February 11, 2001
When tragedy overtook a group of Galileans, Jesus was asked if such calamity occurred because they were worse sinners. He answered no, but continued to explain that all men must repent of their sins or perish. Without repentance, Alistair Begg reminds us, all sinners will face the righteous judgment of God. We are alive today only by God’s goodness. Let us not squander His gracious patience toward us and instead repent while there is still time.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Chapter 12, as some of you will recall, ended with Jesus having confronted his listeners with their failure to interpret the times in which they were living. In fact, he had called them hypocrites. He said it was rather hypocritical of them to be so good at predicting the weather and yet not to be using their powers of deduction in relationship to the signs that had surrounded his birth and his life and ministry. He had also then urged them to make sure that their preparation for meeting God was adequately taken care of. And he had warned them of the danger of failing to settle accounts with God by using this little parable, as it were, recognizing that each of his listeners would be aware of the fact that if you were going to settle a lawsuit, there is often distinct advantage to being able to do so before it finally ends up in court. And Jesus is essentially saying, “Make sure, then, that you settle your accounts with God before you find yourself without excuse before the bar of God’s judgment.” For each of his listeners, as is true for each of us, were and are moving towards an inexorable moment when we will meet God and when we will give an answer to him.
Now, Luke then sets this little section that follows in the chronological context of what has immediately proceeded it. He is careful to tell us in the opening phrase that “there were some present”—notice the phrase—“at that time.” At what time? At the time when Jesus had just given this word to them, a word of warning and a word of condemnation. And some present to hear this then volunteer this gruesome information about the fate that had befallen these Galileans. Pilate, whom we meet later on as a character of some ruthless guile, is obviously working true to his character, and he had come in and seized the opportunity to bring about this treacherous end to the lives of these individuals who were offering sacrifices.
Now, we’re not told why it is that these individuals raised this question or bring it about. Perhaps it is because Jesus has been talking about signs. They haven’t been doing a very good job on signs, and so they said, “Well, funnily enough, we’ve got one for you: What do you make of the situation involving Pilate and the Galileans?” It may be that they were asking Jesus to interpret the sign. Or it may be that they were simply concurring with what Jesus had said about the importance of making sure that you keep short accounts with God and that you settle the matter of his adversarial position with you quickly, before you get to the point where you have run out of time to be able to do so. And it may be that that is in the minds of those who raise this issue, because clearly, in the condition of these Galileans, they, without expectation, found themselves suddenly ushered into the presence of God.
Now, this particular incident finds no parallel in any of the other Gospels, nor have people been able to find, over the years, any reference to it in the secular texts. We ought not to be alarmed by this at all. It’s simply an indication of the fact that when you have a kind of society in which events like this are almost commonplace, not everything finds its way into the history books. It would be no big event that a few people died in the context of their worship, because after all, people were dying all over the place, and in some of the worst kinds of fashion. It may be—and some have pointed this out—that the reference here is to the followers of Judas of Galilee. I won’t take time to go and ferret him out for you, but you can find him in the words of Gamaliel in Acts chapter 5, where he actually mentions the existence of this character, Judas of Galilee, who had some followers who in turn came to a rather untimely end. But it is a matter of conjecture. It’s not germane to the point that Jesus makes.
Now, in order to help us through these five verses, I want to do so as simply and as straightforwardly as I can—to notice together, first of all, the question that Jesus asks; and then, secondly, to notice the answer Jesus gives; and then, thirdly and finally, to notice the application Jesus makes. You say to yourself, “Well, that seems fairly straightforward.” I hope it is. I want it to be straightforward. It really is a dreadful waste of time to try and make something that is straightforward sound very complicated. Any silly person can make things difficult. It takes a sensible person to make them easy. So, I don’t want to congratulate myself in this, but I do want to give congratulations to Luke for providing for us such a straightforward record of the events.
First of all, then, the question Jesus asks. Incidentally, he asks this question twice, he gives the answer twice, and he makes the application twice. So, as I say, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out how to teach these five verses in the Bible.
“Do you think,” says Jesus, “that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered [in] this way?” Then he asks the question a second time, introducing to his listeners the events that had transpired in relationship to the tower that had fallen near the fountain of Siloam—a fountain which went underground and issued into the pool of Siloam, the pool of Bethesda, and there had been an incident in which this tower had come crashing down, and as a result of that, eighteen people had lost their lives. Jesus asks the question slightly differently, but it is essentially the same question: “Do you think,” verse 4, “[that] they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?”
Now, the reason that he asks the question in this way was because it was a commonly accepted notion at the time that whenever calamities visited people, this was proof that they were exceptionally sinful and, on account of this, God had chosen to allow them to suffer in this way. And so the destruction of the Galileans would be regarded by many as proof of God’s displeasure with them—as an indication that somehow or another, these people were extraordinary sinners. And in the same way, they would have been saying to one another—with the destruction of these eighteen characters with the fall of the tower, many of the people in the bazaars of the day would be saying, “Well, I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes, and I can’t imagine what it was they were doing, but they must have been doing something very, very dreadful for God to have intervened in this way.”
Now, that’s the question Jesus asks. It’s not an uncommon question, nor is it an uncommon question today. Indeed, you can’t go very far through the journey of life in the company of people without recognizing that this question comes up again and again. For example, with the destruction in Waco, Texas, people were asking the question, “Is this because these people were much more dreadful than the rest of us?” When people stood and watched Space Shuttle Challenger evaporate before their eyes, the question was raised, “Are these people more guilty than we? Did they do something dreadfully wrong, that God would intervene in this way and take them to himself in such a dramatic fashion?”
While Susan and I were driving in a taxi in DC a week ago Thursday, I recognized from the accent of the man as he spoke to us—our driver—that he had the same accent as the man from whom I sometimes buy my New York Times. And so I said to him, “Are you from Pakistan?” he said, “Yes, I am.” And so I said, “Well, growing up in Glasgow, I had many Pakistani friends and acquaintances, and again in Yorkshire, and so many are in Bradford from your nation.” And we talked a little bit about that, and I said to him, I said, “Well, what then do you make of the dreadful events in India and the earthquake?”
And he said two things. One, he said that it was very sad. And then he said this: “These people cannot keep on sinning without facing the judgment of God.” Spoken like a true Muslim. And it was a racial statement on his part in recognition of the fact that India, on its borders with Pakistan, has been intruding on the sovereignty of Pakistan, and the Pakistani Muslims have been at war with the Indians, and so he was seeing it as some indication of vindication for Pakistan and judgment upon India. Because for Islam, you only have the scales; there is no cross. There is only the attempt to outweigh the bad by the doing of the good. And so this Pakistani taxi driver says, “These people, you see, were dreadful people—much more guilty than the rest of us. And they can’t go on sinning, you know, without the judgment of God falling.”
Well then, what are we to say to all of this? Well, a number of things.
First of all, it is true to the biblical record that judgment is seen to overtake those whose lives are marked by disobedience. You cannot read the Bible without seeing that in the lives of certain individuals, there is a direct correlation between flat-out, blatant disobedience and the intervention of God in a moment in time in their lives. For example, go get a concordance and look up the story of Nadab, or look up about Abihu, or consider the story of Dathan, or go to the New Testament and think about Ananias and Sapphira. And when you look at the events surrounding their lives, the inference of the sin from the judgment that follows is a legitimate inference. And the Bible makes that clear.
But—and you must notice this carefully—that is not the same as saying that disasters come only to those who are disobedient. You understand? So the Bible does see a correlation between disobedience and judgment. But in fact, when you take the largest picture, the amazing truth is that God so seldom intervenes in this way—on account of the extent of his mercy—prolonging by his kindness the opportunities for men and women in generation after generation to be able to embrace the wonder of his love and his goodness. It is therefore as uncharitable as it is dangerous to judge both the character and the condition of men from their outward lot in life.
The writer of the Ecclesiastes helps us in this. And let me just read this for you. You can do your homework in Ecclesiastes 9. But just listen to this carefully. He’s reflecting on the nature of life, and he says,
So I reflected on all this and [I] concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good man, so with the sinner; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.
Now, what he’s saying is this: that it doesn’t matter whether you have just come from church or whether you have just come from the casino; if you’re not looking where you’re going and you trip over a paving stone, you’re going to land flat on your face. God does not suspend the laws of gravity just for his believing own. We live in a world where the eventualities of life are experienced alike. The sun shines on the righteous and on the unrighteous, and the rain falls on both the same.
Listen! Chapter 9 still, and verse 11: “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift.” In other words, it’s not always the fastest people that win the race. “Or the battle to the strong.” It’s not always the toughest that win the fight. “Nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant.” There are plenty of brilliant people that live in penury!
or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.
Now, you don’t want to build your whole doctrine of providence out of the book of Ecclesiastes. But you must recognize that what is said there is at least true where it is true. In other words, where he says things that are not true, then, because the Bible is true in all of its parts, it’s also true about the falsehoods. You understand? Most of you don’t. That’s okay. Buy the tape and sit on a high hill and think about it. The Bible is totally true, even when it explains what is false. It is always true in explaining what is false. It never errs.
Now, the disciples themselves, they didn’t have a handle on this either. John chapter 9, the beginning of it: they come upon a man who’s been blind from birth, and what did they say? “Jesus, who sinned, this man or his parents?” What are they saying? They’re saying the reason he’s blind must be because somebody did a dreadful sin. What does Jesus say? “No! Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Doesn’t mean that they were sinless. It means that there was no direct correlation between sin in their lives and his experience of blindness but that the blindness of this man was in order that the name of God might be magnified.
The comforters of Job, so-called, when they find the dreadful nature of his predicament, try and explain to Job that the reason he’s in the mess he’s in is because he’s actually a perverse and wicked man: “Job, you must be a hypocrite. Job, you must be hiding something up your sleeve. Because look at you! Full of boils, and your house burning down, and things falling on top of your daughters and your sons. And it’s just a complete shambles, Job!” Here’s the explanation.
Or you get the same thing in Acts chapter 28, when Paul is making the fire on the shoreline, and a viper comes and fastens itself onto his hand. Do you remember what the people say? They all recoil from him, and they say, “This man must be a murderer.”
You see? So the question Jesus asks is valid: “The people who ended underneath the tower, were they more guilty than those who didn’t? The people whose lives were snuffed out in the experience of the Galilean sacrifice in the temple, were they somehow worse sinners than the rest?”
Well, let’s go to the answer that he gives. The question is really clear, and the answer is at least as clear. “Were they? I tell you, no!”—verse 3. “Were they? I tell you, no!”—verse 5.
Now, Jesus doesn’t deny that sin has consequences. Jesus does not deny that sin leads to judgment. He’s been teaching that. But Jesus rejects the theory that those who encounter disaster, such as these described in this passage, have somehow or another been necessarily marked by God as more deserving of judgment than those who don’t. In other words, natural calamities provide no proof that those who suffer in them are any worse sinners than anybody else. Far more important, as we’re about to see, is the fact that all sinners—and the comprehensive nature of this is borne out by the use of the word “all” in verse 2, verse 3, verse 4, and, I think, there in verse 5—all sinners face the judgment of God unless they repent. “So let us be clear in our minds,” says Jesus. “Do you think somehow or another that because these people ended their lives in this way, that they were worse sinners or they were more guilty? I want you to know,” he says, “they were not.”
Now, before we turn to our final point, which we will in just a moment, let me make a couple of observations which are subservient to the point of application Jesus makes.
First of all, in light of what we have here, let us not be too quick to judge other people. That’s a very marginal point, but I think it’s an important point. Let’s be very, very careful that we [not] start judging people on the basis of certain externals, you know: “Well, the reason they’re living in that house, you know, must be because of something that they did that was really fabulous, you know, and that’s blessing,” or “The reason that they’re not living in that house and they’re living there is because it must have been something dreadful they did, and that’s judgment, you know. The reason that the fellow walks like this is because there must be something he did in his life, and the reason the person goes like this is because that’s the sunshine of God upon them.” There are many sinners skipping their way to hell. There are many saints hobbling their way to heaven. Let us beware of judging on the basis of externals.
Second observation: let us equally beware of jumping to wrong conclusions about our own experiences of suffering. Beware of the manipulative work of the Evil One, who likes us to try and conclude like this: “You know, I must be a very great sinner, or this would never have happened to me. The reason I’m in the predicament I’m in is because I’m worse than everybody else.” No, you’re not worse than everybody else. It’s good for us to have a sober estimate of our predicament. But if we start to insinuate to ourselves that the calamity in which we find ourselves is because we’re a worse sinner than the person next to us or that God is treating us as an enemy and that he’s maybe going to reject us forever, then we have completely lost sight of the way in which our Father works. Rather, what we want to ask God to do is to sanctify our distresses to us. That’s a line from a hymn, isn’t it? “[But] sanctify to [me my] deepest distress.” That I want to recognize that every son that the Lord loves he chastens and he reproves. And so, as I seek to make sense of my sufferings and the things that have befallen me, I want to make sure that I don’t fall foul of the insinuations of the Evil One.
Thirdly, I observe from this that it is good for us to be thankful for our own preservation. Calamities and the sudden removal of other people around us ought to remind us of the fact that it is God’s care that has kept us. Did you think of that this morning? I hope you did. Did you think of that when you took your key out of the car and closed the door? Did you ponder for even a nanosecond the fact that you have driven so many thousands and thousands of miles in absolute complete safety since the day, that awesome day, when you get the keys on your own, and you get your driver’s license, and your parents stand back and recoil from it, and they say, “Oh, Lord Jesus, look after him”? And here, now, thirty-two years later, God has preserved me. I want to thank him! I want to thank him for the moments when I looked in my rearview mirror just in that absolute moment that saved my life! I want to thank him for the time when, driving on 480 to the airport, this thundering great wheel came off a truck that was in front of us and bounced all across the freeway, and cars smashed into walls and went all over the place, and somehow or another, we went through. You’ve been there as well!
So when the towers fall, and when the waves rise, and when the earthquakes come, and when the roof shakes, it ought to be a reminder to us of the fact that God in his sovereign purposes has preserved our lives, has kept us to this day, in order that we might hear his voice, in order that we might not make light of his tolerance and of his patience, in order that his kindness might lead us to repentance.  He’s kept you alive for this moment so that I might speak to you. And he’s kept us together in order that we might study the Bible. Sure, some have gone—some with calamitous experiences drawn into his presence in the mystery of his providences. We reflect on it, and tears smart to our eyes. But here we are today.
As children going to bed in Scotland—I don’t know how it started—but we would call to one another as we said good night to each other a phrase that has passed down into my family. And even when our children, now at twenty-two and twenty and eighteen, come home, we still shout it to one another as we’re going up the stairs and going off to bed. And this is what we say: “I’ll see you in the morning, all spared and well.” It’s kind of strange, isn’t it? “I’ll see you in the morning, all spared and well—because I recognize that if he chooses not to spare my life, then I will not see you in the physicality of tomorrow morning.” So,
As I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
And if I die before I wake,
I pray you, Lord, my soul to take.
And ultimately, in Christ we’re able to say, “And we’ll see you in the morning, all spared and well.”
There was someone who used to come to the church here; they no longer do, but they didn’t like it whenever I used the notion of being spared. Sometimes in my prayers I would say, “And I thank you, Father, that you have spared us to another day.” They said, “You know, I don’t like the sound of that.” I said, “Frankly, I don’t care whether you like the sound of it or not. It is an important truth that you need to bow beneath and understand.” He grants his beloved sleep, and he wakes us up to a new day.
And then, here: so we should not miss the lessons that are obvious in calamity and in sudden death. Let us not miss the lessons that are obvious in calamity and in sudden death. I cannot even read that phrase without thinking of a gentleman in Scotland whose life had taken a downturn. His wife had gone in for surgery. As a result of the surgery, she’d been rendered quadriplegic. His whole life, in a moment, was turned upside down at that. He was still only in his thirties. Everything was changed for him. And in the course of ministering to him and helping him, he would pray that God would take his wife home, you see, because after all, she’s in such a dreadful predicament. I said to him, “You might want to be careful about praying about whether God’s supposed to take her home. Maybe he’ll take you home instead, you know, because she seems to be handling it a lot better than you.” And as a result of these things, or triggered by some of these things, he got into a dalliance with another woman, and he began to find comfort and satisfaction in someone other than his quadriplegic wife. And he sat alone in a restaurant in Aberdeen, eating breakfast in the early hours of the morning. There was a gas explosion blew right through the kitchen and the restaurant and blew him into eternity.
Was he more guilty? A worse sinner? Absolutely not! Is there a lesson to be learned? Absolutely. Let the sudden passing of those who name Christ stand as a warning to those of us who are tempted to play the fool. Do you get it?
Now let’s come to the final point. ’Cause these observations are ultimately subservient to the point of application. The point of application is clear. The question Jesus asked: “Do you think they’re worse? Do you think they’re more guilty?” The answer he gives: “Absolutely not.” “So Jesus, what do you want us to do?” Well, this is what he wants us to do: he wants us to make sure that we repent. He says it twice: “I tell you … unless you repent, you too will all perish!”—verse 3. “Unless you repent, you too will all perish!”
In other words, Jesus turns his listeners’ thoughts to where they need to be. When people ask you about the problem of suffering in the world and the things that are mysteries and can’t be explained, or the problem of sin in the world and evil in the world, one of the things that we have to say, not in an unkind way, is “Listen, let’s not try and wrestle with this vast metaphysical question over here for the moment. Why don’t we just talk about the evil that exists in your life?” That kind of changes things really fast, you know.
That’s what Jesus does. He says, “I want you to turn your gaze inward. I want you to be reminded of the fact that you stand before the coming wrath of God.” Fortunately, and on account of God’s mercy, we have not been treated here and now with strict justice. Isn’t that true? “O Lord, if you kept a record of our sins, which of us could stand?” If God was intervening in strict justice—cause and effect—as we made our way through our lives, which of us could stand up this morning? None of us. In Hamlet, one of the characters says, “Use every man after his desert, and who should [e]scape [a] whipping?” You know, if everybody gets what is deserved, everybody’s going to go and get a whipping. Is that the way that God deals with us as we go through our lives? And if he did, most of us would have our jackets off all day long!
With mercy and with judgment
My web of time he wove;
And aye, the dews of sorrow
Were lustered [by] his love.
Jesus says, “But I need to warn you!” ’Cause the fact is that we’re all sinners. The fact is that we all need repentance. The fact is that we all deserve punishment and that all of us are being preserved from the wrath of God, at least until the judgment day, and purely by his mercy.
So what’s the point? Well, it’s really a question: “Have I repented?” Have you repented? And secondarily, if so, when did you last repent? Have you repented, and if so, when did you last repent? Because, you see, repentance is not something that is simply at the threshold of Christian experience. Repentance is the daily journey of the Christian. The Christian life from start to finish is repentance. It is turning from, and it is turning to. It is acknowledging that I am saved and I am being saved: saved from sin’s penalty, being saved from sin’s power, and one day saved from sin’s very presence.
But let me ask you: Have you ever come to God in repentance? Has there ever been an inward, radical change in your heart, in your mind, and in the direction of your life? Oh, I’m not asking now if you have ever reconfigured yourself religiously—some external reorganization that is absent any inward revolution. People do that all the time out of a concern for a midlife crisis: “You know, I think I’ll try and be a much better person now. I’ve only apparently got twenty-five or thirty years of life left, and I’ve been a bit of a pain in the neck, so I’ll try and de-pain myself, and this is how I’m going to go about it.” It’s really got nothing to do about bowing down before God and acknowledging myself to be a sinner. It has more to do about my reputation; it has more to do about my selfish interests. “I’d like people to think much better of me. Therefore, I have decided to add religion to my life. I have decided to reconfigure a number of things. I am not going to be this kind of person, and I am going to be this kind of person.”
That is not repentance. That is not Christianity. That is not the issue that Jesus is addressing. All of these things can restrain us from habits that are bad even while our hearts still long for the bad habits. It is one thing for us to be good as to the letter and matter of things but actually to be bad as to the spirit and the motive of things. That’s why when the Bible talks about repentance, it always talks about it in relationship to grace and faith. Calvin, actually, describes repentance as “the concrete expression of divine regeneration and renewal.” Indeed, he goes so far as to define repentance as regeneration.
Have you ever repented? You see, true repentance doesn’t turn from sin just on account of the impact of the mess that it has made—you know, “I’ve been ruining my health; I think I ought to stop this. I’ve been ruining my family; I think I really ought to take care of this.” Now, people may do that for all kinds of reasons and on the basis of all kinds of impulses. This is something different. This is something that God works within our hearts. In fact, repentance itself is ultimately the gift of God—the very will and interest in facing up to the dreadful predicament of my experience!
That’s the man in Luke 15. (I’m dying to get to Luke 15. I’m sure you are too.) But anyway, he’s not so concerned about his clothes and things. And he says, “I’m going to go to my Father and say to him, ‘I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.’” That is a repentant heart. And it is actually the discovery of the love of God in the Lord Jesus that generates that kind of sense of contrition. The love of God in Jesus demonstrates and engenders that within a heart.
When we studied the Ten Commandments together and when we look at the law of God together, as we do so purposefully, we recognize that the terrors of the law, when we hold up the standard of God’s righteousness, show us to be in a dreadful mess. So it is good for us, it is necessary for us, because some of us are so stuck in ourselves and think we’re fine, that we need to have the law held up to us. And when we hold the law up to us, we say, “Oh, I guess I’m not an Olympic athlete after all. I can only jump two foot six. I didn’t know that the high jump, you’re supposed to be able to jump nine feet. I thought two foot six was in.” Sorry! “Oh, I thought I went to heaven just because I was baptized.” Sorry! “I thought I would be fine with God and we would be okay on that day just because I’d begun to show an interest in religion.” Sorry!
Now, when we come to the terrors of the law, we discover that they alarm my conscience, but they can’t pacify it, and they can’t purify it. That’s why some of you that have come out of a background in which you’ve had the law of God proclaimed to you ad nauseam don’t know where to go, because you’ve been told you’re really bad and you’re really messed up, and the law cannot fix it. And you went to Father So-and-So, and he couldn’t fix it either. And you thought if you went back again and again and again and again, maybe you can multiply yourself finally till you have enough in your penance or in your contrition or in your turning around to finally, you know, get the balance enough whereby “I think I joined the club. I think I’m in.” But you have no assurance.
I’ll tell you why: because the law may alarm you, but it can’t change you. The law of God will show you that the rock on which you are standing, whereby you think you are spiritually secure, is about to be wiped away. And the law will do that, but it cannot put you in a place of safety. The law of God, when it is proclaimed, may shake your heart, but it can’t soften your heart. It is the gospel of the love of the Lord Jesus that softens a heart. When a man says, “I am that mess, and I deserve that end,” and then I look upon that cross and I realize that “bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood,” then I say, “Oh, it’s hard for me to recognize that I’m more sinful than I’m prepared to admit and yet at the same time that I am more loved and accepted in this Lord Jesus than I could ever have conceived.” And what happens? Well, the love and the patience and the kindness of God leads to repentance. You see, it is not that God lets the sinner off, because sin must always be punished. But he has punished my sin in the person of his Son in order that I might be made new in him.
Well, have you ever come to repent? And if you did, when is the last time you repented? Repentance is the daily work of the Christian, because we are such a mixture of imperfections. And if you haven’t repented, when are you planning on doing it? Just before you die? Just when you get through this next little business? Just when you finish high school? Just when you graduate from college? Just when you’re good and ready? You don’t have any promise of tomorrow. You only have today. There’s only one time to repent: that’s absolutely now. Did you ever repent? When was the last time?
An illustration and I’m through: We passed on Friday, in Washington, DC—Sue and I went to a mall where we’d never been before in Pentagon City. Nice mall, nice afternoon, lot of glass in the mall, lot of sun shining through, a lot of indications of how beautiful it was outside the mall and how wretched it was inside the mall, especially doing what we had to do, which was to shop for things we didn’t really want—which is, of course, what you’ll find most people doing in malls in any case: buying things with money they don’t have to give to people they don’t like.
But anyway, after about two useless hours in the mall, when I was bemoaning my very existence and where I hadn’t descended to the level of blaming it all on my wife—although that was next—I suggested that our marriage would be best preserved and my sanity best preserved if I just sat down on a bench and Sue went about the business. She would be far more effective without me strapped to her back, as it were, like some poor dead Labrador being dragged around the mall. And so I sat down on a bench in the middle of a mall in which I’d never been in my life next to two fellows—two Black guys, as it turns out. The fact they were Black is neither here nor there, except they were striking. So the little White guy sits down next to these two Black brothers. Little unstriking guy sits next to two striking guys. They had muscles in places I didn’t even have places.
Now, I’m already fed up, I’m already disgusted with being in the mall, and frankly, I can’t find one redeeming feature in the whole afternoon. So I’m in a good mood. I take a telephone call, which lasts a minute and a half, put the telephone back in my pocket. One man has already left; the other fellow is still now beside me, one space away.
As I put the phone back in my pocket, he turns to me, and he says, “Are you Irish?”
Now, I’m already in a bad mood, and that doesn’t help. So I said, “No, are you Chinese?” No, I didn’t; I just made that up just now. I said, “No, I’m Scottish. Why do you ask?”
He says, “Well, there’s a man that I hear on the radio, and his voice sounds a lot like yours.”
So I said, “Well, who’s that?”
He said, “Well, he’s called Alis-stair Begg.”
“Oh,” I said, “that’s interesting.” I said, “What does he talk about?”
He said, “Well, he talks about the Bible,” he said.
I said—and I wasn’t milking it, because I didn’t know where he was going—but I said, “Is he any good?”
Humility forbids me from giving his answer, but essentially, he said yeah, he really liked this guy, because he explained the Bible by explaining the Bible, and there wasn’t a lot of funny stuff in it. That’s what he said: that it was just sort of the Bible. And then he went on to say there were a whole ton of people on this WAVA station—there was Hank Hanegraaff and Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll—and he starts to go through the whole playlist of the day on this radio station.
So after he’s gone on like this for a while, I say to him, “And who are you?”
And he said, “Well, I’m Tony.”
So I said, “Well, I’m Alistair. Alistair Begg.”
So he looked, and he looked back again, and then he looked down in front of him, and he said to the floor—he said to the floor, “Oh, this must be God.”
And I can’t tell you now… It would take me a long time to give you the next forty-five minutes before we prayed together in the middle of that mall. But the gist of it is this: that he had come to faith in Jesus Christ; he was going to a church; many of the young people in the church began to get married; he had no one to whom to get married; he felt left out; he decided to invite a girl to come and live with him. He was now in total, flat-out disobedience to the rule and law of God, and he knew it.
And as our conversation began, he said, “I think that God is finished with me.” And so I took him to Romans 2:4, and I said, “Would you begin to make light of God’s patience and tolerance and kindness towards you? Don’t you realize that it is in order to lead you to repentance?” And by the time we parted, he was, number one, going home to break up with this girl—at least in the cohabiting situation. He promised that he would write to me. I promised that I would write to him. And he said words to these effect: “This is an amazing reminder to me of the fact that God knows all about me and he loves me.” And I said, “Yeah. He could have chosen to drop the roof on your head and take you out into heaven like a shipwrecked sailor, scorched in the seat of your pants. But instead, he sends somebody—an unwilling, unprofitable servant—to sit down beside you on a bench so that his loving-kindness might lead you to repentance.”
“Were the people worse sinners? More guilty? No. But be very careful,” said Jesus. “Because if you do not repent, you too will all perish.”
May God’s kindness bring us to his Son.
Father, we bless you this morning that we have a Bible to read and study. It would be dreadful if we were left to our own devices, looking up magazines and trying to think up thoughts. I thank you, Father, that everything that is good and lasting about this has to do with your revealed truth—the authenticity of the Book, the reliability of your Son, the absolute necessity of grace and faith, the wonder of repentance, and the joy of your kindness. So then, grant repentance and faith in our congregation today—some for the very first time, that they may turn from sin and turn in childlike trust to the Lord Jesus Christ; and others of us who have been playing fast and loose with things, that you may arrest us in the midst of our days and, by your kindness, draw us afresh to yourself.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 See Acts 5:37.
 See Leviticus 10.
 See Numbers 16:1–27
 See Acts 5:1–11.
 Ecclesiastes 9:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 5:45.
 John 9:2–3 (paraphrased).
 Acts 28:4 (NIV 1984).
 “How Firm a Foundation” (1787).
 See Hebrews 12:6.
 See Romans 2:4.
 See Psalm 127:2.
 Psalm 130:3 (paraphrased).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2.
 Anne R. Cousin, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” (1857).
 Sinclair Ferguson, The Grace of Repentance (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), chap. 4. The quoted words are Ferguson’s summary of Calvin’s point in Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.3.9.
 Luke 15:18–19 (paraphrased).
 Philip P. Bliss, “‘Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name” (1875).
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2023, 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.