Those Who Do Not Repent

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Matthew 11:20-24 (Woe to you)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called Mission and Conflict. To be on mission for Christ means to share the message of Christ with others. But not everyone responds positively to the message. That’s where the conflict comes in. So, what happens to those who do not respond in faith to the gospel? That is what today’s message is about. In today’s passage Jesus tells us about those who do not repent. (Read Matthew 11:20-24 and pray.)

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One of the most joyful occasions you can experience as a follower of Christ is when you share the gospel with someone, and they believe. One of the saddest occasions you can experience as a follower of Christ is when you share the gospel with someone, and they do not believe. When you are obedient to God and begin sharing Christ with others on a regular basis, you will experience both the joy of conversion and the sadness of rejection.

Now we often remind each other that when a person rejects the gospel, they are not really rejecting you – they are rejecting Jesus. But that actually makes it even worse! There is nothing sadder than a person rejecting the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

We have seen that both John the Baptist and Jesus preached the same message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17) Our message today is similar, but a little different, because when Jesus and John preached, Jesus had not yet gone to the cross. Now that Jesus has gone to the cross, the message becomes, “Repent and believe the gospel. Repent and believe the good news of Jesus Christ.”

The word repentance means a complete change of mind and direction in your life concerning God, Jesus and sin. Repentance is part of believing in Jesus. You cannot believe without repenting, and you cannot repent without believing. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin.

The Bible is full of both warning passages and blessing passages. Next week we are going to look at one of the most beautiful blessing passages in all of Scripture (Matthew 11:25-30). But as often happens in Scripture, a warning passage precedes the blessing passage. And today’s passage is a warning passage. It is a warning about what happens to those who do not repent.

In these verses we learn five things about those who do not repent: 1) Jesus denounces those who do not repent. 2) Jesus mourns for those who do not repent. 3) Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who do repent. 4) Jesus warns of coming punishment for those who do not repent. And 5) Jesus urges you to repent now rather than later. So, let’s look at all five of these together.

I. Jesus denounces those who do not repent (20)

First of all, Jesus denounces those who do not repent. We see this in Matthew 11:20: “Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.” (Matthew 11:20)

Notice Jesus denounces them not because they had sinned, but because they did not repent. We all sin, and if sin was an unrepairable breach between us and God, we would all be lost. But fortunately, sin is repairable. Jesus came into the world to die for sin so that we could be forgiven. Jesus doesn’t denounce those who sin. He denounces those who do not repent.

Some people don’t like this idea of a Jesus who denounces people. They say, “Wasn’t Jesus loving and kind to everyone? Why would he go around denouncing people?” Jesus was loving and kind, but Jesus could also be stern and severe. True love is stern when it needs to be. True love speaks the difficult words that must be spoken. And when it comes to sin, we need the loving sternness of Jesus Christ. Jesus denounces those who do not repent of their sin.

Notice that Jesus particularly singles out the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed – Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. These three cities had greater privilege and opportunity than many other cities where Jesus had performed less miracles or no miracles at all.

We know from the gospels that crowds of people followed Jesus, fascinated by his miracles. But as Leon Morris says in his commentary on Matthew, “Jesus was not looking for amazement and admiration but repentance.” That’s the first thing we learn about those who do not repent. Jesus denounces those who do not repent.

II. Jesus mourns for those who do not repent (21a)

Secondly, Jesus mourns for those who do not repent. Look at verse 21 where Jesus cries out: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” (Matthew 11:21a)

Korazin and Bethsaida were two towns close to Capernaum where Jesus set up his headquarters for ministry. Bethsaida was the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip, three of Jesus’ disciples. (John 1:44) Korazin is mentioned in the Bible only here and in the parallel passage in Luke. (Luke 10:13)

We have no other records of Jesus visiting Korazin, and yet Matthew tells us this was one of the cities where Jesus performed most of his miracles. It only goes to show how much the gospels leave out of Jesus’ three-year ministry. As John says at the end of his gospel, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

So here are two of the towns where Jesus performed most of his miracles, and Jesus pronounces a “woe” upon both of them. That word “woe” is a word of doom mixed with pity. It’s a word that combines an element of warning with an attitude of compassion. Perhaps the word, “Alas!” captures the meaning best. As one preacher put it, there is a wail in the woe. So yes, Jesus denounces those who do not repent, but he also mourns for them.

   A. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked
      – Ezekiel 33:11

And this tells us something so important about God. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. We read in Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11)

That word “turn” is the same word for repent. Remember, repent means to turn from your sin, to have a complete change of mind and direction in your life concerning God and sin. God loves you, and he cries out for you to turn and repent of your sin. Why will you die, O sinner, when Christ died for you?

   B. God’s kindness should lead you to repentance
      – Romans 2:4

God takes no pleasure in the death of wicked, and God’s kindness should lead you to repentance. That’s what we read in Romans 2:4 where Paul writes: “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

God is kind to you every day of your life. Every good thing you have in your life is because of God. And we are all so undeserving of God’s kindness because we have all sinned. Shouldn’t God’s kindness lead you to repentance?

That’s the second thing we learn about those who do not repent. Jesus mourns for those who do not repent and believe.

III. Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who repent (21b)

A third thing we learn from our passage today is that Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who do repent. Look at Matthew 11:21 where Jesus says: “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21b)

In Biblical times it was common for a sinner to repent in sackcloth and ashes. Sackcloth is a symbol of humility before the Lord. The ashes are a reminder of death, which is itself a result of sin. Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who repent, as represented here by sackcloth and ashes.

   A. We should express true sorrow for our sin
      – Psalm 38:18; 2 Corinthians 7:9-10

When we repent, we should express true sorrow for our sin. In Psalm 38:18 David writes: “I confess my iniquity; I am troubled by my sin.” (Psalm 38:18) Are you troubled by your sin? Or do you not really think a whole lot about your sin? Are you sorry when you repent, or do you simply confess out of habit or rote? Or even worse, do you take God’s forgiveness for granted? Not David. David said, “I am troubled by my sin.”

Paul writes to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 7: “Your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended…. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10)

What’s the difference between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow? Godly sorrow is sorry because you have sinned against God. Worldly sorrow is only sorry because of the consequences of sin. Godly sorrow is sorry for the sin. Worldly sorrow is sorry because you got caught! Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. The Bible says we should express true sorrow for our sin.

   B. We demonstrate true repentance through our actions
      – Matthew 3:8, Acts 26:20

The Bible also tells us that we demonstrate true repentance through our actions. John the Baptist told his listeners in Matthew 3:8: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8) The apostle Paul says in Acts 26:20: “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20)

Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who do repent. We should express true sorrow for our sin. We demonstrate true repentance through our actions.

IV. Jesus warns of coming punishment for those who do not repent (22-24)

1) Jesus denounces those who do not repent. 2) Jesus mourns for those who do not repent. 3) Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who do repent. And 4) Jesus warns of coming punishment for those who do not repent.

Back to Matthew 11, look at verse 22 where Jesus says to the cities of Korazin and Bethsaida: “But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:22)

Tyre and Sidon were two cities of Phoenicia located north of Israel. Both of these cities were strongly condemned in the Old Testament. Both of them were greatly punished by God for their sins. (Isaiah 23; Ezekiel 26-28; Amos 1:9-10; Joel 3:4-8; Zechariah 9:2-4) But here Jesus tells the cities of Korazin and Bethsaida, “It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”

Or how about the city of Capernaum? Capernaum was a fishing village located on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, not far from Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. Capernaum was Jesus’ adopted home town and the main center for Jesus’ ministry. (Matthew 4:13) If anyone should have repented, it was the people of Capernaum. Think of the many miracles Jesus performed there. Think how many people Jesus had healed there. Think of the unapparelled access they had to Jesus and his teaching.

What does Jesus say to Capernaum? Look at verses 23-24: “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths…. I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24)

Sodom was one of the absolute worst cities in the whole Old Testament. There were not even ten righteous persons in Sodom. The city of Sodom is used everywhere in the Bible as an example of the greatest sin and the greatest punishment.

Was there ever a city worse than Sodom? Jesus says, yes – and it’s Capernaum! Why? Because Capernaum rejected Jesus! There is a day of judgment coming when all those who have not repented will be punished for their sins.

   A. Jesus warns of different levels of punishment
      – Luke 12:47-48; Romans 2:12

Notice that Jesus warns of different levels of punishment. He says it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for Korazin and Bethsaida. He says it will be more bearable for the people of Sodom on the day of judgment than for the people of Capernaum.

What is Jesus saying here? Jesus warns of different levels of punishment. Those with greater opportunities to hear about Jesus and respond to Jesus will be judged more severely than those with less opportunity.

We find this same truth taught in other portions of Scripture. For example, we read in Romans 2:12: “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.” There is a different standard of judgment for those who know God’s law and those who don’t. Jesus says something similar in Luke 12: “The servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:47-48)

What does this mean for us today? We have a strong gospel witness in our nation. That means people in America who do not repent and believe in Jesus Christ will be judged more strictly than those in other lands who never heard about Jesus. It also means that every person here in this congregation today who does not repent and believe in Jesus will be judged more strictly than those who never heard about Jesus.

The people of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum knew Jesus better than the people of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, and therefore they would receive a greater punishment because they did not repent. Guess what? We know Jesus better than the people of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum did. Why? Because we know about the cross and the resurrection. We have the rest of the New Testament explaining to us who Jesus is and what he did for us. With knowledge comes responsibility, and so we will receive a far greater punishment than even Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum if we do not repent and believe.

   B. Jesus warns of severe punishment
      – Matthew 13:49-50; Romans 2:5

Jesus not only warns of different levels of punishment. He also warns of severe punishment. Jesus warned the cities of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum they would be punished if they did not repent. All three cities are gone today. They are wiped clear off the map. They are buried in the sands of time and have long been replaced by other cities.

Jesus spoke about hell more than anyone else in all of Scripture. And he warns each of us about the coming day of judgment. Jesus said in Matthew 13: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:49-50)

We read earlier in Romans 2:4 about how God’s kindness should lead us to repentance? The very next verse, Romans 2:5, goes on to tell us what happens if we do not repent. Paul writes: “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:5)

God’s judgment is righteous, which means apart from Christ, you will be judged wholly according to your works. Here’s a question. Would you rather be judged by your works or by Jesus’ works? If you are judged by your works, you will most certainly be judged severely. But if you are judged by Jesus’ works, God will judge you by the righteousness of Christ instead of your own sin.

You see, Jesus already experienced severe punishment for your sin on the cross. When you repent and put your faith in him, Jesus takes your sin, and God gives you Jesus’ righteousness instead. That’s what it means to be saved. Jesus takes your sin, and God gives you Jesus’ righteousness. That’s the fourth thing we learn about those who do not repent. Jesus warns of coming punishment for those who do not repent and believe.

V. Jesus urges you to repent now rather than later (21, 23)

1) Jesus denounces those who do not repent. 2) Jesus mourns for those who do not repent. 3) Jesus looks for sincerity and sorrow in those who do repent. 4) Jesus warns of coming punishment for those who do not repent. And 5) Jesus urges you to repent now rather than later.

Back to Matthew 11, in verse 21 Jesus says to the people of Korazin and Bethsaida: “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.” (Matthew 11:21) Notice the words “long ago.” Although in one sense Jesus is talking about these cities that existed long ago, he is also stressing the matter of urgency. The people of Korazin and Bethsaida should also have repented long ago. The best time to repent is when you first hear the good news of Jesus. Those who delay repentance often never get around to repenting.

Jesus goes on in verse 23 speaking now to the people of Capernaum: “If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” (Matthew 11:23) Jesus is saying that if the people of Sodom saw the same miracles that Capernaum did, they would have repented, and the city of Sodom would still be here today. This was a strong warning to the people of Capernaum to repent now, before it was too late. Sadly, just as the city of Sodom no longer exists, neither does the city of Capernaum. Jesus urges you to repent now rather than later.

   A. Today is the day of salvation
      – 2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 3:14

The Bible says today is the day of salvation. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) We read in Hebrews 3:14: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” (Hebrews 3:14) Why? Because if you harden your heart today, you are less likely to repent and believe tomorrow.

   B. Tomorrow may be too late
      – Isaiah 30:15; Luke 12:20; James 4:14

And tomorrow may be too late anyways. Jesus told the story of the rich fool who built his barns and filled them with grain and looked forward to a life full of ease. But he never took God into account. We read in Luke 12:20: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you.’” (Luke 12:20)

None of us knows if we will live to see another day. James 4:14 says: “You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)

Jesus urges you to repent now rather than later. Today is the day of salvation, and tomorrow may be too late.

CONCLUSION: All of us are sinners, and so all of us need to repent of our sins. What will happen to those who do not repent? They will be punished, severely. If you do not repent of your sins, then you must pay the full penalty for your sins. Those who hear the gospel and reject Christ will receive the most severe punishment of all. And it is all so unnecessary, because Jesus already died on the cross to take your punishment for you. All you need to do is repent and believe.

We read in Isaiah 30:15: “This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: ‘In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” (Isaiah 30:15) Salvation is available for you, today! But you would have none of it. How sad! How unnecessary!

Let me close with a verse we already looked at earlier in the message from Ezekiel 33:11. It is a fitting close to the message, because in it you can hear God’s heart for you so clearly. “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die?” (Ezekiel 33:11) Jesus died for you. Why will you die? Why will you die when you can repent and believe today?

© Ray Fowler

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