(iv) To have heard God’s word is a great responsibility. A man will be judged according to what he has had the chance to know. We allow things in a child we condemn in an adult; we forgive things in a savage we punish in a civilized man. Responsibility is the other side of privilege.
(v) It is a terrible thing to reject God’s invitation. There is a sense in which every promise of God that a man has ever heard can become his condemnation. If he receives these promises they are his greatest glory, but each one that he has rejected will some day be a witness against him.
Denunciation (vv. 13–16). This seems like harsh language from the lips of the Son of God, but we dare not ignore it or try to explain it away. He named three ancient cities that had been judged by God—Sodom (Gen. 19), and Tyre and Sidon (Ezek. 26–28; Isa. 23)—and used them to warn three cities of His day: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. These three cities had been given more privileges than the three ancient cities, and therefore they had more responsibility. If Sodom, Tyre, and Sidon were destroyed, how could Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum escape?
To hear Christ’s ambassadors means to hear Him, and to despise His representatives means to despise Him. “As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you” (John 20:21; see also 2 Cor. 5:18–21). The way a nation treats an ambassador is the way it treats the government the ambassador represents. For an interesting illustration of this truth, read 2 Samuel 10.
Ver. 13.—Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sack cloth and ashes. In St. Matthew’s Gospel (11:20), where the woe of the fair lake cities is announced in similar language, the “woe” is introduced with the words, “Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done.” Now, we have no record of any miracles having been worked at Chorazin, the first mentioned. But these cities were in the immediate vicinity of Capernaum, where for a lengthened period our Lord principally resided. He was, no doubt, during the Galilæan ministry, constantly in one or other of those bright, busy cities built on the shores of the Lake of Gennesaret. This bears out St. John’s statement (20:30) concerning the many unrecorded miracles of Christ, and gives us some notion of the numerous events in the life left without mention; much must have happened in Chorazin to have called forth this stern saying. Late research thinks it probable that the site of Chorazin has been discovered near Capernaum; the ruins, however, at a little distance, look but a mere rough heap of stones. A great theological truth is urged in this saying of the Master. Men will be judged not only for what they have done or failed to do, but their opportunities, their circumstances, their chances in life, will be, before they are judged, strictly taken into account.
Ver. 14.—But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. Tyre and Sidon, those representative examples of the luxury and vileness of the great cities of the old pagan world, will, when the dreadful awards are made, be beaten with few stripes, while the cities of the lake will be beaten with many, because these last listened unrepentant to the sweet and tender words, and gazed unmoved at the mighty works of mercy, of the pitiful Jesus of Nazareth. This is one of the passages in the New Testament where the doctrine of degrees in punishment is plainly set forth, and in words which fell from the lips of the Redeemer himself!
Ver. 15.—And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell. When the Lord came to speak of the woe of Capernaum, his own chosen city, his favourite earthly home, his words grew even more solemn. The simile he uses, “hell,” better rendered Hades, is chosen to paint the contrast between the glorious destiny this beautiful lake-city might have chosen, and the tremendous woe which she had voluntarily brought on herself. The present state of the Plain of Gennesaret is indeed so desolate and miserable that we can scarcely picture to ourselves that it was once a populous, crowded district, the blue lake covered with fishing and trading vessels, its shores and the plain inland highly cultivated, a very garden in that part of Asia. Rich towns and thriving villages in that favoured neighbourhood are described by contemporary writers in such glowing terms that we, who are spectators of the dreary and melancholy shores of the Gennesaret lake, are puzzled as we read, and should suspect an exaggeration, only an exaggeration would have been purposeless (see Josephus, ‘Bell. Jud.,’ iii. 3. 2). Some thirty years after the woe had been uttered, in the terrible wars in which Rome avenged herself on the Jewish hatred and scorn, the garden of Gennesaret was changed into a ruin covered solitude. Josephus, who had been dwelling on the loveliness of the place, describes the state of the shore strewn with wrecks and putrefying bodies, “insomuch that the misery was not only an object of commiseration to the Jews, but even to those that, hated them and had been the authors of that misery” (‘Bell. Jud.,’ iii. 10. 8; and see Dr. Farrar’s ‘Life of Christ,’ ii. 101).