Even though roughly 150,000 people die every day in our world, we are still shocked when someone dies unexpectedly. I certainly was when I heard that Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. Eight others died with him including his daughter. All nine people were gone in an instant.
The world focuses on Kobe not because the others were less important but because Kobe was a celebrity. Kobe was a household name for over two decades. We feel like we knew him even if we never met him. We watched him enter the NBA straight out of high school; we saw him win the NBA dunk contest as a rookie; we witnessed him battle against my beloved Utah Jazz in the NBA playoffs early in his career; we watched him win championships and become one of the greatest basketball players of all-time.
I have watched many interviews with different people paying tribute to Kobe and the people who lost their lives in the accident. Each time my eyes well up with tears because the pain of death is real. Many people are left with questions in the wake of a tragedy. I wonder what kind of response is appropriate when the world turns its attention to the brevity of life and the reality of death. I try to imagine what Jesus would say if the news reporters stuck a microphone in his face and asked him to comment on the nine lives that perished in the helicopter crash. What would Jesus say?
Well, maybe we don’t have to imagine at all. In Luke 13:1–5, Jesus talks about a different but similar tragedy. A tower fell and killed 18 people. Eighteen lives were taken suddenly, unexpectedly, and in a horrific way. For what reason? How do we make sense of towers crumbling and killing 18 people? How do we make sense of crashing helicopters claiming the lives of nine?
The people listening to Jesus knew that God is sovereign over all things and that nothing happens by chance. So Jesus anticipates their question before they ever ask it:
“Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” (v. 5).
The logic of the question is clear. God is just and God is sovereign. If a tower fell and killed 18 people, then surely those 18 people were worse sinners than others, right? Wrong. Jesus did not attribute their deaths to chance, nor did he suggest that they were worse sinners than anyone else. Instead, he turned to the crowd with a shocking statement:
“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (v. 5).
Stunning. A tower fell and crushed 18 people and Jesus looks at the crowd and says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” More shocking than the manner of their death is the gravity of Jesus’ response. It might even sound like Jesus is a bit insensitive and indifferent to suffering and tragedy. Was he out of touch with reality? Far from it. Jesus’ words reveal that he knew God and understood our world better than anyone who ever lived.
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jesus is not telling his audience that a tower is going to fall on them and, therefore, they will “likewise” perish. He is telling them the lesson they should take away from the report of sudden and unexpected death. The lesson is this: Every single human being on planet earth is under the sentence of death because we have all sinned against a holy God. Every single person at this very moment stands on the brink of eternity. The 18 people that died under the tower were here one moment and gone the next. The same will be true for all of us, whether we die of old age or suddenly and unexpectedly in some other way. One moment we will be here, the next we will be gone. We will all likewise perish.
The seriousness of Jesus’ statement is breathtaking. Jesus tells his audience, not to think for a second that those killed by the tower were worse sinners than anyone else. He would say the same to us in light of the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people. According to Jesus, their deaths should open my eyes to one fundamental reality:
Matthew Emadi is a sinner, and he better be right with God.
Therein lies the lesson for the living. We should not be shocked when people die suddenly and unexpectedly; we should be shocked that we haven’t. God has spared us for the moment, but we will all likewise perish because we are sinful creatures under the sentence of death.
If you think Jesus’ words are the words of a cold, distant, uncaring ivory tower theologian, then think again. Jesus leaves us with hope because Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He willfully and freely came into his own creation to die in the prime of his life. He died on a cross in the place of sinners, crushed not by a tower, but by the righteous and holy wrath of God. On the third day, he rose from the grave conquering death itself.
Jesus’ statement in Luke 13 might seem inappropriate to some when tragedy strikes, but rightly understood it is the most loving thing he could say to those of us who linger on. Jesus knew his audience, and those of us hearing his words today are no different because the human condition has not changed. He speaks to dying people with no solution to their own mortality. We too will perish suddenly and there is nothing we can do to overcome the grave. But Jesus has defeated death, and he did it for us.
Mourn the deaths of the nine killed on the helicopter. Pray for their families. Most of all, heed the words of Christ. Come to God in repentance and faith. Trust Jesus as your Lord and savior. In a moment, we will stand before God. Waste not one more second until you have forgiveness in Christ.