Repent or Perish

Luke XLVII: Luke 13:1-17

Jesus gives three teachings in this portion of the gospel, all centered around the glorious call to repentance.

Repentance & Calamities
Jesus has just finished charging his followers to read the signs of the times and warned them about petty disputes (Lk. 12:54-59). It’s at “that very time” when some folks told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Lk. 13:1). Jesus asks whether the people think those Galileans were worse sinners than all others, and says, No, but unless they repent they will all likewise perish (Lk. 13:2-3). Jesus expands this point to include natural/accidental disasters, and repeats the same claim: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:4). Is Jesus saying that truly repentant people aren’t persecuted and are protected from natural disasters? No, he doesn’t say that. Is Jesus teaching that bad things happen because people have been bad? Yes, sometimes. In one sense, we can say that all bad things are a result of sin and the fall (Gen. 3:15-19, Rom. 8:18-22). But we need to add to this the promises of the covenant: “You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you…” (Dt. 5:32-33, Mt. 5:1-11) But “If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book… the Lord will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you…” (Dt. 28:58, 63, Mt. 23:13ff, Rom. 1:18ff). While Jesus clearly points out exceptions (Jn. 9:3), it is always a good rule to examine our lives in the face of calamity. Famines, droughts, and disasters are routinely sent from the Lord for our chastisement (Hos. 4:1-3, Amos 3:6, 4:6-9).

The Fig Tree in the Vineyard
Fig trees and vineyards are loaded symbols of Israel. In the days of Solomon, the peace and prosperity was described as “every man under his vine and under his fig tree” (1 Kgs. 4:25, cf. Zech. 3:10, Is. 5:1-7). When Jeremiah describes the unfaithfulness of Israel, he says, “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree…” (Jer. 8:13, cf. Joel 1:7, 12). Here, the vineyard owner sees no figs and orders the fig tree cut down (Lk. 13:6-7), but the vinedresser asks for one more year while he can dig around it and put on manure (Lk. 13:8). If it still doesn’t bear fruit the following year, it would make sense to cut it down (Lk. 13:9). The fig tree in the vineyard is clearly Israel. The reference to the three years may be referring to the ministry of Jesus. The digging around and fertilizing represents the final stretch of the ministry of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit. Israel is the fig tree in the vineyard; if they do not accept Jesus as God’s Messiah, they will be cut down. Jesus seems to be the vineyard worker, interceding for the people like an Abraham or Moses. And Jesus is still interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). In another place, the image is slightly shifted to Jesus being the vine, but the warning is the same: if anyone does not abide in Him, that branch is thrown away (Jn. 15:1ff). This digging around can also be understood as pruning discipline: so that a branch that has borne fruit may bear more (Jn. 15:2, Heb. 12:11). Are you a fruitful branch?

A Disabling Spirit
There is an obvious numerical connection between the next story and the tower of Siloam in the number eighteen (Lk. 13:4, 11, 16). But there are thematic connections as well. In the same way that we wonder about the relationship between sin and calamities, Luke records this story illustrating the spiritual/Satanic influences in our suffering. The ailment is described as a “disabling spirit,” which manifested itself in causing this woman to be bent over and unable to stand up straight (Lk. 13:11). There is an actual medical condition known today as skoliasis hysterica, which is a muscular paralysis brought about by severe physical or emotional pain or neurological disorders. Regardless, Jesus “frees” her from her disability (Lk. 13:12-13), and he later reiterates the fact that he loosed this woman from being bound by Satan (Lk. 13:16). Clearly, this woman was afflicted by a truly physical and spiritual bondage. This is no ancient superstition. This is still a present reality in our world. People instinctively know that spiritual and emotional health is related, however mysteriously, to our physical health. This is why the elders of the church are charged with the task of anointing and praying for the healing of the sick in the church (Js. 5:14-15). This is also why Christians must confess their sins to one another that they may be healed (Js. 5:16). Satan is the Accuser, and his great weapon is accusation (Rev. 12:10). He accuses his victims of their sins, their guilt, their shame, their failures, and their weaknesses. He is also the father of lies, which means he distorts, twists, and fabricates falsehood while he accuses (Jn. 8:44). But Jesus came to proclaim liberty to the captives (Lk. 4:18-19) and was “appointed for the fall and rising up of many in Israel…” (Lk. 2:34).

Conclusion: Indignation & Rejoicing
The reaction to this healing in the synagogue on the Sabbath day is twofold: indignation and rejoicing. The woman glorifies God (Lk. 13:13). This is always the result of true repentance and freedom in Christ: more joy in God. The people watching also rejoice in all the glorious things done by Jesus (Lk. 13:17). But the leader of the synagogue is indignant. Apparently a number of others joined that indignation (“all his adversaries” 13:17). What are they indignant about? The Sabbath being broken (Lk. 13:14). But Jesus says that this is pure hypocrisy. The Sabbath explicitly commands caring for the basic needs of all (Lk. 13:15). How much more so this daughter of Abraham (Lk. 13:16)? In our day, because of the ministry of Jesus, the categories often shift while the roles remain the same. We have ministries to the sinful and the suffering that keep them in bondage. We “like” their foolish Facebook posts in the name of friendship. We refuse to confront sin in the name of mercy and kindness. And then we are tempted to get indignant when someone actually points out the noose around their neck. But Christ says: unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. The call to repentance is the call to true Sabbath freedom.

The key to understanding repentance is seeing Christ as the One who made the way. Christ’s blood has become our sacrifice under Pontius Pilate. Christ was hung on the fruitless and cursed tree. Christ was bent over and bound by Satan – all so that we might not perish, so that we might become fruitful, so that we might be raised up.

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