Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"JESUS TELLS ISRAEL THAT EVERY SINNER EITHER REPENTS OR PERISHES."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
You sang some moment ago from Ps 38 that that you acknowledge your transgression in confession; more, are deeply troubled by your sin (stanza 8). My question for you this afternoon is this: do you mean that? Itís not so hard to sing words weíve been taught since childhood; some habits are easy to maintain. But whether they come from the heart is a different matter. Hence my question: do you really mean what youíve sung? That is, are you repentant of your sins?
Just how important our Lord Jesus Christ considers repentance to be is pointed up by the fact that the words of our text appear twice on the lips of the Chief Prophet and Teacher in the space of four sentences. More, not only does Jesus repeat the words; He also makes plain what the alternative is. Jesus is emphatic: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish." Those are the only two options: repent or perish. Thatís a reality true not just for the persons to whom Jesus spoke the words of Luke 13, but this is a reality true for every last member of this congregation too Ė without exception. That includes me, and you.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
JESUS TELLS ISRAEL THAT EVERY SINNER EITHER REPENTS OR PERISHES.
1. Why must Israel repent?
2. What must Israel repent from?
3. When must Israel repent?
1. Why must Israel repent?
Jesus first spoke the words of our text in response to a report about a disaster. Thatís vs 1: "some Ö told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Before we go into this report itself, brothers and sisters, we do well to consider the question of why these people mentioned this disaster to Jesus at this time.
As it turns out, the reason they mention this disaster is because of what Jesus had just said in the last part of chap 12. Thatís clear from the first words of 13:1. For in vs 1 Luke tells us that the people who came with this report did not come running up with a brand new item of news for the crowd; rather, these people "were present at that season", "present at that time." That is: these people had just heard what Jesus said. What they heard prompts them to mention the massacre of the Galileans. The material of chap 13, then, is not a change of subject; itís instead the peopleís response to what Jesus said in chap 12. For our part, then, we need to understand Jesusí instruction in chap 12.
The theme that ties together the last section of chap 12 is the need to be ready to meet the Judge of all the earth. Jesusí conclusion in the parable of the faithful servant (12:35-40) is this: "therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (12:40). When Peter in turn asked Jesus whether this instruction is intended for the disciples or for anybody, Jesus continued His instruction with the parable of the evil servant (12:42-48). That evil servant did not take seriously the fact that his master could come back at any time, and so lived it up Ė only to find the master on his door when he wasnít ready.
That theme of being prepared to meet the Judge of all the earth comes back in very pointed form in vss 54-56. Jesus blasts the crowds:
"Whenever you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ĎA shower is comingí; and so it is. And when you see the south wind blow, you say, ĎThere will be hot weatherí; and there is. Hypocrites! You can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, but how is it you do not discern this time?"
In other words: the crowds assembled around Jesus are wise enough in the ways of the weather to know what tomorrow will bring, and make the necessary precautions. But discern the nature of the time in which they live they canít! John the Baptist had labored for a number of months, preaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and so it was imperative that people repent. His ministry was followed by that work of Jesus of Nazareth, a preacher busy for more than two years already. His preaching insisted that the kingdom of heaven was here, and so people had to take seriously the fact that God was at work in Israel through Jesus Christ. "The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead were raised, and the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Luke 7:22). Ever since the days of the Old Testament prophet Malachi thereís been no voice from heaven, no preacher of righteousness in Israel. But now thereís John, and on his heals thereís Jesus. People, what does this mean? You can tell from the clouds and the wind whether tomorrow will be wet or dry, but think: what does it mean that John has been preaching the need for repentance since the kingdom is at hand, and Jesus on His heals has shown through His miracles and His words that the kingdom is here?! Canít you discern the times in which you live?!
What the nature of the time is? God hasnít sent Christ for nothing! He wants fruits, works reflecting your awareness that the kingdom of heaven is here, works that show obedience to the King. That King shall shortly come to execute His judgment. So, vs 58, settle with your adversary before the trial begins. Who your adversary is? Thatís God, the same God who sent John the Baptist with his demand for repentance, and the same God who sent Jesus Christ who also demands repentance. "The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (12:40), and so you need to make sure that you are ready, are at peace with Him, lest you end up before the Judge of all the earth and you find yourself in hell. "I tell you, you shall not depart from there till you have paid the very last mite" (12:59). And that is never.
Itís in that context of meeting the Judge, brothers and sisters, that certain who heard Jesus speak drew His attention to "the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." We know nothing else about this massacre than these few words in vs 1. But the picture is clear enough. Some Galileans Ėand these are persons from the same area in which Jesus grew up- had traveled to the temple in Jerusalem to present their sacrifices to the Lord. Pilate had his soldiers kill them while their sacrifices were being killed, so that the blood of these people mingled beside the altar with the blood of their sacrifices. We understand: hereís murder in the temple, murder while in the act of sacrificing to God.
The massacre will, of course, have been the talk of town Ė indeed, of the country. How is one to analyze this tragedy? We receive a clue to the thoughts of the people from Jesusí words in vs 2. He asks: "Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?" That question reflects the mind of the people; that the Lord God let this sort of evil befall these Galileans - even while they were sacrificing in His temple!- surely goes to show that God must have considered these Israelites to be terrible sinners. God in anger struck down Nadab and Abihu while they were sacrificing in the tabernacle long ago because of their specific sins (Lev 10); that God let Pilateís soldiers strike these Galileans down while they were sacrificing in His temple must surely mean that God was angry with these Galileans in a worse way than He was angry with other Galileans (and we should remember that many in Israel looked down on the Galileans as second class Israelites, cf Jn 7:41f, 52; God was surely not pleased with them).
Itís a thought, brothers and sisters, to which we can relate. We observe someone who has AIDS and the thought arises in our minds that he must be a bad sinner; else he wouldnít get AIDS. We hear of the foot-and-mouth disease ravaging Britain, and we see Godís judgment behind it. And in both cases weíre right; only sinners contract AIDS, and only a sinful nation tastes the plagues of God; thatís very Scriptural. And the next thought that arises in our minds is this: we havenít got AIDS, our land hasnít been touched by foot-and-mouth disease (yet), and so weíre not as bad. Itís the thought of vs 2: they are "worse sinners Ö because they suffered such things."
But to the people around Him Jesus is emphatic about the Galileans: "I tell you, no!" Then follows the words of our text: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish." Hereís a condemnation of the thought that puts people on a scale, and concludes that some people are worse than other people, specifically, that those who suffer calamity are worse than those who do not suffer calamity. Itís a fact that only sinners perish in a temple, a fact that only sinners contract AIDS, a fact that only sinners taste the plague of foot-and-mouth disease. But itís not so that only worse sinners suffer such calamities, for there is no such thing than better or worse sinners! Every last descendant of Adam and Eve is in the identical boat; every last one Ėwithout exception- deserves to perish as these Galileans did.
That Jesus in fact applies this harsh judgment to everyone is pointed up by Jesusí emphatic use of the word Ďallí. Four times in the vss 2-5 Jesus uses the word Ďallí, and thatís to make plain that there shall be no exceptions. The people standing around Jesus hear Him speak, and in their minds is the thought that the Galileans are worse than they. But Jesus condemns that thought. "All [shall] likewise perish." Here is room for no discrimination, room for no thought of: I didnít do what he did, or, heís a worse sinner than I. Whether there were in the crowd before Jesus harlots or tax collectors or upstanding synagogue rulers or elders of the people makes here no difference: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
Note, brothers and sisters, how Jesus phrases it: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish." The word Ďlikewiseí draws out that the same thing would happen to every unrepentant person. No, thatís not to say that every unrepentant person would end up slaughtered in the temple by Pilateís soldiers. Jesusí point is instead that the massacre in the temple is read by the people to be a sign of God rejecting these Galileans; think again of Nadab and Abihu. Well, Jesus is adamant that that sort of rejection would fall on all who are not repentant. Then even a sacrifice to God will not help; Nadab and Abihu, and the Galileans in the temple too, were in the process of bringing their sacrifices when they perished. Going to church, reading your Bible, being on your knees in prayer before God will help you nothing; "unless you repent you will all likewise perish" Ė be rejected by God, be cast into hell.
Lest His hearers somehow miss the Lordís message, Jesus brings up a second tragedy in order to underline His point. It was presumably the headlines of the day: the tower of Siloam had just fallen on eighteen people and killed them. About Siloam we know only that it was a water reservoir near the southeast corner of Jerusalemís walls (cf Jn 9:7,11). About the tower we know nothing, except that it collapsed on 18 people. Says Jesus: you think in terms of the Galileans having been worse sinners than other Galileans. What, then, about the 18 who died the other day in Jerusalem? Is the fact that the tower fell on them proof that God was angry with them because their sins were worse than othersí sins? Make no mistake, says, Jesus, they were not worse sinners. ĎSinners,í yes, but Ďworse sinners,í no! And Jesus uses the second tragedy to drive home the same message as with the first tragedy: "unless you repent you will all likewise perish." And again, the point is not that youíll have a tower fall on top of you; the point is rather that you shall in no way escape the judgment of God.
Is there, then, a need to repent? The Lord Jesus Christ, congregation, is unyielding on the point: repentance is essential! The Judge of all the earth comes one day, and you have no idea when He comes. Your responsibility is to make every effort to settle with your accuser before you get to the judge, for "the judge [will] deliver you to the officer, and the officer throw you into prisonÖ, [and] you shall not depart from there till you have paid the very last mite" Ė which youíll never manage to do.
That brings to our second point this morning:
2. What must Israel repent from?
Before I can answer that question for you, brothers and sisters, we need some understanding of what repentance is. The word that Jesus uses in our text for Ďrepentí describes the notion of changing your mind. It translates the word found so often in the Old Testament, the term Ďreturní. So it captures the notion of doing of 180-degree turn, and then coming back. Embodied in that notion of doing a 180-dgree turn is the notion of sorrow for what you were doing, breaking with that sort of behavior, and developing a new way of life. So Nehemiah, in his prayer to God after the wall of Jerusalem was broken down, could speak about "return" to God Ėand thatís the word Jesus uses in our text for Ďrepentí- and describes this Ďreturní as keeping Godís commandments and doing them (Neh 1:9). Note, then: repentance is not simply regret, or a feeling of grief over sin; repentance is abandoning sin in favor of doing the will of God. What, now, must Jesusí hearers turn away from? What must they return to?
Again, congregation, the material of chap 12 instructs us on the point. God had been pleased to send Christ into this world. Christ has labored a number of years amongst the people of Israel, labored to impress on the hearts of Godís covenant people that God was busy fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament. Well now, that work on Jesusí part must produce a reaction in the people. Simeon in the temple had already said of the baby Jesus that "this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against" (Lu 2:34). Jesus picks up this same thought in chap 12:49:
"I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! ÖDo you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law."
The point is that people canít stay neutral to Jesusí preaching. To tell the people that they are themselves worthy of Godís judgment, to tell them that they need the sacrifice of Another in order to atone for their sins, to tell them that God so loves the world that He sent His only Son so that all who believe in Him might have life Ė itís all so offensive to people. This news will pit family member against family member, Israelite against Israelite, neighbor against neighbor. But where is the division in Israel in Luke 12? Who in Israel got enthused about Jesus of Nazareth so that his brother was hostile to him, or his sister laughed him to scorn or his father kicked him out of the house? The time is near for the Judge of all the world to begin His judgment; but see: the people are still neutral about Jesus, are calm, are not radical in their allegiance to the Christ. This, this needs repentance! Unless the crowds around Jesus repent of their hum-ho attitude to Jesus, they will perish under the weight of Godís wrath as surely as the Galileans perished under the weight of Pilateís sword and the 18 of Jerusalem perished under the weight of the tower.
Here, brothers and sisters, the parable Jesus spoke about the barren fig tree is appallingly instructive. "A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none." A conversation followed with the vineyard keeper as to what to do with this fruitless tree. "Cut it down," instructed the owner, "why does it use up the ground?" Fruit, the owner wanted, fruit! But where was Israelís fruit?? So many years John the Baptist had labored in Godís vineyard, and after him Jesus had labored. But where was the fruit? Where was with Godís covenant people the sorrow for sin, and the works of obedience, the eager embrace of the Son of God and the self-denial that characterizes a zeal for God? ĎWe are Godís people,í they said to themselves and to each other, Ďand we are rich in the covenant.í But the happy embrace of Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world wasnít there, and the love for God and neighbor wasnít there either. Fruit on Jesusí labor? Gratitude in Israel for the Redeemer God sent? Fruits of faith as love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and gentleness and self-control? No, in Israel it all remained so neutral, nobody got too excited, everybody kept the peaceÖ.
"A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard." The fig tree of Jesusí parable is Israel. "And he came seeking fruit on it and found none." The one seeking the fruit is God. After John had labored, and Jesus after him, for some three years in Godís vineyard, God still found no fruits. So: "cut it down," says that owner, and that is God speaking. God would destroy the fig tree, execute His sentence upon it because of its fruitlessness. We understand: this is radical, this is the exact point of Jesus in our text when He uses the word Ďperishí.
What, then, must Israel repent from? Simple: they must repent from their lack of fruitfulness. They must repent from staying cool toward Jesusí labors in their midst. They must turn from their lukewarmness in their service to their covenant God, and embrace with humble gratitude the good news that God was working redemption for sinners through the person of Jesus Christ. Unless they repent from their hum-ho attitude towards Jesus they shall perish as the Galileans in the temple and the eighteen at Siloam.
Now one point remains:
3. When must Israel repent?
We realize well that repentance can never be put off into the distance future. Jesus is adamant on the point too; He insists to the crowds before Him that the time to repent is now. Luke 12:40: "therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." Luke 12:46: "the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware." Itís again the point of vs 58: "when you go with your adversary to the magistrate, make every effort along the way to settle with him." The Judge comes, you donít know when youíll be standing in front of him, and so you need to be ready now! This is a point, brothers and sisters, to which I shall come back in a moment. But first I need to draw out what Jesus said in the last part of His parable of the barren fig tree.
The vineyard owner passed sentence on the barren fig tree: "cut it down!" But look, congregation, at the words Jesus lays on the mouth of the vineyard keeper. Vs 8: "but he answered and said to him, ĎSir, let alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.í" The point? Let the barren fig tree stand there, use up the soil, for another year. In other words: delay the execution, delay the punishment, the judgment.
The fig tree, we said before, is Israel, Godís barren people-by-covenant. The owner is God, coming to check His people for fruit after John the Baptist and Jesus have labored for some three years. Hereís the urgency: they must repent, they must bear fruit Ė lest they perish under Godís judgment. Who, then, is the vineyard keeper? Yes, brothers and sisters, this is Jesus Christ the Mediator. And He intercedes with the owner ĖGod- for a stay of execution! Is His point that God should go soft, gentle on sin Ė so that the need for repentance is softened, or at least the need to repent now?
Not that, congregation. We need to bear in mind that in this parable Jesus is telling His listeners what He Himself says to God. The point is that in His prayers for His people while He was on earth Jesus prayed more often that the Lord God would please delay the punishment that the people deserve. I think, for example, of Jesusí prayer on the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). With that sentence Jesus on the cross is praying for a stay of execution because His glory has not yet been revealed on the cross of Calvary, sin not yet atoned for, the Holy Spirit not yet poured out. That is how Jesus has prayed repeatedly in the course of His time on earth, and thatís the petition Jesus captures in our parable when He lays on the lips of the keeper the request to leave the barren fig tree for another year. Yes, here is revealed something of the long-suffering of our Lord. But let us not be fooled, congregation! Once the history of redemption has moved beyond the work of Christ on the cross, once sin has been atoned for and the Spirit of Christ poured out and the glory of the exalted Christ revealed, Jesus no longer prays this prayer!
The people to whom Jesus spoke in Luke 13 lived before Christís glory was revealed on the cross of Calvary, before the Holy Spirit was poured out. For them there was the long-suffering involved in a stay of execution, that one more year of grace. So it was that after the Holy Spirit was poured out on Pentecost, many in Israel did begin to bear fruit befitting repentance. Think of the three thousand who were "cut to the heart" as a result of Peterís sermon after the Spirit was poured out (Acts 2), and the five thousand who came to faith after Peterís sermon of Acts 3 (Acts 4:4). That season of Godís long-suffering resulted in the salvation of many. But equally, many thousands did not produce fruits reflecting repentance. Because they rejected the gospel, Paul on Christís authority turned his attention to the Gentiles Ė and they were grafted into the tree of God where the natural branches were cut off (cf Rom 11). You see: it happened to these hardened and unfruitful Israelites according to the word of the vineyard owner; at Godís appointed time they were cut off!
Are we to expect, then, that the Mediator in heaven continues to implore God to delay the execution, to give time for more digging and more fertilizer? True, the judgment of God doesnít fall upon us in the sense that we are cut down while weíre sacrificing Ė as happened to the Galileans in the temple, or in the sense that a tower falls upon us Ė as happened to the eighteen in Siloam. But Paul said very pointedly to the Romans:
"Ödo you think, O man, Ö that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?" (Rom 2:3f).
Let it be fixed in your minds, congregation: the time for repentance is now. Today you need to produce fruits of repentance; the period of Godís announced delay has expired. "You also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect." The Advocate at the right hand of the Father has instructed His Church to cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus!" And no way does He who taught us to pray that Himself implore God to delay His return, and therefore the Day of Judgment.
There is, then, congregation, no time to spare. It matters not what your life history is, whether you have a reputation that is the envy of all men or whether the public thinks you to be the worst sinner in town; each of us needs to be repentant before God Ė lest we perish eternally. Repentant, and thatís to say that we turn away from our sins with all we have. Repentant, and thatís to say that we turn to God with a lifestyle fully pleasing to Him.
The Christ who shortly returns on the clouds of heaven has told us today what He seeks. Tonight He may come again, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. What, my brothers, my sisters, shall He find in you?? Evidence of turning from sin, of turning to God Ė or not? The answer to that question is your own responsibility. And God will judge accordingly. Amen.