As our Lord continued His gracious ministry, it became increasingly evident that by far the great majority of Israel, the leaders and the people generally, were in no mood to receive His message and to acknowledge Him as the Anointed One sent by God to deliver them from their bondage, not only to the Roman authority but to sin and Satan. In this chapter we hear Jesus pronouncing woes upon the very cities wherein most of His mighty works were done.
It would seem incredible, if we did not know something of the hardness of our own hearts until subdued by divine grace, that men could resist such clear and evident proof of the messiahship of the Lord Jesus. But it is only when men bow in repentance before God that Christ is revealed to the soul. It has been remarked often that the same sun which softens the wax hardens the clay. So it is with the preaching of the gospel: some respond to it with gratitude and enjoy its blessings; others turn from it in unbelief, and so are hardened in their sins. “To the one,” says Paul, “we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life” (2 Cor. 2:16). It was so when the Prince of all preachers was here. There were those, chiefly among the poor and the outwardly sinful and degraded, who received the message eagerly and found life and healing. But the proud, self-righteous religionists, who did not feel their need of God’s grace, spurned the message and the Messenger, even blasphemously declaring that the Lord Himself was an agent of Beelzebub, the prince of the demons.
After commissioning the Twelve and sending them forth to preach the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus left to go forth alone to minister in other cities. We read:
And it came to pass, when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities. (v. 1)
After the apostles had left, two of John the Baptist’s disciples came to inquire of the Lord whether He was indeed the Coming One or whether they should look for another. The Lord Jesus answered by demonstrating His power over disease and demons and took occasion to give due recognition to John and his message.
Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in king’s houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (vv. 2-15)
As to whether doubts had entered the mind of His forerunner John, or whether he simply sent his disciples to the Lord Jesus Christ with their questions as to His identity with the One who was to come in order that their faith might be confirmed, we need not speculate. John was in prison at this time because of his faithfulness in reproving Herod for his wickedness in taking as his paramour Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. John’s day of popularity was over. As he languished in the gloomy fortress of Machaerus (if tradition be correct), he may have wondered if in some way he had misunderstood the testimony regarding Jesus. Or it may have been to reassure some of his troubled disciples that he sent two of them to Jesus to inquire whether He was indeed the One “that should come” or whether, like John himself, He was but the herald of Another.
In answer to these questions, Jesus reminded them that all the credentials of the King were manifested in power. The mighty miracles He wrought were to attest His claims: the blind were made to see and the lame to walk, lepers were cleansed, the deaf were made to hear, and even the dead were raised up. What greater signs could be looked for? To the poor the glad tidings of the kingdom were proclaimed. But it was a time of testing. There was no outward pomp or show such as might be naturally expected in connection with the advent of a King. Therefore, faith in God and His Word was important. “Blessed,” He declared, “is he, whosoever shall not be offended [or scandalized] in me.” It took real faith to see in the meek and lowly Jesus of Nazareth the royal Son of David, destined to rule all nations with the iron rod of righteousness.
After the departure of John’s disciples, Jesus took occasion to speak in highest terms of the Baptist and his testimony. What was it that had attracted the throngs to him? It was not because of any outward show of magnificence or grandeur. John did not appear in gorgeous robes or other costly array such as might have been found on royal attendants in kings’ palaces. He came, Elijahlike, in poor clothing, and subsisting upon the simplest food. Yet, of all born of women up to that time, he was the greatest, because it was given to him to introduce the Messiah to Israel. But, great as his privileges were, the simplest and poorest member of the kingdom of heaven is greater by far. For though John pointed to the open door, it was not given to him to enter into the new condition of things which the kingdom suggests. He closed one epoch; Jesus opened another. “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” For faith he fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy that Elijah was to come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
Having said this, Jesus exclaimed, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” It is so easy to hear with the outward ear but fail to receive the truth in the heart.
The Lord then brings out in vivid contrast the difference between John’s ministry and His own, but He shows that there was very little response to either.
But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children, (vv. 16-19)
“Children sitting in the markets.” Jesus likens the people to whom the message had come to irresponsible children who could make a play of the happiest or the saddest experience of life, but had little realization of the import of either.
“Ye have not danced; … ye have not lamented.” Whether a wedding or a funeral, it was all the same. There was no response to either. Neither the glad note of the gospel nor the solemn call to repentance seemed to have any effect on the great majority of the people.
“John came neither eating nor drinking.” John was an ascetic, a man of the wilderness, who denied himself all ordinary comforts. But they declared he was a demoniac.
“A man gluttonous, and a winebibber.” Jesus was a Man of the people. He moved freely among them and participated in their feasts. But His very geniality was misinterpreted. They accused Him of pampering His appetites.
In the section embracing verses 20-24, Jesus rebukes the cities that had enjoyed the greatest privileges but the majority of whose people persisted in their unbelief. We may well be amazed at the impenitence and hardness of heart of the residents in the cities where Jesus had done so many of His mighty works, but have our own hearts been any more ready to receive the truth than theirs?
Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shall be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. (vv. 20-24)
“They repented not.” The very cities that had been most privileged by hearing His words and beholding His works of power, refused to change their careless attitude, and so continued in their sins.
“Chorazin… Bethsaida.” These cities were situated near the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, the one a little to the west, and the other on the shore. Chorazin is today an almost unidentifiable ruin; Bethsaida is a very poor little village.
“More tolerable for Tyre and Sidon.” These were Phoenician cities, noted for their wickedness and destroyed centuries before. But their people are still awaiting the day of judgment. Note that there will be degrees of punishment according to the measure of light received and rejected.
“Exalted unto heaven, … brought down to hell [hades].” In privilege, Capernaum was blessed above all other cities of Galilee, for the Lord chose it as “his own city” and in it wrought more mighty works than in any other place. In this sense it was indeed exalted. But it was condemned to utter ruin, because it knew not the time of its visitation.
“More tolerable for … Sodom.” Sodom had become a synonym for the vilest and most unnatural sin. But the people of Capernaum were guiltier, because they had much greater light and far more privileges, yet they persisted in their sins.
With what relief of mind we turn to the closing verses of this chapter! Though spurned by so many to whom His heart went out in pity and compassion, our Lord was not “soured,” as we might have been, by the coldness and even ill-treatment with which an ungrateful people spurned His love and grace. He accepted all from His Father’s hand and continued to offer deliverance and blessing to all who would come to Him.
At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light, (vv. 25-30)
“I thank thee, O Father.” At the very time when our Lord was experiencing the bitterness of man’s indifference and opposition, He turns in worship and praise to the Father, rejoicing that though the great ones in Israel rejected Him, the humble received His words.
“Even so, Father.” It is the language of complete subjection to the Father’s will. As the dependent Man on earth, He was wholly resigned to that which the Father had foreseen.
“No man knoweth the Son, but the Father,” The mystery of the Incarnation, God and Man in one person, is insoluble and past human comprehension. But the Father may be known “to whomsoever the Son will reveal him.” The fatherhood of God, unknown by human wisdom, is revealed by the Son. He has made God known to those who receive His words, as the Father of all the redeemed.
“Come unto me … and I will give you rest.” Surely, none but God manifest in the flesh could rightly use such language as this. The best man earth ever knew could make no such declaration. All others who speak as directed by the Spirit of God point men from themselves to Christ for rest of conscience and peace of mind. Jesus alone could say, “Come unto me … and I will give … rest” to the burdened and heavy-laden. He has proved His Deity times without number by His ability to fulfill this promise.
“Take my yoke upon you … and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” All who are truly subject to Him find rest of heart in the midst of all the cares of life as they learn of Him, the meek and lowly One. A yoke is designed to curb the will and bring one under control. He who exchanges sin’s heavy burden for the glorious yoke of subjection to the Lord finds it blessed indeed to serve so good a Master.
“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Many shrink from submitting to His yoke, fearing it may involve greater sacrifices than they are ready to make. But all who acknowledge His authority and blend their wills with His find they enter a rest such as the weary of this world never know.
The two rests. The rest that the Lord Jesus gives freely to all who come to Him is rest of conscience in regard to the sin question. The distressed soul, burdened with a sense of guilt, comes to Him and finds peace when he trusts Him as the great Sin Bearer. The second rest is rest of heart. Adverse circumstances may rise up to alarm and fill the heart with fear and anxiety, but he who takes Christ’s yoke and learns of Him is able to be calm in the midst of the storm. He finds perfect rest as he trusts all to Him who sits over the waterfloods and is Lord of all the elements. These two rests are the same as the two aspects of peace presented in the Epistles. Rest of conscience is the equivalent of that peace with God, which is the portion of all who are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1). Rest of soul is the same as that peace of God that passes all understanding (Phil. 4:6-7) and is enjoyed by all who learn to commit everything to the Lord.