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Matthew 11:16-24 by Robert Dean
Reality check: Are people basically good or basically evil? What you think about this determines what you believe about many things, including your view of the role of government. Listen to this lesson to learn that the Bible teaches that everyone in born into this world with a sin nature and is in need of redemption. Find out what Jesus meant by “this generation”. See that the Jewish leaders and the people during Jesus’ time on earth increasingly began to reject His message about the kingdom of God. Accept the challenge to study and apply the truth of God’s Word in order to grow spiritually and not just be a “Sunday-only” Christian.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:1 hr 7 mins 33 secs

Reaction, Rejection, Condemnation
Matthew 11:16–24
Matthew Lesson #069
March 8, 2015

We are focusing on the next section which goes from Matthew 11:16 through 24. We see the response in this chapter to Jesus’ gospel ministry. The message that Jesus gave is found in Matthew 4:17. Up to this point the focal point of this message has been on the kingdom. This is the same message that John the Baptist was announcing: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. John the Baptist began this message, and the people flocked to hear him. Down by the Jordan River he would baptize them as a sign that they were being identified with repentance in expectation of a kingdom.

We need to take a look at this particular phrase a little bit because this is at the heart of what is happening in Matthew 11 and 12 as we see Jesus formally rejected by the religious leaders of His day. The message has been to repent. Repent is based on a Greek word METANOEO. If we were to break it down etymologically, NOEO has to do with the mind, or thinking (the noun is NOUS), and META means after; so it might mean etymologically a second thought or an afterthought—that is not the meaning. It means, in the way it is used, to change your mind about something. In Jewish thinking, if you changed your mind, you were turning from one thing to another. A synonym that is used in the Gospels for repentance is also EPISTREPHO, which means to turn—turning from that which is disobedient to God to that which is in obedience to God. It has its root in the Old Testament word shub, which is usually translated “turn”, and is a depiction of Israel turning away from idols, away from false teaching to the worship of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Eschatologically, that means in terms of the end times, this concept of turning is embedded within Deuteronomy 30, that before the kingdom would come and before God would fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to establish a kingdom, to give them the land that He had promised them, before God would fulfill the land covenant, before God would provide for the ultimate son of David, the Davidic King, the Messiah of Israel, Israel would have to turn back to God. So what we see here is that this is the message. There is the expectation of the Messiah; that the Messiah will come.   

John the Baptist has come in the spirit and ministry of Elijah as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy in Malachi 3:1, that God would send a messenger before the Messiah to announce. So John the Baptist is the forerunner announcing the coming of the King. The King is a literal king, the literal descendant of David who will establish His kingdom and a literal throne in Jerusalem on the earth. The reason I emphasize that is because in about the third century after Christ, a new way of interpreting the Bible entered into Christianity, heavily influenced by Platonism and neo-Platonism, the dominant philosophies of the Greek world at the time, which introduced what is called allegorical interpretation of the Bible. Allegorical interpretation says basically that these things that are described physically and literally in the Bible do not necessarily take place; there is a hidden meaning, a second meaning, a spiritual or allegorical meaning, and that these events did not necessarily take place in a literal physical fashion. As a result of that, the concept of the kingdom was distorted. The concept of the kingdom no longer became a literal physical geopolitical kingdom centered in Jerusalem with Jesus sitting on a literal throne of David, but became spiritualized to heaven. So in the Old Testament, if you read in Genesis 12:7 where God said to Abraham, “I am going to give this land to you; walk its breadth and length”, that really didn’t mean land by the time you get into the New Testament. It is redefined: that’s really heaven; it is not land. So things like land and Israel are no longer taken at literal value, they have a hidden spiritual meaning, and it is that spiritual meaning that is really significant.

One of the great thinkers of the church at that time, influenced by the school of Alexandria in northern Egypt, was a man by the name of Origen. Origen is the one who really systematizes allegorical interpretation, and that becomes the dominant way in which Christians interpreted the Old Testament for the next 1300 years. It became formerly the orthodox view of the Roman Catholic Church under the teaching influence of the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine. If anybody deviated, he was a heretic. So for 1300 years, everybody is thinking that the church replaced Israel because God wasn’t really giving Abraham a piece of real estate on the Jordan River; He is just promising that he is going to get into heaven.

This idea of a non-literal kingdom is known as amillennialism, which means no kingdom, no literal millennium. This dominated the church until the Protestant Reformation. And it wasn’t until about a hundred years or so after the Reformation, as more and more Bible scholars and theologians are reading and interpreting the Bible in a literal manner, that they come to understand that there will be a future literal kingdom upon the earth and that Jesus is going to return a second time in order to establish that kingdom. He will return before that kingdom begins, and it is postponed because Israel rejected Him. The primary character of that kingdom is Jewish. It is a Jewish kingdom for Jewish people located in the historic homeland of the Jewish people in Israel, ruled by a physical descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth who, through His mother Mary, is in the direct line of descent from David.

So when John the Baptist came, what the people understood was that this kingdom that had been prophesied and foretold for the previous 1,500 years, they understood exactly what John meant when he said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and that finally God was going to fulfill His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to Moses, to David and Jeremiah. Now the kingdom was going to come because the King is coming.

There is another view that came along after the Protestant Reformation called post-millennialism. Post-millennialism means the church is going to reform society through God the Holy Spirit. That is the conservative view, that through the ministry of God the Holy Spirit the church is going to spread out its influence throughout the world and eventually everybody comes to a saving knowledge of the gospel, and that as a result of the salvation of the world, the kingdom will come in—this utopic vision of perfection—and Jesus returns at the end of that kingdom.

Amillennialism and post-millennialism were very conservative for many centuries, until the mid-nineteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, there is a wind of evil that blows across western civilization that originated from the Enlightenment period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It became known as Protestant liberalism. At its foundation is the rejection of God; that God does not actually exist, and if He did we couldn’t actually know Him. And He can’t communicate to us, and that Christianity and the Bible are really no different from any other book. They may have sections of great insight, but so do many other books written by human beings. They rejected the historic orthodox view of the Bible: that it was the inherent, infallible Word of God, breathed out by Him through human beings, and that through His oversight it was kept free from error and anything wrong; it is a perfect book that we can rely upon. They also rejected the deity of Christ, the whole idea of the virgin birth, the whole idea of miracles. Because they were coming from a purely rationalistic framework, they believed that everything must be submitted to human reason. Since we never saw this happen at any other time in history, then it can’t possibly be true. This becomes the dominant view of the Left wing liberal Christianity; it rejects supernaturalism. That is its foundation.

The Bible teaches something that most people don’t like, and that is that none of us are any good. The Bible teaches something called total depravity, which means every aspect of our nature has been corrupted by sin. We are all sinners. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God; there is none righteous, no, not one. This is the claim of the Bible. People aren’t basically good; people are basically evil. People are corrupted by their sin nature. It doesn’t matter how nice and wonderful they might be, they are still a corrupt, spiritually dead person under condemnation. Jesus Christ came to do for all of us; that is how we all are when we come into this world, and we are corrupt and we are fallen. In liberalism, because they reject creation, they reject Genesis, and they reject the Bible. Everybody is basically good. They may have flaws, they may have failures, and they may make mistakes; but everybody is basically good.

The understanding of total depravity is the foundation for understanding the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The reason you want to have checks and balances on government is because absolute power corrupts absolutely. And because when sinners are in power, they may be wonderful people, but don’t tempt them with real power. So there has to be these checks and balances. The Constitution was founded on biblical concepts and a biblical view of man as totally depraved. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the evil winds of change had come in, and people were thinking that everybody was basically good. If they are basically good, then people can be perfected. If they are basically evil, you can’t perfect them because they have this rotten core. But if they are basically good, they can be perfected; and if individuals can be perfected, then societies can be perfected. And so in the middle of the nineteenth century, there was, with the rejection of the biblical view of man and the biblical view of society as being corrupt because of sin,  a new view of society, a new view of man, and consequently that developed new views of politics. All of this was influenced at the same time by the rise of Darwinism, which teaches that man is just an accidental product of time and chance. And there was the rise of modern sociology and modern psychology as well as Marxism. All of these are designed ultimately that because man is basically good and can be improved, that we can bring in a utopic kingdom.

What happens historically is the concept of the kingdom went from this literal kingdom announced in the Gospels, to a spiritualized form of the kingdom in Roman Catholic theology. This still hung around because certain Protestant denominations never really worked out the literal interpretation of prophecy, as they should have. So you have Lutherans, Presbyterians, and some other denominations that don’t believe in a literal kingdom, and that only when a perfect King comes to establish His kingdom can we have a perfect society, and that is off in the future. What laid the foundation of groundwork for the shift in the nineteenth century in the understanding of the kingdom was this allegorical concept of the kingdom that still hung around. By the nineteenth century there is a split that occurs. Conservatives would still believe in total depravity, and even though they believed in a non-literal kingdom, they didn’t go where the liberals went. The liberals had come along and undercut the foundation by carrying away the Bible. So now man is no longer totally depraved, he no longer needs redemption, and sin isn’t the problem. Then man by man’s own efforts can bring in a perfect kingdom. The concept of the kingdom became misunderstood, and people like Karl Marx, Hagel, and a number of other people in Christianity promoted what became known as social gospel. 

There are two gospels. There is a redemptive gospel of the individual, and there is the social gospel to reform society and make it perfect. In the social gospel, the emphasis for Christians needs to be on reforming society. You have to deal with the problem of the poor, the problem of labor, the problem of equal distribution of money; all of these things become part of the social gospel. What happens is, once you start making that shift to where you have two gospels, the wrong gospel always eats up and destroys the good gospel. By the end of the nineteenth century, the dominant view was the pseudo-optimistic post-millennialism of liberalism that got slaughtered and massacred on the fields of Flanders in modern warfare in World War I. Post-millennialism was dead. It came back in the late twentieth century. The social gospel was also killed on the fields of Flanders, but it is coming back now in a new form. 

The reason I went through that is to point out to you that a misperception and misunderstanding of this kingdom concept leads to a totally different understanding of Jesus, what Jesus was doing, and what Jesus was offering. The modern concept of taking this idea of the kingdom of Christ as a present time political kingdom isn’t something new. This is the mistake that the Jews made at the time that Jesus came. The Old Testament taught clearly that the Messiah would come and He would rule, but it also taught that the Messiah would come and would suffer and died for sins (Isaiah 53). What happened in Jewish theology was that they got these things reversed. They forgot about the cross and focused on the crown, and when Jesus was offering the kingdom, it wasn’t the kingdom that they thought would be coming.

So they rejected Him as the Messiah. And this pattern repeats itself down through history. That is what was repeated in the nineteenth century. The kingdom of the Bible at a premillennial future time was rejected because they rejected total depravity, they rejected the need for redemption, they rejected the need for justification: man can do it all on his own by self-reformation and pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, and he can reform the world. And this becomes a vital dynamic future in progressive political theory, which is dominating much of our political arena today. There are conservatives, and there are liberals; but most of them are progressives. Some are more conservative, and some are less conservative; but progressivism which dominates politics today, rejects the biblical view of man and the biblical view of government, thinking that the role of government is to perfect society rather than to restrain sin and evil, both within as well as outside of the national government. So the problem that we have today is confusion over the kingdom, and this is very much an issue that has influenced everything. 

The first part of this chapter, down through verse 15, has focused on the response of John the Baptist. He thought Jesus was the Messiah: he knew Jesus was the Messiah, but Jesus wasn’t bringing in a political kingdom as he had expected. He didn’t have all the information. It wasn’t a problem of doubting; it was a problem with enlightenment: he needed more information. Jesus’ answer was simply to point out what He was doing: that the lame walked, the lepers were cleansed, the dead were raised, and the poor had the gospel preached to them.

Incidentally, in the Bible when it talks about helping the poor, it is primarily talking about helping the righteous poor, not the indigent, irresponsible, lazy poor. They need to reap the consequences. Read Proverbs, and you will come to understand that. The poor that are supposed to be supported by the church in the New Testament are those who are the righteous poor, those who are wanting to work and can’t work. They are not the irresponsible and lazy poor. That distinction is completely lost under the concept of the social gospel.  

A pattern throughout history is that leaders want to take this concept of the kingdom of God and twist it and manipulate it to their own purposes, rather than understanding what it is in the purpose and plan of God. 

Let’s just look at what happens here in this section. Matthew 11:16 NASB “But to what shall I compare this generation? ...” He is going to describe them with a common illustration. “… It is like children sitting in the market places, who call out to the other {children,} [17] and say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ ”

This is an interesting passage to deal with. We have to understand a little about what is going on here and what is taking place. The first thing to look at is it uses this phrase, “this generation”. It occurs several times in Matthew. Sometimes adjectives are added, like in Matthew 12:39 where it says, “an evil and adulterous generation”. In 12:41, “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it…” He is talking about the failures of this particular generation of Jews and their rejection of the Messiah. [42] “{The} Queen of {the} South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” [45], “… this evil generation.” It is the use of those kinds of absolutes that would not endear Jesus to His hearers. He did not read How to Win Friends and Influence People ! He spoke truth. In Matthew 17:17, He calls them an unbelieving and perverted generation. In Matthew 23:36 He uses the phrase “this generation”, pointing out the failures and the flaws of that generation.

So He compares this generation to a common childhood activity. Many commentators make an error here, I believe, because they claim that this analogy really refers to John and Jesus. You have somebody playing the flute. Jesus is playing the flute, and they are not dancing. And then they interpret, “they sang a dirge”, which would be John the Baptist singing the dirge, “and you did not mourn.” We have to pay attention to what Jesus says. He says, “But to what shall I compare this generation?” Then comes the third person pronoun: it. “It” refers to this generation. This generation is “like children sitting in the market places”, so there is one group of children, and they are calling, saying something to their companions. What is happening here is that their companions are not responding to what they are doing.

See, there are these two groups of children who are playing make believe, and they are playing dress-up. There is one group that says, “Okay let’s play dress-up, let’s play wedding. You are going to be the groom and you are going to be the groomsman, etc. So when we play the wedding march you all fall in line and put on a wedding play.” But there is not response; they don’t go along with what the crowd wants them to do. So these kids say, “Okay you don’t want to play wedding; let’s play funeral. When we play the dirge this person’s going to be the preacher, these are going to be the mourners. these are going to be the family members, etc. When we play the funeral dirge, respond to that.” But they wouldn’t respond to that.    

The point that Jesus is making is that the people are like these children who are saying, “We played wedding music, and you didn’t respond. We played the funeral dirge, and you didn’t respond.” They wanted John the Baptist and Jesus to dance to their tune. John and Jesus wouldn’t dance to their tune because their tune was a physical, literal political kingdom that would overthrow Rome. And John the Baptist wasn’t there to announce that kind of a kingdom, and that wasn’t why Jesus was there. This is a social commentary and a condemnation on this generation. This generation had a false view of the kingdom. They had their preconceived notion of what Jesus would be like, what the Messiah would be like, what the kingdom would be like, and they are coming along and saying that is not what God has in mind. And as a result of the fact that they would not do this, there was going to be judgment. Now Jesus brings this point home. In vv. 18, 19, He talks about how they had different responses.

Matthew 11:18 NASB “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’” He didn’t act the way they thought he should. They dismissed him and said he was demon possessed; he was a false teacher. They rejected Him.

Then He said about Himself, Matthew 11:19 NASB “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” The term “Son of Man” is a messianic title (Daniel 7). So again, Jesus is clearly claiming to be the Messiah. In Daniel 7 there is this scene in heaven that talks about the Ancient of Days, who is God the Father sitting on His throne, and that in heaven the Son of Man, which emphasizes the humanity also of this individual, comes before the Ancient of Days; and the Ancient of Days then gives the Son of Man the kingdom. So that, at that point is when the Son of Man comes to the earth to establish the kingdom, and that is in the future because Israel rejected it the first time. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. It is glorious. The kingdom is here, they were rejoicing. And they say, “Look, He is a glutton and a drunkard”.

Just as a side point, they called Jesus a glutton and that was a distortion of something He actually did. He ate the party food. He came, and they had a good time, but He wasn’t a glutton. He just enjoyed the food that was there. Then they called Him a drunkard. Same thing. He drank wine; He turned water into wine. They were distorting what He did when they said He was a glutton. They weren’t commenting on the fact that He never ate; that would destroy everything He is saying here. He is not fasting like John’s people. He came, and He ate. They are exaggerating to condemn Him. That also means that He drank alcoholic beverages. A lot of people still think that the Bible condemns alcoholic beverages. It does not. It condemns the abuse of alcoholic beverages, but it doesn’t condemn drinking them. Jesus came and He enjoyed food, enjoyed wine, and He enjoyed the companionship of people who were socially unacceptable to the Pharisees. He ate with tax collectors and sinners.

He concludes this with “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” God is often personified as wisdom. He is taking this out of Proverbs. Wisdom is often the personification of God and divine thinking in Proverbs; and so “wisdom”, i.e., God’s way of thinking, is justified [vindicated] by its production, by how it is applied. He is saying that if you look at the ministry of John the Baptist and you look at His ministry, then their ministry is vindicated by its results. But the ministry of the scribes and the Pharisees is not vindicated by its results. Again, this is a slap in the face; this is condemnation of what they have been doing. Of course, this is just going to “endear” them even more, and it intensifies the opposition. We are moving in the direction of chapter twelve where they completely reject Jesus and ascribe all His works to Satan.

As a result of this rejection, Jesus states that there is going to be condemnation to those who have not accepted His message. Up to this point, what we have seen is a mounting rejection by the religious leaders of His message and of His claim to be the Messiah; but there is also a mounting rejection by the people. Often you will hear it stated that the religious leaders rejected Him; the people mostly accepted Him. I don’t think so, because here what we are seeing in a condemnation of all those towns and villages around His hometown of Capernaum, and they rejected Him. This is where Jesus did most of His miracles. They liked getting healed; they enjoyed the free food. We will come for Jesus’ handouts and come to get healed, but we really don’t want to repent. That is the point here.       

Matthew 11:20 NASB “Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent.” The word that is used there for denounce/rebuke is a word that emphasizes that He is refuting them and denouncing them It is the Greek word ONEIDIZEIN, which means to denounce, to give reproach, and it is a word that conveys a deep rejection and indignation about what they are doing. They did not repent. Most of the people did not repent; that means they didn’t change their minds about Jesus, they didn’t reject the idolatry of the works system of the Pharisees and shift to the grace message of John the Baptist and Jesus.

He pronounces a woe. This concept of a woe, the terminology of woe, comes out of the Old Testament. It is a word that indicates the announcement of doom, the announcement of judgment, and it is spelled OUAI in the Greek; in the Hebrew it is spelled oy, which is where we get the Hebrew/Yiddish word oi. It is an announcement of judgment, an indication of something horrible that is going to happen.   

Matthew 11:21 NASB “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” Chorazin is located about two miles west of Capernaum. Bethsaida was the home of Peter, Andrew, James and John. Now they are living in Capernaum. Tyre and Sidon were not Jewish cities; they were Phoenician cities. This was the center of the ancient Baal worship, the center of idolatry, and the worst that the Gentiles did. It was the worst forms of paganism.

Jesus says this out of His omniscience. This is a great passage for emphasizing that God knows all the knowable, what would or should have happened but didn’t, and all of the alternatives and possible things that could have happened. Sackcloth was a hairy garment that you would wear next to your skin that was really rough and uncomfortable as a sign that you were spiritually repentant; ashes were a sign that you were mourning. There is a certain hyperbole here. Jesus is saying: You have had such a light given to you and so many miracles, that if the Gentiles had seen this, they would have changed their mind and repented long ago; but you are so hardened that you are going to reject everything that is there.

It is also a great indication of when it is said: If Jesus could only talk to my aunt Bessie she would finally accept the Lord. Miracles did not convince most of the Jews that Jesus was who he claimed to be. The issue isn’t intellectual; the issue is spiritual.    

Matthew 11:22 NASB “Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in {the} day of judgment than for you.” The “day of judgment” is a general term for the future when unbelievers will be judged at the Great White Throne judgment. It will be more tolerable to Tyre and Sidon. They didn’t have the degree of revelation that these cities had. This shows that there are going to be degrees of punishment in the lake of fire. Those who had more, more will be expected from them, and their punishment will be greater. Those who had less revelation? It is not that they get off free because they still have enough revelation. People raise this question: What about the heathen? God says there is enough non-verbal revelation in the heavens for them to know that God exists for them to be held accountable. If they reject the non-verbal witness of the heavens God will not give them more revelation, but if they accept the non-verbal revelation, He will give them more revelation until ultimately they hear the gospel. 

He repeats the same formula in relation to Capernaum. Matthew 11:23 NASB “And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” NKJV  “… who are exalted to heaven”. Why were they exalted to heaven? Not because they were so great but because this is where Jesus lived. They saw more of Jesus every day than anybody else. They had the highest degree of revelation of the hypostatic union, of the God-Man Jesus Christ, than any place. That is why they were exalted to heaven. They had such privilege that Jesus lived, walked and ate every day there. But they will be brought down to Hades. This is where the unbeliever has a place of torments until he is judged and sent to the Lake of Fire at the Great White Throne judgment. And it is not talking about the cities; it is the people who lived there.

Matthew 11:24 NASB “Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in {the} day of judgment, than for you.”

Sodom is a picture also of the worst and greatest depravity of sexual perversion, sexual licentiousness, and absolute rebellion against God. Jesus is saying they didn’t have near the light that Capernaum had and again, that it will be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment.

On the flip side, there are degrees of blessing in heaven for believers. There are rewards for believers so that those who walk by the Spirit and grow to spiritual maturity will have greater degrees of rewards than those who are just Sunday Christians, those who just trusted in Christ as savior but, as I’ve heard people say, I’m just going to be glad to get into heaven and I don’t care if I have a mansion or a mud hut, as long as I am in heaven. That is not a biblical attitude. We should be pursing the glory of God, and those who are the most committed, obedient disciples who grow to spiritual maturity will have great reward. Others will lose reward at the judgment seat of Christ, but not their salvation.

And so the challenge that is embedded here for us as Church Age believers is, are we going to respond to the challenge of Jesus to be a fully committed disciple, and grow to spiritual maturity to bring glory to God? Or are we just going to be a half-way Christian who just compromises with the world? We are just glad we are saved but don’t worry me about growing to spiritual maturity? That is the challenge before us. Are we going to just barely get into heaven, or are we going to get there with great rewards and the praise of our Lord saying, "Well done faithful servant"?