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Jesus had just heard some bad news. Pontius Pilate had killed some Galileans (with whom Jesus identified) in a particularly horrible way—he had mixed their blood with their sacrifice to their God. However, instead of sympathizing with their suffering and sharing in their anger, Jesus asked the news-bearers what at first seems to be a very unrelated question: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?” His answer to His own question was clear: “I tell you, no” (Luke 13:1–5).
Move ahead two thousand years. Some terrorists have killed thousands of Americans in a particularly horrible way. Our questions are not unlike those that seem to have been on the minds of those who told Jesus of Pilate’s atrocity long ago. Why did these particular people have to die? Why were some saved while others perished in the flames and rubble? Were those who died simply punished for their sins?
What would have been the public response if a religious leader or news commentator had given Jesus’ type of answer concerning the September 11 attacks? Such an answer probably would not have won any popularity contests. Flashing to today helps us see just how peculiar Jesus’ answer was.
However, there are even more complications to Jesus’ answer. What He did not say is also important: He never said that the Galileans died because of their sin. He never said they were destroyed because of the particular filthiness of people who live in Galilee. Rather, He said they were no worse sinners than others. And then, after telling His hearers that those killed by Pilate were sinners, Jesus reminded them that unless they repented, they also would perish.
Here is a Jesus who seems to have been totally out of touch with human misery and suffering—a true “hellfire-and-brim-stone” preacher, so focused on sin that He is unable to empathize.
Yet this is an incorrect view of the great Shepherd of the sheep. Notice Jesus’ own example to explain human suffering. It is as if He said: “The murder of the Galileans may seem hard to understand, but what do you make of the fact that 18 people died in the collapse of the tower of Siloam while the rest of Jerusalem was spared? Were those 18 worse sinners than the others from Jerusalem?” Again Jesus answered no, and His exhortation at Luke 13:5 is an exact duplicate of His call at verse 3: “ ‘Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.’ ”
Jesus’ twice-recommended response to tragedy is rooted in His understanding of the absolute sovereignty of God over both “peace and . . . calamity” (Isa. 45:7). And that divine sovereignty is a rock-solid foundation for the Christian’s hope.
Could it be possible for worshipers to be murdered without God’s consent? Is it conceivable for a Christian to imagine a tower falling on people without God knowing it beforehand? If God knows something beforehand, is it then possible for that incident not to take place? The answers to these questions are not so difficult. Simply stated, that which comes to pass is known by God, and that which is known by God is ordained by Him.
Instead of negative examples of death and murder, look at a positive one. When a baby is born, Christian parents rejoice. They see the little one entrusted to them as a marvelous gift from God. This is especially the case with husbands and wives who have waited a long time for the birth of their first child. Those Christian parents do not doubt that this special gift comes from a good and sovereign God.
A more complicated example is that of a student who studies very hard for a final examination and does well. Does he get the good grade because of his hard work or because of God’s sovereignty? Well, the answer is that there is something wrong with the way the question is posed. On the one hand, if the student does not work hard, he or she does not receive a good grade. On the other hand, the good grade is also part of God’s sovereign plan. Thus, the student’s hard work and God’s sovereignty are not mutually exclusive. Likewise, if the student does not study and receives a failing grade, is it because of his laziness or because of God’s sovereignty? Once again, the question is poorly formulated, because God’s sovereignty works with human actions.
Many positive fruits flow from knowing that God is in control of all things. Foremost among them is the comfort that such knowledge brings. Whether it is the joyful event of a baby being born, the exultation of a high grade in school, or sad news of death and defeat, God is always in command. Moving from the abstract to the concrete, God is in control of events of terrible devastation. So it is with the murder of worshipers, the fall of the tower of Siloam, or even the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. Evil is caused by human sin, yet it is also a part of God’s sovereign plan.
This knowledge must impact our daily lives. Now that many months have passed since the terrorist hijackings, what do you think about flying? Knowing God’s sovereignty, ultimately we can face physical challenges fearlessly.
However, there are other challenges in the Christian life, too. As we reflect upon the state of the church, it sometimes appears that we face challenges that are simply too great. However, God’s sovereignty motivates us to find ways in which we can face the challenges and serve Him so that His kingdom advances.
We must begin with the individual. God has sovereignly placed each of us in the family and the church of His sovereign choice. We must strive to develop lives of faithfulness in the place God has carved out for us. From that point, we move out in our thoughts and actions to our relatives and other believers with confidence that our good God is in control.
Jesus told His listeners—and us—that unless they repented they all would perish. As we reflect upon our repentance, we must not forget that even it comes from God’s sovereign working in our lives (Rom. 2:4).
He created all the situations that led us to the place of repentance. And He will not stop controlling the events of our lives because we have become Christians!
This knowledge is very powerful. The worshipers died in God’s providence. The tower fell in God’s sovereign plan. We thus face our own adversities with fearless hope. We face advances and prosperity knowing that they are truly gifts from a gracious God, not what we have accomplished on our own. He has brought us to repentance and does not see our sins any longer. Rather, God sees us as sons and daughters. Our hopes are all found in Him. That hope is powerful!