The Israelite Cities
Pp Luke 10:13-15
1. Miracles and the Preaching of the Gospel
2. The Denunciation
Perhaps some of the reason for Jesus’ rejection amongst the people of Israel was that He appeared to be ‘too good to be true’ and that, being suspicious of anything which appeared to make their life easier and which simplified their relationship with God from the necessary observance of a thousand different pieces of legislation, they naturally felt that it couldn’t be ‘from God’.
This is too simplistic an explanation, of course, for there were numerous reasons why not only the religious leaders rejected the purposes of God for themselves through both John the Baptist and Jesus but why, on occasions, the ordinary men and women failed to respond positively to the message of the Gospel even though they seem to have often welcomed with open arms the miracles that were being performed in their midst.
Here, though, the denunciation of those cities who had failed to repent is spoken of plainly and simply with no reason being given for their lack of repentance. John also comments on the Jews’ hardness of heart directed towards Jesus in John 12:37 where he notes that
‘Though He had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in Him’
a similar observation to that which we encounter here.
The parallel passage in Luke 10:13-15 is not as full as the text here in Matthew even though it differs only in minor points when the same concepts are being recorded. Mtw 11:20 and 11:23b-24 are all missing and the context is that of being part of the speech Jesus gave the seventy disciples before they were sent out into the villages of Israel (Luke 10:1).
As I’ve said on so many other occasions, there remains no difficulty to accept that both Matthew and Luke record sayings which were uttered on different occasions, the context of both passages making them sit comfortably where the reader finds them.
Here, the denunciation follows on from Jesus’ observation that some would neither accept John the Baptist’s ministry nor His own (Mtw 11:16-19) and the consequence of that rejection must necessarily be a repudiation of the attitude which caused them to reject the Divine messengers which had been sent to them.
As there are some interesting archaeological finds associated with the Israelite cities - and some problems with their location as evidenced from the NT text, I have added a long outline of the three cities to which I have appended an explanation of the passage in Matthew.
The Israelite Cities
NB - The map of Galilee appears courtesy of Columbia International University from their web site Ancient Sandals. North is the direction of the left hand side of the map and east is directly upwards towards the top of the page.
Before we move on to consider the actual text of Mtw 11:20-24, we’ll consider some archaeological finds and historical information about the three cities (Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum) which Jesus denounces because of their lack of faith.
I think it’s true to say that Chorazin is the most obscure of the three sites and that, because not one miracle was even recorded in the Gospels as having taken place here, it suffered from a lack of real concern. However, Bethsaida has only recently been excavated in any great detail as its location was generally disputed through the centuries and travellers failed to consider a mound located almost two miles from the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee as being the site of the ancient city.
Capernaum, however, was always going to be a popular site for excavations, visits and the obnoxious insistence of man to have to build church buildings on just about any place that could be associated with an event in the Bible - especially a NT one!
I have dealt with Capernaum in detail, however, on a previous web page and the reader should access these notes for a general description of the site.
NB - The picture of Chorazin synagogue appears courtesy of www.levitt.com
The city is normally identified with a settlement called Khirbet Kerazeh which lies about three miles almost due north of Capernaum, within the boundaries of the region of Galilee but far away from the Lake and three miles west of the Jordan river. It would appear from the reports I’ve read that no positive inscription indicating that these ruins are the city in question have been found but that its identification has largely been fixed by an identification of the site by Jerome (six centuries or so after the time of Christ) as being about the distance from Capernaum that the ruins lie.
It’s also high up on the basalt hills of Upper Galilee and evidence from the surrounding area indicates that the place was inhabited from as early as the Stone Age.
The historian Eusebius reported that the city was uninhabited by his own time (4th century AD) in a work unavailable to myself but cited as Onomasticon 174, 23 by AEHL and, in the Talmud (Menahoth 85a), the region was known for the quality of its wheat that was used in the Temple sacrifices and was referred to by the name Kerazim.
There are very few first century remains here which have been either excavated or positively identified but the third or fourth century synagogue (reported by Zondervan as being ‘not as impressive’ as the one located in Capernaum) was unearthed early on in the twentieth century, constructed from the local black basalt and demonstrating how the Judaism being practised here seems to have strayed into a much looser type of religion, the walls being decorated with (as AEHL)
‘...rich floral designs encircling human and animal figures, among them men pressing grapes, a lion attacking a centaur, an animal suckling a cub, a lion devouring another animal and so on’
though NIDBA also notes that designs included
‘...mythological figures, astrological symbols and geometrical designs’
When the reader reaches my notes on Bethsaida, it will be commented on how recent archaeology has suggested that the ruins of Bethsaida’s Roman Temple were used in the construction of this synagogue with the resultant symbols from one being incorporated into the other. Just how much this was done, however, cannot be determined by myself.
A large basalt throne/seat was also discovered here along with a carved Aramaic inscription in honour of the donor, Judah, son of Ishmael, and attributing him also with the construction of a ‘staircase’. The seat is generally accepted to be a type of the ‘seat of Moses’ (Mtw 23:2) which was used during the reading of the Mosaic Law to the gathered Jews.
Residential quarters were also found and excavated both east, south and north of the synagogue and have been dated to the second to fourth centuries AD, and a ritual bath even further north, connected by a channel to a cistern. A sewage channel - also north of the synagogue - was found to contain hundreds of coins dated from the reign of Constantine the Great and the excavators took this to be indicative of the date of the end of the synagogue’s use.
Some authorities date the residential quarters to the early centuries AD which may push back their construction to the first century, but it’s generally held that the surviving buildings are more likely to be attributable to the third century at the earliest.
Also found were two oil presses to the south which, according to NIBDA, locate the ‘industrial section’ of the city - perhaps ‘agricultural’ section might be better for, as far as I’m aware, no metalworking areas have been positively identified as of yet.
The belief that the synagogue disappeared from use during the reign of Constantine the Great has now largely been rejected as further excavations in 1980 showed that the synagogue had been repaired in the sixth century AD and, near to the entrance of the main hall of prayer, a further thousand or so coins were unearthed which could be positively identified to the sixth or seventh centuries. A stone floor, which is accepted as representing the earliest phase of the building work, can be dated to the fourth century AD, however, by a coin found underneath one of the slabs.
It remains possible that the site of the synagogue was the area upon which the first century synagogue stood.
First and second century buildings have also now been excavated though details of what was found don’t appear to have been of too much interest to the archaeological compilers of the books I’ve got on my shelf!
The city of Chorazin is mentioned only twice in the NT - here in Matthew and in the parallel passage of Luke 10:13 - and it finds no positive identification with any of the towns or villages mentioned in the OT. Even more puzzling is the statement by the writer of Matthew in Mtw 11:20 (my italics) that Jesus
‘...began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done...’
for we have no NT records of any miracle or sign that was performed either in this city or, at the very least, close nearby. Such an observation causes us to realise that the Gospel records are incredibly selective in what they’ve committed to manuscript. This is evidence for the truth of John’s statement in John 21:25 where he noted, towards the end of the Gospel, that
‘...there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’
If some of His ‘mighty works’ went unrecorded by the Gospel writers, then emphasis is put on the continuing experience of Jesus in the believer’s life rather than on the historical records of the intricacies of what took place. It isn’t just a demonstration, as Matfran notes, of
‘...how selective the Gospel records of Jesus’ ministry are...’
but that the writers will only record those things which are necessary for the reader to gain a ‘taste’ of what their Master did but, when the writings are boiled down, they’re more designed to provide extensive details of the last day of Jesus’ life and the resurrection with ‘extended introductions’ of the miraculous and of His teaching, rather than to glory in the signs and wonders and so miss the reason for Jesus’ inception into the earth.
Perhaps better is Matmor’s statement which simply observes that the mention of Chorazin only here and in the parallel passage
‘...is a reminder of how little we know about the life of Jesus that we have only this one reference to what was evidently an extensive ministry during the course of which a number of miracles were performed...’
Edersheim, however, sees in the mention of Chorazin, a proof for the Bible’s authenticity and accuracy and states that
‘...this history [of the Gospel] must be real. If the whole were legendary, Jesus would not be represented as selecting the names of places which the writer had not connected with the legend’
There is a certain truth to this for, if devised fables were being constructed, one would hardly throw in pebbles of information which went largely unsubstantiated by other verses around them. Though one could find justification for mentioning both Bethsaida and Capernaum (though, as we shall see, the former of these hasn’t too much associated with it), there’s no need to mention Chorazin if nothing is associated with it outside this short passage.
Therefore, Chorazin points at a fair few things even though it’s mentioned in just this one context of a denunciation against its unbelief!
The positive identification of the site of ancient Bethsaida has long been the subject of controversy with alternative sites being proposed both within the territory of Galilee ruled over by Herod Antipas and outside his control, under Herod Philip. The translation of the name gives the label ‘House of Fishing’ (or, perhaps, ‘House of Hunting’) so we should be looking for a city that was naturally close to - if not situated directly on - either a navigable estuary of the Sea of Galilee or on the Lake itself.
In a Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) article (‘Bethsaida Rediscovered’ in January/February 2000), the authors - Rami Arav, Richard A Freund and John F Shroder Jr - have attempted to show that the mound which is situated about one and a half miles north of Galilee (called ‘et-Tell’ which means, simply, ‘the mound’) had natural sea access which, in the earthquake of 363AD which hit the area, was removed, when basalt boulders and other geological features tumbled across the plain on which the city lies, thus cutting it off from the Lake.
Bones and other organic matter were retrieved from underneath the moved rocks and carbon-dated to 68-375AD giving the archaeologists the evidence they required and, since the only major earthquake to hit the area was that dated above, it has been attributed as being the cause. This mound is also the only of the sites which have been proposed as the location of the city that can be shown to have been occupied in the time of Christ.
Although the authors of the BAR article make much of the OT history of Bethsaida from non-Biblical sources under the kingdom of Geshur (with accompanying descriptions of the grandeur of the city before the Assyrian conquest of the region), there’s no direct reference to the city throughout the Bible’s pages until one comes to the NT and the miracles of Jesus. By this time, however, there had been extensive improvements to the city during the Hellenistic period (332-37BC) according to the excavations, after a period of relative unimportance between the Assyrian conquest and the fourth century BC.
One house which deserves special mention here was labelled the ‘fisherman’s house’ (though it doesn’t necessarily follow that it was!) for, inside, the team
‘...found lead net weights, anchors, needles and fishhooks. One fishhook had not yet been bent, indicating that it was manufactured at the site. We also found a clay seal that depicts two figures casting a net from a hippos boat - a Phoenician-style ship with a horsehead-shaped prow. The scene seems to be set in shallow, reed-filled water rather than on the open sea, an indication that it depicts a view near the shore’
It would be more likely that this room was located in a city very close to the sea not, as has previously been noted, around a mile and a half away and it must remain the most likely interpretation that the city has been left ‘high and dry’ by geological events after the Gospel narrative.
In the time of Jesus, Bethsaida was a small city on the edges of the Roman Empire and seems not to have retained its historical importance as part of the kingdom of Geshur. However, in 30AD, Herod Philip who had authority over this region, elevated the status of the town to a city and renamed it Julias in honour of the mother of the then reigning emperor Tiberius. Josephus records the event in Antiquities 18.2.1 where he writes that the king
‘...advanced the village Bethsaida, situated at the lake of Gennesareth, unto the dignity of a city, both by the number of inhabitants it contained, and its other grandeur, and called it by the name of Julias, the same name with Caesar’s daughter’
and a temple unearthed in excavations is generally thought to have been built for this event. The authors of the BAR article also are of the opinion that Bethsaida’s Roman temple was robbed of stones to construct the synagogue situated at Chorazin some three miles away, seeing as they appear to be similarly cut and dressed and, on one of them, the Roman eagle can be clearly seen.
What can be said about Bethsaida in Jesus’ day - even though the archaeological evidence presented to the reader is somewhat sparse - is that Bethsaida, although having Jewish residents, was more a cosmopolitan city with strong Roman and Greek influences though, as the rebuilding of the city may have taken place after Jesus’ Galilean ministry, the extent to which the city had retained its Jewish character before the building work is difficult to determine.
Events in the Gospels which took place in and around this city are not as expansive as one would have expected from the phrase ‘most of His mighty works’ in Mtw 11:20 but, when we compare the lack of any information whatsoever that we have concerning events which took place in Chorazin, we can at least be thankful that there are a few events which have been recorded for us.
Bethsaida is mentioned just seven times in the NT records and two of these are in the parallel passages which record the denunciation of the city (Mtw 11:21, Luke 10:13). A further two references inform us that Philip, Andrew and Peter were all from the city though, although commentators sometimes take this to mean that they were currently resident there, it appears to have to mean no more than that this was their city of origin (John 1:44, 12:21). Another mention of the city only records that it was the city to which Jesus commanded the disciples to go (Mark 6:45) while another is the city to which Jesus took His disciples to rest after their ‘ministry tour’ of the villages of Israel (Luke 9:10). It was here, though, that the Scripture seems to infer that the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand took place (Luke 9:11-17) but the mention that it was a ‘lonely place’ and that the people should be sent into the villages and the country to get provisions (Luke 9:12) would make one assume that the writer is not following a strictly chronological order in his recording of events. I have also considered this passage below - but by referring to Mark and John’s record of the incident - and they appear to be one and the same incident. If this is the case, it would not have taken place near the city of Bethsaida.
And that leaves us just one Scripture - Mark 8:22-26! Here, Jesus and the disciples arrive at Bethsaida and the people of the village (the word ‘village’ is possible here if the place had not yet seen the expansive building and resettlement work of Herod Philip) bring Him a blind man to heal. Instead of performing the miracle on the spot, Jesus removes him from the village and heals him outside the boundaries and commands him
‘Do not even enter the village’
which may be indicative of a number of things. If we parallel it with the denunciation of our present passage in Matthew, we could understand it as encouraging the healed not to subject himself to the ridicule of those who had failed to repent and believe the Gospel or, if we think of the building work as having taken place, it may have been a consideration that Jesus didn’t want to be made known to the Roman officials at that time who would have likely been supervising the work.
It’s difficult to be decisive about Jesus’ reasons, but Bethsaida’s response to the Gospel appears to be the most likely context.
The above discussion has placed the city of Bethsaida on the eastern banks of the river Jordan and, strictly speaking, out of the territory known officially as ‘Galilee’ and away from the region over which Herod Antipas reigned in the time of Christ.
John 12:21 therefore presents the reader with a problem, for it mentions that Philip, one of the twelve chosen disciples (Mtw 10:3)
‘...was from Bethsaida in Galilee...’
and archaeological records have singularly failed to make a positive identification of any mound of a city named Bethsaida within the political territory of Galilee. Even today, some commentators still propose a different ‘Bethsaida’ to that which sat on the eastern bank of the Jordan river in Gaulanitis controlled by Herod Philip, and early adventurers, eager to discover the ancient site, often left behind their shrines on or near the shores of Galilee, thinking that the geographical features of their own day were identical to those which the people of Jesus’ day would have seen (this phenomena is actually very prevalent today, also!).
There’s also the possible evidence of Mark 6:45 and John 6:17 which, if it is accepted that both follow on from the same incident, would locate Bethsaida as being almost on the same stretch of land as Capernaum, for the former passage speaks of Jesus making His disciples go over to the other side of the Lake to Bethsaida, while the latter states that the disciples began to journey across the Lake to Capernaum (of course, this needn’t be seen to contradict even if they were miles apart for, in one, Jesus commands the disciples and, in the other, the disciples begin their journey making for another city entirely - one is a command, one is what actually happened).
Bethsaida could have been the name given to a small residency on the outskirts of the city akin to a ‘fishing village’ (hence the naming of the area ‘Bethsaida’ which means ‘House of Fishing’). This may be necessary to accept even though there are no records of there being such a set up at Capernaum and no archaeological evidence to back it up - even from other sites around the shores of the Lake - but it doesn’t help us to identify which Bethsaida Jesus would have been talking of in Mtw 11:21 (and an identification of which Bethsaida was meant in the other places where the city is named would also have to be determined). Because the name is clearly broken with that of Capernaum which appears in the second denunciation, Bethsaida-Julias is more likely to have been intended.
Although the identification of John with Bethsaida as being ‘in Galilee’ has long been a recognised problem, the reader should note that there is evidence that the region which surrounded the Lake was often referred to as ‘Galilee’ even when the strict interpretation of that word as meaning the territory of Herod Antipas cannot be justified.
In Acts 5:37 we read of Judas the Galilean who
‘...arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him...’
a man who’s identified in Antiquities 18.1.1 as being
‘...Judas, a Gaulanite, of a city whose name was Gamala...’
where Gamala is known to have been in Gaulanitis under the control of Herod Philip. The two lines are possible of more than one interpretation, however, and the NT Scripture may mean no more than that he was now resident within the boundaries of Galilee, but it would be more natural to accept the words as indicating that he came from that region.
Johnmor notes an article by George Adam Smith in the 1914 edition of Encyclopaedia Biblica in which the author
‘...cites evidence that by the time of the War of 66-70, the term “Galilee” had extended its meaning to include territory round the lake. He thinks that even earlier, the jurisdiction of Galilee’s ruler extended to the east of the Lake’
Although the work may be somewhat old considering all the archaeological excavations that have since been undertaken and completed, it may be that there are sufficient historical sources which proved the point - it’s just a little bit of a shame that Johnmor decided not to cite even one of the examples!
What may be significant here, though, is that it’s only Luke who names two regions in Philip’s tetrarchy and these places are Trachonitis and Ituraea (Luke 3:1), both of which lay respectively at the extreme eastern and northern edges of his jurisdiction, hinting at the possibility that Galilee was no longer under his control and influence.
There may also be significance in the list of regions which appear every so often in the NT. Mtw 4:25 speaks of Jesus’ ministry as drawing to Himself those from
‘...Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan’
where the final geographical description is little more than a label put on any of the areas on the east bank but where a specific demarcation of Philip’s tetrarchy is lacking. Similarly, both Luke 5:17 and Acts 9:31 include Galilee in a three area list which seems to correspond to the land of Israel but where Philip’s territory is seemingly ignored. In all these three Scriptures, the term ‘Galilee’ appears to be a label which is taken to include an area which extends into Philip’s tetrarchy to include the areas which border on the Sea of Galilee, thus including the city of Bethsaida.
Johnmor also proposes that there may have been
‘...a suburb across the river’
thus placing at least part of the city strictly within Galilean territory but, from the archaeological evidence I’ve seen, this seems to be highly unlikely. There is an assertion by NIDBA that the archaeological site of el-Araj may have been the ‘fishing village’ of the larger city, seeing as it was connected by both a road and an aqueduct, but this is far from clear.
However, it would appear that, amongst the nation of Israel, ‘Galilee’ meant more like a region from which came a dweller of the land which surrounded the Lake, rather than a limited area over which Herod Antipas ruled by the time of the Jewish War against Rome in 70AD and, therefore, there seems no reason to suppose that it was any different some forty years previous.
I have previously described Capernaum with recourse to archaeological discoveries and contemporary historians on my web page and the reader should consult these notes for background information concerning the city.
There are a multitude of miracles recorded for us which took place both in and around Capernaum and so this, of all the three cities, is about the only one that we could point to as fulfilling the observation that they were places where Jesus had done ‘most of His mighty works’.
John the Baptist had seen the Messiah as one who would bring judgment against those who failed to meet the message with a correct response in their own life (Mtw 3:7-12) and the idea of imminent judgment (or, at least, a specific outpouring of such) was also present in the minds of the disciples James and John when a Samaritan village in Luke 9:51-56 refused to receive Jesus as He journeyed towards Jerusalem for the last time.
The disciples’ response was to appeal to Jesus as to whether they were to
‘...bid fire come down from heaven and consume them...’
but Jesus simply rebuked them for what both they and John hadn’t realised - that the days in which they lived were ones of mercy and opportunity for the inhabitants of the land rather than of immediate judgment and wrath.
So, too, the idea in this section is not that, because the cities rejected the message of the Gospel, God is about to judge their residencies and destroy them, but that what they’ve been doing will speak against them at the final judgment when the response to the message will be brought back to their remembrance. Salvation, therefore, is seen to be received as a result of a positive response to the message of the Gospel and not dependant on anything else (such as genealogical descent or, even, the city in which one lives - note above where I showed that Peter, Andrew and Philip all came from Bethsaida and who, quite obviously, were accepted by Jesus as part of the new move of God).
As Matfran notes
‘...individuals had responded, but there had been no general change of attitude’
1. Miracles and the Preaching of the Gospel
There’s a purpose in the description of Matthew’s Gospel in Mtw 10:20 that we need to pay close attention to. Jesus isn’t about to go on to denounce the three Israelite cities simply because they haven’t shown a favourable response to those who He sent out (Mtw 10:5) or that they were slow of understanding and didn’t perceive the things that He was telling them when He visited the region, but that they had failed to repent of their way of living as a response to the mighty works which had been done in their midst.
Miracles and signs, therefore, are meant to lead to repentance and to encourage the unbeliever to perceive that God is on the move and that, as a consequence, the demands the message has on the hearer is genuine and worthy of full observance. Mark 16:20 shows how this principle overflowed into the days of the early Church when it records for us that the disciples (my italics)
‘...went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it’
When the Gospel of the Kingdom comes to a region, the miracles which attend its proclamation are meant to persuade the recipients of the teaching to adhere closely to the message and to see in the miracles which take place the confirmation of the message.
Today, we seem to have forgotten this twofold principle in our proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God and, even though our nation’s churches often are no more than glorified social clubs, in the early years of the establishing of the Church, it was altogether different.
While it’s quite true that miraculous signs and wonders don’t, in themselves, convert a person to Christ and that those who have been healed of their diseases and illnesses cannot be said to have automatically made the correct response to the message of the Gospel, the record of the NT should wake us up to the truth that, without the presence of signs and wonders within a society, the proclamation of the Gospel will be without its greatest confirmation and proof for, if Jesus really is Lord over all creation (Mtw 28:18, Eph 1:22, Phil 2:9-11), we should be able to demonstrate His authority being, as we are, His representatives on earth.
Many have tried to rationalise the miraculous in the life of the early Church and, because we don’t see such events taking place today, have brought in the teaching that these wonders must have largely died out with them - but the will of God through the proclamation of the Gospel has not changed since those early days when Jesus and the disciples used the miraculous to confirm the message which they brought, and to encourage those who heard the message to respond positively to it.
We shouldn’t do any less...
2. The Denunciation
Tyre and Sidon represent two cities on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, separated by some twenty-five miles, located to the north-west from the region of Galilee and being primarily Gentile in origin and composition. There were prophetic utterances directed at each of these two cities in the OT - for example, Tyre is specifically denounced in Isaiah chapter 23 and Ezek 26:1-28:19. Sidon was often associated with Tyre and appears in the same sentence on occasions (Jer 25:22, 27:3) and appears both in the Isaiah passage and immediately following on after Ezekiel’s prophecy concerning Tyre.
Although there may be a hint of the OT prophecies concerning these two cities, it’s better to take their mention as representing the places which were then in existence and to which Jesus had not been sent as part of His mission to Israel.
Although the Gospel writers record one miracle as having taken place in their immediate vicinity (Mtw 15:21-28) and may even hint at the possibility that more than just this one miracle took place (Mark 7:24), the area was largely left uncovered with the preaching of the Gospel and the demonstration of the Kingdom of God by miraculous signs and wonders.
The mention of Sodom, however, necessarily points us back towards the OT incident of Gen 18:16-19:29 where the Lord destroyed the region (normally associated with an area somewhere near the Dead Sea) due to their wickedness before Him. Both Sodom and Gomorrah had been given no opportunity to repent and neither had they witnessed the kind of miracles that were being displayed amongst the Israelites in Capernaum but, if they had, Jesus assures His hearers that they would have turned from their wickedness and repented of their deeds, having realised that the message which called them to account for their lifestyle was being confirmed by the miracles of healing and deliverance which were taking place.
Because present day Tyre and Sidon and OT Sodom would have turned from their lifestyle had they seen what Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin had seen, the three Israelite cities stand condemned before God on that final Day of Judgment for there is nothing more which can be done for them (the declaration by Jesus that the three despised Gentile cities were actually on a better standing than themselves must have caused some offence to Jewish ears). If a community has witnessed the power of God in their midst and yet has not turned back to God in repentance, there remains nothing more that can be done for them except for judgment to fall. If much is given to a people then much also is required from them (Luke 12:48).
There is the hint here that, at the final judgment, there will be grades of punishment dependent upon the amount of truth about God a person has rejected in their individual lives, but we would probably be going too far to attempt to turn it into a full-blown theology. The simple truth which is being portrayed here is what’s important, perceptively summarised by Mathag as being the principle that
‘...the greater the revelation, the greater the accountability’
Matfran simply compares Tyre, Sidon and Sodom with the three cities and comments that
‘Arrogance and immorality will be punished, but not so severely as the rejection of God’s direct appeal’
He has, however, missed the point of the passage where it’s the signs and wonders which have been performed in their midst which should have persuaded them to believe - that’s the issue here, not just the proclamation of the message to repent (which had also come to Tyre and Sidon if the OT prophetic messages were delivered to the regions they were directed at).
The collective judgment of these three cities, however, shouldn’t be thought of in terms of the wrath of God being directed towards all the inhabitants regardless of their individual response. The disciples Philip, Andrew and Peter all came from Bethsaida (see above) and yet these had all made the correct response along, no doubt, with others from their city, to turn away from their own lifestyles and towards obedience to what God required from them.
But the general response to Jesus was one of rejection of the message of the Gospel and, therefore, each city becomes a personification of the people who reside within it, a label for the type of person that one would expect to meet (the same as the name of a city in any one of our countries may conjure up in our own minds a type of person with specific characteristics which would not necessarily hold true for all the inhabitants of the place).
Capernaum is singled out for special mention here, though, by Jesus and He speaks of it as proclaiming itself as being worthy of exaltation into heaven. Mattask thinks of this as representing the city’s prosperity and its importance in its own eyes, seeing as it lay on a major trade route and was naturally prosperous, a self-declaration which had belonged to Babylon in the OT with a similar fate being pronounced upon it (Is 14:13-15).
However, the context in the present passage is one of the miraculous which has taken place (Mtw 11:20) and it thus is probably more indicative of the pride which would be present in the heart of a land which puts plaques on its walls to tell visitors that ‘Jesus Christ slept here’ (though no such plaques were ever erected in first century Israel, I hasten to add!). It’s sadly ironic that the established church throughout its history has been seemingly more concerned with building the most extravagant of buildings on supposed genuine religious sites than it has been of going out into the world to preach the Gospel to the whole of mankind! And it is, perhaps, better to point the finger directly at ourselves and say that we should never think of a miracle which takes place in our midst as raising our standing before God above that of other people.
As we discussed in the previous section, miracles simply confirm the message - they don’t affirm the spiritual status of the people either who receive them, who witness them or who have them occur in their midst.
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