The Bible

 

Luke 13

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1 Now there were some present at that very season who told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

2 And he answered and said unto them, Think ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they have suffered these things?

3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish.

4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and killed them, think ye that they were offenders above all the men that dwell in Jerusalem?

5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

6 And he spake this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit thereon, and found none.

7 And he said unto the vinedresser, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why doth it also cumber the ground?

8 And he answering saith unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:

9 and if it bear fruit thenceforth, [well]; but if not, thou shalt cut it down.

10 And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath day.

11 And behold, a woman that had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years; and she was bowed together, and could in no wise lift herself up.

12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her, and said to her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.

13 And he laid his hands upon her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

14 And the ruler of the synagogue, being moved with indignation because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, answered and said to the multitude, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the day of the sabbath.

15 But the Lord answered him, and said, Ye hypocrites, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?

16 And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound, lo, [these] eighteen years, to have been loosed from this bond on the day of the sabbath?

17 And as he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame: and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by him.

18 He said therefore, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I liken it?

19 It is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his own garden; and it grew, and became a tree; and the birds of the heaven lodged in the branches thereof.

20 And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God?

21 It is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened.

22 And he went on his way through cities and villages, teaching, and journeying on unto Jerusalem.

23 And one said unto him, Lord, are they few that are saved? And he said unto them,

24 Strive to enter in by the narrow door: for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.

25 When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us; and he shall answer and say to you, I know you not whence ye are;

26 then shall ye begin to say, We did eat and drink in thy presence, and thou didst teach in our streets;

27 and he shall say, I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity.

28 There shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and yourselves cast forth without.

29 And they shall come from the east and west, and from the north and south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.

30 And behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.

31 In that very hour there came certain Pharisees, saying to him, Get thee out, and go hence: for Herod would fain kill thee.

32 And he said unto them, Go and say to that fox, Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third [day] I am perfected.

33 Nevertheless I must go on my way to-day and to-morrow and the [day] following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.

34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen [gathereth] her own brood under her wings, and ye would not!

35 Behold, your house is left unto you [desolate]: and I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

  

Commentary

 

Exploring the Meaning of Luke 13

     

By Ray and Star Silverman

A Final Warning

1. And there were present at the same time some that reported to Him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.

2. And Jesus answering said to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans because they have suffered such things?

3. I say to you, no; but unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.

4. Or those ten and eight, on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were debtors above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?

5. I say to you, no; but unless you repent, you shall all likewise perish.”

18. And He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I liken it?

19. It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and cast into his garden; and it grew, and became a great tree; and the birds of heaven nested in its branches.”

20. And again He said, “To what shall I liken the kingdom of God?

21. It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three satas of meal, till the whole was leavened.”

30. And behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.’”

31. In the same day, certain Pharisees came, saying to Him, “Come out and go hence, for Herod wills to kill Thee.”

32. And He said to them, “Go, say to that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons, and perform healings today and tomorrow; and on the third [day] I shall be perfected.’

33. Nevertheless I must go [forth] today and tomorrow, and the [day] following, because it is not fitting that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.

34. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who killest the prophets, and stonest those that were sent to thee, how often I willed to gather thy children together, as a hen [‘gathereth] her brood under [her] wings, and you were not willing!

35. Behold, your house is left to you deserted; but amen I say to you, that you shall not see Me until [the time] come when you shall say, ‘Blessed [is] He that comes in the name of the Lord.’”


In the preceding chapter, Jesus gives His disciples a series of warnings beginning with the warning to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.” Next, Jesus warns His disciples to “beware of covetousness.” Then, as that chapter ends, they are warned “to be reconciled quickly with their adversary.” These warnings are straightforward and serious. If not heeded quickly, the result will be an immediate downturn towards a hellish existence where they will not come out until they have paid “the very last mite.”

The murder of the Galileans

The next chapter continues the series of warnings, concluding with the briefest and most serious warning of all: “repent or perish.” The chapter begins with a discourse on the problem of suffering. The news of the day was that some Galileans had been murdered by Pilate who had “mingled their blood with the sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Apparently, Pilate had murdered them while they were offering sacrifices at the temple, and mingled their blood with the blood of the sacrificed animals.

Rather than comment on Pilate’s brutal action, Jesus makes use of the incident to clear up a deeply seated fallacy and to teach a fundamental truth. Turning to the people who have informed Him about the murder of the Galileans, Jesus says to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered these things?” (Luke 13:2).

It might appear that Jesus is evading the issue. Rather than comment on Pilate’s barbarous and sacrilegious act, Jesus raises a philosophical question about suffering. But the question that He raises is consistent with a major theme in this gospel: the reformation of the understanding. Jesus wants to help them understand why people suffer. At the time, the common belief was that suffering and tragedy were visited upon people because they willfully disobeyed God. This is the misunderstanding that Jesus wants to correct. Therefore, He says, quite simply, “No, these Galileans did not die because they were worse sinners than others.” In other words, Jesus wants to make it very clear that the misfortunes of the Galileans were not a punishment from God.

Jesus’ answer to this question does not stop there. Leading them away from their false conjectures, Jesus lifts their understanding to a higher level. He does this by framing the question in terms of another warning—a warning which continues the series of warnings that were given in the previous chapter. Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

In other words, they should rid themselves of the false idea that God punishes sinners. Jesus wants them to understand that God is not the author of human suffering. Once that is clear, the next thing to understand is that repentance is essential. Whoever does not repent will suffer, not because God will punish them, or accidents will befall them, but because an unrepentant life—that is, a life contrary to the commandments—will inevitably lead to misery.

The tower in Siloam

To reinforce this teaching, along with its subsequent warning, Jesus asks them to recall an incident in which a tower in Siloam collapsed, killing eighteen men. Jesus says, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4).

Again, the answer is, “No, that’s not why the tower fell on them. It’s not because they were sinners.” Jesus then lifts their minds to a higher understanding, reminding them, once again, that “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4). While physical calamities do occur, Jesus wants them to understand that these are not “divine punishments” for sinful behavior. Tragedies happen; ruthless tyrants murder innocent people; towers fall on harmless victims; bridges collapse, volcanoes erupt, and earthquakes induce landslides that cause thousands of people to plunge to their death. None of this is the will of God; nor is it an act of divine retribution for sinful lives.

When any calamity takes place, whether it is the slaughter of innocent people at the hands of a ruthless dictator or the loss of millions of lives through the relentless spread of a deadly plague, it is either because of the free decisions that people make or simply because of natural law. God does not stay the hand of villains, nor does He interfere with the laws of nature. When Pilate murdered the men of Galilee, and when the tower fell on the men of Jerusalem, God did not intervene. Physical suffering happens: it can happen to anyone whether that person is a believer or non-believer, a follower of Christ, or a staunch atheist. It is not a punishment from God for human sin.

But spiritual suffering is different. This is something that each of us can avoid, and for which each of us is responsible. It is therefore incumbent upon each of us to acknowledge our sins, pray to God for the power to desist from them, and start a new life. This is repentance. This is the only way we can avoid the emotional torment that accompanies a selfish, self-centered life apart from the commandments of God. In the scriptures, life without God is referred to as “spiritual death.” Therefore, Jesus says, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”

Through using these timely illustrations—the deliberate murder of the innocent Galileans and the accidental death of the people who died when a tower fell on them—Jesus is teaching that God does not punish sinners. Rather, every selfish desire that we embrace leads inexorably onward and downward to frustration, hatred, revenge, and cruelty. The accumulation of selfish desires that we choose to harbor amounts to who we really are. It forms our essential spiritual identity. If we have become selfish, cruel, spiteful, resentful, malicious, and vindictive, it is because we have willingly chosen to embrace those feelings, and, when possible, act on them.

As a result, our lives, which could have been peaceful and happy—regardless of outward circumstances—become restless and sad. Even though we may have amassed great wealth in external matters, we may still choose hatred over love, resentment over contentment, anxiety over peace, duplicity over honesty, and controlling others over respecting their freedom.

At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus warned His disciples to be reconciled quickly with the adversary—that is, to be well-minded toward everyone. This, surely, is the only way of escaping the vicious downward spiral of sin. And we should not forget that this should be done quickly. We only have a short time in this world to make such a turnaround. It is here and now that we make the decisions which will determine our eternal destiny. That is why Jesus saves His final warning in this series for last. It is the most important warning of all: “Repent or perish.” 1

A practical application

In biblical times it was believed that people suffered misfortunes because they somehow “deserved” God’s punishment. Two thousand years later, many people still suffer from the same misunderstanding. If we have contracted a serious illness, or experienced a financial setback, or lost a loved one, we might be tempted to think, What did I do to deserve this? Did this happen because I sinned against God in some way? The truth is that God is always there to comfort us through calamity, never to punish us. In this episode, then, which occurs only in the Gospel According to Luke, Jesus teaches that God never punishes, regardless of how things might appear in the external world. Instead, God is there to bless us and comfort us through giving us the truth of His Word along with the power to live according to it. So, the next time you feel inclined to think, What did I do to deserve this? change the question to, How will God lead me through this? and What can I learn from this?

The Parable of the Fig Tree

6. And He told this parable: “A certain [man] had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it, and found none.

7. And he said to the vine-worker, ‘Behold, three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find not. Cut it down. Why [should it] also make the land useless?’

8. But he answering, said to him, ‘Lord, leave it also this year, until I dig around it and cast dung [around it],

9. And if it indeed make fruit [it is well]; and if not, in the future cut it down.’”


Repentance, in essence, is about recognizing our evils, praying for the power to overcome them, learning truth, and living according to those truths. Truth, however, without application does us no good. A person who is steeped in truth, but does not put those truths to use, is like a fruit tree that produces leaves but no fruit. In the next episode, Jesus turns the attention of His disciples to this kind of a tree, saying, “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard and he came seeking fruit on it and found none” (Luke 13:6).

The owner of the vineyard, who is displeased with the unproductive fig tree, says to his vineyard worker, “For three years I have come seeking fruit on this tree and find none. Cut it down; why let it use up the ground?” (Luke 13:7). The comparison to each of our lives is clear. We are not here merely to consume air, food, and water without also being useful. We are here to be producers, not just consumers. We are here to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) and to fill the earth with compassion, understanding, and good works. In brief, we are born for others; not for ourselves alone. To the extent that we do this, we are like trees bearing much fruit. 2

In this parable, and throughout the Word, the number “three” is significant. Jonah was “three days” in the belly of the whale; the prophet Isaiah went naked and barefoot for “three years,” and the resurrection of the Lord was accomplished in “three days.” The number “three,” then, represents and signifies the completion of a period of time. In this case, the fig tree had produced no fruit for a period of three years. By this time, even if it were just planted, it should have begun to show some signs of fruit on the branches, but there were only leaves. 3

While the leaves of a fruit tree are vitally important, the primary thing—the thing for which a fig tree is intended—is to bear fruit. If it produces only leaves, it has failed to realize its essential use.

Similarly, if our lives have not been productive, or if we have lived primarily for ourselves and not for others, no matter how many truths we may have amassed, we will spiritually “wither” and be without real life. Like a tree which is intended to produce fruit, but only produces leaves, faith without works is useless. 4

The vineyard worker, however, pleads with the owner, saying, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, fine; if not, you can cut it down” (Luke 13:8-9). The vineyard worker’s plea to preserve the fig tree represents God’s abundant mercy. God does not want to punish us or “cut us down” for not bearing fruit. Rather, He wants us to repent, to acknowledge our evils and let that acknowledgement be fertile soil for the production of fruit. Therefore, the worker says to the owner of the fig tree, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it.” 5

Fertilizer, in the spiritual sense, is the humble acknowledgment that we have sinned, and that these sins have become odious to us. We are repelled by the things that previously might have given us pleasure, and we are determined to never do, say, or even think about such things again. It is our prayer that anything cruel or adulterous in us will rot away, serving only as fertilizer to stimulate new growth and the desire to do good. 6

A Daughter of Abraham

10. And He was in one of the synagogues teaching on the Sabbaths.

11. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of sickness ten and eight years, and she was stooped over, and was not able at all to stand up.

12. And when Jesus saw her, He summoned [her] and said to her, “Woman, thou art released from thy sickness.”

13. And He laid [His] hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

14. But the ruler of the synagogue, being indignant that Jesus cured on the Sabbath, answering said to the crowd, “There are six days in which [one] must work; in these then come to be cured, and not on the day of the Sabbath.”

15. The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite, does not every one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or [his] ass from the manger, and lead [it] away to give [it] drink?

16. And ought not this [woman], being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound, behold, these ten and eight years, be loosed from this bond on the day of the Sabbath?”

17. And saying these things, all those opposing Him were ashamed; and all the crowd rejoiced at all the glorious [things] that were done by Him.


Full and honest self-examination leads to the realization that we have sinned and that without God’s continual leading we would be lost in sin and selfishness. In fact, we would be worse than a beast. This is where repentance begins, and where God can flow in. All masks, disguises and pretenses fall away. We acknowledge our sinful nature, and how much we need God. 7

Such determined self-examination is the very antithesis of hypocrisy. When we behave hypocritically, we strive to conceal and deny. We refuse to acknowledge the tendencies to greed and wickedness that lie concealed in our own heart. Nevertheless, it is not God’s will that we feel continually bowed down by our sins. While it is true that He allows us to come into genuine states of humility where we come face to face with our failings, it is only so that He may lift us up, relieve us from the oppression of onerous guilt, and set us free.

Obsessive guilt can be crippling. This is illustrated in the next episode in which Jesus sees a woman who has been bowed down for eighteen years under the weight of “a spirit of infirmity.” As it is written, “Now as He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath, behold, there was a woman there who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years and was bent over and in no way could raise herself up” (Luke 13:11).

The “spirit of infirmity” suggests many things that might keep us bent over and bowed down, so much so that we cannot even straighten up. In the preceding episode, we learned that the “fertilizer” for the fig tree is the acknowledgement of our sinful nature. This acknowledgement, however, is not meant to disempower us, but rather to serve as fertile ground for our spiritual growth. While the acknowledgement of our sinful nature is essential, we should not be so “bowed down” by this recognition that we lack the power to straighten ourselves up.

This, then, is the spiritual context for understanding the condition of the woman who has been “bowed down with a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years.” It pictures the plight of any person who is so bowed down by guilt and shame that there is no ability to straighten up. This is not repentance; it is obsessive guilt and inordinate self-reproach—the kind that spiritually cripples us and makes us feel unable to do anything useful.

In spiritual matters, the “spirit of infirmity” causes us to feel weak and frail; we feel powerless to do what we know to be true. We feel as though we are bent over and unable to straighten up, like the woman who suffered from a heavy “spirit of infirmity.” But Jesus comes to us, as He comes to this woman, saying, “You are loosed from your infirmity.” After speaking these words to the woman, He lays His hands on her, filling her with His power.

The result is instantaneous: “And immediately she was made straight” (Luke 13:13). 8

Empowered by Jesus, this woman is now able to raise herself up for the first time in eighteen years. In her gratitude for this miracle, she responds by glorifying God. But the ruler of the synagogue has a very different response. Rather than focus on the miracle that had just occurred, the ruler of the synagogue finds fault with Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Complaining to the crowd, the ruler says, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore, come and be healed on them, but not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). We have seen this pattern before: Jesus heals on the Sabbath; the religious leaders complain. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that a person is healed, even if it is for an eighteen-year affliction that has kept her so hunched over that she can’t even straighten up. The important thing for them is the law, the rigid adherence to the law, especially to the law of the Sabbath.

Unperturbed by the ruler’s response, Jesus uses the situation to teach another great truth. According to their traditions, loosing and tying knots was forbidden on the Sabbath. It was considered a form of work. However, an exception was made for animals. It was permitted to loose them on the Sabbath so that they could feed and drink. Aware of this discrepancy in their religious practice, Jesus says, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:15-16).

Jesus’ logic is irrefutable. The ruler of the synagogue, along with all others who oppose Jesus, are not able to respond. But the response is quite different among those who believed in Him. As it written. “And all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him” (Luke 13:17).

It is noteworthy that Jesus refers to the woman as a “daughter of Abraham.” In calling her this, He acknowledges that she is a woman with a long and honorable heritage. He does not see her as a sinner, but rather as a woman from a noble lineage. In brief, Jesus has come to raise her up, to return her to a place of dignity, to free her from spiritual oppression and release her from the burden of oppressive guilt and shame. By contrast, we read that “His adversaries were put to shame” (Luke 13:17).

One of the primary goals of self-examination is for us to first recognize our own unworthiness. But it is not God’s will to leave us in that state. Rather, He comes to raise us up, to free us from the burden of oppressive guilt, and to remind us of our noble origins and blessed destiny. As Jesus said in His inaugural address earlier in this gospel, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor … to heal the brokenhearted … to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). While the emphasis on repentance is essential, it’s also good to remember that Jesus came not to keep us bowed down with shame, but rather to straighten us up with the truth of His Word and the power to live according to it.

The Kingdom of God

18. And He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I liken it?

19. It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and cast into his garden; and it grew, and became a great tree; and the birds of heaven nested in its branches.”

20. And again He said, “To what shall I liken the kingdom of God?

21. It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”


In the previous episode, the healing of this woman’s infirmity demonstrates an important aspect of repentance. It should be genuine, but not groveling. We need to recognize our sins; not wallow in them. We need to dig in the dirt, and fertilize the soil, not bury ourselves there. The ability to recognize our evils and hold ourselves responsible is crucial. This is what opens us to receive what flows in from God. Like a freshly turned garden, with soft and fertile soil, we are ready to humbly receive the heavenly seeds of goodness and truth. As Jesus puts it, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches” (Luke 13:19).

The idea here is growth—unlimited growth. While it is true that we are all born weak and imperfect with tendencies to evils of every kind, it is also true that we are born to become sons and daughters of God, gifted with limitless potential. Like the “daughter of Abraham” in the previous episode, we can be lifted above the spirit of infirmity and filled with the Spirit of God. We can be given power to rise to great heights.

The parable of the mustard seed

This power to rise to new heights is contained in the parable of the mustard seed. Like the mustard seed, we all have humble beginnings. We begin as a tiny seed, totally helpless but possessing enormous potential. We all start small, but we can grow like a mustard seed, becoming a large tree with branches reaching upwards to the sky. And as we continue to grow and branch out into new areas of understanding, we can be given perceptions of even greater growth: “the birds of the air” will nest in our branches.

The “birds of the air” that will nest in our branches represent the many ways in which new perceptions of truth will flow into our minds—just as the branches of a tree reach out in every direction, dividing, and then dividing again. These new perceptions of truth will carry with them the possibilities for doing all kinds of good works. All we need to do is take the first step, make the initial effort—however small it might be. It can be as simple as turning away from what we believe to be wrong and doing what we believe to be right.

This may seem to be a small step in our spiritual development, no bigger than a mustard seed, but it is a powerful one. Beginnings are important. Whenever we take the first step on the right path, it opens the way for God to enter and quicken all that is good in us. But it is not easy. Changing old patterns, breaking up entrenched habits, and establishing new ways of thinking and responding can be difficult. In some cases, it feels like a spiritual battle. That’s why small steps—mustard seed steps—are so important. 9

It is this process of making small efforts that Jesus compares to the growth of the mustard seed. We are not automatons. God does not simply act into and through us without our cooperation. It is therefore incumbent upon us to recognize evils as they arise within us, and strive to shun them. Of course, we cannot do this without God’s power, but we must strive to do so anyway. This striving helps to make us spiritual. It is how God builds His kingdom within us, one effort at a time, one seed at a time, one shoot at a time, bud by bud, leaf by leaf, until the birds of the air come and nest in our branches.

The parable of the leavened bread

Jesus also compares the kingdom of God to “leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (Luke 13:20). We have already discussed the “leaven of the Pharisees” which is hypocrisy. We spoke about how the yeast fungus rises gradually in bread until its gases fill the whole loaf, just as deceit can gradually permeate one’s whole character. But there is another way of looking at this process. Leaven, or yeast, also has a way of initiating a chemical process that both separates things that are discordant and unites things that are concordant.

This process of unifying what is concordant and separating what is discordant pertains especially to the process of our regeneration. No one begins life completely pure. But to the extent that we recognize evils within ourselves, pray to God for the power to dispel them, and strive to do so, as if we are making that effort from our own power, the truths that we know and the good works that we do are gradually purified.

As the leavening process continues, we begin to see spiritual reality more clearly, and we begin to acknowledge more fully that without God we can do nothing. Gradually we begin to separate our good deeds from the evil taint of self-merit so that they can become truly good. We see that they are inspired by and done through the power of God.

This is the leavening process. It is a process that happens within us as we go through successive combats of temptation, which are here compared to the leavening process of bread. 10

Towards a new understanding and a new will

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus is speaking about how our understanding can grow. He compares it to a tree that starts with a small seed—just one, tiny truth from the Lord’s Word. And yet, this tiny seed can grow into something so tall that the birds of the air can find a place there. The imagery of seeds, trees, branches, and birds, relates to the cognitive, rational, understanding side of human nature—especially our capacity to understand higher truth. These higher truths are called “the birds of heaven.” 11

Next, Jesus speaks about the leavening process that goes on in a loaf of bread. In sacred scripture, bread refers to the emotional, affectional side of our nature, especially our will. Through the process of spiritual combat, when truth is applied to life, we begin to separate all that is selfish within us from all that is good and comes from the Lord. Gradually, that which is filthy and related to self-love is separated from all that is clear and pure. This is how a new will is developed within us. 12

We can see, then, that in these two brief parables, Jesus describes the story of our spiritual development. To start, all we need to do is take one small step forward, even if we begin by thinking we are doing it all by ourselves. While this is only an apparent truth, it is necessary at the beginning of our spiritual development. Gradually, we begin to realize that every step in our spiritual development and every battle that is won is because God has been doing all the fighting for us all along the way. Nevertheless, God still encourages us to fight our inner evils as if from ourselves. The small efforts that we make along the way are compared to the growth of a “mustard seed” as it becomes a tall tree and the “leavening process” as it rises in a loaf of bread. Whenever we make these initial efforts, we are given higher and higher perceptions of truth. This is represented by “the birds of heaven” that come to nest in our branches.

As we progress in our regeneration, fighting the inevitable combats of temptation, we gradually come to see the highest truth of all, that “the battle is the Lord’s.” We come to understand that we can claim no merit for the thoughts that come to us or the good works that are done through us. As we begin to acknowledge and understand this, the truth within us is gradually distilled of falsity, and our good intentions are gradually purified of selfish motives. This is the kingdom of God.

The Journey to Jerusalem

22. And He went through cities and villages, teaching and making His way to Jerusalem.

23. And someone said to Him, “Lord, [are] those being saved few?” And He said to them,

24. “Strive to enter in through the tight gate, for many, I say to you, shall seek to come in, and shall not be able.

25. When once the Householder has risen and has shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us, He shall answer and say to you, ‘I know you not, whence you are.’

26. Then you shall begin to say, ‘We have eaten in Thy presence, and drunk, and Thou hast taught in our streets.’

27. And He shall tell [you], ‘I say to you, I know you not, whence you are; stand back from me, all [ye] workers of injustice.

28. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth there, when you shall see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you [yourselves] cast outside.

29. And they shall come from [the] east and west, and from [the] north and south, and shall recline in the kingdom of God.

30. And behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who shall be last.”


The parables about the mustard seed and the leavened bread remind us that spiritual growth is not easy and that the path of gradual purification necessarily leads through the struggles of temptation. No one can be saved through a simple declaration of faith. It is fitting, therefore, as we consider the ongoing spiritual series, that the next episode deals with the subject of “salvation” and what it means to be saved.

The episode begins with a picture of Jesus going “though the cities and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem” (Luke 13:22). As readers, we already know that the “journey toward Jerusalem” is not one that Jesus is looking forward to. He knows that He will be cruelly mocked, beaten, and crucified. But He also knows that after three days He will rise. This “rising,” of course, also relates to our own growth process. We have just seen that it is compared to the growth of a tree and the rising of bread. It does not happen easily, quickly, or without struggle. Rather it is precisely this struggle that helps us to unify all that is good and true in us, while dispelling all that is evil and false.

While Jesus is journeying through the villages, one of the people comes out to Him and asks, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” (Luke 13:24). Jesus’ answer begins with the word “Strive.” In the original Greek this word carries great force. It is much more than “try hard” or “do your best.” The actual Greek word is agōnizesthe [aγωνίζεσθε], from which we get our English word, “agonize.” It means to labor fervently, and to struggle mightily, especially against an antagonist.

Spiritually speaking, this is what we are called to do in the struggle against our negative tendencies. We are to identify something within us that is inherently evil and struggle against it mightily, calling upon God for His aid in the battle. As we mentioned in the parable of the mustard seed, these efforts—however tiny—are what make us grow. This is the way the kingdom of God is formed in us. This is what it means to strive.

This is the narrow way. We would prefer it to be broader and easier; but it is not. We would prefer to enter the kingdom of God by some other means, or through some wider gate, but there is no other. Therefore, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24).

The only way we can “enter” the kingdom of God is through the process of spiritual temptation. Words cannot save us; declaring our faith cannot save us. Even prayers uttered in desperation and as a last resort will be of no avail. While this may sound cruel, it is in fact, the ultimate mercy. God gives to each of us exactly what we desire, and it is our lives—not our words—that manifest the desires of our hearts. We cannot lead an evil life and beg for mercy and salvation on our death bed. That is because our lives themselves have become an expression of our deepest desires. 13

“I do not know you”

Death-bed repentance, then, is too late. Our essential character is shaped by the choices we make on a daily basis—choices that either build a new heavenly nature in us or reinforce our old hellish nature. There is no other way. Therefore, when Jesus exhorts His followers to “strive to enter through the narrow gate,” He is referring to the daily combat in which we must choose between being generous or selfish, forgiving or vindictive, compassionate or cruel. If we have spent our lives being self-centered, unforgiving, and heartless, a last-minute plea for divine mercy cannot change the character we have already formed. This is what Jesus means when He adds these words: “When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you’” (Luke 13:25).

The “Master” in this parable is God. Jesus is reminding us to beware of the state of mind in which we believe that it is our faith and not our life that deserves admittance to heaven. While we are in this state, we believe we merit heaven. We are standing outside the door, knocking, and saying, “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets” (Luke 13:26). It may well be that we have spent much time absorbing the loving emotions that flow in from God (“We ate in Your presence”); and we may have devoted ourselves to learning the truths of His Word (“We drank in Your presence”). Moreover, we may have spent considerable time putting together a system of doctrine based on Jesus’ teachings (“You taught in our streets”). But if we have gone no further, and have not actually applied these things to our own lives, we have never really been in a relationship with God. It is to this state in us that God says, “I do not know you.”

But what if we have done good things? Even then, if we have done good things, believing that the power to do so was from ourselves, we did them in our own name and not in the name of God. While we may have given credit to God with our lips, our hearts were far from Him. We still believed that our noblest thoughts and most benevolent deeds were from ourselves.

This is the way we all start off, attributing truth and goodness to ourselves rather than to God. Eventually, however, we must move beyond this state; we must recognize that without God we can think nothing that is true and do nothing that is good. Until we take this important step in our spiritual development, we do not really know God. Therefore, when Jesus says, “I do not know you,” the deeper truth is that we do not know God until we acknowledge, from the heart, that every true thought we think and every good deed we do is from God. In fact, we do not really know God until we acknowledge from the heart that we owe our very life to Him. 14

“I do not know where you are from”

Jesus not only says, “I do not know you,” but also adds “I do not know where you are from.” Even if we do good things, we need to ask ourselves where we are coming from. Are we coming from the idea that the good we do is from ourselves? Are we coming from the hope that others will think well of us and attribute goodness to us? Are we coming from the idea that people will be impressed by our knowledge and understanding of spiritual realities? These questions take us into the realm of motivation. Why do we do what we do and say what we say. In other words, where are we coming from? If we are coming from self-love and self-glory, Jesus is not familiar with these places. He does not dwell there. It makes sense, then, that Jesus would say to these states in us, “I tell you, I do not know you, or where you are from.” In other words, God cannot identify with our selfish motivations. Instead, He says, “Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity” (Luke 13:27).

In brief, we should never become complacent, trusting that our insights about spiritual reality or even our meritorious good works are sufficient to save us. Ultimately, the kingdom of God is not about what we know; it’s not even about but what we do with what we know. It’s about why we do it. This is the narrow way. And it determines whether we will be “first” or “last” in the kingdom of heaven.

Those who know a lot, and have placed merit in what they have done, will think of themselves as “first,” while in fact they may be last. And those who have placed no merit in what they know or what they have done, attributing everything to God, will think of themselves as “last,” but may indeed be “first.” As Jesus puts it, “They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And, indeed, there are [those who are] last who will be first, and there are [those who are] first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).

All this is what Jesus told His disciples as He journeyed towards Jerusalem. He Himself was about to face His own agonizing struggle—the struggle that we all must go through. It is the struggle to place the love of God above the love of self, and to place the love of others above the love of worldly possessions, honor, or fame. This is what it means for Jesus, and for each of us, to “journey towards Jerusalem.” 15

Herod the Fox

31. In the same day, certain Pharisees came, saying to Him, “Come out and go hence, for Herod wills to kill Thee.”

32. And He said to them, “Go, say to that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons, and perform healings today and tomorrow; and on the third [day] I shall be perfected.’

33. Nevertheless I must go [forth] today and tomorrow, and the [day] following, because it is not fitting that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.

34. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who killest the prophets, and stonest those that were sent to thee, how often I willed to gather thy children together, as a hen [‘gathereth] her brood under [her] wings, and you were not willing!

35. Behold, your house is left to you deserted; but amen I say to you, that you shall not see Me until [the time] come when you shall say, ‘Blessed [is] He that comes in the name of the Lord.’”


As Jesus continues to make His way towards Jerusalem, some of the Pharisees approach Him and say, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13:31). The Pharisees, as we know, are not interested in helping Jesus. In fact, they want to destroy Him. So why would they warn Him about Herod, saying that Herod is planning to kill Him? The answer lies in understanding what the Pharisees represent in each of us, especially in the context of the preceding series. Jesus has been teaching about salvation and what it means to be saved. It cannot happen through declarations of faith or the recitation of long prayers. It can only come about through acknowledging our evils and fighting to overcome them while relying on God to do so. Symbolically, this is the journey that we all must make. It is the journey to Jerusalem.

The Pharisees who approach Jesus, then, warning Him to turn back and avoid Herod are those states in each of us that preach the avoidance of temptation; they encourage us to take the easy way out, the short-cut, the path of least resistance. Above all, these states encourage us to avoid struggling against our lower nature. The battle is too much for you, they say. You can’t win. Run for your life.

The states within us are cunning and sly—like a fox. They prey on our fears and appeal to our selfish ambitions. But Jesus knows their scheming ways. Therefore, He tells the Pharisees who have warned Him about Herod, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected” (Luke 13:32). Jesus is talking about the inevitable journey to Jerusalem where He will be crucified and raised up—that is “perfected”—on the third day.

But, on a deeper level, Jesus is also talking about our spiritual development which begins with repentance. This is the initial period in which the demons of self-love and self-interest are cast out. It’s a time when evils are shunned as sins against God. As Jesus puts it, “I cast out demons.” This leads to the second stage in our spiritual development. It is a time during which the understanding is reformed, and the process of healing has begun. This is reformation. As Jesus puts it, “I perform cures.” Finally, on the “third day,” when we begin to develop a new will based on a new understanding, we are “raised up” above our lower nature. This is regeneration. As Jesus puts it, “The third day I shall be perfected.”

As for now, though, Jesus’ task is merely to put one foot ahead of the other, doing everything He is called to do, day after day as He moves onward to Jerusalem. As Jesus puts it, “Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow and the day following.” It should be noted here that Jesus refers to Himself as a “prophet” who predicts His death in Jerusalem. As He says, “It cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).

It will be recalled that Jesus refers to Herod as a “fox,” suggesting that Herod is a predator who takes advantage of innocent creatures, just as a fox attacks and devours the helpless chicks in a farmyard. Aware of this tendency, Jesus now describes Himself as a mother hen who would do anything to protect her chicks from the certain destruction of a marauding fox: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He says, “the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing” (Luke 13:34).

In this picture, Jesus shows the mercy of God, always and at all times willing to gather us into His heavenly kingdom. The problem is not that He wants to exclude anyone, but rather that we freely reject His protection and love: “You were not willing,” says Jesus. Even though Jesus yearns to fill us with every delight and every blessing, we can only receive those delights and blessings to the extent that we are willing to fight against selfish tendencies in ourselves.

That willingness to fight against our hereditary inclinations to evil is represented by Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, including His refusal to run away from Herod. Even as Jesus set His face towards Jerusalem, displaying His willingness to face Herod, we too must take our own journey to Jerusalem; in other words, we must be willing to face our own Herod within: we must be willing to engage in the struggles of temptation. 16

But if we are not willing to do this, our minds can receive nothing from God. They will be empty, desolate places. As Jesus puts it, “See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Luke 13:35).

Nevertheless, God is always present, urging and pressing to be received. He never leaves us. Again and again, He encourages us to take refuge within the shelter of His wings. Despite our waywardness, despite our unwillingness to take comfort in the truth He provides, God never loses hope. In spite of our faithlessness to Him, God continues in His faithfulness to us. And He always retains the ardent hope that we will one day recognize Him and say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35). 17

A practical application

This chapter closes with the words, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is a reference to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is about to take place. However, it can also be read as an exhortation to each of us; it can serve as a reminder that whatever we do and wherever we go, it should be done not in our own name, but rather “in the name of the Lord.” We can do this by attributing to the Lord every true thought we think, every good desire we feel, and every useful deed we do. Whenever we make this acknowledgement, the words, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” become a living reality in each of our lives. We, too, can make our triumphal entry into Jerusalem, confident that God will sustain us in the battles of temptation—that is, as long as we “come in the name of the Lord.”

Footnotes:

1Heaven and Hell 527: “Repentance is not possible after death. . .. No one's life can by any means be changed after death; an evil life can in no way be changed into a good life, or an infernal life into an angelic life, for every spirit from head to heel is such as his love is . . .. Therefore, to change a person’s life into its opposite is to destroy the spirit completely. The angels declare that it would be easier to turn an owl into a dove, or a horned-owl into a bird of paradise, than to turn an infernal spirit into an angel of heaven.”

2True Christian Religion 406: “People are not born for their own sake, but for the sake of others; that is, so that they should not live for themselves alone, but for others.”

3Apocalypse Explained 832[2]: “The number ‘three’ in the Word signifies what is full and complete, and hence an entire period, greater or less, from beginning to end.”

4Arcana Coelestia 9337: “Throughout the Word a person is compared to a tree. A person’s truths of faith [beliefs] are signified by the leaves of the tree and a person’s goods of love [good works] by the fruits of the tree. From this it is plain not only that ‘to be fruitful’ denotes an increase of good, but also that good is a person’s chief thing, even as the fruit is the chief thing of a tree. The leaves are indeed put forth first, but for the sake of the fruit as the end…. Thus, it is evident that ‘the fruit of faith,’ as it is called, is the primary thing of faith; and that faith without fruit, that is, without the good of life, is only a leaf. Therefore, when anyone (here meant by ‘the tree’) abounds in leaves without fruit, that person is the fig tree which withers away and is cut down.”

5True Christian Religion 720: “The Lord closes heaven to no one, even to the end of one’s life in the world, but people close heaven to themselves, and this they do by the rejection of faith and by evil of life. And yet every person is held constantly in a state of possible repentance and conversion.”

6Spiritual Experiences 2660. “The ground being fertilized by excrement portrays that they who confess their filthy sins and acknowledge that they are manure are the kind of ground from which the seed sprouts up. Likewise in the other life, when filthy pleasures such as those of adultery and cruelty rot and become stinking like manure, so that they begin to abhor them, then these people are like a soil in which the propensity for goodness can be sown.” See also Apocalypse Explained 837[5]: “The first thing in reformation is to desist from sins, to shun them, and at length to become averse to them… These sins must be held in aversion because they are opposed to the Word, thus to the Lord, and consequently to heaven, and because they are in themselves infernal.”

7Arcana Coelestia 3175: “People are never born into any truth, not even into any natural truth, such as that they should not steal, should not kill, should not commit adultery, and the like; still less are they born into any spiritual truth, such as that there is a God, and that people have an internal which will live after death. Thus, of themselves people would know nothing that relates to eternal life. People must learn both these kinds of truth; otherwise, they would be much worse than a brute animal; for from their hereditary nature, they love themselves above all and desire to possess all things in the world. Hence unless they were restrained by civil laws and by fears for the loss of honor, of gain, of reputation, and of life, they would steal, kill, and commit adultery, without any perception of conscience.”

8Arcana Coelestia 10023[7]: “By the ‘laying on of the hand’ by the Lord, and also by His ‘touching,’ is signified the communication and reception of Divine power.” See also Arcana Coelestia 10130[6]: “In the Word, the touch of the hand signifies communication, transfer, and reception. This is because the activity of the whole body is collected into the arms and into the hands, and in the Word interior things are expressed by means of exterior ones. From this it is that by the ‘arms,’ the ‘hands,’ and especially by the ‘right hand’ is signified power.”

9Divine Love 17: “The evils to be shunned are all those found written in the Decalogue. As far as people fight against these because they are sins … their spiritual mind is opened, and the Lord enters through it into their natural mind and disposes it for doing spiritual uses. If anyone, by fighting against evils because they are sins, acquires for oneself in the world something of spiritual life, even though very little, that person is saved, and the person’s uses afterwards increase, like a mustard seed growing into a tree.” See also Heaven and Hell 533: “When anything presents itself to a person that the person knows to be dishonest and unjust, but to which one’s mind is inclined, it is simply necessary to think that it ought not to be done because it is opposed to the Divine precepts…. When a person has made a beginning, the Lord performs all the good deeds with that person, and causes the individual not only to see the evils to be evils, but also to refrain from willing them, and finally to turn away from them.”

10Divine Providence 25: “Spiritual temptations are nothing else than combats against the evils and falsities that are exhaled from hell and affect a person. By these combats a person is purified from evils and falsities, and good is conjoined to truth in that person, and truth to good. Spiritual fermentations are brought about in many ways, both in the heavens and on the earth; but in the world it is not known what they are or how they are effected. For there are evils and falsities together that do a work, when introduced into societies, like that of leaven put into meal, or ferments into new wine, by which heterogeneous things are separated and homogeneous things are conjoined, and purity and clearness are the result.” See also Arcana Coelestia 1698: “Apparent goods and truths are gradually purified by means of the conflicts that constitute temptation.”

11Apocalypse Explained 1100[8]: “The phrase ‘a tree from a grain of mustard seed’ signifies a person’s beginning from a very little spiritual good by means of truth; for if only a very little spiritual good takes root with a person it grows like a seed in good ground. And as a ‘tree’ thus signifies a person of the church, it follows that ‘the winged things of heaven’ that made nests in its branches signify the knowledges of truth and thoughts therefrom.” See also Arcana Coelestia 5149[3]: “Except from the internal sense no one can know that ‘birds’ means things belonging to the understanding, such as thoughts, ideas, reasonings, basic assumptions, and consequently truths or falsities, as in Luke 13:19 … where ‘the birds of the air’ signify truths.”

12True Christian Religion 659: “All the evils to which a person inclines by birth are inscribed upon the will of one’s nature at birth; and so far as the person draws upon these evils, they flow into one’s thoughts; in like manner goods with truths flow down from the Lord into the thoughts and there they are balanced like weights in the scales of a balance. If the person then adopts the evils, they are received by the old will and added to those in it; but if the person adopts goods with truths, the Lord forms a new will and a new understanding above the old, and there by means of truths He gradually implants new goods, and by means of these subjugates the evils that are below and removes them, and arranges all things in order.”

13Arcana Coelestia 8179[2]: They who are in temptations are apt to slack their hands and resort solely to prayers, which they then ardently pour forth, not knowing that prayers will not avail. Instead, they must fight against the falsities and evils which are being injected by the hells. This fight is performed by means of the truths of faith, which help because they confirm goods and truths against falsities and evils. Moreover, in the combats of temptation, a person ought to fight as of oneself, yet acknowledge and believe that it is of the Lord…. When a person fights as of oneself, and still believes that it is of the Lord, then goods and truths are appropriated to the person …. Through this process the person [is gifted with] a new will.” See also Spiritual Experiences 5492: “Repentance at the time of death amounts to nothing.”

14Divine Providence 326[6]: “Only those who live well can acknowledge God in heart…. This is because they love the Divine things that are from Him in that they do them.” See also Arcana Coelestia 2892: “Both heavenly freedom and peace are conferred upon those who lead a good life. They believe that the Lord governs the universe, and that all the good which is of love and charity, and all the truth which is of faith, are from the Lord alone. Indeed, they believe that the Lord is the source of all life and that in Him we live, and move, and have our being.”

15The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Teachings 78: “In a word, the love of self and the love of the world are altogether opposite to love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor. The love of self and the love of the world are hellish loves, for they also reign in hell, and constitute hell with a person; but love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor are heavenly loves. They also reign in heaven, and constitute heaven with a person.”

16Arcana Coelestia 8403[2]: “They who have not been instructed about regeneration suppose that a person can be regenerated without temptation; and some that a person has been regenerated after going through only one temptation. But be it known that without temptation no one is regenerated, and that many temptations follow on, one after another. The reason is that regeneration takes place to the end that the life of the old man may die, and the new heavenly life be insinuated, which shows that there must needs be a fight, for the life of the old man resists, and is not willing to be extinguished, and the life of the new man cannot enter except where the life of the old man has been extinguished. Hence it is evident that there is a fight on both sides, and this fight is a fiery one, because it is for life.”

17Divine Providence 115: “The Lord continually urges and presses upon every person to open the door for oneself as is clear from His words in Revelation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if anyone hears My voice, and opens the door, I will come in to that person, and will sup with that person, and that person with Me.’”