In this reading from Matthew’s gospel, we hear some of the strongest words of condemnation to come out of the mouth of Jesus, followed by one of his most soothing invitations. So let’s put that into context, to see what this passage of scripture could mean for us today.
Woe to you, Korazin, Bethsaida, and to you, Capernaum. These towns had witnessed first-hand the miracles that Jesus had performed. They had heard the prophecy of John the Baptist who said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt 3:2). They knew the prophecies of old about the coming of a Messiah, who would be born of the house of David. All of these were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, which should have firmly established his credentials as the Messiah.
At the very beginning of Matthew’s gospel, the genealogy of Jesus through the house of David is laid out – fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ (Matt 1:1-17). And in Matthew 4:23-25, we’re told that ‘Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’
Surely all of this was evidence enough to prove the credentials and identity of Jesus, but as we see by his condemnation of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, they were not responding to his announcement of the kingdom of God. In fact, their hearts were hardened against him.
I have to admit, I have some sympathy towards these people, because sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. They didn’t recognise Jesus as Messiah because they knew his parents and his trade in Nazareth. They didn’t think God could raise a Messiah from there. Not only that, but he wasn’t the sort of Messiah they were expecting. Even John the Baptist had questions: in Matthew 11, verse 2, it says ‘when John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”’
Somebody has worked out the odds for one person to fulfil all of the prophecies concerning the Messiah as 1 in 10157. To illustrate this chance, consider the humble electron. The electron is about as small an object as we can imagine. If we had a cubic inch of electrons and if we could count them at 250 per minute, it would take 57,000 years to count them. Now mark just one of these electrons and stir it back into the rest of them. The chance for one person to fulfil all the prophecies about Christ is the same chance that a blindfolded person has of finding the marked electron – unless, of course, He is the Son of God.
The gospel is good news, and the good news that Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom of God was entering into the reality of this broken world to transform it. Sadly, many are cynical and find this news ‘too good to be true’.
But if we’re honest, aren’t we all bent a bit towards cynicism when we hear of something that seems too good to be true? I know that I can be. And in our worst moments, when life’s events seem to be conspiring against us, aren’t we tempted as well to disregard God’s promises and the teachings of Jesus? Though we know that Jesus bids us to come to him when we’re weary and burdened, and he promises rest for our souls, is he always the first to whom we turn?
Our society is restless, weary, looking for something, around them, possibly in them, but not knowing where to find the true source of peace and rest. Many people don’t realise their true need for Christ. It’s like the story of a man who has a fever...
As he lies upon his bed, wherever he puts his head becomes hot and uncomfortable. And so he tosses and turns. He rolls from side to side. He constantly re-arranges his pillow, thinking that the fever is in the bed and in the sheets, and forgetting that the fever is in him. No tossing, no turning, no thrashing about will help. And the same thing is true of the restlessness of our age. We cannot find rest until we are changed within; we will not be relieved from our sense of restlessness and weariness until we realize that there’s no hope in looking anywhere else but to Jesus.
The sin of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum in our scripture was that they did not ‘repent’. That is, they did not ‘turn’; they did not turn away from their sin and they did not turn towards Jesus. And isn’t it typical of mankind? To desire autonomy, self-sufficiency, ‘I’ll do it my way’? It’s the doctrine of ‘the Fall’, and humanity’s tendency towards sin, in a nutshell.
The cynicism of the unrepentant Israelites is often explained as resulting from their misunderstanding what the Messiah would be like, when he came. And it’s true, they thought the Messiah would be a warrior figure, to take back their towns and villages and cities from Roman occupation. To this day, Jewish people still pray for the coming of their Messiah, who will be victorious over Israel’s enemies, because that promise is included in the message of the prophets.
In Jesus’ day, this vision of the Messiah would have required an overthrow of the Roman occupation – it would have required a revolution. It would have required swords, and violence – ‘a holy war against the unholy warriors. Love your neighbour, [but] hate your enemy; if he slaps you on the cheek, or makes you walk a mile with him, stab him with his own dagger. That’s the sort of kingdom-vision [the Israelites] had’ (says Tom Wright). What Jesus was offering was a completely different kingdom-vision.
Interestingly, at the end of Matthew 10 (v32-42), Jesus says that he did not come to bring peace; he came to bring a sword! But we know he didn’t engage in actual physical battle – and so the conclusion is that the sword of Jesus is a ‘spiritual’ sword, and the defeat of Israel’s enemies is a spiritual defeat. The Israelites hadn’t recognised who their true enemy was: their own hardness of heart. And we must recognise that’s our real enemy, too – the hardness of heart that so readily provides us with excuses not to believe in the promises of God and of Jesus in our scriptures.
Jeremiah prophesied (31:33) that the Lord would make a new covenant with Israel, that his law would be put in their minds and written on their hearts – the covenant of grace. The conversion that must happen when we truly repent or turn away from our sin and towards Christ is a conversion of heart and mind. It doesn’t matter how often we come to church to hear the gospel if we refuse to allow the gospel to convert us, to turn us, and to change us. We need a revolution of heart and mind.
As J. C. Ryle (the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool) said, “Let us settle in our minds that it will never do to be content with merely hearing and liking the gospel. We must go further than that. We must actually repent and be converted.” Indifference to the gospel is no different from rejection as far as Jesus is concerned. As Ryle says, “We must actually lay hold on Christ, and become one with Him. Until then we are in dreadful danger. It will prove more tolerable to have lived in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, than to have heard the Gospel in England, and at last died unconverted.”
And so, being mindful of Jesus’ warnings at the beginning of this evening’s passage, we can then rejoice for the gift of the promise at the end! Jesus gives gentle encouragement to all that will hear: ‘Come; take; and learn.’ And the result of following this gracious invitation is that we will ‘find rest.’ Come to Jesus, take his yoke upon yourself, learn from him, and in doing so, you will find rest for your souls. May we know this truth deeply in our hearts and draw from it the peace and security that Jesus so desires to bring to his people. Amen.