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“There were present at that season some that told Him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay; but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it die ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down”—Luke 13:1-9.
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There are two sections in this portion which is now before us. The first five verses contain a solemn warning, based on two events which had taken place recently in Palestine. Then in verses 6 to 9 we have a parable emphasizing the same truth which our Lord stresses in the first part.
The Lord was ministering in the city of Capernaum which He called His own city—the city to which He had transferred His residence, and to which He seems to have taken His mother after leaving Nazareth. As the people listened to Him, some came to tell Him of terrible things which had occurred just a few days before in Jerusalem. There had been an uprising among certain zealots from Galilee. The Roman Governor, Pilate, had commanded a squad of soldiers to put an end to this rebellion, and a number had been killed in the very courts of the Temple. Naturally the Galileans were greatly distresesd and disturbed. They wondered why God had allowed this wholesale destruction of their own kinsfolk. The people thought that He saw some wickedness in them greater than in ordinary folk; otherwise He would not have allowed them to be slain in this way. Jesus declared that this was not necessarily true. The Galileans had not been killed because they were guilty of greater wickedness than that of ordinary men. Then He solemnly warned all His hearers, saying, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” In other words, He warns them that the judgment of God is hanging over all unrepentant men; the judgment will fall eventually upon all who have never been cleansed from their sins. These are solemn words indeed! They ought to be taken to our hearts in day like this when there is such widespread individual and national departure from God.1 It is easy for us, as a people and as a nation, to sit down in our complacency and self-sufficiency and imagine that in the sight of God we are far superior to some of the nations which are suffering so terribly in this present world conflict. But above the sound of battles, above the roaring of the bombs, above the agony of the cries of the wounded and dying, we may hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
The incident brought before us in these first three verses was one of violence, but the next was an accidental occurrence. Jesus speaks of “those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell.” Evidently a faulty tower had collapsed, jarred perhaps by an earthquake, and a number of men had been killed. There was a tendency to say, “Well, they must have been great sinners to have been exposed to such a death as that; otherwise a good God, a gracious, kind Creator, would have protected them from that accident.” But that does not follow, because accidents come to good and evil alike. The righteous as well as the unrighteous suffer from them—from pestilence, conflagrations, hurricanes, and natural disturbances of various kinds. So again Jesus rebuked the people for supposing that those who had died were sinners above others. He said again, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
The call to repentance is one of the missing links in the preaching of modern times. Some of our brethren are almost afraid to speak of repentance, lest people think of it as something meritorious. Repentance is not a work of merit: repentance is an acknowledgment that one has no merit, that in himself he is just an undeserving sinner exposed to the judgment of God. God “commandeth all men everywhere to repent.” Repentance is not to be confounded with mere penitence. Penitence is sorrow for sin, but we are told, “Godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.” It is not mere sorrow because one has done wrong. I may grieve in my heart to think of the wrong I have done, of the injury I have caused another, and yet I may not really be repentant toward God. Repentance is not to be confounded with what some call “penance.” Penance is an effort to atone for something which one has done by suffering voluntarily; but no physical suffering or self-denial can ever make up for the wrong we have done to God and to man. Repentance is not to be confounded with reformation. Some people have the idea that repentance is trying to break off from their sins and live righteously. There may be reformation apart from repentance, but there never can be true repentance apart from reformation, because if I really repent I shall certainly seek to reform. The word “repent” means a change of mind; it is not merely a change of viewpoint. It is not like a change which one might make, for instance, from one political party to another: a man might be a Democrat today and a Republican tomorrow, or vice versa— that is not repentance! Repentance is a change of mind which results in a complete change of attitude. When a man, who has been living in sin and utter indifference to God, confesses his sin and judges his wickedness and earnestly seeks to be delivered from it, when he is determined to walk, not in his old ways or live as he formerly lived, but turns to the God he had spurned and puts his trust in the Saviour He has provided—this is genuine repentance! We read of “Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” The repentant man now finds in Christ not only a Saviour from all his sin and guilt, but also One who gives him a new life in order that he may walk henceforth in a new way. He will live no longer in bondage to the things which dominated and controlled him in the past.
How men need to heed the call to repentance! The apostle Paul, from the very first day of his ministry, stressed that all men should repent and turn to God. Men of the world need to repent of their sins; and Christians need to repent of their coldness and indifference. In the letters to the churches in the book of the Revelation, seven times over the Spirit of God says, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Seven times in these letters the call is given to professing Christians to repent and get right with God!
What need there is for national repentance! Our Lord Jesus called the children of Israel to repent, but they refused to hear His voice. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!” Because, as a nation, they refused to repent they were given up to judgment. Oh, how loudly this demand should ring through the land today, calling upon us as a people to repent of the sins of corruption and wickedness, cov-etousness and violence that characterize us! How we have misused God’s mercies and forgotten our responsibility to honor Him! Thank God, no matter how far down a man or a nation may go, there is still hope in Christ; but if there be no repentance there can be only judgment at last.
Next we have a parable which shows how Israel failed to honor God and how patient He had been: “He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” The fig tree planted in the vineyard was the Jewish nation in the land of Palestine, and the Dresser was the Lord. For three years Jesus had been ministering to Israel: He had gone about calling men to repentance and preaching the kingdom of God, but there were few who had ears to hear and hearts to understand. So God’s patience was exhausted; and He said, “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” But the Dresser of the vineyard interceded, saying, “Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.” And so the fourth year of ministry began, during which time Jesus continued to proclaim the truth and call men to repentance. But in the midst of the year the Jews rose up against Him and the Roman soldiers led Him to Calvary and crucified Him. There was no national repentance, and as a result the fig tree was cut down: the people of Israel were scattered throughout the world, even as we see them to this day. What a lesson to learn! God has borne with us as a people, not for three years but for a century and a-half, and we are drifting farther and farther from Him. The sentence may soon go forth: “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” Other nations have lost their heritage; other nations have been destroyed because of their godlessness. Why should we be spared? But still the Holy Spirit is working; still the message of God is going forth. Oh, that we may have ears to hear and hearts that will respond, that individually and as a people there may be sincere repentance, that we may turn to God and thus avert the threatened doom!
1 These addresses were given during the Second World War.