Luke 10:12-16 “I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Korazin! 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, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”
In this passage our minds are being directed to an area of Galilee which has come to be known as the ‘evangelical triangle.’ The reason for that designation is because Jesus and his disciples had pervaded that district with the evangel, the gospel. There were these three towns, Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, and there was the area within the triangle they formed, and there were also the hills and plains surrounding those places. The three communities are mentioned in our text, and it is salutary for us to know what happened in those places. Their names are not difficult to pronounce, and their stones speak out even today. Their message is plain and direct; “Great privileges alone can’t save you from the judgment of God.” The people who lived in those favoured places have constituted a warning ever since about the danger of meeting with Jesus Christ, but not letting him saving influence over you.
1. THERE WERE THREE FAVOURED TOWNS ON THE SEA OF GALILEE
These three towns are around the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, where the river Jordan flows into the lake. Thirteen miles further south the river flows out of the lake and down the Jordan valley 90 miles to the Dead Sea. The north of the Sea of Galilee was the area that the Lord Jesus made his home after bidding good-bye to his family in Nazareth. He had been baptized by John and then began his public ministry. He lived during much of those first two years in Capernaum on the shores of the lake, but he often walked to Korazin and Bethsaida.
i] Bethsaida. We start with Bethsaida because it was the largest of the three towns. It had been there at least a thousand years, since the time of David, and in Jesus’ day it was a walled town with city gates. It was a market town selling such produce as lambs, goats, wine, olive oil, grapes, barley, linen and dried fresh water fish. It was under the jurisdiction of Herod’s brother, Philip Herod, who was a popular ruler. During the lifetime of the Lord Jesus the Roman Emperor’s wife Julia died, and so Philip Herod increased the status of Bethsaida pronouncing it to be a city and renamed it ‘Julia’, but that was not popular and it didn’t catch on. Philip Herod also had a temple built in the city, but the cult lasted only 80 or so years.
Simon Peter and his brother Andrew came from Bethsaida, and so did Philip. Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are also believed to have come from Bethsaida. So here were five local boys from prominent families, well-known in the community with lots of relations and boyhood friends. These intelligent young men gave up everything and followed Jesus. I wonder what the effect of that was on the populace of Bethsaida. I have said for years that if ten men in Aberystwyth were soundly converted and earnestly followed the Lord Jesus the impact on our community would be great.
The Lord Jesus preached in Bethsaida. On a plain, about a mile or so from the city, he preached to five thousand men who’d eagerly followed him there (that would have been most of the male population of Bethsaida and both the other towns), and they had listened to what he’d said until late in the day. They had no food and it was there that Jesus had broken five loaves and two fishes and multiplied them and fed them. There was also a well-known local figure, a blind man in Bethsaida who lived by begging for money; Jesus gave him his sight. So that was the privileged town of Bethsaida.
ii] Capernaum. This town was a few miles west of Bethsaida on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, and, as I said, it was Jesus’ home town during his ministry. Someone provided a kind of prophet’s chamber where he’d stay. The town had a fine synagogue which was built out of the local stone, black basalt. It was in Capernaum that a Roman army officer came one day to Christ. He asked our Lord if he would heal his servant, and the Jewish leaders in Capernaum (who commonly hated the Romans) urged our Lord to do what he asked. “He loves our nation,” they told him, “ . . . and he has built our synagogue.” Christ healed the servant without even visiting him. When the centurion got back home they told him that the man had recovered a few hours earlier at the very time he’d been asking Jesus for help. The Lord Jesus often preached in Capernaum synagogue. There was a memorable sermon in which he said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be thirsty . . .” and that was preached there, his words echoing on the basalt walls.
Outside the town, on a mountainside, Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. The alluvial soil in the area is five feet think and any house builder would need to go down a long way to reach the bedrock. I am telling you that because the Sermon on the Mount ends with the parable of the wise and foolish builders only one of whom established his house on the rock. In Capernaum Jesus was preaching to crowds of people day after day. They packed around the house where he was speaking sitting on the window sills, standing in the door-ways not wanting to miss a single word. Four friends brought a paralyzed man to Christ in the middle of the meeting, and in their frustration to bRing him to the feet of our Lord they finally opened up the roof to let him down to Jesus that he might be healed. That took place in Capernaum. Peter and his wife and family finally moved from Bethsaida there; perhaps Peter’s wife came from the town. Capernaum was the place where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. So this well-known older woman in the community owed her life to the mercy of the Lord Christ.
iii] Korazin. This town was up in the hills of Galilee about two miles north of Capernaum. Archaeologists have found a stone chair from its synagogue beautifully decorated. It’s in the Israel museum in Jerusalem today. Jesus once criticized the teachers of the law using this phrase to describe them, they ‘sit in Moses’ seat.’ That was the name given to their ministries because preachers in the synagogue actually sat down while they taught. It’s possible to visit the ruins of that synagogue today. These three towns were full of plain, hard-working people who made a living from the land and the lake. They were in a triangle, as close together as Aberystwyth, Penrhyncoch and Borth. It was a triangle where hills and valleys, homes and communities had heard the gospel and seen the miracles of the incarnate Creator.
So we would conclude that this was a nice place to live. It provided easy access to Jerusalem and its shops and Temple. It was on the trade route from Jerusalem to the Med. and so there was always movement and bustle, horsemen, caravans and soldiers passing through. These were years of peace – under the watchful eyes of Rome. It was a period of prosperity, of building and trade and education where a fisherman like Peter learned to speak Greek with considerable sensitivity, as his later letters indicate. The climate was pleasant; there was plentiful access to water in the driest seasons. Not too large, not too small.
This was a place with a great heritage. This was an area known to David and Moses and Abraham. The people there knew the Scriptures, and so they knew the reason why this whole cosmos existed – God had created it. They knew why death and suffering were in the world – man had rebelled against God. They had the ten commandments and knew the kind of life their Creator expected of them. They knew of the love of the God who spoke through the prophets, promising that he would send one day the Messiah who would redeem them. They had the Sabbath, the blessed day of rest each week; they had the covenants and the promises. They had the sacrifices and the altar in Jerusalem where they could find forgiveness of sins. A prophet had told them that though their sins were like scarlet they could be as white as snow.
Such a history and such knowledge was another enormous privilege, but more than all of that, these towns had the Son of God in their midst for a couple of years. He lived there; he ate and drank among them; he visited their homes; he preached there – in the streets, in houses, in fields and on the hillsides. Mothers brought their children to him for him to command God’s blessing to rest on them. The common people heard him and marveled at his words. He wrought the most breath-taking miracles in their midst. Every sick person who was brought to him was healed. Did he give sight to the blind? Did he cure a withered hand? Did he cleanse a leper? Did he cause the lame to leap for joy? Did he cast our demons? Did he raise the dead? He multiplied a few loaves and fishes and fed a multitude. Sights that not even Moses and the prophets had seen were seen by the people who lived in this triangle. How favoured they were. They knew him and he knew many of them by name.
2. THOSE PRIVILEGES DID THEM NO LASTING GOOD.
They had the Scriptures, but they didn’t believe. They had the Sabbath day of rest, and synagogues where they assembled together for worship – Jesus was always there on the Sabbath; that was his custom – but they didn’t believe. They had the Ten Commandments telling them what was right and wrong, but they didn’t believe. They had the promise of the Messiah, but there was no desire to see him coming. They had men in the community of maturity and integrity whose lives were transformed by Jesus Christ; these men spoke warmly about him with words of wonder, but it made no impact on them. They personally knew women whose incurable diseases had been healed by our Lord but they simply shrugged. They were actually fed by those few loaves and fishes that Jesus kept multiplying on the grassy plain, but even that failed to change their minds. He preached with authority; his speaking was nothing like their scribes. “Never man spake like this man,” some of them said, but they didn’t get hungry to devour this truth for themselves. What more did they want? What more did they need in order to bow the knee to him and cry, “My Lord and my God.” They had all that, but none of it was enough to change them. All the privileges in the world aren’t enough to save one single person. Lot’s wife had a righteous man as her husband and faithful Abraham as her uncle. King Saul had Samuel as his prophet. Judas had Jesus as his example. Demas has Paul as a companion. None of those men became serious about serving God. Some of you are dreaming that if you had better privileges then that would change you, for example, having a stirring orator, seeing the dead raised – if only you experienced that, you think, then you’d become a happy Christian, you would walk with God, but these people saw all these miracles, and they heard the Son of God preaching. They watched his life day by day, and saw how others were influenced by it, but still they refused to change their minds. They remained as unbelieving as they’d been before he’d turned up in their towns. He was always the outsider as far as they were concerned . . . “not one of us.”
3. THE LORD CONDEMNED THEIR UNBELIEF.
We often meet that phrase today, ‘unconditional love.’ No matter how people behave, how cruelly they treat you or your children, what base ingratitude and rejection they show you, what monstrous tortures they inflict, we are told that there is just one response we may give as Christians, and that is ‘unconditional love.’ How different was Jesus here. He did his greatest miracles in this evangelical triangle and yet the people who lived there and saw and heard everything would not believe in him, refusing to follow him. They raised an eyebrow, had a discussion about Jesus of Nazareth at the city gates, and then they turned away and had a glass of wine and talked about Herod’s antics or the latest news from Rome. The Son of God wasn’t that important.
What was Jesus’ response, simply to go on quietly loving them unconditionally stroking their affections? It was not. He solemnly said to them, “Woe to you! Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” It’s at the heart of our text. It’s a word of pain in Hebrew and in Greek sounding like this, ‘yAh, yaa.’ It is the figure of speech we call onomatopoeia; it means what it sounds like, a gasp of pain and horror at what is happening. ‘yAh, yaa.’ “Woe to you,” meaning, “Grief to you now and in the future. Sorrow and misery to you today and in the time to come; terrible calamity lies before you if there’s not some change in you soon.” Those weren’t the words of final judgment; there is still a delay; so there is time to repent, but if you go on hardening your hearts, then it is ‘yAh, yaa.’ Woe lies before you. A terrible curse will fall on you. Know this, men and women, because it was said by the one who raised the dead – the same one who spoke and the hurricane heeded him. He said, ‘yAh, yaa’ to them, and he said it because he loved them. He didn’t sulk when they turned their backs on him. He continued to speak to them, but now it was very solemnly, with words of warning. There would be no more signs and no more invitations. A sinful and adulterous generation seeks for a sign. “Woe to you . . .”
The country has been shocked this week by the trial of two boys not yet teenagers who had almost killed two little boys, just stopping because they got weary of slamming into them with bricks in their hands as they lay on the ground. The perpetrators of these tortures were two unloved children exposed from the earliest age to drugs, drink, pornography and many a beating – before they were ten years of age; they had known wretched boyhoods of much rejection. “Woe to you parents for raising your sons like that . . . yAh, yaa . . .” It will be woe for the boys, and their parents, yes, it’s been an unspeakable story of woe. But my point is this, actually to meet the Lord Jesus in the beauty of his person, in the conviction of his teaching, in the presence of his supernatural actions and to turn away and shrug your shoulders clinging to your own little life means for you ‘yAh, yaa’, “woe!”
Then Jesus lays on them another solemn word: “I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (v.12). Sodom was a centre for sexual promiscuity, for homosexual rape. You put them both in the balances, Capernaum in one balance with all its religion, and traditions, and prosperity, and Jewish orthodoxy, and the presence of Jesus and his followers. Then in the other balance you put Sodom and its abuse of women and children, boys and girls. God is weighing up both. The question is this. For which one will it be more bearable in the day of judgment? Both are guilty before God, but the lesser condemnation, will it be Sodom’s or Capernaum’s? “Sodom,” said Jesus. Its condemnation will be less severe than Capernaum’s. What did Sodom have? Lot and his air-head wife and daughters. What did Capernaum have? It had Jesus. It had the sermon on the mount. It had the feeding of the 5,000. It had the healing of the sick. It had transformed Peter, and Andrew, and Philip, and James, and John. The city had had Everests of blessing but it said, ‘No.’ Sodom just had the molehill of Lot. The greater the privilege the greater the responsibility and the greater the condemnation.
Think of Tyre and Sidon, seaport towns on the Mediterranean that were infamous for their wickedness all across the Med. Jesus compares them to Korazin and Bethsaida who were also fishing towns on the Sea of Galilee. Tyre and Sidon were outside the nation of Israel but the question is this, what would it take to transform such places, to make them quiet, just, pure and safe? What would it take to make them godly, full of love for Jesus Christ, the happiest places in the world? It would simply take what the towns in the evangelical triangle had been seeing and hearing for the past months, a visit of Jesus, the preaching of the Saviour and his mighty signs which confirmed that what he said was true. “For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes” (v.13).
How has it been with you? Have you had many privileges? Have you had a Christian upbringing? Have you Christian parents? Have you been taught the children’s catechism? “Who made me? God made me. What else did God make? God made all things. Why did God make all things? For his own glory. Where do we learn about God? In the Bible.” Were you taken to a gospel church? Was the climax of the worship the Word of God opened up and preached to everyone? Were there many godly men and women there, young and old, whose lives had been changed by Jesus Christ and whose daily living reflected him? Was it a missionary-minded church? Were the great hymns of the church sung? Did you have Sunday school teachers? Did you have godly officers? Was Jesus Christ and him crucified often placarded before you? You can say yes to all of that. Then you are a favoured person. Then seek the Lord while he may be found. Call upon him while he is near! You’ve been the beneficiary of much light and warmth, but light and warmth can both enlighten and harden. Better, Jesus says, in the day of judgment, never to have heard of the name ‘Jesus’ than to hear all you have heard and roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders and go away. Better to have lived your entire life as an unrepentant sinner in Sodom than to live your entire life in unbelief in Capernaum, but better still don’t go on in unbelief. Go now to the Lord was says to you, “Come to me.”
The people of Bethsaida were not like the people of Nazareth. In Nazareth the men wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff and kill him. There is no record of that degree of opposition in the evangelical triangle. They admired him there and listened to his preaching and marveled at his mighty works, but still they did not bow before him and cry, “My Lord and my God.” You can always find ways of minimizing Jesus while speaking respectfully of him. They always made him an option; he was always ‘some day’; he was never now. But Jesus is never an option. He is the God of the universe; the only God there is. Better never to have seen the blind man healed than to have seen him and smiled and wondered and walked off none the wiser. Better to be sick and not cured than to be healed and not give glory to God. Better not to experience God than to experience God and stay the same as you were.
4. THE LORD JUDGES THE HEART.
The media get properly outraged at gross immorality. God is a far more demanding judge. Men condemn the outward appearance but God examines the heart. Above all he looks to see how we are treating his beloved Son. We’ll only have to continue to sit and do nothing when the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ are pressed upon us to find ourselves one day inescapably and eternally in the pit. We won’t have to blaspheme the name of Jesus or become criminals. We’ll just have to keep saying, “The jury is out about Jesus” all our lives. There is a quiet way to the pit. No sin makes less noise but as certainly damns the soul as the sin of unbelief. Think of a woman who has given her life to her husband, cared for him in every possible way, forgiven him all his misdeeds, raised his children, been loving and warm to him all the time they’ve been married, and then one day he tells her he is leaving her because he doesn’t believe that she loves him. What wicked unbelief; what a monstrous attitude; what more could she have done for him? She has been a most wonderfully loving wife. Such unbelief as shown by her husband – “I don’t believe she loves me” – is sinful unbelief. You see my point? God has given you all these proofs of his love, and his willingness to save you. Hear the words of the Lord Jesus, see the life of Christ in four gospels, and in all the letters in the New Testament that explain his life and death, and look at the way his life has impacted the people who surround you in this place. Is your response to say that that’s not enough evidence to believe that Jesus is God? That is the sin of unbelief and it will take you to the pit.
What more would you want to prove this claim is true, “God has come into our midst in the form of his Son, Jesus Christ”? What more would you ask from an incarnate God? You’d perhaps expect him to say a command and immediately the winds and waves would obey him, if he were God. They obeyed Christ. You would want this person to show a life of transparent innocence, warm affection, extraordinary patience, utter self-control, total integrity and great mercy, so that when they were driving nails through his hands and feet he would be praying to God for their forgiveness. That is exactly what we find in Jesus Christ. You would want the most mind-blowing inspirational teaching, words that lifted you, convicted you, knew you, changed you. Those are the very words of Christ. You would want him to be more powerful than death. The Lord rose from the dead on the third day. In other words if you were listing the requirements that you would make of a man who also claimed to be one with God you would find everything of heaven and yet of earth too, plus much more in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet you can continue to trifle with Jesus. How can you escape if you neglect so great salvation?
The letter to the Hebrews is full of the glories of Jesus Christ, and then the writer pauses and he addresses them very earnestly. He is warning professing Christians, “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebs. 3:12). In other words, he does not hesitate to bring a message of warning to professing Christians. Many of our town’s churches now have evangelical pulpits and the community has its share of moral and religious people, just as there were many in this evangelical triangle in the first century. The greatest stumbling block then, as now, to decent living people was this message that their sins needed atonement. A decent life alone is insufficient and imperfect; only through the coming of Jesus Christ the Son of God to become the Lamb of God could there be forgiveness. The proud Jew who lived in the evangelical triangle believed he had everything; he didn’t need Jesus Christ. He turned a blind eye to his own sins, his stealing, his adultery, his idolatry, his law breaking. Listen to Paul addressing his fellow countryman in Romans chapter two: “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth – you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law?” (Roms 2:17-23). You yourselves are law-breakers in the sight of God, and you have also ignored God’s Son Jesus Christ. Woe to you now! Woe to you in the day of judgment. Better be a Sodomite than have had the privileges you’ve had and refuse the offered Saviour. You are dealing with a God who judges the heart.
5. HOW AWESOME IS THIS LORD.
What you have here is Jesus Christ the judge. He who warned us about the sin of judging others because our knowledge of them is so limited can judge because he knows everything. Here in our passage he claims to know what’s to come. He knows the future of the lives of the people who lived in the evangelical triangle. He knows the futures of each one of us. He knows how it will go with us in the day of judgment if we refuse to change, or if we change. He who rejects me rejects him who sent me. He often informs us with all the authority of heaven that this is a moral universe, that there is a day of judgment. He knows all the different contingencies of the future. Some philosophers claim that even God doesn’t know the future, that it is wide open to God as well as to us, but here we find Jesus Christ speaking confidently about future certainties. He even knows what would happen if things had been different for us, the things we dream about. He knows all the possible permutations of events. If you had been born at a different time . . . if you had moved somewhere else in your life . . . if you had married someone else . . . if you had come under the influence of certain other people . . . then what would have happened to you? Things you think about, how different your life might have been, and whether you would have been happier or sadder. We all think, “I wonder how it would have been if . . .” But the Lord actually knows exhaustively about all such permutations.
What if the Seed of the Women, the promised Messiah, had come much sooner, 3000 years sooner than he had, and he had gone to Sodom and had preached to the people of that town then what, we wonder, would have happened? Jesus tells us here; “This is what would have happened. There would have been a great revival in Sodom. That city would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. They would have been sickened of their sin; they were satiated with it, and with what relief would they have heard of salvation, and cleansing, and scarlet sins washed whiter than snow! They would have embraced the Saviour and gone to him for rest. Jesus tells us here that that would have happened.
But the towns of the evangelical triangle were prosperous and respectable and religious communities. They were not Sodom, and they thought Jesus’ crude preaching of repenting of sin and believing on him, and taking up a cross and following him was a message aimed at stupid evil men. It was not for educated moral people as they considered themselves, and they rejected our Lord. Jesus could really see them on the day of judgment, meeting Almighty God. He would say to the people of these three towns, “I gave you the opportunity of meeting my Son. What did you do to him? Did you come to him? Did you bow down and worship? Did you follow him? Did you live for him? Did you proclaim him by life and lip? What did you do with my Son?” “We didn’t do anything with him” “Depart from me ye cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Woe to you, better to have lived and died unbelieving in Sodom than to live and die knowing Jesus and ignoring him.”
I don’t know how much knowledge you have, great or small. The more important question is what are you doing with the knowledge you have? Are you sweeping it out of your lives? Have you hardened your heart against the Lord this past week? There’s been a duty before you and you’ve turned away from it. There’s a temptation and you failed to resist it. There is forbidden fruit and you have taken it. There’ve been blessings received and you’ve not thanked the Lord for them. God has been so merciful to you for so long. Don’t grieve his Spirit. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
31st January 2009 GEOFF THOMAS