Unless You Repent
Preached by Jason Abbott
I heard a pastor, who preached this passage, share an illustration I really liked. And, to set the stage, I want to share it with you. He explained that his grandfather lived into his mid-nineties and spent the last year or so of his life in a nursing-home. Whenever he went to visit him, he said that his grandfather would pull him in close, as if to tell him a secret, then point to some other resident there and announce loudly, because he was hard of hearing: You see that guy over there? He’s not going to be around for long. 1 (So funny. One guy with a foot in the grave judging another guy with a foot in the grave. So funny. And, sadly, so very like us.)
We have an unhealthy fascination with the situation or the sin of other people while totally ignoring our own situation or sin; don’t we?!
Here, Jesus won’t let this crowd or us sidestep our sin. Our Lord won’t let us dodge our dangerous situation. And, he’s not forcing us to confront our predicament because he doesn’t love us, but…precisely because he does.
Let’s read this text together then we’ll pray for God to teach us from it.
13 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
At a very basic level, Jesus teaches two things here: (1st) that sin brings death; and, (2nd) that repentance brings life. Let’s look at these in detail.
1. Sin brings death (vv. 1-5).
Now, remember that, in the passage just before this, Jesus warned the crowd of the coming judgment of God. He tells them a story in which they are a character, a story where they’re being brought before a judge by an accuser. And he urges them to make peace with him before they reach the judge lest they get thrown into prison and punished (Luke 12:57-59). That’s what Jesus just taught.
Well, maybe because they are disconcerted by his focus on their predicament in this story, some in the audience apparently try to change the subject. They bring up a tragic current event—a situation where some people from Galilee were killed by Pontius Pilate while attempting to make a sacrifice to God. It’s an awful story, and it’s not especially clear, to us, why they’d bring it up. Jesus’ response, however, gives us a clue. He replies:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way (v. 2)?
A little like that old man in the introduction, this crowd is apparently focusing on the problems of others in order to sidestep their own problems. Surely, they say, our situation isn’t as bad as theirs. What’s going on here?
Well, those who are bringing up the current event are making an ancient health and wealth argument; they’re essentially saying: Bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. The Lord smiles on the faithful and provides for them—blessing them with long lives and with property and with plenty of food and with a large family! They’re saying: Since we have all these, we must be right with God. We’re not like those wretched Galileans, whom Pilot killed in the middle of their sacrifices. They must have had some hidden and awful sin.
Sadly, this isn’t merely an ancient argument. There are prominent “churches” preaching this today. We’ve had members of our congregation preyed upon by them: those fighting cancer who are told if they just pray prayers with a strong enough faith then they’ll be cancer free; those with debilitating diseases who are given literature detailing how—through the weeding out of hidden sins—they will be cured.
Hogwash! Do not be taken in by such lies! This is not from God!
These attacks, however, don’t always come from the outside. Often they come from the inside too! In fact, we must be aware that we also regularly think this way. We imagine, when we have particularly well-behaved children who achieve things, that it’s God blessing us for our particularly good parenting and devotion to him—as opposed to those whose kids go off the rails. We think, when we encounter success with our finances, that it’s God’s special blessing for our especially rigorous work—in opposition to all those less rigorous workers who are poor.
How do you think in these ways? How do you measure yourself in relationship to others? How do you value your position before the Lord against your perception of the position of others before him? Where do you find your righteousness?
Well, Jesus isn’t having any health and wealth theology. Look one more time at how he responds to 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 in 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…” (vv. 2-5).
Notice just a couple of things here. First, notice that there are simply sinners according to Jesus. There really aren’t worse sinners. He’s not ranking sinners here. The Galileans (who had their blood mixed with their sacrifices) were sinners indeed, just like all the other Galileans. Those people (whom the tower of Siloam crushed) were sinners for sure, just like all the other people in Jerusalem. At this moment, Jesus is dealing in one broad category—a category that includes every single person in his audience—the category of sinner. Comparisons are pointless, he says.
There’s a place in the Pacific called Point Nemo, or the pole of inaccessibility. It’s the furthest point from land in the Pacific Ocean—around 1,700 miles from it. Now, you could take me and Michael Phelps to Point Nemo and drop us off there and tell us to swim for our lives. And, without a doubt, Michael would get further than I would. Yet, in the end, we’ll both perish; won’t we?!
This is like what Jesus is teaching here. Comparative good or bad is obsolete. Everyone is going to drown in his or her sin when trying to swim Point Nemo alone, because God’s standard is an infinite ocean of holiness.
Second, notice that Jesus constantly makes this personal—unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (v. 3); unless you repent, you will…likewise perish (v.5). Jesus will have none of this sidestepping of personal sin. He doesn’t stay in Galilee. He doesn’t stay in Jerusalem. He brings his lesson to bear on all those who are sitting before him in that crowd…and on all who sit in this congregation too. Jesus is talking to you and to me. The problem is not somewhere out there. It’s in us. We must not, like the man in the nursing-home, make ourselves feel better by pointing our fingers at the problems of others. Instead, we must deal with our problems first, our sin first. We must be primarily concerned with the log jammed in our own eye (Matthew 7:5). We must be ready to repent of our own sins.
With this challenge, Jesus tells a parable that is both startling and encouraging to us. But, its main point is that:
2. Repentance brings life (vv. 6-9).
Listen to his little story once again:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (vv. 6-9).
If you’re like me, when you read this, you may object to the owner’s command to cutdown the fig tree. You might think it could still be useful in some other way. It could be good for shade from the sun’s heat or ornamental to the overall aesthetic of the vineyard. The command, therefore, may seem harsh to us. And, for this reason, we often only see a stern warning in this parable.
Now, it is a stern warning. We don’t want to miss that aspect of the narrative. There is, however, much that’s intended to encourage us in this short story as well. There’s the hopeful theme of expensive mercy and grace here.
When Natalie and I bought our first home in Missouri, there was this pitiful and ugly peach tree in the yard. I mean this was the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of peach trees—more of a large stick protruding from the ground than an actual tree. It was definitely an eyesore.
I, consequently, let Natalie know that a top priority, as a proud homeowner, would be to chop that ugly tree down. I mean, I had a yard and a hatchet I’d inherited; I was ready to go out and establish my dominance over my half acre of fertile land. Natalie, however, in her patient wisdom, encouraged me to wait for a season or two to see whether the tree would produce some peaches. So, we trimmed dead branches off the tree and waited. That next spring, the little tree began to blossom beautifully. Our ugly tree had become fragrant and pretty. Then, those blossoms turned to fruit. And, by the end of the season, we had juicy and delicious peaches. During its season of opportunity, during its season of mercy, that tree had repented. It turned around.
By the time we sold that house, it was my favorite tree. I loved its blossoms in the spring. I loved showing my kids the fruit budding. I loved eating peach pies made from our own little tree. I loved that tree!
In Jesus’ story, there is a stern warning that unfruitful trees will be cutdown in the end. There is a lesson that unless we repent of our sins and bear fruit in keeping with that repentance, we will perish (vv. 3, 5). There is also, however, the extension of a season of mercy and grace for that repentance (v. 9). The master of the vineyard, in the end, allows for more time and energy and money to be spent on that fig tree. He gives it every opportunity to live and bear fruit.
When Jesus came into our fallen world, he initiated the season of opportunity for mercy—the season for repentance. This is why, when Christ began his ministry, he opened with the theme of repentance. These were the first words he proclaimed. So, Matthew writes:
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
Or, as Mark records his opening words:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Here’s the encouragement and the hope in Christ’s story. We live in the season of mercy and grace. This is the time of repentance and, with that repentance, the time of life. Jesus is telling us that repentance brings us life. Repentance will bear fruit. Not peaches or figs, but the fruit of the Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22-23). I’m so bad at these; I can’t cultivate these on my own. But, I long to see them in my character because I’ve witnessed their beauty in the lives of others.
Look, here’s a shameless plug for both regular and faithful church attendance on Sundays and active participation in it throughout the week over an entire lifetime. Ready—the local church is the soil in which and by which the Lord intends to bear such fruit. It won’t happen in a week. It won’t happen in a year. It takes perseverance inside the body of Christ over the long-haul.
You’ve heard me say it before; I’m going to say it now; I’ll surely say it again. There’s no such thing as lone-ranger Christianity; in short, we don’t live as believers in isolation. And, there’s no such thing as doing church casually. It isn’t some club. If you treat it like it is then you’ll never see real fruit in your life. If this is your habit then repent. Turn away from lone-ranger or casual Christianity!
Who’s the most godly, fruitful person in all of Scripture? That’s not rhetorical. (Answer is Jesus.) Now, if anyone didn’t need regular fellowship and Bible teaching, it was certainly the Son of God; right?! Yet, what was his routine? Well, it’s funny because Luke tells us:
And [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day… (Luke 4:16).
Perhaps the second-best answer to that question would be the Apostle Paul. After all, Paul wrote more of the New Testament than any other single author did. What was his routine? Luke also records that:
Now…[Paul and Silas] came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom… (Acts 17:1-2).
Friends, regular and faithful fellowship is part of the pattern God prescribes for his followers. He wants us to repent of our sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness. But, then, he wants to bear fruit in us through relationship in his local body.