NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 20-21: Then Jesus began to admonish the cities where He did most of His miracles, because the people in these cities did not change their lives and stop sinning. Jesus said, “It will be bad for you Chorazin!1 It will be bad for you Bethsaida! I did many miracles in you. If these same miracles had happened in Tyre and Sidon,2 the people there would have changed their lives a long time ago. They would have worn sackcloth and put ashes on themselves to show that they were sorry for their sins.”
While these words of our Lord are directed toward these cities, they were an indirect warning to everyone in the cities where His mission group had gone. Jesus’ reference to Chorazin raises a question as to exactly what place He meant. This name does not appear anywhere else in Scripture, except where our Lord’s words are repeated in Luke 10:13, nor does Josephus the Jewish historian list it in his writings.
The meaning of this name depends on whether Chorazin is a Greek or Hebrew word. The Jewish Bible renders it as “Korazin”, and the Aramaic Version has “Khorzain.” Most scholars believe that it is an area, rather than a city. Dr. John Lightfoot suggests that it may be a reference to Cana, while early church father Origen reads it as “the region of Zin.” But most feel that it was located north of Capernaum and may be at the foothills of the Mount of Transfiguration. Regardless of its exact location, the warning is where the real emphasis lies. Chorazin and Bethsaida were not known as wicked places, as were Tyre and Sidon with their pagan rituals and debauchery.
Sackcloth and ashes were also used as a public sign of repentance and humility before God. When Jonah declared to the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy them for their wickedness, everyone from the king on down responded with repentance, fasting, and sackcloth and ashes. They even put sackcloth on their animals.3 One method of teaching missionaries to introduce repentance to the people they evangelized was called the “ABC’s of Repentance”: A– Acknowledge your sin; B – Be repentant; C – Confess your sins to the Lord; and D – Don’t sin again.
Early church theologian Jerome had this to say about why our Lord included cities that are not recorded in Scripture as part of His ministry. He writes: “Our Savior laments Chorazin and Bethsaida, cities of Galilee, because after such great miracles and acts of goodness they did not repent. Even Tyre and Sidon, cities that surrendered to idolatry and other vices, are preferred to them. Tyre and Sidon are preferred for the reason that although they trampled down the law, still Chorazin and Bethsaida, after they transgressed natural and written law, cared little for the miracles that were performed among them. If we ask where it is written that our Lord performed miracles in Chorazin and Bethsaida, we read above: “And he went around to all the towns and villages, curing every infirmity” and the rest. Thus among the other towns and villages it must be judged that the Lord performed miracles in Chorazin and Bethsaida as well.”4
Verses 22-24: But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be worse for you than for Tyre and Sidon. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to heaven? No! You will be thrown down to the place of death. I did many miracles in you. If these same miracles had happened in Sodom, the people there would have stopped sinning, and it would still be a city today.
Now our Lord turns His attention away from the doubters in the crowd to the doubting citizens in the various cities that were graced by His presence. He echoes the words in the song by Asaph, “But my people did not listen to me. Israel did not obey me. So I let them go their own stubborn way and do whatever they wanted. If my people would listen to me and would live the way I want, then I would defeat their enemies.”5 But the longer our Lord speaks, the more it sounds like what the prophet Isaiah expressed, “I raised my children and helped them grow up, but they have turned against me. A bull knows its master, and a donkey knows where its owner feeds it. But Israel does not know me. My people do not understand.”6
But a condemnation of one city because their attitude toward God was compared to that of a more sinful city is found in God’s word to Jerusalem through Ezekiel. He said: “Your sister Sodom and her daughters were proud. They had too much to eat and too much time on their hands, and they did not help poor, helpless people. Sodom and her daughters became too proud and began to do terrible things in front of me. So I punished them! And Samaria did only half as many bad things as you did. You did many more terrible things than Samaria! You have done so many more terrible things than your sisters have done. Sodom and Samaria seem good compared to you. So you must bear your shame. You have made your sisters look good compared to you. You have done terrible things, so you should be ashamed.”7
Here Jesus definitely confirms the belief in a day of judgment for disobedience in rejecting God’s Word. Such judgment was already carried out on Sodom and Gomorrah which now lie buried in the mud at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Tyre and Sidon were on the list for judgment. Therefore the people in Korazin (Chorazin), Bethsaida and Capernaum could already see what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah and what would be happening to Tyre and Sidon and estimate their own destruction were it to be even worse. Prophetically speaking, these judgments were not to be confused with the judgment at the end of time since all of these cities are already gone and only their ruins still remain.
The confusion may come from erroneously taking the term “Judgment Day” to only mean one such day in the future. History shows us that many people and nations have already faced days of judgment because of their sins and rejection of Christ and God’s Word. We must consider whether Christ was giving credence here to a particular dogma, or simply using this illustration to make a point, much like a parable. True, He wanted to impress upon the populace of the cities of Korazin (Chorazin), Bethsaida and Capernaum of the mistake and sin they were committing. Their rejection of repentance would stand as a witness against them, making them ripe for judgment. They had made the Son of God welcome but then turned their backs on His appeal.
It sounds as though Jesus was reliving the experience of the prophet Ezekiel, after God commissioned him to speak what He gave him to say, “I am not sending you to many different countries where people speak languages you cannot understand. If you went to those people and spoke to them, they would listen to you. But you will not have to learn those hard languages. No, I am sending you to the family of Israel. Only, these people have hard heads—they are very stubborn! And the people of Israel will refuse to listen to you because they don’t want to listen to me.”8 Had the people of these cities really understood what Jesus said and did among them, they would have followed the example of Job, “And I am ashamed of myself. I am so sorry. As I sit in the dust and ashes, I promise to change my heart and my life.”9
Now we must ask ourselves, will this same type of variance in judgment and penalties be applied to people committing the same sin? In other words, if there are different types or levels of rejection of the truth, will there subsequently be different types or levels of punishment? The common charge against all of these cities was their rebellion against God. But Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum had witnessed the coming of a Savior. They had seen the miracles that He performed but still refused to repent. The people of Sodom never saw such miracles. If this be so of a metropolis, how much more for those on this side of the cross if they reject so great a salvation!
Too many are worried only over the sin of Sodom, but not the sin of Capernaum. God will hold us accountable on the basis of what we know about the truth. Jesus hinted at this when He said, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” The only thing needed to make this an acceptable option, is not a clearly stated doctrine, but based on the myriad of Scriptures that declare that God is a just God. We find an interesting chapter on the city of Tyre and Sidon in Isaiah.10 But Jesus does not leave out His hometown of Capernaum.
A similar prophecy was made against Edom because they thought they were invulnerable due to the fact they made their homes high up on the mountainside in the caves, but God said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Even though you fly high like the eagle and put your nest among the stars, I will bring you down from there.’”11 But Capernaum was along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, so there must have been another reason. Perhaps Jesus used heaven as a metaphor for fame and fortune, and employed the word death figuratively as a symbol for it becoming a ghost town.
1 Unlike Capernaum and Bethsaida, Chorazin is not located near the seashore. It is situated an hour’s walk from the lake toward the slopes that descend to the Sea of Galilee from the basalt plateau known today as the Chorazin Plateau, which was at one time part of the Naphtali tribe’s allotment.
2 Tyre and Sidon are located in Lebanon. Tyre is only 12 miles north of the Israel-Lebanon border, and Sidon is another 25 miles north of Tyre.
3 Jonah 3:5-7
4 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol 2, Ch. 11:22
5 Ibid. 81:11-14
6 Isaiah 1:2-3
7 Ezekiel 16:49-52
8 Ezekiel 3:6-7
9 Job 42:6
10 Isaiah 23; (cf. Ezekiel 26; Amos 1:9-10; Zechariah 9:2-3)
11 Obadiah 1:4