LUKE 18:9-14 NOVEMBER 15, 2015
“Becoming Aware of God’s Presence”
This is a sermon essentially on the shortest prayer in the NT. It is found in the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and is one of the best known and best loved of Christ’s parables. But it is often misunderstood. On the surface it is a story about 2 men and their prayer. Actually, it is a parable about salvation. The verse with the short prayer also describes the hinge on which the Reformation was started. Justification by faith alone.
In this parable the prayers embody two contrasting approaches to God. One on the bases of the individual’s good works and the other on the bases of God’s Mercy made through the system of sacrifices.
Justification. That is the key word and the clue to the parable’s meaning. After the tax collector telling of his prayer, Jesus said “ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God”. So the parable answers the question: How is a person justified before God.
Martin Luther called justification the ‘chief article’ of Christian theology. “It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves and defends the Christian church and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour”.
John Calvin said that justification ‘the main hinge and pillar of Christianity’. This is not just whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. That is not hyperbole. It is simple truth. We are not right with God. We are alienated from Him and are under his wrath. John 3: 18 says… “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of G od’s one and only Son”. Romans 2:5 “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” How can we escape that wrath and become reconciled to God is the essential issue. In Job 25:4 Bildad the shuhite asked … “How can we be made right with God?”
Our Lord’s story is based on a contrast on two levels. The first contrast is between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The second is between human judgment (our carnal view) on our version of acceptability before God and then there is God’s judgment. You have heard from worldly people that because God is a loving God and because they say that they are basically good people they are going to heaven, as they perceive heaven to be. The error they make is in their perception of what gets man into heaven. The problem is is that good people do not go to heaven. Redeemed people go to heaven.
Now here in Luke 18 Jesus is making a contrast that the people of his time would readily visualize. Today we have a bad image of the Pharisee because of some of the things Jesus had said about them, all true of course, but that was not the case in his day, for the most part.
The Pharisees: They were the most highly regarded of the various secs of Judaism. Essentially they were not political figures, although they had great political power due to their being so highly regarded. They were the religious body whose chief concern was the observe the most minute points of the law. Nicodemus was a Pharisee as was Paul.
But who was the other person. He was the tax collector…a no-good, money-grubbing, cheating Roman collaborator. And they did all they could to steal from both the citizens and the government. So when Jesus spoke of these two it was as if he were referring to the Chief justice of the US and a rapist.
Now that mental picture was heightened by what the Lord said when he said of the Pharisee “he stood up and was praying”. This was expected of a Pharisee. They expected him to present himself above the others. So the Pharisee threw out his chest, collected his thoughts and prayed about himself “ God, I thank you that I am not like the other men-robbers evil doers, adulterers or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give tenth of all I get.” he probably wasn’t lying, he probably did give a 10th. And the people would have believed him. He was the type of person they would have invited to their home. They would have been pleased to know him and call him a friend.
Then there was the other person. The tax collector. Jesus said he “ stood at a distance” where he belonged. He would be the one relegated to the back of the bus, or put under the bus. He didn’t belong in front with all the ‘good’ people. When he prayed, “he wouldn’t even look up to heaven but beat his breast and said…“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And why not, he was a sinner and he had plenty to beat his breast about.
Hard to imagine a greater contrast. Yet as the Lord concluded the parable, he reverses the judgment that everyone would undoubtedly have been making, including the tax collector.
“ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God”.
Talk about a surprise ending.
It is true that the Pharisee was not ‘justified’. He was a sinner under the curse of God and God’s law. But that was no less of the tax collector, he too, was a sinner. He too was deserving of God’s wrath and God’s judgment. The only difference between the two was that the tax collector approached God on the basis of God’s merciful acts and not on the basis of his own supposed self-righteousness, while the Pharisee did not.
The clue to the meaning of this parable is the word ‘justified’. The heart of the teaching is in the tax collector’s prayer…. “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. It is one of the shortest prayers in the Bible and the most profound.
Consider the beginning and the end of the prayer. The words ‘God’ and …me, a sinner. Profound because those are the essential ingredients in all religion and because they express the essential genuine religious insight gained when a person becomes aware of God’s presence.
It is certainly the case-we see this in Calvin’s classic expression in his ‘Institutes of Christian Religion’ – that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves go together. That is, we never know the one without the other.
To know God as the sovereign God of the universe is to know ourselves as his subjects in rebellion against Him. To know God in his holiness is to know ourselves as sinners. Since God is the only standard by which any of these things can be measured, we do not know anything properly unless we know him. Or to put it in other terms, if we do not know the living God, we consider ourselves to be sovereign over our own lives, and wise and so on, we are OK and worthy to be received into God’s kingdom (this of course is a god of their imagination), when in reality we are none of these things.
Three examples from the OT of God’s self-revelation:
Consider Adam and Eve. After they had sinned they deluded themselves into thinking they were all right. They made fig-leaf aprons and went about their business. But when they heard the voice of God in the garden in the cool of the day they hid from Him among the trees. When God asked “ Where are you?” Adam answered, “I heard you in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid”. Their nakedness was spiritual as well as physical, and it was their spiritual dilemma as sinners that came home to them when they heard God coming.
We find the same thing in the case of Job. Job had suffered the loss of all his possessions and family and health. When his friends came to convince him that his loss was due to some sin Job had committed, either recognized or hidden, Job stoutly defended himself against their accusations. He was right in doing so, for Job was suffering as an upright man.. “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him. He is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” But towards the end of the book, after God came to Job with a series of questions designed to teach something of his true majesty, Job was nearly speechless and in a state of collapse. He replied to God “I am unworthy, how can I reply to you?….Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” You see Job had met the holy God and saw his sin as we should see it.
We see the same thing in the case of Isaiah. He had received a vision of the Lord “seated on a throne, high and exalted”. He heard the praise of the seraphim. But the effect on Isaiah, far from being a cause for self-satisfaction or pride that such a vision had been granted to him, was actually devastating. He responded “woe is me, I am ruined”. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King of kings, the Lord Almighty”. Isaiah saw himself as ruined and or undone. It was only when a coal was taken from the altar and used to purge his lips that he was able stand upright against and respond affirmation to God’s calling him to service.
In the NT:
Similarly, although the glory of God was veiled in the person of Jesus Christ, from time to time Christ’s disciples perceived who he was, ever so slightly, and had similar reaction.
After Peter had recognized the glory of God in Christ’s miracle of granting a great catch of fish in Galilee, he responded “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man”.
When the apostle John received a revelation of Christ’s glory on the the island of Patmos on the Lord’s day, seeing the risen Lord standing in the midst of the seven candlesticks, he fell at his feet as though dead” and rose only after experiencing some kind of a resurrection.
Now this is what happens when a sinner meets God, this is what happens when God reveals himself…and that is how we know that the tax collector knew God (despite his reputation).
This resurrection is similar to the resurrection that Paul experienced in Galatians 1 :15-16“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me……..”
Now getting back to the Pharisee, he began his prayer with “God”. But he was not praying to God (may I say he was praying carnally) because he did not see himself as a sinner. On the other hand the tax collector was so aware of God that“ he would not even look up to heaven, but beat upon his chest and said “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. He was so aware of his sin that he did not actually call himself ‘a sinner’, in the Greek and many translations it is translated THE.As with Paul. He singled his own guilt as exceptional, in 1 Tim 1:15 the chief of sinners. In his own eyes he was a sinner par excellence.
The second remarkable thing about this prayer- and the point to which all this is leading….is that the tax collector was not only aware of his sin, deep and penetrating as that awareness was. He was also aware of what God had done to deal with his sin problem. He was a sinner, alienated from God by that sin. But God has bridged that gap in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Making reconciliation. Romans 4-25 – Rom 5:1:1 says “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore since we have been justified by faith we have peace (make right) with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”. Consequently, between the beginning and the end of this prayer ….”God and me, a sinner” come the words have mercy on me. It is because of the acts of God’s grace and mercy and only because of these acts that this man or any sinner can approach the Almighty God.
Indeed the prayer is even more profound than that, because it is not only a prayer for mercy though it sounds like that in the English translations. It is a plea for mercy on the basis of what God has done.
The word translated “have mercy on (bilastbeti) is a verb form of the word for the Mercy Seat on the ark of the covenant in the Jewish Temple (bilasterion). Therefore, it could be literally (but awkwardly) be translated “be mercy-seated toward” or “treat me as one who comes on the bases of the blood shed on the Mercy Seat as an offering for sins”.
What was the ark? The ark of the Covenant was a wooden box about a yard long covered in gold, containing the the tablet of the law of Moses. The lid of that box was the Mercy Seat, constructed of pure gold and having on each end of it angels whose outstretched wings went outward and upward, almost meeting over the center of the Mercy Seat. Between those outstretched wings God was imagined to dwell symbolically. As it stands, the ark was a symbol of judgment intended to produce dread in the worshiper through the knowledge of his or her sin. For what does God see as he looks down from between the wings of the angels? He sees the law of Moses that we have broken. He sees that he must act toward us as judge.
But here is where the Mercy seat comes in, and here is why it is called the Mercy Seat. Upon that covering of the ark once a year on the day of atonement, the High priest sprinkled blood from an animal that had been killed moments before in the courtyard of the temple. That animal was a substitute. It was an innocent victim dying in the place of sinful people who deserved to die. Now when God looks down from above and between the out stretched wings of the angels, he sees, not the law of Moses that we have broken, but the blood of an innocent willing one who by substitutionary atonement bore our sins. He was not a victim like the animal who had no choice, but the Son of God who willingly in according to God’s set purpose and perfect timing….the sin bearer. He sees that punishment has been meted out. The cross is where God’s justice and hos mercy meet. Now his love goes out in mercy to save those who he chose to save, his people, those who come to him by grace thru faith a number that only God knows.
And finally: That is why I say that the prayer of the tax collector was so profound. Not only did it embody his faith in the way of salvation by sacrifice, it actually expressed the idea by its form. That is to say, between “God” whom we have offended, and ‘me, the sinner”, which describes us all, the offenders. The mercy seat. It is a visual as well as a verbal expression of the way of salvation.
The true and only atonement was that to be provided by the Lord Jesus Christ who as the perfect Lamb of God, died in the place of sinners. When the tax collector prayed… “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” he was thinking of the animal sacrifices, because although Jesus was present, He had not yet died. WE all need to pray this prayer. When we pray the tax collector’s prayer, we think of Jesus and the way in which God has provided a full and perfect salvation through Him.
And the crown verse…..verse 12 says He went away Justified!!
Again in Romans 5:1 Paul tells us that he was raised for our justification. You see that tells us for whom Christ died, doesn’t it, those whom he has justified. The unbeliever can not say that. He remains condemned in his sin as we are told in John 3:18.
Have we prayed that prayer??
Rest assured that for those of us who are in Christ…..“There is therefore, NOW no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”. THIS IS TO YOU!!