“Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented no t . . . 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. . . For if the mighty works, which have been done in you (Capernaum) would have been done in Sodom, it (Sodom) would have remained until this day.”
We are making a little digression from our writing on the book of Hebrews. We hope to return to finish our essays on that great and profound book of God’s revelation. For the present we shall attempt our hand at writing on what is called “difficult passages.” I am aware of the remarks of both of my professors in Seminary that there are no easy passages in Scriptures. The Bible wills to be studied.
Let us be clearly understood.
When we speak of difficult passages we have in mind certain passages which are rather difficult of interpretation, either by themselves, or because a smoke-screen of error has beclouded the clear meaning of the passage in the mind of the believing saints. Such a passage as John 3:16 has been so often, consistently and erroneously interpreted in the Arminian sense of a “Christ for all”, that the real meaning has been neglected and darkened beyond the recognition of the simple reading of the text and context. However, there are also passages, which, unless we receive their total message as meant by the author, we will not hear the message, but will lose ourselves in a senseless quibbling about the meaning of it.
We believe that we are dealing with such a passage here. We can stare ourselves blind on the question as to how it is possible for Jesus to say that Tyre would have repented under certain conditions, and that Sodom would have remained until this day, the day when Christ was on earth, under certain conditions. What is this requisite for Sodom’s still abiding and Tyre’s repentance in dust and ashes? It is nothing else than that the mighty works of Christ had been performed in them, which were performed in Bethsaida and Capernaum respectively.
This may baffle our feeble human understanding, but it was spoken by Christ who knows all things, also the secrets of the hearts of Sodom and Tyre. Meanwhile, when we listen to this message, let us take the shoes from off our feet!
The text, as a whole, is very clear here in Matthew 11:20-24. We do not have here a detailed exposition of doctrine, although doctrine is not entirely absent. Rather we have in this passage a summary statement of what Jesus more broadly was stating at this time in his preaching. It tells us the emphasis which was necessary in Israel in this late hour of Israel’s historical existence.
This should be underscored.
It should be clear that the text teaches us what Jesus was saying in this “season” at the end of the Galilean ministry. This ministry had lasted for about a year. The great climax of the ministry is related to us in Chapter 10 of this Gospel according to Matthew. He sent the disciples forth with an urgent and almost crisp mandate to go and preach to the house of Israel, and not to turn by the way into Samaria or to the Gentiles. They must seek the lost of the house of Israel. All is in a sense of urgency. The great angel who puts his right foot upon the sea and his left foot upon the earth, the judge of the nations speaks. There is urgency before the majestic throne of God as the Word has gone forth. The dictum is: “and thou Capernaum which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell. He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me : . . And the seventy returned again with joy, saying even the devils are subject unto us through thy name . . .” Yes, Satan’s power is being broken. Says Jesus “I saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven—notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you: but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.”
Such was the “season” of which our passage speaks. For these “greatest works” were added to the preaching, and were not mere exhibitions of wonder, but were the testimony of the Father that He approved of the Son. (Acts 2:22) These were signs and wonders which God was performing through him, giving testimony that to see the Son was to see the Father in Him.
And now these mightiest works had been accomplished in all the land! There is a time for everything under the sun: a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to preach and a time for the day of judgment, and these two are connected with each other as seed-time and harvest-time. It is the end of Christ’s work in Galilee of the nations. The people which sat in darkness have seen a great light, and to them that sat in the region of the shadow of death light is sprung up.” (Matthew 4:15, 16) The light has shined in the darkness, but the darkness comprehended it not. But as many as received him to them he gave authority to become the children of God.
Jesus must have had a certain period, a certain “season” here in the close of his ministry in which there was a definite difference between the chaff and the wheat. They are here both on his threshing-floor. The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire and the wheat will be gathered into the barns. When Jesus directs his “woe” against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, and makes a comparison between these cities and the most godless cities of the nations, Tyre and Sodom, he is speaking of that Israel which is spiritually called “Sodom and Egypt.” (Rev. 11:8)
In a sense Jesus has here stopped preaching. He is “upbraiding” these cities. We must not underrate this speaking of Jesus, for he is letting the Word of prophecy do the “upbraiding.” He is also here the chief prophet who reveals to us the secret counsel of God. These words here are not the irate, explosive, small frustrations of a human orator, whose audience does not respond well.
Here is the highest wisdom, lifting up its voice and crying in the streets. (Prov. 8) Does not Jesus say here in the immediate context that wisdom is justified of her works (children). In the final harvest and judgment day it will be shown which was the highest wisdom, and basic principle of it. For the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. (Matthew 11:19b) This is the one man who will judge his people righteously and who will be the judge of the nations!
Hear him speak! He speaks not lightly, but with truth and love sincere!
We are transported into the day of judgment in our text. We are told of the degrees of wrath and anguish and tribulation which will then be meted out. No, it shall not be well with Tyre and Sidon in that day. The Lord will then rehearse in the consciences of that great citadel Tyre what was uttered by the Spirit of Christ by the mouth of the prophets, as they had uttered their “burdens” upon these cities. Neither will it go well with Sodom in that day when God shall open the books of the consciences. Righteous Lot, who vexed his soul in Sodom, will then be justified, as one who is as a fire-brand plucked from the fires of Almighty God. Both cities are a part of the scene of the divine Apocalypse” . . . and I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (Rev. 19:12).
Both Sodom and Tyre are standing there in Jesus’, mind’s eye according to the text.
But Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum will all stand there in that day when the books are opened. Then shall the books of the “consciences” be opened. (Belgic Confession, Art. XXXVII) And all that is written in them shall be manifested. They, who sinned without the law and the gospel, shall perish without law, and they, who sinned under law, shall be judged by the law and the Gospel-preaching. And they, who have seen the great. and mighty works of God in Christ, will be judged accordingly.
The word has gone forth in the Galilean cities, the light has shined in darkness, and there was no repentance of these cities as cities. The leaders, the great which saw the mighty works in the synagogue and in the streets, did not repent in sack-cloth and ashes as did the people of Ninevah in the days of Jonah. From a theocratic-Israelitish stand-point these cities are chaff which shall be burned. Capernaum was the city where Christ made his home. It is called “his own city” in the Gospels. The Son of God walked in the streets of Capernaum, and He performed His greatest works here.
There is a time for everything under the sun.
The time of the manifestation of the mighty works is ended!
Now, is the time for upbraiding the cities and warning them of their imminent doom!
The ground for their judgment of the Galilean cities will be their unrepentance. They were not simply sinners who walked in their own ways, but they were sinners who walked in their own ways, notwithstanding that the mighty works which accompanied the preaching of the Gospel were performed in their midst.
Never since the time of the protevangel had the Gospel been preached as it was preached in these cities.
They were called unto the repentance unto the forgiveness of sins. Such was the preaching of both Jesus and John, the forerunner of the Lord. And repentance was to be of such a nature that these cities returned to the law of God in their entire life, justice, truth and peace. They were to do this in true and heartfelt sorrow for their sins, with a godly sorrow. Nay, they were not to come as the Pharisees and Scribes, who merely came to flee from the wrath to come.
It was to be a repentance which would shew itself in works worthy of repentance.
There was not fruit in these cities.
Chaff they are upon the threshing-floor of God.
(to be continued)