We’ve been looking the last couple of weeks at the question of Christian discipleship. We have seen that following Jesus Christ is not a small matter, something that can be treated lightly. We should think carefully before we decide to follow Christ.
Because: following him can be very costly and we are likely to encounter outright opposition as well as more subtle temptations to water down our commitment to him. Discipleship involves much more than watching on with a sympathetic eye from the sofa as it were. When Jesus called people to himself he gave them work to do for him.
Now we mustn’t get the order wrong. You see, we don’t become followers of Jesus Christ as a result of doing things for him. No, he it is who calls us to believe in him, to put our trust in him, and to receive him as the Lord and Saviour we need and then as we respond to his call he makes us his disciples.
We become Christians by entering into this personal faith-relationship with Jesus. Having thus become his followers he expects us to continue with a life of obedient service and we saw last week what that meant for that larger group of 70/72 – he sent them out on a mission.
Jesus gave those men a clear set of instructions as to how they were to proceed. He even told them what to do when the message they had to share was rejected. Jesus knew that not everyone would respond positively to the message he sent and we finished last week by remarking that Jesus considered all such rejection as serious.
And now we must pick up where we left off then.
As the 70/72 left to carry out their mission Jesus enlarged further on just how serious such rejection was and is.
"Woe to you"
Over time words can gradually change their meaning. You only have to think about the word "gay" which used to mean "carefree, bright, happy" but now means something rather different.
I don’t know about you, but for me the word "woe" is one of those that has changed and no longer rings the bells it ought to. One of my dictionaries tells me that these days the word is mainly found in the phrase "woe betide", and is used as a light-hearted warning that a person will be in trouble if they do a particular thing. Rather than being a word that speaks to me it does seem a bit humorous, it seems old-fashioned, perhaps a bit religious and to my ears at least a little melodramatic.
But as I hear the word on Jesus’ lips I never get the impression that he is trying to be the slightest bit funny.
"Woe" is very much a Jesus-word – every time the word appears in the gospels (and it appears 27 times) it is always Jesus who is using it. It is an exclamation of grief and the way Jesus uses it is very solemn and serious.
I have looked up some of the ways in which modern translations of the Bible have rendered this word to see what they have come up with. The Message has let me down. It has "Doom, doom" and all that conjures up in my mind is Private Frazer in Dad’s Army! The most useful translations I have come across that try to get across the seriousness of Jesus’ words are the following:
v.13 "How terrible (or how horrible) it will be for you..." CEB (GW)
v.13 "You people... are in for trouble..." CEV
v.13 "What horrors (or what sorrow) await you..." TLB (NLT)
Now none of these are particularly punchy but do manage, I think, in avoiding the hint of humour, to convey something of the solemnity of what is at stake. Jesus didn’t speak so that we might simply shrug his words off with a smile – he spoke to warn us of grave danger.
You see it is important for us to realise that the choices we make have consequences: sometimes those consequences are pretty insignificant but sometimes they are very serious indeed. According to Jesus there are inevitable consequences if a person stubbornly refuses to repent, and because of that refusal rejects the good news of the Kingdom of God: and those consequences are not only serious they are catastrophic.
The Message that is Proclaimed
The message which Jesus told his followers to proclaim was a message about the Kingdom of God. Now this Kingdom had been promised a long time ago. A successor to King David would come along and he would sit on the throne from where he would reign as the great deliverer of his people. When Jesus sent out his followers on their mission the message he gave them to pass on was that this Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God’s infinite mercy and the forgiveness of sins, had now come near. God’s promised time had come.
This meant that men and women, who were alienated from the righteousness of God and banished from his Kingdom, could now be welcomed into it! However to live in such a Kingdom men and women would have to undergo a life-changing transformation, and such a transformation would have to begin with repentance.
But repentance was just what was not happening in the towns that Jesus now named!
I wonder whether repentance is something that has taken place and is taking place in your life. Have you responded to the gospel message with repentance? Have you responded to the invitations of King Jesus with repentance? Have you realized that the way you have lived your life without Christ banishes you from the Kingdom of Heaven and have you gone to God to admit confess your failure and your inability to do anything about it yourself? Have you pleaded with him to forgive you on account of what Jesus has done for sinners?
A Tale of Three Cities
Jesus had some very strong things to say about the three cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and of Capernaum. We must hear what Jesus had to say so that we might not make the same type of mistakes that they made.
As we consider Jesus’ words we must not imagine that Jesus spoke such solemn "words of woe" with pleasure. (Example of Polish train driver.) Jesus had not come to judge and speaks his words with no judgmental spirit; he had come to save and he would later reveal his tender heart as he lamented over an unrepentant Jerusalem by declaring:
Lk.13:34 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"
When Jesus declared his "words of woe", he was expressing his grief that these cities in Galilee remained unrepentant too. Will Jesus be forced to utter similar words of grief over any of us? I hope not.
Each of the cities that Jesus named, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, had been blessed with remarkable privileges and yet each had failed to benefit from those privileges.
These three cities which were all quite close to each other to the northern side of the Sea of Galilee and it was in this region that Jesus had carried out a lot of his ministry. He had taught there and healed the sick there and he had fed the multitudes there. The inhabitants of these cities had not heard rumours about the prophet from Nazareth; they had seen and observed him for themselves. Capernaum had even been so highly favoured as to have been made the place where Jesus established his headquarters.
They had great privileges then and yet they failed to appreciate the significance of everything that had taken place amongst them. With great privilege comes great responsibility but they failed. They resolutely refused to see themselves as having any problem with God at all. They simply didn’t see any need to repent. Perhaps they even thought Jesus’ presence amongst them somehow vindicated them! They were self-confident and didn’t think anything was fundamentally wrong with what they had done or with what they were doing. Others might need to change but surely not them.
And Jesus declared that the worthless and wicked cities of Tyre and Sidon wouldn’t have acted like that! If he had performed his mighty works amongst them they would have understood and they would have repented. In fact, Jesus declared, those proud, prosperous and cruel cities would have made an about turn if they had but witnessed a small part of what Chorazin and Bethsaida had seen.
No, Chorazin and Bethsaida had nothing to be self-satisfied about. They had seen many of the mighty works of Jesus but had not realised that they were intended to be signposts and had failed to learn from them and so had not acted as they ought to have done.
And their lack of appropriate response was culpable – and the consequences? Horrors were on the way for those two towns.
The third of the cities was Capernaum and this city really fancy itself, it had great expectations of what the future held for it. In reality, not only did this city fail to recognise any problems that needed to be addressed it was convinced that everything was going so very well! The inhabitants of this city were convinced that heaven was their destination.
But how wrong they all were!!
I wonder whether in their complacency and misplaced confidence these folk thought that they must be alright because Jesus had made his head-quarters amongst them. I wonder whether they thought that that ensured all that was needed.
There are plenty of folk in Britain today who behave in that sort of way. Britain is a Christian country, they say, and therefore to live in Britain must mean that they’re alright and more than alright, they’re heaven bound.
And there is of course an element of truth in what they say. Yes, it is true that Britain has been heavily influenced by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus has been preached in Britain for hundreds of years and his teaching has influenced so much of the way our national has developed. Bibles are readily available. But none of that is, of itself, sufficient to save a man or a woman. It is not enough simply to hear the word that is preached but that word must be received and acted upon – we must become doers of the word and not remain hearers only.
These folk in Capernaum were deceiving themselves with their grandiose expectation of heaven – they couldn’t in all truth actually have been more deceived because according to Jesus they were not headed there at all, they were on the way to Hades, the place of the dead, to hell itself. And it was Jesus who said so!
Just as Jesus was the one who made most use of the word "woe" so it is Jesus, in the NT, who speaks most frequently of hell:
He is the one who makes it crystal clear that not everyone is heaven-bound.
He is the one who supplies us with graphic descriptions of that most awful destination – hell.
There are different words to designate that place of anguish and sorrow and regret but it doesn’t matter because it is uniquely Jesus who uses them in the gospels.
Jesus did not try to pretend that hell did not exist, nor that it could easily be avoided but instead he died on Calvary’s cross to secure the salvation that would keep us out of hell. He came in order to save men and women and boys and girls from just such a destiny. His salvation will prevent all those who put their faith and trust in him from being shut forever outside the glorious, gracious Kingdom of God.
These towns thought they were OK without exercising faith and trust in Jesus and Jesus roundly condemned them for thus rejecting him. Let none of us imagine that somehow a different set of terms and conditions will apply to us.
Hearing Jesus’ voice
But someone might say (as indeed many in the past have indeed said) "I would believe if I saw a miracle" or "If Jesus appeared directly to me and spoke to me then I’d believe". "Until then I won’t believe."
People can be dress up their arguments to sound ever so fair, so logical, so reasonable – that we might end up thinking that God surely can’t expect me to believe without such special treatment. But oh, how foolish the human heart can be!
Have you never heard the expression: "Beggars can’t be choosers"? I’m sure you have. Before God we are all really and truly spiritual beggars – we are spiritually bankrupt and poverty-stricken, we need whatever he will give us. Our position is so serious that we are simply in no place to try to barter for something else. So instead of trying to lay down our terms and conditions we must accept his; they are the only terms there are.
And according to him we don’t actually need to see miracles in order to believe! Even if we were to see a miracle there is no guarantee that we would believe even then – after all the folk in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were left unaffected by all the extraordinary miracles and mighty works that they saw Jesus perform in their midst.
And If we don’t need to see a miracle then we don’t actually need to hear Jesus speaking to us in a vision or a dream either because he tells us that his voice is heard as his followers speak out for him.
That has practical implications for all of us today. It means that today Jesus is speaking to us as we hear more about who he is, what he has done and what he has taught. Will you hear and heed his voice today? Will you give up on all your excuses for not putting your trust in him and ask him to forgive you your sin and make of you a new person?
Will you not choose life today?
Jesus sent out his messengers so that they might spread the good news and he continues to do so in our day too. If you reject the gospel that you are hearing it is not just a preacher’s words you are rejecting it is Christ himself. If you reject Christ then you will found to have also rejected God the Father who sent him. There is no place in heaven for such a person, but there is forgiveness for those who will turn and seek his mercy and his grace.