Matthew 11:20–24 (ESV): Woe to Unrepentant Cities
In the last passage, the last thing Jesus said was that “wisdom is justified by her deeds.” This passage sort of continues on with that, but with examples of lack of wisdom.
He names some of the cities where his “mighty works” (verse 20 (ESV)) have been done, and pronounces “woes” on them for not repenting of their sins. Specifically:
- He compares the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida to the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, and says that if the miracles had been performed there, they would have repented. But because the miracles were performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida, and not in Tyre and Sidon, it will be more bearable on the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than it will be for Chorazin and Bethsaida. (This would have been especially condemning to the Jews Jesus was speaking to, because Tyre and Sidon were often condemned by prophets in the Old Testament for their Baal worship and materialism.)
- He compares Capernaum to Sodom, and says that if the miracles performed in Capernaum had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained until now (instead of being destroyed). And, again, that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgement for Sodom than for Capernaum. I think we’re all familiar with Sodom, so again, this would be very condemning to the Jews Jesus was speaking to.
Thanks to the ESV Study Bible for pointing out that Tyre and Sidon were often condemned in the Old Testament for their Baal worship and materialism; I don’t know my Bible well enough to have remembered that on my own.
The point of this passage is that more was expected of the cities where Jesus’ miracles were performed (thus proving his divine authority) than of the cities where miracles were not performed. Does this mean that all the people who lived in Sodom will go to heaven, but the people who lived in Capernaum when Jesus performed his miracles will not? Not at all! The people in Sodom were punished for real sins, and they deserved their punishment. The point is not that Sodom wasn’t so bad—it’s that Capernaum was even worse. Worse because they had God among them, with proof that He was who He said He was, and yet still rejected Him.
One way that this directly impacts us is this is that more is demanded of Christians, from a moral perspective, than non-Christians. If I cheat on my taxes, I’ll be judged more severely by God than a non-Christian who cheats on his taxes.
More than that, this passage seems to indicate that there are different severities of judgement that will be handed down on Judgement Day. It’s not just one or the other, Heaven or Hell; even for people who are going to Hell, there will be different severities of judgement. The people who lived in Sodom and the people who lived in Capernaum will both be going to Hell, but the judgement for the people of Capernaum will be worse than the judgement for the people who go to Hell. How does that work? I have no idea. Not even an inkling. I have very little picture of what Hell will be like, other than the fact that it will be eternal separation from God. Will the people from Capernaum be more separated from Him? Will their torment be worse? I don’t know. And, frankly, don’t want to think about it, because it makes me sad.
I suppose another direct application of this passage is that judgment will be more severe for people who hear the Gospel but reject it than for people who’ve never heard the Gospel. Both will be judged, but the ones who have heard and rejected will be judged more severely than the ones who haven’t heard. We need to give the Gospel, because if people don’t hear they can’t be saved, but we also need to pray for people to accept the Gospel. We can’t make them Christians; only the Holy Spirit can do that. So we need to pray to Him that this will happen.