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The Life of Jesus - Series 5: Episode 4

A warning and an offer

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 11:20-30

Different responses to the Good News of Jesus are considered. To see God working and not respond fully is dangerous ultimately, but to commit to following gives life and peace.

Different responses to the Good News of Jesus are considered. To see God working and not respond fully is dangerous ultimately, but to commit to following gives life and peace.


Hello and welcome to Series 5 and Episode 4. This episode is entitled ‘A Warning and an Offer.’ We will be reading Matthew 11: 20 - 30. It's a very intriguing, significant and quite challenging passage.

Introduction and Recap

First of all, I'm more interested to go back and remind you of the context. Everything in the Gospels is shaped by the context. We always need to think about what's happened earlier and what's going to happen afterwards - particularly what's happened earlier. In Series 3, we looked at the first tour of Galilee, after Jesus had been baptised and came to Galilee. Those of you who've been with us on the journey will remember that Jesus started his public ministry very dramatically. He proclaimed in the synagogue at Nazareth what his manifesto was going to be; he went round healing, teaching, casting out demons and had a huge impact on people's lives. In Series 3, we saw the explosive ministry of Jesus in his first tour of Galilee. He based himself in Capernaum but he travelled far and wide around that northern part of the nation of Israel which we know is Galilee. Capernaum is next to the sea of Galilee which gave him access to travelling across that large lake by boat, in order to get from one place to another more effectively. Series 3 covered that exciting story and it ended, very significantly, with the appointment of the twelve Apostles. Out of all the disciples of Jesus, he chose twelve men who were going to be his close associates, who were going to be given his authority, were going to share his ministry and work with him and, ultimately, carry the Gospel forward after his death and resurrection. Then, in Series 4, we devoted our attention entirely to the Sermon on the Mount and so our focus was on Jesus' teaching. We explained how the Sermon on the Mount is shaping the culture of Christian discipleship - if you want to know what Christian discipleship looks like, read the Sermon on the Mountain in Matthew 5 to 7 and its parallel passages in Luke 6.

Series 5 is the second tour of Galilee. This time, Jesus is taking his twelve Apostles with him in a more structured sense. They know they're going to be sharing his ministry. He's going to delegate responsibility to them but still he's going around preaching from place to place. We've seen already in this series the healing of the Centurion's servant; and the remarkable story of the raising of the dead son of the widow in the southern Galilean town of Nain If you remember that episode, the crowd was coming out of the town in the mourning funeral procession with the young boy on the funeral bier, or coffin to be, and Jesus raised him from the dead - that was a remarkable event! In the last episode, we saw a very interesting discussion that Jesus had about John the Baptist, who was in prison at the time; his followers, or disciples, came to Jesus and asked Jesus questions about his ministry.

That's the context and, as that context emerges, I want you to imagine the fact that there were some places in Galilee that Jesus had been a number of times - some villages, and some small towns. He'd performed a number of miracles right there on the streets of different towns and villages. He was travelling around all the time - we don't have the full details of his travel movements in the Gospel, we just have some key events described to us - but we can easily see that he is on the move all the time going from place to place. It's a relatively small geographical area and so it is reasonable to assume that Jesus went in and out of certain places more than once and in some places we have direct evidence that he went there quite a few times. This is important for the story that we're going to discuss today which relates to Jesus teaching about the opportunity people had to respond to him. This is the key issue for today in the early part of what we're going to read because he issues a very sobering warning.

Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin

Before I read that warning, and the first part of this passage, I want to discuss with you the three places that he is going to mention: Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin. Bethsaida and Capernaum appear in other stories and these three small towns, or large villages, with perhaps only a few hundred inhabitants, were in close proximity to each other on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee - there was hardly more than 10 kilometres between them. Capernaum, as you will probably remember if you've been with us in our early studies, was Jesus' chosen base or headquarters for his public ministry in Galilee. He kept going back there. Peter had family connections there. Jesus had places he could stay there. He was in and out of Capernaum regularly - so that's a very important town in Jesus' ministry. Bethsaida and Chorazin are two small towns that are quite near Capernaum, within walking distance, and Jesus went in and out of them several times. In fact, I have visited that area many years ago and was able to walk between Capernaum and Chorazin. Capernaum is now a ruined archaeological site and so is Chorazin. It was about 4 kilometres on the journey. I arrived at Chorazin to find the archaeological remains there and there's something similar to see at Bethsaida. These are important points for our story. This is right in the epicentre of Jesus' ministry - right in the very heart. This is where he spent most of his time, in and around this area, and he'd be passing through these towns in order to get to other places.

With all that in mind, let's read the first few verses of our passage, which is Matthew 11: 20 - 24:

20Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, (you'll) go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”’

Matthew 11:20-24, NIV

These are very sobering words. These are three towns who've had a maximum experience of Jesus' power, of his grace to forgive and they've seen incredible miracles. What Jesus is saying here is that although they received the miracles with excitement and joy, they didn't receive the message. The message involved, as is stated in this passage, repentance - that means changing your mind, changing your thinking, changing your heart towards God himself and particularly doing that, in this context, through your response to the person of Jesus. It was very easy for them to admire Jesus as a wonder-worker, or a performer of miracles, or a great teacher, or someone who could cast out evil spirits from people. It was very easy for them to admire him for those amazing attributes but to actually ignore the deeper message, which was that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, who claimed the allegiance and the faith of everyone who saw him do his ministry and heard him teach. What Jesus noticed was the people of these small towns, as in many other places, no doubt, were very casual in their attitude towards his deeper claims and his claim that the Kingdom of God had come; they needed to repent and to believe.

Tyre and Sidon

He makes the point - about the risk that they're incurring by being indifferent to his identity and his call upon them - very strikingly by making a couple of extraordinary comparisons. He says, first of all, that if Chorazin and Bethsaida's miracles had been performed in the cities of Tyre and Sidon, they would have responded and repented and they would have accepted Jesus as Messiah a long time ago. Tyre and Sidon are two coastal cities, to the north of Galilee, in a Gentile area which we know at the time as Phoenicia. These are not Jewish areas; they have little or no Jewish community - little or no understanding of the Old Testament, or the Law of Moses, or anything that made up Judaism. The people of those cities would almost certainly never have been to Jerusalem and seen the Temple. Jesus said if he'd gone there and done the miracles he'd done in these Galilean towns, they'd have been overwhelmed with the message, as well as the miracles, and they would have turned to Christ and followed him. There's something here which is very surprising and shocking in Jesus' warning. It seems impossible to imagine these non-Jewish (or Gentile) cities responding so well to Jesus when they knew so little about the God of Israel and the Old Testament as compared with all the people living in Galilee who were, for the most part Jewish, and had a good understanding of their faith and the expectation that the Messiah would come.


Jesus goes on talking about Capernaum - the very centre of his ministry, the place he spent most time, as far as we can tell - and said that Sodom (the famous city in the Old Testament that was judged by God) would have responded if it had had these miracles. This is a reference to Genesis 19 where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are judged by God. These are very stark contrasts. Let's think for a moment about the case of Sodom. When we turn to Genesis 19, we see the original story (and, interestingly enough, it's referred to several times in the New Testament) and in this story we find that there is a hostility to God's people; there is outrageous sexual misconduct being threatened and having been carried out in the cities and in Genesis 19: 24, it says, very clearly:

24Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the Lord out of the heavens. 25Thus he overthrew those cities and the entire plain, destroying all those living in the cities.’

Genesis 19:24-25, NIV

That judgement was very decisive, very significant. It was in the time of Abraham, who was pleading for the city of Sodom and the other areas around to be saved but God judged them because of the extent of their sin. There were many different sins involved in the situation in Sodom. We know, from the prophet Ezekiel, there was a lack of hospitality, lack of care for the poor; we know of sexual immorality and the practice of homosexuality, here in the text of Genesis 19, and other things as well. That's the basic story and Jesus is saying that this city which represents, biblically, a sort of height of evil - that this city would have responded better than Capernaum. That's a really remarkable statement and in Luke 17:  28 - 30, we have another interesting reference to the city of Sodom. This is Jesus talking about his Second Coming, or his return in power in the future:

28“It was the same in the days of Lot.(that was a righteous man who was living in Sodom)People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 30It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed.”’

Luke 17:28-30, NIV

‘the day the Son of Man is revealed’ is a reference to the Second Coming and that's exactly what Jesus has in mind here when he speaks about the moment of judgement. He's talking about a final judgement when he returns. The New Testament makes it very clear that Jesus is coming twice to this world. First, as a newborn baby, whose mother was Mary, to come to conduct his ministry in Israel and Galilee and die on the cross and be raised again from the dead and ascend to heaven. That's the first coming and that brings salvation: that brings the Gospel; and that brings the Kingdom of God. We're familiar with that; that's what's actually happening in the narrative of the Gospels. But the New Testament makes clear, in many places, that Christ will return again - this time to judge. The consequences of not responding to his message beforehand are serious, as indicated by this passage.

Hidden and Revealed

That's the first part of our study today, we'll make some further reference to it at the end, but it's sobering. Then he goes on, in verse 25 to 27, to pray to his Father:

25At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 27“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’

Matthew 11:25-27, NIV

Sometimes in the Gospels, we have just a glimpse into the prayer life of Jesus. Something happens and then we see him praying. We have a similar example in Luke 10, for example, and here we have a remarkable prayer showing the intimacy between Jesus and his Father, and Jesus' joy that, what he describes as ‘little children’, should understand the significance of the Kingdom whilst the wise and learned (people who think they know the answer to things) have missed the truth. This is obviously a reference to the text and the passage we've just read about these towns, and other similar responses that Jesus found in other places, where people assumed, in their pride, that they knew who Jesus was and they could take it or leave it concerning whether he was the Messiah or not, whether they needed to change their lives or not. They just took the miracles and that was that. Jesus described his true followers, here, as ‘little children.’ In other words, they had the humility and the faith to say, not only, “Thank you Jesus for the miracles you are doing. Thank you for the love you're showing humanity. Thank you for the miracles I've seen in my friends, or family, or even in myself.” Not only that, but they're willing to say, “You are the Messiah. You're the Christ. You're the Son of God and I follow you.” Ultimately, it's God himself that opens up the door for us to believe wholeheartedly.

Yoked Together

Jesus concludes this teaching with some famous verses which draw us to another related theme. Matthew 11, 28 - 30:

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

Matthew 11:28-30, NIV

This metaphor of a yoke is important to understand. We're talking here of an agricultural metaphor. In those days (and still in many countries today) in terms of ploughing, the method used was for two (or sometimes more, but generally two) oxen to be joined together - or yoked together - to pull the plough. This is the metaphor that Jesus is using. He's talking of a yoke, being formally joined together with somebody else and he describes discipleship as a form of being yoked together - so if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, you are choosing to be joined to him in this joint purpose, in which he is directing you. There's a constraint on you to go in a certain direction but there's a real purpose: you're ploughing, you're proceeding with the Kingdom of God and you are committing yourself to a life of discipleship. A life of discipleship is to follow somebody, to follow the lead and to be yoked together. That's the metaphor that Jesus has in mind and he's inviting his listeners to take up the life of discipleship.

The contrast, of course, is the first part of our passage where people were merely observers. They saw the miracles he did, they observed, they had opinions, they gained the benefits, but they did not engage fully with his message. Jesus is saying, “This is what I want you to do and this will bring blessing to you. It's not going to be a problem for you ultimately; this is going to be the path of blessing and fulfilment and inner peace - to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

What would the people have been weary and burdened about? (which is what he describes here in the passage) They would have been weary with uncertainty, perhaps. They would, almost certainly, have been weary with the alternative on offer which was a religion of rules and regulations: the Law of Moses but enforced by the Pharisees, and others, who added hundreds of other regulations. A legalistic religious structure was what was weighing down the Jewish people at this time and Jesus spent much time in conflict with those who were putting forward this method of relating to God. You may well be able to relate to this because this is how humans generally construct their religions: they create lots and lots of rules (about morals, about sexual ethics, about how you relate to other people and religious duties) and we try and please God. This creates a sense of being wearied and burdened and the Jewish people, at the time, had a pretty strong experience of this reality - they knew what it was like. Jesus is basically saying, “My way is different. It's not going to be about rules and regulations in the same sense. It's going to be about following me as a person. Doing the things that I do. Living the way I live. Following the teaching I give.”

Jesus has, of course, just given the Sermon on the Mount, which I referred to at the beginning of our episode, so that's the context. Basically, the ethical moral guidelines that Jesus gives are few and profound; they're not hundreds and complex, they're few, profound and simple. As we subsequently find out, he will send us the Holy Spirit to live within us. Every true believer has the Holy Spirit, the person of God, the third person of the Trinity, living within them who leads them on that journey of discipleship - which is basically what Jesus is describing here. He's inviting people to come and experience rest: rest for their inner being, rest for their soul, a sense of inner peace. This is the outstanding gift of the Gospel: we can be at peace with ourselves if we know we are forgiven. We can only know we're forgiven through the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ, who died in our place on the cross as a substitute, as a form of atonement, so that our sins were taken on his shoulders, so that we could go free. That's the essence of the Gospel. We'll come back to it in more detail when we study the death of Jesus. Jesus is basically saying, “I can give you an inner rest that no legalistic form of religion can do.” He's inviting his listeners not to be onlookers and not to get involved in a religious system that cannot provide rest for their souls.

This is a very challenging passage and it has three distinct elements altogether: the warning; a sudden and extremely interesting insight into Jesus' prayer life with his Father and the close relationship he has with his Father; and then an offer - an offer for discipleship, for following him but an offer that brings the priceless benefit of inner peace and rest.


Just a few things to say by way of final reflections. The opportunity to hear the Gospel creates responsibility to respond. Ultimately, in God's eyes there's no excuse that we can bring for not responding to the revelation of the Gospel that has been brought to us by God in one way or another. In the case that we're describing here, it was through the physical presence of Jesus in their towns and in their communities, through the miracles he did and the messages he gave about the Kingdom. We too - you and I - have heard the Gospel message. Even the very fact that you're following this episode indicates that you're hearing the Gospel message. You may be hearing this episode as the first thing you've ever heard about Christianity - welcome and keep joining us. You may be familiar with the general Christian message; you may have listened to quite a lot Christian material; you may have read the Bible; you may have had some contact with church communities. I don't know your situation; I don't know which part of the world you live in and I don't know what's going on in your life - but you've heard the message and your responsibility is to respond by praying, by seeking God's forgiveness, by finding out more and there's a great way you can find out more and it's to continue on the journey with us.

Mankind is generally very religious, even despite modern claims of science and atheism that we're moving beyond religion, the spiritual and religious instinct of man is profound and, ultimately, unchangeable. We'll always look for meaning outside of ourselves and we won't easily find it in material things alone. We are religious but Jesus is offering not just any old religion; he's offering a unique path based on forgiveness and based on a relationship with God which is potentially as intimate as his relationship, as indicated in the prayers that he prayed to his Father just at that point. Here's an opportunity for us to take stock. Have you heard the message and not responded? It's a dangerous place to be in. I encourage you to make a full response. Have you believed in Jesus in the private sort of sense but never really committed yourself to being a follower of Jesus in a public way and in an ongoing way? Can I encourage you to take his yoke upon you if you are weary and burdened and he will give you rest. He says,

‘“For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”’

Matthew 11:29-30, NIV

That means that even though there are many challenges following Christ - it can be a difficult path in many ways - there's an inner sense of rightness about it, an inner sense of peace within us, an inner sense of purpose that means we can follow him all our lives.

Thanks for following this episode and I hope to see you again soon.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What does it mean to be ‘yoked’ to Jesus? How can that help you to live your Christian life?
  • Discipleship
    1. If you tell people about Jesus, the responsibility is on them to make the appropriate choice. What if you put them off? How can you make sure you get it right?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Some people have seen signs and wonders but not heard the message. They were not prepared to change in any way. How do you approach people today who have been blessed but have still not responded to the message?
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