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A Tale of
Three Cities

A Tale of Three Cities

by Billy D. Dickinson

Published in
The Informer
December, 1994

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Last updated:
October 7, 1999.

The above title should be familiar to those acquainted with the writings of Charles Dickens because it is borrowed from one of his novels, A Tale of Two Cities.  Since that is the case, I would like to begin this article the way the novel begins: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness... it was the season of light; it was the season of darkness."  I believe that very same description can be given of the three cities that Christ denounced in Matthew 11:20-24.

Yes, for the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum it was the best of times and the worst of times.  It was the best of times because Christ had come into their vicinity and midst and performed mighty miracles there.  But it was also the worst of times for them because of their unbelief and indifference toward the Savior.  Jesus brought into their midst wisdom and light, but they chose to dwell in ignorance and darkness.  That decision placed those cities under the condemnation of God and gave occasion for the Lord's denunciation of them.  Matthew 11:20 says: "Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not.

To "upbraid" means to blame publicly; it means to denounce before others in a way that is public and open for all to hear and observe. Please notice that Christ did not upbraid all cities, but rather the Bible says that he began to upbraid the cities "wherein most of his mighty works were done."

The Circumstance

You see, these three cities were in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee and their inhabitants had seen and heard Christ more than most.  Hence, they had the least excuse for rejecting Him.  It is believed that Chorazin was only a few miles (maybe as close as two or three miles) to Capernaum.  Bethsaida, which was the home of Peter and Andrew (John 1:44), was also near Capernaum.  Bear in mind that Capernaum was actually the city where Christ lived after He left Nazareth, and was His headquarters.  In fact, Capernaum is called "his own city" in Matthew 9:1.  The point is that Christ was not just a visitor there. No, it was a place that knew the blessing of Christ's presence and its citizens had witnessed many of His wonderful miracles.  The reason Christ condemned those three cities in such a harsh way was because of their unbelief, even after all they had seen and heard!

So, Christ pronounces a series of "woes" in Matthew 11:21-24: "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."  What is He saying here?  Christ is saying that one principle of righteous judgment is to take into consideration the opportunity a person has had to know and do better.

Chorazin And Bethsaida

These two cities of Galilee had been given a privilege that had never come to Tyre and Sidon, for they had actually seen and heard the Son of God and witnessed displays of great miraculous power.  In fact, Jesus said that if the same opportunities and privileges had been extended to Tyre and Sidon (heathen cities condemned by the prophets for their pride and wickedness), they would have repented long ago.  Thus Christ concludes: "I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you" (verse 22).  Our Lord is simply saying that if God condemned and destroyed Tyre and Sidon for their wickedness, then surely those who had witnessed His mighty works and had greater opportunity to know the Truth, but rejected it, will fall under God's condemnation.  Indeed, in that sense, they will be judged by a greater strictness because their conduct is less excusable.

Privileged Capernaum

Next, notice that Christ turns His attention toward Capernaum.  Yes, because He lived there and made it His headquarters, He saves for it His harshest words: "And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt 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" (Matt. 11:23).  Christ is once more emphasizing the sin of people who forget the responsibilities of privilege!

It has been said that the more God has done to draw men unto Himself, the less excusable they are if they do not repent.  That is what Christ is emphasizing here.  He describes Capernaum as a city "exalted unto heaven."  I understand this to be a Hebrew metaphor expressive of the utmost prosperity and the enjoyment of the greatest privileges.  In other words, Capernaum was a city highly favored by God because it was where Christ dwelt and called home.  But with that privilege came responsibility.  Thus Christ declared: "But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee" (Matt. 11:24).  Christ is saying that if God did not spare Sodom, He will surely not spare the citizens of a city who had even greater opportunities to know the Truth.

The Most Guilty

The words of our Savior emphasize that there will be a day of judgment and in that day God will take into account the opportunities one has had to know and obey the Truth.  Those will be held the most guilty by God who have been blessed with great privileges and opportunities, yet have met them with neglect or disdain.  We might say that the clearness of the light against which sin is committed aggravates the guilt.

The principle that we are dealing with here is stated by Christ in Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more."  Christ is saying that the possession of great gifts involves a corresponding responsibility.  Too many times people pray for greater blessings in life, (whether it be wealth, increase in prestige, a greater influence, or increased abilities), without realizing that this will also increase their responsibilities.

Ability Brings Responsibility

We need to realize there are different factors that help to determine responsibility.  One of those factors is ability.  The more ability we have, the more God requires of us.  If we are equal to the five talent man, as it were, the Lord expects us to produce accordingly.  On the other hand, if we are just a one talent man, so to speak, that is all the Lord requires of us (Matt 25:14-30).  However, all of us have some ability, be it great or small, and the Lord expects us to live up to our potential.

Another factor is our knowledge of duty and right.  While ignorance is not bliss, certainly the increase of knowledge does not diminish responsibility, but enhances it.  Let us remember the words of James 4:17: "Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin."  Also, the Lord takes into account the richness of opportunities which come our way.  The more we have to do good, the more we are responsible for doing good.  "As we have therefore opportunity," Paul writes in Galatians 6:10, "let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith."

Our Opportunities And Responsibilities

Let me now pose a question: What does all of this have to do with you and me?  We have discussed the tale of three cities and how they fell under the Lord's condemnation.  I cannot help but wonder if we can see any parallels in all of this to our own lives!  As citizens of the United States of America, we are surely some of the most fortunate and blessed people in all of the world.  We have been blessed beyond measure, both materially and spiritually.  Jesus spoke of Capernaum being exalted unto heaven; the same can be said of our nation to a great extent.  How fortunate we are to live in such a prosperous country where we enjoy the many freedoms that are ours, especially in regard to speech and religion!  But do we realize that with our blessings there are some added responsibilities?  Woe be unto us if we, of all the peoples of the world, fail to heed the responsibility of privilege!

Woe be unto us, if we do not know by now, what one must do to be saved and how to serve God acceptably!  Of all the nations on earth, the citizens of this country are without excuse if they are ignorant of the Gospel and its saving plan.  After all, we have lived in a land where the Gospel has enjoyed free course and the Bible has been readily available to anyone who desired to read and study it.  If you stand before Christ in the day of judgment having never obeyed His Gospel, what will be your excuse?  The inhabitants of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum were blessed with Christ's presence.  However, in a sense, we are more blessed than they, because we live on this side of the cross under the New Testament and we enjoy perfect knowledge of things they did not yet understand.

If one is willing to accept the Bible for what it says, it can be easily seen that the following steps are necessary for salvation: One must believe in Christ (John 3:18); one must repent of his sins (Luke 13:3); one must confess Christ (Rom. 10:9,10); one must be baptized for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).  Have you taken these steps that will put you into Christ (Gal. 3:26,27)?  Have you done what the Lord requires of you to do to be saved?  If not, what is your excuse?  What will be your excuse in the day of judgment?