No one fancies bitter herbs or medicine. When I was a child, my mother forced me to take them when I fell sick. Though yucky to me as a child then, the concoction helped me to quickly recover from illness.
The writer of the Gospel of Luke, a physician, prescribed some bitter medicine for us in chapter 13, which many find harsh and repulsive. But taking this medicine has tremendous benefits. It is important not for our physical health but eternal well-being.
There are three points highlighted in Luke 13 which are like bitter medicine to many:
- The call to repentance (verses 1-5)
- Bear fruit in keeping with repentance (verses 6-9)
- Strive to enter through the narrow door (verses 22-30)
Repent and live!
The crowd mentioned to Jesus that there were certain Galileans whose blood was mixed with the sacrifices at the altar of the temple (after they were slain by Pilate’s soldiers), implying that they deserved a horrible death because they were evil.
Jesus corrected their self-righteous attitude, emphasising that these Galileans were no greater sinners than them. He warned them, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish (Luke 3:3, Luke 3:5).
Now we will all have to die one day. That is an unchangeable fact. What is more important is where we land up after death. Where will we be spending eternity?
Jesus was telling them that all have sinned and unless they repent (acknowledge their sins before God, believe in the forgiveness Christ offers, and turn from their wicked ways), they will all perish (spend eternity in hell with weeping and gnashing of teeth).
Only Christ can offer us eternal bliss in heaven after we die. And the only way we can get to enjoy this privilege in future is that we must repent … while we can, when we are still alive.
Like bitter herbs, this is the blunt, harsh truth that many cannot accept: Repent and live.
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (Ezekiel 18:30-32).
Bear fruits of repentance
As if to amplify his teaching on repentance using imagery, Jesus told his disciples the parable of the barren fig tree (Luke 13: 6-9).
A man who planted a fig tree was disappointed that it failed to bear fruit even after a period of three years. So he suggested to the vinedresser, “Cut it down.” But the latter told him to wait; he will give it second chance by putting manure over it. If it fails to bear fruit after a year, then it should be cut down.
This parable had primary reference to the nation of Israel. For centuries God had expected His chosen people to bear fruits in keeping with repentance but they failed to do so. When Christ came, He was rejected by His own people. But God is long-suffering. He will give more time for His people to repent. If they remain stubborn, and refuse to turn to Him, they will be cut off.
This theme of God’s rejection of Israel is explored further in Romans chapter 11. Because of Israel’s rejection of Christ, the gospel of the kingdom is extended to the Gentiles. But God is an impartial God, being equally kind and severe towards both Jews and Gentiles. Unless Gentiles remain in His love, they too will be cut off, like the Jews: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22).
In the same vein, Jesus addressed believers: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6).
The same agricultural analogy appears elsewhere in the Gospels. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
Repentance must be evidenced by fruit (changed lifestyle, obedience, manifestation of the fruit of the Holy Spirit).
Strive to enter through the narrow door
One day, Jesus was asked: “Lord, will those who are saved be few” (Luke 13: 23)?
He did not give a clear cut ‘Yes or No’ answer. How then did He answer? “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24).
The word ‘strive’ implies effort is required. This does not mean we can save ourselves by good works. Rather, it means we have to be disciplined in working out our salvation as God is at work within us through the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13). Though we are saved by faith, our lives must be characterised by good works, which God has prepared beforehand for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Jesus went on to impress upon them the fact that when the door to heaven is shut, it is final and cannot be revoked. “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’” (Luke 13:25). “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil” (Luke 13:27).
Even if people were to plead for mercy, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets” (Luke 13:26), the door might just be shut in their faces. These pleas for mercy could mean in our modern-day context: “We are church members, we attend church regularly.” Superficial acquaintance with God, mere usage of spiritual lingo (like Lord, Lord), complacency and reliance on external symbols of inclusion in God’s kingdom may be dangerous to one’s soul.
What are some reasons for exclusion from heaven? Though people may claim to follow Christ, they do not cultivate a personal relationship with Him, do not seek to do His will and do not seek to live a righteous life. They might know a lot about Him through sermons but, truly, they do not know Him (Matthew 7:21-23).
Indeed, the door (gate) to heaven is narrow and the route (way) to heaven is difficult. Yet today’s false gospel of easy believism, hyper-grace and the prosperity gospel all sing a different tune.
It is truly difficult to inherit eternal life: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
So both these passages in Luke 13:24 and Matthew 7:13-14 concur: The way to heaven is difficult and few will get there.
To recapitulate, are we willing to take Dr Luke’s three types of bitter medicine found in Luke chapter 13?
- Repent and live!
- Bear fruit in keeping with repentance
- Strive to enter through the narrow door
Or do we dismiss the above and choose to go our own merry way, taking the path of least resistance, like the majority?