Mercy and Judgment — Part One
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Mercy and Judgment — Part One

Luke 13:6  (ID: 2205)

After discussing humanity’s crucial and urgent need for repentance, Jesus told His followers a parable about a fruitless fig tree and a merciful vineyard owner. As Alistair Begg notes, God, like the vineyard owner, is merciful to us by allowing us time to repent and bear fruit before He exacts His ultimate judgment. God’s wrath is severe, but His mercy is bountiful; we should not presume upon His patience another minute without repenting toward Him.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Luke, Volume 8

Signs and Parables along the Way Luke 11:14–14:35 Series ID: 14208

Sermon Transcript: Print

And now, Father, as we turn to our Bibles together, it is to you we look in order that we might be taught by your Spirit through your living Word. And we confess our inability both to speak and to hear, to understand and to obey and apply your truth. We cast ourselves upon you again, recognizing that our need is not partial, but it’s total. Accomplish the purposes that you have today by bringing your Word to bear upon our lives. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Now, your Bible should be open with me at Luke chapter 12 once again—chapter 13, I should say. And we’re going to look together at the parable told by Jesus which is recorded for us in verses 6–9.

A parable, our Sunday school teachers would tell us, was an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. And Jesus, we find in his teaching, employs these stories with frequency in order that he might make or drive home some point of emphasis. These stories that he uses convey spiritual and moral truths, they so often transcend barriers of age and culture, they inform the mind, and they challenge the heart. And since everybody loves a story, then it is not surprising that those who were the listeners on this occasion would have been pinning their ears back as soon as Jesus said, “Let me tell you a story. There was a man who had a fig tree, and he planted it in a vineyard.” And so they would have been listening with great care.

Now, I don’t know a great deal about the purchase of real estate. In fact, there’s only one thing I’ve ever been told about it, and that is that there are three factors which are crucial in making a real estate purchase. Factor one is location, factor two is location, and factor three is location. To the extent that that is true in purchasing real estate, it is equally true to say that there are really only three factors that are vital in the understanding of a parable like this, set as it is in the midst of chapter 13 of Luke’s Gospel. Number one is context, number two is context, and number three is context. Because if you allow yourself to fall down out of nowhere onto verse 6 and 7 and 8 and 9 of Luke chapter 13, then it will be possible, without the control of the Bible, to come to all kinds of amazing conclusions and applications, the majority of which will bear no resemblance to biblical truth at all. And that is why the control of our studies is always that the control of the verse is in the surrounding verses; the control of a section is in the chapter in which it is set; the control of a chapter is within the context of the wider material; the control of the book is within the framework of the genre in which it is also set. In other words, you interpret the Bible by interpreting the Bible. You teach the Bible by teaching the Bible. And so, when you come, for example, to this little parable, where there is no immediate explanation provided, then you make the determinations on the strength of the surrounding context.

Now, I think those of us who were present last time would be prepared to agree that the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching in the first five verses was on the urgent need for repentance in light of the prospect of judgment. His listeners had come to him, perhaps with a sign that they wanted interpreted, and they had spoken of this dreadful destruction of the Galileans. Jesus had provided another one for them in the fall of the tower in the region of Siloam. And he challenged his listeners, in light of the calamities to which they were referring, not to try and figure out so much why this had happened to other people but instead to give their attention to the lessons which those incidents had taught, and particularly to the personal implications that needed to be faced.

It is far easier to read the Bible or to a hear sermon and immediately begin to convince ourselves that there is somebody five places along the row from us who really needs to hear this material, or that this is a wonderful tape for somebody about whom we have been thinking, or “If only Mr. So-and-So was present this morning—this is ideal for him.” Jesus would be saying, “Don’t worry about all those people. That is a secondary matter. Just be concerned about yourself, and put yourself underneath the instruction of the Bible, and face its implications.”

There would have been at least some within the group to which Jesus was speaking who were tempted to regard others as more deserving of God’s judgment than themselves. And so Jesus is saying to them here, “Listen, the fact that you yourselves have not yet perished is not on account of some relative goodness in you but is because of God’s mercy, his kindness, and his patience. The reason you’re still around to hear me speak,” says Jesus, “is not because you’re better than the Galileans, it’s not because you’re better than the people who died when the tower fell upon them, but it is because of God’s goodness to you that he has allowed you the opportunity to be alive in this moment in order that you might hear what Jesus has to say.”

This morning, as I went through my messages on my voice mail in my office, amongst a variety of messages there was one which informed me of a circumstance which has just taken place many states away from here concerning a man who is my friend. And his brother-in-law called me to say, “Mr. X has left his wife and is living with a woman in hiding, and I’d like you to do something.” In the first nanosecond, I find myself saying with the Pharisee in Luke [18], “I thank you, Lord, that I am not as other men are.”[1] But that only lasted for a split second, because the next verse that came to me was, “Let those of you who think you stand take heed in case you fall”[2]—lest I immediately, in the calamity, seek to discover the ramifications for those people over there and miss the immediate application to this person right here; namely, the word of God to Cain: “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, [and] you must master it.”[3] Now, that’s what Jesus is saying: “Don’t start being so concerned about why this happened or why that happened to them or whether he’s a bad guy or she’s a bad guy or those are worse people than you.” He says, “Listen! Unless you repent, you too will perish.”[4] And then he told them a story.

Now, do you think that anybody in the group thought that Jesus said, “Unless you too repent, you will perish?”—he said it once in verse 3, then he says it again in verse 5—and then he says, “But that’s enough about that. Now let me tell you a story about a fig tree.” No sensible person in the group would have thought that for one moment, because they recognized that Jesus’ approach to teaching was so often to take a principle like this and then to drive it home to the minds of his listeners by making application of it in a parable. And he does this with great frequency throughout Luke’s Gospel. We’ve seen evidence of it already, and before we finish our studies, we will have occasion to consider more.

So, what I’d like to do this morning is this: I’d like us first to look at the illustration, then I’d like us to consider the explanation, and then I would like us to deal with the application. Now, I’m telling you what I’d like us to do; now I’m going to tell you what we’re actually going to do. Because in the first hour, I didn’t achieve my objective. So I might as well acknowledge it to you, because there’s no chance of me doing any better in this hour, although I hope to be a little less tedious than I was in the first hour. That’s a word of warning to myself and exhortation to you so you can deepen your prayers: “O Lord, help it not to be as tedious as the first hour.” We will deal with the illustration, and we will deal with the explanation in terms of its immediate impact to the Jewish people. But when it gets to the matter of its application to the church and to us as individuals, we will only have the scantest inkling of that, and we will return to it this evening.

Now, I say this to forewarn you, because it is very clear to me that the balance of this message is off without its finish. And so for those of you who do not return this evening, then you’ll be left feeling like you—I was going to say “ate half of the ice cream,” but that is not a good analogy—you ran two thirds of the journey. That’s not a clever way to get you to come back tonight. I’m not responsible for who comes in the morning or the evening. But I just want you to know.

Jesus’ Illustration

Let’s look, then, first of all, at the illustration.

The listeners of Jesus would have been able to identify very quickly with this scene. We have to recognize—city dwellers, as most of us are, perched on the edge of the twenty-first century—that a little background is needed. If Jesus had been ministering today, he would have told stories like “There was a man, and he had a laptop, and his hard drive went down. And as a result of this, such and such happened.” Jesus would not be on the edge of the twenty-first century doing illustrations like “There was a man who had a fig tree and planted it in a vineyard.” Therefore, we need to recognize that with the passage of time and the context out of which we come, we need to do a little work in order to get underneath the use of the illustration itself.

So he says, “There was a man, and he had a fig tree, and he planted it in his vineyard.” We discover from research that it wasn’t unusual for fig trees to be planted in vineyards. It was a choice location. They also planted palm trees there and olive trees—treated each of them with special care because they were regarded as being valuable. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, in favored locations, the ripe fruit from fig trees would hang on the tree for ten months of the year. There were two barren months—probably April and May—before the first of three crops would arrive. Now, notice that: they would anticipate three crops from a fig tree. The first figs ripened towards the end of June, although some came earlier than that. The second crop, which are those that we see dried and imported into our delicatessens, they ripened in August. And the third crop came in September, usually rather small, of little value, and they would often hang around, as it were, all through the winter.

Fruitless, taking up space, and causing the soil around it to deteriorate: a classic description of the average person who hangs around a church unconverted.

Now, you see, the listeners understood this. So for Jesus to say, “There was a man who had a fig tree and planted it in a vineyard,” they would immediately have a mental picture in mind. They would know that a fig tree, valued as it was and cultivated in this place, would be the kind of tree that would be expected to bring forth three crops of figs in the course of a year. Therefore, there is a drama to it when Jesus says, “And the man went for three years looking for fruit on the fig tree, and he never found any.” It would’ve been one thing if he said, “And the man went, and he looked in June, and there was nothing there; but when he went back in August, there was a crop.” But no, there was no crop for the first year, no crop for the second year, and it would appear that the third year was going to be exactly the same.

The listeners knew that these trees were valuable. In fact, they were so valuable that the circumstances were such that it was regarded as deserving of death if somebody chopped down one of these fig trees, even if it only yielded a wee bit of fruit. The fig trees were said to mature within three years, so one that hadn’t produced any fruit in that time would be regarded as a lost cause. And that is, of course, what the man says to the man who took care of the vineyard: “I’ve been coming for three years looking for fruit. No fruit, haven’t found any, cut it down; it’s a lost cause. Why should we keep it here and use up the soil?” Because the implications were largely threefold: number one, the tree was fruitless; number two, it was taking up valuable space; and number three, it was causing the soil around to deteriorate.

Now, I said we won’t get to the application until this evening, but I’ll just give you a flavor of it right now as it comes across my computer screen as I’m speaking to you. Fruitless, taking up space, and causing the soil around it to deteriorate: a classic description of the average person who hangs around a church unconverted, who comes Sunday by Sunday by Sunday without any fruit in their lives at all. They’re fruitless, they take up space, and their impact is to deteriorate the soil around them.

So, while it was forbidden to destroy a fruit-bearing tree, it was clearly within the line of duty to chop down a barren or an empty tree. And so that’s the instruction that is given. The intervention comes in verse 8: “Well,” says the man, the vinedresser, “perhaps we could leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit next year, that’ll be fine; and if not, then we’ll cut it down.”

Again, this was not uncommon. This practice is frequently mentioned in the rabbinical writings. In fact, the literal translation is “I’ll dig it and dung it”—not exactly very nice. “Let me dig it and dung it.” And some of us can identify with this: a rosebush that was bought as a present, it looks like nothing on earth, there’s never been a rose on it in a year and a half, and we say, “Why don’t we pull this thing out and just chuck it out?” And someone says, “No, no, no, no, don’t do that! Let me just dig around it a little bit. Let me put some of that thing in that you get from the Scott company, or whoever they are, and we’ll see what we can do with it. And if nothing happens this season, then we’ll pull it up and chuck it then, and we’ll put something else in its place.” That’s the picture.

So the story highlights a number of things. One, it highlights the sterility of the tree. It’s barren, sterile, fruitless. Secondly, it highlights the leniency of this gardener: “Let’s give it another chance. There’s a possibility that fruit may come.” Somebody would have said, “Are you kidding? If it hasn’t come in three years, do you think it’s going to come now?” It’s the kind of thing that people say, you know: “Do you think if he hasn’t come to faith by this time, he’s going to come to faith?” “Do you think she’ll ever trust Christ after all this time, after all she’s experienced, after all the sermons she’s heard? Cut her down! Forget her! Take her off the list!” “No,” says the gardener. “Let’s go one more time. Let’s dig around. Let’s fertilize it. Let’s see, you see.” The sterility of the tree, the leniency of the gardener. And yet also it confronts us with the ultimate finality of judgment. If it does produce fruit, fine. If it doesn’t, then we will cut it down.

So what you have in this little story is both a warning of judgment, which is inevitable, and yet you have a dramatizing of hope. There is possibility here. It’s a reminder to us of the way God works. His judgment is absolutely certain, but his patience and his longsuffering are great towards the penitent. And so he says, “Well, then, I’ll go for one more year. I’ll go for one more time.”

Jesus’ Explanation

That’s the illustration. Let’s go, then, to the explanation.

You can imagine the people looking at one another, and some of them would have been saying—perhaps those who had most recently joined the crowd in listening to Jesus, because not all would have tracked with him for a long time. There are always visitors. There’s always newcomers. And some would have been looking quite befuddled by this. They’d have been trying very hard to say, “Well, what has this got to do with ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish’? And now we have a fig tree in a vineyard and so on?”

And there would have been those within the crowd who’d been around and listened to Jesus preach who had, if you like, followed the journey through as we have in the Gospel of Luke. And they would have said to the people either in the immediacy or in the chance of conversation later, “Well, you know, you need to understand the story that Jesus told today in light of everything else that he’s already said about fruit.” And they would have taken them back, as I want to take you back now, to Luke chapter 8, and they would have told them of the story—the other parable that Jesus told, the parable of the soils—and how the word of God was sown like seed in the ground, and how, in the same way as when a farmer sows seed, some of it is actually just picked up and taken away by the birds. And in the same way, for some people, the word of God comes and is picked up and taken away. They’re hardly there, the sermon is hardly begun, till they want to get their coat on and get out of there. It’s hardly finished till they’re on to the next thing. It’s as though nothing ever happened. And then there are others for whom the seed goes down and has a little bit of an impact, and there’s some flowers and leaves that begin to sprout. And so people say, “Oh, they must have believed!” And yet within a very short time, it all withers away again. And there are others who seem to be making progress, but as they make their journey along the way, the thorns and the thistles of life and the concerns about worldly riches and prestige and all these different things, they just come up, and they just choke the very life out of it. And Jesus says, “However, there is, when it goes down into the good soil, that which brings forth a hundredfold in terms of produce. And this,” he says, “is the noble and the good heart that receives the word of God and puts it into practice.”[5]

Fruitfulness is already, you see, in the instruction of Jesus, of absolutely vital importance. Some actually would have been able to recall the other mention that he’d made of it back in the Sermon on the Plain here, in between what he said about the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and the plank in your own eye and his instruction about the wise and the foolish builders. Luke 6:43, Jesus had said to them, “[Hey,] no good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit,” and “each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do[n’t] pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers.” He was making the same point, you see: “Here’s a person who says that he’s a follower of me, but look at his fruit! Here is somebody who says that he lives by Christ, but look at her fruit!”

Or some of them may even have been there right at the very beginning, when John the Baptist preached his famous evangelistic sermon, recorded for us in Luke chapter 3, when the crowds came out to be baptized by John, and he had that amazing introduction as they all found themselves settled in the desert area, and sat down, and he began, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”[6] And if you recall, when we studied that passage some months ago now, we said it’s not quite what you would call the customary introduction to an evangelistic talk. For example, tomorrow evening, I have the privilege of addressing some men who will come, I hope, to the men’s event, and they asked if I would speak concerning the gospel. I anticipate that none of you who have already planned to bring a friend or a colleague are thinking that I will begin when they hand the opportunity over to me by saying, “You brood of vipers! Who invited you here to run away from the coming wrath?” But they’d never forget it, would they? They may never hear anything other than that, because they may just stand up and walk right out. And probably some did then. But what did he say? “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”

And then Luke 3:8: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” “And don’t,” he says, “start that ‘We’re Abraham’s children stuff.’ Don’t start hanging your hat on your background or who your dad was, or your father was a Presbyterian minister, or your uncle was a great elder in the Methodist church, or any of that jazz.” He says, “I don’t need to hear any of that stuff, because God is able to make children for Abraham out of the stones that are lying round here in the desert.”[7]

That dies hard in some people’s minds, because, you know, it’s our background that’s so important to us.

“Do you realize who I am?”


“Do you realize my lineage?”


“Sounds like you don’t care.”

Well, I care, but I don’t want you to care to the extent that you might rely on that rather than relying on what Jesus had to say about what it meant to become one of his followers.

“Bear fruit,” says John, “that befits repentance.” And then, of course, his conclusion was quite nerve-jangling: “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not [bear] … fruit”—that is, “good fruit”—“will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”[8]

Now, what Jesus is essentially doing here is he is reiterating the exhortation of John the Baptist. John the Baptist said, “Bear fruit that befits repentance.” Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will perish. Your repentance will be revealed in your fruitfulness. Now let me just drive this home for you,” he says. “There was a man who planted a fig tree, and he put it in his vineyard, and after three years, it had no fruit on it at all.” Do you see how the line goes?

Now, some of the brightest amongst the crowd would have been able to go one step further, to the very heart of it all—the way that some of you are able to go already, perhaps. And they would have been able to go right back through the Gospel of Matthew, right across the intertestamental divide, right back into the Prophets, and right to chapter 5 of Isaiah. And when they got there, what would they find? The same thing that you will find if you turn there.

You say, “This is rather tedious.” I warned you. We’re going to be turning to a number of passages, and those of you who are not going to allow your fingers to do the walking will be even more hopelessly lost than you feel yourself at the moment.

Amongst the crowd when Jesus told this story, there would have been those who, in the back of their minds, at least, they had this inkling: “I heard something about this at the synagogue. Haven’t I heard this, read this, from the Scroll of the Prophets?” Isaiah 5:1:

I will sing for the one I love
 a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
 on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
 and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
 and cut out a winepress as well.
[And] then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
 but it yielded only bad fruit.

Now the prophet takes it one step further:

Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
 judge between me and my vineyard.

He says, “You think this stuff out.”

What more could have been done for my vineyard
 than I have done for it?

Now, you have to do your homework on your own, but go to verse 7, still in Isaiah 5. Lest we be in any doubt about the point:

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
 is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
 are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
 for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

So as Jesus turns to them and says, “Now let me tell you a story about a man who planted a fig tree in his vineyard,” do you think that it is at least possible that he anticipates that somewhere in the minds of at least some of the members of the crowd, some of these pieces of the jigsaw will be beginning to come together? They’ll be saying, “You know, I think he is speaking directly to us as the Jews. I think he is speaking here to the house of Israel. I think he is giving a warning here to those of us who have had all the benefits of the prophets and all of the wonder of God’s electing love in the life of Abraham.” And they would be absolutely right! That they understood Deuteronomy 7: “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor did he choose you, because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and remembered his oath to you that he brought you out from the bondage of Egypt and redeemed you with an outstretched hand and gave to you all of the privileges and the benefits.”[9] “You were planted like the fig tree in the choicest of locations. You were given every opportunity to bear fruit.”

When he came, he came where, says John in his prologue? “He came unto his…” Pardon? “Own”![10] Yes, he did. To the Jew first, and then to the gentile.[11] He came to his own. And his own, despite their choice location, despite the immensity of their privileges, despite all of the Old Testament pointing and leading them forward to the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world,[12] when the prophets spoke, they stoned them, and when the preachers came, they killed them.

If you doubt that, look, then, at end of chapter 13 of Luke’s Gospel once again. Jesus comes and looks over Jerusalem, and he says, “O, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often [have I] longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” What a mystery there is in this! “Look, your house is left to you desolate.”[13]

Now, you just need to fast-forward to AD 66–70 and the Roman-Jewish War, and you will discover that that which Jesus is telling them here comes to the Jewish people with an awful finality as all of their privilege and prosperity as it is represented in Jerusalem is completely eradiated for them and they are scattered, then, throughout the world—a scattering which has continued to this day and continues to this day, even given the events of 1948.

Do you see what Jesus is saying? “Unless you, too, repent, you will all perish!” Indeed, the very things that happened to the Galileans and the tumult of the falling towers of Siloam were actually a metaphor for what was to take place in Jerusalem when the Roman soldiers came in all their crushing and vindictive power and those who had had all the benefits of such a choice location were scattered abroad and chased to pillar and post.

That’s the significance, you see, of the digging around it and the fertilizing it. For isn’t that what Jesus did? After his resurrection, after his crucifixion, in the resurrection and in his ascension and in the coming of the Spirit in Pentecost and in the preaching of the apostles, he is giving to his people opportunity after opportunity to repent so that they will not perish. He had every legitimate right to say, “Chop it down!” But he says, “No, let’s go one more time around.”

I can’t resist applying it beyond this: Unsaved person in Parkside, do you not realize God’s grace and kindness to you? That he didn’t take you to the bar of his judgment in the seven days since the last Lord’s Day, but he says, “Alistair, go round them again! Dig around them, and fertilize a wee bit more, and who knows but that there will be fruit?” We deserve his judgment! We deserve to be banished forever from his presence! None of us has a right to stand before him. Would we show contempt for his kindness and his patience and his goodness to us?[14] But that’s exactly what you find happening.

The law of God sounds out with all of its stern and striking warnings, waking us up to flee from wrath. The gospel of God sounds out with all of its wonderful wooing, loving exhortations, calling us to Christ on the basis of his kindness and patience.

And so the gospel goes out, and by and large, the people reject him wholesale. In the midst of all of that, there are some who stand out from the crowd—no one more striking than Saul of Tarsus, a man whose Judaism and whose lineage and whose dependence upon all of that had made him full of hatred for Jesus and for any who followed Jesus. And by the time he writes to the Philippians, he says, “You know, the things that I once counted as the biggies in my life—my background, and my education, and my religious externalism, and all of those things,” he says, “I actually count them as dung for the sake of knowing my Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the word he actually uses. I use it again not for effect, but since I used it already—“Put some dung around the tree”—he says, “I count all of these things as dung, you see. It’s just refuse.”[15]

That’s a big change, wouldn’t you say? I think that’s different than “getting religion.” I think that’s different than deciding you’re going to start going to church. I think that’s different. In fact, I know it’s different. All of those other things may be done as a result of human initiative. And they may bring about marginal changes, but “only God can change a heart,” to quote Paul Azinger at Payne Stewart’s funeral. Only God can change a heart. And God changes the heart of Saul of Tarsus. And so then he takes up his pen, and he writes, and in his great theological treatise in the book to the to the Christians in Rome, he drives this point home forcefully. And if you will turn with me to the book of Romans, I will endeavor to do the same and bring this to a speedy conclusion.

Romans chapter 2. The chapter begins by saying, “You know, you’ve got no excuse to pass judgment on someone else, because when you judge somebody else, you’re condemning yourself.”[16] There’s the flavor of it, isn’t it? Jesus says, “Don’t worry about the tower in Siloam; worry about whether you’ve repented. Don’t worry about the Galileans; worry about where you stand in relationship to me.” And then here are the verses. Verse 4: “Do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness …?” He actually asks a pressing question before that, at the end of verse 3: “Do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” Do you? I assume that people must. They must assume that they somehow or another are going to escape God’s judgment; that God is going to judge everybody else in the universe except them; that all of them are showing up for the final exams except them; that somehow or another, their father wrote a letter, or they knew the president, or something like that, and they’re going through by a back door of entry. Loved ones, you’re not! “Do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” No! “Well then, do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, his tolerance, and his patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness leads you towards repentance?”[17]

Now, there’s a lovely picture; then comes the hammer blow in the next verse. “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you[’re] storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath.”[18] And this is the balance of Scripture. The law of God sounds out with all of its stern and striking warnings, waking us up to flee from wrath. The gospel of God sounds out with all of its wonderful wooing, loving exhortations, calling us to Christ on the basis of his kindness and on the basis of his patience. So whether it is that we are sent there by the warnings of his law or wooed there by the expressions of his love, it is to this point we need to come. And these people had not come.

In verse 17, he says, “Now, those of you who call yourself Jews…”[19] And then there’s a little section there which leads him to say—Romans 2:28—“A man is not a Jew if he[’s] only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he’s one inwardly; and [the] circumcision is [the] circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” You might say the same thing: “A man is not a Christian who is merely one outwardly.” We use the facile illustration: you do not become a car by living in a garage. And you know you do not become a Christian ipso facto—as a result of—sitting in a church. So a man or a woman is not a Christian who merely gives expression outwardly. A man or a woman is a Christian who is one who has become such inwardly as a result of what God does. And the same is true concerning the Jew. That’s why Jesus says to them in John 8, “If you really had Abraham as your father, you would do the things that Abraham does. But you’ve just got the externals. You don’t have the changed heart.”[20]

Then chapter 3, he goes on: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” Now, what’s he going to say? Absolutely no value at all? No! Look at what he says: “Much in every way!” Exclamation point. “First of all,” he says (“Let me tell you the very first thing”), “they have been entrusted with the very words of God.”[21]

A man had a fig tree, and he planted it in a choice location. Is there an advantage? Of course there is! Deuteronomy 6, the Shema! “These things shall be upon your hearts, and you will teach them to your children, and you will talk about them when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you get up.”[22] “And when your children ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones mean?’ you will tell them that we walked through the Jordan on dry ground, in the same way as our people passed through the Red Sea on dry land as a result of the Passover, whereby God intervened with the angel of death and made possible our redemption.”[23] Is there an advantage in being a Jew? Of course there is! They’ve “been entrusted with the very words of God.”

“So then, shall we conclude,” verse 9… “Are we, then, any better? Well, not at all!”[24] And then he goes on to say, Jew or gentile, we’re all in the same sorry predicament, and leads us right up to 3:20: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Now, we’re absolutely in the cul-de-sac at this point. The gentile has offended against God’s law and is in need of a Savior. The Jew has done the exact same thing. Despite the benefits that have been theirs from the very beginning, they have chosen to put their fingers in their ears and to run away from the message that has been conveyed to them.

So is it all over at this point? No, it really starts at verse 21: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” In other words, “This isn’t some newfangled thing that I’ve just dreamt up,” says Paul. “If you go back and read the Law and you read the Prophets, you will realize that it is pointing to this. And the righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus to all who believe, and there’s absolutely no difference whether you’re a Jew or whether you’re a gentile, because the one unifying factor about our lives is that all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and that justification comes freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus when God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.”[25]

Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you’re all going to perish. Now let me tell you a story: There was a man who had a fig tree, and he put it in a vineyard. And the owner came on three separate occasions, and after three years, he found there was absolutely nothing on it at all. And so he said, ‘Let’s just cut it down.’ And the vinedresser said, ‘No, don’t let’s cut it down just yet. If it please you, let’s give it one more year, and let me dig around it and fertilize it, and if there is fruit then, fine. And if not, we will cut it down.’”

Well, some of you are already asking, “Well, is it, then, all over for the Jewish people? Have they had their shot, and it’s done?” No. The final chapter hasn’t been written yet. For your homework, you need to read Romans chapter 9, 10, and 11. And when you get there, you will discover these amazing statements—and I’ll just tease you with them, and then I’ll wrap it up.

Romans 11. In the mystery of God’s purposes, here is Paul. His great desire of his heart is for the Israelites, “that they [might] be saved.” That’s actually 10:1. He says, “[Because] I can testify … them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.”[26] Isn’t that the truth? I mean, yesterday afternoon in Cleveland Heights—is that not zeal? Doesn’t it stir your heart? Don’t you feel like a pagan in your abuse of the Lord’s Day when you get to the baker’s down there in the Heights, and there’s a sign on the thing, and it says, “Closed for the worship of God on the Sabbath”? Do you not feel something when you look at those people walking with their sons to the synagogue, with the hats and with the coats and with the ringlets and with the scrolls and with the phylacteries? Oh, it’s easy to say, “Look at all that externalism,” but you’ve got to agree—he says, “They have a zeal for God. It’s not based on knowledge.”

“For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but … since they [do] not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” That’s where they are. That’s where our Orthodox Jewish friends are. They’re zealous for God. They are keen for God. They would die for God. They will die for what they believe to be the land of God. But since they do not respond to the Word of God as it finds its finality in Christ, they inevitably do not have the righteousness which God provides in Jesus. Therefore, they have to establish a righteousness of their own.

So he asks in chapter 11, “Did, then, God reject his people? By no means!” he says. “He didn’t reject his people. I’m an illustration of that,” he says.[27] And then he goes on to talk about this wonderful picture about them being engrafted branches. Verse 11 of chapter 11:

Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their fullness bring!

Verse 17: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you”—speaking to the gentiles—“though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” In other words, the gentiles are built on the foundation of the Jews and not the other way around. And you can’t change that in all of world history. That’s a fact. He says, “So don’t become a smart aleck. Don’t start getting uppity in relationship to this. Be careful about the way you think of these people and the way you pray for those people and the way you long for these people to come and to discover that Jesus really is the Messiah.”

“You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”[28] See what he’s saying? If he did not allow them to continue simply because they said, “We are of the line and lineage of David. David is our king; he sat upon the royal throne”—he says, “If he was prepared to cut them off, do you think he won’t cut professing gentiles off whose expression of religion is churchgoing, it’s externalism, it’s self-serving, but it is minus the life-transforming power of the Spirit of God revealed in fruitfulness? And how, then, will they be restored?”[29]

“Consider … the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in [this] kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”[30] What does that mean? That you keep yourself saved? No, it is that a kind heart is an indication of a transformed life. And when I have an unkind heart and a hard heart and a disinterest in the needs and the affairs of people without Christ, then I give indication of the fact that my expressions and confessions of faith are merely external and they’re not life changing. Because “otherwise, you … will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.”[31]

This is so good, you see. This is the answer, you see. There’s no peace process that can take care of this. That’s why Jesus, over Jerusalem, says, “Oh, if only you had known what makes for peace! If only I could have convinced you of what makes for peace! Then you will know peace!”[32] And this is the only peace that there will ever be—the peace that is found in bowing at the feet of Christ: Lord, Savior, Messiah, and King. And the reason they’re in their predicament is because of unbelief. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in.

So we may look, then, before Christ returns, for some great turning of Jewish people to faith in Jesus Christ. At least we can say that with confidence on the strength of the Bible. All of the details and the bits and pieces and the charts and diagrams I have little time for at all, I confess freely to you. But I do have an earnest longing in my heart to see Christ as King doing exactly what Paul refers to in Romans 11: turning the hearts of these people to the discovery of the messiahship of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And how will they be grafted in? By believing, not by being Jewish—and not by being around at a certain moment in the history of redemption, as some teach, so that you can either go to heaven as a result of believing in Christ or if you’re fortunate enough to be a Jew at a certain moment in history. It’s amazing to me that people can get that from the Bible! But they do, and forcefully so. And some of your ears are already pinned back in your heads, because you’ve learned that from your earliest days. Listen: it is because of their unbelief that they are where they are, and they will be grafted in when they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and they are saved.

We may look, before Christ returns, for some great turning of Jewish people to faith in Jesus Christ. At least we can say that with confidence on the strength of the Bible.

Therefore, the emphasis in relationship to evangelism with the Jews is not so much in uniting with our Jewish friends to establish our value system, but it is in conveying to our Jewish friends the supreme value that is to be found in a righteousness that comes from God that cannot be manufactured. You see, that is the great stumbling block for me with my Jewish friends—with our dear next-door neighbors. How we miss them and love them with a passion! And how earnestly they wanted me to be a Unitarian minister! “Are you a Unitarian?” “No.” But I understood why they wanted me to be one: because then, on the basis of the lowest common denominator, both of us have dispensed with the divine Christ, both of us have dispensed with the Messiah, and now we can hold hands together in the endeavor to try and transform our world by whatever means of human righteousness.

So, actually, the things that divide myself and my Jewish doctor friend are far greater than the things that unite us. Beware, as it comes through the waves of Christian radio, as you hear again and again on the basis of cold belligerence and the concerns for politics and the well-being of the things of time—beware every time you hear someone saying, “You know, the things that unite us are more significant than the things that divide us.” May your antennae go flying up from your ears, you see. And go back to your Bible and say, “Well then, what is it that divides us?” And if what divides us is an understanding of who Jesus is and why he came and the nature of the atonement and the sufficiency and final authority of the Bible, then I tell you that no matter what else unites us, there is no greater division, because this will divide men and women in all of eternity.

Now, we haven’t done the application to the church or to ourselves. But that’ll be tonight, if God spares us.

Let’s pray:

O God our Father, out of a multitude of words we pray that we might hear your voice. And anything that is of man and wrong or confusing, may it be banished from our recollection and all that is of yourself. May we not be able to rest until we, too, have repented, until the fig tree of our lives bears the fruit that comes as a result not of hanging things on from the outside but comes as a result of the life that is drawn up from within.

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen. Amen.

[1] Luke 18:11 (paraphrased).

[2] 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).

[3] Genesis 4:7 (NIV 1984).

[4] Luke 13:3, 5 (paraphrased).

[5] Luke 8:4–15 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 7:24; Luke 6:47.

[6] Luke 3:7 (NIV 1984).

[7] Luke 3:8 (paraphrased).

[8] Luke 3:9 (NIV 1984).

[9] Deuteronomy 7:7–8 (paraphrased).

[10] John 1:11 (KJV).

[11] See Romans 1:16.

[12] See John 1:29.

[13] Luke 13:34–35 (NIV 1984).

[14] See Romans 2:4.

[15] Philippians 3:7–11 (paraphrased).

[16] Romans 2:1 (paraphrased).

[17] Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).

[18] Romans 2:5 (NIV 1984).

[19] Romans 2:17 (paraphrased).

[20] John 8:39 (paraphrased).

[21] Romans 3:1–2 (NIV 1984).

[22] Deuteronomy 6:6–7 (paraphrased).

[23] Joshua 4:21–24 (paraphrased).

[24] Romans 3:9 (paraphrased).

[25] Romans 3:21–26 (paraphrased).

[26] Romans 10:2 (NIV 1984).

[27] Romans 11:1 (paraphrased).

[28] Romans 11:19–21 (NIV 1984).

[29] See Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34.

[30] Romans 11:22 (NIV 1984).

[31] Romans 11:22–23 (NIV 1984).

[32] Luke 19:42 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.