People often hear the Bible’s message of “repent or perish” as if it is for others, but Jesus taught all are equally in danger of being “cut down” by God for not bearing fruit. However, God is patient and merciful, granting a certain amount of time to repent and turn to Christ before it’s too late.
Introduction – Most people have a mental image they associate with the message of “repent or perish.” Mine is of “Brother Bob,” a traveling fundamentalist campus evangelist who began preaching in the public quad and proceeded to offend everyone with his message of “repent or perish.” He was only interested in condemning people by accusing them of flagrant sin in obnoxious ways. In his eyes, young women who wore shorts or held hands with a boy were “whores.” Their boyfriends were thus whoremongers. And Brother Bob was wasn’t afraid to say so! Most students nervously walked passed him on their way to class. Some ignored him, others expressed their disgust. The only people he managed to gather were evangelical Christians who begged him to stop for the love of Christ and an honorable witness to him. But instead he just redirected his “repent or perish” message toward them.
When people hear the message “repent or perish” they usually respond one of three ways: (1) tune it out; (2) get offended, (3) or think of a person who “really needs to hear this.” Rare is the person who hears “repent or perish” as a message of personal application, yet Jesus says we must.
I. To Whom is Jesus Talking?
A. A legitimate question (Lk 12:41; cf. 12:1, 13, 15-16, 22, 54; 13:1-2)
1. To the uncommitted crowds or his disciples? To Jews or Christians? To OT Israel or NT Church? To first century people or us? Is Jesus’ message to repent or perish for others or me?
2. Context begins at 12:1 and ends here at 13:9. Jesus alternates between addressing the crowd as a whole, individuals in the crowd, and his disciples. Yet there is overlap in Jesus’ intended audience. Even his disciples were occasionally unclear whom Jesus addressed. Jesus was coy when pressed, probably because he wanted them to apply his message to themselves.
B. God’s people: Israel old and new (vv. 6-9)
1. This passage joins the old and new Israel. It points back to Isaiah 5, the Jews of the OT joined to their first century descendants as the generation who hears the last call to repent. It also points forward to the New Israel, the church of the NT joined to our first century spiritual forefathers—the disciples of Jesus (Rom 11; Gal 6:16; Rev 2-3).
2. Thus in the historical context, Jesus is talking to old covenant Israel, warning them of the national corporate judgment that came first at the cross, then in A.D. 70 when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Roman army. By way of Luke’s audience, Jesus is talking to the church (new covenant Israel), warning individuals of the personal judgment that will come at death apart from personal repentance, and warning congregations of the corporate judgment that will come apart from corporate repentance. In sum, Jesus is certainly talking to you and me!
II. Why is This Message So Urgent?
A. We tend to judge ourselves as less guilty in relation to others (vv. 2-5)
1. All the other reasons flow from this one. Consider the two current events. Remember who Jesus is talking to. He knows his audience and he speaks to them his choice of current events as examples. Zealots would be moved by Pilate’s abominable massacre to violent self-righteous hatred. Pharisees would be moved by Siloam Tower’s fall to pious self-righteous condemnation.
To get a sense of Zealot outrage, Pilate’s act would be like U.S. government agents crashing an Easter worship service, gunning down people, and mixing their blood with the Lord’s Supper. Pharisee condemnation would be like when some Christians blamed godless sinful Americans for the 9-11 tragedy. Jesus doesn’t side with either the angry or pious self-righteous. Neither Zealots nor Pharisees considered their own hearts. Neither considered offering prayer and help. Neither was motivated by the gospel. Neither considered “there but the grace of God go I.”
2. Jesus redirects the crowd toward their own sins by denying that Pilate’s victims were especially sinful (cf. Jn 9:3). Don’t focus on the sins of others while ignoring your own need to repent. We don’t know the details of God’s timing and purpose in tragic events, so we ought to focus on the big-picture lesson that God has revealed to us. Jesus uses the example of the Pilate massacre to call their attention to the imminent need to repent or likewise perish. Thus the incident is an excellent example of how quickly death can come to any of us, and that all need to be ready to meet God. In other words, the massacre is not an example of how bad those people were, but an example of how little time we might have to settle our accounts with God (cf. Lk 12:58-59).
B. We tend to believe if our life is going well God must approve of our life (vv. 1, 6)
1. Jesus knows that while sinners experience the mercy and forbearance of God, they presume God’s favor. Nothing is more natural. We are prone to see those who suffer and think, “They must deserve it, and because I don’t suffer I must not.”
Ask a deacon about the stories he hears from those who call the church for assistance. Do the hurting bring on their own suffering through their foolish decisions? What do such stories do to a deacon’s heart? The tendency is to think, “How foolish is this person! I thank God I make good decisions. God must be pleased with me since I’m not in the same boat.”
2. Surely this is what the fig tree in the parable thought. “Other trees are cut down, but I’m still here so God must be happy with me!” Job’s friends adopted this prosperity gospel (Job 4:7-8; 8:20; 22:5-10). But this is the wrong conclusion when considering the suffering of others. Rather you should see a merciful God forewarning you, and take appropriate actions (repent, trust in Christ, and bear fruit).
A Christian will pay careful attention to the plight of others, but will always think of himself as well. A Christian should consider his own life, actions, words, thoughts, and sins first and foremost before focusing on other people. (1) So if you hear of a tragedy or sudden death, you should say to yourself, “Would I have been ready to meet God if the same happened to me?” (2) If you read or hear of some awful crime or sin, you should ask yourself, “Have I really repented of my own sins? Are my sins forgiven?” This one is especially important for Christians to avoid pride and becoming a Pharisee: (3) when you see or hear about people (even other professing Christians) falling or running headlong into sin, you should humble yourself, asking, “Is there any reason why I wouldn’t do the same apart from God’s free grace? If I am different in wanting to avoid sin rather than cultivate it, who has made me different?”
C. There will be a “last chance” to repent (vv. 8-9)
1. The vineyard owner is God the Father. The vinedresser is God the Son. The fig tree is Israel. In the parable, the owner complains to the vinedresser that for three years every time he comes seeking fruit from his fig tree, he finds no fruit. Therefore he orders the vinedresser to cut it down because there is no reason for a fruitless tree to waste the ground.
We inherited from the previous homeowners a peach tree that became so diseased that we had to cut it down. Nothing remains today except a one-inch stump. The first year we moved in our neighbors sang the praises of the peach tree. Apparently it used to supply the homeowner and neighbors with peaches all season long. So we were excited to eat these homegrown peaches. Later that summer when the fruit ripened it had a strange transparent goo that oozed from almost every piece of fruit. It was disgusting and inedible. The goo was even on the branches and tree trunk. So we had a peach tree expect come tell us how to get good fruit next season. After examining the tree, it became clear that the tree was so diseased that we had one last chance to save the tree. If careful treatment didn’t work, then we couldn’t salvage the tree. So we followed the directions closely, hoping to get some fruit next season. But it didn’t work. The same goo came back, only worse this time. So we cut it down. All that work and we didn’t get to taste one peach! I was sad to see the tree go, but on the other hand I was glad to be rid of it, because it was less than good for nothing, just taking up space in my yard and littering rotten diseased fruit all other the ground.
2. The spiritual reality is a glimpse into the inter-trinitarian dialogue. God the Father sends the Son to cut down fruitless Israel. God the Son asks the Father for one last chance, one last year, to prepare Israel for repentance before God the Father cuts down his people. The Son will cultivate and fertilize the fig tree to give it the best chance to produce fruit. This means Jesus himself will come to Israel (particularly Jerusalem as it is the heart and capital city of Israel) with the message of repentance, forgiveness, and the arrival of the kingdom of God—the gospel— delivered with a warning of imminent judgment. God the Father has given God the Son to his people as a final messenger. Israel has one last opportunity to repent (cf. Lk 13:34; 19:41-44). If Israel then bears the fruit of repentance, then disaster averted! Late fruit is better than no fruit at all. Late repentance, if it is genuine, is better than no repentance at all. But the narrative ends with uncertainty. There is one last chance to repent before it is time to cut Israel down (Ps 1:4-6).
III. How Now Shall We Repent?
A. Repentance: what it is and is not
1. Summarized as confession (intellect), contrition (emotion), and change (volition). WSC 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
2. But a religious person thinks of repentance fundamentally as a way to earn God’s approval. Don’t think of it as a duty, obedience, reforming your life, seeking to win God’s approval with your moral performance, theological knowledge, career accomplishment, or charity toward others. It’s not feeling sorry for what you’ve done wrong. Not merely regretting you’ve made some terrible mistakes. Not shedding tears for your sin. Not going through some religious checklist of actions to achieve repentance. Not merely changing your mind about something.
If you try to repent this way you will fail. You will run out of energy to keep it up. Your heart will either puff up with self-love (“Look at me, I am good at this repenting thing!”) or your heart will eventually lead you back to what you thought you were turning away from. Why? Because you are utterly powerless to change your heart through your desire, decision, or action. Only Christ can change your heart, and to the degree you love Christ you will find the power to repent and change. In other words, he doesn’t want your work of repentance. He wants you! Repentance is essentially a matter of love and hate, which is another way of saying it’s a matter of worship. Firstly, you need the clarity to see sin for what it really is, and God for who he really is. Secondly, you need help to hate the evil things you love (your idols), and help to love God for himself, not just for the benefits he gives. Thirdly, you need to repent of your good works done from wrong motives (this one cuts Zealots and Pharisees down to size). Lastly, you need the power to act on what you know and feel, which is only found by drilling down into the gospel.
B. The heart of repentance (vv. 1-5)
1. When you have zealous hatred against the “bad guys” welling up in your heart, marvel at the cost of forgiveness: Christ’s atoning sacrifice mixed with his own blood for you. Think about those worshipers whom Pilate massacred: their own blood was mingled with the blood of their sacrifice at the temple while they worshiped. The people considered this an abomination, but this is exactly what happened to Jesus. Once again, Pilate (instigated by Jesus’ Jewish enemies) had Jesus massacred while Jesus offered up his blood as a sacrifice for sins. The crowds were appalled at Pilate, but they would do the same thing to Jesus, the very person to whom they protested about Pilate! Jesus’ sacrifice is the greater abomination. His blood is mixed with his sacrifice. Yet this “blood mix” is what makes Christ’s sacrifice perfect and final. Through the “abomination” of the Son of God voluntarily, yet passively slain for sins he did not commit—slain by guilty sinners while superintended by God the Father—we may be forgiven, declared righteous, and accepted by God.
2. When you have pious or aloof feelings in your heart toward people who suffer bad things, abide in Christ for security: God the great refuge-fortress-tower fell on Christ instead of you. Think about the tower that fell on the people in Jerusalem: a tower was a refuge, a fortress, and place of safety from the onslaught of enemies. It is a frequently used image in the Bible (Ps 60:1-3; Prov 18:10; cf. 2 Sam 22:2-4; Ps 18:1-3; 31:1-4; 46:7, 11; 48:1-3). Conversely, people foolishly build towers to exalt their own strength, glory, and sense of security (Gen 11:4-5; Isa 2:12-15; Jer 48:1). Thus the threat of a strong tower falling is traumatic. A towering refuge that falls on people who put their trust in it is a great irony. God the Father is like a tower for Jesus (Pro 18:10; Mic 5:2, 4a; Lk 2:40). Yet God fell on and crushed Jesus to death for us. Because he was crushed by God the Great Tower, we will find refuge and safety from enemies, not in self-righteous condemnation from a distance, but in God.
C. The fruit of repentance (vv. 6-9)
1. Context of Luke 12:1-13:9. Desiring God’s approval more than man’s approval (12:1-12). Cultivating a generous, compassionate life (12:13-21, 22-34). Remaining ready for the last day (12:35-59; 13:1-9).
2. Context of Isaiah 5, summarized as seeking justice and forsaking violence (5:7). Practicing redemptive business principles (5:8-10). Living humbly in the fear of the Lord (5:18-23). Loving God and His Word (5:11-14, 24).
Conclusion – “Repent or perish” is a message that is often delivered in an abrasive manner and even more often ignored or improperly received. Brother Bob the angry fundie is a typical example of street corner preaching. But Jesus’ “repent or perish” message is full of urgency and delivered with mercy, compassion, patience, and love for people. No one listens to Brother Bob because he doesn’t love anyone but himself. Listening to Jesus is wonderful because his call to repent or perish is to choose forgiveness, security, and life through the one who loves you at the expense of himself. Repent or perish is a message for you because God the Savior is for you.