Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

120. Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (Matt. 11:20-24; Luke 10:10-16)*

When Jesus sent out the seventy on their preaching mission, he gave them detailed instructions how they were to go about it. These have been discussed at some length in Study 89. He added also the charge that any place which rejected the message concerning him should be given clear warning of its intransigence and folly: "Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this: that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you" Lk. 10:11).

In demonstration of the kind of reprobation intended, the gospels give examples of how Jesus shook the dust of the Galilean towns from his feet: "Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, had been done in Tyre and Sidon which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes." Most probably the Lord uttered this remarkable apostrophe publicly (Lk.10:13) and with considerable vehemence in the very cities he denounced, or at some spot within sight of the place named, at the time when he left them to undertake his southern ministry.

Gospel omissions

Bethsaida, already mentioned often enough in the gospels, was probably the fishing port attached to Capernaum. It had provided Jesus tith no less than three of his apostles—Peter, Andrew, and Philip (and possibly James, John, and Matthew). Yet although the crowds there had been at least as big as anywhere else, there was very little response of the kind Jesus sought, Chorazin, two miles further north, is not given another mention in the gospels. Yet it was one of places where most of his mighty works were done. Other places heard members of his band of preachers, and responded. These heard the Son of God himself, and yet did not repent.

Here, surely, is one of the most impressive and unsuspected indications of the fragmentary nature of the gospel records. But for this passage it would have been possible for critics to argue that Jesus never went to Chorazin. And, but for a passing allusion to it in the Talmud, as a splendid wheat-growing locality (Chorazin means "threshing instrument") the very existence of the town would have remained unknown.

The gospels are like this. Before the death of Lazarus, there is only one mention of Jesus visiting his home, yet the family at Bethany were obviously among the very closest friends of Jesus.

"How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings," Jesus lamented over Jerusalem (Lk. 13:34). Yet the synoptics give no mention of even a single visit of Jesus to the capital before the last week of the ministry! And John, who concentrates on the Lord's work in Jerusalem, mentions only four, or perhaps five, such visits.

There is only one specific instance told of Jesus going to the garden of Gethsemane. Yet John says "he offtimes resorted thither with his disciples" (18:2). The nearest approach to any other mention is Luke's hint that "he went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives" (22:39).

Such examples bring to mind the impressive conclusion to John's gospel: "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written (21:25). Perhaps that is not an example of flamboyant eastern hyperbole after all!

The natural meaning of the text is that more than half the Lord's miracles were witnessed by the inhabitants of these three places, and yet, after the early surprise, they evidently began to take them for granted. Human nature can acclimatise to anything. It is just possible that the word "most" may mean "more there than anywhere else"; but even with this dilution the language is still impressive.

To the discouraged twentieth century preacher of an unheeded gospel these bitter words of Jesus addressed to Chorazin and Bethsaida are almost a comfort. For, whilst there may be healthy misgivings and self-reproaches at the seeming ineffectiveness of the message today, it remains inescapably true that the finest preacher in the world, with an incomparable message backed by copious demonstrations of the gracious powers of the Holy Spirit, was able to achieve no more in some of the towns and cities where he preached the gospel.

The experience of Jesus demonstrates just how true are the Scriptures which speak of Israel as a "gainsaying and disobedient generation." a people "stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears", "children in whom is no faith".

Contrast Tyre and Sidon

Witnessing the same wonderful works, "Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago." Jesus meant precisely what he said and not: "I feel sure they would have repented." There came to his mind, doubtless, the profound encouragement when he had retired with the twelve to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and had there experienced the tonic exhilarating faith of an importunate Gentile woman (Mt. 15:21ff).

Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago clothed in sack-cloth and with ashes on their heads, as though lamenting the inevitable destruction of their proud city (Ez 27:30,31). No places were less suitable for the preaching of the gospel than Tyre and Sidon, yet they were not hopeless, even though in earlier times they had had the truth of Israel's religion, and had debased it, even though they had sent Jezebel as a missionary to defile Israel with their Phoenician Baal.

That phrase "long ago" tells a story of a long drawn-out campaign in the Galilean towns—no brief peremptory call to repentance such as Jonah had made in Nineveh. Yet hard Assyrians had repented forthwith. So also—'long ago" would those Phoenicians now dedicated to the worship of Mammon. How ruefully Jesus must have read the word of the Lord to the son-of-man Ezekiel: “Surely, had I sent thee to them (the Gentiles), they would have hearkened unto thee” (Ezek. 3:6)

So, "it shall be more tolerable in the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon" than for "Chorazin and Bethsaida". That future tense has been read as a prophecy of complete destruction in the Roman War, AD. 67-70. But the meaning surely is that men from these cities will rise for judgment in the last day (cp.Mt. 11:24).

In Paul's time Tyre had its company of faithful Spirit-guided brethren (Acts 21:3,4; and cp. Mk. 3:8). And, if the words of Jesus mean anything, it may be inferred that even those in Tyre who did not accept the Faith adopted a sympathetic attitude, thus shaming the cold hostility or self-centred indifference of Jewry.

Capernaum and Sodom

Next came a comparable apostrophe addressed to the city which had seen more of the works of Jesus and heard more of his message than any other place in all the Land: "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day," such would have been the transforming effect on it. Capernaum had been the home of Jesus (so far as he had a home) for most of his ministry. Time and again, the people had heard his word in the synagogue, on the beach, on the hillside, in the street. In all the world and in all history noplace could match its privileges. Exalted to heaven!

Sodom, having this Man and this message, would have been brought to its knees and would have lived to tell the tale of its rescue from Gehenna, instead of being smitten with blindness and treating the Man of God as one that mocked (Gen. 19:11,14). The logic of this grim admonition should have told the people of Capernaum to flee from the wrath to come. But they went blithely about their affairs, supercilious and critical of Jesus of Nazareth in their minds, and giving no heed to the obvious truth that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required (Lk. 12:48; Jn. 12:48).

"Thou shalt be thrust down to hell." Capernaum could not muster even ten righteous. Instead it has gone down to history as the town where "many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (Jn. 6:59,66). The place itself suffered the wrath of God. It disappeared from sight. And it is only within the past fifty years that archaeologists have settles the argument about its location as Tell Hum.

But that divine judgment on the stones of Capernaum, a site long unpopulated, was only on outward token of heaven's rejection of a people who rejected the God of heaven and His Son. Sodom scorned the warnings of "righteous Lot" and will answer one day for its frivolous wickedness. Yet "it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom" than for heedless Capernaum.

Capernaum and "Babylon"

This bitter censure of a hard unresponsive people presents a problem by the form in which it was cast by Jesus. "Exalted to heaven ... cast down to hell" was the judgment pronounced against the enemy of God's people by Isaiah 14:13,15; cp Lam. 2:1). (Lk. 10:19 has another allusion to Is. 14:29,30). The target of his tirade was the contemporary king of Assyria, called also by Isaiah "king of Babylon" (14:25, 4) because he gloried in his recent conquest of that city. Then, why should Jesus use the words of this prophecy with reference to the fate of Capernaum?

The problem is no easy one. The prophet's picture of the Assyrian invader (who actually overran and despoiled all Galilee) is one of a cocksure braggart, boastfully relying on what he feels sure he can achieve by his own unaided powers. Later in the prophecy, the picture is drawn in even more vivid colours (ch. 36,37). The men of Capernaum were not warriors, but with their tongues and their faithless hearts they had contended with the Son of God with just as much perverse self-assurance as the Assyrian in his campaign.

'You know what happened to him,’ challenged Jesus, 'then think you that your own fate will be any less drastic?' No man snaps his fingers in the face of Almighty God, or of His messengers, and gets away with it.

With reminder of this solemn warning Jesus sent his men to their task. "He that heareth you heareth me: and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me." (cp 1 Th. 4:8) The dignity of their calling must never be forgotten. "They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them," said God to Samuel. And in very different circumstances but the same vein, Jesus, the Lord of Glory, was to reproach his new apostle: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"

Today the message is treated with comparable despite, but its dignity is unchanged.

Notes: Mt. 11:20-24

Were done; not "had been done"; these wonders were still going on.
Israel like Sodom: Dt. 32:32; Is. 1:10; 3:9; Rev. 11:8.

Worse than Sodom: Lam. 4:6; Ez. 16:46-49.

Capernaum: It is tempting to think of Jesus as seeing his rejection by Nazareth and Capernaum as a type of Jewish and Gentile indifference to the gospel.

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