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The lesson of the three cities

The ruins of Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida

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Publish Date: 
Sun, 01/31/2010
The lesson of the three cities
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades.” Luke 10:13-15
Those who have visited the ruins of Capernaum, Chorazin or Bethsaida will well remember them. All three cities were located in close proximity on the north end of the Sea of Galilee and each experienced a powerful demonstration of the ministry of Jesus. While the Bible does not tell us much about the town of Chorazin, it presents Bethsaida as the hometown of three of the disciples of Jesus (John 1:44). Jesus visited this bustling fishing village from time to time and “spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11).
Capernaum was an even more prominent town. It was called “his own town” in reference to Jesus (Matthew 9:1) as he took up residence there after he left Nazareth (Matthew 4:13). There, he preached regularly in the local synagogue (Luke 4:31) and preformed many sign and wonders. Jesus tells us that these three cities witnessed his dynamic ministry in both word and deed like no other cities. However, all three cities failed to respond to his message and did not repent.
Looking at their ruins today along the northern shoreline of the Galilee is a stark reminder for all of us of some important lessons.
First of all, Jesus indicates that God’s judgment is not uniform. Some cities will experience a more severe judgment than others, as each is judged in its generation. For Tyre and Sidon the judgment of God “will be more tolerable than for you”, he warns.
Here the standard of Jesus seems different than our human and religious impulses would tell us. Apparently, ungodly cities may be judged less harshly than cities steeped in religious tradition, but which fail to respond to the move of God in their midst. Jesus explains this principle in the following way: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.” (Luke 12:48)
There are many ‘Christian’ towns today which, like those cities favoured by His presence, remain unmoved by powerful moves of God. The same heavenly visitation would have converted heathen cities like Tyre or even Sodom. They even would have repented quickly “long ago” and in a most humble manner – “in sackcloth and ashes”. Charles Spurgeon once said: “It is a sad fact that our impenitent hearers do despite to a grace which would have brought cannibals to the Saviour’s feet!”
Or as the British clergyman Richard Cecil noted: “Who is the most miserable man on earth, and whither shall we go to seek him? Not to the tavern; not to the brothel; but to the church! That man, who has sat, Sunday after Sunday, under the awakening and affecting calls of the gospel, and has hardened his heart against these calls, he is the man whose condition is the most desperate of all others.”
The passage from Luke 10, therefore, also presents a clear warning not to count the great and eternal salvation offered through Jesus as cheap grace. The letter of Hebrews warned the early church and as well as us today that: “For since the message declared by angels [the Old Testament] proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation which was declared at first by the Lord...” (Hebrews 2:2-3).
Some Christians today believe exactly the opposite. They view the Old Testament era as a time of the great foreboding judgment of God, while today we live in an age of grace when the Lord is only bountiful in mercy with His people.
Yet the above passage suggests the opposite. The life of Jesus – and the salvation purchased through his death, burial and resurrection – is the greatest gift God could offer to mankind. It indeed cost Him everything. But this radical offer of God’s incredible love requires a radical response from us. The three cities in Galilee failed to produce that response. The ruins today remind us of that.
Therefore, let us rather follow those who committed their lives to the Saviour and Redeemer. The reward will be a city that is indestructible, and an inheritance that is eternal.


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