Bible spine dwtx.orgThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Matthew 11:20-24

Woe to Unrepentant Cities

20 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”


The parallel passage for today’s verses can be found in Luke 10:13-15, about which I wrote in 2014. That means that neither reading is part of the three-year Lectionary.

That’s a pity, because the lesson Jesus is impressing upon us is that if we do not heed the Gospel message once we hear it, we are condemned for eternity.

Verse 20 begins with the word ‘then’. If you read my post on Matthew 11:16-19, you will recall that Jesus criticised those who rejected both John the Baptist and Him. Today’s reading records His words of rebuke to those who were rejecting His ministry. The people from these cities have seen His miracles and heard His teachings yet refuse to repent.

Our Lord names the cities (verse 21). My post on Luke 10:13-15 gives more detail on the cities, however, today neither Chorazin nor Bethsaida exist. Coincidence? Or divine judgment?

Chorazin was a village near Capernaum, where Jesus lived. The residents knew Him and the Apostles. Yet, they did not accept Him as Lord and Saviour. Bethsaida was a small town northwest of Capernaum. Bethsaida’s residents also actively chose not to accept Him.

The expression ‘woe to you’ means ‘may you be cursed’. Our Lord emphasised His condemnation of those towns by saying that even the cities of Tyre and Sidon — known to be evil, pagan places — would have repented had He gone there. Not only that, they would have donned sackcloth and ashes in the process.

Sidon and Tyre were powerful trading centres. Sidon was a Phoenecian port city, mentioned in Genesis 10. Egyptians sent their wheat to Sidon, where it was then shipped out to other countries along the Mediterranean. Tyre was a fortified city nearby, mentioned in Judges 19. It was known for providing the famous cedars of Lebanon for Solomon’s temple. Regardless of their commercial power, however, Jesus’s audience would have known the bad moral and spiritual reputation both cities had.

However, no matter how sinful Tyre and Sidon were, Jesus said that their fate at judgment would be nothing compared with that of Chorazin and Bethsaida (verse 22). Matthew Henry’s commentary explains (emphases mine):

Though the damnation of all that perish will be intolerable, yet the damnation of those who had the fullest and clearest discoveries made them of the power and grace of Christ, and yet repented not, will be of all others the most intolerable. The gospel light and sound open the faculties, and enlarge the capacities of all that see and hear it, either to receive the riches of divine grace, or (if that grace be slighted) to take in the more plentiful effusions of divine wrath. If self-reproach be the torture of hell, it must needs be hell indeed to those who had such a fair opportunity of getting to heaven. Son, remember that.

That is why these passages from Matthew and Luke should be in the three-year Lectionary!

Jesus went on to condemn Capernaum, where He based His ministry. He said the town would be brought to Hades (verse 23). He said that if He had performed mighty works in Sodom, the people there would surely have repented and the city would not have been destroyed. That is a very strong condemnation, and the Jews would have understood it as such. They knew Sodom was an abominable city that deserved — and received — divine wrath for its sinfulness.

Yet, the residents of Capernaum who had the blessings, grace, miracles and mercy of Jesus among them will be punished more severely for having rejected them (verse 24).

Henry says:

Sodom will have many things to answer for, but not the sin of neglecting Christ, as Capernaum will. If the gospel prove a savour of death, a killing savour, it is doubly so it is of death unto death, so great a death (2 Corinthians 2:16) Christ had said the same of all other places that receive not his ministers nor bid his gospel welcome (Matthew 10:15) It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for that city.

For us, this means:

We that have now the written word in our hands, the gospel preached, and the gospel ordinances administered to us, and live under the dispensation of the Spirit, have advantages not inferior to those of Chorazin, and Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and the account in the great day will be accordingly.

If we reject Christ, having heard the Gospel message, we are just as condemned as those cities.

Incidentally, Capernaum was later destroyed. For centuries, it was impossible to know where the city stood, the destruction was so complete.

However, divine judgement did not fall on the city alone. A condemnation had been passed on all the inhabitants who ignored our Lord in their self-righteousness. They did not have the morality issues that the people from Sodom did. Yet, their condemnation is the greater because they refused to accept Jesus as the Messiah.

John MacArthur has two observations which help us to interpret this passage more fully.

The first is on the use of Hades in verse 23:

… that word is a word that basically is a neutral word, sometimes refers to waiting place, sometimes just refers to sort of darkness, or the place of death, or the grave. But it is used sometimes with more specificity, or more exactness. And, I believe, Matthew uses it here in the sense of torment, in the place where Satan and his demons and the condemned will dwell. He uses it in the sense of hell. That is Matthew’s pattern. He uses Hades one other time and that’s in chapter 16 verse 18 and he talks about the gates of hell. And I think he means in both of these cases, consistent, the place of torment. Matthew also commonly in referring to this same place uses the term Gehenna, which was a word that meant a burning fire; actually it was the term for the dump in Jerusalem which never went out, the fire burned continually. And he uses that twice in chapter 5 and once in chapter 10.

Also, it’s interesting to note that in Luke 16:23 it talks about the rich man being in Hades and being in torment. So, Hades can be a word that reflects torment. And in consistent with Matthew’s approach, that’s what I think he is saying. You are going to a place of torment. And the torment of Capernaum will exceed the torment of Sodom.

Since the 17th century, if not before, some scholars and intellectuals, especially those favouring universalism, have presented us with the neutral connotation of Hades. Yet, it is worth keeping MacArthur’s explanation in mind: that, in some contexts, Hades may well refer to a place far worse — one of torment.

The other point MacArthur made was on sackcloth and ashes:

Sackcloth was the coarse … camel hair, like John the Baptist wore, that turned black. It was a symbol of mourning. And when you wanted to mourn or show humility, you put on sackcloth and then in an oriental custom, threw ashes all over yourself. Or else, you could have a big bed of ashes and just dive in and wallow in it. That was another way you expressed your sorrow. That is not necessarily a biblical custom that was an oriental one. But Job did it, in Job 42:6, he repented in dust and ashes. And so did Daniel in 9, when he prayed that great prayer to God on behalf of his people in captivity, he put ashes on himself.

In closing, we need to exercise caution when we see lax interpretations of Scripture. The explaining away of torment — i.e. the meaning of Hades — is one of these. Some of my readers will find this warning unsophisticated. So be it. What does Jesus say in Matthew 11:25-26?

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

The chapter concludes with one of the best known and best loved Bible verses:

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

May we contemplate this in the week ahead.

Next time: Matthew 12:1-8