Someone has said, “a pulpit committee has been defined as a group of people in search of a man who will be ‘totally fearless and uncompromising as he tells them exactly what they want to hear!’” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s not far from the truth. None of us wants to hear that we need to make changes in our life. If you listen closely to some of the most popular speakers on television you will notice that they tend to talk exclusively about how to “enjoy life more fully” rather than talk about sin, repentance, and judgment.
Jesus talked about such things frequently. He did so not because He had a negative outlook on life . . . but because He knew that people could not become right with God unless they recognized they were headed in the wrong direction. No one will embrace a Savior until they become convinced that they need to be saved from something!
The setting is described in the first five verses,
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.” (1-5)
How Do We Respond When Bad Things Happen?
Somewhere in the conversation people (we don’t know who) told Jesus a horrible story about a massacre of people from Galilee which resulted in their blood being mixed with the blood of the sacrifices. Most likely this took place in the temple at Passover because this was the only time laymen were involved in the preparation of animal sacrifices. It is likely the massacre was propagated by Pontus Pilate, the Roman Governor, because he believed these were conspirators trying to create a rebellion against Rome.
I don’t know why these people brought up the issue to Jesus. What we do know is Jesus took this opportunity to address the conclusions that were being drawn from this account. They concluded that these men must have been assassinated in this way because they were being punished by God. Jesus says this was not so.
To illustrate the point Jesus pointed to a construction accident that took place in the southwest corner of Jerusalem. A wall collapsed near the pool of Siloam. Eighteen people were killed. Jesus asked the question: Did these people die because they were worse people than those who escaped death? Again, the answer is no.
In John 9:1-2 we read another situation,
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
In each case the assumption is: bad things happen to bad people. It is the same assumption made by the friends of Job. It is the assumption that we often make. When tragedy strikes we often cry, “What have I done wrong?” We immediately seem to think that God is punishing us.
On the other hand we hear the great stories about people who miraculously survive horrible things like the terrorist attack at 9/11, the deluge of flood waters from Hurricane Katrina, the wildfires of California, the Tornados in the Midwest, a horrible car accident or even random shootings. People declare that God protected them (and I believe He did). The nagging question however is . . . what about those who died? Was it because God cared less about such people? What about Christian people who die in such disasters?
The “problem of evil” is one of the most perplexing problems in life. If God is in control there must be a reason these things happen. Sin does sometimes lead to tragedy but not all tragedy is due to the sin of the victims. This passage reminds us that we must beware of making hasty judgments about what is happening to others. Some bad things happen as a consequence of the free choices of individuals. Others things we cannot explain. That doesn’t mean there is no explanation, it just means we don’t know or understand the explanation. We cling to God’s declaration in Isaiah 55,
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)
Jesus felt no need to explain the ways of God. It has to be enough that we know God is Sovereign, God is Good, and God is Just. Instead of getting philosophical, Jesus changed the focus. Rather than put God or the victim of these disasters on trial, Jesus said we should reflect on the tragedies of life and recognize the fragile nature of life and the sure reality of coming judgment. He points us to the threat of a greater tragedy: dying outside of God’s mercy.
What Is Repentance?
Jesus calls summoned the people to repentance? But what is repentance? There are two dimensions to repentance. First, it involves humiliation before God because of our sin. Herein lies a problem: we live at time when the definition of sin is rather slippery. Like the Israelites in the time of the book of Joshua, “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.” We hear people all the time say, “Who are you to judge me?”
The repentance required for salvation necessitates that we measure ourselves not the standards of the society around us, but by the Word of God. In other words, we are to look at our behavior and accept God’s judgment of that behavior. If God calls something wrong that society accepts, we must acknowledge that God is right, society is wrong. If God says something is proper when the world says it is not, we accept God’s standard. We cannot truly repent until we come to God on His terms rather than our own.
The repentant person looks at their life (their actions, their motives, their heart) and comes to God as a humble and broken person because of their sin. They do not justify, excuse, or try to redefine their sin . . . they see it clearly as an offense to a Holy God. They understand that they have rebelled against God and they confess their rebellious attitude and scandalous behavior. They come to God as one who is sick in need of healing.
Repentance is hard. All our lives we have shifted blame when there was a conflict. Part of this comes from the fact that we don’t want to believe that we are evil enough to have done what we did. The only way to deal with that dissonance in our soul is to redefine what we did as a justified response to what someone else first did to us. So now sin becomes someone else’s (even God’s) fault. Repentance stops the madness. To repent is to stand up and admit that “I am guilty. I am the one responsible and I was wrong.”
This is not hard to understand. Think about our interactions with each other. When we hurt someone else by our actions and are truly sorry we will go to that person and acknowledge the wrong we have done. We recognize how our actions have hurt and wounded the other person and we will adopt a humble posture that says, “I will do whatever is necessary to repair this situation and make things right”. That’s the kind of attitude we are to take before God when we repent. God is not fooled by a repentance that is only concerned with avoiding punishment.
We are all a little like children. We are often sorry only until the crisis passes and then we go back to “life as before”. True humiliation before God desires real change not simply a lessening of a crisis.
There is a second dimension to repentance: there is a desire to change direction. We know that many who serve time in jail end up returning to jail. Why? Because nothing has fundamentally changed inside the person! They have served their time but they have not changed their ways. On the other hand, the person who is truly rehabilitated has a new heart, a new focus, and a new way of doing things. The person who truly repents is like the rehabilitated criminal.
If I was truly repentant about driving too fast I would start driving slower! If I was repentant for slandering you, I would stop attacking you with my words! If I was truly repentant for stealing company funds I would stop stealing and begin paying back what was stolen. True repentance involves a change in direction! Tragedy should awaken us to our need to be right with God.
And this is what generally happens in a time of tragedy. People go to church. They take stock of their lives. They determine that they are going to live differently. We do see the fragile and temporary nature of life. After September 11, 2001 church attendance swelled. People recognized that this life is temporary and preparations needed to be made for eternity. However, we know what generally happens. In the course of time things get back to “business as usual”. God gets put on the back burner and we fall back into old patterns. These people have been scared but they have not been changed! God calls us not to an enduring relationship with Him.
The Illustration of the Fig Tree
As any good speaker, Jesus illustrated his point with a story,
“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.’ “ (6-9)
If you know anything about horticulture (I don’t) you will know that it takes several years before a fig tree starts to bear good fruit. This particular tree was planted in the owner’s vineyard so that it could be given good care. It is possible that this tree had actually been in the vineyard for six or seven years because the owner would not have come looking for fruit in the first few years. After three years of coming to look for the anticipated fruit the owner wanted to simply cut the tree down because the tree was blocking sun from the grapes below and taking nourishment from the soul.
The caretaker of the vineyard asked for the owner to be patient. He said he would loosen the dirt around the tree and would fertilize it in a final attempt to get the tree to bear fruit. He said, if the tree still will not bear fruit they can cut it down.
The picture of the vineyard is one that would have been familiar to the people. Israel was referred to as a vineyard throughout the prophetic books. The listeners of Jesus would have understood that Jesus was not talking about grapes and figs . . .He was talking about those who profess to know Him. What’s the point for us?
First, we learn that a true believer is one who bears fruit or shows their faith in the way they live their lives. God expects His followers to actually follow Him! True faith is not evidenced simply by making a declaration . . . true faith involves actually following Christ!
The term “practical atheist” refers to those who profess faith in Christ yet live like everyone else. Sad to say, I believe this is the status of the average church go-er. They may have joined the church, they may even occasionally attend the church, but they are unwilling to follow and serve the Lord in the way they live their lives. They may profess good intentions but they are like the barren fig tree. They are sucking up resources and producing nothing of value.
Second, we learn that God is patient. The owner of the vineyard was patient with the tree. He gave it time to start bearing fruit . . . and then he gave even more time at the request of the caretaker. God knows change takes time. He understands that we will all have times when we fall down and struggle in our discipleship. God is patient with us.n He will help us get back on our feet again and again. He wants us to succeed in our discipleship.
Third, we learn God uses various means to help us follow Him (or to bear fruit). Sometimes God digs around in the soil of our lives. Sometimes He turns things upside down in order to get our attention and wake us up.
I had a telephone conversation with a friend once. He had recently had a very close call with death and this friend told me He didn’t understand why God didn’t just let him die. In a moment of uncommon boldness I said, “Maybe God knows that you are not ready to face Him and He is giving you the opportunity to get your act together with Him. Maybe what you see as meanness is actually an act of incredible love.”
This friend became very silent and said, “Hmmm, let me think about that one.” We talked the next week and he was now ready to learn what was necessary to become a follower of Christ. My friend became a believer and used the years he had left to learn everything he could about Christ and sought to serve him as effectively as possible. God dug around the roots of his life and he became fruitful.
Is it possible that God is digging around the roots of your life? Could it be that He is doing so because you are a practical atheist? Do you give the appearance of being a Christ-follower but lack any fruit? Is it possible that God is trying to get your attention? He loves you so much that He will use any means to awaken you. A little pain is a small price to pay for life and fruitfulness. Instead of fighting the one who tends your soul, pay attention and welcome the work of the King.
God also fertilizes our lives. Week after week He gives us the life-giving nourishment of His Word through the Bible, the pulpit, Bible study classes, Christian radio and even many Christian books. He sends His Spirit to prompt us, lead us, and convict us. He uses our memories to remind us of failures, needs, and past evidence of His love and character. God is seeking to make you fruitful even if you are not responding. Those people who fail to respond to this fertilizer reveal their “spiritual deadness”.
Fourth, we see that God’s patience will not endure forever. This fig tree was taking up valuable nutrients from the vineyard. There is a sense in which the tree would be removed because the rest of the vineyard would be better off if it was not there!
These are sobering words. Those who call Him Savior but refuse to follow Him in their living are mocking God and like any parent with their children, He will not endure that mocking forever. Those who profess to be followers of Christ yet refuse to truly follow Him, are doing more harm than good. God will not endure their foolishness forever.
This is a tough passage. I’m sure there were people in the crowd who wondered “Why was Jesus in such a bad mood?” Those folks did not understand. Jesus spoke with passion and directness because He cares. Jesus refuses to simply tell us what we want to hear (that we are great!), and instead tells us the truth. May He grant us ears to hear!
I encourage you to stop and take a serious look at your life. Are you living as a practical atheist? Are you a tree that is bearing no fruit? Are you a professor rather than a possessor of faith? If people saw you with a group of people who are indifferent or even hostile to the gospel would they notice something different about you?
Take a hard look at your life. Stop justifying, blaming and making excuses. Instead run to the Lord, seek His forgiveness, and ask for His help to become a fruitful follower. Don’t fall for the deception that says “as long as you belong to a church, got baptized, and had an experience once you are safe from Hell”. It’s the most deadly lie there is.
Suppose there were two people who both had advanced educational degrees. One person went to school labored through classes, passed exams, wrote papers and finally graduated. The other person sent $35.00 to a paper mill and received their degree in the mail. Would you consider both of those people to be educated? Of course not! You would quickly be able to discern the difference between the one who was educated and the one who was just pretending.
Jesus reminds us that anyone can call themselves a Christian. Anyone can wave their membership or baptismal certificate around. The true believer however will reveal their faith by the decisions they make, the priorities they adopt, and the life they live. They will have paid the price of discipleship.
Deep down inside of you and me, there is a yearning for something more than a big house, two cars and 2 ½ children. We look for that “something” in pleasures, material abundance, and positions of power. But even if we attain these things we find we are still empty. The Bible tells us that God has created us to be complete and whole only when we are in relationship with Him. We will never be satisfied with life (for long) until we run to His arms and walk with Him along the highway of life.
The world in which we live is filled with horrible things: disaster, disease, senseless violence, heartless people, and a rapidly expanding godlessness. In our confusion over why such things happen we need to see something. We need to see that this life is not the answer. The things of this world are fragile and fleeting. We can despair, or we can heed the reminder that we must hold fast to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord does not promise that we won’t have trouble (in fact He says just the opposite…we will be seen as oddballs and be persecuted because of it). What He does promise is that we will bear fruit, we will make a difference, we will honor the King, we will point others to eternal life, and we will live forever – no matter what the world throws at us.