- Chapter 13 of Luke records an unusual historical event. Historically we are not exactly sure what event Luke is recording. Josephus nor any other historical writer records this event. This should not be surprising since the Romans did not really care about such incidents. We do know that Pilate had appropriated money from the temple treasury to help finance an aqueduct. A large crowd of angry Jews gathered in protest so Pilate had his soldiers mingle themselves among the crowd in civilian clothes and kill the Jews who protested using concealed weapons. The event Luke records does not sound like this historically recorded incident. Pilate did not care about the religious convictions of the Jews.
- Historically we read that Pilate shed the blood of the Jewish people, which would cause more Jewish revolts against the Romans. We simply are reading about another incident of the cruelty of Pontius Pilate in Luke 13:1. This execution of these Galileans must have happened in the temple complex because their blood was mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. This would have infuriated the Jews as well since would have been a great defilement and an atrocity to the Jews. It is important for us to always remember the hostility Pilate had toward the people he governed.
- But what is fascinating about this story is that Jesus does not address the sins of Pilate. It would seem natural for Jesus to speak about the Roman governor of the province. But this is not the angle that Jesus takes. Rather, Jesus deals with the sins of the nation. Verses 2-3 show this implication in Jesus’ words: “He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did'” (NRSV). Jesus then relates another tragedy that took place to make the same point in verses 4-5. “Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (NRSV). Now Jesus is going to tell a parable to try to get his point across. Many times the best way to make a difficult point is to use a human example or illustration. Jesus used this teaching technique repeatedly.
- The parable Jesus tells concerns an unfruitful fig tree. The fig tree would have had obvious implications to Jesus’ audience. The Old Testament on many occasions used the fig tree as a representation of Israel. When the fig tree bore fruit, the nation was in prosperity and blessed by God. However, when the fig tree was barren, the nation was found lacking in the sight of God and was considered accursed. “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season, I saw your ancestors” (Hosea 9:10; NRSV). Therefore, when Jesus begins to tell this story about a man who planted a fig tree in his vineyard, it was not going to be hard for the people to understand that Jesus is talking about Israel as a whole. Understanding this, let us take a closer look at the parable Jesus tells.
- The owner of the vineyard comes and looks to see if the fig tree has born any fruit. However, the owner finds that the fig tree has born no fruit. The owner tells the gardener that he has come for three years looking for fruit on this fig tree, but there is still none to be found. The fig tree is wasting soil, wasting space, and must be cut down. However, the gardener intercedes on behalf of the fig tree. The gardener asks that one more year be given to it and he will put fertilizer on it. Then, if it still does not bear fruit in the following year, then the fig tree can be cut. This was Jesus’ parable. The reason there is no explanation given to this parable was because the meaning was pretty straightforward to the audience. Israel had not been bearing fruit for God. But one more opportunity is being given to it to bear fruit for God or else it will be cut down. Mix this parable in with the point Jesus is making in the first five verses where Jesus says twice, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” This matches Jesus saying that one more year and the fig tree will be cut down. Jesus is describing a judgment upon the people where they would be slain just as the Galileans were and the eighteen were from the tower of Siloam. I think it is evident that Jesus is picturing the horror of the Roman siege of Jerusalem and encouraging the people to repent to avoid this judgment. This was the same message as John the Baptist taught: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:9). But there is much for us to learn from this teaching of Jesus in the 21st century. Its principles should not be relegated to the people of Israel in the first century.
We have a God-given purpose
- The primary issue at hand in regards to the parable Jesus taught is that Israel had forgotten its purpose. God had planted Israel in his vineyard to bear fruit. This is the purpose that God has given to every person: bear fruit. Jesus made this point in John 15:2, “Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes….” But the common problem we have today is the same problem that faced Israel: we forgot that our God-given purpose is to bear fruit. We placed in this world and we are enjoying the blessings and joys of life. We get caught up in the things of this world. We bear fruit by being found more and more in the image of Christ. We can go to Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” If we need a place to start, then we need to place each of these aspects before our minds and attempt to grow in each area. But I think we can simply say that you and I are consistently working to mold ourselves into life of Christ’s image.
- The problem was not only that Israel had forgotten its purpose, but had been simply found lacking. Israel was held accountable for its actions, its faith, and its growth. As Jesus depicts in the parable, God was monitoring the progress of Israel. Each year, the owner checked the fig tree for fruit, and every year the fig tree was found lacking. You and I are in the same position. We can also be found lacking and we must realize that we will be held accountable for the fruit we bear. We will be held accountable for molding our character. We will be held accountable for how we spent our time. We will be held accountable for our efforts to teach the lost. We will be held accountable for our efforts to serve. We are told in the scriptures that there is nothing that will be hidden from God’s sight. Everything we have done will be put on the table. And you and I both know that we will be found lacking.
- But notice the rest of the story, because the parable has a greater spiritual fulfillment. Rather than immediately cut the fig tree down, as ought to happen for a tree that is wasting soil in the vineyard, the gardener says that he wants more time. The gardener intercedes on behalf of the tree, declaring that he will do more work to help the tree grow. The gardener says that he will dig around the tree and place fertilizer around it to see if that will make it grow. If not, then the tree can be cut down. God is the giver of second chances. The great spiritual reality of this parable cannot be missed. We ought to get what we deserve, that is being cut off because we have been found lacking. However, God gives us more time to make necessary changes and begin to bear fruit. But notice that the punishment is not wiped away. The punishment still looms if we do not begin to bear fruit. How true Peter’s words are and how well they fit this parable: “The Lord does not delay His promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9; HCSB). This is what Jesus is teaching here to the crowds. God is patient and suffers long with people, because of his deep love for us. This is what Jesus was saying about the nation of Israel. God had warned them and gave ample time for the people to grow and flourish, but it did not happen. Therefore, judgment had to come. Just Peter said that God is waiting for people to repent, notice that Jesus was teaching the same thing. Twice Jesus said to the people, “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Luke 13:3,5). The key to Jesus’ teaching is repentance.
- Repentance is easily defined by the teaching of Jesus and the parable he told in Luke 13. Jesus was looking for Israel to change how they were thinking and how they were acting. Jesus wanted the people to be thinking about God first rather than themselves. Jesus wanted the people have lives that reflected the image of God. To see this, one translation uses a lot of words to explain repentance: “But if you don’t turn to God and change the way you think and act, then you, too, will all die” (Luke 13:3; GOD’S WORD).
How To Repent
- We must accept our guilt. We cannot live in denial thinking that we have done nothing wrong. We have not lived up to God’s expectations. We have not born fruit the way that we ought to. We have not been found in the image of Christ every single day of our lives. In Acts 2:37 the people were cut to the heart when presented with the message about Jesus and what Jesus had done for them. Being cut to the heart will only happen if we accept that we are sinners, we are violators, and we are guilty of breaking the law of God. Being cut to the heart shows that they were truly sorry. Sometimes we are simply not sorry for our sins. We feel justified in what we have done, blame others as excuse for our actions, or simply think what we have done is not that bad. God wants true sorrow and true acceptance of guilt if we want to find forgiveness. Just as much as we want to see the same thing when we forgive people, God demands that we own up to our sinfulness if we want to find salvation. We have to comprehend our condition and the depth of punishment that is coming to us. The people of Israel did not understand this. They did not comprehend their condition. So John the Baptist came to help them see the problem. Jesus was teaching the people that they were out of time. It was time to see their sins and turn to God. God has called us to live righteously in every thought and every act. We have not done it.
- Desire to do what is right (desire to obey). Repentance is about desire as well. Again, in Acts 2:37 the people ask, “what should we do?” They wanted to do something about what they had done. They had the desire to obey and the desire to do what was right. They wanted to know what to do. When John the Baptist preached the need for repentance because they would perish if they did not, the response of the people then was the same: “‘What then should we do?’ the crowds were asking him” (Luke 3:10). If we are not asking what we need to do, then we have not accepted our guilt and we do not desire to do what is right. Our problem with repentance is typically we do not want to change. We want other people to change but we are not interested in changing ourselves. We do not want to look at ourselves and think there are problems. “Let everyone else change” is what we want. Repentance is about desiring to change. Repentance is about wanting to know what I can do, how I can do better, and the steps needed to change.
- Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Once we are told what to do, then we must bear fruit that shows we have changed. Our actions need to reflect that we have turned to God and are changing the way we think and act. In Luke 3:11-14 John the Baptist then tells the people how to change their lives. He tells them not to take more than is theirs, to give to others, and to be content. John spoke to their individual lives and told them to make decisions that are righteous and in the image of God. After the people asked Peter what they should do, Peter responded: “Peter answered them, ‘All of you must turn to God and change the way you think and act, and each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven'” (Acts 2:38; GOD’S WORD). God has called us to repentance: “God now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30; HCSB).
- Now if salvation is an undeserved gift of God, why does God tell us that we need to repent if we do not want to perish? Many in the religious world have had a very difficult time trying to balance how God gives us grace freely, yet there are certain requirements God has asked us to perform. Even more difficult, too often we push the pendulum to the other extreme, suggesting that my good works are the reason God is forgiving me. Allow me to explain this difficulty with an illustration. When I was living at home as a teenager, I wanted to drive my dad’s car. I did not have a car of my own and was not allowed to have my own car. My dad would make a deal with me: if I washed and cleaned out the car (which was quite a chore because the car was always a mess), then I would be allowed to use it on Friday night. Would my father let me use the car if I did not clean it? No. Does this mean that since I cleaned the car, I had the right to the car? No. Could I take the car and do whatever I want with it? No. It was still dad’s car and it was still by his kindness and grace that he let his 16 year-old son drive the car. He did not let me use it because I cleaned the car. He let me use because he loved me. However, he decided to place conditions upon the use of the car. If I got a ticket, I would not be allowed to drive the car again. If I got into an accident, I would not be allowed to drive the car again. Just because I did not get a ticket or get into an accident did not mean that I had a right to the car. These were simply conditions set by my father for my own good. Because the car was his, he had the right to ask of me whatever he liked.
- God has worked the same way with salvation as best as I can describe by human analogy. It is not that repentance, confession, or immersion in water changes anything, just as me washing dad’s car and not getting speeding tickets did not change anything. It was still dad’s car, not mine. It is still the Lord’s grace, not my works. However, conditions have been set out by God that must be met if we are going to receive the grace of God. If we do not meet the conditions, we do not receive the grace of God. My dad did not give out his grace unconditionally. No one does. God did not give out the grace of salvation unconditionally. There are conditions that must be met. “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (Acts 2:38; NRSV). These are God’s conditions for grace. Will you accept the conditions?