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59. Repent before Judgment Falls (Luke 12:49-13:9)
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Gospel Parallels §160-162
James J. Tissot, 'The Tower of Siloam' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 9.24 x 5.87 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"49 'I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.'
54 He said to the crowd: 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, "It's going to rain," and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, "It's going to be hot," and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?
57 'Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59 I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.'
13:1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.'
6 Then he told this parable: 'A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, "For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?" 8 "Sir," the man replied, "leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down."'" (Luke 12:49-13:9, NIV)
I can remember the man's wailing call. He walked the streets of downtown Los Angeles with a signboard over his body, a well-worn leather Bible in his hand, crying in an eerie voice, "Repent, or you're going to hell...." The wail trailed off into the sound of traffic and horns. And then he would start again. "Repent, or you're going to hell...." The word "hell" sounded almost like "hail," stretching out the "long A" sound, in a high voice so that it echoed against the tall buildings on either side of the street, and then dropping his voice to the "L" sound at the end of the call.
I was embarrassed when I would see the man. He seemed so foreign to the culture. He seemed so distracting. I was trying to preach God's love and the forgiveness of the cross on the streets of the city, and this man was preaching hell. He was the stereotype that I was trying to dispel.
Yet while his demeanor and method seemed ineffective and out-of-context, his message was Jesus' message. Jesus, like his predecessor John the Baptist, was a preacher of repentance. His earliest message was this: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel" (Mark 1:15).
Repentance means change. The Greek word metanoeō means "change one's mind," then "feel remorse, repent, be converted."564
Repentance is not mere guilt, though guilt sometimes motivates repentance.
Repentance is not mere remorse, though remorse sometimes triggers repentance.
Repentance is change.
When men and women hear the Good News of the Kingdom of God coming in Jesus the Messiah they must change or be judged with an awesome judgment.
Jesus was not the prophet of the status quo. He offended the high priests of established religion. He scandalized the self-centered symbols of the religious right of his day. Jesus spoke words of hope and glory, but demanded change. Either change or judgment. And it grieved him that for many, many of his people their end would be judgment.
We're looking at a relatively long passage this week. I want us to look at the whole passage together, to see and appreciate this oft-neglected part of Jesus' message and mission. I'll be moving rather quickly through it so you can get the big picture.
Jesus' Distressing Mission (Luke 12:49-50)
"I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!" (Luke 12:49-50)
Part of Jesus' mission is judgment. That is what "casting fire upon the earth" means. This what John the Baptist was referring to when he said,
"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (3:16-17).
Jesus was more than a prophet, but he was certainly the Father's prophet to the people of Israel. He warned them. He called them to account. He summoned them to repentance. And this was so that he would not need to decide against them at the great Judgment Seat of the Messiah (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10; cf. Revelation 20:11-15).
While the fire represents future judgment, the baptism represents Jesus' own destiny of the cross. The Greek word baptisma here refers figuratively to martyrdom.565 Three times he tells his disciples that he will be crucified. Take up your cross and follow me, he tells them. But the prospect of the cross weighs much upon Jesus, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane (see notes on Luke 22:39-46,). The word used here is the passive of Greek synechō, "be tormented by, afflicted with, distressed by something." It can also carry the idea "to occupy someone's attention intensely, as in, 'I am occupied with or absorbed in something.'"566
Curiously enough, the "fire" of judgment has much to do with Jesus' "baptism" on the cross. Sin is judged and punished upon Jesus as he hangs the cross, "he bears our sins and carries our iniquity." But those who will not put their faith in Jesus the Crucified One, will face a severe sentence at the hands of Jesus the Judge. The Judge would willingly take the place of the judged, but many will not, cannot believe him.
Not Peace but Division (Luke 12:51)
"Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division." (12:51)
You'd think the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) would bring peace. And he will bring about the time when:
"The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed;
their young ones shall lie down together:
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain:
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:6-9).
But that comes later. We know that the Messiah must come first to deal with sins, and then later for judgment and a reign of peace in the New Heavens and New Earth where righteousness dwells.
Divided Families (Luke 12:52-53)
Unfortunately, this present division extends into the households of followers:
"From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (12:52-53)
You are blessed when your whole household are believers. But Jesus understands if that is not the case. He describes the division in a typical household of five: father, mother, daughter, son, son's wife. Yes, individuals can find inner peace and inner tranquility as they surrender their lives to Jesus. But outer peace and outer tranquility too often will not come until the Messiah reigns over all. It's not your fault; it is a fact of life. Stop blaming yourself. Jesus understands and sympathizes with you.
Interpreting Weather Signs (Luke 12:54-55)
Now Jesus tells a parable of weather forecasting:
"He said to the crowd: 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, "It's going to rain," and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, "It's going to be hot," and it is." Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?'" (12:54-56)
Palestine has fairly predictable weather patterns, with prevailing winds blowing from the Mediterranean east across Palestine. Thus a rain cloud in the west will blow east and bring rain. They were used to it. But when the winds shifted and a south wind began to blow, they knew it would be hot. Air blowing across the sweltering sands of the Negev desert to the south would result in heat.
They can understand signs of change in the weather, but they are stupid when it comes to understanding signs of change in spiritual things. Do you, as Jesus' disciple, have spiritual acuity? Can you hear what he is saying, or are you dull to his voice? We must be aware of what is going on around us, if we are to prepare for the Coming of the Son of Man and his judgment. (See Appendix 2G. Introduction to Eschatology.)
The Parable of the Guilty Defendant (Luke 12:57-59)
Now Jesus tells a parable about civil litigation over a debt:
"Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right? As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny." (12:57-59)
The situation in Jesus' parable is this: You owe someone a great deal of money, but you won't or can't pay up. So your creditor takes you to court. The case is black and white. You are sure to lose in court and then be sentenced to debtor's prison until your friends pay off your debt ("to the last penny") so that you can be released. That is, if you have friends who can do this for you. A smart man, Jesus says, will settle out of court. A smart man, Jesus says, will come to an agreement satisfactory to his creditor. A smart man, Jesus says, will appeal to his creditor for mercy, since, if your case goes before the judge, it is sure to go against you.
"Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" Jesus asks. Why wait for a judge to declare what you already know to be true? Your only hope is in settling the matter before the inevitable judgment against you.
What does the parable mean? Some have tried to make it an allegory, so that the adversary is the devil and the judge is God. But I don't see the devil given that kind of power or prominence in other passages about the Judgment. Rather the devil is judged first (Revelation 20:10, 14-15).
Instead of seeing this as an allegory, I believe the parable has a single point: If you know the judgment will surely go against you, you're a fool not to try to settle the case out of court. In other words, if you know that you are subject to God's judgment, then you need to plead for mercy now while there is still time to receive mercy. Jesus is God's offer of mercy. We're fools if we don't reach out to him and receive mercy and forgiveness through him.
Repent or You Too Will Perish (Luke 13:1-5)
But who needs mercy? Just gross sinners? Jesus now speaks to that question:
"Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, 'Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them -- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.'" (13:1-5)
Jesus refers to contemporary events in Palestine that haven't found their way into the history books:
- Pilate has killed some worshippers from Galilee who, presumably, have come to the temple to worship.
- A tower, probably near the pool of Siloam, has collapsed and the falling stones have instantly killed eighteen people.
The normal Jewish reaction would be to assume that those who experience tragedies must have sinned greatly to deserve such terrible deaths. Calamity was a punishment for sin (cf. Job 4:7; 8:20; 22:4-5; John 9:1-2).
But Jesus says "I tell you, no!"
Jesus says that not just "bad" people will suffer terrible judgment, but everyone, unless they repent.
This kind of talk goes against mainstream American values. We Americans believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell, but you have to be pretty bad to go to hell. After all, even profane people who don't go to church have some good qualities. So who are we to be so judgmental about people?! Popular belief is that the gate to heaven is broad, and the gate to hell is pretty narrow after all.
But Jesus says:
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
According to Jesus all have sinned and all need repentance. All are under a judgment of death unless they repent. That's what Jesus teaches rather clearly here and elsewhere. That means that none of us will make it unless we repent. We must we call upon God for mercy now, before the inevitable judgment is handed down.
If all this sounds like Pauline theology, don't be surprised. Paul crystallizes for us theologically what Jesus had been teaching by parables throughout his entire ministry.
The Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9)
This section on repentance and judgment concludes with a final parable, the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree:
"A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard,
and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man
who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for
fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up
'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" (13:6-9)
A man looks for fruit on his fig year for three years straight, and doesn't find any. First year, he is hopeful. Second year he is disappointed. Third year, he is disgusted. "Cut it down," he tells the gardener. "It's just wasting space in my garden."
But the gardener isn't quite ready to give up on it. Cultivation and more fertilizer, he prescribes. Loosen the soil around the roots to let air in. "Dung, manure" (kopros) to provide organic material that might give it a growth spurt. One more year. And then if it doesn't do anything, then if it doesn't bear any fruit, then cut it down.
What does it mean? The fig tree probably refers to Israel -- not that fig trees in Scripture always refer to Israel (Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 8:13; 24:1-8; Micah 7:1), but that it fits the context of other of Jesus' sayings about Israel (Luke 20:9-16). This is a parable of mercy. The tree deserves to be cut down, but the gardener still has hope for it. He wants to give it one more chance.
But the parable also talks about any individual whose life does not bear good fruit. Seeking fruit, good fruit, is one of the themes of John the Baptist's and Jesus' teachings:
"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:8-9)
"Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:19-20)
"Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit." (Matthew 12:33)
"But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop." (Luke 8:15)
"At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed." (Luke 20:10)
"Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit." (Matthew 21:43)
"He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." (John 15:2)
"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit -- fruit that will last." (John 15:16)
What is the fruit? Souls won to Christ? I'm sure that is true, though I can't think of a scripture passage that puts it that way. More to the point, I think that Jesus is thinking of spiritual fruitfulness -- good deeds (Matthew 7:20), the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-23).
Of course, we are not saved by our fruitfulness, but for fruitfulness (Ephesians 2:8-10). But people who have no evidence of Christ and his Spirit working in their lives probably aren't real disciples of Jesus (Romans 8:9-17). People who meet and decide to follow him change. They repent -- experience a "change of mind." They are converted from going one direction to going another.
Lessons on Repentance
As I look at our passage in Luke 12:49 -13:9 I see several lessons that we disciples must believe and internalize as part of our own value system:
- Judgment is surely coming but is delayed.
- Prior to the judgment, Jesus' disciples may well face division in their own homes.
- We are held responsible to be alert to the signs of the time, that judgment is coming soon.
- All are under the judgment of sin, and each of us must plead for mercy before it is too late, and our case goes to court before the Judge of All the Earth.
- All are subject to judgment, not just the gross sinners, but all.
- God is merciful, but his mercy is coming to an end. After that there is only sure judgment, and the tree will be cut down with no more chances.
Is this teaching too harsh for you? Then you haven't been listening carefully to what Jesus has been teaching us. Do you really believe that family members and neighbors, associates and friends will all stand before the judgment? Or is that too dogmatic for your tender tastes? Do you feel comfortable in the sins that you indulge in, thinking that Jesus either doesn't mind or will overlook them? Then think again. Unless we repent we will all likewise perish.
My dear friends, we Christians have a dual message of hope and of judgment, of love and of justice. To be faithful to our Lord we must proclaim both to our generation, and not neglect one theme or the other.
"The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." (2 Peter 3:9-10)
Heavenly Father, thank you for your mercy to me and to all of us. Thank you for the times when we haven't borne fruit, and you have chosen to fertilize and dig around us for another year. Without your mercy we are lost. I pray that you will balance in my own heart and ministry Jesus' emphasis on repentance and judgment. I think I'm light on this and I need you to balance me. I pray for our lost world that is careening towards judgment. Without your mercy and the power of your Spirit through your Church, they will be lost. Give me a heart for the lost. Give me an understanding of their lostness. Jolt me, jolt us, with a reality check through this week's passage. In Jesus' name. Amen.
"But unless you repent, you too will all perish." (Luke 13:3, 5)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Why does the Gospel of Peace often bring divisions in our families? What can we do about that? Why does Jesus even mention it? (12:49-53)
- What are the "signs" in our own day that point to the soon coming of the Son of Man and judgment? (12:54-56)
- What lessons does the Parable of the Guilty Defendant teach us disciples? (12:57-59)
- What lessons does Jesus' commentary on tragic deaths teach us disciples? What are we supposed to get out of this? (13:1-5)
- What lessons does the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree teach us disciples? What does this parable mean to you personally? (13:6-8)
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Metanoeō, BDAG 640.
 Baptisma, BDAG 165. "An extraordinary experience akin to an initiatory purification rite, 'a plunge, a baptism.'" Found here and in Mark 10:38f, cf. Matthew 20:22 variant reading.
 Sunechō, BDAG 970-971.
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