No one likes to think about judgment, and we are relieved that Jesus moves on from this point to talk about the electing grace of God and to issue a Gospel invitation. Nevertheless, it is important to think about judgment sometimes, and this passage is one of the most helpful passages in the New Testament for understanding it. These verses teach us five uncomfortable lessons.
“But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment…” (Mt.11.23-24)
First of all, there will be a judgment. The reason we do not like to think about judgment is that we do not want to admit there will be one. We imagine that if there is a judgment, we will come out all right since we are nice people. Or we hope that if we are condemned, it won’t be so bad. Jesus does not treat judgment so lightly. He says it should be feared.
Secondly, there are degrees of punishment. One of the most frightening ideas in this passage is its teaching about degrees of punishment. Jesus says that as terrible as the judgment of Tyre and Sidon will be, it will not be as bad as the judgment of Chorazin and Bethsaida. And as terrible as the judgment of Sodom will be, it will not be as horrible as the judgment of Capernaum. The people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom were wicked and will be rightly punished for their sins. But they had never heard of Jesus as the cities of Christ’s day had and thus would not suffer as severe a punishment as those cities.
The third uncomfortable lesson states that the worst sin of all is unbelief. We do not think this way, since unbelief is our chief sin. We prefer to point out the sins of others by observing how outrageous or inhumane they are. In your mind, who are history’s greatest sinners? Probably people such as Hitler, Idi Amin, Stalin, and, if we think back far enough, Genghis Khan or Nero. They are the sinners highest on our lists. Yet there is no record of the people of Chorazin, Bethsaida, or Capernaum having done anything particularly offensive or inhumane. They were just people going about their business as we do. Yet they refused to repent and turn to Jesus, and Jesus said that their unbelief was a far worse evil than the sins of other notoriously wicked cities.
What was the root of their sin? Jesus suggests that it was pride and does so by linking the unbelief of Capernaum to the pride of the king of Babylon in v.23. This verse 23 is an echo of Isaiah 14.13-15 in which the Babylonian king says, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.… I will make myself like the Most High.” God informs this proud ruler, “But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.”
Additionally, God’s judgments take account of His contingent knowledge. This means that God’s judgments are based not only on what people have done but also on what they would have done if the conditions under which they had lived had been different. In this case, Jesus says that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have repented if the miracles that had been done in Galilee had been done there. That is why their judgment will be less harsh. Or to put it another way, as D. A. Carson does in a comment that should be particularly sobering for us, “At the final judgment God will take into account not only North America’s and every North American’s moral standing and response to Jesus Christ and use of opportunities, as compared with, say, every Cuban’s use of the same-but also what both parties would have done if their roles and advantages had been reversed.”
When I think of the opportunities to believe in Christ that have been given to the people of America in our day, I tremble for America. And for you, if you have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ. No nation has ever had the opportunities to repent and believe on Jesus Christ as we have had. “How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?”
Jim Elliot, the missionary martyred in Ecuador several decades ago when responding to why he was going to a foreign country rather than stay and pastor in United States said, “Americans have every opportunity to hear the Gospel. There is a Church on every corner – I must go where they have not this opportunity.” Elliot would be killed by a spear from the very people he had gone to save. Perhaps his most well-known quote characterizes his passion, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Finally, God does not owe salvation to anyone. This is the final hard lesson of these verses. Although the people of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom would have repented and been saved if Jesus had done the miracles in those cities that he did in Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, He did not do them, and the people perished justly for their sins. We think God owes us mercy, but if mercy were owed, it would not be mercy. The only thing God actually owes us is justice, and we will get it if we do not commit our lives to Christ. God is merciful to many, but God owes mercy to none!