The Gospel of Tragedy

Bible Book: Luke  13 : 1-5
Subject: Tragedy; Hardship; Trouble; Problems; Terrorism; Redemption



August of 2005, hurricane Katrina tears through the gulf coast, causing over $80 billion in damages, and taking the lives of over 1,800 people.

On the morning of April 16, 2007, a mentally unstable student at Virginia Tech takes two handguns, and within two hours shoots and kills 32 students before committing suicide.

Monday, May 12, 2008, the Sichuan province of China is rocked by a colossal earthquake. The official figures claim 69,179 confirmed dead, 374,176 injured, and 18,340 listed as missing.

The story of humanity is interwoven with tragedy. Every day, events happen on small scales and large, snatching away the lives of countless people, and causing untold grief and heartache.

Many people wonder, “Is there any sense to the suffering? Is there a cause for the carnage? Is there a purpose behind the pain?” Because tragedy and suffering are not new things, neither are these questions. Humanity has always wrestled with the subject of suffering and the presence of pain in the world.

In the opening verses of Luke chapter 13, there are accounts of two tragic events. Verse one tells of a group of Galileans who were brutally and savagely massacred by the Roman authorities.

Verse four tells of a disaster in which a tower collapsed, and fell upon 18 bystanders, killing them all. In this text, Jesus draws a message from these two tragic and terrible events. He does not, as some would hope, give an answer as to why tragedies occur. However, He does help us to find some truth in the tragedies of life. Jesus teaches us that the bad news of life should point us to the good news of the gospel. Notice with me three truths our Lord addresses in this text. Notice first of all, Jesus speaks about:

I. The Enigma of Suffering

Notice verse one of Luke 13. It says, “There were present at that season some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”

We don’t have many of the details, either here, or from secular history, but it appears that at that time, one of the news items that everybody was discussing was the slaughter of several Galileans at the hands of Pilate, the Roman governor of the province.

When the story is relayed to Jesus, it appears that those who told Him were interested in His comments about the event. Perhaps they thought He would say that these murders were the judgment of God. Perhaps they thought He would condemn the violence and cruelty of Rome. Jesus did respond to this current event, but not the way they thought He would. In verses two and three, Jesus said, “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galilean’s, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”

From our Lord’s response to this event of human suffering, we draw a couple of important truths to remember when we consider the enigma and mystery of suffering in our world. Notice first of all, our Lord teaches us that:

A. We Can’t Assume a Reason for Suffering

Apparently, Jesus could read the minds of his inquirers, and He saw that they had already arrived at a conclusion about the murder of these Galileans.

In verse two, Jesus asks them, “Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things?” In other words, these people had decided that the horrible death of the Galileans was an obvious sign that they had committed some terrible sin, and God was judging them.

Notice that the Lord Jesus does not offer a reason for this atrocity. He simply addresses the judgments of those who had questioned Him. When tragedies and calamities occur in our world, it  is not our place to speculate about their cause. God has not given us the insight or the information to be able to label every event with a cosmic cause.

The old Bible commentator, Matthew Henry says, “…we must abide by this rule, that we cannot judge…men’s sins by their sufferings.”

When you see hundreds of bodies buried beneath the rubble of an earthquake, a man emaciated and dying with cancer, or a country struck with famine and disease, don’t theorize or assume about the cause of those events.

Over 100 years ago, William Cowper penned the memorable line:

“God moves in mysterious ways,
His wonders to perform.”

When it comes to the enigma of suffering in our world, it is a mystery too great for our assumptions.

There is another truth we draw from Christ’s response to the question of this tragic event. Notice not only that when it comes to suffering, we can’t assume a reason for it, but notice also further that:

B. We Can’t Acquire a Resentment from Suffering

There are those who would look at tragedies such as the ones in this text, or the many that cloud our day, and they would say, “Why would God allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?”

There are those who are angry and resentful toward God because they feel that suffering is unjust and unfair. For those people, it is very important to notice what our Lord says, and what He does not say in this text. Notice that He does say that these Galileans were no more sinful than any other group of people.

What He does not say is that they were innocent. In fact, in this text, Jesus is tries to point out that all men are sinful and therefore worthy of the judgment of God.

While it may be difficult for some to accept, our Lord reminds us in this text that while not all suffering and tragedy is directly linked to the judgment and punishment of God, it is never unfair or unjust for sinful men to suffer and die.

In other words, in light of God’s holiness and justice, and man’s sinfulness and rebellion, the question should not be, “Why do some men suffer?” but rather, “Why don’t all of us suffer?”

In Lamentations 3:22, the prophet Jeremiah says, “It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed…” The fact that any of us are alive is a sign that God has been gracious and merciful towards us.

Therefore, when you read in the paper that a family was killed in a car crash, that a child was murdered by a parent, or that cancer claimed another life; don’t get angry and resentful at God, as if He were being unfair.

Any breath taken in this life, whether in pain or prosperity, is an undeserved gift from a gracious God and a token of His mercy.

There is something mysterious and enigmatic about suffering. Yet, our Lord teaches us that we cannot make assumptions about suffering, and we must not develop animosity toward God because of suffering.

In this text, our Lord not only teaches us something about the enigma of suffering, but notice also secondly that He addresses in this text:

II. The Equality of Sinners

In verse four, Jesus refers to a second tragedy, and then repeats an important question. Look at verse four. Jesus says, “Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?”

Jesus takes both the slaughter of the Galileans, and the deaths from the tower collapse, and uses them to point His audience to a truth about men as sinners. Though the crowd never said it, Jesus knew that in their hearts they believed that those who had died so tragically surely must not have been as close to God as them, and therefore somehow deserved their death.

If we are not careful, we will fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to other people, and assuming that our standing before God is better than theirs. You say, “I don’t steal. I don’t take drugs. I don’t cheat on my spouse. Surely that means that I will not be punished like the thief, the junkie, and the adulterer.” Jesus debunks this sort of thinking by pointing us to the equality of sinners. One man may be a reprobate sinner, and another may be a respectable sinner, but both men are sinners.

Notice a couple of things the Lord we learn from the Lord that teach us about the equality of sinners. Notice first of all:

A. The Definition of Sinners

If you were to read this passage in the original language, you would notice that in verse two and in verse four, Jesus uses two different words for sinner. In verse two, the word translated “sinners” is a word that means to miss the mark. This is what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 3:23, when he says that, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Jesus teaches us that by definition, a sinner is someone that though they have tried, has been unable to hit the mark of keeping the Law of God.

When you move to verse four, Jesus uses a different word to define a sinner. The word translated “sinner” in verse four is a word that simply means “a debtor” or someone that owes a debt. The point Jesus is trying to make is that while you may not be Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson, you are like them in the sense that you failed to meet the demands of God’s Law, and you are in debt to Him because of your sins.

During the recent political campaigns, both parties have been talking about and courting a group called “the middle class”. Depending on who is talking, exactly who makes up the middle class is something that seems to change. Someone once said, “Everyone wants to believe they are the middle class…[this has caused] the definition to be stretched like a bungee chord.” One group has defined the middle class as those making between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. With a spread like that, it should be called the middle school, not just the middle class.

When God looks down from heaven, He does not divide humanity into different classes of sinners, putting the rapist in a lower class than the liar, or the murderer on a lower level than the gossip.

By definition, all sinners fall short, and all sinners owe God a debt, and therefore all men are simply sinners. Jesus points us to the equality of sinners not only by giving us the definition of sinners, but notice also further that we see the equality of sinners in:

B. The Destination of Sinners

In both verses three and five, Jesus uses a very strong word to describe the destination that awaits all sinners and therefore all men. He says, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” Notice that word “perish”. The word literally means to be destroyed, and it speaks of death and dying. It was also used to describe something that was lost.

Jesus is not just speaking here of physical death. He himself died a physical death. It is obvious that Jesus is speaking of spiritual death and spiritual loss. The point Jesus makes in this text is that sinners, regardless of their degree, face the same end – spiritual death and eternal separation from God in hell.

Right now in hell, the most brutal killer suffers for his sins. Yet, at the same time, the man who lied on his taxes suffers as well. The punishment and penalty for sin is universally the same, regardless of the sinner. The punishment for sin is death. The soul that sins, the Bible says, will surely die. Sinners are equally guilty, and equally lost.

On November 19th, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most memorable speeches in history at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA. The speech opened with a line that has been memorized by school children since it was first delivered. Lincoln said,  “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln was right, all men are created equal, and through the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, all men are condemned equal as well.

Jesus took the two tragic events of this text, and used them to remind us of the equality of sinners. Notice a third truth we find here. Jesus addresses not only the enigma of suffering, and the equality of sinners, but notice also finally that He points us to:

III. The Encouragement Of Salvation

Three words make all the difference in this text. Had Jesus said, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than you? I tell you, you will all likewise perish”, then this text would be a grim foundation for a sermon. However, in the shadow of tragedy, and the grim fog of the fall, Jesus left us the encouragement of three significant words. He said, “Except ye repent…”

Yes, all men deserve to suffer. Yes, we are all equally and universally guilty before God. Yet, there is hope. There is a light breaking through the darkness of damnation. That hope is repentance.

I want you to notice with me a couple of things about this encouraging word, “repent”. Notice first of all:

A. What Repentance Requires

Repentance is a term that most people do not fully understand. It is translated from a compound of Greek words that simply mean “with use of the mind.” Therefore, you could say that repentance is a change of mind. Repentance is a change of mind about sin that results in a change of conduct.

Repentance requires a person to look at sin differently. Repentance is a change of mind about sinfulness and conduct that is rebellious against God and His Word. The drunk that repents, looks at the bottle differently than he did before. The liar that repents looks at truthfulness with a different desire than before.

Jesus says, “You are all sinners. You are all going to perish, unless you change your mind about the kind of life you are living.”

A man drives his car down a highway. A sign says to him, “Danger, Bridge Out Ahead”. The man sees the sign, but suspects that it is old and outdated. He drives a little further, and someone standing on the side of the road flags him down. He slows down just enough to hear them say, “Hey, turn around, the bridge is out ahead!” Again, the man assumes that the person is just a fanatic, and that surely the bridge is still standing. Unless that man changes his mind about the road he is on, he is going to perish. He must decide that the warnings about the bridge are true, and he must decide to turn his car around.

Jesus warned about the road ahead of sinners, and for 2,000 years the Church has been proclaiming the same message. Except a man decide the warnings are true, and turn from his current path, he will face that of which he was continually warned.

Notice not only what repentance requires, but notice also that there is encouragement in salvation because of:

B. Who Repentance Receives

Repentance is not just turning from something. Biblical repentance involves turning to someone. Man can turn from his current path of sinfulness, but it will not make up for the miles he has already traveled on that road. Therefore, repentance does not save a man. Once a man has turned from sin, He must then turn to the Savior.

Look again at that word “perish”. It is a familiar word because it also appears in the most familiar verse in the Bible. In John 3:16, it says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

True repentance does not simply reject the way of sin; it also receives the way of salvation. True repentance is a turning from sin and a turning to Jesus Christ as the only hope for salvation.

Go back to our illustration of the man in the car. It is not enough for him to accept the fact that the bridge is out. He still needs to get to his destination. He must realize that there is another way that he must travel in order to arrive where it is he needs to go.

By placing your faith in Jesus Christ, and the sacrifice He made at the cross for you, you can enter into the path that leads to everlasting life. In John 8:12, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Repentance is a turn from the darkness to the light, and with that turn, the encouragement of salvation is found.


Ted Turner is a notorious and vocal atheist. You may be surprised, however, to learn that Turner actually grew up in a Christian home and had even planned at one point to become a missionary. He said that what drove from the faith was the fact that he, “couldn’t reconcile the concept of an all-powerful God with so much suffering on earth.”ii

There is not denying the presence of suffering and tragedy in our world. Neither is it by any means a new occurrence. When confronted with tragedy and suffering, Jesus did not use it to question the justice or goodness of God. Instead, He showed that tragedy should point us to our own mortality and the needs of our own life.

There is a gospel to be learned from tragedy. We may not understand all the forces behind tragedies and suffering, but we do know that if we repent and trust Christ, there will come a day when tragedy and suffering will no longer exist.

May the gospel of tragedy bring us all closer to the Christ that overcomes tragedy.

i. American Middle Class, Wikipedia Article, Quote from Dante Chinni, 8/30/08,
ii. Suffering, McHenry’s Stories for the Soul, (Hendrickson Publishing, Peabody, MA, 2001), p. 279