Embracing the Day of Visitation: Our Lives in the Context of the King

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 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 you 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 for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-24)

I realize this is a strange passage to address on Christmas Eve (Merry Christmas, all), but it’s strangely appropriate too.

On the heels of his public response to, and proclamations about, John the Baptist, Jesus began to prophetically call out the towns and cities where he and his disciples ministered.

He did not often do this, but he did it well; the passage has the tone and characteristic language of the Hebrew prophets hundreds of years before — part lament, part thunder. Just as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel had denounced their people’s sins, so too did Jesus.

And he did it using imagery the prophets frequently employed: the comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah and the threat of being “brought down to Hades” (or brought down to the grave) were an age-old tradition, used by prophets both major and minor.

“It will be more bearable for Sodom than for you,” Jesus told his contemporaries.

But … doesn’t this seem overly harsh? Were these small-town peasants and Pharisees really deserving of such scathing condemnation? Comparison to Sodom and Gomorrah, of all things? Really, Jesus?

And if they deserved such woe and lamentation, what about us? Does this passage have any real application in our day?

It does (of course). But we have to pull back a little to see it.

The Context of the King

As usual, there’s more going on in this passage than meets the eye. There’s a saying: Context is king. In this case, not only is that true, but the context is the King — and with the King, the kingdom.

To understand Jesus’s judgment, we have to understand what he is judging; and in this case, the judgment was inextricably connected to the times.

Let’s dive in:

To understand Jesus’s denunciation of his contemporaries, we first have to backtrack and underscore some key, startling statements he made about John the Baptist, just minutes before launching into this prophetic lament.

We’ve looked at these in depth already, but let’s revisit to draw out a few pivotal points:

But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and far more than a prophet. This is the one it is written about:

Look, I am sending My messenger ahead of You;
he will prepare Your way before You.

I assure you: Among those born of women no one greater than John the Baptist has appeared, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force.

For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come. (Matthew 11:9-14, all emphasis mine)

For crowds who knew something about the Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah and the kingdom of God, the point of all these statements was very clear: The kingdom had arrived. It was here!

It was not still in the future; it was here, on the scene, presently active and even under attack.

The greatest sea change in the history of mankind had taken place.

They had been waiting for Elijah; well, he was here. They had been waiting for the Messiah; he had come. They had been waiting for the return of Yahweh; it had happened. They had been waiting for an end-time battle between good and evil; it was already underway.

For thousands of years, the Law and prophets had pointed forward to something — and that something had come.

For thousands of years, humanity had been waiting for redemption and restoration — and now the day had arrived.

(Even the least in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus said, was greater than the greatest of human beings in every prior age.)

The entire context of human life had been transformed with the arrival of Jesus on the scene.

And yet hardly anyone even noticed it, much less believed.

Sodom and Gomorrah and Tyre and Sidon were bywords for Israel because of their historic connections to immorality, idolatry, and pride — so what is it about these little Israelite towns that brought them under the same judgment and worse? Are we supposed to think they were guilty of perversion and pride like Sodom or oppression and idolatry like Tyre?

No: the issue isn’t one of sin in this more active sense, but of unresponsiveness. The apostle John said it better than anyone:

He was in the world,
and the world was created through Him,
yet the world did not recognize Him.
He came to His own,
and His own people did not receive Him. (John 1:10-11)

Sodom and Gomorrah, shortly before being destroyed, were visited by two angels. They did not respond well, and they went on to destruction.

Tyre and Sidon, for generations before they lost their position and power as one of the world’s great commercial civilizations, lived alongside the nations of Israel and Judah. They were frequently exposed to Israel’s God. Men from Tyre were David and Solomon’s chief partners and craftsmen in building the temple of Yahweh. Sidonian priests of Baal interacted with Elijah and saw fire fall from heaven in answer to his prayers.

Yet at no time did they respond to the presence of God.

We see this same idea of unresponsiveness a chapter earlier, in Matthew 10:14-15 — with the same threat of judgment on those who do not recognize Jesus’s disciples as having been sent from God:

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that house or town. I assure you: It will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

Singing a Different Song

Two thousand years after the coming of Jesus, we may miss the presence of the King in our midst just as surely as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum did. The sea change they witnessed is still at play. We are not waiting for the kingdom of God to arrive: it’s here.

Have we embraced it?

Yes, a much fuller expression of the kingdom is still coming. Jesus is not yet fully revealed to the world. We are still waiting for his “Second Coming” and for the final defeat of evil and death, when his enemies are fully defeated: “For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25).

And yet, we are not without witness of the kingdom now. The goodness of God is available to us now. Redemption is present and active. The Holy Spirit is available, infilling and empowering the church. Jesus has come, died, risen, and ascended to reign: it is not the same world it used to be.

The question is, do we see him? Do we hear him? Are we even listening?

At Christmastime in twenty-first century North America (where I am writing from), you can turn on the radio and hear the words, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her king!” And two seconds later turn and forget that Christmas has any deeper meaning than Santa, cookies, and feelings of nostalgia.

(I recently saw a commenter on YouTube complaining than an old TV Christmas special had an “aggressively Christian” message. Christmas is aggressively Christian, y’all.)

But surely Christmas isn’t the only distraction. Faced every day with the opportunity to live our lives fully cognizant of the kingdom, we so often allow our awareness of Christ to be choked out by worries and concerns, bills and arguments, goals and dreams, Netflix and news.

The danger is the same one found in Matthew 11:15-19, which we addressed last week: we are so distracted by the noise and demands of the world that we risk missing what is happening right before our eyes. “To what should I compare this generation?” Jesus asked. “It’s like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to each other: We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament, but you didn’t mourn!” (Matthew 11:16-17).

The sin of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum was the sin of unresponsiveness. In the small towns of Israel during Jesus’s time, the visitor was not just an angel — it was God himself, manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. The people of these cities had access to the prophets, they witnessed miracles, they saw the signs of the times, they heard the message of John the Baptist, and they interacted with Jesus himself.

The Word of God came to them in power.

And yet they chose to listen to the “children in the marketplace” instead.

The Son of God walked among them. The kingdom of God came. But they barely took notice.

They had ears, but they did not hear.

This is what made their judgment certain: they missed the time of their visitation.

God forbid that we should miss ours.


This is Part 197 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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