The events of this past year have given us clear evidence that we live in a corrupted and fallen world; a world in which tragedy can strike anyone at any time. Since we live in a day of technology unlike any previous era, we are exposed to tragedies on level few societies have ever experienced. We have media that keeps people informed with what is happening all over the world. This relentless and instantaneous flood of details, pictures, and videos on our TV screens, computer monitors, tablets, and cell phones also ensure that we are not isolated from calamities and turmoil no matter where such events happen. In our world, you and I can see the results of an earthquake in Chile, a tsunami in Japan, wildfires in California, a hurricane in Florida, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, a deadly monsoon in Thailand, an avalanche in the Alps, famine in Africa, riots in Washington, and wars in the Middle East in mere moments causing millions of people to vicariously experience all the pain, sorrow, suffering, and death natural catastrophes bring. All of this has the effect of making us feel weak and vulnerable and causes us to wonder when it will be our turn at such a horrible event. Life on this fallen, sin-cursed planet is filled with trouble, sorrow, pain, and that is as evident now as it has ever been.
What should we learn from all of this? What lesson is there for us? I am sure some of you remember the Russian writer and historian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). With keen insight, Mr. Solzhenitsyn answered these questions: “Years ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” Since then I have spend well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by the upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.””
Men and women have forgotten God and they need to turn from their sinful ways and receive Jesus Christ as Savior to be granted His pardon for their sins. The New Testament calls this “repentance” and this is Luke’s message. You and I must repent; we must be saved and that salvation is given only through the Lord Jesus Christ. In this passage of Luke’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus mentioned two tragic events. Jesus then reveals to us that tragic events like these serve as sign-posts pointing to what will happen to all sinners if they remain resolute in their refusal to repent and turn to Christ.
These verses proclaim God’s mandate that all repent, first by introducing two tragic events that happened in Jesus’ time and created great concern among ordinary people. Then, Jesus taught a parable that pointed to the urgency of repentance. We cannot afford to postpone our repentance and salvation. Today is the day! We do not know when such disasters may occur. Our Lord makes an urgent appeal for people to repent and turn to Him for salvation.
THE LESSON FROM DISTURBING EVENTS. Luke 13:1-5
Another Interruption. These verses, as are many in this section of his Gospel, are unique to Luke. The Lord Jesus is continuing His journey to Jerusalem and we find that in the process He warns the crowds that gathered around Him to be concerned about their eternal destiny. At this point a group interrupts the Lord’s teaching to report a recent disaster that had happened. In this case an unspecified number of people had been killed by the Roman government. Although no question is asked, the implication, based on Jesus’ response is that the victims must have been guilty of some great sin or they would not have died.
This question is likely a cleverly designed plot to tempt the Lord Jesus. They probably expected that Christ’s Jewish patriotism would provoke Him to speak against Pilate, the Roman ruler. This would have given them the basis for accusing Him before Pilate in hopes that the governor would put Him to death as a seditionist against Rome. On the other hand, if Jesus had shown sympathy, He would be speaking against the prevailing Jewish theology of the day; that God brought calamity because of sin and that would pit Jesus against God’s will.
A Brutal Action. We are familiar with Pontius Pilate, who was a political appointee who held the office of governor over Judea. Pilate had been appointed by Tiberius and ruled as governor from 26-36 A.D. At times Pilate was arrogant, ego-centric, and cynical and at other times he was weak and vacillating. The Roman government charged Pilate with keeping the peace in Palestine, yet his hatred and contempt for Jewish laws and customs made this difficult. Upon receiving his commission as governor and traveling to Jerusalem to assume his office, he chose to enter the city in a full pagan Roman procession, complete with banners that represented Rome’s false gods, even though he knew it would infuriate the people. Thousands of Jews gathered in protest and Pilate threatened to kill them all if they did not disperse. They called his bluff and sur-rendered themselves to death. He had no choice but to relent and remove the offending banners and standards back to Caesarea.
Historians did not record the specific incident the crowd reported to Jesus. It appears a group of people from Galilee travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover and were in the processing of following Jewish tradition in sacrificing a lamb for their Passover dinner, when they evidently (either intentionally or unintentionally) violated one of the governor’s laws. When they refused to desist, Pilate had them killed.
Jesus could have used this event to speak out against the evil Roman government and the pagan politicians who ruled over God’s sacred land. But He didn’t. He could have rallied the people in opposition against Roman rule and re-establish a Jewish kingdom. But He didn’t. In fact, He did not mention Rome or Pilate or politics in His answer at all. Instead, He pointed them to the greater and eternal by telling them that more important than temporal politics was the salvation of their souls. Death is inevitable to all and what is most important is preparing for eternity by repenting from sins and turning to Christ for salvation. If they refused to repent, they would die just as certainly as those Pilate had killed. Even more important, Jesus was urging them to look beyond physical death and recognize that in their unrepentant state, they would remain in their sins and be lost forever.
A Natural Disaster. Jesus offered another example to drive His point home. In the south-eastern quarter of Jerusalem was the pool of Siloam. As with Pilate’s slaughter of the Passover worshipers, this event is unrecorded by secular historians. The Romans devised a plan to bring more water into Jerusalem by constructing an aqueduct to the large cistern in Siloam. It required the building a large tower to complete the project. Evidently, either because of an earthquake or poor construction or an unfortunate accident, the tower collapsed killing eighteen people. When the accident happened, Jewish people concluded that these eighteen were more sinful than others because they had been killed in such a horrible fashion.
To this Jesus responded that these people were not more sinful than others. The New American Standard version translated the word “culprits.” The word in the original is used only seven times in the New Testament and has the idea of being a debtor and it focuses on a person’s sin-debt before God. Jesus here inferred that these victims did not have any greater of a sin debt than anyone else. They were sinners in the same way all other people are sinners. Once again Jesus told them that if they did not repent, they would all perish in the same way. While the death of these eighteen people was a calamity the greater calamity is the failure to repent.
We recall, don’t we, of our own tower that collapsed. I am certain you have not forgotten the images from September 11th 2001. We watched in breathless disbelief as two enormous World Trade Center towers col-lapsed with thousands inside. Many have asked questions about that event that are similar to those the Jewish people asked. Jesus’ answer is the same to us today as it was to the people of His day. Unless we repent, we will all likewise perish.
THE LESSON FROM A FRUITLESS FIG TREE. Luke 13:6-9
Condemned for Failure. In order to illustrate the urgency of His message of repentance, Jesus tells a parable of a fruitless fig tree. Fig trees are common in Israel today as they were in the first century. Figs were and are an important part of the diet of those in the eastern Mediterranean. The trees produce an edible fruit once a year and the figs are often dried and stored for future use. This man planted a fig tree in his vineyard so that it would be well watered and he expected an abundant crop. But year after year passed with no evidence of fruit.
After three years, when the tree should have produced figs, not one fig appeared on the man’s tree. His patience had reached an end. It was time for the tree to be cut down and another grown in its place. This was an unmistakable picture to the crowd that surrounded Jesus. The Lord had given them years to repent. He had given them sign after sign and still they refused to turn to Him. They had the Holy Scriptures that told them of their sin and that repentance would bring God’s grace and forgiveness, and still they refused. How long would God tolerate their failure? How long before He would bring judgment for their stubborn minds and hardened hearts?
God’s Gracious Compassion. At this point the vineyard-keeper offered a suggestion. Can we give the tree one more year? In tree terms that meant one more chance. “Let me do a little work on this tree,” he proposed. “I’ll work the ground around the tree and put fertilizer on it and we’ll see if it grows fruit.” In this we see God’s gracious compassion. Many people reject the Lord Jesus multiple times in their lives. Their hearts grow so cold and callous that it seems impossible for them to hear and respond to Christ’s message. They have heard it all so many times before; “You must be born again,” or “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” It is just the same message heard so many times and once again it is easy to ignore. But the sands in the hour glass will eventually run out and it will be too late.
The Days Are Numbered. One year; that is all the fig tree had left. The keeper would do his best to urge the tree to bear fruit but at the end of the year, if it failed again, it would be destroyed: no more grace, no more time. In the Old Testament, Moses urged us to consider the finite length of our lives and spiritual opportunities when he said, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)
As if to echo Moses, David wrote in Psalm 39, “Lord, make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, and my life-time as nothing in Your sight; Surely every man at his best is a mere breath. (Psalm 39:4-5)
The people must repent or perish. They had been given many advantages and opportunities but still failed to believe. Judgment is near; God’s patience is not permanent for those who refuse to obey. This is an urgent concern because it is a matter of eternal life or death. The time is now; it is today. The apostle Paul declared, “Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2b)
Jesus knew as He spoke these words that time was running out. He knew the days of His ministry were numbered as were the days He would allow for these people to repent. Tragedies teach all of us that we cannot be at all certain of the future. We have plans for a long life, but there many things that stand it the way. There are no guarantees and our Lord urges us to put Him first and obey Him above and beyond all others.
We must notice that Jesus refused to be drawn into the realm of worldly politics. He was well aware of Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire. Yet, He continually pointed people to the greater, infinite, and eternal kingdom of God and urged them to prepare themselves for that reality. The present world is only temporary, but in it we do prepare for the next.
We are prepared for eternal life only when we receive Jesus Christ as our Lord and Master. Have you done that? Have you received Christ as your Savior and Lord? Remember, your days are numbered. You have no idea how many you have ahead of you; it may be many or it may be few. Remember Jesus’ words, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” What will you do? Will you trust Christ and be saved or continue in your rejection and be eternally lost?
As a church, we must call upon people to remember the Lord. If we do not, it will be said of us as Mr. Solzhenitsyn said of his country, that the great calamities happened because the people forgot the Lord. Pray that the people of this country will not forget God. Make sure you remember Him every day He gives you.
Updated by Pastor Vernon Welkner, 1/18/2021