough to know - forgiving sin, casting out demons, raising the dead, you name it.
And now, they have not repented, and so He moves to the statement of His judgment. This is, if you will, the wrath of the Lamb; as gracious as the Son of God is in His friendship with sinners, so fierce is He in His denunciation of those who will not acknowledge their sin. It is holy anger; it is holy fury that you see in this passage. Now, he mentions the cities - Matthew does - in which most of His mighty works were done. Now, this would be the Galilean cities, where His Galilean ministry had taken place.
The city does not refer to the streets, and the buildings, and the houses, and so forth; the city refers to the people who lived there. You cannot have streets and buildings repenting; those are people. But the people do does ultimately reflect the cities, and the cities ultimately reflect the judgment, because they go out of existence, if God chooses to do that. But he’s talking about the people, and the reason He began to condemn them was because His mighty works were done in their presence, but they did not repent.
By the way, the word mighty works is dunamis, which means power works - works of power - and refers to His miracles. They had seen miracle after miracle after miracle, by the hundreds, maybe the thousands, and they wouldn’t repent, and they wouldn’t turn to God. They were very much like those in Revelation 9:20 and 21, who after the plethora of miracles that occurs in the tribulation, curse God and repent not. I mean, they didn’t even show any interest at all. And the Lord’s basic goal in doing these miracles was to demonstrate His divine nature, and cause them to repent and come to Him. But they didn’t repent.
Now, listen to this: when men have that kind of privilege and do not repent, what happens is their guilt becomes aggravated, and they are more severely guilty than if they never heard at all, or saw at all, a miracle. It is far better, my friend, for you to know nothing about Jesus Christ, than to know anything about Him and reject Him. For there is greater punishment - Hebrews 10:26 - to the one who knows of Christ, and tramples His blood under his feet, than the one who never knew.
So, I would just suggest to you that if you’re rejecting Jesus Christ, you ought to turn around, and get out of here, and away from anything that represents Him, as fast as you can, because you will only aggravate your guilt, which will deepen the pit of your eternal punishment. And I say that because God said that, because God cares about you. The greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility, and no cities were ever more privileged than the cities of Galilee. The incarnate Son of God had walked their dusty roads. He had taught their favored people.
He had performed His mighty miracles within their villages and towns, and He had given them overwhelming evidence. But in their indifference, they had not repented. And Bengel, the commentator of old, is right, when he says, “Every hearer of the New Testament truth is either much happier or much more wretched than the men who lived before Christ’s coming.” The works that Jesus did should have stopped those people in their tracks - like the works and the message of Jonah stopped Nineveh in its tracks, and it repented - but it didn’t. They did not repent.
That’s in the aorist tense; it marks a finality. They didn’t repent. Now, He singles out two illustrations of unrepentant hearts in the cities of Galilee. First, verse 21 and 22: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee Bethsaida!” And a woe, by the way, is a curse, a promise of doom, a promise of judgment. Chorazin was a little village, nestled in the hills two and a half miles north of Capernaum. Capernaum is right on the shore of the northernmost point of the Sea of Galilee, in the lovely area of Galilee.
Two and a half miles north of Capernaum was this little village of Chorazin. By the way, it is now extinct, and there are ruins left there that are given the present-day name of Charaza, a variation of Chorazin. And then there was Bethsaida - and these are only examples of all of the villages and towns of that area, and there were many of them that had the same privilege. Bethsaida is a little more north and a little more west, out in the plain of Gennesaret, above the Sea of Galilee. It was the hometown of Philip, and it was the place that Andrew and Peter originally came out of.
And there, too, He had done His miracles, in that little village. With Capernaum as His headquarters, those miracles had spread everywhere. In fact, in John’s gospel, he says that all of the things that Jesus did are not written here. And then he says, in chapter 21, verse 25, that if all of the things that Jesus did were written down, all the books in the world couldn’t even begin to contain them. They had seen myriads of miracles. They had seen the blessed Savior. But look what He says. “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.”
In the minds of a - of a Galilean Jew, the two most wretched cities were Tyre and Sidon - historically. They were in that same area, only over a few miles to the coast. They were the cities of the Phoenicians, and the Phoenicians were the seafaring people, the commercial people, the sailors, the colonizers, in many ways, of the Mediterranean area. And those seaports were everything that a seaport is. All of the riff-raff, all of the sailors who had been at sea for months, and even years, brought in their adulterous immoralities and fornications.
Those two cities were deep in the pit of Baal worship. The cities were immoral as far as you could imagine; they were Gentile, pagan, heathen societies, and God destroyed them. In Isaiah 23, and in Ezekiel 26, 27 and 28, we learn that the commercial seamen and the colonizing Phoenicians of those two cities were proud. We learn that they were greedy, avaricious, cruel people. Amos denounces them in his prophecy - chapter 1, verse 9 - because they actually captured Jews and sold Jews into slavery.
Joel tells us they sold Israelites to the Greeks. Amos says they sold them to the Edomites. Jeremiah says that God will pour out the winepress of wrath on them - Jeremiah 25:22 and 47:4. So, the prophets really denounced the vile wretchedness of those two cities, and they would be literally, in the Galilean area, a byword for vile places, and that’s why God destroyed them. They could be compared to the wicked Babylon of Revelation 17 to 19, commercial and corrupt, immoral, idolatrous, pagan, pleasure-mad, proud, wicked, and worthy of extinction.
And yet, our Lord says this - what a jolt: “If the works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” In other words, you are worse than they are. And here was a smug, self-righteous, moral society; Jewish people going about their daily routine; none of the grossness of Tyre and Sidon, and yet they were worse off. They were unable to perceive God in their midst. He says that Tyre and Sidon would have repented, and then He adds “in sackcloth and ashes” to show that their repentance would have been genuine.
Sackcloth was the coarse, black, camel hair, like John the Baptist wore, that turned black. It was a symbol of mourning, and when you wanted to mourn or show humility, you put on sackcloth, and then, in an oriental custom, threw ashes all over yourself. Or else, you could have a big bed of ashes, and just dive in and wallow in it. That was another way you expressed your sorrow. That is not necessarily a biblical custom; that was an oriental one. But Job did it; in Job 42:6, he repented in dust and ashes, and so did Daniel.
In 9, when he prayed that great prayer to God on behalf of his people in captivity; he put ashes on himself. So, He’s saying, “Tyre and Sidon would have genuinely repented if they had seen what you saw. Tyre and Sidon didn’t have your privilege.” Now, for a Jew to be told that he is worse than a Gentile is the absolute end in that society. It’s little wonder that we begin to accelerate the movement toward the cross now. And if that wasn’t bad enough, He said this in verse 22: “But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.”
What is the day of judgment? Well, it could be any day in which God judged, but He has in mind the great white throne final judgment, when all the dead of all the ages are brought before the throne of God to be judged for their eternal punishment. And He says the judgment of Chorazin and Bethsaida will be more severe than the judgment of Tyre and Sidon – inconceivable. Inconceivable because, you see, the Jews would have agreed with the condemnation of Tyre and Sidon, just like the Jewish antagonist in Romans 2 would agree with the condemnation of the Gentiles in Romans 1.
They would have thought, “nothing worse than the Gentiles,” but the Lord says, “It will be better for them than it will be for you.” That tells us there are degrees of punishment in hell, beloved, and the severer hell belongs to those who had the Lord Jesus Christ in their midst, and walked away from Him - severer than the most immoral people who didn’t know Him. Now, they were accustomed to thinking of themselves as safe for eternity, because they were Abraham’s seed, and because they kept the traditions, and they looked with contempt on the Gentiles.
And this statement would have been absolutely beyond belief to them, “more tolerable.” There are degrees of punishment, mark it. There are degrees of punishment in hell. It’s all bad, but it goes from bad to worse. Then a second illustration - verse 23: “And thou, Capernaum” - and it’s a question, really, in the original - “shall thou be exalted unto heaven? Thou shalt be brought down to hell.” What a statement. What is He saying? Well, Capernaum was guiltiest of all, so Capernaum becomes the supreme illustration.
Capernaum was a town - I’ve been to the ruins of Capernaum a couple times. Lovely, one of the loveliest spots I’ve ever seen. It gently rolls down to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the little waves ripple against that shore. Capernaum, that little fishing village. Capernaum, where the Lord made His home during His Galilean ministry. Capernaum, where all of the disciples mingled with the people, and where the Lord did so many miracles. He - He healed the nobleman’s son. He - He healed the demoniac in the synagogue.
He raised Peter’s wife’s mother. And there were, according to Matthew 8, a multitude of miracles that He did in Capernaum. And there was the paralytic that was carried through the roof, that He healed. And there was Jairus’ daughter, and there was the woman with the issue of blood. And there were the two blind men, and the dumb demoniac, and the Centurion’s servant and all of these things. Capernaum, where He lived. And Capernaum had this illusion that they were flourishing, and they were prosperous, and they were saying, “We’re just going to be exalted to heaven.”
They were so self-righteous. They were religious. “Shalt thou be exalted to heaven?” He says. “Thou shall be brought to hell.” Literally, the Greek says, “To hell shalt thou go.” Maybe that’s where that profane statement came from, only in this case, it was proper. There would be a temporal destruction, yes; but more than that, there would be an eternal punishment on the souls of the inhabitants. If you were to go to that part of the world today, all you’d find in Capernaum is ruins, and a few tourists poking around.
You probably couldn’t even find Bethsaida. And when you got to old Chorazin, nothing but ruins, and probably no tourists at all. They’re gone. But that is not the severity of the judgment. The severity of the judgment is, someday those people will be brought before God and Christ as the judge, to be eternally sentenced. They’re already incarcerated in a place of torment, even now, but final sentencing awaits the great white throne; and they will be severely sentenced for what they did not do.
For He says in verse 21, “If the mighty works, which had been done in thee, had been done in” - what? – “Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” If somebody would walk up to me, just cold turkey, and say, “What are the worst cities in human history? What are the vilest evil cities?” If you were to be asked that question, “What is the most wicked contemporary city?” you might answer, “Las Vegas.” I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but that’s what I always think of. But if you were to ask me, “What is the worst ancient city?” I think immediately would come to mind, Sodom.
I mean, what other city did God rain fire and brimstone on? What other city was populated by a whole group of homosexuals, who tried to rape angels? And when they were struck blind, instead of running in terror, it just made it more difficult for them to find the door. Sodom. And to a Jew, what was the worst city he could think of? Sodom. To a Jew, Sodom was the worst. Sodom was the city that God wouldn’t visit. God and two angels visited Abraham, but when the two angels showed up at Sodom, God wasn’t there.
Sodom was a city that tried to rape angels - the worst, the dregs. You know what was worse than Sodom? Revise your list. Capernaum, would you believe? Did they have a homosexual problem? Not that we know of. Although, I’m sure, like any other city, they had representation of everything. Ah, did they attack God’s people? No. No, they just ignored Jesus, that’s all. But that brings about the deepest damnation. And so, He says to Capernaum, “Thou shalt be brought down to hell.” Now, may I just make a note at this point, the word is Hades in the Greek, H-A-D-E-S.
And that word is a word that basically is a neutral word - sometimes refers to waiting place, sometimes just refers to sort of darkness, or the place of death, or the grave. But it is used sometimes with more specificity, or more exactness, and I believe Matthew uses it here in the sense of torment, in the place where Satan and his demons and the condemned will dwell. He uses it in the sense of hell. That is Matthew’s pattern. He uses Hades one other time, and that’s in chapter 16, verse 18, and he talks about the gates of hell, and I think he means in both of these cases – consistent - the place of torment.
Matthew also commonly, in referring to this same place, uses the term Gehenna, which was a word that meant a burning fire – actually, it was the term for the dump in Jerusalem, which never went out, the fire burned continually - and he uses that twice in chapter 5, and once in chapter 10. Also, it’s interesting to note that in Luke 16:23, it talks about the rich man being in Hades, and being in torment. So, Hades can be a word that reflects torment, and consistent with Matthew’s approach, that’s what I think he’s saying.
“You are going to a place of torment, and the torment of Capernaum will exceed the torment of Sodom.” Verse 24: “But I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.” Now again, people, you cannot understand, nor can I really understand, what an incredibly devastating statement that would be to make in that society. Capernaum exceeded Chorazin and Bethsaida in privilege; Sodom exceeded Tyre and Sidon in wickedness; so, this is the ultimate contrast.
The most wretched city in history against the most blessed city in history, and the most blessed city receives the severer judgment. You just - you can’t play around with Jesus Christ, and think that it’s just sort of changes how God feels about you. You simply bring deeper guilt on yourself. Sodom’s indescribable abomination and fitting doom have for centuries filled men with a sense of horror, and when you think about evil cities, you don’t think about Capernaum, but it is the most wretched of all cities. Sodom would have repented.
That’s right. Sodom, as deep in the pit as it was, would have repented if it had seen what Capernaum saw. Let me tell you something. You know what is the sin of all sins, and what blinded Capernaum? They thought they were already what? Righteous. Deadly. At least with rotten, wretched, vile sinners, they know it. Self-righteous people don’t admit it, and yet, theirs is the severer judgment. That’s why throughout the New Testament, our Lord forgave harlots and prostitutes, and blasted self-righteous religionists - because they had no need of Him.
Finally, the point is this: how could Capernaum be worse? How? What did they do? Well, we never read that Capernaum hated Jesus. We never read that Capernaum rioted against Jesus. We never read that Capernaum persecuted Jesus. We never read of any eruption, like in Nazareth or Jerusalem. We never read any of that. Well, what makes them worse? Indifference. The sin of these flourishing places was not violence. It wasn’t the sin of sensuality. It was just indifference. There’s no record that they opposed Christ, or mocked Him, or ridiculed Him; they just didn’t pay any attention to Him.
As Studdert-Kennedy points out in his poem, “They just left Him standing in the rain as they passed by.” It didn’t matter to them. They had a languid interest in His teaching. His miracles entertained them, and nothing more. His providential goodness never touched their hearts. His doctrine produced no change in their lives. Self-satisfied, complacent, whether in the form of Pharisaic self-righteousness or popular indifference, is condemned by Christ as the grossest of evils. On the outside, they were eminently respectable, but hell will be hotter for them than for Sodomites.
And so, I guess people are going to stand someday before the judgment seat and say, “But I never did anything.” And therein will be their severest condemnation. Will you pray with me? Lord, we know that there are people all around us, that You love and for whom You died, who reject You. Some are bitter critics, and some are just indifferent; and we might think it would be better for the indifferent, but it’s not. And we know that there are people in our fellowship this morning here, who have heard the message, and known the message, and even known it to be the truth, but it doesn’t move them; nothing happens.
0 God, by Your Holy Spirit, impress upon the hearts of those people the fearfulness of such a privilege. In a real sense, they have even been sanctified in the presence of the saints; may they not be indifferent, and bring upon themselves a severer judgment. And, Lord, the rest of us, who are already Christians and who believe, Lord, give us a new vision for those that are lost, especially those that know. And may we not just share our faith, but may we warn men of judgment to come, with boldness and love, as our dear Lord did.
May we know that this was not anger from a wounded ego, but righteous wrath from a holy God, whose heart is broken at the same time. We pray, Lord, that no one would leave this place today who has not embraced Jesus Christ, and saved himself from the wrath to come, and that those who are Christians might, too, again renew the zeal to reach those who must be reached. And work Your work, in all of our hearts, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
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