“And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths I the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” — Matthew 11:23 (NIV)
Christians today like to think of Jesus as loving, kind, gentle, and accepting. He is certainly all of that. The thought of Jesus getting angry or rejecting anyone bothers us. The Greek for “the depths” is Hades, or hell. That makes us very uncomfortable. Let us not make the mistake of ignoring Jesus’ wrath
Early in his ministry Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. No one seemed to mind having him there. In fact, after a few supernatural healings and exorcisms, he became so popular he had to leave town for a while until the excitement subsided (Mark 1:45).
Jesus condemned Capernaum shortly after receiving a delegation of disciples of John the Baptist. In other words, it was still early in his ministry. What made Jesus angry? What can we learn from his wrath?
Before he had assembled all of his disciples, he entered the synagogue of Capernaum and taught. The people seemed to accept his teaching pretty well. They noticed that he taught with authority, unlike other teachers they knew. It looks like a promising beginning. Just then, a demon, who possessed a member of the synagogue, interrupted the service, and Jesus cast out the demon (Mark 1:23-26).
How many time in modern churches do members of the congregation tell each other how much they enjoyed the sermon and then to all appearances forget about it before they get to their cars? Did Jesus’ initial reception in Capernaum mean any more than that?
More seriously, they had a demoniac in their midst. Did his disruptive behavior bother anyone? Had they noticed he was possessed? Did they care, either about the man himself or their ability to worship in his presence? For that matter, even though Jesus already had a reputation as a healer, the demoniac did not address him and ask for healing. It was the demon who spoke up. Was the man content to have a demon living in him?
How many modern churches have troubled people in their membership and everyone else ignores them? How many modern people with serious problems contentedly decline to look to God to take them away?
By the next time Jesus taught in that synagogue, he had already aroused the professional jealousy of the scribes and Pharisees. They strongly took exception to his claim that as Son of Man, he was Lord of the Sabbath. They made sure a man with a shriveled hand was present, almost daring Jesus to heal him on the Sabbath. He did, of course, but not until he had looked around the room, angry at people’s stubbornness and hard hearts (Mark 3:5).
The wrath of Jesus pronounced judgment on Capernaum for a number of reasons. Several appear in these two visits to the synagogue. Complacency in the presence of suffering makes Jesus angry. Judgmentalism and legalism about fine points of the law in the absence of love and faith makes Jesus angry. Indifference to real sin makes Jesus angry. Godless thoughts and attitudes dressed up as religion makes Jesus angry.
A hymn says, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” How many residents of Capernaum would have considered Jesus a friend? A little odd, maybe, but surely a nice person. The people of Capernaum must have been stunned to hear of Jesus’ condemnation of the whole city. Without presuming to judge anyone else’s worship, let us ponder whether we are acting like a friend to Jesus or indifferent to him.
Am I singing hymns of praise and then doing things that make Jesus angry? I certainly do not want to be surprised by the wrath of Jesus.