4. The Time is Short (Luke 12:54–13:9)
After a substantial private discussion with His disciples emphasizing how committed and ready they must be for the coming division, Jesus finally turns back with a message for the larger audience (Luke 12:54). Remember,this is a massive crowd (Luke 12:1): they had grown so large they began to trample each other. This is just the type of mob politicians pump with great swelling promises of good times to come. Not Jesus. So far He had not said anything too radical, but He was about to start getting really personal.
To this thronging crowd, Jesus delivered a startlingly frank criticism: “hypocrites!” But this judgment came upon good evidence, on at least two counts.
First, they could not discern the time (v. 56). Consider the setting. Here was a vast multitude pressing and gawking at Jesus. What will he say next? We’ve heard rumors of healings. I want to see one! Do a sign! Do a sign! Shhh! You’re going to make Him mad! Is this the Messiah? Surely not a Galilean. A prophet? Maybe. What will he say?
This unruly mess revealed a terrible lack of faith and discernment. Jesus exposed this with a parable:
When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, “A shower is coming.” And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat,” and it happens (Luke 12:54–5).
Based on this common and accurate power of discernment found among each of these people, Jesus goes on to pronounce them hypocrites. Why? Because, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (v. 56).
The language here is particularly fitting as a rebuke of Hebrew people. The phrase “earth and sky” has a peculiar resemblance to the first verse of Scripture: “God created the heavens and the earth.” These hypocrites new all about God’s creation, but were clueless as to the Creator. Not only were they judging the heavens and the earth, they themselves were under observation, and the time had come. They had forgotten this.
Oh ye that be so skilled in discerning what shall come by observing the horizons, why have ye not yet discerned the greatest storm yet to come? It’s on the horizon now. Know ye not the time?
The phrase “the present time” is an obvious eschatological/prophetic reference. To what particular “time” did Jesus refer? And what was so special about it?
Note first, that Jesus specifically refers to this time—that is, His and His audience’s time—not some time of judgment in the distant future. Whatever He’s talking about, it refers to the people he was talking to and their time.
Second, this “time” is compared to a discernable event. Whatever they should have been aware of, it was as clear as storm clouds gathering in the west. When people see something like that, they react—take action—accordingly.
Third, this “time” was imminent. When weather changes are visible on the proper horizon, it means something is going to happen soon. Jesus is not speaking of something with the likelihood of a 1000-year storm. This “time” requires His audience to act now.
Fourth, this “time” was inevitable. It was, in fact, already there, for it was this time as opposed to that or another. But also, signs in the weather are discerned to bring predictable changes, rain or heat: the sign is discerned, Jesus says, and “so it happens” (vv. 54, 55). The forecast comes to pass. So this “time” of which Jesus speaks was something these hypocrites would have no choice but to face.
We have some indication of what Jesus meant in a later use of the word “time” as a technical indicator. This comes during the triumphal entry celebrated on so-called Palm Sunday. When the people begin to worship Jesus as the liberator and savior, the Pharisees demand Jesus rebuke them. He declines. During that entry to Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city and forecast her doom:
Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation (Luke 19:42–44; emphasis mine).
Notice that Jesus says a dreadful destruction and desolation was coming upon Jerusalem because of its faithless ignorance of “this day” and “the time.” This “time” shares all the same elements here as it does in the weather forecasting parable: contemporaneousness, imminence, predictability, and inevitability. And Jesus says that this time is specifically “the time of your visitation.”
“Visitation” may connote friendliness and care to the modern ear, but biblically it refers almost universally to judgment. The judgment may turn out either favorably or not, but the idea is one of God inspecting His people and pronouncing a judgment based on His findings. The Greek word is from episkope, from which we get our word “episcopal”; it means “overseer.” The idea is that God, the overseer of His covenant people, will come to inspect and judge those people.
This understanding appears many places in Scripture. For example, when the leaders of Israel caused the people to sin (Isa. 9:8–21), God promised judgment upon them. The warning was in this form: “what will ye do in the day of visitation, and in the desolation which shall come from far? to whom will ye flee for help? and where will ye leave your glory?” (Isa. 10:3 KJV). (The ESV and NAS improperly translate the Hebrew pequddah here as “punishment” instead of “visitation,” but the sentiment is correct.) Jeremiah likewise ridicules idols: “They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment [visitation] they shall perish (Jer. 10:15). Jeremiah is particularly keen on this use of the visitation idea (8:12; 10:15; 11:23; 23:12; 46:21; 48:44; 50:27; 51:18). (See also Hos. 9:7; Mic. 7:4.)
This understanding of the word also finds historical expression very close to Jesus’ times. The Jewish apocryphal literature which was written around the second century BC includes very clear usages of this phrase: Sirach 18:20 says, “Examine yourself before judgement comes, and on the day of visitation you will be acquitted” (NJB), and The Book of Wisdom sees the righteous passing with flying colors: “At their time of visitation, they will shine out; as sparks run through the stubble, so will they. They will judge nations, rule over peoples, and the Lord will be their king for ever (Wis. 3:7–8).” Of course, these are not inspired texts and should not be considered as authoritative guides to interpretation. Nevertheless, they give us examples of how Jews relatively contemporary to Jesus used particular words and ideas in theological context.
Returning to Scripture, a very revealing reference is found in the renewing of the covenant in Deuteronomy. During the rehearsal of Israel’s history and God’s law at the time, Moses specifically refers to the land of Israel as “a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” (Deut 11:12). The Greek Septuagint has a verb form of episkope for “cares for,” which is faithful to the Hebrew word for frequenting or visiting a place. The idea is that God keeps constant oversight of His people.
This idea of being constantly before God’s face was represented in the tabernacle and temple in the twelve loaves of “shewbread” (Ex. 25:30; Lev. 24:5–9; 2 Chron. 2:4). The Hebrew phrase is literally “bread of faces.” It was to be set in the tabernacle, God ordered, “before me [lit. “my face”] regularly” (Ex. 25:30). The Hebrew literally reads, “And you shall put upon the table bread of faces before my face continually.” Thus God would continually inspect the twelve tribes symbolically.
In Deuteronomy 11, the “oversee . . . continually” passage is followed by typical promises of blessing if those overseen tribes obey, and threats of judgment should they rebel. It seems that visitation/oversight brings with it serious consequences in the event of apostasy.
Remember, this long travelling narrative of Jesus’ lawsuit against Israel begins with Him setting his face toward Jerusalem. He has that representative city before His face always during this whole trip. He is incarnating that temple presence, that Deuteronomy 11 covenant promise. The passage concerning the triumphal entry is the culmination of God’s incarnate visitation upon that city. His face, His presence, has literally come to inspect those twelve tribes.
The city is so faithless, rebellious, and stubborn, however, that she cannot, will not, even realize the time of her visitation. It should have been as clear to them as the weather changing on the western sky, and indeed with Jesus’ miracles and teaching, it was that clear. The people, however, continued to waffle, and the leaders demanded signs, etc. So, judgment was coming to these hypocrites.
Judgment it Shall Be
The primary issue of the “time,” therefore, was a coming judgment. This develops into the second count of the people’s hypocrisy: lack of individual judgment. The lack here would result in judgment from God. This is seen in the next parable Jesus teaches, which follows directly upon the forecasting parable:
And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny (Luke 12:57–59).
It may have been news to these people that they even had an accuser. Perhaps they had never been in the position of being sued before a judge. But Jesus has sure gotten their attention calling them hypocrites, and now criminally delinquent debtors. He informs them they are in a serious legal strait. (This is God’s covenant lawsuit, remember?) It is their duty to settle out of court before the offended party (who also happens to be the judge, and the officer) takes you before the judge and the officer.
The meaning for these Jewish debtors is simple. They had not lived up to their end of the covenant with God. They had taken advantage of His blessings and mercies. They had racked up huge piles of moral debt, and now the bills had come due. Of course, all it would have taken to pay in full would have been to repent and believe in Him; they could easily have settled in the way. Indeed, there was still time. But the time was coming, soon, when these people would be called to account. If they had not settled out of court beforehand while they had the chance, they would face the full sanctions of a court trial, and the legal remedy would fall against them. They would be punished, and punished to the last penny of the eternal debt they owed.
God’s Agents Foreshadowed
The people then immediately prove that they have eyes but see not, and ears but hear not. They do this by pretending they have indeed discerned the times: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). These people were up on current events. They knew the times! They had their Bible in one hand and newspapers in the other, so to speak, as Bill Graham once suggested we should do. They knew that the evil Roman Empire was murdering innocent Jews, and defiling their religious rituals, too! Surely, to have deserved something so terrible, these hapless Galileans were the debtors Christ was talking about.
Jesus responded by leveling their playing field:
And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; 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 offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (13:2–5).
Now we have reached one of the most interesting passages in the entire travelling narrative which began in Luke 9:51. Here we do not have a parable providing the substance of the lesson, but rather actual historical events.
Too many commentaries and preachers miss the point of Luke 13:1–5. They too often see this as Jesus’ unique response to the problem of evil (why do bad things happen to innocent people?). Is this Jesus’ theodicy? “Forget about the events, repentance is all that matters.” Is this the main point?
I admit, I saw the verse this way for many years until something finally clicked. In fact, it was this passage that inspired me to begin this whole exegetical project. Once I realized the eschatological meaning here, the whole section and all the parables immediately begged for a different analysis. Considering the context in which this passage appears, its inclusion here does not have much at all to do with theodicy or the problem of evil. It has everything to do with Jesus’ lawsuit against Jerusalem at that time.
Were Pilate’s Galilean victims worse sinners to deserve such a fate? Pointless question, except as rhetorical (the way Jesus used it). Hypocrites! You can’t discern the time—the time of your visitation. You are all idolatrous, rebellious, faithless sinners. The time is now for repentance. If you don’t repent (soon), you’re all going to perish likewise.
The “likewise” here I believe should be taken very strongly—almost literally. Even if not, the interpretation is strong anyway. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying “just like them—in the same way” you will perish. These people had no idea what they were setting themselves up for in bringing up Pilate and his ritual-defying murder. These very unbelieving Jews would indeed perish like those Galileans—having their blood spilled by agents of Rome, having their temple rituals defiled. While I don’t think Jesus by any means meant this as a specific revelation that Rome would be the factor in the coming judgment, it is certainly providentially foreshadowed—and I am almost certain that His audience would have assumed as much, had they expected destruction at the hands of a foreign enemy (as in times past).
The second half of Jesus’ teaching here refers to another disaster, this time the falling of the tower of Siloam which killed eighteen people. There is no historical record of this except here, but that’s irrelevant to the point. There are two additional foreshadowings in Jesus’ addition of this to the account of Pilate: 1) it would be an act of God, and 2) it would involve the toppling of buildings in Jerusalem.
First, it would be an act of God. The first story involved an evil human agent—Pilate. But no one is mentioned in connection with the Siloam tower tragedy. It was not attacked or knocked down—it fell down. This was God’s hand. And while Pilate (Rome) would be involved in the coming judgment, it would ultimately be an act of God destroying those who did not repent.
Second, the judgment would involve the toppling of stones from upon stones in Jerusalem. Jesus will say this later in a now-famous passage concerning the temple: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6). Here this was only typified by God toppling the tower of Siloam.
The overall message, then, is clear. It was reckoning-time for Jerusalem the Great Whore, mystery Babylon. She’s coming down, and many seemingly innocent people are about to be suddenly and violently destroyed in the visitation. Rome, by God’s hand, will slaughter the Jews and topple the city. Jesus’ audience thinks that such things happen only in rare and odd circumstances, and probably to people who deserve it for secret sins. But in fact, they all deserve it themselves, and they would all get it soon.
Jesus’ audience could not have been expected to detect all of these foreshadowed details, but the general message was clear. Time was short for repentance, else there would be a violent perishing.
Indeed, therefore, this passage has everything to do with Jesus’ prosecution against Israel, and it is a very accurate and graphic depiction of all that would take place. It also fits perfectly the context, including the meaning of the parable that follows.
The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree
The eschatological nature of the preceding passage comes clear, as I said, due to its context. The overall context, of course, is the whole journey toward Jerusalem. But the immediate context is even more explicit. The parables about weather forecasting are obvious; they pertain to discerning the time. Now we come to the other bracket-end of that context: the parable of a fig tree that is given multiple chances to bear fruit before at last it is threatened with being uprooted. It reads,
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’” (Luke 13:6–9).
This is clearly a reference to Jerusalem which had heretofore brought forth no fruit for God. As far as the kingdom of God, she was barren. Instead of bearing godly fruit, she had filled herself with all kinds of delicacies through fornication with the kingdoms of earth (Rev. 17–18).
The vineyard owner had enough. He wanted the worthless weed cut down. His case rested on two arguments: It has not borne fruit for three years, and the ground is too valuable to risk on a non-producing tree.
This is almost persuasive enough to act immediately. Yes, the ground—the land—is too valuable to commit to essentially dead wood. This is a bad investment. Israel had been a bad investment indeed. God had given her position, wealth, knowledge, revelation, but she had refused to expand to the nations the way she was supposed to, and instead was sapping nutrients from the rest of the world to sate her lusts. Given a final test case, this would indeed be part of the final reason for Israel’s removal from the land.
In the parable, the tree had only gone fruitless for three years. While this seems like a consistent enough failure to earn condemnation, it is nevertheless normal for saplings to grow their first three years before bearing fruit. So we should give it one more season.
And for this last year it would get special attention. The vinedresser would be sure to till the soil and fertilize it. And what was Jesus’ presence among His people but that last great work? It was God preparing good soil and fertilizing it with the Word. But at last, so much of that soil is rocky, shallow and thorn-filled (Luke 8:4–15). Christ had been doing this, fittingly, for about three years. But this is the last chance. If that tree bears fruit after Jesus’ last efforts, then well and good, but if not, you can cut it down—you can raze the city to the ground.
This entire section from Luke 12:54 to 13:9 has one theme: “the time is short.” In Jesus’ immediate situation, that theme was specific to His audience: “the time is short for you.” Notice that for the whole section, Jesus is speaking to the people of that vast multitude. These warnings of “the time,” of the foreclosing judge, of the violent tragedy coming, of this being the last chance—all of them were directed at and meant for Jesus’ immediate audience of a large crowd of people. For them, indeed, the time was short, and none would escape the great decision.
In just a few verses further, we will see Jesus saying that as none would escape the decision, few would escape the judgment. These very people Jesus said would perish if they did not repent, He will now inform that they will indeed not repent. The tree will be removed; and who shall fill that empty plot of garden?
Next Chapter: Wheat, Tares, and the Kingdom (Matt. 13:24–43)