The Bible passage we are looking at today contains a famous section that is sometimes called ‘the three woes’. That is because in many English translations Jesus says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! … And you, Capernaum.”
Woe, woe and woe. It is an exclamation of sorrow and horror. It’s like saying, ‘Oh dear, something terrible is going to happen.’
Jesus is pronouncing woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. He isn’t cursing them. He is announcing what will happen. There are three other cities in this passage – “wicked Sodom” and “wicked Tyre and Sidon”. Jesus says the ‘wicked’ cities will fare much better on judgement day than the first three cities.
The historical Jesus was a real person. There is no doubt of that. He was Jewish and lived in Palestine around two thousand years ago. Palestine was not a large or important country. It was a Roman colony. In the south was Judea with Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and the capital Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t spend much time in rich Judea. Next to the north was Samaria, which separated Judea from Galilee. Galilee, the poor area, is where Jesus grew up and did most of his teaching. In fact Jesus did most of his teaching in a tiny part of this region near the Sea of Galilee during the few years of his public ministry.
It is the place where Jesus did some of his greatest miracles and teaching. The centre of Jesus’ Galilean ministry was an area now called the “evangelical triangle”. At the points of the triangle were the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum.
Chorazin was located about 2.5 miles (4km) north of the Sea of Galilee, situated on the basalt hills above Capernaum. Although a prominent city during Jesus’ lifetime, it was gone when the church father Eusebius wrote at the end of the fourth century. He said Chorazin was a destroyed village, apparently in fulfilment of Jesus’ words.
Bethsaida dates back to the time of King David. It was at the heart of the kingdom of Geshur (Joshua 13:13, 2 Samuel 13) in the tenth century BC. Bethsaida was a fishing village (Bethsaida means ‘house of fishing’) on the shore of the Sea of Galilee about 2 miles (3km) east of Capernaum. It was the home town of Peter, Andrew and Philip (John 1:43).
Two of the Jesus’s most well-known miracles were done near Bethsaida.
Mark 8:22–25 – “When they arrived at Bethsaida, some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and they begged him to touch the man and heal him. Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village. … Then Jesus placed his hands on the man’s eyes again, and his eyes were opened. His sight was completely restored, and he could see everything clearly.”
Luke 9:10–17 – “When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done. Then he slipped quietly away with them toward the town of Bethsaida. But the crowds found out where he was going, and they followed him. He welcomed them and taught them about the Kingdom of God, and he healed those who were sick.”
And then, it says, Jesus fed 5,000 men with five loaves and two fishes.
Today there is no Bethsaida. It was destroyed and it has vanished.
The third place is Capernaum. Traditions suggest that Capernaum was the birthplace of the prophet Nahum, hence the name. Capernaum served as Jesus’ home in Galilee, although he did not own property there. Matthew 4:13–14 says, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he left Judea and returned to Galilee. He went first to Nazareth, then left there and moved to Capernaum, beside the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.”
Capernaum was located near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum became the central point of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Many of his miracles occurred in or near the city, including numerous healings: Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15), the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-7), a paralyzed man (Matthew 9:2, 7) and the casting out of demons (Mark 1:23-27). The miraculous feeding of the 4,000 from only 7 loaves of bread and a few fish occurred nearby (Mark 8:6-9), and many other miracles.
Jesus sometimes taught at the Synagogue there on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21).
Amazingly, as happened with Nazareth, the people of Capernaum eventually began to resent and oppose Jesus. They saw the many great miracles with their own two eyes, they heard his very words of truth and wisdom with their own two ears, but they refused to repent and believe.
The town ended up eventually as a ruin, as it remains to the present day.
God’s son went in person to the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. They rejected him. The skeptics scoffed when Jesus told the paralytic his sins were forgiven. They didn’t see that Jesus had the authority as God’s chosen Messiah to forgive sins, even their sins.
Tyre and Sidon were famous in the ancient Near East. They are also important cities in the Old and New Testaments. Both are now located in Lebanon, with Tyre 20 miles (32km) south of Sidon and only 12 miles (19km) north of the Israel-Lebanon border. These towns still exist.
Sidon was included in the inheritance of Asher, on its northern boundary, but it was not taken by that tribe in conquest. Tyre first appeared as part of Asher’s western boundary. Specifically called a “fortified city” in the Bible, it was noted as a significant landmark. Tyre does not appear again in the Bible until Hiram, king of Tyre, sends cedar, carpenters and masons to build David’s house.
New Testament Tyre and Sidon were prosperous Roman port cities. Yet there was great spiritual hunger in the region. Early in Jesus’ ministry, people from Sidon and Tyre heard about the things he did. They came to see him (Mark 3:8 says “They came from all over Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, from east of the Jordan River, and even from as far north as Tyre and Sidon.”) and to be healed by him (Luke 6:17).
Jesus visited the region of Sidon and Tyre. There he healed the Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman’s daughter (Matthew 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–31). This was the same area where God sent Elijah when the widow fed him. It was an area full of non-Israelites. Most of the people were Gentiles. When Paul returned to Palestine from his third missionary journey, he sailed into Tyre. He met with a group of disciples there and spent seven days in the city.
Tyre and Sidon were, like Sodom, wicked cities. They were pagan. They chased wealth.
Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were Jewish cities. They were religious and followed the law of Moses. Jesus lived and worked in these cities. The people saw Jesus, met Jesus, knew Jesus and were healed by Jesus. The people rejected Jesus. Woe to these cities.
If we look at these cities through worldly eyes, we would label three as good and three as wicked. We would conclude that the wicked cities are going to hell, and the others to heaven.
Jesus did not look at them this way. He does not look at us this way. Are you Sidon or are you Chorazin. Or even Sodom. Are you a faithful attender of church, or do you follow your own evil ways seeking money and power? Are you a religious insider, or an outsider.
Jesus seems not to care. God went to all six cities. The ones that responded to him by listening, accepting and repenting, he called better off. He doesn’t look at our sin. Instead he looks to see how we respond to him. If we reject the Messiah, woe to us.
Are you an outsider? Are your sins too great? God only asks that you respond to him when he comes to you with love. He asks you to follow him and accept his love.
It is much better for you to follow Jesus badly, than to be good and reject Jesus. God cares about you even if your are as bad as Sodom, Sidon and Tyre. He comes to you and asks you to go with him. Say yes. Say yes today. It doesn’t matter how sinful you are. It only matters if you will accept Jesus’ invitation, or reject it. In his own words, this is what Jesus said.
John 5:39 – “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.”
Jesus can deal with your sin. It doesn’t matter how bad you think it is. Jesus has the victory over sin. He cannot, however, force you to come to him and receive forgiveness.