When they told Jesus about the horror that had happened, his response caught them completely off guard.
Pontius Pilate, from what we know from the Gospels and the Jewish historian Josephus, was a politically and morally pragmatic Roman governor willing to employ humiliation and brutality when he wanted to exert imperial authority over a fomenting rebellion. He did both when he ordered the assassination of some Galilean Jews while they were offering sacrifices in the temple according to the law of Moses.
We aren’t told the historical reason behind the killings. Perhaps these particular Galileans had engaged in some seditious act against Rome, or perhaps they happened to be in the right place at the wrong time when Pilate decided to send a general message of terror to the agitating Jewish people. What we are told is that Pilate had the Galileans’ “blood . . . mingled with their sacrifices.” This added the insult of religious defilement to the horror of the murders, ensuring that whatever message he was sending would spread throughout Palestine with the speed of fear and outrage (Luke 13:1).
We’re also told that when Jesus received the news, he completely ignored whatever message Pilate was sending. And his answer to the people’s theological question as to why this happened likely shocked his hearers almost as much as it shocks us today.
Jesus’s response was brief and blunt:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:2–3)
What Jesus didn’t say was shocking. He said nothing about a messianic deliverance of God’s people from the humiliating Roman oppression and the grievous Gentile occupation of the Promised Land. He said nothing about the offense to God’s glory in the temple’s defilement. He said nothing about specific sins the Galileans may have committed to warrant God’s allowing such ignominious deaths — nothing that might allay his hearers’ fears that such a horror could befall them. He didn’t even say anything about forgiving one’s enemies.
What Jesus did say was even more shocking: the Galileans’ tragedy should lead his hearers to repent before God. The fact that they were still alive was owing not to their goodness, but to God’s mercy.
Before these hearers had time to formulate questions or objections, Jesus drove his point home with a different example:
Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:4–5)
In both the premeditated murder of the Galileans and in the accidental deaths resulting from the tower’s collapse, Jesus wanted his hearers to hear an urgent message from God: repent.
Why This Suffering?
The people listening to Jesus that day were looking for an answer that all people of all eras look for: Why this suffering? Why this evil, and why did it befall these victims? What can I do to escape from it befalling me?
We know, not only from this text in Luke 13:1–5 but from numerous places in Scripture, that many held to a theology of suffering that drew direct lines from an individual’s specific suffering to a specific sin against God. We hear it in Job’s anguished spiritual wrestlings and centuries later in the disciples’ question about why a man was born blind (John 9:1–3).
The answer Jesus gave accomplished, in one stroke, a number of crucial theological corrections. It removed unwarranted social stigma from victims of such calamities and their families by emphasizing that their guilt wasn’t necessarily worse than anyone else’s. It undercut anyone’s errant belief that their current lack of suffering amounts to God’s endorsement of their righteousness. And most importantly, it revealed the sin-guilt of every person before God.
‘Unless You Repent’
That last point was Jesus’s main point, the urgent message he wanted the people to hear in the headline-news tragedies of the day. Whether perishing came through the agency of evil human volition (Pilate), or the various effects of futility-infused creation (falling tower), or, as he would address just a few verses later, the effects of evil spiritual oppression (Luke 13:10–17) — for Jesus, the primary issue was the perishing itself, not its agent. The primary issue wasn’t how people died, but that people died, and death’s eternal ramifications.
That’s the problem Jesus had come to address. The collective human problem is that “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way,” and Jesus had come to have “the iniquity of us all” laid on him (Isaiah 53:6). The wages of our sin is a death far more profound than the ceasing of life in our bodies, and Jesus had come to provide us God’s “free gift of . . . eternal life” (Romans 6:23). He hadn’t come to deliver the Jews from Rome’s temporal oppression, but to deliver all people everywhere who would believe in him from eternal perishing, and to give them everlasting life in a Promised Land of which the Israel of this age was but a copy and shadow (John 3:16).
And this is why Jesus responded to the news of the Galileans’ deaths with the shocking words “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” It may sound harsh. But there are moments when seemingly harsh words are great mercies, as every parent of a young child about to dash into the street knows.
Jesus’s hearers didn’t need to know the specific guilt of the Galileans or Pilate’s political motivations or any other secondary issue. They needed to know that if they still had breath, the offer of forgiveness for sin and escape from terrible perishing was still offered to them — if they would repent.
And the same is true for us today.
Judge with Right Judgment
Jesus is not simplistic when it comes to the agonies of human suffering. Reading through the Gospels, we see that “repent” is not the only way he responds to our afflictions. He responded with manifest compassion and kindness to many, such as a mother about to bury her son (Luke 7:11–15), a leper who longed for healing (Matthew 8:1–4), and a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years who thought he’d never walk again (John 5:1–17).
But Jesus said something during the controversy erupting from that last example that we can apply here. Having healed the paralyzed man on the Sabbath, he was rebuked and opposed by the Jewish leaders. His response to them was, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). In other words, the leaders and observers had not seen the most important reality in the man’s suffering and deliverance: the mercy of God and the offer of repentance (John 5:14).
When we examine our own suffering or someone else’s, we are often tempted to ask why. What did we or they do to deserve this? Or we may try to decipher God’s purposes in a Gordian knot of secondary causes. But this is far above our creaturely pay grade, for God’s purposes are often opposite of our perceptions. Instead, the most helpful truth to hear, and heed, might be Jesus’s words “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
Headline in Every Tragedy
We are called to respond to the myriad human suffering in the world in many ways. But one takes precedence above them all. As with his original hearers, the urgent message Jesus wants all of us to hear in the headline-news tragedies of our day is “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
These are shocking words to hear in the face of suffering. They catch us off guard, because they are answering a question most people are not asking. But coming from Jesus, especially hearing them this side of the cross, we know they are not the heartless ravings of a hateful prophet. No one loved like Jesus (John 15:13). Rather, they are the mercifully frank diagnosis of the Good Physician, who offers to bear our eternally terminal disease himself if we will repent and receive his free gift of eternally healthy life.