The Lord's Day Morning

September 26, 2010

Luke 13:1-5

“The Message of Repentance Clothed in Tragedies”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

O come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care. So let us worship Him!

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 13, and as you turn to Luke 13:1-5, you may want to allow yourself to peek back to the final verses of Luke 12 because they will help you understand the very first words that are recorded by Luke in Luke 13:1 where he says, “There were some present at that very time.” He's making not only a temporal linkage between what Jesus is going to say in Luke 13:1 to what He's just said in Luke 12, but he is making a contextual linkage. The topic leads into the discussion that we're going to read today in Luke 13.

Among the topics that have been addressed of course, you find in Luke 12:49-59 is Jesus’ words to the people gathered there that they were really good at understanding the weather but they did not understand their present times and they did not know how to read the signs of the time. They didn't adequately read the message of God's providence for them. They didn't adequately understand the significance of Jesus’ presence with them and His message for them, or the message of His person and His work. And so the comments, the interaction, that Jesus is going to have with the crowd in chapter 13 verses 1 to 5 — and very frankly, much of chapter 13 has to do with the same message. It's a message that zeros-in on our own personal repentance. And it has as its context, the context that has been introduced in Luke chapter 12.

So let's pray to the Lord and ask for His help and blessing as we read the Word.

Lord, it would be very easy to read a passage about repentance and to hear a message about repentance and for us not to engage in the business of repentance ourselves. It would be possible for us to think about repentance and not to engage in repentance. It would be possible for us to think about others who need to repent and not to repent ourselves. We ask, O Lord, that by the grace of Your Spirit, that as we read and give attention to and hear Your Word today, that this would not be the case with us — we would not just learn more about repentance, we would repent. So teach us this from Your Word today. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things in it. Speak to our hearts. You know where we need to repent. Use even the reading of Your Word today to get to us. For we ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

This is God's Word. Hear it:

“There were some present at that very time who told Him about 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 in this way? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

I was a seminary student and I was singing in the choir at Covenant Presbyterian Church and serving as the youth director there, and having the privilege of working with a very, very faithful and godly minister who was not only a good preacher but an excellent evangelist and superb at administration — he was the total package. His name was Rod Stortz. His wife, Liz, sang in the choir with me and it was a particularly powerful message he had preached one Sunday morning. And after the service, Liz turned to me as we were leaving the choir loft and she said, “Boy, that was something.” And I responded, “Yes it was. They really needed to hear that message.” Now it was one of those times where – have you ever had one of those moments? — the words were coming out of my mouth and in one track of my mind I was going, “NOOOOO! Pull it back!” And Liz looked at me right in the eye and she said, “They needed to hear that message?” And I knew what she was going to say before she even formed the words on her lips. I had already known I had blown it. But you know, I was speaking from my heart. I really was. I mean I knew that message was for me, but my mind was on how they needed to hear that message. And so what came out of my mouth really was in my heart. I spent most of my time during that message thinking about how they needed to hear that message.

And you know sometimes it's that way with all of us. We think about the message that they need to hear. I've often looked back on that and thought that was the Lord's punishment ahead of time to me, as a minister. How often I've preached a message and people have remarked about how they needed to hear that message. That's how we think sometimes. We hear a message and we think about they needing to hear it, or something happens in society or culture and we think about how they needed to get a message.

Have you thought how often prominent television figures, religious figures I'm speaking of, even Christian teachers will look at current events and they will draw a line from what has happened in a current events to what their enemies need to learn or to what people whose policies they oppose need to learn?

We've been thinking a lot haven't we, in the last few weeks, about the outrageous statements of Islamic clerics who have asserted that the United States’ government perpetrated the disasters that occurred on September 11, 2001. But if you will recall in the days following those events, the focus was on the interpretation of those events that certain prominent Christians had made, including saying that 9-11 was God's judgment on the United States for particular things that our Congress had done or that our society had done at large. And there was a firestorm about those comments when they occurred.

Something not unlike that is happening here. Jesus is in the midst of a multitude teaching. He's already said to them some very strong words about the fact that they don't seem to recognize the signs of the times. And you almost get the idea that some people in the crowd decide to explain to Jesus that they do understand the signs of the time and so they want to give Him a couple of examples of how they in fact understand the signs of the times. It's almost their opportunity to rebut what Jesus has just said. He's just said, “You people are really good at understanding the weather, but you don't understand the signs of your own times.” And somebody's hand goes up in the back and says, “Oh yes I do!” And here's what that person has to say. You see it right here in verse 2 as Jesus repeats back what has apparently been said to Him. “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans?” Now what's just happened, you look back in verse 1 — “There were some present at that very time who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” This is the only account of this in the gospels. This isn't repeated anywhere else. And we very frankly don't know much about this event.

But it was something like this — some Jewish people from Galilee were apparently in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice. Pilate, as you remember, had always been spooked by crowds. Sacrifice time was a time when Jerusalem was packed with crowds, and apparently some group of Galileans had been killed by the occupying Roman forces in the very act of offering sacrifices at the temple. And the people who were present here with Jesus hearing Him teach, had said, “Oh yes we do understand the signs of the times. For instance, those Galileans whom Pilate killed when they were offering sacrifices, this was clearly God's judgment on them for being wicked. They really got taught a lesson. We see that sign of the times. We get that message. God punished their sin.” Do you see how this would unfold? “We understand the signs of the times. They were sinners. God punished them.”

And apparently someone else in the crowd said, “Oh, I understand the signs of the times too.” And the story is, you remember that tower? Maybe it's one of the towers that Pilate himself built near the pool of Siloam. He was really big into waterworks. Pilate did a lot to improve the waterworks in the city of Jerusalem, and presumably he's built a tower in order to provide waterworks to the city of Jerusalem near the pool of Siloam. And apparently the tower, at some point, had fallen and it had killed eighteen people. And somebody in this crowd says, “Oh, I can read the signs of the times. Those eighteen people, who died at the tower of Siloam when it fell, clearly were being judged by God for their wickedness. I can read the signs of the times. God punished their wickedness.” And this whole passage is about Jesus’ response to that kind of reading of the signs of the times. And I want you to see two things that He says.

I. The lesson of tragedies.

First of all, He explains to us the lesson of tragedies. And secondly, He points us to the necessity of repentance. So these people, perhaps in Jesus’ assertion that they did not understand the signs of the time, we prepared to explain to Jesus how well they were able to read God's providence. When God's providence had brought about judgment upon the Galileans who were at Jerusalem to offer sacrifice when Pilate killed them, when God's providence had brought judgment upon those who had been killed at the tower of Siloam, clearly, from providence, they had learned this — these people were wicked; therefore they had been judged with death. Is that what we're supposed to learn from tragedies? When tragedies strike, are we to learn that that clearly is God's providence of judgment against the wicked? What are we supposed to learn from the tragedies that befall others?

Well, in this passage, whatever else we may say about reading God's providence, Jesus is concerned for us to understand that tragedies are clothing a message of repentance to each and every one of us. That is, that one of the things, maybe not everything, but one of the things that we are to be struck by whenever we see tragedies befall others, is the fact that we all deserve that judgment, not the message that they are especially wicked and so they really got what was coming to them, but we are to at least, as a part of our assessment of what happens when a tragedy befalls, we are to say, “You know Lord, if I really got what I deserved, that's what I would have gotten.” Jesus is saying that He's not telling you everything; He's not telling you everything about reading God's providence.

The Bible is a book filled with instruction about how to read God's providence and how to respond to God's providence. And Puritan pastors wrote book after book after book to help people learn how to read God's providence and principles from Scripture. He's not telling you everything about reading God's providence but He is saying this — “Every time tragedy strikes, one of the things we ought to do is to recognize that there is a message of repentance in that tragedy, not to them, but to us.” And we ought to say, “You know Lord, if I got what I deserved, that would have happened to me.”

You know when we, a couple of years ago, did that series on suffering, “Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?” I suggested to you that when suffering hits your life you need to learn to draw a line from suffering to sin, not the line that says, “I am suffering now because of some sin that I have committed,” though certainly sometimes sins that we commit come with consequences. But we are especially to draw the line from our suffering to our sin in this way — “Lord, help me to hate my sin like I hate this suffering.” You know, when you’re in the midst of suffering, you don't like it; it's hard. And if we could muster up the hatred for sin that we hate our suffering and the circumstances that come with it, we’d be a lot better Christians if we hated our sins that way. And so I suggested to you that one thing that you need to learn in the midst of suffering was the draw a line from suffering to sin and to pray, “Lord, help me to hate my sin like I hate that suffering.”

Jesus is doing something like this in this passage but it's a little bit broader than that. He's saying, “When you look out there and you see God's providence unfold in this way, draw a line from suffering to sin, not from those people's suffering to their sin.” That's kind of like Job's friends, right? Job's friends looked at his suffering, at the tragedy that had befallen him, and they said, “That's happened to you because you’re a sinner, and it wouldn't have happened to you if you weren't a sinner. If you were a godly person that stuff wouldn't have happened to you, and therefore the message of God in His providence to you in your tragedy, Job, is that you’re a sinner and you need to repent.” You remember God Himself at the end of the book rebukes Job's friends and He says, “You've misinterpreted Job's suffering. That actually wasn't the message that I was speaking to Job.” Though Job did have repentance to do, and he does it publically at the end of the book, the cause of his suffering was not his sin. There was something bigger going on there.

So, whereas these people who were speaking to Jesus were drawing a line from the Galileans’ sin to the judgment that befell them, and to the people who died at Siloam when the tower fell to their own sin, and saying their sin caused this judgment, God's judgment on them, this providence of the tower falling or of Pilate striking down Galileans offering sacrifice, is clearly a condemnation of them because of their wickedness and sin.

Jesus instead turns to the crowd that's around Him who's made this deduction and says, “No, no, no. Don't draw a line from that tragedy to their sin. Draw a line from that tragedy to your sin, and say to yourself this, ‘Self, if I got what I deserve for my sin, that's what I would have gotten.’” Jesus doesn't tell them to excuse everybody else for sin.

Jesus doesn't tell them that God never ever punishes sin in the world. But He did say this, “Instead of thinking about what they needed to hear,” like I was thinking in that sermon that day, “think about what you need to hear from God's providence. Draw a line from that tragedy to your sin. Draw a line from the suffering other others to our sin.”

It's Jesus’ way of saying, “Beware of practicing a religion that talks about everybody else's business but your own. Beware of practicing a religion that's ready to explain what God is doing to a nation or what God is saying to another group of people, but that never asks the question, ‘Lord, what are you saying to my heart?’”

Isn't that our tendency sometimes, to think about what other people need to hear, to think about what other people need to do, to think about what other people ought to be doing, to think about how other people ought to be responding to God's Word, and not to think about what we're doing in response to God's Word, how we're responding to God's Word?

And Jesus is saying this very clearly. He says it twice — “No, I tell you,” is His answer to, “Do you think the Galileans were worse than others?” “No, I tell you.” What's the message? “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus is saying that the message that is clothed by these tragedies is the message of repentance. “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” He says it twice just in case you missed it. What's the message of the tower of Siloam? What's the message of the Galileans who are slaughtered by Pilate? The message is, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.”

II. The necessity of repentance.

And that leads me to the second point. And that is simply the necessity of repentance. Jesus is saying, “Here's what you need to learn. Here's what you need to learn from those tragedies. Whatever else can be learned about God's providence from those tragedies, this message must not be missed.”

And the message is — repent or you will all perish. It's the message of repentance. Jesus is speaking about the necessity of repentance here.

Do we draw that message for ourselves? When we hear God's Word preached, is one of the first things on our hearts and minds, “How do I need to repent because of what I've just heard?”? And even when it's good news that's being preached, is our response, “Lord, how do I need to repent in light of what I've just heard?” I think repentance may be the great missing ingredient to the dominant response that we have to the preaching of God's Word in our generation. I think we miss that. I think we think about what others need to hear and I don't think we think about our own need for repentance.

And the Lord Jesus is saying very directly to each and every one of us, “Unless you repent, you will all perish.”

And it's my observation as well, my friends, that the areas that we are most embarrassed about in our sin, the areas in which we are most ashamed, the areas of our most serious sin, we are more likely to deal with by denial than repentance. We try to pretend that those things are not true of us because we're so deeply ashamed of them. We’re so deeply embarrassed by them that we just don't want to think about them. We don't want to face up to the reality of that particular sin.

But repentance begins with knowing our own sin. I speak from bitter experience from having to look that sin in the eye and say, “That is my own sin. That is not someone else's sin. That is my sin.”

Young people, I want to tell you, whether you've confessed faith in Christ or not, your repentance now in your early years, preteen, teen years, your repentance now is a gauge of the reality of your faith. If you are not coming up against things about yourself that you see in yourself that are not right and not right towards God, if you’re never reckoning with those things you’re not opening your eyes to who you are. Christians are repenting people.

I was reading a passage by a very, very good marriage commentator the other day and he said this, “People don't fall out of love. They fall out of repentance.” It was a very convicting thought. His point was this — what happens to marriages is not that people stop loving one another; they just stop repenting. That's what messes up marriages – people stop repenting.

The Christian life is a life of repentance. We’re called to repent and if we're not repenting, something is wrong. If you’re not repenting today about something, if there's not something in your heart and life that you know needs to be repented of, then you’re just not aware of your own heart. Repentance means knowing our sin. Repentance means grieving over our sin, not grieving over getting caught, not grieving over getting embarrasses, not grieving over the consequences, but grieving over our sin. And when we've gotten to the point that it's what we've done that bugs us, not what it costs us, not how embarrassed we are about it, but what bothers us is what we've done, we're getting towards Gospel repentance.

And repentance involves confessing our sin, certainly confessing our sin to the ones that we've sinned against, but especially confessing that sin painfully and specifically to God.

And then repentance means turning from that sin. Repentance isn't a word game, you understand. Even the word that the Bible uses most commonly for the idea of repentance expresses this. The word “conversion” is a word that is used for repentance. And, of course, conversion carries with it the idea of a change of heart. And repentance entails a change of heart towards our sin and a turning from it to God. And so it involves a life change. Repentance isn't fundamentally just a word game. It's a heart change that flows in our lives.

Take your hymnals out and turn to the back where The Shorter Catechism is found. In the back of your hymnals, page 875, our Catechism asks the question, “What is repentance unto life?” and then it gives this summary of the Bible's teaching on what repentance is.

“Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin” — there's the what? There's the knowledge of the sin — “and an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does with grief and hatred of his sin” — there's the grieving over our sin — “turn from it unto God” — there's the turning from the sin — “with a full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience” — there's the change of life.

That's a beautiful summarization of what the Bible teaches about repentance. And Jesus is saying to the disciples, “When you see God's judgment fall in this world it ought to lead you right back to what your sin deserves.”

Now, let me say that sometimes when we come to see our own sin for the first time, and when we come to think about what our sin deserves, what happens? Well if you’re anything like me or if I'm anything like you, sometimes that feeling is so overwhelming that I'm paralyzed. I'm absolutely paralyzed. When I see myself and what I'm really like and what I think about what I deserve I'm paralyzed.

That's why I love that phrase that the Catechism put in so rightly. What's the phrase? “The apprehension of God's mercy.” Because when I really see what I'm like, I think that I am the last candidate for mercy on the planet. When I see what I've really done, I think I am the last person eligible for grace on the planet.

And so the Catechism says what? “The apprehension of God's mercy.”

What does that mean?

It means that you don't just see your sin and you don't just see what your sin deserves, you also see how ready your gracious God is to forgive you at your absolute worst. And that's a hard thing to see and that's a hard thing to believe. It may be the hardest of all — you know it's hard to see yourself. It's hard to accept that you’re as bad as you are. And it's hard to accept that you really deserve something as bad as God's judgment. But I think it's even harder to see that God is merciful. Because when we see our sin and we see what our sin deserves it's very, very difficult to believe that God could show us mercy. And that's why Jesus is standing at this crowd and calling them to repentance because God is so ready to forgive that He's already sent His Son into the world to preach, yes, to heal, yes, to live, yes, but especially to die under the judgment of God so that we might not have to.

And so the very fact that it's Jesus speaking these words, calling these people to repentance, is in fact a picture of God's mercy. Before they ever even wanted God's mercy, God has already sent His Son into the world to preach to them repentance because He Himself is going to bear the judgment, a much worse judgment, than the people who died by the falling of that tower by the pool of Siloam, a much worse judgment that the people from Galilee who were offering sacrifices who were slaughtered by Pilate – a much worse judgment Jesus endures. And do you know what that sign of Jesus on the cross is? It's a sign that God is more ready to forgive your sin than you are to repent of it.

He's more ready to forgive your sin than you are to repent of it.

That's what Jesus on the cross is saying to you — “I love you enough to do this for you. I love you enough knowing the worst thing about you, knowing those things about you that you would be absolutely mortified if your friends in this congregation knew, and I came and I died for you anyway.” My friends, that is a message that we need to hear — the message to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.

There has never been a human being in this world who repented of her or his sin with a Gospel repentance that Jesus did not forgive. Not one, not one. So you have every reason to face the ugliest truth about yourself that there is and to accept your full deserving of the entire extent of God's judgment, and yet to apprehend that if you will but repent and turn to Jesus, He will say, “Yes, child, I forgive you. I've shed My blood for you already. Yes, child, I will forgive you.” And that, my friends, is very good news.

Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, help us to believe this good news and so to repent, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Now we're going to sing through this whole sequence. If you take your hymnals and turn with me to number 495, Horatius Bonar's hymn, No, Not Despairingly Come I to Thee, is a hymn all about repentance. And it takes you all the way through to the restoration that comes. And the final words are, “nothing between.” Nothing between what? Nothing between you and God. Let's get there by grace and let's sing it together — 495.

Receive now this benediction from One who is more ready to bless you than you are to accept it. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.