is a 156-mile-long river that flows north to south from
the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea.
It lies on the eastern border of modern-day Israel and the western borders of both Syria and Jordan. Because of its great length and central location,
the Jordan River is mentioned in the Bible over 185 times.
The Jordan River is mentioned indirectly in Genesis 13,
where Lot and Abraham
are dividing up the land to which God had led them.
Abraham allowed Lot to choose his share first, and
Lot chose the Jordan Valley,
which was lush and well-watered due to the Jordan River
This was a pivotal moment, as it not
only established that Lot’s character was selfish but also
directed Lot toward the evil city of Sodom,
which God later destroyed
(see Genesis 18–19).
Many years later, as the Israelites journeyed from
slavery in Egypt to the land God had promised them,
acted as both an obstacle and pathway.
The people had
wandered in the wilderness for 40 years
as a punishment for distrusting the Lord’s care when
He first brought them to Canaan;
Moses himself was denied entry into the
Promised Land and was only allowed to view it
from a mountain across the Jordan before he died
(Numbers 27:12; Deuteronomy 31:2; 32:48–52).
It was the next generation of Israelites
who stood on the banks of the Jordan,
ready to enter Canaan at last.
Only the Jordan River stood in their way now,
and it was at flood stage (Joshua 3:15).
At God’s command, Joshua (the people’s new leader)
instructed the priests bearing the
Ark of the Covenant to stand in the water of the river.
They obeyed, and the Jordan immediately stopped flowing
to make a way for the people to cross over
on dry ground (Joshua 3:15–17).
Then began the conquest of Canaan; the tribes of Gad and Reuben and half of Manasseh settled on land on the east side of the Jordan River, but they helped their fellow Israelites with the taking of the Promised Land first
After the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River,
Joshua had the people set up two memorials:
twelve stones from the Jordan River were placed on
dry ground, and
twelve stones from the banks of the river were placed in the
middle of the river where the priests had stood.
Thus the location of God’s demonstration of power
on behalf of Israel was marked for generations to come
The Old Testament mentions the Jordan River many more times,
usually in stories of the Israelites’ battles and disputes.
The river served as a strategic site in the war against the Midianites, led by Gideon (Judges 7:24–25). Later, King Saul and several of his sons perished in a battle near the Jordan River (see 1 Samuel 13). Several other passages mention the Jordan being crossed in order to engage an enemy
(2 Samuel 2:29; 17:22; 19:17–18).
The prophets Elijah and Elisha were associated with the Jordan River
on many occasions:
Elijah lived for a time near the Jordan (1 Kings 17:5),
Elisha told Naaman the Syrian to bathe in the Jordan to be healed of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:10), and Elisha caused a sunken ax head
to float on the Jordan (2 Kings 6:1–6).
Both prophets crossed the Jordan River by miraculous means in 2 Kings 2:7–14.
In the New Testament,
the Jordan River played an important role
in preparing people for the ministry of Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist preached at the river regularly and baptized
everyone who repented (Luke 3:2–3).
Jesus Himself came to John at the Jordan River to be baptized
not to show repentance but to
fully identify with us and “to fulfill all righteousness”
It was at the Jordan River that God the Father
proclaimed His love for and pleasure with the Son and the Spirit
descended upon Jesus at the commencement of His ministry
is featured in the New Testament but never mentioned in the Old. Capernaum was a city located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.
It is significant in Scripture because Capernaum was the chosen home city of Jesus after He was driven from Nazareth by the religious officials (Luke 4:16, 28–30). Capernaum was also the home of Peter and Andrew and where Jesus called them to follow Him (Matthew 4:18–20). Jesus also found Matthew, a tax collector in Capernaum, and called him to follow
Jesus referred to Capernaum often and did many of His miracles there (Matthew 8:5; John 6:17–21). He also taught in the synagogue (John 6:59; Mark 1:21).
Although Capernaum had been the site of
so many proofs of Jesus’ identity, the people there
refused to believe, and He included it in a
denunciation of several cities:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed
in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago,
sitting in sackcloth and ashes.
But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon
at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum,
will you be lifted to the heavens?
No, you will go down to Hades”
It was in Capernaum that Jesus healed the centurion’s son
the nobleman’s son (John 4:46–53), Simon Peter’s mother-in-law
(Mark 1:30–31), and the paralytic (Matthew 9:1–2).
In Capernaum, Jesus cast out an unclean spirit
raised Jairus’s daughter to life,
and healed the woman with the bleeding issue
The city of Capernaum represents many who have been
exposed to the gospel,
may enjoy going to church, and consider themselves Christians by association.
The familiarity with Jesus and His Word gives them a false sense of assurance that they are right with God when in reality Jesus will one day say to them,
"Away from me, you evildoers! I never knew you”
The people of Capernaum
heard and saw what Jesus did and said,
yet they refused to believe
(John 1:12; 12:42).
We can speculate as to why: would believing
would cost them too much?
Would it disrupt their comfortable religious life?
Would it challenge them to repent of sin and pride,
love the unlovely, and give up all to follow?
(Luke 9:57–62; 4:25–33; John 6:59–66)
Capernaum had a greater opportunity than most cities
to hear and believe in Christ, and the residents would be
held to a higher standard of judgment
(Luke 10:12; Matthew 11:24).
Likewise, we will be judged
according to the light we’ve been given
(Matthew 5:29; 18:6; Luke 12:42–48).
If God did not spare Capernaum due to their lack of faith,
He will not spare those today who have
heard the message, seen the evidence, and rejected His Son
(2 Peter 2:4–10; Hebrews 6:4–6).
Jesus timed elements of His ministry carefully, though people
often seemed to challenge His timing.
For example, very early in His ministry, Mary requested that Jesus perform a miracle at a wedding at Cana. Jesus responded by saying,
"My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4).
But, immediately after that, He performs a miracle, which John calls
“the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory”
Jesus had recently called His disciples, and He and they were
invited to a wedding at Cana of Galilee
Because Jesus had so recently recruited His disciples
(compare the time stamps in John 1:29, 1:35, and 2:1),
it was unlikely that the host was prepared for that many people,
and they ran out of wine (John 2:3).
It seems that Mary, Jesus’ mother, may have been
involved in hosting the wedding, as she
gave instructions to those who were serving at the wedding (John 2:5).
When Mary discovered that the wine had run out,
she told Jesus (John 2:3),
as if asking Him to rectify the situation with a miracle.
Perhaps Mary wished for Jesus to make Himself
publicly known at that time. Jesus responded first by
respectfully addressing her as “Woman”
He used the same term to address others with whom He was conversing and to whom He was ministering (Matthew 15:28; Luke 13:12; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:15). He also used the term later when looking after Mary’s care at His crucifixion (John 19:26). While Jesus ultimately honored Mary and her request, it may be that, in saying,
“Woman, why do you involve me? . . . My hour has not yet come,”
He was gently reminding her that it wasn’t her place to direct His ministry.
After Jesus said, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4),
Mary instructed those serving to do whatever Jesus told them
Jesus told the servants to fill the waterpots that were
used for washing hands
After they filled the pots with water “to the brim” (verse 7),
Jesus told them to draw out what was in the pots and
take it to the headwaiter (John 2:8).
Sometime in the process, the water was turned to wine.
Without realizing where the wine had come from (John 2:9), the headwaiter expressed his amazement that the best wine had been saved for last
Most people at the wedding were not aware
of the miracle—only the servants who drew the
water-turned-to-wine and the disciples knew
what Jesus had done.
John further narrates that this
act confirmed Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the Son of God,
and “his disciples believed in him”
Jesus’ words, “My hour has not yet come,”
He was working on a divine schedule and that
He was managing the pace at which people would
be confronted with the reality of who He was.
When Mary suggested that Jesus do something at the wedding,
she likely wanted a more public miracle that everyone
could see and glory in.
Jesus knew it was not time for that yet.
He did perform a miracle,
and only a select group of people saw it.
Jesus knew His message that the kingdom of God
would ultimately be rejected.
He knew that He would die (Matthew 12:40–41) to pay for sin and to provide all who believe in Him with eternal life (John 5:24; 6:47) and entrance into His coming kingdom (Matthew 5:20, 48; 6:33). On some other occasions when Jesus performed miracles, He instructed those who were blessed by them not to broadcast what He had done (e.g., Matthew 8:4; 9:30; 12:16; 17:9; etc.). It seems that Jesus managed the momentum of His ministry so that things would happen according to God’s timing and not according to the will and whims of people. Even Jesus’ mother could not hurry things along.
When Jesus said to Mary, “My hour has not yet come,”
but then performed the miracle anyway,
He demonstrated respect and compassion for Mary,
He also prioritized the scheduling in which
work of God was to be done.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!
You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15).
This is one of the “seven woes” pronounced by the Lord against the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. To understand why Jesus would refer to a convert of the Pharisees as a “child of hell” (literally, “son of Gehenna”),
we have to look at the context of Jesus’ words. Jesus is instructing His followers about the religious hypocrites who are themselves “children of hell.”
Jesus begins His condemnation of the religious leaders of the day
in Matthew 22 with a parable.
The story of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1–15)
condemns the leaders’ self-righteousness and their
refusal to accept God’s provision for their salvation.
Because their hearts were still hard, they responded
by trying to entrap Jesus with
questions about taxes, the resurrection,
and the Law
Jesus avoided their traps and indicted them for knowing
neither the Scriptures nor the power of God
Then He turned the tables on them,
asking them a question they couldn’t answer about the Messiah
Once He had silenced them, He used the occasion to teach His disciples the truth about the teachers of the Law in chapter 23.
To be a child of hell is to be deserving of hell,
that is, to be awfully wicked. In Matthew 23, Jesus explains that
the Pharisees and Sadducees displayed their wickedness in many ways.
They did not practice what they preached (verse 3).
They burdened the people with religious rituals and ceremonies of their own invention and made no effort to help them to bear them (verse 4).
All their religious rituals were done in a public manner in order to receive the praise and glory from others (verses 5–7).
For all these sins and more, Jesus pronounces
“woes” upon them
for their guilt and the punishment that would surely await them.
The Pharisees and their converts were children of hell primarily because they rejected God’s provision for their salvation, attempting to justify themselves through their own righteous deeds.
In so doing, they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus said that, when they made a Gentile convert, they made him double the child of hell that they were—the former pagan became twice the hypocrite that they were, twice as confirmed in wickedness. By opposing Jesus, the leaders tried to convince people that He was an impostor. Many were ready to embrace Him as the Messiah and were about to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the hypocrites prevented it. Jesus says they had “taken away the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52),
meaning they had taken away the right interpretation of the ancient prophecies respecting the Messiah. In that way they prevented the people from receiving Jesus as their promised Redeemer.
Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees became children of hell by rejecting Jesus as their only Savior, so do millions today. All who remain in their sins are deserving of hell because God demands justice, and wickedness must be paid for (Romans 6:23). If we reject Christ’s payment for our sins, we must pay for them ourselves, thus rendering ourselves children of hell.
Scribes in ancient Israel were learned men whose business was to study the Law, transcribe it, and write commentaries on it. They were also hired on occasions when the need for a written document arose or when an interpretation of a legal point was needed. Ezra, “a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses,” was a scribe (Ezra 7:6).
The scribes took their job of preserving Scripture very seriously; they would copy and recopy the Bible meticulously, even counting letters and spaces to ensure each copy was correct. We can thank the Jewish scribes for preserving the Old Testament portion of our Bibles.
Jews became increasingly known as “the people of the Book” because of their faithful study of Scripture, particularly the Law and how it should be followed. In the New Testament era, scribes were often associated with the sect of the Pharisees, although not all Pharisees were scribes (see Matthew 5:20; 12:38). They were teachers of the people (Mark 1:22) and interpreters of the Law. They were widely respected by the community because of their knowledge, dedication, and outward appearance of Law-keeping.
The scribes went beyond interpretation of Scripture, however, and added many man-made traditions to what God had said. They became professionals at spelling out the letter of the Law while ignoring the spirit behind it. Things became so bad that the regulations and traditions the scribes added to the Law were considered more important than the Law itself. This led to many confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shocked His audience by declaring that the righteousness of the scribes was not enough to get anyone to heaven (Matthew 5:20). A large portion of Jesus’ sermon then dealt with what the people had been taught (by the scribes) and what God actually wanted (Matthew 5:21–48). Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, He thoroughly condemned the scribes for their hypocrisy (Matthew 23). They knew the Law, and they taught it to others, but they did not obey it.
The scribes’ original aim was in earnest—to know and preserve the Law and encourage others to keep it. But things turned horribly wrong when man-made traditions overshadowed God’s Word and a pretense of holiness replaced a life of true godliness. The scribes, whose stated goal was to preserve the Word, actually nullified it by the traditions they handed down (Mark 7:13).
How did things get so far off course? Probably because the Jews, after surviving centuries of persecution and enslavement, clung in pride to the keeping of the Law and how it marked them as God’s chosen people. The Jews of Jesus’ day certainly had an attitude of superiority (John 7:49), which Jesus opposed (Matthew 9:12). The bigger problem was that the scribes were hypocrites at heart. They were more interested in appearing good to men than they were in pleasing God. Eventually, it was these same scribes who played a part in having Jesus arrested and crucified (Matthew 26:57; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:1–2). The lesson every Christian can learn from the hypocrisy of the scribes is that God wants more than outward acts of righteousness. He wants an inward change of heart that is constantly yielding in love and obedience to Christ.
The apostle Paul shrewdly used the theological differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees to escape their clutches. Paul had been arrested in Jerusalem and was making his defense before the Sanhedrin. Knowing that some of the court were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, Paul called out, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). Paul’s mention of the resurrection precipitated a dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, dividing the assembly, and causing “a great uproar” (verse 9). The Roman commander who watched the proceedings sent troops into the melee to rescue Paul from their violence (verse 10).
Socially, the Sadducees were more elitist and aristocratic than the Pharisees. Sadducees tended to be wealthy and to hold more powerful positions. The chief priests and high priest were Sadducees, and they held the majority of seats in the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were more representative of the common working people and had the respect of the masses. The Sadducees’ locus of power was the temple in Jerusalem; the Pharisees controlled the synagogues. The Sadducees were friendlier with Rome and more accommodating to the Roman laws than the Pharisees were. The Pharisees often resisted Hellenization, but the Sadducees welcomed it.
Jesus had more run-ins with the Pharisees than with the Sadducees, probably because of the former’s giving preeminence to oral tradition. “You ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition,” Jesus told them (Mark 7:8, NLT; see also Matthew 9:14; 15:1–9; 23:5, 16, 23, Mark 7:1–23; and Luke 11:42). Because the Sadducees were often more concerned with politics than religion, they ignored Jesus until they began to fear He might bring unwanted Roman attention and upset the status quo. It was at that point that the Sadducees and Pharisees set aside their differences, united, and conspired to put Christ to death (John 11:48–50; Mark 14:53; 15:1).
The Sadducees as a group ceased to exist after the destruction of Jerusalem, but the Pharisees’ legacy lived on. In fact, the Pharisees were responsible for the compilation of the Mishnah, an important document with reference to the continuation of Judaism beyond the destruction of the temple. In this way the Pharisees laid the groundwork for modern-day Rabbinic Judaism.
In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite of the day. The word woe is an exclamation of grief, denunciation, or distress. This was not the first time Jesus had some harsh words for the religious leaders of His day. Why did Jesus rebuke them so harshly here? Looking at each woe gives some insight.
Before pronouncing the woes, Jesus told His listeners to respect the scribes and Pharisees due to their position of authority but not to emulate them, “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see” (Matthew 23:3–5). The scribes and Pharisees were supposed to know God and help others know Him and follow His ways. Instead, the religious leaders added to God’s Law, making it a cumbersome and onerous burden. And they did not follow God with a pure heart. Their religion was not true worship of God; rather, it was rooted in a prideful heart. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the true intent of the Law over the letter of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees emphasized the letter, completely missing its spirit.
The first woe is, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus cares for people. He desires for them to know Him and to enter into His kingdom (John 3:16–17; 10:10, 17; 2 Peter 3:9). After rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus lamented over rebellious Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37–39). Clearly, His heart is for people to find life in Him. It stands to reason, then, that He would have harsh words for those who prevented people from finding salvation. The teachers of the Law and Pharisees were not truly seeking after God, though they acted as if they were. Their religion was empty, and it was preventing others from following the Messiah.
In the second woe, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for making strenuous efforts to win converts and then leading those converts to be “twice as much” children of hell as the scribes and Pharisees were (Matthew 13:15). In other words, they were more intent on spreading their religion than on maintaining the truth.
The third woe Jesus pronounces against the scribes and Pharisees calls the religious leaders “blind guides” and “blind fools” (Matthew 23:16–17). Specifically, Jesus points out, they nit-picked about which oaths were binding and which were not, ignoring the sacred nature of all oaths and significance of the temple and God’s holiness (verses 15–22).
The fourth woe calls out the scribes and Pharisees for their practice of diligently paying the tithe while neglecting to actually care for people. While they were counting their mint leaves to make sure they gave one tenth to the temple, they “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Once again, they focused on the letter of the Law and obeyed it with pride, but they missed the weightier things of God. Their religion was external; their hearts were not transformed.
Jesus elaborates on their hypocrisy in the fifth woe. He tells the religious leaders they appear clean on the outside, but they have neglected the inside. They perform religious acts but do not have God-honoring hearts. It does no good, Jesus says, to clean up the outside when the inside is “full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). The Pharisees and scribes are blind and do not recognize that, when the inside is changed, the outside, too, will be transformed.
In the sixth woe, Jesus claims the scribes and Pharisees are “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). The deadness inside of tombs is likened to the “hypocrisy and wickedness” inside the religious leaders (verse 28). Once again, they appear to obey God, but their hearts are far from Him (see Matthew 15:7–9 and Isaiah 29:13).
Jesus concludes His seven-fold rebuke by telling the religious leaders that they are just like their fathers, who persecuted the prophets of old. In building monuments to the prophets, they testify against themselves, openly admitting that it was their ancestors who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29–31). Although they arrogantly claim that they would not have done so, they are the ones who will soon plot the murder of the Son of God Himself (Matthew 26:4).
Jesus’ words are harsh because there was so much at stake. Those who followed the Pharisees and scribes were being kept from following God. So much of the teaching in Jesus’ day was in direct contradiction of God’s Word (see Matthew 15:6). The religious leaders made a mockery out of following God. They did not truly understand God’s ways, and they led others away from God. Jesus’ desire was that people would come to know God and be reconciled with Him. In Matthew 11:28–30 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Unlike the burdens the scribes and Pharisees laid on the people in a human effort to gain reconciliation with God, Jesus gives true rest. The religious leaders spread lies covered in a veneer of godliness (John 8:44); Jesus spoke harshly against them because He came to bring life (John 10:10).
Also, the word woe carries with it a tinge of sorrow. There is an element of imprecation, to be sure, but with it an element of compassionate sadness. The seven woes that Jesus pronounces on the religious leaders are solemn declarations of future misery. The stubbornness of the sinners to whom He speaks is bringing a judgment to be feared. The scribes and Pharisees are calling down God’s wrath upon themselves, and they are to be pitied.
Immediately after Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, we see Jesus’ compassion. He asks, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). Jesus then expresses His desire to gather the people of Israel to Himself for safety, if only they were willing (verse 37). God longs for His people to come to Him and find forgiveness. Jesus was not harsh to be mean. He was not having a temper tantrum. Rather, love guided His actions. Jesus spoke firmly against the deception of Satan out of a desire for people to know truth and find life in Him.