GREATER OPPORTUNITY AND REVELATION BRING MORE SEVERE JUDGMENT FOR FAILURE TO REPENT
Daniel Doriani: Jesus warns three cities—Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum—that their resistance to his ministry is culpable. Each has the same pattern:
- Jesus calls out the word of woe and warning.
- Jesus explains why the city is liable to judgment.
- He compares the cities of Israel to infamous pagan cities.
Richard Gardner: Each pronouncement contains:
(1) A woe statement or its equivalent (21a, 23a).
(2) An if… then statement (21b, 23b).
(3) An I tell you statement drawing the consequences (22, 24).
To appreciate the force of these unfavorable comparisons, we must remember that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom were all foreign cities. What Jesus is saying, then, is that Gentiles repent more readily than Israel (cf. 12:41-42), and that accordingly they will fare better than God’s own people at the judgment.
Craig Blomberg: Jesus employs the common Old Testament form of a woe (cf., e.g., Num 21:29; 1 Sam 4:8; Isa 3:9-11; Jer 13:27; Ezek 24:6-9)—an exclamation of “how greatly one will suffer,” mingling doom with pity. Jesus laments God’s coming judgment on the cities in which many of his miracles occurred.
Ray Fowler: In these verses we learn five things about those who do not repent:
- Jesus denounces those who do not repent.
- Jesus mourns for those who do not repent.
- Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who do repent.
- Jesus warns of coming punishment for those who do not repent. And
- Jesus urges you to repent now rather than later.
R. T. France: Even in Galilee, including Jesus’ “own” town of Capernaum, the honeymoon period is apparently over. And when those who have been privileged to witness Jesus’ ministry in their own communities fail to respond, they must expect to face a more serious judgment than the notorious pagan cities which had no such special revelation.
Walter Wilson: The vista presented in the previous segment continues to unfold here, as Jesus is seen further denouncing the people for their failure to receive the kingdom. Such refusal, we now see, is especially damnable for those who have witnessed public demonstrations of kingdom power. As in 11:2–5, the miracles Jesus performs are presented as manifestations of his identity, in which case the people’s rejection of the miracles constitutes rejection of Jesus himself a. With great irony, the fate of biblical places notorious for their wickedness is compared favorably to the end awaiting cities that experienced the Messiah’s ministry firsthand, including his own hometown. We then learn that the rejection of the Messiah accords with a divine pattern in which truth is concealed from the powerful and revealed to unlikely recipients. As the embodiment of Wisdom (cf. 11:19), Jesus confounds human expectations, even as he continues to invite humanity to participate in the grace and compassion that the kingdom offers.
Charles Swindoll: After mentioning the irreverent and irrational mocking of the critics who had rejected His preaching and miracles (11:16-19), Jesus decided it was time to denounce the passivity of those places that had received maximum exposure to the words and works of the Messiah. They were without excuse. The three cities he explicitly mentioned were Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum – His own ministry base. Though we aren’t given any specific details of Jesus’ ministry in the first two cities mentioned, we can assume these were included among the cities where Jesus preached after departing from Capernaum (11:1). While the disciples made longer and farther trips in their preaching mission, Jesus likely stayed closer to His home base. Evidently, the reception of His message had been lukewarm to downright chilly in those cities (11:20).
Allen Ross: What is interesting in this section is that Jesus hints that there will be degrees of punishment in the judgment based on the amount of “light” or revelation people had. People like the Sodomites may have been wicked and idolaters, but it will go easier on them in the judgment because they did not have the amount of light Capernaum did. Capernaum had a lot of revelation, and since they rejected it, the judgment will be severe on them. This shows us that God is very much aware of how much information people had of the truth and will take that into account. Judgment will be fair. But it will be the most severe on those who had the most information and refused it. People who live in a region which is filled with churches and religious communications will have no excuse if they choose not to respond to the message.
I. (:20) CONDEMNATION OF CITIES FOR FAILURE TO REPENT IN SPITE OF THE ABUNDANCE OF OPPORTUNITY
“Then He began to reproach the cities in which most of His miracles were done,
because they did not repent.”
D. A. Carson: The many miracles again remind us of the extent of Jesus’ ministry (cf. 4:23; 8:16; 9:35; Jn 20:30; 21:25) and of the depth of responsibility imposed on those with more light.
Donald Hagner: Now the extent of the rejection of Jesus comes into full light. With the unbelief of Israel, a turning point in the narrative has been reached (cf. Comber). For the first time we encounter the mysterious fact of the failure of Jesus’ mission to Israel. Jesus rebukes the largely unreceptive cities (i.e., villages) of Galilee, particularly since they had been privileged to see the mighty deeds, indeed αἱ πλεῖσται δυνάμεις, “most of the miracles,” of Jesus. This word δυνάμεις, “mighty deeds,” occurs like a refrain in vv 21 and 23. Although they had witnessed these deeds of power, they did not respond to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom (cf. John 12:37): they did not “repent” (μετενόησαν). The same verb occurs in v 21 and is implied in v 23. This indicates that Jesus’ message about the kingdom (cf. 4:23; 9:35; cf. 10:7) was accompanied, as from the beginning (4:17), by a call to repentance.
Walter Wilson: The vindication of wisdom is accompanied by the punishment of those who reject it. In this sense, the scenarios of judgment in 11:20–24 (based on Q/Luke 10:12–15) follow logically after the polemic of 11:16–19 (based on Q/Luke 7:31–35). Having completed his reproof of “this generation,” Jesus now singles out some of its most culpable representatives, specifically the cities in which he had performed most of his δυνάμεις (“miracles”), a term that recalls ἔργα (“works”) in 11:2+19 and the enumeration of Jesus’s deeds of power in 11:5. If those who accept the one performing such deeds are blessed (11:6), those who fail to do so are condemned. Presupposed throughout is the idea that the miracles performed by Jesus are to be understood as eschatological signs, that is, as portents of impending judgment.
Leon Morris: It is clear that Jesus had performed a number of miracles, mostly works of healing, and he expected those who saw them to recognize them for what they were, signs that God was at work in their midst. Jesus was not looking for amazement and admiration, but for repentance. That was the first note he struck in his preaching (4:17), and it remained a constant.
II. (:21-22) CHORAZIN AND BETHSAIDA WORSE OFF THAN TYRE AND SIDON
D. A. Carson: Three large theological propositions are presupposed by Jesus’ insistence that on the day of judgment (cf. 12:36; Ac 17:31; 2Pe 2:9; 3:7; 1Jn 4:17; Jude 6), when he will judge (7:22; 25:34), things will go worse for the cities that have received so much light than for the pagan cities.
- The first is that the Judge has contingent knowledge: he knows what Tyre and Sidon would have done under such-and-such circumstances.
- The second is that God does not owe revelation to anyone, or else there is injustice in withholding it.
- The third is that punishment on the day of judgment takes into account opportunity. There are degrees of felicity in paradise and degrees of torment in hell (12:41; 23:13; cf. Lk 12:47–48), a point Paul well understood (Ro 1:20–2:16).
The implications for Western, English-speaking Christendom today are sobering.
A. (:21) Miracles without Repentance Bring Condemnation on Chorazin and Bethsaida
- Calling Out the Cities for Failure to Repent
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!”
Daniel Doriani: Jesus calls out, “Woe,” to them. “Woe” suggests both anger and lamentation, both pity and doom. It announces impending judgment: Woe, for “it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you” (11:24). Yet the woe implies that there is still time to repent. The end is almost, but not quite, here. “Woe” calls out judgment, yet it also offers a shred of hope for the penitent.
Grant Osborne: Chorazin was a medium-sized town noted for its wheat production and identified with modern Khirbet Karazeh about two miles north of Capernaum. Bethsaida was on the northern tip of the lake just on the western side of the Jordan River in Gaulanitis (but geographically part of Galilee) and was the original home of Simon and Andrew as well as Philip (John 1:44, 12:21). Jesus had two mission trips through Galilee in Matthew (4:23; 9:35), walked on the water on the way there in Mark 6:45, and healed a blind man there in Mark 8:22 and many others in Luke 9:10.
Michael Wilkins: Korazin (Khirbet Kerazeh) is only 2–1/2 miles (4 kilometers) north of Capernaum. Little evidence from the time of Jesus remains, but by the third to fourth centuries it was described in rabbinic literature as a “medium-size town.” The black basalt ruins of a large synagogue from that later era have been excavated, with the famous “seat of Moses” (cf. 23:2) discovered in the ruins. The city was destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt in the fifth century, only to be destroyed again in the seventh or eighth century.
Bethsaida (Aram. “house of fishermen”) was the birthplace of Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21), and possibly others of the disciples including James and John, the sons of Zebedee. It is mentioned more often in the New Testament than any city except Jerusalem and Capernaum. It is located four miles northeast of Capernaum at the northernmost tip of the Sea of Galilee at the place where the Jordan River enters the sea. The city was built by Herod Philip (cf. 16:13), son of Herod the Great and half-brother of Herod Antipas, and lay in the region under Philip’s governance. During Jesus’ time the Jordan delta extended further inland at that point (perhaps as much as 1–1/2 miles further than presently), giving it one of the largest harbors on the Sea of Galilee and making it an important fishing center.
Walter Wilson: The inclusion of Chorazin and Bethsaida (11:21) among the cities in which “most of his miracles had happened” (11:20) comes as a surprise, since no mention has been made of Jesus’s activity in either place. Perhaps the reader is meant to understand these localities as being representative of the various cities and villages throughout Galilee in which he performed wonders, as indicated by the summary statements in 4:23 and 9:35 (cf. 11:1).
- Contrast with Tyre and Sidon
“For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
Richard Gardner: The Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, with which Chorazin and Bethsaida are unfavorably compared in verses 2lb-22, were famous for their wealth and power, but condemned by the prophets for their pride (cf. Isa. 23; Ezek. 27-28).
John Nolland: Sackcloth is a rough cloth made of goats’ hair and worn over the naked body in token of mourning or penitence. In the Greek world the meaning of the word is wider (coarse hair cloth for bags and sacks), but the penitential use of the material was known. The link with ashes is found in several OT texts. One covered oneself with sackcloth and either dusted oneself down with or sat in the ashes.
B. (:22) More Severe Judgment than for Tyre and Sidon
“Nevertheless I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon
in the day of judgment, than for you.”
III. (:23-24) CAPERNAUM WORSE OFF THAN SODOM
A. (:23) Miracles without Repentance Bring Condemnation on Capernaum
- Calling Out the City for Pride
“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you?
You shall descend to Hades;”
Grant Osborne: Capernaum, a town of about 1,500 population, was the leading city in the area, well-situated geographically and economically.
- Contrast with Sodom
“for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you,
it would have remained to this day.”
Donald Hagner: Capernaum was the headquarters of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (4:13; 8:5; 9:1; 17:24; cf. Mark 2:1). It must have been particularly distressing that Capernaum was in the main unreceptive to Jesus’ ministry (cf. 13:57). Capernaum was apparently proud and ambitious, as the question “Will you be exalted to heaven?” suggests (cf. Isa 14:13). Yet her fate would prove to be the opposite: she would go down to “Hades” (ᾅδου; Heb. šĕʾôl), i.e., the unseen realm of the dead (used by Matthew elsewhere only in 16:18). This is an allusion to the LXX of Isa 14:15: εἰς ᾅδου καταβήσῃ (cf. 14:11, which has only a slightly different word order). It is difficult to make the application of the first rhetorical phrase to Capernaum more precise, but it seems to refer to an unwarranted, prideful confidence in an exceptional degree of eschatological blessing. The imagery of v 23 is clearly borrowed from Isa 14:13–15 (for šĕʾôl, see too Ezek 26:20–21). The comparison with Sodom makes Jesus’ indictment of Capernaum all the sharper. Sodom’s wickedness and consequent destruction were notorious from the OT record (Gen 18:20—19:29; cf. Isa 1:9; Rom 9:29; 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7). Had the miracles of Jesus been performed in Sodom, even Sodom would have repented and the city would not have been destroyed: it would have “remained until today” (ἔμεινεν ἄν μέχρι τῆς σήμερον). But in the last judgment, Sodom, like Tyre and Sidon compared to Chorazin and Bethsaida, will fare better than unbelieving Capernaum.
R. T. France: Capernaum has been hitherto a place of revelation and response (4:13–16; 8:5–17; 9:1–34), but woven into those accounts has been an undercurrent of opposition and rejection (8:10–12, with special reference to its Jewish inhabitants over against the Gentile centurion; 9:3, 11, 34) provoking Jesus’ comment that the old wineskins cannot accommodate the new wine (9:16–17). Capernaum, as the base of Jesus’ operations, has received more of the light (4:16) than the other towns, and so its unresponsiveness deserves a greater condemnation. The comparison with Sodom (cf. 10:15) is therefore even more wounding than that with Tyre and Sidon, since at least the Phoenician cities, though captured by Alexander the Great, were still standing, whereas Sodom was the classic example of total destruction, its remains now buried under the waters of the Dead Sea. Even worse is the unmistakable echo in v. 23 of Isaiah’s taunt (Isa 14:13–15) against the ambitions and downfall of the king of Babylon, the traditional enemy and destroyer of Judah. . . The example of the king of Babylon is apparently being used not because of any specific equivalence, but as a proverbial example of pride going before a fall, the pride in this case being Capernaum’s failure to recognize any need to respond to Jesus’ call to repentance. Hades is the place of the dead rather than a place of punishment; here, as in 16:18, its only other use in Matthew, it symbolizes destruction.
B. (:24) More Severe Judgment than for Sodom
“Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom
in the day of judgment, than for you.”
Stanley Saunders: Jesus reserves his most solemn judgment for Capernaum, the home base of his ministry. If the people of Capernaum imagine that the divine power manifested among them implies that they don’t need to repent, they are mistaken. The powers that Jesus has demonstrated are not meant to elicit a sense of triumph or complacency; they are a call to discern the time, to repent of the ways that enslave, and turn toward God. Every generation that witnesses the signs of God’s presence and power but continues on its way joins the ranks of “this generation.”