Christ was going on in the praise of John the Baptist and his ministry, but here stops on a sudden, and turns that to the reproach of those who enjoyed both that, and the ministry of Christ and his apostles too, in vain. As to that generation, we may observe to whom he compares them (Matt. 11:16-19), and as to the particular places he instances in, we may observe with whom he compares them, Matt. 11:20-24.
I. As to that generation, the body of the Jewish people at that time. There were many indeed that pressed into the kingdom of heaven; but the generality continued in unbelief and obstinacy. John was a great and good man, but the generation in which his lot was cast was as barren and unprofitable as could be, and unworthy of him. Note, The badness of the places where good ministers live serves for a foil to their beauty. It was Noah’s praise that he was righteous in his generation. Having commended John, he condemns those who had him among them, and did not profit by his ministry. Note, The more praise-worthy the people are, if they slight him, and so it will be found in the day of account.
This our Lord Jesus here sets forth in a parable, yet speaks as if he were at a loss to find out a similitude proper to represent this, Whereunto shall I liken this generation? Note, There is not a greater absurdity than that which they are guilty of who have good preaching among them, and are never the better for it. It is hard to say what they are like. The similitude is taken from some common custom among the Jewish children at their play, who, as is usual with children, imitated the fashions of grown people at their marriages and funerals, rejoicing and lamenting; but being all a jest, it made no impression; no more did the ministry either of John the Baptist or of Christ upon that generation. He especially reflects on the scribes and Pharisees, who had a proud conceit of themselves; therefore to humble them he compares them to children, and their behaviour to children’s play.
The parable will be best explained by opening it and the illustration of it together in these five observations.
Note, 1. The God of heaven uses a variety of proper means and methods for the conversion and salvation of poor souls; he would have all men to be saved, and therefore leaves no stone unturned in order to it. The great thing he aims at, is the melting of our wills into a compliance with the will of God, and in order to this the affecting of us with the discoveries he has made of himself. Having various affections to be wrought upon, he uses various ways of working upon them, which though differing one from another, all tend to the same thing, and God is in them all carrying on the same design. In the parable, this is called his piping to us, and his mourning to us; he hath piped to us in the precious promises of the gospel, proper to work upon hope, and mourned to us in the dreadful threatenings of the law, proper to work upon fear, that he might frighten us out of our sins and allure us to himself. He had piped to us in gracious and merciful providences, mourned to us in calamitous, afflicting providences, and has set the one over against the other. He has taught his ministers to change their voice (Gal. 4:20); sometimes to speak in thunder from mount Sinai, sometimes in a still small voice from mount Sion.
In the explanation of the parable is set forth the different temper of John’s ministry and of Christ’s, who were the two great lights of that generation.
(1.) On the one hand, John came mourning to them, neither eating nor drinking; not conversing familiarly with people, nor ordinarily eating in company, but alone, in his cell in the wilderness, where his meat was locusts and wild honey. Now this, one would think, should work upon them; for such an austere, mortified life as this, was very agreeable to the doctrine he preached: and that minister is most likely to do good, whose conversation is according to his doctrine; and yet the preaching even of such a minister is not always effectual.
(2.) On the other hand, the Son of man came eating and drinking, and so he piped unto them. Christ conversed familiarly with all sorts of people, not affecting any peculiar strictness or austerity; he was affable and easy of access, not shy of any company, was often at feasts, both with Pharisees and publicans, to try if this would win upon those who were not wrought upon by John’s reservedness: those who were not awed by John’s frowns, would be allured by Christ’s smiles; from whom St. Paul learned to be come all things to all men, 1 Cor. 9:22. Now our Lord Jesus, by his freedom, did not at all condemn John, any more than John did condemn him, though their deportment was so very different. Note, Though we are never so clear in the goodness of our own practice, yet we must not judge of others by it. There may be a great diversity of operations, where it is the same God that worketh all in all (1 Cor. 12:6), and this various manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal, Matt. 11:7. Observe especially, that God’s ministers are variously gifted: the ability and genius of some lie one way, of others, another way: some are Boanerges—sons of thunder; others, Barnabeses—sons of consolation; yet all these worketh that one and the self-same Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11), and therefore we ought not to condemn either, but to praise both, and praise God for both, who thus tries various ways of dealing with persons of various tempers, that sinners may be either made pliable or left inexcusable, so that, whatever the issue is, God will be glorified.
Note, 2. The various methods which God takes for the conversion of sinners, are with many fruitless and ineffectual: “Ye have not danced, ye have not lamented; you have not been suitably affected either with the one or with the other.” Particular means have, as in medicine, their particular intentions, which must be answered, particular impressions, which must be submitted to, in order to the success of the great and general design; now if people will be neither bound by laws, nor invited by promises, nor frightened by threatenings, will neither be awakened by the greatest things, nor allured by the sweetest things, nor startled by the most terrible things, nor be made sensible by the plainest things; if they will hearken to the voice neither of scripture, nor reason, nor experience, nor providence, nor conscience, nor interest, what more can be done? The bellows are burned, the lead is consumed, the founder melteth in vain; reprobate silver shall men call them, Jer. 6:29. Ministers’ labour is bestowed in vain (Isa. 49:4), and, which is a much greater loss, the grace of God received in vain, 2 Cor. 6:1. Note, It is some comfort to faithful ministers, when they see little success of their labours, that it is no new thing for the best preachers and the best preaching in the world to come short of the desired end. Who has believed our report? If from the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of those great commanders, Christ and john, returned so often empty (2 Sam. 1:22), no marvel if ours do so, and we prophecy to so little purpose upon dry bones.
Note, 3. That commonly those persons who do not profit by the means of grace, are perverse, and reflect upon the ministers by whom they enjoy those means; and because they do not get good themselves, they do all the hurt they can to others, by raising and propagating prejudices against the word, and the faithful preachers of it. Those who will not comply with God, and walk after him, confront him, and walk contrary to him. So this generation did; because they were resolved not to believe Christ and John, and to own them, as they ought to have done, for the best of men, they set themselves to abuse them, and to represent them as the worst. (1.) As for John the Baptist, they say, He has a devil. They imputed his strictness and reservedness to melancholy, and some kind or degree of a possession of Satan. “Why should we heed him? he is a poor hypochondriacal man, full of fancies, and under the power of a crazed imagination.” (2.) As for Jesus Christ, they imputed his free and obliging conversation to the more vicious habit of luxury and flesh-pleasing: Behold a gluttonous man and a wine-bibber. No reflection could be more foul and invidious; it is the charge against the rebellious son (Deut. 21:20), He is a glutton and a drunkard; yet none could be more false and unjust; for Christ pleased not himself (Rom. 15:3), nor did ever any man live such a life of self-denial, mortification, and contempt of the world, as Christ lived: he that was undefiled, and separate from sinners, is here represented as in league with them, and polluted by them. Note, The most unspotted innocency, and the most unparalleled excellency, will not always be a fence against the reproach of tongues: nay, a man’s best gifts and best actions, which are both well intended and well calculated for edification, may be made the matter of his reproach. The best of our actions may become the worst of our accusations, as David’s fasting, Ps. 69:10. It was true in some sense, that Christ was a Friend to publicans and sinners, the best Friend they ever had, for he came into the world to save sinners, great sinners, even the chief; so he said very feelingly, who had been himself not a publican and sinner, but a Pharisee and sinner; but this is, and will be to eternity, Christ’s praise, and they forfeited the benefit of it who thus turned it to his reproach.
Note, 4. That the cause of this great unfruitfulness and perverseness of people under the means of grace, is that they are like children sitting in the markets; they are foolish as children, froward as children, mindless and playful as children; would they but show themselves men in understanding, there would be some hopes of them. The market-place they sit in is to some a place of idleness (Matt. 20:3); to others a place of worldly business (Jas. 4:13); to all a place of noise or diversion; so that if you ask the reason why people get so little good by the means of grace, you will find it is because they are slothful and trifling, and do not love to take pains; or because their heads, and hands, and hearts are full of the world, the cares of which choke the word, and choke their souls at last (Ezek. 33:31; Amos 8:5); and they study to divert their own thoughts from every thing that is serious. Thus in the markets they are, and there they sit; in these things their hearts rest, and by them they resolve to abide.
Note, 5. Though the means of grace be thus slighted and abused by many, by the most, yet there is a remnant that through grace do improve them, and answer the designs of them, to the glory of God, and the good of their own souls. But wisdom is justified of her children. Christ is Wisdom; in him are hid treasures of wisdom; the saints are the children God has given him, Heb. 2:13. The gospel is wisdom, it is the wisdom from above: true believers are begotten again by it, and born from above too; they are wise children, wise for themselves, and their true interests; not like the foolish children that sat in the markets. These children of wisdom justify wisdom; they comply with the designs of Christ’s grace, answer the intentions of it, and are suitably affected with, and impressed by, the various methods it takes, and so evidence the wisdom of Christ in taking these methods. This is explained, Luke 7:29. The publicans justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John, and afterwards embracing the gospel of Christ. Note, The success of the means of grace justifies the wisdom of God in the choice of these means, against those who charge him with folly therein. The cure of every patient, that observes the physician’s orders, justifies the wisdom of the physician: and therefore Paul is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, because, whatever it is to others, to them that believe it is the power of God unto salvation, Rom. 1:16. When the cross of Christ, which to others is foolishness and a stumbling-block, is to them that are called the wisdom of God and the power of God (1 Cor. 1:23, 24), so that they make the knowledge of that the summit of their ambition (1 Cor. 2:2), and the efficacy of that the crown of their glorying (Gal. 6:14), here is wisdom justified of her children. Wisdom’s children are wisdom’s witnesses in the world (Isa. 43:10), and shall be produced as witnesses in that day, when wisdom, that is now justified by the saints, shall be glorified in the saints, and admired in all them that believe, 2 Thess. 1:10. If the unbelief of some reproach Christ by giving him the lie, the faith of others shall honour him by setting to its seal that he is true, and that he also is wise, 1 Cor. 1:25. Whether we do it or not, it will be done; not only God’s equity, but his wisdom, will be justified when he speaks, when he judges.
Well, this is the account Christ gives of that generation, and that generation is not passed away, but remains in a succession of the like; for as it was then, it has been since and is still; some believe the things which are spoken, and some believe not, Acts 28:24.
II. As to the particular places in which Christ was most conversant. What he said in general of that generation, he applied in particular to those places, to affect them. Then began he to upbraid them, Matt. 11:20. He began to preach to them long before (Matt. 4:17), but he did not begin to upbraid till now. Note, Rough and unpleasing methods must not be taken, till gentler means have first been used. Christ is not apt to upbraid; he gives liberally, and upbraideth not, till sinners by their obstinacy extort it from him. Wisdom first invites, but when her invitations are slighted, then she upbraids, Prov. 1:20, 24. Those do not go in Christ’s method, who begin with upbraidings. Now observe,
1. The sin charged upon them; not any against the moral law, then an appeal would have lain to the gospel, which would have relieved, but a sin against the gospel, the remedial law, and that is impenitency: this was it he upbraided them with, or reproached them for, as the most shameful, ungrateful thing that could be, that they repented not. Note, Wilful impenitency is the great damning sin of multitudes that enjoy the gospel, and which (more than any other) sinners will be upbraided with to eternity. The great doctrine that both John the Baptist, and Christ, and the apostles preached, was repentance; the great thing designed, both in the piping and in the mourning, was to prevail with people to change their minds and ways, to leave their sins and turn to God; and this they would not be brought to. He does not say, because they believed not (for some king of faith many of them had) that Christ was a Teacher come from God; but because they repented not: their faith did not prevail to the transforming of their hearts, and the reforming of their lives. Christ reproved them for their other sins, that he might lead them to repentance; but when they repented not, He upbraided them with that, as their refusal to be healed: He upbraided them with it, that they might upbraid themselves, and might at length see the folly of it, as that which alone makes the sad case a desperate one, and the wound incurable.
2. The aggravation of the sin; they were the cities in which most of his mighty works were done; for thereabouts his principal residence had been for some time. Note, Some places enjoy the means of grace in greater plenty, power, and purity, than other places. God is a free agent, and acts so in all his disposals, both as the God of nature and as the God of grace, common and distinguishing grace. By Christ’s mighty works they should have been prevailed with, not only to receive his doctrine, but to obey his law; the curing of bodily diseases should have been the healing of their souls, but it had not that effect. Note, The stronger inducements we have to repent, the more heinous is the impenitency and the severer will the reckoning be, for Christ keeps account of the mighty works done among us, and of the gracious works done for us too, by which also we should be led to repentance, Rom. 2:4.
(1.) Chorazin and Bethsaida are here instanced (Matt. 11:21, 22), they have each of them their woe: Woe unto thee, Chorazin, woe unto thee, Bethsaida. Christ came into the world to bless us; but if that blessing be slighted, he has woes in reserve, and his woes are of all others the most terrible. These two cities were situate upon the sea of Galilee, the former on the east side, and the latter on the west, rich and populous places; Bethsaida was lately advanced to a city by Philip the tetrarch; out of it Christ took at least three of his apostles: thus highly were these places favoured! Yet because they knew not the day of their visitation, they fell under these woes, which stuck so close to them, that soon after this they decayed, and dwindled into mean, obscure villages. So fatally does sin ruin cities, and so certainly does the word of Christ take place!
Now Chorazin and Bethsaida are here compared with Tyre and Sidon, two maritime cities we read much of in the Old Testament, that had been brought to ruin, but began to flourish again; these cities bordered upon Galilee, but were in a very ill name among the Jews for idolatry and other wickedness. Christ sometimes went into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:21), but never thither; the Jews would have taken it very heinously if he had; therefore Christ, to convince and humble them, here shows,
[1.] That Tyre and Sidon would not have been so bad as Chorazin and Bethsaida. If they had had the same word preached, and the same miracles wrought among them, they would have repented, and that long ago, as Nineveh did, in sackcloth and ashes. Christ, who knows the hearts of all, knew that if he had gone and lived among them, and preached among them, he should have done more good there than where he was; yet he continued where he was for some time, to encourage his ministers to do so, though they see not the success they desire. Note, Among the children of disobedience, some are more easily wrought upon than others; and it is a great aggravation of the impenitency of those who plentifully enjoy the means of grace, not only that there are many who sit under the same means that are wrought upon, but that there are many more that would have been wrought upon, if they had enjoyed the same means. See Ezek. 3:6, 7. Our repentance is slow and delayed, but theirs would have been speedy; they would have repented long ago. Ours has been slight and superficial; theirs would have been deep and serious, in sackcloth and ashes. Yet we must observe, with an awful adoration of the divine sovereignty, that the Tyrians and Sidonians will justly perish in their sin, though, if they had had the means of grace, they would have repented; for God is a debtor to no man.
[2.] That therefore Tyre and Sidon shall not be so miserable as Chorazin and Bethsaida, but it shall be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment, Matt. 11:22. Note, First, At the day of judgment the everlasting state of the children of men will, by an unerring and unalterable doom, be determined; happiness or misery, and the several degrees of each. Therefore it is called the eternal judgment (Heb. 6:2), because decisive of the eternal state. Secondly, In that judgment, all the means of grace that were enjoyed in the state of probation will certainly come into the account, and it will be enquired, not only how bad we were, but how much better we might have been, had it not been our own fault, Isa. 5:3, 4. Thirdly, Though the damnation of all that perish will be intolerable, yet the damnation of those who had the fullest and clearest discoveries made them of the power and grace of Christ, and yet repented not, will be of all others the most intolerable. The gospel light and sound open the faculties, and enlarge the capacities of all that see and hear it, either to receive the riches of divine grace, or (if that grace be slighted) to take in the more plentiful effusions of divine wrath. If self-reproach be the torture of hell, it must needs be hell indeed to those who had such a fair opportunity of getting to heaven. Son, remember that.
(2.) Capernaum is here condemned with an emphasis (Matt. 11:23), “And thou, Capernaum, hold up thy hand, and hear they doom,” Capernaum, above all the cities of Israel, was dignified with Christ’s most usual residence; it was like Shiloh of old, the place which he chose, to put his name there, and it fared with it as with Shiloh, Jer. 7:12, 14. Christ’s miracles here were daily bread, and therefore, as the manna of old, were despised and called light bread. Many a sweet and comfortable lecture of grace Christ had read them to little purpose, and therefore he reads them a dreadful lecture of wrath: those who will not hear the former shall be made to feel the latter.
We have here Capernaum’s doom,
[1.] Put absolutely; Thou which art exalted to heaven shalt be brought down to hell Note, First, Those who enjoy the gospel in power and purity, are thereby exalted to heaven; they have therein a great honour for the present, and a great advantage for eternity; they are lifted up toward heaven; but if, notwithstanding, they still cleave to the earth, they may thank themselves that they are not lifted up into heaven. Secondly, Gospel advantages and advancements abused will sink sinners so much lower into hell. Our external privileges will be so far from saving us, that if our hearts and lives be not agreeable to them, they will but inflame the reckoning: the higher the precipice is, the more fatal is the fall from it: Let us not therefore be high-minded, but fear; not slothful, but diligent. See Job 20:6, 7.
[2.] We have it here put in comparison with the doom of Sodom—a place more remarkable, both for sin and ruin, than perhaps any other; and yet Christ here tells us,
First, That Capernaum’s means would have saved Sodom. If these miracles had been done among the Sodomites, as bad as they were, they would have repented, and their city would have remained unto this day a monument of sparing mercy, as now it is of destroying justice, Jude 1:7. Note, Upon true repentance through Christ, even the greatest sin shall be pardoned and the greatest ruin prevented, that of Sodom not excepted. Angels were sent to Sodom, and yet it remained not; but if Christ had been sent thither, it would have remained; how well is it for us, then, that the world to come is put in subjection to Christ, and not to angels! Heb. 2:5. Lot would not have seemed as one that mocked, if he had wrought miracles.
Secondly, That Sodom’s ruin will therefore be less at the great day than Capernaum’s. Sodom will have many things to answer for, but not the sin of neglecting Christ, as Capernaum will. If the gospel prove a savour of death, a killing savour, it is doubly so; it is of death unto death, so great a death (2 Cor. 2:16); Christ had said the same of all other places that receive not his ministers nor bid his gospel welcome (Matt. 10:15); It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for that city. We that have now the written word in our hands, the gospel preached, and the gospel ordinances administered to us, and live under the dispensation of the Spirit, have advantages not inferior to those of Chorazin, and Bethsaida, and Capernaum, and the account in the great day will be accordingly. It has therefore been justly said, that the professors of this age, whether they go to heaven or hell, will be the greatest debtors in either of these places; if to heaven, the greatest debtors to divine mercy for those rich means that brought them thither; if to hell, the greatest debtors to divine justice, for those rich means that would have kept them from thence.