[340 years ago, in 1681, England was in turmoil. Accordingly, John Owen preached a series of sermons on Luke 13:1-5, where the Saviour brought out lessons from two tragic events in Jerusalem, to warn His hearers that if they did not repent, sooner or later they too would perish in their sins. Owen’s sermons were printed in a treatise with the title: An Humble Testimony unto the Goodness and Severity of God in His Dealing with Sinful Churches and Nations.
The message is tellingly up-to-date for the crisis of our present day, where many tragic deaths have occurred through the visitation of Covid-19. While the world is busy trying to find solutions to “defeat” the virus, the more important questions are being neglected. Very few are asking, What does God mean by this? or What does God require of us in this situation? John Owen answers these questions as he explains the Saviour’s teaching in Luke 13.
At the outset, Owen emphasises that it is a duty God requires of us
“to take notice of extraordinary occurrences in the dispensations of His providence.”
The Saviour Himself did so. In this first part, Owen notes the time when the events took place and the Saviour commented on them: a time of great sin and a time of approaching judgments. Our own time is very similar on both accounts. Owen has a sharp warning to the complacency so evident in nations and churches in our own day:
“It is a dangerous thing to live in the times of declining churches, when they are hastening unto their fatal period in judgments; such as will inevitably befall them all and every one.”
Can we “discern the signs of the times”? How foolish,
“in such a time and season, either to neglect the consideration of extraordinary providences, or to misinterpret them, as anything but tokens of approaching judgments, if not prevented.”
The first part of Owen’s discourse follows.]
“There were present at that season some that told Him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus, answering, said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Luke 13:1-5.
It is a part and duty of spiritual wisdom, as also an evidence of a due reverence of God, to take notice of extraordinary occurrences in the dispensations of His providence; for they are instructive warnings, and of great importance in His government of the world. In them the “voice of the Lord crieth unto the city, and the man of wisdom shall see [His] name” (Mic 6:9). And there is a mark left on them, as profligate persons, who will not see when His hand is so lifted up.
An example of this wisdom is given us here in our blessed Saviour, who, on the report that was made to Him of some severe providential accidents, then newly fallen out, gives an exposition of the mind of God in them, with an application of them to the present duty of them that heard Him, and ours therein.
Some things may be observed in general, to give light into the context, and the design of our Saviour in this holy discourse.
I. The time when the things mentioned did fall out, and wherein our Saviour passed His judgment on them.
1. It was a time of great sin, of the abounding of all sorts of sins.
The nation as such, in its rulers and rule; the church as such, in its officers, order, and worship; and the generality of the people, in their personal capacities, were all overwhelmed in provoking sins. Hypocrisy, oppression, cruelty, superstition, uncleanness, persecution, impenitency, and security, all proceeding from unbelief, had filled the land, and defiled it. We have a sufficient account of this state of things in the story of the gospel, so as that it needs no other confirmation.
Yea, so wicked were the people, and so corrupt the church-state, and so impenitent were the generality of them therein, that it suited the righteousness and holiness of God to revenge on that generation, not only their own sins, but the sins also of all wicked persecutors from the foundation of the world; a thing which He does not do but on high provocations. “That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel, unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation” (Luke 11:50,51).
There is in this commination [threatening] an appearance of severity beyond the rule established in Exodus 20:5. There, God declares that He is “a jealous God;” which title He assumes to Himself with respect to the highest provocations; that He “will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him.” But here, the vengeance and punishment due unto the sins of a hundred generations, is threatened to be inflicted on that which was present.
Something, in our passage, may be spoken for the vindication of divine justice herein, seeing we may be more concerned in that divine commination [threatening] than the most are aware.
(1.) The case here is particular. That in the commandment respects the common case of all false worshippers and their posterity; but this respects persecution, unto blood and death, of the true worshippers of God. Now, though God be very much provoked with the sins of false worshippers, yet He can either bear with them, or pass over their sins with lesser punishments, or at least for a long season; but when they come to persecution, and the blood of them who worship Him in spirit and in truth, in His appointed season He will not spare them. Their own, and the iniquities of their predecessors, shall be avenged on them; which will be the end of the antichristian church-state after all its present triumph.
(2.) All those who, from the beginning of the world, suffered unto blood on the account of religion, suffered in the cause of Christ, for their faith in Him, and confession of Him; namely, as He was promised to the church. Unto Him and his office did Abel, by faith, bear testimony in the bloody sacrifice that he offered. So it is said that Moses, in his danger for killing the Egyptian, bare “the reproach of Christ,” because he did it in faith of the promised seed; which was Christ. They were, therefore, all slain in the cause of Christ. And whereas this generation was to slay Christ Himself, and did so, they did therein approve of and justify all the blood that was shed in the same cause from the foundation of the world; and made themselves justly liable to the punishment due to it. Hence, our Saviour tells them (Matt 23:35) that they, the men of that generation, slew Zechariah, who was actually slain many hundred years before.
(3.) Our blessed Saviour mentions Abel and Zechariah particularly. This Zechariah, called the son of Barachias, was undoubtedly the Zechariah mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. For concerning those two alone it is observed, that the one dead, and the other dying, “cried for vengeance.” So God testifies of the blood of Abel in Genesis 4:10. And Zechariah, when he died, said, “The Lord look upon it, and require it.” Hence the apostle affirms, that Abel “being dead yet speaketh” (Heb 11:4); that is, his blood did so – it did so then, and it spake for vengeance, as he intimates in Hebrews 12:24. It did so before and until the destruction of Jerusalem: for in the rejection and absolute destruction of that apostatised church and people, the blood of all who suffered under the Old Testament was expiated.
Abel’s blood cries no more; nor does God look any more on the blood of Zechariah to require it. But the same voice and cry is now continued by another sort of men; namely, those who have suffered in the cause of Christ since His coming, according to the promise (Rev 6:9,10). And this cry shall be continued until the appointed time comes for the utter destruction of the antichristian, apostatised church-state.
When a sinful church or people have passed the utmost bounds of divine patience and forbearance, they shall fall into such abominable, crying sins and provocations as shall render the utmost vengeance beneath their deserts. So Josephus affirms of that generation, after they had rejected and slain the Lord Christ, that they fell into such a hell of provoking abominations, that if the Romans had not come and destroyed them, God would have sent fire and brimstone upon them from heaven, as He did on Sodom.
And we may, by the way, observe from hence:
It is a dangerous thing to live in the times of declining churches, when they are hastening unto their fatal period in judgments; such as will inevitably befall them all and every one.
And it is so for these three reasons:
[1.] Because such times are perilous through temptations from the abounding of the lusts of men in all uncleanness and wickedness. So the apostle states it in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. If any think they are free from danger because as yet they feel no evil, whilst the lusts of men professing Christian religion visibly and openly abound and rage in the world, they will be mistaken.
[2.] Though destruction does not immediately befall them, yet, when they have passed the time of divine patience designing their reformation, they shall precipitate themselves into bloody abominations, as did the church of the Jews.
[3.] Judgment shall at length overtake them, and God will revenge on them the sins and provocations – especially the persecutions and blood – of those who went before them, and led them into their apostasy. So when He shall come to destroy mystical Babylon, or the antichristian church-state, it is said, that “in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all that were slain upon the earth” (Rev 18:24). Even the blood of saints that was shed by pagan Rome shall be avenged on antichristian Rome, after she has espoused the cause and walked in the way of the other, justifying in her own practice what they had done.
2. It was a time wherein judgments were near approaching.
So our Saviour Himself affirms it to have been in Luke 19:42-44, “If thou hadst known, . . . in this thy day.” They had now but a day, and that now almost ready to expire, though they saw it not, nor would believe it. But the day of their desolation approached continually, and when the apostle wrote his Epistle to the Hebrews, was making its entrance upon them, “Ye see the day approaching” (Heb 10:25). And we may hence learn,
(1.) That in the approaching of desolating judgments on a sinful, provoking church or nation, God is pleased to give previous intimations of His displeasure, as well in the works of providence as by the rule of His word. Such were those here so interpreted by our Saviour in such a season.
This, I say, is the ordinary process of divine Providence; and, it may be, no nation, heathen or Christian, ever utterly perished without divine warnings of their approaching desolation. Some, indeed, seem to be taken away with a sudden surprisal, as God threatens in Psalm 58:9-11. But this is from their own security, and not for want [lack] of warnings.
So the old world before the flood had warnings sufficient of their destruction, by the preaching of Noah, and the building of the ark, by which he “condemned the world” (Heb 11:7), or left them inexcusable, to divine vengeance. Yet they took no notice of these things, but were surprised with the flood, as if they had never heard or seen anything that should give them warning of it; as our Saviour declares, in Matthew 24:38,39. And when the time comes of the destruction of mystical Babylon, she shall say, in that very day wherein her judgments come upon her, “I sit a queen . . . and shall see no sorrow,” notwithstanding all her warnings in the pouring out of the vials of previous judgments (Rev 18:7,8).
(2.) It is the height of [carnal] security, in such a time and season, either to neglect the consideration of extraordinary providences, or to misinterpret them, as anything but tokens of approaching judgments, if not prevented.
Nothing can be questioned herein without an arraignment [charging] of the divine wisdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the interpretation and application that He makes of these accidents. No doubt but they were neglected and despised by most as common things; to take any great notice of such occurrences is esteemed pusillanimity [cowardice] or superstition. So it is by many at this day, wherein all things, as we shall see afterward, are filled with tokens of divine displeasure; but things will come shortly to another account. In the meantime, it is safe to follow this divine example, so as to find out sacred warnings in such providential occurrences.
[Go to Part 2.]