UNLESS YOU REPENT
Luke 12:54-13:9, Key Verse: 13:5
“…I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
In today’s passage we hear some of the most severe words uttered by Jesus. “You will not get out until you pay the last penny” “Unless your repent, you will all perish.” What are we supposed to do when we hear words like this? Someone might say that the answer is obvious, we are supposed to repent. But to others, it might just sound scary but not specific enough to act on. However, in this passage, Jesus gives us very meaningful parables and illustrations to show us exactly what God wants from out life. Let’s study this passage well so we can find the way God has opened for us to repent.
Interpret the present time (12:54-59)
Jesus begins with a rebuke of the people of his generation. Look at verses 54-56. “He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?’”
Jesus reminds the people that they are very well able to predict the weather by looking at the sky and observing the wind. Jesus says that, since they can do that, they have no excuse for their great failure to interpret the present time. What does it mean to interpret the present time? Based on the rest of the passage, I think it means that we need to let the events in our world, together with Jesus’ words, teach us what we personally most need to do.
As an example, we can take the people of Jesus’ time, the very people Jesus is talking to in this passage. How had they failed to interpret their times? They had failed to recognize Jesus himself as the Messiah, and most of them failed to respond to his message about the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. I hope you agree that that is a serious failure to grasp the meaning of what was happening among them. God had sent John the Baptist to prepare the way with the message of repentance. And now Jesus was among them, doing great works, and speaking with an authority no one had ever heard. These events clearly showed that it was God’s time for them to repent and believe the good news. But they missed the very obvious interpretation of current events. If they saw a raincloud in the sky, they would definitely get their umbrella, but even though they saw the door of God’s kingdom open in front of them, they would not go through.
When Jesus tells us to interpret the present time, I don’t think he is telling us that we should try to predict the future. Jesus is not telling us to try to match up current events to passages in the book of Revelation so we can predict his second coming, or determine which celebrity or world leaders are antichrists. It is good to take warnings from the upheavals of our times, but not to try to predict the timing of the end of the world; rather, the troubles of our times should plant in us a sense of urgency about doing what we need to do with our own lives, because regardless of when Jesus comes again, our own time on earth is short.
In verse 57 Jesus even says: “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” Jesus says that the people were perfectly able to judge what was right in regard to what they needed to do. It’s not that they couldn’t judge correctly, but that they wouldn’t—they refused to. Why won’t people judge for themselves what is right? In short, it must be because of the sinful nature. Because of our sinful nature’s self-justification, it’s easier to find a way to blame others than to make a decision to do what we ourselves should do.
In verses 57-58, Jesus gives a very clever kind of parable illustrating what we should do with the present time. He says, “As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59 I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
The scenario is of someone who has an adversary who has a case against them. The adversary wants to sue them and is taking them to court. Jesus says that if we are ever in such a situation, we should try hard to be reconciled with our adversary before we appear before the judge, because that will be much better for us than when the judge hands down a judgment that could be much more severe. Is this good legal advice? Apparently, many lawyers think so, because we hear about many legal cases that are actually “settled out of court” with some payment before the case ever comes to a judge.
But what does this have to do with interpreting the present time? It’s a parable telling us how we should interpret our own lives. Who do you think the judge in this story is? Of course, it’s God. Jesus is saying that our life is a journey to the judgment seat of God! That can be terrifying, but Jesus is telling us of the importance of doing what we have to do with our life. According to this parable, we have to be reconciled to our adversary before judgment day.
Then who is the adversary? Some might say the devil, but I don’t think that’s the analogy in this case. The adversary we have to be reconciled to is also God, because through our sins we made ourselves his enemies. In Colossians 1:21 Paul writes, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” Because of our sins and evil behaviors, our relationship with God was broken. Because of our guilty conscience, we were hiding from God like Adam and Eve hiding behind some bushes in the Garden of Eden after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. We lived in terror of God’s judgment. When we didn’t want to think about God’s judgment, we remained under the curse of sin and continued on our way to condemnation. When Jesus talks about paying the last penny, it’s a figure of speech for losing everything in the final judgment, even our soul.
The good news Jesus is telling us in this parable is that we have an opportunity to be reconciled to God. However, it has to be done now, before we appear at God’s judgment seat when our earthly life is over. How can we “settle out of court” with God? There is only one way, and it is through Jesus himself. On the cross, Jesus paid the price for the forgiveness of our sins. By confessing our sins and putting our faith in him, the price Jesus paid can count for us and we will not be condemned on judgment day. Our sins will have been washed away by Jesus’ blood. In John 5:24 Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
What do you think about the deal Jesus made for us who are on the way to judgment? Who ever got such a good plea bargain? We don’t even have to pay, because Jesus himself already paid the full price for our reconciliation. We don’t deserve such an opportunity. But Jesus knew that we were unable to pay the price for our sins and had compassion on us and died for us.
How can we interpret the current times? The current time is the time of grace when it’s possible to be reconciled to God through Jesus. So how could we fail to take advantage of that? Some of us may already be believers and have our sins forgiven, but in our heart there is something we are holding against God, preventing us from fully trusting him. God invites us keep coming back to him through Jesus over and over again on the highway of life, at any time to make a “new deal” with him to get rid of any bad feelings between us and him. Of course, it’s not really a new deal, it is just remembering how full his grace is, and how it is always there for us to receive. Like Jesus, Paul pleads in 2 Corinthians 5:20: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
Repentance and fruit-bearing (13:1-9)
After Jesus taught about the urgency of interpreting the present times, some people brought to him news of a current event to ask his interpretation of it. Look at Chapter 13 verse 1. “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea. What does it mean that he had mixed the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices? It’s an eloquent but gruesome way of saying that Pilate had killed some Jewish people while they were in the act of offering sacrifices in the temple, so that their own blood was mixed with the blood of the sacrificial animals they had brought.
The Roman Governor killing God’s people in their own temple is indeed a disturbing event. What does it mean? Well, how does Jesus interpret it? Surprisingly, Jesus does not say anything at all about Pilate. Instead 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.” Perhaps people thought that being killed in the temple was a sign that God’s wrath had come on them for some secret sin, like how the Law of Moses said the priest would die upon entering the Most Holy Place if he was not ceremonially clean. But Jesus immediately shut down that line of thinking. “I tell you, no!” Jesus says those people who died were not worse sinners than anybody else. Jesus drives this point home further with another example in verses 4 and 5: “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.”
When we hear of people dying in a seemingly random accident, like a tower collapsing, or as innocent victims of evildoers, it really makes us question. The fact is, in this life we rarely ever find out the specific reason why God lets such things happen, though plenty of people will give you their opinion about it. Then, as today, a common explanation given is that those who suffered must have been terrible sinners, much worse than us. Actually, we make up such explanations out of fear, to try to give a reason that something similar will not happen to us, and feel better.
But Jesus doesn’t let us interpret that way. He only says, “Unless you repent, you too will perish.” Jesus is reminding us that we all have to die physically, and none of us knows the day that is appointed for us. In that respect, we are no different from the Galileans whom the crowd asked Jesus about. Regardless of how or when we die, all people who don’t repent are under the same death sentence. So Jesus wants us to turn away from unfruitful speculation or gossip and get down to the business of getting our own lives right with God. We’ve all heard the phrase “repent or perish” used so many times, and sometimes it’s almost used in a mocking way, to make fun of fire-and-brimstone preachers. But repentance is simply the way to turn our life around and make it finally count for something before God.
To conclude, Jesus gives another parable to show that the time we have in this life to repent is purely God’s mercy, which we should not take for granted. Look at Chapter 13:6-9. “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree growing 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.”’” Here, the vineyard owner represents God, and we are fig trees. As the purpose of a fig tree is to bear fruit for the owners to enjoy, so God has planted us where we are so we can grow and bear much fruit. I heard M. Mary Kim really likes to eat figs, so she can understand this parable well.
This parable shows that repentance is not just about stopping bad behaviors. The end result of repentance should be a life that produces good results that render glory to God. It doesn’t mean that God uses some human measure of worker productivity to judge our worth; it just means that the love and grace that God has poured into our life is meant to also overflow back out of us, as joy and love that blesses others. If it doesn’t, something is wrong, and we are like a tree that just uses up the soil but never produces fruit. The owner in the parable wants to cut the unfruitful fig tree down, but the gardener begs the owner to try one more year, and he promises to take care of the tree and fertilize it to give it the best possible last chance to produce fruit.
How is this like us? It shows how Jesus intercedes for us and how God gives us extra grace when we need it. Any of us might have been cut down already, and we couldn’t blame God if we were; but we are here today because God has given us more time to bear fruit. Maybe even today Jesus is interceding for us to give us another chance. Sometimes, we get a treatment of spiritual fertilizer through a word of encouragement that we hear. The word re-energizes us by showing us a new way we can think and act to bear fruit. Plus, it smells a lot better than physical fertilizer. So let’s thank God for the extra treatments of grace we have received, and find God’s possibility to change our life in some aspect so that we become more fruit-bearing.
In today’s passage, with a variety of illustrations, Jesus has driven home to us the shortness of the time we have and the need to be reconciled to God through repentance, so that we bear good fruit in the end. It is indeed urgent to solve our life’s spiritual problem and bear fruit before it’s too late. Let’s pray not to fall into the trap of judging others, but interpret the time we have correctly so that we use it in the best way. Romans 13:11 might sum it up best: “And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” May God bless you not to perish, but to repent and bear much good fruit.