READ : Luke 13:1-5
I thought about changing the title of this message. Perhaps something a little more catchy. At least, a bit less stark. But as I kept on studying it, I couldn’t do that. A clever caption for words like these would seem grossly inappropriate. And how can anyone communicate this truth faithfully if the central thrust of it is diminished? So I decided to tell it just like it is: repent or perish!
Listen to the passage with me and see if you don’t resonate with that. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 13, starting at verse 1:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
A WRONG CONCLUSION
The first thing Jesus does here is challenge a common misunderstanding. Some in the crowd had brought Him news about one of Pontius Pilate’s terrible cruelties. A group of Galileans had somehow angered Pilate. In retaliation, while they were offering sacrifices in the temple, he had them slaughtered. Their own blood, as it were, was mingled with that of their offerings.
Those who told about this massacre spoke of it with fright, with awe. It seemed to them a horrifying expression of God’s judgment. What must these Galileans been been guilty of that they should die in such a gruesome way?
It’s easy to assume, isn’t it, that those who suffer tragic misfortunes are being visited by God because of some special evil in their lives? We remember that that’s what Job’s friends thought about him. Since he was enduring the worst calamities of anyone they had ever known, they thought he must be guilty of the most heinous crimes.
The disciples of Jesus seem to think along the same lines. When they once had encountered a man born blind, they wondered if he had somehow sinned before his birth, that such an overwhelming handicap should be visited upon him. All of us tend to reason that way, don’t we? We search for some meaning in tragic events. We conclude that where there is monumental suffering, some monstrous evil must lie behind it. It must somehow be a punishment suited to their crime.
But Jesus says no. There are, of course, some evils that we do bring upon ourselves. Alcoholism can lead to liver problems, promiscuity to venereal disease, drug addiction to one physical calamity after another. But this proves nothing about the great mass of human suffering. The longer we live, the more we see how many bad things seem to happen to good people. Illnesses and accidents, griefs and abandonments come to all sorts of people, often the most upright and God-fearing of all.
Because that’s true, we do people a great injustice when we assume that their suffering is in proportion to their sinfulness. How heartbreaking it must be for afflicted ones to encounter not sympathy but suspicion, not encouragement but blame. We make their burden infinitely heavier when we look on them as guilty and blameworthy.
It’s a great comfort to me that Jesus has exposed the falsehood of all that. He says that these slaughtered Galileans and the eighteen on whom the tower fell are not to be viewed as worse than anyone else. These men and women are no less significant to God than we are. They are no more deserving of punishment. They are probably not more sinful. You can’t take the measure of a person’s life in God’s sight by what may befall her or him in this world. There is no necessary connection between our sufferings and our sins.
I hope you will take that to heart, you who are listening to me now. You may have been enduring unspeakable pain and trouble. Don’t give in to the gloomy accusation that you are somehow accursed, that God has turned His back on you, that you are being judged. Whoever else may think that about you, it’s not God’s assessment of your situation. Never forget that the best Person who ever lived in this world has suffered the most outrageously, while many of the world’s most shamelessly wicked seem to thrive and prosper.
A GRIM REMINDER
All right then, what is God saying in these bizarre and terrible things? Jesus makes it plain that whatever message comes from such events is not about the character of these particular victims but rather about the situation facing all of us. It’s the message that death, any death, always brings to the living.
Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.” The word that captures my attention now is that “likewise.” What does Jesus mean by that? He’s obviously not saying that His hearers will share the same fate as the Galileans in the temple or those crushed by the tower. It’s not the same, but is somehow similar. Again, He’s not saying that some terrible accident will overtake them too. Rather, He’s pointing to something that is characteristic of everyone’s dying.
We don’t understand the Bible’s message until we grasp this deeper significance of death. Death is not a natural event. It was not a part of God’s original intention in creating us. It was when sin appeared – disobedience, rebellion against God’s authority – that death made its entrance. The fact that human beings, made in God’s image, die physically is the sign of something more profound.
God had said to His human creatures: “In the day that you eat (of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), in the day that you disobey, you shall die” (see Gen. 2:17.) Sin brought death along with it. Not that our first parents expired immediately. Their physical death came much later. But something in them died – their fellowship with God, their life in His presence. The subsequent death of their bodies was the somber indication that this had already happened.
Death is still that grim sign. Every human dying points to God’s judgment against sin. Whether the death is early or late, peaceful or violent, each such happening is a reminder that we live and die under God’s wrath because of our sin. This is God’s message to us every time we attend a funeral, every time we are touched by someone else’s dying. We are sinners all, exposed to God’s judgment.
Happenings like the slaughter of the Galileans and the death of those on whom the tower fell are striking events in which many people die. They bring home to us with special force our mortality. They shake us from the illusion that our lives will go on indefinitely. They bring us back to the reality of what the Psalmist saw. Listen. I’m reading from Psalm 90:
Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream, like grass which is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by thy anger; by thy wrath we are overwhelmed. Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. For all our days pass away under thy wrath, our years come to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of thy anger, and thy wrath according to the fear of thee? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (vv. 5-12).
We are a perishing people, friends, certain, each one of us, to die. It’s the emblem that we belong to a sinful race, alienated from our Maker, and that we ourselves share in that sinfulness and mortality. That’s the bad news. We sin and we die.
A WAY OF ESCAPE
But here’s the good news. In spite of our sin and disobedience, God loves us and wants us back. He has done something marvelous on our behalf. He has sent His Son to share our life, bear our sorrows and die in our place. He’s come to remove the separating barrier of sin that blocks us from the Father’s presence. He’s come to draw the sting of death. Because of Him, though we all must die physically some day, we don’t need to die in that deeper, more dreadful way. We don’t need to perish. In the midst of our death, Christ has become our life. That’s all in the background of what Jesus is saying here.
But the immediate word, the critical issue, concerns something we must do. Listen to Jesus again: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He said it twice for emphasis. He said it to everyone, to “all.” He saw every person in the world as “perishable,” every human being on earth as not only certain to die but exposed to judgment. He saw only one alternative, one antidote to perishing – and that is that each person should repent.
To Jesus, repentance then is something urgent, something necessary. It sums up the whole response that we are to make to God in the light of what He has done for us. When Jesus came preaching, His very first word was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” He was saying, “God has come close to you in Me. He has acted on your behalf in My saving mission. His grace has come near. Behold, now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation.” The burning imperative is, “Repent.”
What does it mean to repent? The word means in the Greek language “to change one’s mind.” Not a superficial change, mind you, not only the altering of a whim. It’s a radical reorienting of our outlook. Do you remember how in the old Ptolemaic astronomy it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe and all the heavenly bodies revolved around it? Copernicus shattered all that when he set forth the idea that the sun was the center of the solar system, the earth simply one of the planets orbiting the sun. That brought about a dramatic change in the way people thought about everything.
Repentance is something like that. We’ve been acting as though we ourselves were the center of the universe – God and everything else out there revolving around us. When we repent, we recognize that He is the One at the center. Everything depends upon Him. In repenting, we change our minds about ourselves, about God, about our sin. We look at life in a new way.
Repentance involves also a turning. To repent is to turn away from every idol, every rival object of affection, every sin. It’s to turn ourselves totally toward God. It means to come back to Him from all our wanderings and our follies.
We can only do that, of course, because of what God has done. It’s only because the kingdom has come near that we can enter it. It’s only because God has approached us with pardon and mercy that we can be forgiven. It’s only because Christ has died for our sins and been raised again that salvation is offered to us freely. But all of that becomes real in your life and mine only when we repent, when we acknowledge our sins and our sinfulness. We confess that in ourselves we are hopelessly lost and we turn to God with all our hearts, trusting in Jesus Christ for our salvation.
Someone says, “I thought all we needed to do was believe in order to be saved.” That’s right. But real believing always involves repentance. We are trusting Christ as our Savior from sin, turning from our sins even as we trust Him.
Do these words of Jesus seem harsh to you? That depends, of course, on your view of what lies ahead. If there’s no such thing as judgment against sin, no overhanging divine wrath, then these words are inappropriate. They’re needlessly threatening. But if, on the other hand, death is the sign of sin, and if future judgment is a certain reality, then these are words of marvelous compassion.
And who is really qualified to speak with authority on the issues of life and death, what will happen in the world to come? Is it Jesus, or those who presume to know better than He? It may sometimes be difficult. It may sometimes go against the grain of popular opinion. But relying on the words of Jesus will always be found safe. This is His faithful witness to you and me: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”