Luke 18:9-14 “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Our text begins with the little preposition ‘to’; to certain people Jesus told this parable. In other words, Jesus did not tell this parable about those who trusted in their own righteousness. He told it to those who possessed this wrong attitude, they were confident of their own righteousness. He looked them in the eye and calmly and clearly told them that they were fearfully mistaken. He was not talking about them, but to them. He was saying to them, “This is the last thing you want to be doing, trusting in yourselves because you believe that you’re righteous” What does that mean? From what erroneous attitudes did they need to be delivered? What was wrong with them? And how could this story that Jesus told them transform their understanding of the most important things in life?
A PHARISEE WENT UP TO THE TEMPLE TO PRAY.
Twice a day the large courts of the Jerusalem Temple would be the place for public prayers. During the rest of the day individual worshippers were coming bringing their sacrifices to the altar which stood outside the Temple but also within the Temple courts. So at a prayer time a certain Pharisee prepared to pray and he stood up; everyone was able to see and hear him. The NIV says he prayed about himself, but generally the preposition is translated to or with himself. In other words, he was not leading the people around him in prayer; it was a private prayer, said in a normal tone of voice, but loud enough for those standing by to hear him. Certainly his prayer was about himself. The Lord Jesus was drawing attention to him as an example of a righteous man trusting in his own righteousness. There are three indications of his confidence in his righteousness;
i] His life was righteous because it was a moral life. You see how he presented his life to God and man, how different it was from other people’s, they were extortioners – thieves and cheats – unjust and adulterers. Some of them even worked for the occupying Roman power and collected taxes from the Jews and sent the money to Rome! Horrors! He certainly did none of those things. He was financially honest, a just man, and a faithful husband to his wife. And so his righteousness had this strong ethical quality about it, and that was the foundation of his confidence; he trusted in his moral achievement. He was righteous because of how he behaved.
ii] His life was righteous because it was a religious life. He fasted on two occasions each week. He carefully gave a tithe of all that he got. These were ceremonial disciplines that he unfailingly performed. Every Monday and Thursday his wife didn’t bother to prepare a meal for him because she knew that he wouldn’t eat anything. He would be on a fast. His righteousness had this God-ward dimension. He fasted to the Lord. He tithed to the Lord, and here he is visiting the Lord’s Temple to pray to the Lord. His life was righteous because it was a religious life.
iii] His life was righteous because his righteousness was a gift from God. He began his prayer by saying “God.” He was conscious that God had changed him, and he gave thanks to God for the difference he’d made in his life. God was the reason that he was not like the man in the street. He gave credit to the transforming power of God he’d known, making him an upright and religiously devout man. “I owe everything to God,” he could tell anyone. He was not a Pelagian. A Pelagian is someone who believes he can make himself righteous without the help of God, merely by being determined to do righteous things. This Pharisee didn’t believe in that. He was not even a semi-Pelagian – and Charles Hodge said he feared the ghost of semi-Pelagius more than the ghost of Pelagius. A semi-Pelagian is someone who believes that God’s help is needed to live a righteous life, but you have to be determined to get help from God. It all hangs on your determination to take the assistance he offers us. The Pharisee was neither a Pelagian nor a semi-Pelagian. He believed that God had worked in his life and made him the righteous man he knew himself to be. “As well as being righteous, I have God on my side, God working in me, what blessings from God have come into my life, and they have made me the righteous man you see.”
Now please understand that everything this man Pharisee said about himself was true. For instance, when he said, “I thank you that I am not like other men,” indeed he wasn’t like other men. He had a standard of morality that was far above the standard of that day. When he said, “I fast twice a week”; it happened to be literally true. When he said, “I give tithes of all I possess,” he meant he tithed on the gross and not on the net. He went beyond the law of Moses (though that’s no big deal; all the Pharisees did that). And when he said, “I am not a crook,” he really wasn’t a crook. When he said, “I am not like this filthy tax collector,” he’s really wasn’t like that fellow. When he said, “I don’t commit adultery,” he really didn’t commit adultery. He was faithful to his wife. When he claimed, “I’m honest, I am faithful, I am zealous for my religion,” he meant it and every word of it was true. He truly was a genuinely good man. What we are to understand is this, that when he prayed he was telling the truth. He really was a very moral and a very religious man. In his generation he would have been Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela all rolled into one. Certain religious people today would believe that he was on the verge of beatification. What would the world call him today? A ‘hero.’ How would many describe him today? ‘Awesome.’ If he did not get to heaven what would be the verdict of the world? ‘Shameful.’
Whenever he walked into the Temple and prayed, people would be standing around watching and listening, and they’d all nod their heads when he finished and sigh, “He’s a fine man.” He was the kind of guy you’d want living next door to you. A good citizen. A law abiding man. A routinely religious kind of person. If he were to come to this church today we’d love him because he would be faithful, loyal, and give us a lot of money. We’d probably make him an elder or a deacon. He’s just that kind of fellow. He looked really good on the outside. Everything he said about himself was absolutely true.
So let’s be very, very sure that we understand what was wrong with such a man’s outlook. It was not, I say again, that he was lying when he prayed in the Temple. All he claimed about living a moral life and a religious life was true. Every word, and that it was God who had done this in his life – that was also true. So what was the problem? Read my lips. His faith was focused on all those things – the moral and religious things that he was doing day after day – that is what he trusted in for being accepted by God, and for God to hear him and bless him, and for God eventually to take him into heaven. It was all because of what he was and what he’d done. That was his damnable attitude, and if it remained, and was not changed by repentance and faith in Another’s righteousness, would take this man not to heaven but to hell.
Why did Jesus tell this parable? Because he noticed that the attitude of this Pharisee was widespread. Our Lord came across it everywhere, people who “were confident of their own righteousness” (v.9). “I am all right before God, because I am righteous and religious. I have attained the righteousness that God demands. God has actually accomplished these changes in me, and on my own righteousness I am resting all my hopes of eternal life and getting to heaven.” If we asked this Pharisee the famous question, “Why should God let you into heaven?” then we know his reply, “I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers . . . I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get” He believed that all he would need to do at the door of heaven would be to parade before God his own righteous life. Then God would cry to the angels, “Fling wide the gates! Be lifted up you everlasting doors, and let this righteous man enter!” This man’s trust was in his own righteousness.
This Pharisee was not at all an atheist. In fact this man believed he had a living relationship with God, and that God was working in his life, and that God daily blessed him. As far as we know this Pharisee would have said, “Don’t think that I have attained all this righteous living by my efforts. I give credit to the grace of God in me for achieving all of this.” He was sincere in saying that. He said, “I thank you, God, that I’ve got this righteousness. It’s because of you,” and, of course, he was not mistaken. Every virtue men possess is because of God’s goodness to a fallen world. So what was the Pharisee’s mistake? Listen again, it was that he trusted in his own God-produced righteousness for justification before the courts of heaven. When it came to justification—for that is the issue, as verse 14 shows—this man was relying on the wrong thing. He was looking at the wrong basis for his righteousness before God. He was building on the wrong ground for his righteousness before God. He was looking at the wrong person and the wrong righteousness. He was looking to his own righteousness—and it was his, not because he created it, but because he was living it out in a hundred choices, day by day. That righteousness was in his will, and in his heart, and in his actions. It was his. Of course it was put there by God, he knew that, but the great error he made was that he was trusting in that righteousness.
This Pharisee is not presented to us by Jesus as a legalist—one who tries to earn his salvation. That is not the issue. One thing alone is the issue: this man who was morally upright, who was religiously devout, who believed that God had made him the way he was and gave thanks to God for this, this moral man, I say, he looked to and trusted in his moral daily living for his righteousness before God, for his justification. And he was dead wrong. Do you understand, that how you live, how moral you are, how righteous a person you are – whether God has produced it or whether you have engineered it yourself – that can never be the basis of your justification before God. That is not how God will measure your life and open the doors of heaven to you.
I will tell you why. Because the best actions you’ve ever done have been imperfect actions. That is it. Self and pride and self-pity and inconsistency and a loveless impatient spirit have been mixed with your best shot. You have never been able to love your neighbour just as you love yourself. You always love yourself more, and so you have sinned. In all your religion you have never been able to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. There is not one thing you have ever done about which you can say, “I did that 100% to the glory of God.” There was at least 1% ego mixed in with it. That is why Isaiah says that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. He is setting our action in the presence of God. He is lifting our actions up and he is taking them to where the angels hide their eyes from the blinding glory of the God who is light in whom is no darkness at all, that presence of God where they sigh to one another about him, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Isn’t he so glorious in his holiness?” And they can’t bear to look at him. It is impossible for them to see him and live. When you have put your prayers and your religion and your morality there before the great white throne of God then you need to ask God not just to forgive you for your sins but to forgive you for your righteous actions. They don’t pass muster in the eyes of God, and that’s the only place where it matters. So to launch out into eternity and knock, knock, knock at the gates of heaven and tell God, “Let me in because of my own righteousness,” is to guarantee eternal rejection.
A TAX COLLECTOR WENT UP TO THE TEMPLE TO PRAY.
It was no surprise to meet a Pharisee in the Temple and hear him praying, but it certainly was the last place you would expect to meet a tax-collector, especially to hear him praying. The tax-collectors worked as collaborators with the occupying Roman authority. They collected value-added tax at ports and markets. They had a network of debt collectors and a private police force to ensure everyone paid. If you refused then your property could taken or your house and business destroyed. If you harmed or killed one of these men working for the tax collectors then the Roman army could come in and behead ten of the leading men in the district. The tax collectors would rob you blind, keep a substantial part of the money for themselves and send to Rome what the empire required. They were a detested group of traitors, and so the presence of a “dirty, rotten, no-good tax-collector” in the Temple was staggering. No one was hated more in all Israel than those men.
How did a tax-collector come to be here? He was a rotter and he knew it. How did be end up there under such conviction of sin? We are not told any of his background. We know that he had a conscience, God’s great monitor, which convicted him of his sins, for all of us have that voice of God. That is one of the ways we are distinguished from the animals. We also know that all this happened in Israel where there had been an earlier grace, the covenants were theirs, and the law of God was theirs, and the prophecies of the coming Messiah were theirs. Somehow this quisling had come under a powerful work of the Spirit and on this never-to-be-forgotten day in his life he entered the Temple and prayed. Note a couple of things about him . . .
i] His body language spoke of his shame. “He stood at a distance” (v.13). Tucked away in a corner, barely within the courts of the Temple, far from the altar, feeling unworthy to come any nearer, unhappy about mixing with holy people, there he stood apart. “He would not even look up to heaven” (v.13). He dare not lift his head to the sky as though that would be unseemly and provocative to the Holy One of Israel for such a sinner as he was to gaze at the heavens. Down he looked at the ground, his head bent, his eyes on the dust from which he came. “He beat his breast” (v.13); his fist came thudding into his heart again and again, hating himself for all he had done.
ii] His tongue spoke of his guilt. “God be merciful to me a sinner” (v.13). There is a certain emphasis in the original so that it reads, “God be merciful to me the sinner.” In other words he saw his sins as being far more serious than those of the other people in the Temple. Yes, they were sinners, but he was the sinner. He was in a class of his own, the worst of sinners, the very chief, as bad as bad could be. And the people overhearing him uttering his prayer would vigorously nod their heads, “Amen! That’s right. Your life is shameful . . .” But what do we say about this prayer? A few things . . .
A) It was very different from the prayer of the Pharisee. There could be no greater contrast than these two prayers. When the Pharisee prayed he showed no sense of sin and need. There was not a single thing wrong that he needed to confess, and there were no requests, no petitions and no supplications in his prayer. He didn’t acknowledge his emptiness; he didn’t seek mercy and grace to help him in a time of need. He boasted about his merits; he scorned his fellow-sinners especially the tax-collector. He was proud, utterly devoid of humility and love. His words didn’t deserve to be called a prayer. It was all vainglorious ostentation. Matthew Henry says that he went to the Temple in order to pray, but he forgot his errand. He gave himself a public testimonial before God. The tax-collector’s prayer was very different from that.
B) It made true requests of God. A prayer which is thanksgiving alone and a profession alone, and asks God for nothing is essentially defective. Maybe that is how angels pray, but they have never, never known a fallen world like this. They don’t know Christ as their Saviour; they worship him as their King. But when we sinners come to God we are told to petition him, “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.” Isn’t there much we have to bring to God by way of request? The tax-collector asked God for help
C) It was a direct and person prayer. He didn’t say, “Bless them all, the long and the short and the tall.” He did not speak of his neighbours. He spoke to God of his own exceeding great need. “God be merciful to me!” Most prayers are vague and general. They barely escape from the clutches of ‘we’ and ‘our’ and ‘us’ into ‘I’ and ‘me.’ You must go to God and speak to God of how it is between your soul and him. There is no formula for such a prayer. Tell God of your concerns and fears and hopes, with your life in his sight, with your need and his grace to answer that need. Be honest with God. That is the beginning of true prayer.
D) It was a humble prayer. It put self in the proper place. He acknowledged that he was a great sinner. That is the ABC of saving Christianity, says J.C.Ryle. We never begin to be good till we can feel and say that we are bad. His sin needed to be dealt with.
E) It was a prayer whose chief petition was for mercy. That is what we cry for on the day we begin to pray, and henceforth on every passing day until we see Jesus’ face; we ask for mercy and grace. We never cease to pray for mercy and grace to help us at every time of need.
Let’s look at that precise phrase the tax-collector used, “be merciful” to me. He had been deeply, deeply convicted, but somehow, just as tantalizingly and mysteriously to us, he had been made aware of the one and only source of hope. He needed the wrath of God against his past life to be propitiated, because that is what this word literally says; “God be propitiated to me.” Propitiation means to appease, or to placate someone’s anger, to turn away their wrath by the offering of a gift. You have upset your wife by coming home late for dinner and the meal she lovingly prepared has been spoiled, and so you buy her a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates or both to express your sorrow in hurting her and also to propitiate her anger towards you. The tax-collector was praying for the propitiatory mercy of God to be extended to him for all the provocations he’s been guilty of.
In fact the word for “be merciful to me” is the verb form of the noun which means “mercy seat.” You could say it clumsily in this way, “God, be mercy-seated to me.” What does that mean? It’s a picture from the Temple itself, where he is standing. He is in the Temple courts, but inside the Temple, at its heart, in the Holy of Holies, there was a small chest, the Ark of the Covenant. It was the most holy and sacred object for Old Testament Christians. It was a box about a yard long and a foot and a half wide and inside this box were the tablets of the Ten Commandments – the Law of God, the standard by which God would judge mankind – and by which God would judge this tax-collector.
The lid of the Ark of the Covenant was called the ‘Mercy Seat.’ Two golden cherubim were on top of the Mercy Seat and their wings spread over it, and in the space where the wings almost met was the heart of the presence of God with his people. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would slaughter a goat and with the blood of the goat he would enter the Holy of Holies. There he would take the blood and sprinkle it on that golden lid called the Mercy Seat. When he sprinkled the blood on the Mercy Seat, atonement was made. God forgave the sins of the people because of the blood of the spotless beast that had been shed. That’s what it means to be ‘mercy-seated.’ The tax collector was praying, “God, be to me as you are to Israel on the Day of Atonement when you look down and see the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat.” He was praying, “O God, be merciful to me not on the basis of what I’ve done, because I’ve made a horrible mess of my life, but on the basis of what you have done, the substitutionary sacrifice you have provided. You have sent the Lamb of God into the world and his blood has been shed for sinners just like me.”
The Temple and the Holy of Holies and the blood-sprinkled Mercy Seat all pointed to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who died on the cross, and who shed his blood so that he would take away the sin of the world. Do you know what the situation is right now, at this very moment? God is in his heaven and we are here on earth. We live and move and have our being in him. We are going to be evaluated and judged by the Holy One, and without mercy we face condemnation, but something has come between God and sinners – something good. Do you know what it is? It is the sprinkling of the blood of God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And now, by virtue of the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, you and I may have our sins forgiven. Not because of our own merit but by virtue of what Jesus Christ has done for us. And that’s what this bad man had learned, not only his guilt but how that guilt could be removed, through the shedding of blood.
Here is a truly bad man, a dissolute man, a man who had wasted his life, a scoundrel, a crook, a cheat, but he came to God and he prayed, “O God be merciful to me because of the blood of atonement. God forgive me, not because of what I’ve done, not because I deserve it, but by virtue of the sprinkled blood of propitiation, through the Lamb of God who takes way the sin of the world.”
I need to be used by God to help us all to really humble ourselves today, because this is the message of Jesus Christ in telling us this parable. He who humbles himself – he alone – will be exalted (v.14). In other words, if you have understood this parable, you pour contempt on all your pride. Our only hope of exaltation to the presence of God in glory, our only hope of entry into heaven is through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. Do you realise that that lies at the heart of the claims that Jesus made? “No man comes to the Father but by me.” His disciples said that there was none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. Only the name of God the Son can save us. We are saved by the death of Christ. Isaiah the prophet said, “All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one from his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Through the death of Christ God has been able to show his justice, in his hatred of sin, sparing not his own Son when Jesus was made to be sin for us, and yet God can freely pardon all who have that covering for their sins in the blood and righteousness of Christ. His wrath has been propitiated by Christ who lovingly cam to lay down his life for us, and so God can justly love and pardon all those for whom his Son has died. Is that life and that death of that Saviour the foundation of your hope of mercy from heaven? Are your hopes all found in Jesus Christ’s blood and righteousness? Do you pray, “For Jesus’ sake and in Jesus’ name God be merciful to me!” All such, but they alone, are justified.
Don’t miss those terrifying four words for this Pharisee in the middle of verse 14, “I tell you, this man rather than the other, went home justified.” The Pharisee, the righteous one, the one thanking God for his righteousness, was not justified. In other words, he was condemned. People who trust in the righteousness that has been attained by themselves as the basis of their acceptance in heaven will never go down to their homes justified. People who really believe that the righteousness that God helps them to accomplish in this life is the basis for their justification, Jesus says, will not be justified. Men and women, this is serious. We are not justified by the righteousness that Christ works in us, but by the righteousness that Christ is for us.
The tax-collector received righteousness from God as a gift, while the Pharisee thought he would parade his righteousness before the world and God as an achievement. The tax-collector came to the temple as a self-confessed sinner but he went home justified; the religious Pharisee came up to the temple virtuous and went home condemned. Jesus here teaches the principle of righteousness becoming ours by faith in God alone through grace. This is preached throughout the letters of the New Testament. If you hold on to the belief that your life is good enough for God then you’ll receive nothing. It is only as you face up to your faults and failures, and confess your sin to God that you can receive everything from him.
Please understand and receive what the Son of God says here in his word, what he has gathered you here today to hear. Please make it a part of your own theological thinking and glory in this truth. “Jesus thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress.” Take your stand on it. Cry to God that this message would always be preached from this pulpit. You ask me “What is this New Perspective on the apostle Paul?” I find it very difficult to explain, except to say that it is a horrible mixing together of Christ’s righteousness and our own righteousnesses and that that mixture is the basis of our justification before God. The answer to that muddle is shown here in this parable of the two men who prayed in the Temple. I call upon you all to give Jesus Christ his full glory—not half of it. Give him the glory, both as the one who is perfect righteousness for us—which we have by faith alone—and the one who, on the basis of justification, works progressive righteousness in us. Don’t rob him of the glory of his role as your eternal righteousness. Remember John Bunyan’s great discovery. He saw one day that his righteousness was in heaven, that it was in the midst of the throne. Christ is our righteousness, and because he is our righteousness, he can, and will in time, make you righteous. Look to Christ alone, trust in Christ alone—not your righteousness—for your right standing in God’s court and your acceptance with him.
4th December 2011 GEOFF THOMAS