The Day of Judgment According to Jesus
In this installation of the Tax Collector’s Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy, I am primarily looking at two passages in the book of Matthew: Matthew 11:20-24 and Matthew 12:36-45. These two passages have 4 fundamental principles in common. #1- Jesus was pronouncing some type of judgment upon His current generation because of their rejection of Him. #2- Jesus referenced past events from scripture in order to contribute to the seriousness of the judgment upon His present generation. #3- Jesus spoke of a future Day of Judgment when all generations would be present. #4- At the future Day of Judgment, generations that Jesus considered as past will be able to interact with and be compared to the generation that Jesus considered as present.
Since this subject is covering the phrase “The Day of Judgment”, it is good to review what Matthew the Tax Collector has included about the subject thus far. It hasn’t been a major theme up until this point, but now it seems as if in this passage packed with prophetic significance that judgment is taking the center stage of His teaching. John’s preaching was full of judgment imagery, being designed to prompt people to repentance. John made it seem as if there was this impending doom hanging over the nation of Israel if the people did not repent. “The axe is laid at the root of the tree [and] every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Matthew 3:10. “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12. That’s pretty powerful language.
So Jesus comes along and starts healing and preaching, but the judgment aspect is not nearly as prevalent. The majority of the sermon on the mount is Jesus teaching how to live. He pronounces blessings upon His followers, explains the relationship of the law to God’s standards, teaches them to pray, talks about God as Our Father, but only references judgment briefly a couple of times. However, it is serious when He mentions it. “Whoever says [to his brother], ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hell fire.” Matthew 5:22. That’s fairly condemning considering one of the first things we learn to do as children is call our siblings “stupid” and other such names. In Matthew 7:21-23 there is a reference to “that day” when it appears that some will want to enter the kingdom of heaven but instead will be told, “depart from me.” Shortly after this in Capernaum, Jesus told of a future time when some would enter the kingdom of heaven, but others would be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, see Matthew 8:12. That doesn’t sound too pleasant.
One very important reference on judgment that Jesus gives is found as He is sending out His twelve disciples to preach the good news of the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 10:14-15, Jesus tells His disciples that rejection of the message they are preaching will result in a judgment worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. In some way, this must be referring to a future judgment, but in another way it must be contemporary with their current generation. I’ll try to explain this, but here is where some very odd views can develop. When it states “that city” that rejects the message of Jesus and His disciples, there must be some relationship to the current generation because they are the ones that did not receive the message. “That city” must be held responsible for their actions. So instead of people in the same city hundreds of years in the future, the judgment must be placed upon those people that live in that city in that particular time that rejected the Messiah. However, when Jesus talks about a judgment that seems to be pronounced upon Sodom and Gomorrah at the same time as these cities that reject Jesus, then we must conclude that in spite of a contemporary judgment, that these same people from this city will be raised up as a people-group at the same time that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are raised up as a people-group and all be present at the same time. The people-group of Sodom and Gomorrah will be judged less harshly than the people-groups that heard the message of the kingdom of heaven by Jesus and His disciples.
This principle is called prophetic tension. It was common in the prophets of old. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Joel, etc., all these prophets pronounced judgment and doom upon their contemporaries. God would use another nation to judge His people but some aspects of the judgment that these prophets were preaching would not be fulfilled but await a future fulfillment. In short, judgment came upon their generation, but ultimate judgment loomed out in the future. Now Jesus was doing the same thing as the prophets of old. The people to whom He was preaching would have judgment upon them, but He spoke of Sodom and Gomorrah as still participating in a future judgment. With this as a backdrop, let’s look at the first of the two passages in question and study, study, study.
The First Passage
Matthew 11:20-24 ESV
Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum
Jesus condemns these cities in the manner that the prophets of old condemned cities that were under the judgment of God, see Isaiah 29:1, Jeremiah 13:27 for the word “woe” and Amos 1 for naming different cities. There is no need to guess why these cities are having judgment pronounced upon them. Matthew explains why before he records the words of Christ. These three cities were where most of the mighty works (miracles) of Christ had been done. They were all located on the north side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was where Jesus moved to live after leaving Nazareth and going into public ministry, see Matthew 4:13. Chorazin and Bethsaida are not mentioned as often as Capernaum, but that should be understood since Jesus lived in Capernaum but traveled to other cities, see Mark 1:38 with Mark 1:21 as background.
The fact that the mightiest works of the Messiah would be done in Galilee was foretold by Isaiah, see Isaiah 9:1-2, Matthew 4:12-17, and this post here. It is difficult to tell how John’s gospel relates to Matthew, but John records that a certain nobleman’s son was sick at Capernaum in John 4:46. This healing miracle is noted by John to be the second miracle that Jesus did when He came into Galilee, see John 4:54. The healing of the centurion’s servant, Matthew 8:5-13, occurred in Capernaum. Peter’s mother-in-law was healed in Capernaum, along with a multitude of people, see Matthew 8:14-17. Simply doing a word search for Capernaum will not do this subject justice since the healing recorded in Matthew 9:1-8 occurs in “His own city”, meaning the city where Jesus lived, or Capernaum. Suffice to say that up until this point, the majority of the miracles that Jesus has performed have been either in Capernaum or in a neighboring town, possibly the two that Jesus has just named. Remember that Jesus has just pointed out how people have simply sat there throughout John the Baptist’s ministry and His own ministry like bumps on a log, see Matthew 11:16-19. They watched these mighty miracles, but never repented of their sins.
Tyre and Sidon
Here is where Jesus reveals how much He knows. Not only does Jesus know the unrepentant state of Galilee, He also knows of past judgments and alternate realities. The first judgment that Jesus mentions is that of Tyre and Sidon. He makes the statement that if the very miracles that He had been doing in Galilee had been done in Tyre and Sidon, then they would have repented and averted the judgment of God upon them. Jesus then makes another statement which reveals His knowledge of a future judgment where citizens of Tyre and Sidon from past generations will stand beside citizens from Chorazin and Bethsaida from the current generation. Jesus states that at this future judgment that it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon, meaning they will not be judged as harshly.
The judgment upon Tyre and Sidon occupies over 4 chapters in scripture and at least 100 verses. The main subject is Tyre (alternately spelled Tyrus) with Sidon (alternately spelled Zidon) being included in close association. The main texts are Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 26-28. During the days of David and Solomon there was a close alliance between Israel and Tyre. During the days of Isaiah’s prophecy, Tyre was an enemy of Israel and under the judgment of the coming Assyrian army. Isaiah 23 foretells how the Assyrians would bring Tyre to ruin after which she would be forgotten for 70 years. After 70 years Tyre would be restored even though she did not repent. After her restoration she would be even more greedy being portrayed as a harlot.
This corresponds with secular history. Shalmaneser V besieged Tyre bringing it into submission very close to 722 BC, with Samaria being taken about the same time by his successor, Sargon II. Tyre remained under Assyrian domination for over 70 years despite attempts to rebel. In 652 BC there was an internal conflict between the Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, and his brother, Shamash-shum-ukin. War raged for 5 years, and even though Ashurbanipal was victorious, the resources of the empire were spent allowing Tyre to regain her autonomy probably at least as early as 636BC, well before Ashurbanipal’s death in 627BC. (Note that the rest of Isaiah’s prophecies in Isaiah 13-22 were fulfilled at roughly the same time as Samaria’s downfall including destruction on Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Arabia.)
The picture of harlotry that Isaiah portrays of future Tyre in Isaiah 23:17-18 is described as being fulfilled in Ezekiel 26-28. Ezekiel 27 especially pictures Tyre (Tyrus) as this beautifully crafted ship that all sea merchants are fascinated with. Ezekiel prophesied during the Babylonian Empire and this particular prophecy was probably given in 587 or 586BC. So Tyre has been restored for at least 50 years and has gained a place of prominence once again amongst the nations. However, judgment is being pronounced by Ezekiel because when Jerusalem was besieged by Nebuchadnezzar, Tyre took this as an opportunity for herself, see Ezekiel 26:2-3.
What is fascinating about this prophecy is the language that Ezekiel uses to describe the destruction in metaphoric terms. Ezekiel 26:20 states that Tyre will be brought down into the pit, to the world below. The Bible often teaches that death is like a giant pit, see Psalm 88 specifically verse 4. When someone died it was like they were being thrown into this giant pit never to come out again. With the destruction of Tyre, Ezekiel was foretelling that the entire city would be thrown into the pit to go down to the world below. He was talking about the realm of the dead. Now look at Ezekiel 29:17-20. Because Nebuchadnezzar had besieged Tyre for so long with no reward, the LORD would give Egypt as payment to Nebuchadnezzar for doing His work against Tyre. Moving forward to Ezekiel 31, the destruction of Assyria is described in similar terms, as a great cedar tree being cut down and thrown into the pit, into the lower parts of the earth. Further, the LORD tells Pharaoh that Egypt will also be brought down to join Assyria, see Ezekiel 31:18. Ezekiel 32:17-32 is a lamentation against Egypt as it is being cast down into the pit, or into the depths of the earth, or lower parts of the earth, or the Hebrew word sheol which means the grave. See especially Ezekiel 32:30 where it states that the Zidonians and princes of the north are already there. This would include Tyre and Sidon. Tyre was judged by the LORD through Nebuchadnezzar by being thrown into the lower parts of the earth, or the world below and now Egypt is joining them.
Turning to the history books once again, we see that Nebuchadnezzar did indeed besiege Tyre for 13 years. That’s a whole lot of effort for not much pay. Even at the end of it all, historians are divided as to whether or not Tyre was actually taken. It was in a position of subservience to the Persian Empire (which succeeded the Babylonian Empire). But a greater fulfillment came during the Greek Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great. At this point it becomes important to note that Tyre had two sections to it. There was a section on the mainland and a section on an island about a half mile out. During the siege of Alexander the Great, he piled rocks into the sea forming sort of a bridge in between the mainland and the island. He used the remains of the old city on the mainland which fulfilled an even deeper portion of the prophecies of both Isaiah and Ezekiel. Notice how Isaiah 23:11 states, “He stretched out His hand over the sea…” Ezekiel 26:12 states, “they shall lay your stones and your timber and your dust in the midst of the water…” Now the destruction truly comes to fruition. Each prophet spoke true to his own generation and yet left something for the future. After this, Tyre regained some of its prominence which allowed Jesus Christ to walk there, see Matthew 15:21, Mark 3:8, 7:24, 7:31.
Now here is where it gets interesting. The prophecy that Jesus is most likely referring to when citing the destruction of Tyre and Sidon is the prophecy of Ezekiel. Ezekiel condemned Tyre by saying it would be cast down into sheol, into the lower parts of the earth. Students of the scriptures should know that the Hebrew word sheol corresponds with the Greek word Hades in the New Testament, see Acts 2:27 which quotes Psalm 16:10. The destruction that Jesus pronounces upon Capernaum uses the exact same language. It even situates Capernaum in a similar, lofty situation¹ as Tyre in Ezekiel’s prophecy. Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades!
Because of modern science, we might have a hard time with language like “up to heaven” or “down to the underworld” or “down to the realm of the dead”. Scripture is clear though even if we don’t understand it. God’s abode is heaven which is situated above in some strange way. See Psalm 102:19 which states that the LORD “looked down from the height of His sanctuary, from heaven.” God looks down on us because He is up above in heaven. Also, where did Jesus go when He died? Look at Ephesians 4:9 which states that before the ascension of Christ He descended into the lower parts of the earth. That phrase “the lower parts of the earth” is identical to the language that Ezekiel used as to the destination of the city of Tyre. Jesus as a prophet was condemning cities like the prophets of old. You will be brought down to Hades! That should have made people sit up and pay attention.
The destruction of Sodom is generally more well known than the destruction of Tyre and Sidon for a couple of reasons. Number one is that the account of the destruction of Sodom is included in the scriptures whereas only the prophecy of how Tyre and Sidon would be destroyed is given in scripture, and most of that is in parable form. Number two is that most Christians have read Genesis more than Ezekiel. Number three is that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah occurred at the very beginning of the Bible and is often referenced thereafter in many of the prophets. It is sort of a landmark. God had just promised that He would not destroy the entire earth with water. However, God clearly demonstrated that the destruction of individual cities by other means was an open option for the Almighty.
There were a total of four cities that were destroyed. Sodom is the city that is referenced most often with Gomorrah usually appearing alongside of it, see Genesis 19:24, 28, Isaiah 1:9-10, 13:19, Jeremiah 49:18, 50:40, Amos 4:11, Zephaniah 2:9, and Matthew 10:13. Most likely it is because these two cities were larger than the other two which were probably more like villages. There are a couple of references such as Deuteronomy 29:23 which name all four cities. The reason why Sodom is named more often is probably because that is where Lot dwelt. There is a first hand account of the wickedness of Sodom in Genesis 19. References like Genesis 13:13, Isaiah 3:9, Lamentations 4:6, Ezekiel 16:46-56 which name only Sodom all serve to highlight how wicked the people of Sodom were. That is why it is so telling when Jesus pulls out the reference to Sodom in comparison to Capernaum.
It should be no secret as to why Sodom was destroyed. The people were openly wicked forcing their homosexuality on others, see Genesis 19:4-5 and Jude 7. Romans 1:26-27 shows that this type of behavior occurs when people are not including God in their knowledge and decisions. Lot knew that men would not normally be safe at night in Sodom, that is why he urged them to be his guests, see Genesis 19:1-3. The location of Sodom and Gomorrah should be no secret either. Genesis plainly tells where they were located before they were destroyed. Genesis 13:10 states that there was a plain of Jordan that was well watered before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis 14:2-3 tells us that Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Bela were all located in a valley called the vale of Siddim. It also states that this valley is the Salt Sea or the Dead Sea. Apparently after God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and the surrounding cities, the well watered plain was destroyed and a big crater where the valley was simply filled up with water from the Jordan River. Anytime someone saw the Dead Sea, it was a reminder as to what could happen to any city that turned so wicked that God had to destroy it. Here was undeniable proof that the LORD was Judge and intervened in the affairs of men.¹¹
If the average Israelite in Jesus’ day were asked, “What is the most wicked city of all time?”; I’m sure a common answer would have been “Sodom”. So how do you think Israelites reacted when Jesus stated that at the future judgment that it would be more tolerable for Sodom than for Capernaum? The men of Sodom were so wicked that God had to rain fire and brimstone down and destroy the city. The huge crater filled with water called the Dead Sea was still there to show the ongoing desolation. Now these people of Capernaum have committed a wickedness of greater judgment than that of Sodom. Jesus states that if the mighty miracles that He had done in Chorazin and Bethsaida would have been done in Tyre and Sidon that they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. He also states that if the mighty miracles that He had done in Capernaum had been done in Sodom that there would have been no need for the destruction and it would have remained until this day, meaning they would have been brought to repentance. Those wicked Sodomites would have at least repented at the presence of Jesus, something that Capernaum did not do.
This shows the awesome privilege that the Israelites, especially the Galileans, had in witnessing the miracles of the Son of God. Here was the Messiah standing in their midst, healing, casting out demons, raising the dead, and they just sat there, unrepentant. Even the poor had the gospel preached to them. The ministry of Jesus did not discriminate. Poor people had no excuse because they heard the gospel as well. Now with the manifestation of the Son of God, they would be held to a higher standard. They couldn’t un-see what they saw. They couldn’t pretend that it never happened. They would be held responsible for a clear rejection of the Messiah because they had seen, they had heard, and they hadn’t turned from their sins and believed in Him. Some people think that in order to reject Jesus that they have to say they don’t believe in God, or turn and do something really wicked. No. All that is needed to reject Jesus Christ is to hear about who He is and do nothing. This will be borne out in the next section as well.
The Historical Judgment on Galilee
During the ministry of Jesus, He pronounced judgment upon three different places: upon cities of Galilee, upon the city of Jerusalem, see Luke 13:34-35, Matthew 23:37-38, Luke 21:24, and finally upon the temple, see Matthew 24:1-2, Mark 13:1-2, Luke 21:5-7, 20. Much attention has been given to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but many overlook the destruction upon the cities of Galilee. It’s unfortunate because all three of these prophecies were fulfilled in the exact order that Jesus gave them. Josephus records that before the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the beginning of the Jewish War started north in Galilee. Josephus gives a firsthand account of the destruction because he was a general for the Jews who were fighting against the Romans. He was taken alive by the Romans and later wrote massive works documenting the entire history of the Jewish War. Here is a quote from Josephus:
The Roman force sent to Sepphoris, under command of Placidus the tribune, ravaged the surrounding country, causing Josephus and his men serious difficulties. Josephus did attempt an assault on Sepphoris, but was repulsed. This provoked fierce hostilities from the Romans, who spread fire and blood over all of Galilee, killing any who were capable of bearing arms. The only places of security were those cities that had been fortified by Josephus.
That is a general statement, but Josephus then describes in detail the fall of those fortified cities. The location of them is quite telling. First there is the destruction of Jotapata which is located in central Galilee, see The Jewish War (or War of the Jews), 3:150-316 which concludes with this statement, “Vespasian ordered Jotapata razed, reducing all its forts to ashes.” After this Josephus is captured by the Romans. Next, the Romans advanced on Tarichaeae, which was located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee only about five miles from Capernaum, see The Jewish War 3:462-532. As Josephus is documenting this battle, he describes how sweet and pure the water of the Sea of Galilee is. He mentions Capernaum as being the spring for this beautiful lake with surrounding fertile soil. How sad it must have been for him to write concerning the battle on the lake, “The lake was red with blood, the shores strewn with wrecks and swollen carcasses, which, in following days, polluted the district with a horrible stench. The dead, including the number who had fallen defending the city, totaled 6,700.” After this, most cities submitted except for a couple of towns including Gamala. Vespasian marched to Gamala, and in doing so had to pass directly through both Capernaum and Bethsaida. This is not directly stated by Josephus, but if you look at a map, you will see the plain alignment of these cities around the Sea of Galilee. Gamala was built on a mountain, Josephus had previously built a wall around it, and it had a natural spring. Despite this, the Romans still conquered the city with “their blood flowing down the slopes of Gamala.” In the final defeat, the Romans flung the remainder from the precipices and cliffs, see The Jewish War 4:1-70. So Gamala literally fell. Remember that Josephus was a prisoner of war at this very time at these very locations. He was a first hand witness to everything that happened. He was treated with dignity and was kept apprised on a day by day basis of all that transpired concerning his people. By the grace of God, he was allowed to document all of this in order to demonstrate the accuracy of the prophecies of Jesus Christ.
The Second Passage
Matthew 12:36-45 Note: Jesus is speaking.
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven others spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
The Day of Judgment
This phrase is used by Jesus again in a very similar fashion as the previous passage that we examined. He has been addressing the Pharisees since verse 25 who have accused Him of being in league with the devil. Now Jesus delves into intimate details about the nature of the future judgment. Up above we saw a future judgment where cities of the past like Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will be judged alongside of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. Now Jesus talks about individuals being accountable on the Day of Judgment for every single word they have spoken throughout their entire lives. Jesus even specifies that for every careless word people will give an account. The word translated careless or idle basically means lazy. We will be held accountable even for words for which we didn’t want to accomplish anything. Just think about every little word, idle chatter, small talk, I-didn’t-mean-anything-by-it phrase that you have ever spoken. Now think about how much more we will be judged for every thing we have said on purpose with much forethought. We will have to give an account. “Why did you say that word right there?” “What did you mean when you said that comment to that person?” “When you said to your brother, ‘You lied to me; that’s wrong,’ that shows you knew that lying is a sin.” It won’t be hard to find reason to condemn us to eternal hell forever. Thank the LORD that there is room for us to be justified by our words. Of course this can only be done by confessing with our mouths the LORD Jesus as our Savior.
The Sign of the Prophet Jonah
Jesus mentions Jonah in two different passages in the gospel of Matthew, see Matthew 16:1-4 for the second instance. Luke 11:29-32 is a parallel passage to this one and is worth examining. The Pharisees are giving a response to Jesus when they ask for a sign. This response is probably in reference to the entire passage of Matthew 12:25-37 as Jesus gives a defense that He casts out devils by the power of God, not the devil. So basically the Pharisees are saying, “Okay, you say you have holy power to do this, let’s see a sign.” Later in Matthew 16 they ask for a sign from heaven. In that passage Jesus points out that so much had already been done to point to the reality all around them but they still missed it. They could not discern the signs of the times.
Here in this passage, Jesus mentions Jonah twice for two different purposes. The first reason is in direct response to the request for a sign. Here Jesus chooses a disobedient prophet and the consequences of his disobedience as the sign for His generation. Jonah was in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights, and Jesus proclaims that He will be in the belly or heart of the earth for three days and three nights. This is interesting considering our discussion above about descending into the lower parts of the earth. There is only one thing that Jesus could mean by this. He would enter the realm of the dead but for a limited time only. After three days and three nights He would no longer be in the heart of the earth, but would be expelled like Jonah was expelled from the belly of the great fish. This was difficult to understand at the time because this had never happened before. With isolated exception, when someone died, their life was over. To predict that the duration of a death would be only three days and three nights would cause serious realignment to our belief about death. It is quite possible that the Pharisees did understand to some extent what He was saying. If you notice in Matthew 27:62-63, they state that Jesus predicted He would rise on the third day. This was something that Jesus had taught, but only to His disciples in private, usually restricted to the twelve. But after the crucifixion the Pharisees knew of this teaching and it is quite possible that they were listening to this teaching here about Jonah and discerned more than we generally give them credit for.
With almost seamless transition, Jesus is focusing again on the future judgment. He launches into this by mentioning the men of Nineveh to whom Jonah prophesied. It may seem as if He is changing the subject, but this is in keeping with the entire passage whereby Jesus is condemning His own generation. Again, like the passage in Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus uses a historically wicked city in comparison to His own generation. Nineveh was one of the most wicked cities of all time. If you asked any Jew in the days of Jesus they would have told you so. Many think the story ended with the repentance of Nineveh in the book of Jonah, but that’s not the case. The book of Nahum prophesied years after that repentance and the judgment was grim, see Nahum 1:1-2, 2:8-13. However, one generation of that wicked city did repent, see Jonah 3. Jesus does the same thing that He did with Sodom. He compares His generation to the wicked city of Nineveh and finds them more righteous than His own generation. At least they repented when the prophet Jonah preached the message of repentance.
When Jesus says that the men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment, He is using a Greek word that can mean to rise from the dead, see Matthew 17:9, 20:19. The nature of this judgment is such that past generations are rising from the dead alongside the generation of Jesus in order that they might be judged. In fact, it seems as if these men of Nineveh are being raised from the dead for the very purpose of giving a testimony at this judgment. It is a courtroom scene that is being described. Back in 12:36, Jesus said our own words would be used against us. Our own testimonies are being recorded to either condemn us or justify us. It’s like Jesus is reading us our Miranda rights. “Anything you say may be used against you at the final judgment.” Now He states that past generations will be called as witnesses against us. People that never even lived at the same time will be used to prove that we had a chance to repent. Here in this instance, the men of Nineveh will give their testimony as to how they repented at the preaching of Jonah the prophet. I can just hear it now.
Judge: “When Jonah came preaching, was there anything that had come before him to warn you of a coming judgment?”
Ninevite: “No, it was just him.”
Judge: “Did Jonah perform any miracles?”
Ninevite: “No, he just shouted and preached that we needed to repent.”
Judge: “Did he spend time with you, like eating with you at dinner?”
Ninevite: “No, he just walked through town from one end to the other. After he made his circuit, he left the city and sat outside under some thing he made. He never got to know us in any way.”
Judge: “And yet you repented. Why?”
Ninevite: “We thought that maybe God would be gracious. Here He was giving us a warning. If He had wanted to destroy us He could have just burned our city to the ground like Sodom and Gomorrah. We figured that hearing the prophet was like having one last chance. So we might as well make the best of it. We put our trust in God who just might be gracious and spare our city.”
Judge: “And now you, citizen of Capernaum. Before Jesus came preaching, was there anything that had come before Him to warn you of judgment?”
Capernaumite: “Yes, John the Baptist had come some time before and warned us of judgment to come. He came baptizing and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and then Jesus of Nazareth came preaching the gospel of the kingdom as well.”
Judge: “Did Jesus perform any miracles?”
Capernaumite: “Oh yes. It was well known that He had done many miracles. I talked to several people who had seen them and even witnessed one myself when He fed thousands with just a few loaves and fish.”
Judge: “Did He spend time with you, like at a dinner or something?”
Capernaumite: “Like I said, He fed us on that one occasion and taught us all day long. I was there seeing how He interacted with little children. I witnessed Him interacting with the teachers of the law on another occasion. So yes, I did spend time with Him in a more intimate setting. It wasn’t like I just heard Him one day saying ‘Repent’ and that’s all I ever heard.”
Judge: “And yet you didn’t repent. Why not? And keep in mind what this Ninevite has just testified against you. Who is greater, Jonah or Jesus?”
I hope you get the idea. If that wasn’t enough, Jesus ups the ante.
The Queen of Sheba
The next illustration is not meant to show a direct parallel with Nineveh. Instead, this is raising accountability to a new level. Jesus mentions the Queen of the South, whom we know to be the Queen of Sheba, see I Kings 10:1-13, II Chronicles 9:1-12. This is not an instance of someone being confronted with the message of a prophet, like in the case of Nineveh being confronted with Jonah. In the case of the Queen of Sheba, she heard of the fame of Solomon in a faraway country and traveled a great distance to witness the truth for herself. The parallel here is that not everyone in Galilee had Jesus or one of the twelve come to visit their town. However, the fame of what Jesus had done and who He was had gone out to every town, see Matthew 4:24-25, 9:26, 31. Just because Jesus did not personally visit there or perform a miracle there did not give people an escape from culpability. The mere fact that they had heard the name of Jesus gave them the opportunity to respond in the same way that the Queen of Sheba had responded to the fame of Solomon. Again, who is greater, Jesus or Solomon?
In the same way, at the future judgment, people will not necessarily have had to hear a full sermon on Jesus Christ in order to be held responsible. In many cases, people will read something in the news, or hear about a story in their extended family, which will give them a chance to respond to the name of Jesus Christ in some way. In the days of Jesus, it was responding to His personal presence here on earth. In our days, it is responding to the message of His church, His disciples, as they live out the gospel. Many have heard the name of Jesus, how He died on the cross, how He is the Son of God, how He loves the world. But how many have responded to that fame to search out the truth for themselves? The Queen of Sheba will be there to testify against those that have heard of the fame of Jesus Christ and have done nothing to respond. The church has a responsibility to go into the world and preach the gospel, but those that hear the name of Jesus also have a responsibility to respond to His fame. After all, He is the Son of God.
This Wicked Generation
The parable that Jesus ends with in this section should not be taken out of context, see Matthew 12:43-45. Jesus is still addressing His contemporary generation and their lack of repentance. He has been casting out devils, but they have failed to repent. So what will be the state of His people given these conditions? The unclean spirits go out, but they will be back. The last state of a man will be worse than the first state he was in. Then Jesus proclaims, “So also will it be with this evil generation.” He is still condemning His own generation for their lack of repentance. The evil spirits are gone, but only for the moment. They will be back. Jesus is warning them that they are doomed to be seven times more wicked than they were before He came to them. Reading about the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple is quite sad. The Jews turned the temple into a fortress. What should have been there to honor God and be a house of prayer for all nations was being used as a battlefield of blood.
The judgment came upon that wicked generation in 70AD and the years leading up to it if we are to include the destruction in Galilee. So what do we make of the language whereby Sodom would be judged less harshly than Capernaum? What about the men of Nineveh rising from the dead in order to testify against those that heard Jesus and didn’t repent? What about Jesus saying that every word that we speak would be used either against us or for us? It should be obvious that these things simply have not yet happened. Yes, judgment came upon the nation of Israel because of their rejection of Jesus Christ, or their failure to repent in the presence of Jesus Christ. However, the rest of these things await a future judgment. We should simply recognize that prophecies were fulfilled in the first century, but many things that Christ spoke remain unfulfilled. There is no need to deny that prophecy was fulfilled in the first century. It was literally fulfilled. And since those prophecies were literally fulfilled, the rest of the prophecies must be literally fulfilled. The dead will rise and be judged. Witnesses will be called to testify against those that failed to repent. All of our words will be used to show how sinful we are. That judgment looms out in the not-to-distant future. How awful it will be for the Queen of Sheba to rise up and testify as to how she heard of the wisdom and fame of Solomon which led her to travel many miles to find out the truth, and then to hear how so many could have ventured into a nearby church to find out for themselves whether or not there was any truth to the fame of Jesus Christ. Let each church shine for Jesus Christ.
There is nothing wrong with being a Preterist if what you are doing is recognizing that some of the prophecies of Jesus are in the past. What most Preterists do, though, is try to say that all of the prophecies of Jesus are in the past, which is quite simply an untenable position. In God’s sovereignty, He allowed there to be eyewitnesses that would record which prophecies were fulfilled in the first century AD. There were no witnesses that recorded Jesus coming in power and glory with His holy angels. There is no record of any heavenly judgment, or Jesus reigning from His glorious throne, or rewards being given to the righteous, or any resurrection from the dead. Fret not, though. These things will surely come to pass. Those prophecies of destruction were fulfilled in the generation that heard them to prove the accuracy of everything that Jesus prophesied. The destruction on Galilee, Jerusalem, and the temple was fulfilled in the exact way that Jesus foretold. The rest will be fulfilled exactly as He said as well. Judgment is coming. Be warned.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman
¹ It has been documented that the fishermen of Galilee were quite wealthy. Jewish fishermen in particular would separate the fish in the manner that Jesus describes in Matthew 13:47-48. Jews would only buy from these Jewish fishermen because they had no fear of breaking the Levitical law, see especially Leviticus 11:9-12. When Peter, Andrew, James, and John all walked away from the family business, they left a very lucrative lifestyle behind them, see Matthew 4:18-22. Note the use of Zebedee throughout the gospels as being someone noteworthy, Matthew 10:2, 20:20, 26:37, 27:56, probably being someone very rich, or possibly later becoming a Christian who was known to the early church.
¹¹ The mystery of the Dead Sea has kept scientists theorizing many different possibilities. Why did it form the way it did? The Jordan River flows in, but nothing flows out. The high content of saline (salt) literally keeps life from surviving making it truly a “Dead Sea”. Ezekiel 47:8 and Zechariah 14:8 both point to the fact that the Dead Sea is still under a curse from God because of the perpetual destruction imposed upon Sodom and Gomorrah. But those prophecies point to the future when that curse will be lifted and God’s blessing will come upon the Dead Sea allowing the waters to be healed.