In Luke 13, Jesus responds to two recent tragedies with a sobering and eternal warning that we all need to heed carefully lest we stumble upon the Rock of offense (1 Pet 2:8). In the first instance, Pilate, no friend of the Jews, mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices (v. 1). Even though Luke does not explicitly identify who these Galileans were, based on Pilate’s disdain for Judaism and the involvement of “sacrifices,” it is reasonable to think that they were Jews worshipping at the temple. Moreover, it is likely that it happened around Passover since that was the only festival when the laity could slaughter their own animals. To the disappointment of the crowd, likely composed of Jews, Jesus’ reaction to the tragic event is unsympathetic at best and at worst callous. Surprisingly, He does not applaud them as martyrs or unsuspecting heroes. Furthermore, Jesus does not address the political, social, or national issue, but turns the sensation of the event to a call for repentance. To Jesus, what is supremely significant about this sudden loss of lives, regardless of the cause, is that it serves as a wakeup call to the living of the coming judgment and eternal death to all unrepentant sinners.
Then in v. 4, Jesus recounts another recent event where 18 were suddenly killed in an accident. Based on the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish War 5.145), the 18 victims were likely Jews in Jerusalem. In like manner, Jesus expresses little compassion about this tragedy but reiterates the warning pronounced earlier, “repent or perish!” His response (v. 5) is identical to the first except the word “likewise” (Greek hōsautōs rather than homoios) which is slightly stronger in force and suggests by the repetition a more emphatic call to respond (BAGD 899). Jesus deliberately uses the passions that surround these tragic deaths to warn them about the need for repentance. In so doing, Jesus highlights how tragedy exposes the fragility and unpredictability of life and thus the eternal significance of being right with God. Therefore, no matter how protected or sheltered one’s life may appear to be (clearly not as much as we assumed before COVID-19), death shows no favoritism. Whether we are prepared for it or not, there is an appointed time for everyone to die and face judgment (Heb 9:27).
In both of these instances, what Jesus focuses on is not the occasion, circumstances, or timing of a person’s death, but the inevitability of eternal death for all those who do not repent. In other words, there is a far greater calamity that awaits those who do not repent and trust in Christ than any untimely, sudden death that one could suffer in this life. The Greek word for “perish” (vv. 3 and 5), apollymai, generally means to destroy, to ruin, to die, but here Jesus uses it with the force of eternal destruction (as in the case of Matt 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Compare also 1 Cor 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “Perishing” is antithetically parallel to “being saved” which clearly has an eternal significance.). The death that Jesus warns about is the wages of sin which the soul must pay for eternity. Jesus believes that repentance is so essential in this life that He accentuates these two tragic events to warn His hearers about it. For those who did not have an eternal perspective on life, Jesus’ word would have appeared cold and uncaring.
An important note to make at this point is that repentance is not merely a one-time act that happens at conversion but a way of life. Even though believers are justified by faith in Christ, they continually war against indwelling sin in this life (Rom 7:13-25). Therefore, as disciples of Christ, the call for persistent repentance is a must (Luke 9:23). In writing to a group of churches, John declares in 1 Jn 1:8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Moreover in Rev 2:1-7, Jesus confronts the church in Ephesus for abandoning their “first love”—their fundamental love for Christ and for one another. Consequently, Jesus declares to them, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” In the same way, we must continue to repent of our sins lest our hearts become dull and hardened (Mt 13:15) and fall short of finishing the race (2 Tim 4:7-8).