Mar 16, 2014

The Locus of Astonishment

Luke 13:1–5

The people of Galilee were shocked that God would allow some of their kinsmen be murdered, but Jesus told them they were astonished for the wrong reason. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, encouraging us never to take the mercy of God for granted.


I will be reading from Luke 13:1–5:

There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; 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 sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you all likewise perish.”

These are the words of our Lord. Though they deliver a sobering and frightening message to us, they are to be received by His people with all the respect that we give to Him as our Savior, submitting to all the authority the Father invested in Him. Please receive them as such. Let us pray.

Our Father, we ask that You would give us ears to hear these words, as difficult as they may be for us to receive. We ask that You would bend our wills, not only to receive but to rejoice in every word that proceeds from Your mouth. Open our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our souls that they may be pierced by Your truth. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Where Was God?

For many in and around Jerusalem, it was a scandal when it happened. On a feast day, presumably Passover, some pilgrims had journeyed to the city to offer sacrifices in the temple. When they went in, they were met by soldiers sent by Pontius Pilate, who massacred them in cold blood.

It was a gory scene. Luke suggests that as the pilgrims were bringing their animal sacrifices and offering their blood, the soldiers cut up the worshiping people in such a way that their blood spurted from their bodies and mixed with the blood of the sacrifices.

When word of the slaughter reached the streets and the people, they were confused. They were frightened. They were asking the question that all believers do when tragedies like this take place: “Where was God in all of this?” These were pious Jews. They were not rebellious Jews. These were people who made the journey to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice of praise to their God.

The people were saying: “Wait a minute. Where is the God who delivered us from bondage in Egypt only to later send us into exile, but again in His mercy restore us and bring us back, and now place us once more under the oppression and tyranny of Rome? Now that oppression has manifested itself in this most ghastly form. Not only were our people murdered, but they were murdered in the temple, in the middle of their worship. Where was God in all of that?”

A Just and Holy God?

Some of those speculating on the massacre surmised: “Surely, though the people who were slaughtered were outwardly pious on the surface, they were inwardly corrupt. They must have been people of great wickedness for God to allow this to happen. There must be a calculous between the degree of sin we commit and the suffering we experience.”

The people speculating had forgotten the book of Job, where Job’s friends wrongly concluded that Job must have been the worst of all sinners because of the desperate degree of his suffering. They probably were not there when Jesus answered a similar question concerning the man born blind recorded in John 9. They rushed to judgment: “There is an equation. Suffering and sin are equal.” Beyond that question was the bigger question: “How can a just and holy God allow something like this to happen?”

The philosopher John Stuart Mill posed one of the most famous arguments against Christian theism when he said that Christians claim God is good, loving, and omnipotent, but these things cannot be true with all the pain, suffering, and tragedy in this world. If God is good, and if God is loving, He would surely eliminate pain and suffering, unless He cannot. If He wants to get rid of pain and suffering but He cannot, then He is not omnipotent. If He is omnipotent and does not rid the world of pain and suffering, then He is neither good nor loving.

In his cogitation, Mill overlooked two salient points; namely, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings. If God is holy and we are sinful, there must be pain and sorrow in the world until it is all redeemed.

Asking the Wrong Question

Jesus understood the people’s struggle regarding the tragic event, and He gave an answer to their question. If we did not have this text before us, and all we knew was that people were struggling, we might assume that Jesus would say something like this: “I know that the Bible says that He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, but do you have any idea what a massive enterprise it is to supervise and manage this vast cosmos? My Father must keep the Pleiades in place and maintain the correct motions of the stars. He must make sure that gravity is operative every second. Give Him a break. Even My heavenly Father needs a rest from time to time. This afternoon, He just took a well-deserved nap. While He was nodding, Pontius Pilate took advantage of the moment, sent his troops into the temple, and slaughtered the worshipers there before my Father had a chance to awaken. I’m sorry about that. I’ll take it up with Him and ask Him to be more vigilant in the future.” That is not what He said.

Jesus said, “You think that these Galileans were worse than the other Galileans that this tragedy should befall them? No, that’s not it. Don’t you understand that unless you repent, you will likewise perish?”

What was Jesus saying? He was saying: “You’re coming to Me vexed with this theological problem of why My Father allows suffering and pain in the world. But you’re asking the wrong question. The question you should come to Me with is, ‘Why wasn’t I slaughtered along with the others?’”

Jesus went another step. He said, “What about the eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?” Right next to pool of Siloam, they were constructing a tower in Jerusalem. It was probably during construction that eighteen innocent people were walking down the street. They were minding their own business. They were not engaged in sidewalk superintending. They were not harassing the construction workers. They were not throwing pigs in the middle of them to corrupt or defile the project. They were just minding their business, walking down the street. Without warning, that tower began to shake, suddenly fell, and crushed eighteen people to death.

Jesus said: “What do you think? Do you think that those eighteen were the worst scoundrels in all of Jerusalem, and that’s why God exacted His vengeance upon them? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

God Is Never Unjust

The Scriptures make it clear that all of us are occasionally victims of injustice by other people, and all of us have injured others unfairly and unjustly. When we experience injustice at the hands of men, Jesus told us we ought not faint, but we ought to pray. He said, “Will not God vindicate His elect who cry unto Him day and night?” (Luke 18:7). God promised to make right those injustices we have either committed or received. But not once in my lifetime have I ever received an injustice from the hands of God. Not once in your lifetime have you ever been treated unfairly or unjustly by God.

I have taught theology for over fifty years, and I have heard many questions from students about the difficulties of theology. One I hear frequently is the one being dealt with in this text: “Why did God allow this to happen?” “Why did my baby die?” “Why did my husband die?” I hear that kind of question every day, but the question I almost never hear is the biggest question of all. I have yet to have a student come up to me, vexed in consternation and confusion about theology, and say to me: “There’s something I don’t understand. Why did God save me?” That is the biggest mystery in my theology: Why did God save me?

I can give two different answers to the question of why God saved me. The first one is this: I do not know. The second one is: He would not allow His Son to suffer the travail of the cross and not be satisfied.

The only reason I can give on heaven and earth for why God would save me, you, or anybody, is to honor His Son. It is certainly not because we deserve it in and of ourselves. What we deserve, as Jesus said in this text, is to be slaughtered in the temple or crushed on the sidewalk. That is what we deserve. That is justice. All the rest is mercy.

“You Want Justice?”

In 1966, I was teaching college in the North Shore of Boston, Massachusetts. I was teaching Introduction to the Old Testament to the freshman class of 250 students.

The only room big enough for the class was the college chapel. So, they gathered there that first day, all 250 of them. I went over the syllabus and the reading requirements, told them when the midterm and final exams would be, and so on. I said: “In addition, we have three small papers due of eight to ten pages. The first one is due September 30th; the second one, October 30th; the third one, November 30th. They must be turned in that morning at the time of class.”

Having had some experience teaching college, I knew that every freshman is a Philadelphia lawyer, so I had to spell out in detail what the exceptions might be. I said: “Unless you are physically confined to the infirmary or have a death in the immediate family, if you fail to turn those papers in, you will get an F for that assignment. Does everybody understand?” Everybody said they understood it, at least until September 30th, when 225 students came with their papers.

At the back of the chapel were twenty-five freshmen students experiencing abject fear and terror. Their knees were knocking as they trembled. They said: “Professor Sproul, we failed to make the adjustment from high school to college. We didn’t budget our time the way we should have, so we don’t have our papers done yet. Please, give us some more time.” I responded, “I’ll give you two more days this time, but don’t ever do it again.” They were grateful.

Everything was great until October 30th. On October 30th, 200 students came with their papers, and fifty of them did not have their papers. I asked, “Where are your papers?” Once again, they were repenting in dust and ashes: “Professor, it was midterm, and we had assignments from all the other courses. Plus, it was homecoming, and we engaged in building floats and all the rest of the activities. We’re so sorry. Give us one more chance, please.” I said, “Okay.”

In response—this really happened—they spontaneously started to sing, “We love you Prof. Sproul, oh yes we do.” For thirty days, I was the most popular professor on the campus—until November 30th, when 150 students came with their papers. A hundred of them strolled in as casually as you can imagine. I watched them walk in the back.

I said: “Where are your papers? Johnson, where’s your paper?” I got the response: “Hey, Prof, no sweat. I’ll have it for you in a couple of days.” I said, “You don’t have it today?” He said, “No.” I took out the ubiquitous black book and opened it up to Johnson, and I said, “Johnson, F.”

Johnson became livid. He looked at me with a red face and shouted, “That’s not fair.” I said, “What did you say?” He said, “I said, ‘That’s not fair.’” I said: “Oh, it’s justice that you want, Mr. Johnson? Don’t I recall that last month you failed to have your paper, and I gave you an extension? Isn’t that correct?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said: “Okay, I’m going back to give you justice: F for that one.” I said, “Who else wants justice?” You could hear a pin drop. The clamoring had ceased. No one else wanted justice.

Do Not Presume upon Mercy

What happened in that illustration? The same thing that happens in all our lives. The first time we taste the tender mercy and grace of God, our hearts are overwhelmed with gratitude. We start singing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” But then the second time, we are not quite so amazed or grateful. By the third time, we not only expect it, but we demand it, because now we are entitled to the grace of God. If we get anything less, we are not only confused, but we become angry.

This question came up at a recent conference. I mentioned that, though we may experience profound pain, grief, and sorrow in this world, some so deep that it could lead us to the pit of despair, there is no possible just ground for anyone to ever be angry with God. There are a million reasons for God to be angry with me, but not one just reason for me to be angry with Him.

Like Henry Higgins, we have grown accustomed to God’s grace, and we confuse justice and mercy. I said to my students, “If you ever think that God owes you mercy, if you think for a second that God is obligated to be gracious to you, then let a bell go off in your brain that teaches you that you have now confused justice and grace.”

God’s character is to be generous with His mercy. He is gracious, but grace is always unrequired and voluntary. We can expect it because of His consistency of character. However, we can never presume upon it. On the one hand, we should never be amazed by grace because God is so gracious. On the other hand, in one sense at least, we should always be surprised by His grace.

Our Lord was saying in this text: unless you repent, this is your destiny. Unless you are converted, you will perish, just like the Galileans in the temple and the people on the sidewalk. So, put your trust and hope in His mercy, and let God be God.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.