“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.’”
The question of why bad things happen is surely almost as old as humanity. Not surprisingly, Jesus was asked those sorts of questions. In the account provided by Luke, Jesus is asked about two events which resulted in great suffering. One event fell under what we might call a natural disaster. A tower in Siloam collapsed and killed 18 people. The other event was a particularly heinous act of human evil. Galilean Jews had traveled to the temple to offer sacrifices. Pilate, the Roman governor of that region, had them slaughtered at the temple and their blood mixed with that of their offerings. This was a double tragedy for not only were the Galilean Jews murdered but the temple was defiled.
Such instances have long been fodder for unbelievers to mock the idea of the existence of God. “How can you believe in God when there is such suffering in the world?” they ask. Of course we know from Romans 1 that even the firmest of skeptics cannot escape the knowledge of God. But that is another subject. The question itself is not without merit. Even the most faithful Christians will from time-to-time cry out with the Psalmist, “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?” Godly men and women have long grieved over the evil and suffering in the world and perhaps even wondered if the skeptics are right.
But God’s Word never grants legitimacy to the skeptics. Without exception the Scriptures uphold the existence and goodness and power of God as self-evident and undeniable truths written across creation (Romans 1:18-20) and even within the consciences of all people (Romans 2:15). That is not to say that God does not sympathize with those who honestly struggle with the cruel realities of this fallen world. The Bible is full of comforting words for those whose hearts – and perhaps bodies – have been broken by the hard realities of sin and sin’s consequences. There is a wealth of comfort in the Bible for those who suffer.
But notice how Jesus chooses to deal with these two particular disasters: one natural, the other an act of unmitigated evil. He applies the same question to both events. He asks whether those who died and were murdered suffered their fates because they were worse sinners than those who did not suffer the same fate. Essentially, Jesus asked, “Did those poor souls die because they were worse sinners than you?” The question is rhetorical. The answer is supposed to be obvious. “Of course not!”
So what exactly are they (and us, for that matter) to ponder in the face of disaster and human cruelty? Jesus tells us: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” And just so we don’t miss it, he says it twice. Keep in mind this is not mean old Apostle Paul speaking. Nor is it one of those unreasonably harsh Old Testament prophets. This is Jesus, meek and mild! Our Savior did not consider it rude or unfitting to call to repentance those who were struggling with the tragic news of disasters and murder. Indeed, Jesus is the great preacher of repentance in the New Testament. He is the great Herald of the judgment to come. It is Jesus who warned against the terrors of hell more than anyone else.
In our current trials there are a number of ways for us to think and respond which are legitimate and God-glorifying. Certainly we ought to consider ways to encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ. We ought also to find practical ways to love our neighbor. We should be praying for our national leaders and for those scientists who are working to perfect a vaccine against COVID-19. But if we do not include with those responses a sober look at our own hearts and daily repentance from sin then we have not gone far enough.
“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19).