Matthew 11 focuses on the rising opposition to Jesus’ mission. Although John the Baptist’s question about the Lord’s true identity is not intended to oppose Him (because he does not go past doubt to unbelief, vv. 1–15), note that such doubting, if not handled properly, is the first step toward apostasy. Many religious leaders in Jesus’ day go farther down this path and become outright enemies of John and Jesus (9:32–34; 11:16–19). Finally, as seen in today’s passage, many common folk begin showing hostility to the Christ.
We have seen in the last few chapters examples of individuals who trusted Jesus and were blessed (8:5–13; 9:20–22). However, people like the Roman centurion and the hemorrhaging woman are not necessarily representative of the great crowds that have heard the Savior (8:1). These faithful people are the exception according to Matthew 11:20–24, not the rule. Jesus has done “mighty” miracles throughout Galilee (exemplified in the towns of Corazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum), but the populace as a whole has failed to repent.
That these villages have committed an especially heinous sin in rejecting Jesus is clear in their promised fate, which will be worse than that of three exceptionally wicked cities. The Old Testament prophets frequently denounced Tyre and Sidon (Ezek. 26–28; Zech. 9:1–4) for their worship of idols and for taking pride in wealth. Sodom’s rampant wickedness is well-known (Gen. 19). The Galilee of Jesus’ day may not be guilty of such evils, but their punishment on Judgment Day will be worse because, unlike Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, they have seen that Jesus is the agent of God’s salvation and yet have rejected Him. In this passage, our Savior tells us that greater knowledge brings greater responsibility. As Matthew Henry says, “The stronger inducements we have to repent, the more heinous is the unrepentance and the severer will the reckoning be.”
Matthew 11:20–24 seems to teach us there will be degrees of punishment in hell. Although all unrepentant sinners will suffer for eternity, those who have been exposed to the Gospel and have rejected it will suffer more intensely than those sinners who have never heard (Luke 12:35–48).
All of us are children of wrath from the moment of conception and deserve only eternal, conscious punishment for our sins apart from God’s gracious renewal of our hearts to trust in His Son. Nevertheless, the sufferings of hell will be greater for those who know more of the Father’s plan and character and yet remain in sin. No matter how difficult this may be for us to understand (Luke 20:45–47), the more we know, the more accountable we will be.
For further study:
The Bible in a year: