Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 11:21a “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!”
Chorazin and Bethsaida were villages located near Jesus’ hometown, Capernaum. Our Lord pronounced severe woes on those who knew Him best.
Jesus offered His home area the world’s most valuable gift, His own words, presence, and miracles, but cities refused to repent. Even in His own time and country, a majority did not heed Jesus. He saw tragedies played out, but could not stop them. God’s kingdom came near to these cities, but they remained far from it.
Had they sinned only against moral law, they could have appealed to Divine forgiveness, but by refusing to humble themselves and receive Jesus’ forgiveness, they sinned against the only remedy. Thus, their sad, unfixable plight.
Please note, before Jesus denounced them, He healed, taught, and blessed them. Gruff methods are the last of the last resorts, exceptions rather than the rule.
Always try the gentlest means first. Jesus gave the Galileans His best effort. He loved them. They were His neighbors. It was hard for Him to let go of them.
This pronouncement surely saddened Christ. A wail cried in the woe, tears fell in the wrath. Jesus’ mournful words were but echoes from an anguished heart.
Chorazin sat two miles north of Capernaum on the west side of the road to Tyre. Bethsaida, meaning house of fishing, sat on the east side of the Jordan, near where it entered the Sea of Galilee. Philip the tetrarch elevated Bethsaida to the rank of a city, naming it Bethsaida Julius, after the daughter of Caesar Augustus.
Three of Christ’s brightest shining lights, Peter, Andrew, and Philip came from Bethsaida (JN 1:44). Most of its citizens, though, chose to stay in darkness.
One day Jesus cured every sickness in Bethsaida, and nearby fed the 5000 (LK 9:10ff). Jesus’ miracles so entertained its citizens, and made their lives so much easier, that they wanted to use force to make Jesus their king (JN 6:15). Who wouldn’t want to serve a King who could heal and feed all his subjects?
Jesus knew their loyalty was shallow, physical and political rather than spiritual. Unbelief made Bethsaida a dangerous place to be. In Bethsaida a blind man asked Christ to heal him. Not wanting the man to stay in the faithless town, Jesus took him to the city’s edge, gave him sight, and sent him away (MK 8:22ff).
Chorazin and Bethsaida forevermore picture privilege abused. Perils lurk in privilege. The Galileans heard, but did not heed; saw, but did not follow. Sins of the flesh were rare in these towns, but when their rejection of Jesus was thrown on the scales, it weighed them down, sinking them into oblivion and perdition. If persisted in, unbelief becomes the condemning sin, the only unfixable wickedness.
Matt. 11:21b “For if the miracles that were done in you. . .”
On the Sea of Galilee’s north shore, in a triangle of land formed by the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, more miracles were wrought than on any other site in history. This small parcel of land may have been the most favored spot ever upon Earth. This area’s rejection of Jesus, despite His many works of power displayed there, beckons us to take a close look at the role played by miracles in Christianity. People respond to miracles in several different ways.
First, many deny miracles totally. This was the bluntly stated opinion of David Hume, and remains a battle cry of atheists. They say miracles never occur. We may not understand why something extraordinary happens, but when all the facts are known, there will always be natural, rational reasons for any occurrence.
Second, some believe every miracle they hear of, regardless how bizarre the event may sound. Many Christians, bored with the ordinary, bog down in the quagmire of the extraordinary. Brothers and sisters, beware and be wise. There is no virtue in being gullible. We need to do our research, and be discriminating.
Third, most people admit miracles happen, but are not changed by them. I do believe we should be seeing more miracles among us, but remember, miracles are not a spiritual cure-all. There will always be many who follow the example of the Galileans, witnessing miracles firsthand, but not responding to them aright.
The Galileans brought to Jesus sick bodies to be healed, but not sick spirits. Christ lived, loved, and labored among them. They were firsthand eyewitnesses and ear-witnesses to God in flesh. They heard His commands, saw His works and face, watched His walk, received His miracles, but took privileges for granted.
The evidence had been irrefutable, but instead of grasping Jesus’ message, they became numb to it all, and yawned. Some are to miracles as artillery horses are to cannon fire, never moving a muscle however thunderous the blasts become.
Fourth, a blessed minority realize anyone who wrought miracles as Jesus did has to be God. He is worthy to be worshiped as Lord. Jesus’ miracles were His credentials, bearing testimony to His claims. They were not everything, not by themselves enough to provide ample foundation for belief, but did have a specific role to play. His miracles did comprise part of the proof needed to believe in Him.
The Galileans stood in a blaze of light, but paid no attention to it. How many like them are hearing this sermon now? If the Galileans saw the dawn of day, we in the Western world stand in a noonday blaze. God’s fountain is pouring on us. We know of Christ crucified, risen, ascended, reigning, and returning.
In Bible days and today, the only correct response to Jesus’ message and miracles is repentance. He calls us to the ultimate miracle, the turnaround of life that heals spirits. A person may be a beastly plague to all nearby, but if touched by Jesus, can be radically changed by the Spirit, and made into a blessing for all.
Matt. 11:21c “. . .had been done in Tyre and Sidon,. . .”
Jesus, trying hard to deeply impress His neighbors, said their spirituality was worse than Tyre and Sidon’s, two nearby cities notorious for debauchery and corruption. Two of the world’s oldest cities (Sidon is mentioned in GN 10:19), Tyre and Sidon, in modern Lebanon, were the Phoenician Empire’s greatest ports.
They were the ancient world’s London and New York City, long ruling Mediterranean commerce and industry. As seacoast cities, they were filled with merchants and sailors; they were wealthy, but wicked; powerful, but moral sewers.
Tyre and Sidon worshiped Baal, Astarte, and Venus, filthy gods whose worship included cult prostitutes and sex rituals. Their debauchery often seeped into Israel, creating havoc. Prophets Joel, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel railed against Tyre. Jezebel, one of history’s most wicked women, came from Sidon. God raised up Elijah to battle abominations she imported to Israel. Jesus would have been hard pressed to name two cities more despicable to His listeners.
Matt. 11:21d “. . .they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long
Sackcloth and ashes were, and are, worn by Easterners as signs of strong emotion, especially deep mourning. For example, at Jonah’s preaching, the people of Nineveh, to show their sorrow over their sins, donned sackcloth and ashes.
Touching ashes bespoke absolute, utter humility. Sackcloth was very coarse cloth, roughly woven from the short hair of animals, mainly camels. Extremely uncomfortable, it was worn under outer clothing, next to the flesh, making the body itch, and keeping mourners from becoming lackadaisical in their mourning.
Tyre and Sidon would have repented humbly, sadly, totally. Chorazin and Bethsaida refused to bow. Jesus chose to labor not in the most “productive” field.
Christ could have done better outside Galilee. Elsewhere He could have had more followers, more to show for His exhausting labors and tiresome toiling.
Our Master reminds us we must stay faithful in talking to unbelievers about Jesus, even if the ground is stony, and harvest slim. Wayne Watson well writes,
We work the field of souls, together you and I.
Some fields are blooming now, other fields are dry.
We are not the same, but differences aside,
We will work the field of souls, together you and I.
Are we to be successful? Maybe, sometimes. Are we to be faithful? Yes, always.