There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “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. 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.”
If this text were taking place today, we would come to Jesus and say, "Did you hear about the miners last week who were buried 300 feet underground by an explosion north of Frankfurt, Germany?" And Jesus would look into our eyes like nobody has ever looked before, and he would say, "Do you think this happened to these miners because they were worse sinners than the other Germans? Or that busload of church young people that were killed in Kentucky, do you think that they were worse sinners than the other Americans who escape every day? I tell you, No; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."
Have you ever had an encounter with anybody like that? You come to them with a concern or with a puzzling theological question, and they look you right in the eye and say, "The most urgent issue is your own soul. If you don't get right with God, you are going to perish." No one ever spoke like this man. He was always blood-earnest about person commitment. When presented with a problem, he dealt with a person. His speech was salted with fire. Nobody slept through a conversation with Jesus.
What Is At Stake: Four Words
These five verses are filled with awesome implications about the way the world really is. And it is not the way people think it is. My main aim today is to impress upon our consciences that people are perishing. If we are going to be the kind of witness for Christ that we ought to be, we need to know and feel what is really at stake. And what is at stake is that unrepentant people are perishing.
To unfold this text I simply want to focus on four words in the key sentence in verses 3 and 5. The sentence is, "Unless you repent you will all likewise perish." The four words I want us to focus on are "all," "likewise," "perish," and "repent."
"Unless you repent you will ALL likewise perish." A group of people come to Jesus and tell him about how Pilate had murdered some worshiping Galileans and taken their blood and mixed it with the blood of their sacrifices—their sheep and pigeons and doves. It's as though some anarchists should break into our church this morning during the Lord's Supper, cut the necks of a few worshipers, and pour their blood into the communion cups. It was a horrible thing that Pilate did.
The people don't say it, but Jesus hears it in their voices—these slain Galileans must have done something horrible for God to allow something so horrible to happen to them. In other words extraordinary tragedy must signify extraordinary guilt.
Now ponder for a moment what you would have answered at this point. What does your theology of suffering and sin call for in the face of this kind of tragedy?
What Jesus said was this. He said, "No, their sin was not extraordinarily horrible. It was ordinarily horrible, just like yours. And if you don't repent, you too will experience a horrible end, all of you." In other words instead of saying that they are no more sinful than we are and being amazed at their death, he says that we are just as sinful as they are and should get ready to die like they did.
What Jesus teaches, then, is that all of us are extremely sinful. We are so sinful that calamities and disasters should not shock us as though something unwarranted were coming upon innocent human beings. There are no innocent human beings. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). "There is none righteous, no not one" (Romans 3:10). And what should amaze us in our sin is not that some are taken in calamity, but that we are spared and given another day to repent. The really amazing thing in this universe is not that guilty sinners perish, but that God is so slow to anger that you and I can sit here this morning and have one more chance to repent.
"Unless you repent you will all likewise perish." Does this mean that all unrepentant people will be murdered in the act of worship? No, it can't mean that because in verse 5 Jesus says that we will all perish like those who were killed by a falling tower. We can't all die just like the Galileans who were murdered and just like those on whom the tower of Siloam fell. "Likewise" must mean something else.
It can't just mean die, since that's going to happen to those who repent to. Everybody dies until Jesus comes again. But Jesus says implies that if we repent, we will not perish.
So what does Jesus mean when he says that all unrepentant people will likewise perish? I think he means something like this: you see what a horrible end those people came to; they didn't think it was going to happen. O they knew they were going to die someday; but they didn't know what that would mean. The horror of their end took them by surprise. Well unless you repent, that is the way it is going to be for you. Your end will be far more horrible than you think it is. You will not be ready for it. It will surprise you terribly. In that sense you will LIKEWISE perish.
The parallel between you and them is that there was something dreadful about the way they ended, and there will be something dreadful about the way your life ends. They were not expecting that kind of end and you will not be expecting it either (Luke 17:27–30). Only repentance can make you ready to meet God.
"Unless you repent you will all likewise PERISH." Now what does "perish" mean? Sometimes the word simply means die in the sense that we all will die physically. But that would not fit here since Jesus implies that if we repent, we will not perish. "Unless you repent you will all likewise perish." If you DO repent, you won't perish. So perish is something more than simply die a physical death.
Here's what I think it means. Since Jesus connects it directly to sin and since he says it can be escaped by repentance, I take it to mean final judgment. He is referring to something beyond death. Those Galileans were taken unawares and experienced a horrible end. Unless you repent, you too will be taken unawares and experience a horrible end—the judgment of God beyond the grave.
"Perish" in the New Testament
The word perish often refers to this terrible judgment in the New Testament. For example in John 3:16 it says, "For God so loved the world that whosoever believes on him shall not perish but have everlasting life." So perishing is the alternative to having everlasting life. The same thing turns up in John 10:28. Jesus says, "I give them eternal life, and they shall not perish for ever." Perishing is what happens to you if you don't have eternal life.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul says, "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Perishing is the opposite of being saved by the cross of Jesus. And in 1 Corinthians 15:18 Paul says, "If Christ has not been raised . . . those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished." In other words perishing is something that happens beyond the grave.
Hebrews 9:27 says, "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that comes judgment." And Jesus describes that judgment in Matthew 25 as a separation of the sheep from the goats, and says, "The one will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (v. 46). Perishing is the eternal punishment that people fall into when they die if they have not repented. That's how serious sin is. And we have all sinned, and sin every day. "Unless you repent you will all likewise perish."
A Practical and Utterly Urgent Message
Now don't treat this as mere church talk. Write it on a card and use a rubber band to bind it on the visor of your car. All those people out there will perish if they do not repent. Tape it in your wallet to see it every time you buy something—that clerk will perish if she does not repent. Your children will perish, you parents will perish, your neighbors will perish, your colleagues will perish if they do not repent. This is not irrelevant church talk. This is just as practical as the AIDS brochure we all got in the mail from Dr. Koop. And it is a thousand times more urgent and more important.
In fact let us learn from the surgeon general's office how the world expects people to respond to their fellow men when they know they are in danger of perishing. All you can lose when you get AIDS is your earthly life. And Jesus said, "Do not fear what kills the body and after that can do nothing. Fear what can cast both soul and body into hell" (Luke 12:4–5). Sin is an infinitely more dangerous disease than AIDS. And if the world is willing to spend millions and millions of dollars to wake this country up to its danger of AIDS, how much more should we, who know the cure, spend whatever it costs to wake this city up to the danger of sin!
C.S. Lewis' Burden as a Literary Scholar
C. S. Lewis, the brilliant English scholar and Christian writer, died the same day President John Kennedy did. This November will be the 25th anniversary of his death. Even today his books on the Christian faith are being reprinted by the thousands. One of the reasons I think God so greatly blessed the ministry of C. S. Lewis, and still blesses it, is that Lewis never had an elitist, artsy love for fine literature or fine music or fine culture in any form, though he himself was a great artist. In his life everything is subordinate to the salvation of lost sinners.
I find what he says a tremendous inspiration to keep the perishing before our eyes as we do our work and pray how God would use us to wake them up. Listen to Lewis for the sake of your own ministry.
It is hardly possible for [us] to think too often or too deeply about [the glory] of our neighbor . . . It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. (The Weight of Glory, pp. 14f.)
So he says of his own scholarly discipline,
The Christian will take literature a little less seriously than the cultured Pagan . . . The Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world. (Christian Reflections, p. 10)
This tips us off to what C. S. Lewis' life was really devoted to. In 1952 an American liberal theologian criticized Lewis for using simple analogies to try to shed some light on the Trinity. Lewis' response was passionate and shows where his heart really was in all his work.
Most of my books are evangelistic, addressed to [those outside]. I was writing to the people not to the clergy. Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policeman and artisans who surround him in his own city? (God in the Dock, pp. 181–183)
That was Lewis' burden as a literary scholar. I hope it is your burden whatever your profession. You have never talked to a mere mortal. They will all last forever. And unless they repent, they will perish.
Luke gives us three illustrations of repentance in the face of judgment.
Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.
The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Jonah 3:5, 7–9:
The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them . . . The king made proclamation . . . "Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands."
After his death the unrepentant rich man is in torment. He asks Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers, so they don't perish in this place of torment. But . . .
Abraham said, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." And he said, "No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent." He said to him, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead."
I conclude that repentance involves believing God (Jonah 3:5) rather than the Satan's claim that more joy can be found in sin than in obedience. It is a "being persuaded" about the danger of impenitence (Luke 16:31) and the way of escape through repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47). It involves grief over past sins and present sinful tendencies. This is the significance of the sackcloth and ashes (Luke 10:13; Jonah 3:5). And it involves turning from evil ways (Jonah 3:8).
So faith and repentance are not properly two separate things. The turning of repentance is a turning from trusting in other things to a trusting in God. And with a new trust in God as counselor and protector and provider there is also a turning to a new life of joyful obedience.