God Could Have Saved Them, But He Didn’t

The judgment is a real thing, and Jesus is the right judge. Jesus straight up condemned people during His bodily ministry on this earth. As Matthew continues his section on Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of Heaven, he describes Christ’s condemnation of those who reject His Gospel, those who are damned—the reprobate and citizens of the kingdom of the world. Fair warning, this passage is heavier than most. Keep a tab open with the Babylon Bee loaded so you can take a break and get some laughs when needed.

Matthew 11:20-24

Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent.

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

Jesus denounces people (v. 20)

Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent.

Jesus has, so far, been performing miracles and sharing the Gospel from the Old Testament. He sent His disciples out to do the same. In the previous passage, we read about Jesus distinguishing between the kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of the world. In verse 20, we see two realities presented. Jesus actually denounces the kingdom of the world, even Jewish cities. Jesus denounces worldly people because they refuse to repent, not because they couldn’t keep His Law.

The kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of repentant hearts. The kingdom of the world is a kingdom of pride. Notice that neither salvation nor damnation have anything to do with the severity or frequency of one’s sinful action and everything to do with the presence or absence of sincere repentance before God almighty. Jesus, the just judge denounces those who do not sincerely repent. Jesus goes on to describe sincere repentance.

Reality of judgment (v. 21-24)

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

Jesus identifies Tyre and Sidon as ancient cities who did not repent but would have if He would have come at that time and performed miracles in them. What happened to Tyre and Sidon? Ezekiel described Tyre as an aggressor against Jerusalem and prescribed God’s judgment in Ezekiel 26:1-6,

Now in the eleventh year, on the first of the month, the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Son of man, because Tyre has said concerning Jerusalem, ‘Aha, the gateway of the peoples is broken; it has opened to me. I shall be filled, now that she is laid waste,’ therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They will destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers; and I will scrape her debris from her and make her a bare rock. She will be a place for the spreading of nets in the midst of the sea, for I have spoken,’ declares the Lord God, ‘and she will become spoil for the nations. Also her daughters who are on the mainland will be slain by the sword, and they will know that I am the Lord.’”

About 250 years after Ezekiel’s prophecy (c. 575 BC), Alexander the Great sacked Tyre (332 BC) by building a causeway out of stone over the sea and invading through a low section of Tyre’s wall. The unbreachable city became indefensible. The city became a rock quarry and a fishing village. Today, Tyre has been rebuilt; you can still see the ruins of the old city.

The prophet described Sidon as a thorn in Israel’s side and similarly prescribed judgment against her in Ezekiel 28:20-24,

And the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, prophesy against her and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against you, O Sidon, And I will be glorified in your midst. Then they will know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her, And I will manifest My holiness in her. For I will send pestilence to her And blood to her streets, And the wounded will fall in her midst By the sword upon her on every side; Then they will know that I am the Lord. And there will be no more for the house of Israel a prickling brier or a painful thorn from any round about them who scorned them; then they will know that I am the Lord God.”

In 345 BC. The Persian king, Antaxerxes III, overtook Sidon before turning to march against Egypt.

Both of these cities persecuted Israel and mocked God. They never heard the Gospel. God did not send a missionary to call them to repentance like He did for Nineveh. He announced judgment so that the cities would know that He is God. God received glory in their condemnation such that they did not even receive the invitation to repent and turn to God. This is a difficult enough teaching in itself. Then, Jesus makes the Old Testament story even more difficult to hear. If God had given them the chance, if they experienced the gracious miracles of God instead of condemnation, they would have repented…

What? God could have brought Tyre and Sidon to repentance and salvation, but He did not? Instead, God brought them to destruction by withholding His Gospel so they would not respond with repentance? Why? So that He would be known. It was about God’s glory, not getting as many people as possible into Heaven. 

What about people who never hear the Gospel and never have a chance to respond? Jesus has answered this question for us. Tyre and Sidon would have repented, but God withheld His Gospel because these two cities were set apart for destruction. This doesn’t get us off the hook concerning missions. This passage follows Christ’s instruction for His disciples to carry His message. We simply understand that God is sovereign and in complete control over who hears His Gospel and who does not.

What is sincere repentance? Jesus describes it in His hypothetical. Tyre and Sidon would have repented in sackcloth and ashes—symbols of mourning. To repent is to mourn over our sin, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness. It is to grieve over our pride and self-identity. It is to weep over our self-interest and self-promotion. It is to rest in God’s grace as He forgives our sin in Christ—not because of anything we can do. Salvation is neither about the severity nor frequency of our sin. There are tears of grief over our blatant self-righteousness and sin. Those tears are turned tears of joy over our being forgiven freely. That’s God’s grace.

 Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. 

After dropping this hard, bombshell truth, Jesus applies the truth to cities in Galilee—the region in which He has been doing Gospel ministry. They heard the Gospel and, instead of repenting, hardened their hearts. They rejected the Gospel. Jesus perspicuously claims that it will be worse for them in the judgment than for Tyre and Sidon. Doubtless Tyre and Sidon’s sin was more severe than Galilee’s. God depends neither on the severity nor frequency of our sin to save us or condemn us. For the damned, the reprobate, rejecting the Gospel earns a worse judgment than to never hear it. According to Jesus, there are varying degrees of judgment. Worldly people will earn the wages of their sin (Romans 6:23). The greatest sin is a rejection of Christ’s Gospel.

And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.

Jesus repeats His formulation while mentioning different locations. Capernaum is a territory in Galilee. Sodom was another Canaanite city. In Genesis 19, we learn that Sodom was a city of filth, wretched behavior, and sexual promiscuity. Within Sodom, there was a culture of violence, death, sexuality, abuse, narcissism, and cynicism. No righteous people could be found. There was no one who knew God, and similarly, there was no missionary sharing Christ’s Gospel. Again, Christ teaches that if God would have done miracles and presented the Gospel, Sodom would not have incurred the wrath she did. The city would have remained. The people would have turned from their ways to God.

Jesus claims that, because of their rejection of His Gospel and refusal to repent, the Jews in Capernaum will descend to Hades instead of being exalted to Heaven.

 Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”

Jesus repeats His application. The people of Capernaum heard the Gospel and, instead of repenting, hardened their hearts. They rejected the Gospel. Jesus perspicuously claims that it will be worse for them in the judgment than for Sodom. Doubtless Sodom’s sin was more severe than Capernaum’s. Sodom was in much greater rebellion against God than even Tyre and Sidon. God depends neither on the severity nor frequency of our sin to save us or condemn us. For the damned, the reprobate, rejecting the Gospel earns a worse judgment than to never hear it. According to Jesus, there are varying degrees of judgment. Worldly people will earn the wages of their sin (Romans 6:23). The greatest sin is a rejection of Christ’s Gospel.

Jesus’s message is a difficult message for us to hear. This passage is a difficult one to interpret honestly because there are some hard truths. This is not light reading. We have to struggle with this if we care at all about what Jesus teaches. To be honest, this isn’t a passage that I would choose because it is the type of passage that makes people turn and run. It’s plain scary. Because we walk through Scripture, we can’t skip anything. If you made it this far, that means either you love God already or God has gripped your attention. Will you repent? The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

What we’ve learned so far:

Kingdom of HeavenKingdom of This World
Kingdom of priestsKingdom of consumers
Kingdom of prestige even for the leastKingdom of comparison and contrast
Kingdom of judgment even for the greatest
Exists throughout time—even before Christ’s incarnation
A people not a physical locationDefined by visible structures and conquests
Kingdom of suffering in the midst of this worldKingdom of force
Able to hear and understand Christ’s teachingUnable to hear and understand Christ’s teaching
Kingdom of wisdomKingdom of faultfinding
Kingdom of repentanceKingdom of pride

Questions:

  1. What about people who never hear the Gospel?
  2. Will people experience varying degrees of judgment in Hell?
    1. What is the basis of this judgment according to Christ?
  3. What does this passage indicate about prideful or self-centered religious and irreligious people?
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