Sunday, February 07, 2010

Luke 13:1-9 - Why do tragedies happen?

Opening thoughtJust before 5pm on January 12, subterranean plates shifted about eight miles under Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a 7.0 earthquake crumbled that city. Entire villages collapsed. Bodies flew into the air and were crushed under tons of debris. Orphanages, churches, markets, homes, and government buildings collapsed. Civil government was paralyzed. With no power, communications were cut off, and rescue efforts were stymied.

With a death toll perhaps as high as a half million, it begs the question, Why? What could have caused this to happen? Some people say it is because the Haitians dedicated their nation to Satan. Some people say God did it to punish Haiti for their voodoo. Some say it was an accident of nature. Some say it was an act of God. Did the wrath of God come upon Haiti?

What can we say? Why do tragedies happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen at all? Why are there Haiti earthquakes? Why are there Hurricane Katrinas? The Asian tsunamis? Why did that person you love so much die a painful death from cancer? Why did you get sexually abused by that man? Why did those innocent children have their lives snuffed out by a drunk driver or by a suicidal grandmother or by another middle school student with a 9mm at school? Did God cause it? Is the devil to blame? Is God not powerful enough or kind of enough to stop this suffering? Should we blame God?

That’s an old, old question. Before there was a Christianity, Epicurus the Greek philosopher in 300 BC said it this way. Most people believe in an infinitely powerful God who is good and compassionate. Evil exists in this world and seems to have always been here. If God cannot remove the evil, he is not all-powerful. If he is able to remove evil and won’t, then he lacks goodness and compassion. So clearly, for Epicurus, the all-powerful, compassionate God did not exist.  David Hume in 1776 came to a similar conclusion. C.S. Lewis said that God uses natural disasters to draw people together, to provide moral instruction for survivors, and to turn our eyes toward God. Lately, Bart Ehrman at UNC-Chapel Hill has found a lot of fault in Lewis’ argument. Couldn’t God have found a better way to do those things, he asks in his book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. The usual responses, Ehrman says, are not only hollow, they are offensive. Therefore, Ehrman has stopped calling himself a Christian.[1]

While I disagree with Ehrman’s philosophy of suffering, I agree that sometimes our Christian responses that “God is going to bring something good out of this” falls short. Yes, God does bring good out of suffering, but why the suffering in the first place? As evangelical Christians we know the tension of three inalienable truths: evil is real, God is sovereign, and God is good. We also know that evil will not last forever, and that he will destroy evil once and for all one day, because he is sovereign and all-powerful and compassionate.

So how do we respond to suffering and evil in the world? What should we think when a fine and good police officer is shot in the face by a fool with his pants on the ground? Luke 13 has some thoughts on this, and some principles to draw from on senseless suffering in our world.

Pray and Read:  Luke 13:1-9

Contextual Notes: In the context of this passage, in Luke 11, Jesus condemned the Pharisees (11:37-53), letting them hold his fury at their hypocrisy. Then in Luke 12, Jesus turns to warning his disciples, but not of judgment – rather a warning about sin (12:1-3). He warns against greed (12:13-20) and worry/fear (12:22-34), then warns believers to be prepared for His Second Coming (12:35-48) and for trials (12:49-53). Why was Jesus so urgent in his warnings? Because common sense demonstrates the urgency of the time (12:54-56) and the urgency to repent of our sins (12:57-59).
        Jesus’ urgent warnings about the end times must have gotten some of his listeners thinking, and they told him about the Roman procurator’s brutal actions against the Galileans in cutting them down in cold blood as they sacrificed in the Temple, of all places. Surely this indicated the seriousness and urgency of the times. What is this world coming to? That the government would cut down people who were peaceably worshipping in the Temple courts? And Jesus answers them by turning the discussion to his main point: A warning to repent of sin.

Key Truth: Luke wrote Luke 13:1-9 to warn people to repent of their sin.

Key Application: Today I want to show you what God’s Word says about the repentance.

Sermon Points:
  1. Unless you repent, you will perish (Luke 13:1-5).
  2. Unless you bear fruit of repentance, you will be cut off (Luke 13:6-9).
Exposition:   Note well,


a.    The crowd is thinking with Jesus as he teaches, and someone brings up the cases of Pilate’s brutal police action. While there is no other record of this incident, it is in line with governor Pilate’s character, and the fact that it was not mentioned in other ancient literature is a sad commentary on how common these atrocities happened. It seems that the event happened before Christ’s visit to Jerusalem.[2]

b.   Apparently the crowd had the misconception that personal tragedy was the result of individual sins. The idea was that these Galileans had been visited by a special punishment of some special sin against God. “I wonder what they did for that to happen to them?”
c.   It is not a new thing to think this way. Job’s friend Eliphaz asked similarly, “Who, being innocent, has ever perished?” (Job 4:7). But isn’t it strange that these people would assume the Galileans were receiving God’s punishment to have been martyred by Pilate in the Temple while offering holy sacrifices? Kind of backwards, huh?
d.   Perhaps also, as Dwight Pentecost at Dallas Seminary and Alfred Edersheim speculate, they were trying to trap Jesus, to connect his Messianic movement with the Jewish Nationalist movement centered in Galilee. Remember he and his disciples were Galileans, too. If he condemned the Galileans, he would be applauding the cold bloodshed of his own people by the Roman oppressor. If he defended the Galileans, he could be reported to Pilate for sedition and treason to Rome.

e.   Jesus rejects this popular idea and emphasizes that all people are sinners who need to repent before God. And he brings up another tragedy, one in which Jerusalem Jews working perhaps for the Roman government were killed when a tower fell on them.

f.    The tower of Siloam (13:4): The pool of Siloam was a reservoir in the southwest corner of Jerusalem. Because of its military importance, the tower may have been part of the city’s fortifications or part of an aqueduct that Pilate built to improve Jerusalem’s water supply. Once he surrounded a group of protestors of this aqueduct with Roman soldiers and attacked them, killing a large number of them. They were angry that he was using monies from the Temple treasury to finance the construction.[3]

g.   It would be just as wrong, Jesus argued, to say the Galileans suffered God’s judgment as to say these Jerusalemites did. Their politics didn’t matter. Neither nationalist Jews nor those submitted to the absolute domination of the foreign Romans, was at fault. The whole nation was guilty of sin, and the coming storm (12:54-56) of the End would destroy all of them unless there were spiritual repentance on the part of the whole nation.[4]

h.   There is no record in the ancient literature of either of these two events, but its lack of attestation does not mean Luke made the stories up. They were well known enough for the hearers of Luke’s gospel to refute the stories if they were false.

i.     ILLUSTRATION: What about Haiti? Does God hate that nation? Is he judging that nation? If so, should we be sending help and relief teams there to help them? Does God judge nations? Yes. He does judge nations and He will judge all of them in the end. Do we completely understand how God judges nations? Can we claim to understand right now if He is judging Haiti’s spiritual darkness? No, we can’t. We can speculate. We can say some arrogant and dumb things, but we can’t really be sure what God is doing with Haiti or even with our own nation right this minute. Was God surprised by the Haiti earthquake? No. Did He cause it? No. Could he have prevented it? Yes. So why did it happen? Does God hate Haiti? God hates sin and will punish individuals and nations. If God hated Haiti, there would be no aid workers and massive global aid headed there, no missionaries sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.

j.    APPLICATION: The underlying principle for Jesus in Luke 13 was that when a calamity or tragedy befalls an individual, a group, a city, or a nation, we ought not to assume that there was some special cause sent by God, but to see its general application to all of us. We should not so much try to trace a connection with that suffering party but instead to learn its lessons as a call to all of us to repent of our sins. And by the way, this also holds true in regard to miracles and deliverances. Instead of wondering what someone did to deserve a miraculous healing or be saved from a horrible tragedy while many others died, we should take the general principles of repentance and God’s mercy.

k.   What does God think when we suffer? In some ways God suffers with us. Jesus had great compassion on the widow of Nain. Jesus wept outside the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35). Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Matt 9:35-39).

l.     And in regard to tragedies like the tsunami, September 11th, the Holocaust, Katrina, or Haiti, these disasters remind us that creation groans under the weight of sin. The entire cosmos waits for the revelation of the glory of the coming Lord, the hope of the New Creation. Where did the sin come from? It came from us. We are the problem. Man and woman brought sin into the world through our own disobedience. God in his sovereignty gave us that choice to obey or disobey. Our disobedience led to the groaning of this world under the weight of sin. Bad choices are the reason for so much evil in the world. So when we blame God for a cancer diagnosis, that is illegitimate. When we blame God for the Haiti earthquake, that is out of bounds. When we blame God for the senseless suffering of children in sex trafficking in Thailand, we are short-sighted. We have a log in our own eyes. We have done this to ourselves. We are to blame.

m. God in his sovereignty chose to cause what happened in the Garden of Eden to affect everyone just as what happened at the Cross affected everyone. Could God stop all suffering? Yes, he could, but if he did, he would not be faithful to the order he has set in place in the universe.

n.   Could God intervene to change history and minimize suffering? Yes. We have seen him move in miracles among us even recently with the Saunders family. But he never made a promise to intervene. He did promise to never leave us or forsake us (Heb 13:5) and that his grace is sufficient for us in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).[5]

o.   The good news is that Jesus Christ came to redeem us from the Curse of sin that we brought on ourselves. Jesus is the only real message of hope. That is why we have NC Baptist missionaries in Haiti today, to give that hope through medical and food aid and relief.


  1. Having dealt with the errant assumptions that his audience derived from the tragedies of the day, Jesus next gives the Parable of the fig tree to teach the urgency of bearing the fruit repentance, that is, living a life of repentance before God.
  2. Israel is sometimes figured as a fig tree. Jesus is understood by some commentators to be speaking directly to national Israel that the nation must repent of its sins or face judgment which came at the hands of the Romans in A.D. 70 in the destruction of Jerusalem.
  3. Fig trees bear annually, so the owner had already had great patience. Being cut down is a common symbol of judgment (Isaiah 6:13; 9:10).
  4. Jesus is making a connection to Micah 7:1-2, where God asks for figs (righteous people) but finds none.
  1. The servant intercedes on behalf of the tree. Similarly, our Messiah intercedes on our behalf, asking for more time for you and me to repent and turn from our sin to the living God.
  1. The owner waits another year to make sure it is worthless before doing anything (Isaiah 65:8). Leaving it for another year, digging around it and fertilizing it is a picture of mercy and patience.
  1. APPLICATION: Are you walking in repentance? As a believer, when is the last time you spent some time honestly and methodically asking the Lord’s forgiveness for your sins? Specific sins? What about the broken relationships in your life? Have you asked the Lord and that person forgiveness for your part in that brokenness? Are you walking in repentance? Are you seeing a growing sense of God’s work in your heart? Are you sensing the Holy Spirit putting his finger on new areas in your life that need repentance, sinful behaviors and attitudes from which you need to turn and leave behind? If you aren’t, you are not growing as a Christian. Something is wrong. You are plateaued or losing ground. The old-fashioned term is called back-sliding. Are you backsliding? You need to be at this altar in today repenting and getting right with God. Just get ready to come down this aisle in a few minutes and get it right with Him.
Tragedies and suffering point to our own awful end if we do not repent, turn from our sins, and give our lives to the only one who can redeem us, Jesus Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Would you cast off your sin right now and receive his redemption and come to Christ as your only hope in this suffering world?

Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 628-9,.
Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1993), 226-7.
Mark Strauss, “Luke,” ZIBBC, 433-434.

[1] Dinesh D’Souza, “Why we need earthquakes,” Christianity Today,; Collin Hansen, “Theodicy in Light of Eternity,” Christianity Today,; R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Does God hate Haiti?” January 14, 2010, 5:19pm ET,
[2] Since there was no feast between this visit (the Dedication of the Temple) and Christ’s last visit to Jerusalem (Feast of Tabernacles). Notice that apparently Christ had heard of the incident, so it was well known.
[3] Strauss, ZIBBC, 433-4.
[4] Edersheim, 629.
[5] Bruce Little, Class notes from Christian Philosophy, Spring 2009.