Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 11:20-30
Jesus, the Son of God, has called us to salvation. In Him we find rest for our soul, purpose for our life, peace with God, and joy for our journey.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
Getting Started: Things to Think About
[Editor's Note: this study took place Valentine's week. Whenever possible (and it's usually possible), I recommend tying in the calendar to an illustration or topic. First, it helps everyone see how versatile Bible passages are. Second, it mixes things up for you, forcing you to look at passages in new ways.]
C’mon. It’s Valentine’s Day!
You might remember that when we went through 1 John, we talked about love from God’s perspective (see 1 John 4). Valentine’s Day is when we remember just how wrongly our culture talks about love. We try to make light of it (I give you some cheesy Valentine’s below), but the simple truth is that most of the people around us don’t really know what love is intended to be.
Love. 1. a. (1): strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties <maternal love for a child> (2): attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers (3): affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests <love for his old schoolmates> b.: an assurance of affection <give her my love> 2.: warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion <love of the sea> 3. a.: the object of attachment, devotion, or admiration <baseball was his first love> b. (1): a beloved person: darling—often used as a term of endearment (2): British—used as an informal term of address. 4. a.: unselfish loyal and be-nevolent concern for the good of another: as (1): the fatherly concern of God for humankind (2): brotherly concern for others b.: a person's adoration of God (Merriam Webster)
If you do go down that road, make sure you get around to this point: if we want to know what true love is, we have to look to Jesus. In our passage today, Jesus confronts sin (He doesn’t accept it all nicey-nicey), but He offers forgiveness and He offers hope. That’s love. (i.e. Jesus doesn’t send cheesy Valentines.)
The Context in Matthew
As you might expect, these are some of my favorite verses in all the Bible. But they’re even more powerful in context. Last week, we talked about Jesus’ commission to the Twelve. While they were out preaching and teaching, Jesus did the same. Eventually, John the Baptist (who is in prison) got an update and sent some guys to talk to Jesus, questioning if Jesus really was the Messiah, and Jesus sent them back with a report of what He was doing (only the Messiah would be doing those things). This is a very important exchange. Either John or John’s followers had misunderstood the mission of the Messiah. They apparently expected Jesus to be a political deliverer (which is why John’s being in prison was the instigation for this request) not somebody who went around doing nice things for people. I tend to think that it was John’s followers and not John himself who had the doubts, but I could be wrong. Jesus’ response, to take them to the Scriptures that clarified that the Messiah would indeed do these marvelous things, should have ended any doubts in their minds that Jesus was indeed God’s Messiah, that they would have to change their expectations. Then Jesus turned around with a great defense of John combined with an attack on those who opposed him.
First, Jesus clarified that John is everything the people hoped he was. The greatest of all the prophets. But he was still part of the old order. As the author of Hebrews said, God used to speak through the prophets, but in Jesus God now spoke through His Son. With Jesus, everything changes. John was truly great, but it is infinitely better to live on this side of Jesus than before. Why? Well, they didn’t know when Jesus first spoke this, but the Spirit that empowered those prophets on temporary and sporadic bases was going to dwell permanently in all of His followers. Even the great John the Baptist did not have quite that same advantage (although it seems that John experienced an indwelling of the Spirit more than any Old Testament prophet).
Then Jesus juxtaposed the combined attacks on Jesus and John. They were self-defeating. People complained about John being too ascetic, then they turned around and complained about Jesus being too indulgent. The truth was that these naysayers didn’t like either because John and Jesus called on them to change. They were being disingenuous. And this leads to Jesus’ woe on Bethsaida and Capernaum. They experienced Jesus’ miracles firsthand, and they still complained and griped and opposed. Which leads to Jesus’ offer of peace for everyone else.
It’s an amazing stretch of plot development, something I’m sure Jesus pointed out to Matthew at least once during their time together. Matthew wraps up the story of John the Baptist while using that to forward the case against those who opposed Jesus. All very neat and tidy.
Part 1: Promised Judgment (Matthew 11:20-24)
Then He proceeded to denounce the towns where most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes long ago! But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until today. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Okay, so you have a little bit about Tyre, Sidon, Chorazin, and Bethsaida below (I talked about Capernaum last week). Remembering that God is indeed full of mercy and lovingkindness, I think what we can gather from this is that we can eventually "push" God too far. Jesus and His disciples have travelled all over this part of Galilee preaching the good news and healing the sick, and people are still complaining about Him and John the Baptist. Bad idea.
[Warning: Put on Your Thinking Cap.] Yes, Jesus often speaks in hyperbole, but this doesn’t seem to be one of those times, so we need to read each word carefully. If we’re not careful, we will overlook the answers to three very deep questions that a lot of people have. (1) God has “contingent” knowledge. In other words, God knows what we would have done had a situation been different. He knows that Tyre would have repented had His ministry been there. And this is very, very important because it means that (2) God is not obligated to reveal Himself to anyone and everyone. If that were true, wouldn’t it mean that God was being unjust by not sending Jesus to Tyre in its day of rebellion? But God is not unjust, which means that He does not have to send a prophet to everyone. It is mercy that we have heard the good news. (3) It’s pretty obvious here that there are degrees of punishment for people based on their opportunity to repent. There are other verses in the Bible that may imply degrees of punishment based on the severity of a sin, but this definitely shows that people “without excuse” will be dealt with more harshly than those who knew no better. I'm not quite sure what that means. Hell is hell, just like heaven is heaven. Degrees of infinite sorrow, though they exist, are incomprehensible to us. This is how I explain "rewards" in heaven. If they exist, they would be basically unnoticeable to us -- heaven is a place of infinite joy.
[Back to normal.] Your leader guide hints at a very important point: Jesus is not “I love everybody just the way you are” and “everybody’s okay by me” the way some people in our world try to make Him. Rejecting Him is a heinous, terrible offense against God. If we do not respond to Jesus’ teaching positively, He will leave us behind. Yes, Jesus loves us, but He also calls on us to repent and turn from our sin. I think the leader guide’s activity is an interesting one. What are the greatest sins of our world today? We have quite a few to choose from. Now think about it—are they any worse than the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Tyre and Sidon? If not, then what does this say about the continuing importance of rejecting Jesus? And that being the case, what do we say to those people who say that Jesus loves everybody too much to send anybody to hell?
Don’t pound on this point too hard! Yes, it’s critical that the world understand there is an eternal consequence for rejecting Jesus, but Jesus Himself uses it as a platform to move into an open invitation for repentance. The truth is that God’s ways are a mystery to us. We don’t know why He let us be born in America where we have freedom and churches and Bibles—but He has His reasons . . .
Aside: Tyre and Sidon
Tyre and Sidon have long and violent histories, making them poster children for disobedience. Important costal towns (Tyre actually built a fortified island to be its main location) of Phoenicia (sea traders critical for the economy of the Mediterranean), they were ancient, profitable, influential, and feisty. They resisted the great armies of Egypt, then Assyria, then Babylon, making and breaking alliances as they thought would best ensure their survival. This extended to their relationship with Israel—Joshua could not conquer them, and they appeased David with gifts for the Temple. Jezebel was from one of these cities, and when she married Ahab she brought Baal worship to Jerusalem.
In the Old Testament, particularly Ezekiel 28, these cities are considered the pinnacle of human pride (in a bad way), and they maintained that relationship among the Jews in Jesus’ day. That’s why it was so scandalous that Jesus would put them in a positive light compared with important Jewish cities such as Chorazin and Bethsaida (just as Sodom was compared favorably with Capernaum).
Chorazin and Bethsaida
Now for the other side of the coin. Bethsaida is mentioned more times in the Gospels than any town except Jerusalem and Capernaum. It was the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip and the location of quite a few of Jesus' miracles (including the feeding of the 5,000). Surprisingly, we’re not exactly sure where it was! It disappeared in the next 1,000 years or changed names (which skeptics claim as proof that the Gospels were made up).
Not surprisingly, the same is true of Chorazin. It was somewhere in Galilee, and the Talmud mentioned that it was famous for wheat. Sometime in that next 1,000 years, it simply disappeared.
Modern attempts to locate these cities have had mixed results. Bethsaida has been associated with a place called el-Araj which is now under the Sea of Galilee and et-Tell which is more than a mile off the northeast shore of the Sea (the Sea has had its shore shift quite a bit over the centuries, so that’s not really a problem). Chorazin is regularly associated with a site called Khirbet Kerazeh, about two miles north of Capernaum.
I think there’s actually a good reason for all of this confusion. What did Jesus say of those cities? He pronounced woes on them for their lack of belief. Is it really a surprise that they simply ceased to exist? Even Capernaum, as important as its location was, did not survive forever. After a few centuries, it also faded into oblivion. But because early pilgrims had identified it with certainty, at least its ruins were preserved and marked. Chorazin and Bethsaida were not considered as important, so they just went the way of the dodo.
Part 2: Promised Revelation (Matthew 11:25-26)
At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, because this was Your good pleasure.”
Another very, very important theological verse: God chooses to whom He will reveal truth, and there’s no sense in fussing about it. For those of us who weren’t born into money and power, this is encouraging. It goes to Jesus’ teaching that we have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Children are trusting, loving, and hopeful. They might be selfish, but they aren’t self-absorbed the same way a teen/adult can become. Those are the kinds of people (“infants”) that God reaches out to. (This is a great example of the “Great Reverse” we find throughout the New Testament.) And God is completely in control of that decision. Your leader guide touches on the ongoing fuss between “predestination” and “free will.” You know that I believe strongly in the biblical doctrine of “free will” in the sense that God has given us moral agency and spiritual responsibility to respond to His revelation of grace in Jesus Christ. BUT, verses like this one (plus the next two) keep me from going too far down that road. God is still in charge of salvation. It is all according to God’s “good pleasure” (which implies that He doesn’t have to have a “reason” for it other than “because that’s what I want”). We will never get to tell God who is or is not saved. Even though it is a mystery, I think it is healthy for us to remain humble about it all.
Application. This one is pretty simple. If you are a Christian (and I would take this opportunity to walk through the basics of the gospel), that means that God Himself has chosen to reveal the truth about Jesus to you in such a way that you accepted. Indeed, God found good pleasure in saving your soul. That’s something to celebrate in humility. Praise God for your salvation! And then look at the benefit: Jesus is speaking to His Father, Lord of heaven and earth. That is now our Father, and Jesus is now our brother. Which leads us into . . .
Part 3: Promised Relationship (Matthew 11:27)
“All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.”
Blessedly, you don’t have to worry much about so-called “higher criticism” any more. This was a flashpoint verse for liberal skeptics because it is so clear about Jesus’ self-understanding about His relationship with God. (Remember that skeptics don’t believe that Jesus thought He was the Messiah or the Son of God, that later Christians made all of that up.) I give you more about the importance of saying “the Son” here (instead of “a son”) on the bottom. Cliff notes version: Jesus is calling Himself the Son of God. That’s a big deal.
I am going to lean a different direction on the outline here than the leader guide does. I like the outline in principle; the passage certainly begins and ends with the promise of judgment and rest. What I don’t like about the “promised revelation and relationship” is that to me it emphasizes the object of the promise. And that’s not what this verse is about—it’s about Who is making the promise. Think of the outline of these verses instead like this:
1. Some will be condemned Because of their unbelief (11:20-24)
2. Some will be accepted Because of the grace of the Father (11:25-26) Because of the revelation of the Son (11:27) Because of the invitation of the Son (11:28-30)
Do you see how in the case of the rejection, the responsibility falls on the individual, but in the case of the acceptance, it falls on the Godhead? I like that; I think it fits divine sovereignty and human will together pretty well.
Aside: The Son of God
The expression “the Son” in context of God is very rare in the Bible. Jesus uses it here in 11:27, in Matt 24:36 (“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only”), and in Matt 28:19 (“the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). Jesus referred to Himself as “the Son of Man” a number of times, and lots of people thought of themselves as “a son of God,” but this particular expression goes a step beyond those more generic titles.
The idea of God having a Son in more than a generic sense can be found in the Old Testament (2 Sam 7:14, Ps 2), but it erupts onto Jesus’ scene during His baptism, when God speaks, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17) For those liberal skeptics who believe that Jesus never thought of Himself as anything more than just a man, they have to claim that this verse is not authentic (that Matthew made it up). The words of 11:27 are simply too strong. Jesus has just addressed God as “Father” in the context of giving Him all agency over heaven and earth (so there’s no mistake who Jesus is talking about).
If we want to parse Jesus’ words, we can see that Jesus never directly says that He is the Son in this verse. He says that the Son has exclusive agency on the Father’s behalf. BUT I don’t see any other way to interpret it, considering that He says at the beginning of the verse that “all things have been committed to Me by My Father.” In my opinion, this is the clearest indirect statement in which Jesus declares Himself to be the Son of God.
Side note: Jesus isn’t talking about the Messiah in this verse (as He did when responding to John the Baptist earlier); I read into this that there is a difference between being the Son and being the Messiah.
Part 4: Promised Rest (Matthew 11:28-30)
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
David just touched on this in his sermon. Jesus isn’t talking about “vacation” here, that life is easier with Him. In fact, He’ll say the exact opposite many times! What is He saying? People spend their whole life trying to earn acceptance—from a parent, from a peer group, from a boss, from a god. In that day, the Pharisees had given a huge burden to the people on everything God wanted them to do before they would be accepted into heaven. Nothing’s changed since then. You know what R.I.P. means. But think about it—”rest” from what? Rest from life. Rest from the grind. Rest from the struggle. Come to Jesus and all of that goes away. We don’t have to work to be accepted by the only Being in the universe who makes an eternal difference. We can disappoint our parents, our friends, our boss; we can impress them. But that won’t make a lick of difference when we die. Come to Jesus and we can know that our eternal destination is secure. Then we can live freely without that great burden. Jesus is with us.
Your leader guide rightly points out the problem with being “busy” in church/religion. To those people who don’t know any better, they can get the impression that God wants us to be “busy.” And once we go down the road that we’re supposed to be busy, we can grind ourselves down to the nub. That’s not victorious life in Christ! But don’t let your class members swing to the far alternative of doing nothing! Jesus and His disciples didn’t fritter their time away. They worked themselves quite literally to death. But what’s the difference? They had a mission, they had urgency. They weren’t grinding themselves down on the hamster wheel of life, they were serving the God who saved them and wanted them to share that salvation with others. It’s not easy to follow Jesus. And when we start doing in in our own strength/will, we will feel it. But when we live in Jesus with His help and strength and purpose, He makes life a joy. Are you feeling burned out? Used up? Jesus invites you back to Him.
Closing Thoughts: “Yoke” Imagery
A yoke is a common agricultural tool. Farmers use a yoke to connect two animals together so as to increase their work capacity. As technology improved, more things could be attached to the yoke and still be pulled safely and stably. The Bible uses “yoke” in both a positive and negative way. The most common is the negative yoke of slavery. In 1 Kings 12, the people complained to king Rehoboam of the heavy workload he had placed on them; he responded by making their workload even heavier. In Jeremiah 27, God told Jeremiah that all peoples would have to bear the yoke of Babylon (Nebuchadnezzar); if anyone resisted that yoke, God would punish him. God’s predominant attitude is found in Isaiah 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
So why would Jesus use this image about Himself? I can think of two reasons. (1) We need to separate the idea of being a slave to man and a slave to God. Being a slave to any human is bad, but our Bible saints delighted to call themselves slaves to God. God is Master of all, so why not embrace that! (2) Jesus is identifying Himself with us. He wants His hearers to know that He’s right in there with them, that He wants to help them bear their yoke in life, that they don’t have to go through life alone. Life itself can feel like a slavemaster (even to those people who deny there are slaves of anyone or anything) - if we would just come to Jesus, He can help us understand it and thus not just bear it, but produce with it.