Woe to You, Chorazin! Matthew 11:20-24

In Matthew 11:16-19 Jesus says “this generation” did not listen to John and claiming Jesus “has a demon.” This generation has rejected Jesus’s ministry, calling him a glutton, drunkard and a friend of sinners. In Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus responds to the villages of Galilee that rejected the preaching of his representatives calling them to gather to Jesus as the messiah. Unlike the children’s game in 11:16-17, rejection of Jesus and his messianic mission is dangerous and will lead to eternal destruction.

chorazin synagogue

After observing that the crowds were like “sheep without a shepherd (9:36), Jesus appointed the Twelve (10:1-4) and instructed them for their short-term mission to the villages of Galilee (10:5-15). The twelve are the workers sent to the harvest (9:37). Oddly, Matthew never reports the disciples returned to Jesus and report what they have done during their mission. The disciples must have returned and reported some did respond to his message and messianic signs, but some of the towns and villages did not.

Jesus denounces the villages which did not repent after witnessing his might works. To “denounce” (ὀνειδίζω) refers to “to find justifiable fault with someone” (BDAG 2), although the only example of this use is in Matthew 11:20. Usually the word describes insulting or mocking someone as a way of shaming them (BDAG 1). The NRSV translates this as “to reproach” rather than denounce (ESV, NIV).

To underscore this prophetic condemnation, Jesus uses the word woe. Although the word is not common outside of the Bible, it refers to someone whose situation is miserable (Nolland, Matthew, 467). In Isaiah 6, for example, Isiah pronounces woe on himself after seeing the glory of God.

Bethsaida is a fishing village on the north side of the lake, the home of Jesus’s earliest disciples, the brothers Peter and Andrew and Philip (John 1:44; James F. Strange, “Beth-Saida (Place),” ABD 1: 692). It is about eight miles north of Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Herod Philip expanded the town and renamed it Julia (after the Augustus’s daughter), and Philip was buried in the town (about 33 A.D.; Ant 18.4.6 §108). Since Bethsaida means “house of fishing,” it is possible the disciples came from a fishing village on the shore of Galilee (el-Araj) about a mile and a half from the actual city (et-Tell). Jesus feeds the 5000 near Bethsaida and heals a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). The disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida when Jesus walked on the water (Mark 6:45-51).

Chorazin is a town two miles north of Capernaum. The Talmud considered it a medium-sized town (t. Mak. 3:8); the Mishnah comments on the town’s wheat production (b. Menah. 85a; Robert W. Smith, “Chorazin (Place),” ABD 1: 911). The Gospels do not describe Jesus doing any ministry there, although its proximity to Capernaum means it is likely he did. The site at Khirbet Kerazeh is now a national park. Limited excavations have so far not reached the first century village, the impressive partially reconstructed synagogue dates to the fourth century A.D.

Capernaum was essentially Jesus’s base camp for his Galilean ministry. Many of the miracle stories in Matthew 8-9 take place in Capernaum. Although Jesus spends a great deal of his time in and around Capernaum, there is no “break” with the town as at Nazareth (Matt 13:53-58 / Mark 6:1-6a). Why didn’t Jesus mention Nazareth as a town that rejected him as the messiah? In Matthew, it has not happened yet.

Jesus compares these three Jewish towns to classic examples of wicked cities. Tyre and Sidon was the home of Jezebel, the wife of Ahab and opponent of Elijah. In 1 Kings she introduced Baal worship to Israel and supported 450 priests and 400 prophetesses of Baal. Sodom is the ultimate evil city. It one of the five cities of the plain God destroys in Genesis 18-19. Abraham pleaded with God to not destroy these cities if even ten righteous people could be found, yet there was not even that small number living in Sodom (Lot maybe, his wife and two daughters likely not “righteous.”)

Yet even these classic examples of sinful rebellion against God would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. Even Sodom would still exist today if they had witnessed the messianic signs. “On the day of Judgment” refers to the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament. This is the final judgment at the end of this age, when God breaks into history and judges the unrighteous and vindicates the righteous just prior to the kingdom of God.

If it will be better for Sodom than Capernaum on the day of judgment because they rejected the Messiah, what will it be like on that day for Christian America? Although Jesus has not literally preached to us, the United States has the most Christian privileges in world history. The gospel is preached openly every day, we unlimited have access to Bibles and Christian literature unlike any other time in history.

Will it be better for Sodom on the great day of God’s judgment than for the United States of America?

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