An Analysis of Luke 13:1-5

By Lewis Willis

“There were present at that season some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish, Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish” (Lk. 13:1-5).

New Testament Christianity is a system of faith and practice that is predicated upon sound, solid, Scriptural reasoning and argumentation. It is not a weak, unintelligible form of activity that is susceptible to many varied, conflicting interpretations. Thus, the passing years have presented to a wicked world certain points of argumentation that are designed to convince and convert. Much of this argumentation is the product of the thinking of pioneer preachers who fought a valiant fight for Truth in another century. All too frequently, those arguments have been accepted and used without any thought being given to personally validate them with the Scriptures. This article concerns itself with one such consideration. For years, to show the essentiality of repentance unto salvation, we have quoted Luke 13:3,5. Above, you can read the first five verses of that chapter. Does the Lord have reference to the ultimate perishing of the soul? Or, is He concerned with a physical perishing of the Jews? Could we be guilty of using the passage out of its context? Does the case for repentance rest upon this passage and this alone? The answer to this last question is “No” (cf. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30; 2 Pet. 3:9). The necessity of repentance is clearly established in these passages, so that Luke 13:3 is not pivotal regarding this human responsibility. And, certainly no one wishes to use a passage in a manner not intended. If someone should endeavor to use the passage through “principle application,” it would be acknowledged that such is certainly done with efficacy regarding Old Testament events. However, let us be advised to understand the principle involved so that we use the passage “aright.”

The events referred to in Luke 13 occurred about 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. So, the time was about 30 A.D.(1) Four years earlier, Pontius Pilate had been appointed ruler of Judea.(2) He soon found himself in a running feud with the Jews. For some time he had left the ornaments of his military at his headquarters in Caesarea since the Jews did not want Jerusalem profaned with their presence. But, alas, Pilate decided to move them to Jerusalem. It was Roman custom to inscribe shields of war with insignia of animals and the bust of the Emperor. The Jews considered this idolatry and refused the presence of such in the Holy City. But Pilate “ordered the new regiments to enter the city by night with the offensive emblems on their standards, and Jerusalem awoke to see idolatrous symbols planted within sight of the Temple.”(3) The Jews counseled how this outrage might be removed. Mobs went to Caesarea to entreat Pilate to remove the offense. But, Pilate refused. For five days and nights the Jews continually surrounded his palace, raising the same cry that the emblems be removed. On the seventh day, he met with them, but he had stationed soldiers around the people. “When the Jews began to raise their mutinous cries again, on his refusing to yield, he ordered the troops to enter with drawn swords. But he had miscounted their fanatical earnestness. Baring their throats, and kneeling as if to meet the sword, the multitude cried out that they would rather part with their life than their Law. Pilate, dreading the anger of the Emperor if he commanded a wholesale massacre, had to yield, and the standards were withdrawn from Jerusalem. The power of Pilate over the people was henceforth broken. They had conquered his will by stronger wills of their own. From this time they knew how to extort concessions from him. Persistent clamor, that would take no refusal, was, henceforth, their most trusted reliance, as we see only too strikingly in he last hours of Jesus.(4) Galileans were always liable to get involved in any political trouble that might arise, because they were a highly inflammable people.(5) Pilate was always ready to shed the blood of a people he hated, and the hot-headed Galileans, ever ready to take affront at the hated infidels, gave him only too many excuses for violence.(6)

It was in this explosive atmosphere that Pilate proposed building a water conduit in Jerusalem to replace the old system which no longer served the needs of the city. He sought and received the sanction of the Jewish authorities for this modernization program. But, he made one miscalculation. “As the Temple was to be benefitted, he naturally thought that he might defray the expense from its treasury, forgetting that the money was Corban, or consecrated to God.”(7) When word of his intentions spread like wild fire through the city, a frantic cry rose that the Temple was to be plundered by the Romans. Thousands stormed the palace to repeat the tactics of Caesarea. But, Pilate had time to make ready for the mob on this occasion. He had scattered soldiers, dressed as Jews, throughout the mob. As soon as the tumultuous cries began, the soldiers rose up against the Jews and left many of them lying in the streets severly wounded. “The very precincts of the Temple were invaded by the legionaries, and some pilgrims who were so poor that they were slaying their own sacrifices, were struck down . . . . their blood mingling with that of the beasts they were preparing for the priests . . . “(8) It was an unprecedented outrage, and it filled every Jewish heart with wild indignation. The excitement even penetrated the palace of Herod, kindling bitter feelings toware Pilate, for those pilgrims Pilate had killed were Herod’s Galilean subjects, It was that massacre of Galileans that the Lord was asked about in Luke 13. Some conjecture that it was shortly after this, when work on the water conduit had almost reached the Pool of Siloam, that the tower there fell, and killed eighteen men.(9)

The Conclusion Drawn By The Jews

There is no contextual indication that the inquiry about the Galileans and the 18 who perished in the failing of the tower, was designed to entrap the Lord, as on many other occasions during His ministry. It was a barbaric act of sacrilegious cruelty committed by Pilate and it was a sample of the corruptions and iniquity prevailing under Roman domination. However, Jesus neither endorsed nor condemned the acts. “But knowing their thoughts he combats the opinion which is always the popular one, that sufferings are the consequence and therefore the evidence of excessive wickedness.”(10) They concluded, “If men might be safe anywhere, or at any time, it would be at the altar of God, and in the act of offering sacrifices to Him. But here, they would infer . . . there must have been some hidden enormous guilt, which turned the very sacrifices of these men into sin, – not a propitiation of God, but a provocation, – so that they themselves became peculiar expiations, their blood mingling with, and itself becoming part of, the sacrifices which they offered.”(11) “He by no means denies the intimate connection between natural and moral evil, but He disputes the infallible certainty of the assumption that every individual visitation is a retribution for individual transgressions, and does not concede to those who are witnesses of a judgment, the right . . . to permit themselves a conclusion as to their moral reprobacy.”(12) This was the same fallacy which prompted Eliphaz, in the long ago, to say to Job, “Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished ‘ being innocent?” (Job 4:7). The Saviour at least considers it necessary to contradict the erroneous conclusion that these Galileans were in any way stamped as greater sinners than all others by the judgment which had befallen them. Thus, he pronounces, “I tell you, nay. . . .” The word, “nay,” is translated from the Greek word, ouchi. It does not simply mean “no, not, expressing a negation absolutely.” But ouchi is an even stronger word. Thus, Jesus answers the error of the Jews with a strong expression of absolute negation.(13) So, even though these people perished, they were not greater sinners than anyone else. Which thought, of course, gave the Lord occasion to direct the thinking of these Jews back to themselves.

The Application Of Luke 13

He said, “But, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” “The Savior does not mean to say they shall perish in a similar, but that they shall perish in the same manner, namely, through the cruelty of the Romans . . . ” (My Emph., LW) (14) What had befallen these Galileans would soon be the doom of the whole nation, unless a great change transpired in the life of Israel, through repentance. This was His lesson to His countrymen, drawn from the calamities which befell others. “Jesus knew well that if the Jews went on with their intrigues, their rebellions, their plottings, their political ambitions, they were simply going to commit national suicide; He knew that in the end Rome would step in and obliterate the nation; and that is precisely what happened.”(15) Jesus had specific reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. He was calling them to repentance, to prevent the Messianic nation from extinction. Hence, the call to repentance and the threatened perishing had nothing to do with the alien sinner of our day. The destruction envisioned in Luke 13 was that of the Jewish nation, just as the destruction by water in Noah’s day was that of the Ante-diluvians. To apply either to the alien sinner today is a misapplication of the passage.

The Prediction Fulfilled

This treatise would be incomplete if it failed to deal with the fulfillment of that which the Lord foretold. In the parable of the barren fig tree which immediately follows this text, He told of a man who sought fruit of a fig tree for three years, and found none. He decided to cut it down because it was simply taking up space. The keeper of his vineyard sought permission to work with it another season, if perchance it might produce. If not, it could then be cut down. The extended period of growth was representative of God’s longsuffering with Israel! If she repented as the Lord commanded, her doom would not befall her. Otherwise, Israel would perish.

And perish, she did! The Romans laid seige to Jerusalem. Conditions became so severe that Josephus recounts an act of cannibalism. A certain rich woman became so destitute that she took her infant child and “roasted” him. Her deed was soon known by the people of the city because of the terrible scent of cooked, human flesh. The entire city was seized with horror and amazement.(16) No appeal from Titus could get Israel to surrender. Only total defeat would put the matter to rest. “So he gave orders to the soldiers both to burn and to plunder the City.(17) So many were killed that the Romans 11 made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree, indeed, that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men’s blood.”(18) The city, was filled with native Jews and pilgrims from all over the world who came for the Passover feast. The estimate of those who perished or who were enslaved by Rome was 2,700,200.(19) From which destruction, the nation of Israel never recovered to be a significant entity in the purpose of God.


Anytime the things of the Kingdom come under attack, I feel compelled to insist upon a full explanation of this attack. Herein I have challenged the usual application of a much used passage of Scripture. I have used it often, and I have heard preachers all over the country use it in the same way as I have used it referring to the plan of salvation, citing Luke 13:3 to prove the necessity of repentance. 1 would not presume to tell you what to do in your use of this passage. I would ask your serious consideration of the material contained herein. But, as for me personally, I shall assume the position of Brother R. L. Whiteside who said, “A long time ago I repented of applying that scripture to those we now term alien sinners.”(20)


1. Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 16, Pt. 2, p. 20.

2. Geikie, Life and Words of Christ, Vol. 1, p. 279.

3. Ibid., p. 279.

4. Ibid., pp. 279-280.

5. Wm. Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, p. 177.

6. Geikie, Life and Words of Christ, Vol. 2, p. 166.

7. Geikie, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 279.

8. Geikie, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 167.

9. Geikie, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 281.

10. J. S. Lamar, New Testament Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 185.

11. R. C. Trench, Notes on the Parables and Miracles, p. 268.

12. J. P. Lange, The Gospel According to Mark and Luke, Vol. 2, p. 211.

13. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. 3, p. 103.

14. Lange, op. cit., p. 212.

15. Barclay, op. cit., p. 178.

16. Josephus, Vol. 2, p. 425.

17. Ibid., p. 434.

18. Ibid., p. 439.

19. Ibid., p. 441.

20. R. L. Whiteside, Doctrinal Discourses, p. 371.

Truth Magazine XX: 50, pp. 793-795
December 16, 1976