I’ve been working on a book on repentance. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on this subject over thirty years ago. Then about a dozen years later, I changed my understanding of repentance, and of the passage we discuss in this blog.
This chapter is drawn from one of the proposed chapters for this upcoming book.
Two Examples Given of Jews Who Perished
I remember Professor Howard Hendricks at Dallas Theological Seminary stressing three words in our first-year Bible Study Methods course: observation, interpretation, and application. Over and over again he said those three words and wrote them on the blackboard.
You cannot interpret correctly, Prof Hendricks would say, unless you observe carefully.
That principle is on prominent display in Luke 13:1-5. We cannot just pull words out and make them mean what we think they should mean. We determine what these words mean by what we observe in the context.
Two examples are given in Luke 13:1-5, one by the Lord Himself and one by His audience. These examples serve to illustrate what He means by the words unless you repent you will all likewise perish.
First, some told Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). These Galileans died at the hand of Pilate.
Second, Jesus then brought up an example of His own: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4).
Both examples refer to Jews who died physically. No doubt about it. Fail to notice that, and you will misunderstand these verses as I did when I wrote my dissertation.
Likewise Suggests the Same Kind of Perishing
Twice the Lord Jesus said, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Notice the little word likewise. It suggests that the Lord Jesus is warning them that they may be next. They may experience the same fate. That is, they too may be killed.
It would not make sense to say that these two cases in which Jews died physically illustrates that likewise unless you repent you will be eternally condemned. Even so, many commentators understand Luke 13:1-5 in that way.1 There is nothing about eternal condemnation in this context. The issue raised in v1 is why God allowed some Jews to be killed. That is the matter under discussion.
Jesus is saying that unless they repent, God would allow a lot more Jews to be killed, and soon.
All Refers Here to a Large Percentage
When I was working on my doctoral dissertation, my advisor, that is, my first reader, Zane Hodges, suggested that the issue here might be physical death. After all, over one million Jews died less than forty years later in the Jewish War of AD 66-70.
I balked at that suggestion because of the word all. However, I should have been more open to that suggestion.
The word all is often used in the NT to refer not to 100% of a city or nation, but to a large number or a large percentage. Here are two examples:
Matthew 2:3. “Herod the king…was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” There was widespread concern. But not every man, woman, and child was concerned. Many did not even know about the visit of the magi.
Matthew 3:5. “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him [John the Baptist]…” Again, not every man, woman, and child went. But a large crowd from Jerusalem, Judea, and the region around the Jordan did go.2
Since the Nation Didn’t Repent,
Jerusalem Was Destroyed
It is easy to forget that Jesus is not only our high priest and our coming king. He is also a prophet. While on earth He prophesied many things, including the destruction of the temple (Matt 24:1-2; Luke 19:43-44), which occurred in AD 70.
Jesus was prophesying in Luke 13:3, 5. He knew that the nation would not repent and that over one million would die. He warned of this in advance. Jonah only gave the Ninevites forty days (Jonah 3:4). The Lord Jesus gave the nation of Israel upwards of forty years.
The coming of the Messiah for Israel was both good and bad news. It was good news for that generation of Jews living in Israel if it received Him and His message. But if it rejected Him and His message, then it would result in exile and widespread death.
Luke 13:1-5 Doesn’t Tell Us
What One Must Do to Have Everlasting Life
You do not need to be a Bible scholar to see that Luke 13:1-5 is not an evangelistic passage. The Lord says nothing about everlasting life or about escaping eternal condemnation. He does not call the people to faith in Him.
The issue in this passage is clear from the illustration the people bring to Jesus about the death of Jewish worshippers at the hands of Pilate. Why did God allow good Jews to be killed by Pilate? That was the question the Lord Jesus was answering. His enigmatic answer is that if those asking the question did not repent, they likewise would perish.
Jesus was not discussing the promise of life here. He was not even saying one way or another whether those who died either at Pilate’s hands or when the tower fell because they were in the spiritual far country (Luke 15:11-24). Regardless of why they died, the questioners needed to realize that they were in real peril of death themselves.
Leon Morris says, “His likewise can scarcely mean that they will be killed in exactly the same way.”3 Morris envisions two possible deaths. First, God might simply take their lives “in due course” as a result of their unrepentant sins. Second, “the point may be execution by the Romans. Unless the hearers repented, they would likewise suffer at the hands of the Romans.”
1 See, for example, Darrell L. Bock, A Theology of Luke and Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 258, 264; C. Marvin Pate, Luke (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), p. 284 (Pate says v 3 refers to “spiritual judgment before God, not necessarily a life shortened by tragedy; he says that v 5 possibly anticipates AD 70, but the words of v 5” more probably refer, once again, to judgment from God); John Piper says, “Since Jesus connects it directly to sin and since he says it can be escaped by repentance, I take it to mean final judgment…Unless you repent, you too will be taken unawares and experience a horrible end–the judgment of God beyond the grave” (https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/unless-you-repent-you-will-all-likewise-perish).
2 See “Does ‘All’ Ever Mean ‘All’ in Scripture?” by Tom Hicks at https://www.biblestudytools.com/blogs/founders-ministries-blog/does-all-ever-mean-all-in-scripture.html.
3 Leon Morris, Luke: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1974, 1988), pp. 242-43.