The Lord's Day Morning
October 3, 2010
“Suspended Judgment and a Reason for Judgment”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 13 as we continue our way through the gospel of Luke. And as you turn to Luke 12:6-17, which is the passage we're going to give close attention to today, allow your eyes to scan back to the first five verses of the chapter and even back into the verses at the end of chapter 12, because you’ll remember at the end of chapter 12 Jesus says to those that are listening to Him that they did not understand the times. And He says this as a spiritual indictment of them. They’re really good at predicting the weather, but they really can't tell the nose from their face when it came to spiritual matters.
And apparently, as a part of that particular conversation early in chapter 13, people in the multitude had attempted to indicate to Jesus that they did, in fact, understand the times and they pointed to the events of the people who had been killed when the tower of Siloam, presumably a tower near the pool of Siloam there in Jerusalem, had fallen and eighteen people had died. And also they pointed to the event of Galileans who had been killed while they were down in Jerusalem offering sacrifices. They had been killed by Pilate. And presumably, members of the multitude had said to Jesus, “We do understand the times. Take for instance these two circumstances. They’re clearly examples of God's judgment against ungodly people.” And Jesus, you’ll remember we said last week, turned those very examples on those in the multitude who had given them to Him as examples that they understood the time, and He said, “No, the message of God's providence in those events is that unless you repent, you will also perish.” So Jesus said that the message of God's providence clothed in those tragedies was the message, “repent or you will perish.”
Well, that theme of repentance continues on for a little while in the gospel of Luke and we see that theme of repentance here today. If you look with me, the section we're about to read falls into two parts. Verses 6 to 9 contain a parable, and that parable is about God's suspending judgment against Israel. Israel had not repented and the parable is a parable about God being ready to bring judgment on Israel because she had not repented and she had not brought forth spiritual fruit. And in the parable, the vinedresser intercedes for Israel and begs God not to bring immediate judgment and she is spared for another year in the parable. It's a picture of Israel's last opportunity to repent. Jesus is saying that Israel is facing a turning point in her history with His ministry. She will either repent or she will perish because she deserves God's judgment now. So verses 6 to 9, this parable tells us about the suspended judgment of God. Israel deserved to be judged, but there was suspended judgment.
Then, it seems unrelated, but when you get to verse 10 running all the way down to verse 17, there's this interesting story about Jesus being in a synagogue and a woman who has been deeply, bodily afflicted with a satanic oppression. She's been buffeted by Satan just like Job was buffeted by Satan in his body. For eighteen years this woman has been afflicted and bent over. And she's in synagogue on the Sabbath day when Jesus is preaching and it's an amazing story. She is healed and delivered and praises God, but the reaction of the Pharisees to Jesus is of accusation. They accuse Him and they accuse her of being Sabbath breakers.
And you may say, “What in the world does that have to do with repentance and suspended judgment?” Well, I would suggest to you that what you have in verses 10 to 17 is a picture of the reason that Israel is under judgment. Their hearts are hard to the works of God. They don't see the great, gracious works of God right in front of their own eyes. They don't respond to the mercy of God like they ought to respond to the mercy of God. And so in the reaction of the religious leaders in the synagogue, we see a picture of hard, unrepentant hearts, and because those hearts are hard and unrepentant, they cannot bring forth fruit, which is precisely what the owner of that fig tree in the parable in verses 6 to 9 says he's coming to look for. “I'm coming to look for fruit on this fig tree that I planted three years ago.”
Well, that's the connection between the passages. Let's pray before we read God's Word.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We ask that You would, by Your Holy Spirit, illumine our eyes and hearts and minds to see and hear and understand it, but not just to understand it Lord. Show us our own sin. Show us where we need to repent as we study this passage together. Convict our own hearts of the places where we are hard and cold towards You. Grant us repentance and give us fruit from changed hearts, the fruit of living out Your Word and will by grace. We ask all these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the Word of the living God from Luke 13, verses 6 to 17:
“And He told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’’
Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And there was a woman who had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, He called her over and said to her, ‘Woman, you are freed from your disability.’ And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, ‘There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.’ Then the Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?’ As He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by Him.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
What do you think Jesus would say if He came to a church where people were going through the motions of religion but where there was no fruit? There were claims to love God, claims to love Jesus, claims to care about the salvation of sinners, claims to want to live for God's glory, but no fruit, none. What do you think Jesus would say to a congregation like that? You don't have to guess. You don't have to guess. Jesus is speaking to a little assembly, a little congregation, a little synagogue here, somewhere in Palestine during the course of His ministry, and He comes into contact with people who make great religious claims — they claim to love God, they claim to live for God, they claim to long for the coming of the Messiah, they claim to live according to God's Word, they claim to be concerned that people will be converted unto Him and live for God — but they have no fruit. And Jesus speaks to them here.
And the first thing He does is He tells a parable. And this parable is designed to illustrate the fruitlessness of Israel. Israel is like, in this parable, a fig tree that has been planted by God, and He planted that tree so that it would bear fruit. Fruit is the consequence, the evidences, the works that flow from the grace of God that God does in His people. And when He saves you by grace, He saves you in the language that Billy read this morning from Ephesians 2: 8-10. He saves you by grace, through faith, not by works — no, your salvation is a gift from God — but He saves you to — what does Paul say in Ephesians 2 verse 10? He saves you “to good works.” He saves you “for good works.” You’re not saved by good works; you’re saved for good works. You’re saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and as a new creation made by the grace of God, you manifest that new creation by living in a new way. You live a life that is adorned with fruitfulness, with good works, with things that give evidence that you live for God, that you live to God, that God is done and is doing a work of grace in you. And so God comes to Israel looking for that kind of fruit. What kind of fruit? Living for God, looking for the Messiah, obeying His Word, seeking conversions and the wellbeing of those who are in bondage to sin and under the buffeting of Satan.
And in the parable, God, the owner of the vineyard, comes to the fig tree again and there is still no fruit. And he says, “Cut it down.” And the vinedresser, and maybe the Lord Jesus is indicating Himself here in His mediatorial role of interceding for His people, says, “Don't cut it down yet, Lord. Give it one more year.” It's one last chance for Israel. It's a depiction of Jesus’ ministry. God has, from the beginning, sent prophets, faithful prophets, to His people, starting with Moses. And on down through the years, those prophets have spoken God's Word to His people, but His people have not borne fruit. And in these last days, He has sent His own Son. Perhaps they will hear Him. And so the vinedresser says to the owner of the vineyard, “Wait one more year, and if they bear fruit then you may spare your judgment, but if they do not, cut it down.” It's a picture of the last opportunity of Israel to repent.
But of course, it's not just a picture for the Jewish church; it's a picture for any people that have been under the rich ministry of God's means of grace. Israel had been given enormous opportunities to sit under God's Word, to see the sacraments of the Old Testament spread before them, to have the temple of the living God, the one place on the planet that God had appointed for His worship in Jerusalem, in the temple. Year after year they could see the sacrifices. Year after year and week after week they could be in the synagogue service and hear His Word read and proclaimed and sing His Word back to Him and pray to Him according to His Word, but they had not borne fruit. But Jesus’ indictment is not just for Israel; it's for anyone who sits under God's Word and does not respond in repentance and in the fruits of good works which adorn those who truly trust in God.
You know, I was reading my favorite devotional commentator, J.C. Ryle, on the gospels this week, and I came across a passage in which he comments on this very point. And it's a little bit quaint because he's talking about 19th century England. He's talking about England in the late 1800's, but see how what he says about England in his own day helps apply this passage to us today. Ryle says:
“Our Lord teaches this lesson (the lesson of the call to repentance and the lesson to whom much is given much is expected) the Lord teaches this lesson by comparing the Jewish church of His day to a fig tree planted in a vineyard. This was exactly the position of Israel in the world. They were separated from other nations by the Mosaic laws and ordinances, no less than by the situation of their land. They were favored with revelations of God which were granted to no other people. Things were done for them that were never done for Egypt or for Nineveh or for Babylon or for Greece or for Rome. And it was only just and right that they should bear fruit to God's praise. It might reasonably be expected that there would be more faith, more repentance, more holiness, more godliness in Israel than among any other land. This is what God looked for. The owner of the fig tree came seeking fruit.
But we must look beyond the Jewish church if we mean to get the full benefit of this parable before us. We must look to the Christian churches. We have light and truth and doctrine and precepts of which the heathen never hears. How great is our responsibility! Is it not just and right that God should expect from us, fruit? We must look to our own hearts. We live (and now again, he's speaking of 19th century England) — we live in a land of Bibles, liberty, and Gospel preaching.” Can you think of another place that fits that bill? “We live in a land,” he says, “of Bibles, liberty, and Gospel preaching. How vast are the advantages that we enjoy compared to the Chinese or to the Hindu! Never let us forget that God expects from us fruit. And these are solemn truths. Few things are so much forgotten by men as the close connection between privilege and responsibility. We are all ready enough to eat the fat and drink the sweet and bask in the sunshine of our position as Christians and Englishmen and even to spare a few pitying thought for the half-naked savage who bows down to stocks and stones. But we are very slow to remember that we are accountable to God for all that we enjoy and that to whomsoever much is given, of them, much will be required. Let us awake to a sense of these things! We are the most favored nation upon earth. We are, in the truest sense, a fig tree planted in a vineyard. Let us not forget that our great Master looks for fruit.”
Now think of it, my friends — J.C. Ryle said those words about his England about a hundred and fifty years ago and they were true. England was the exporter of Christianity to the world. There were more people in churches in England in Ryle's time than there are in churches in America in ours. And England was certainly a blessed nation. But when he says those words, “We are the most favored nation upon the earth,” I can't help but think of another place. And who can doubt the privileges and blessings that have been poured out upon our land and upon our people? And then I think of how England is today, with thousands of churches shuttered and closed and dark — some turned into flats, some turned into theaters or to bars, less than 2% of the population Bible-believing Christians. Ryle said that there was a message in this parable for his England in the 19th century that the Lord was looking for fruit and that we should bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance. Could there be a less obvious message for us today in this parable? The Lord calls us to repentance.
You know, John, when the Pharisees approached him in the wilderness to hear him preach, looking on him as an oddity, not only said to them, “You brood of vipers!” he said to them, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” With all the light that the Lord has given you, with all the Gospel that the Lord has taught you, and you've heard it in your homes, you've heard it in Sunday School classes, you've heard it in discipleship groups, and prayer meetings, and in countless Sunday services on the Lord's Day morning and evening, but have you repented and have you brought forth fruit? Is there fruit in your life that is in keeping with repentance? Have you believed the Gospel? Is God the one that you delight in more than anything else? Are you growing in Christ? Do you long for godliness and holiness? Is the Lord's Day the market day of the soul for you, you can't wait to delight in the presence of the company of God's people and the praise of the Lord of grace who saved you? Does your life bear fruit? That's Jesus’ word for you and me today.
And the story that He begins to tell – it's a true account unlike the story of the parable which is just a metaphor, an illustration – the account that is told next by Luke really happened. And it's a very sad account. And in it we see a picture of how the religious leaders of Israel had not repented and how they were not bringing forth fruit in keeping with repentance. And we see that distinctly in at least four ways. And I'd like to direct you to four things in the passage where we see the hearts of the religious leaders of Israel.
First of all, notice what is happening here. In verse 10 we read that “He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.” Now this is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is teaching the Bible in a Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath day. In other words, the Word of God is teaching the Word of God in the very presence of their hearing. And do they respond to Him in wonder, love, and praise? No, they respond to Him with accusation that He is breaking the Word of God. Now think of that. The Word of God teaching the Word of God in your presence and you accuse Him of breaking the Word of God. It shows their hearts.
You remember the story that Luke tells you about those two downcast and disconsolate disciples who had left Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial but before His resurrection and they’re on the way back to Emmaus and Jesus meets them along the way, only they don't know it at first. And He walks with them along the way as they pour out their hearts and their griefs and their tears over the death of the one that they had hoped would be the Messiah. And you remember He rebukes them and He tells them that they just haven't believed their Bibles enough. And then He begins to teach the Word of God to them as they walk back to Emmaus. The Word of God teaches them the Word of God and then as He breaks bread with them back in their home, their eyes are opened and they realize it's Jesus and then He's gone. And they turn to one another and what did they say? “Did not our hearts burn within us when He was teaching the Word?” Well of course! It's the Word of God teaching them the Word of God and the Lord, though they were weak and stumbling and feeble, they were believers. And when those believers heard the Word teaching them the Word their hearts burned within them, but not these Pharisees. When they hear the Word teaching the Word they accuse Him of breaking the Word. That's the first way you see that their hearts are not right. They don't have hearts of repentance; therefore, they can't bring forth fruit because their hearts are hard.
But there's another way you see it as well. Look at how they respond to this poor woman. Look at what's said about her in verse 11. “There was a woman who had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.” Not only do they not have any kind of evident sympathy for empathy with this woman, there's no concern for her estate displayed at any point in this passage for her, here's the thing that I want you to get – these people, these men are supposed to be preachers of the Word. And preachers of the Word ought to care about God's people coming to worship. And they see this woman who is bent over, buffeted by Satan, she's been in this physical condition for eighteen years, but where is she friends? She's at church! She's at the synagogue! She had all manner of excuses not to be at church. She could have said, “You know, I'm feeling pretty poorly,” but she's in the synagogue, under the means of grace, hearing the Word of God read and proclaimed, singing His praises — for eighteen years she's bent over. She can't even stand up straight, but she's with the people of God worshiping on the Sabbath day.
You know what those Pharisees ought to have been saying about her? They ought to have been saying, “There is an example of someone who knows and loves the living God. She could be at home balled up in her bed in the gall of bitterness about her lot in life, but she's with the people of God under the Word of God. Praise God! There's an example of a faithful daughter of Abraham!” But what do they say about her? “You Sabbath breaker. Come and get healed some other day of the week.” It shows their hearts. Their hearts are hard against the evidence of grace in this woman's life. When Jesus speaks about her, look how He speaks about her. He says she's a “daughter of Abraham.” What does He mean by that? This is a godly woman. He's saying to those Pharisees, “You could learn something about godliness from this woman.”
You know, younger people — and in this case I’ll count myself among it — younger people, there are older folk in this congregation who you have no idea what it means for them to get to church here Lord's Day after Lord's Day, but they’re here. There's something for us to learn from them. There's something for us to learn from them, just like this godly woman that Jesus said, “Look at where she is. She's under the Lord's Word.” You know, your desire to be with the Lord's people under the Lord's Word on the Lord's Day says a lot about your heart. It's one of those fruits that the Lord comes looking for. And here's this woman — she has it. She has it but the Pharisees don't have it and they accuse her even though she has it. You see, it's another picture that they haven't repented and that their hearts are hard and that they can't bear fruit.
But there's another reason you see that their hearts are hard in this passage and that is, they accuse Jesus of misinterpreting Scripture. Look at what they say in this passage. After Jesus heals, they say, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed and not on the Sabbath day.” They accuse Jesus of breaking the commandments of God in the Scripture by breaking the Sabbath day. They accuse Him not just of misinterpreting the Scripture, but of Sabbath breaking. Now my friends, you will look through all of the most stringent Sabbath laws of the Old Testament in vain to find one that says that you can't heal on the Sabbath day. There's not one. These men had clearly misinterpreted the Word of God. In fact, they had added to the Word of God by adding prohibitions that God had not given. Even though the prohibitions are very impressive and demanding and stringent with regard to the Old Testament Sabbath, God had never come up with one that said you can't heal on His Lord's Day.
And Jesus takes them immediately to the woodshed and He reminds them of the provision that was made in the Sabbath law of the Old Testament for the care of domestic animals — donkeys and oxen. And He says to them — look at what He says in verse 15 — “You hypocrites! Don't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water?” The Old Testament allowed for deeds of mercy and necessity on the Lord's Day and one of the necessities was your domestic animals needed to drink water and so they needed to be unloosed from the manger so they could be taken to water. And that was necessary work and it wasn't considered a violation of the Sabbath. And so the Lord said, “You Pharisees yourselves, you loose your animals to give them water on the Sabbath. Are you saying that God doesn't care more about this godly woman who, for eighteen years, has been under the buffeting of Satan, that he doesn't care more about loosing her from her bondage than about donkeys and oxen from their bondage so that they might get water?” In other words, He makes an argument from the lesser to the greater. And so the very fact that they accuse the Word of God of misinterpreting the Word of God and of breaking the Word of God shows you their hearts. They don't understand the Bible.
But here's the other thing they miss. Look back in verse 13. After the woman is healed and she straightens up, what does Luke tell you she does? “She glorified God” — end of verse 13. Now any pastor worth his salt glows with joy when he sees the people of God getting it. When he sees the people of God glorifying and enjoying God, the pastor says, “It's all worth it! It's all worth it. When I see the people of God loving Him and trusting Him and glorifying Him and following after Him and growing in grace, it is all worth it! Yes!” And this woman, in response to Jesus’ healing, glorifies God. Any good pastor would have said, “Oh, that is so good to see the people of God glorifying God!” But what do they do? They tell her that she came on the wrong day to be healed. “You should have done that between Sunday and Friday afternoon, not on the Sabbath day.” And it shows their hearts. The reason they didn't have fruit is because they had hard hearts. The reason they didn't have fruit in keeping with repentance is they hadn't repented. And with the Word of God in their presence, they still didn't get it.
My friends, there's a message for us in that, for God has given to you His Word. Have you repented? Is there the fruit of that repentance in your life? Can you see the evidences, the marks of His grace at work in you, so that you find yourself living for God, treasuring God, delighting in God, glorifying the Messiah? You find your heart moved when you see sinners unburdened from their sin and shown grace and mercy by God and it encourages you when you see fellow believers glorifying God for what He's doing in their life? Those kinds of fruit evidence in your life? Jesus’ word isn't just for Pharisees and it wasn't just for that synagogue some two thousand years ago. It's for us. May God grant us Gospel repentance that leads to fruit.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for Your Word. We know it is for us upon whom the end of the ages have come. Thank You that You sent Your Son for sinners, sinners like us. Thank You that He's a friend for sinners. Grant us repentance and forgiveness and give us fruit. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now if you’ll take your hymnals with me and turn to number 498 we’ll sing, “Jesus What A Friend For Sinners.”
Now receive this blessing from the one who is able to grant you repentance and forgiveness and fruitfulness. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.