Monday, May 14, 2012

Unrepentance and the judgment spoken against Chorazin and Bethsaida in Matthew 11:20-22

When Jesus spoke judgment against the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida in Galilee in Matthew 11:20-22, he may have come as close as the New Testament ever comes to using the verb metanoeĊ to mean a mere change of belief with no corresponding actions. Matthew 11:20-22(WEB) reads:

20 Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn’t repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”

The words of these verses on their face associate repentance with two conventional symbolic actions that openly demonstrated repentance—wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes. However, because these acts are symbolic, if left by themselves, they might signify merely a showing of remorse, not a change of life course.

The context clarifies this issue. In the immediately preceding portion of the chapter, Jesus had identified John the Baptist as the greatest of the previous prophets—one who was a prophet and more than a prophet, the prophesied return of Elijah, the one who prepared the way before Jesus. Matt. 11:9-11, 14. It will be recalled from an earlier post that John baptized the people as a sign of their repentance, and that the repentance John preached was all about a changed way of life. In this context, Jesus also states enigmatically that “he who is least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than” John (v. 11b), the apparent explanation being that the days of John only initiated the advance of the kingdom of Heaven, but did not see that kingdom come; from his days forward there has been a struggle for the kingdom. (v. 12). Recall, also, my previous observation that a “kingdom” is a realm in which a king is obeyed, so in connecting both John’s ministry and the warfare of his contemporary situation to the struggle for the kingdom of Heaven, Jesus clearly implies that what both he and John had been doing had a behavioral component—it was a struggle for submission to the King of Heaven. Although there are several competing readings of verse 12 reflected in the various English translations—some emphasizing a personal struggle to come into submission, and others a struggle to bring others into submission—all of them involve a struggle (it is inescapable from the language used).

Jesus then reproves the crowd that followed him for their refusal to believe either John or himself, preferring instead to believe that their own way of life was acceptable and that John and Jesus were defective because they behaved differently:

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces, who call to their companions 17 and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you didn’t dance. We mourned for you, and you didn’t lament.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”

It is immediately after this reproof that Jesus contrasts the Jewish cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida to the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon, saying that, whereas Chorazin and Bethsaida rejected his words as those of a friend of “sinners,” if he had been sent to Tyre and Sidon they would have repented! In context, going back to the previous discussion of John and the Kingdom of Heaven, the “repentance” here in view must be viewed as the same repentance preached by John, and by Jesus—a change of life toward submission to the King. This is further emphasized by Jesus’ next contrast—between Capernaum and Sodom:

You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you.”

Clearly, Sodom was judged because of the behavior of her people. God told Abraham that He would destroy Sodom because the “sin” that they had “done” cried out to Him. Genesis 19:20-21. In discussing the rescue of Lot from Sodom, Peter clarifies that God made Sodom an example of the end of those who live in an ungodly way, and further that what distressed righteous Lot about them was their filthy and lawless deeds. 2 Peter 2:6-8. Jude identifies the sin for which Sodom was destroyed as sexual immorality and perversion, Jude 1:7, as the dialogue in Genesis 1:1-13 also suggests.

Yet Jesus contrasts Capernaum with Sodom—saying that, if He had been sent to Sodom and done His miracles there, Sodom would still exist, obviously because she would have changed the wicked behavior that cried out to God. Capernaum, by contrast, had rejected His words. This certainly does imply that, if Capernaum had accepted Jesus’ words, its people would have changed their behavior.


Note that I've made a major revision to my web page "Notes on the King of Babylon, the Peace of Jerusalem, and the Restoration of Egypt and Assyria," including the addition of extensive sections of related web resources and academic citations.