Jesus, Our Judge
When a Presbyterian congregation is without a minister, typically, a search committee is formed. When looking for a minister, various gifts, and skills, are identified by the search committee as being of particular importance. Almost always, preaching is listed as the most important gift.
Search committees are on the lookout for a preacher who can speak about profound matters in understandable ways; they are looking for a preacher who can speak with conviction without unduly alarming the congregation.
I often wonder how a 21st Century search committee would evaluate Jesus. As we survey the New Testament, we see that Jesus’ hearers did not always understand His messages. There were occasions when the listening multitudes, and even His own disciples, did not have the foggiest idea what Jesus meant by His words.
Jesus spoke with great conviction, no doubt, but for the 21st Century search committee, would we be confused by His complexity? Would we be embarrassed by His honesty?
Have a look at what Jesus says at the end of chapter 12, verses 49 and following, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” (12:49). Jesus goes on to say, “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division” (12:51). How’s that for conviction?!
I have often read that one of the most important qualities in making a good public speaker is ‘likeability’. How do you think Jesus would score on the likeability scale?
Well, in chapter 12, verse 56, Jesus shouts out to the multitudes, calling them “hypocrites”. Imagine, you’re on the search committee and you attend a service where Jesus is preaching and He begins,
‘Good morning everyone. Great to have you here today. You do realize that you are a bunch of hypocrites, don’t you? I see that you know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and sky, but why do you not analyze this present time? And why do you not judge what is right?’ (12:56, 57).
Not exactly the warmest sermon introduction—wouldn’t you say? It’s not hard to imagine many people being put off by Jesus’ words.
When I was in my first year at the University of Western Ontario, my friend and I would always leave the Sunday service discussing what we thought of the sermon. I can imagine how the conversation would have gone if we had heard the sermon recorded in Luke 12.
‘Well, Bryn, what did you think of that sermon?’
‘I was insulted!’
‘Why? What did he say to insult you?’
‘He said that if I was interested in weather forecasting then I was a hypocrite.’
‘Oh, get real Bryn, he said nothing of the sort. What he said is that if you profess to be spiritual, but you neglect to study spiritual matters, you are being inconsistent!’
‘Nonetheless, I don’t like anyone judging me. Really, what right does he have to do that?’
Jesus was not in the habit of telling people what they wanted to hear. Jesus told people what they needed to hear.
Friends, as we turn to the Scriptures, day after day, Sunday after Sunday, we need to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that we will find a message that is distasteful to us. Thankfully, that’s not always the case! There are times when the words of Scripture are as sweet as honey (Ps. 119:103). But, regardless of whether the message of Scripture is sweet or bitter, it is precisely what we need.
As we examine the first five verses of Luke, chapter 13, we find Jesus responding to an inquiry with a tough message. Jesus is approached and questioned about an atrocity involving some Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate’s men while making a sacrifice at the temple.
Evidently, this was a well-known event, but was likely mentioned to Jesus because of the prevailing theology of the day. In Jesus’ day, it was generally held that victims of calamities and misfortune were guilty of particularly heinous sins. A well-known example of this theology is found in John 9: “As (Jesus) went along, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?’” (Jn. 9:1,2).
The inquiry found in Luke 13 is not detailed, but it is not difficult to imagine the conversation, ‘Come on Jesus, tell us about the moral inadequacies of these Galileans in order that we might understand why they endured such a horrific death.’
Those making the inquiry were looking for affirmation for their theological convictions, but Jesus would provide none. Instead, Jesus provided a response that undoubtedly rocked their theological foundation:
“Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, were worse culprits than all men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all perish” (Lk. 13:2-5).
This passage is important to bear in mind as we attempt to process things such as the attacks of 9-11, and the Tsunami disaster. Were the victims of 9-11 and the Tsunami of worse moral character than the rest of us? Jesus answers with an emphatic “No!” The timing, and nature, of our demise will likely have little or no relation to our moral composition. And yet, there is a very sobering component to Jesus’ answer, “unless (we) repent, (we) will perish.”
What does Jesus mean here? How are we to understand the word, “perish”? Sometimes the word simply means, ‘physical death’. But that would not fit here since Jesus implies that if we do repent we will not perish. So perish means something other than physical death.
When Jesus speaks here about the unrepentant perishing, He is talking about the judgment of God beyond the grave. The most well-known passage in the New Testament bears this same message: “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn. 3:16).
In John 3:16, Jesus articulates the positive alongside the negative. We are told that there are two, mutually exclusive, outcomes beyond the grave: perishing and everlasting life. Those who perish don’t receive eternal life, and those who receive eternal life will not perish.
The two verses that follow John 3:16 are also very important. Jesus says, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (Jn. 3:17, 18).
The theme of judgment dominates those two verses, but there is an ordering of this judgment, which we had better get straight. Jesus says plainly, “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world” (Jn. 3:17). In other words, when Jesus came to earth 2000 years ago, the primary objectives of His mission did not include judgment. Jesus came to earth on a rescue mission—He came to save us from our sins.
And yet, it would be a mistake to imagine that judgment has been altogether discarded. Jesus introduces the judgment of God with a condition: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already” (Jn. 3:18). The New Testament is filled with references to the second coming of Jesus, and these references identify Jesus as coming in judgment (see 2Thess. 1).
Needless to say, we want to avoid this judgment—and we can. In Luke 13, Jesus insists that unless we repent, we will perish. Well, the flipside of that is if we do repent we will not perish! If we believe in Jesus we will not perish, but we will enjoy everlasting life.
Do you see the link between repentance and faith from these two passages? Faith and repentance are not separate things. But rather, faith is a necessary component of repentance.
Repentance has two parts. First, there is a turning away from sin and, secondly, there is a turning to Christ. This turning to Christ is what we term ‘faith’. Faith is a necessary component of repentance.
One of the more common metaphors for faith in the New Testament is the metaphor of bearing fruit. Jesus brings His message about judgment to a close with a parable about bearing fruit. By doing this, Jesus brings a very tender conclusion to an otherwise hard message.
"A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?' And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down'" (Lk. 13:6-9).
In this parable we see that Jesus, the vineyard-keeper , is astonishingly patient with the fruitless tree. The judgment of Christ will not be hasty or capricious. In the interim period of grace, the vineyard-keeper promises to dig around the tree and he promises to add fertilizer to encourage growth.
Jesus’ parable brings hope in the face of judgment. But there is work to be done. The fruitless trees need attending to—who will attend to them? Should it not be us, the body of Christ? Should it not be us, the ambassadors of the vineyard-keeper?
Beloved, we need to have impressed upon our consciences the sobering reality that people are perishing without Christ. Surely, of all the things a church can be doing, there is no task more urgent than that of offering people hope in the face of judgment.
Our message may be unpopular. The call to repent may be scorned but, nonetheless, it must be heralded. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that those who heed the call to repent will not perish, but will have everlasting life. Amen.