RICK: Well, we have the joy of hearing John MacArthur again tonight. (Applause.) John, why don’t you come up? I think it’s appropriate, just so you know, he is in my estimation, I’ve been listening to John’s preaching in person now for almost a quarter century, twenty-five years, and it’s the best I’ve ever heard it—and it was never actually very bad. So it’s only gotten better over time. But I thought was very interesting and humorous is the guy’s perspective on praying for you at the college. And maybe you can let them know a little of that prayer. Just to let you know, we’re planning on John retiring in about forty years. So he’s going to be here a long time. But maybe you can just start by telling us what this guy did and then we’ll be thankful that you’re here tonight, okay?
JOHN: Thanks, Rick. Well, what he’s talking about is a couple of years ago at the Master’s College, at the beginning of the school year, I meet together with the dorm staff and the RDs and just have a great time, kind of setting our course for the year and talking about some issues of discipleship and how to get involved in doing that effectively. And so after I had kind of shared a little bit, one of the...one of the Student Life staff asked a student, “Will you pray for Dr. MacArthur?” And so everybody bowed their heads and this is what he said: “O God, as Dr. MacArthur comes to the end of his life and faces death”—the end of his life and faces death? I actually opened my eyes to see if there was a sniper in the window. What is he talking about?
But I’ll tell you what, if they show any of those twenty-foot-high close-ups anymore, people are going to think I’m even older than I actually am. That is a scary thing. But you know what? I’m grateful for his prayers, but I think I have a few years left. I basically told Rick, “Just let me preach till I don’t make sense, and then get me out of there. But as long as I make sense, leave me alone ’cause I can’t do anything but this.” So it’s a joy to be a part of Resolve. What a thrill it is to me to have you all here to sit and to listen to the great presentation of Scripture, to join you in this incredible worship and praise that comes from the depths of our heart. It’s an honor more than you will ever comprehend, really, to be at this end of my life and still have anybody listen. It’s been a long, long life and it’s been full of so many preaching opportunities, and when I hear Rick say that I still might have something to say, that is a great, great encouragement. He doesn’t need job security, so I think it’s an honest evaluation from him.
But, you know, I was reading the other day a new theology written by Eugene Merrill, who is an eminent Old Testament scholar down at Dallas Seminary, and he has written really what is his life work in this dominion theology, which is an Old Testament biblical theology. Rather than being systematic, it flows from Genesis to Malachi and unpacks the text of Scripture to frame up this great theological treatise that is his opus magnum after many, many, many years of scholarship and teaching. And in the introduction he says some very interesting things. I thought the most interesting was this. Anybody who writes a theology realizes that you only have a very small window to do it in. You have to be really old to have accumulated a lifetime of understanding of the Word of God and who have tested all your views against virtually every text in the Scripture. You have to be old enough to have taught it to students who analyze it and criticize it. And when you’re old enough for all of that, just prior to Alzheimer’s, you have a window and in that window you have to write that systematic theology. I have a few more things to write and I think—I’m in that window—but I’m so thankful to the Lord that He’s continuing to give me the opportunity to minister in places like this. I really thought as our church got older, our congregation would get older—that isn’t what’s happened. As I’ve been there longer and the church itself has grown older, the congregation keeps getting younger, and that is an immense encouragement to me.
In all the years of my preaching, my favorite subject is Jesus Christ. Somebody said to me the other day, “Your commentary on the gospel of John, chapters 1 through 11, is my favorite of all your commentaries.” And I said, “Of course, because Jesus is your favorite person.” And that’s what that’s all about. It’s all about Him, of course. He’s my favorite, too.
I think twenty years, at least—twenty years, at least—I have been preaching through the gospels: several years in the gospel of John, about almost nine years in the gospel of Matthew. I’m now in year eight or nine in the gospel of Luke. And I’m in almost to chapter 19—I have five chapters to go. I think I can finish in three years. So that would be maybe twenty-five years preaching through the gospels—every single verse, every single incident, event, sermon, lesson concerns itself with Jesus Christ. Then you add to that the writing of four volumes in Matthew. I’ve already begun the process of writing the Luke commentary, and at the pace I’m going now, the publisher said with a gulp, “It will be eight volumes in Luke.” That’s too many, so we’ll have to condense it a little bit.
I’ve only...I haven’t asked the Lord for much. He gave me the perfect wife and I rejoice in that every day. My life has been literally lived at the pinnacle of joy with the woman God gave me. He gave me the greatest gift in that wife and four precious children, and four precious children who married my children—and fourteen grandchildren. My life is so full of blessing. But I’ve asked the Lord for one more thing, and that is I want to finish Luke—now wait a minute—and then I want to do Mark. (Applause.) And then I’ll die. And it’s really for my benefit. I cannot let go of preaching on Christ. And in those years in the Sunday mornings at our church when I wasn’t in Matthew, or John, or Luke, I was in Hebrews, which is about Christ, or I was in Colossians, which is about Christ. Or I was in Romans. But always the focal point, the Lord Jesus Christ. Every incident, every event, every miracle, every story He ever told holds rapturous wonder for me. They’re inexhaustible treasures. I can’t find the bottom to any of them. I’ll go at a parable that Jesus told in about fifteen minutes, and it will take me months to get through it, and I’ll feel like I short-changed everybody.
But I want to go to one of my favorite stories that Jesus told tonight. You can open your Bible to Luke chapter 18, Luke chapter 18; and you can tell because I told you where I am. This is pretty recent for me in the church. And I’m going to give you just my heart understanding of this incredible story.
Now let me give you just a big-picture framework—Jesus was an evangelist. Jesus came preaching salvation, preaching the Kingdom of God and calling people to enter it, inviting people to come into His Kingdom. And the question that always comes up in any study of the life of Jesus Christ and His teaching is simply this: How does one come into the Kingdom? That is the big question. How does one enter the Kingdom of God? How does one receive salvation? How does one become reconciled to God? How does one receive eternal life and have the hope of heaven?
That is the question that is behind the story that Jesus tells. Let me read it to you, starting in Luke 18, verse 9. “He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt.” Here’s the story. “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I’m not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heave but was beating his breast saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner.’”
And then Jesus’ commentary—“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
What I want you to look at is verse 14, “This man went down to his house justified.” You might have thought that the apostle Paul invented the doctrine of justification. He didn’t. And by the way, neither did Jesus. Not at all. In fact, the Old Testament is full of references to justification. Just a few to perhaps whet your appetite for further study in the Old Testament. In Job chapter 9, and verse 2, this is the question that is posed: “How can a man be righteous before God?” That has always been the prevailing question. Since the Fall, we are sinful; we are alienated from God; God is infinitely and absolutely holy. How can God then accept any sinner? Answer, only if that sinner is righteous. How can any sinner be righteous before God? That is the question in Job 9:2, “How can a man be righteous before God?” The question is repeated in Job 25:4, “How can a man be righteous before God?”
That was a tough question. Even in the patriarchal period—and Job was written way back in the Mosaic era—from the very outset, everybody understood the issue. We’re all sinners. God is infinitely and absolutely holy. He cannot accept sinners as such. How then can a man be righteous before God?
The psalmist adds another element to it in Psalm 143 and verse 2, it is this, “In His sight no man living is righteous.” In God’s sight, the Psalmist sums up much of what the Old Testament says. Of course, in His sight, no man living is righteous. And yet, in Isaiah 53, verse 11, the Scripture says, “The righteous one will justify many, or will make many righteous.” Man is not righteous. Man is incapable of being righteous. He cannot on his own please God, and yet God will justify many. The Old Testament student, the Old Testament Jew, the synagogue attender, understood the issue of justification. They knew their hearts were deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. They knew that they could not change themselves any more than the Ethiopian can change the color of his skin, or the leopard his spots. This dilemma was pervasive in Judaism.
Now there are only two possible answers, backing up a little bit, just two possible answers. Either you can do it on your own or you can’t; fair enough? Pretty simple, isn’t it?—not complex. Either you can do it on your own or you can’t. Either you do it or you don’t. That’s why I say, as Rick quoted this morning, there are only two religions in the world. There’s a religion of divine accomplishment, which says only God can do it. There’s a religion of human achievement, which says we make a contribution to it. That’s the only two religions in the world. Christianity, true Christianity and the gospel, is the religion of divine accomplishment. All other religions, no matter what their name, is just a form of the religion of human achievement.
It comes down to this. If I’m going to enter God’s Kingdom, if I’m going to have a relationship with God, if I’m going to receive eternal life, if I’m going to go to heaven, I’m going to have to be righteous, and either I can or I can’t do that. Either I can make myself right with God through some means, ceremonial, ritual, moral, spiritual, religious, like people today who say, “I’m very religious.” Or perhaps more often in a postmodern sort of mystical way, I’m a very spiritual person. You can either achieve a right standing with God, or you can’t.
Now the Pharisee believed he could. He believed he had. Self-righteous, proud, confident, assured, contemptuous of others beneath him, he comes in the story before God and asks for nothing, nothing—not forgiveness, not grace, not mercy, not compassion, not sympathy, not understanding, nothing. Why? He doesn’t need anything. On the other hand, you have this tax collector—sinful, outcast, object of contempt, guilty, alienated, distraught, humble, broken, desperate and asking for mercy. He goes home justified and not the other.
Let me just tell you something. That is a stunner to the Jewish audience. That is a jolt to their religious sensibilities. Their whole religious system was built on the idea that you made yourself righteous by your morality and your religion. And the Pharisees were the absolute, archetypal righteous. Jesus shatters their concept to bits.
Let’s look a little closer at the story. The audience, first of all, verse 9—He told this parable—“The certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt.” To some, whoever, anybody, anybody, anywhere, anytime, who trusts in himself that he is righteous. This is absolutely the driving element, the central component in Pharisaic religion. Go back to chapter 16 for a moment, just a couple of verses that tie in so well that they cannot be omitted. Verse 14, “The Pharisees who are lovers of money were listening to all these things and they were scoffing at Jesus, and He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men. You make yourselves righteous in the sight of man, but God knows your hearts, for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.’” Wow! People think you’re the paragons of righteousness. People think that you are the possessors of the Kingdom of God. People think that to you belongs salvation and you are, in the eyes of God, detestable because you trust in yourselves. Either you trust in yourself, or you don’t. Those are the only two options. And they did.
And they had the greatest influence in the populous because they basically plied their religion through the entire system of synagogues. In every town and village there were synagogues—wherever there were a dozen men they could have a synagogue. And it was basically Pharisaic religion that was scattered throughout the land of Israel. The Sadducees were the highbrow elitists who ran the temple franchises and extorted money out of the people to run the phony religious operation there. They rarely got away from their premises, and they were theological liberals who didn’t have a lot of widespread influence. It was the Pharisees who dominated the land and the thinking of the people. They really were the benchmark people of the Judaism of the first century, and self-confidence was at the core of their religious system. They could achieve righteousness before God by their own efforts. And anybody beneath them was considered with contempt and disdain. Go back to verse 9; they viewed others with contempt.
Now the apostle Paul was like that. He was one of those. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees. Read Philippians chapter 3. He could match his credentials with anybody and probably excel anybody. He was circumcised the eighth day, born to the tribe of Benjamin, an Israelite, kosher, zealous even to the point of persecuting those who disagreed with his form of religion, blameless on the surface as to the law of God; and he considered that the gain that elevated him above everyone else. That is a classic Pharisaic mentality, we’re better than you. It’s been imported into much of the religion of the West, in the false priesthood that exists in Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, and other places, wearing funny clothes and garments to make yourself appear to be something other than you really are.
They fasted, they prayed, they abstained, they tithed, they memorized Scripture, they invented their own laws beyond Scripture. They did everything they could to appear to be holy in the way they dressed, even in the way they walked. The rich young ruler was no doubt one of them, or a close associate of them. The rich young ruler is not a parable—it was a real young man. But because he was a ruler of a synagogue, he was well-nigh a Pharisee, and he couldn’t find anything in himself that was reprehensible. As far as he was concerned, he kept the law perfectly. That’s how superficially he understood the law.
In the sixteenth century there was a German monk named Martin Luther. I had the privilege of, last fall, being over in the environs where Luther lived and worked and studied and preached and taught. I even preached in the cathedral at Wittenberg, up in that great high pulpit with Luther’s body right under me. A wonderful opportunity. Luther, as a monk, was in the tower of the Black Cloister there in Wittenberg. It was called the Black Cloister because the robes the monks wore were black. And he was meditating one day on the perfect righteousness of God which is clearly what the Scripture teaches. And he had convinced himself that he was the most scrupulous of all monks, the most fastidious of all monks who gave the most attention to the matters of holiness. For example, how about this? He attended confession hours every day and sought forgiveness for every sin that he could conceive that he had committed, down to the minutest of sins. He knew that he fell far short of the divine and perfect standard. But he thought of divine righteousness as a hateful thing, an unrelenting, unforgiving, avenging wrath, and believed that his condition was absolutely hopeless.
That was a good thing. Because the fact of the matter is, it is hopeless. And that’s what started him on the path to a true righteousness through faith in Christ. But for much of his young life, he was a Pharisee—like these and like so many who trust in themselves and in their own righteousness and view others with contempt. By the way, the verb “contempt,” exoutheneo, means “to treat with scorn.” It means to reject. It encompasses the idea of ridicule.
In fact, the Pharisees looked at the people who were beneath them, anybody who wasn’t a Pharisee, as am ha’aretz—people of the land is what that means. They were the shamerim. They were the law keepers. They were the elevated ones. Everyone else was an am ha’aretz. And the rabbis said, “You are not even to go near to an am ha’aretz ever, even as so much as to teach him the law or you’ll be polluted.
Whenever they had a meal together, they invited only Pharisees, unless they wanted to invite somebody who was not a Pharisee for the sole purpose of trapping Jesus. And among the am ha’aretz, the people of the land, the lowest of the low, the scum of the scum, were the tax collectors. Tax collectors were low because tax collectors were Jews who were traitors to their nation. Remember now, the Romans occupy Israel. The Romans are idolaters; the Romans worshiped false gods. They even have them on their insignias; they are blasphemous as far as the Jews are concerned. They hate the idea of being an oppressed and occupied people. They hate the Romans with a passion. They were even among the Zealots, which is a party among the Jews, rabidly anti-Roman, a group called the Sicarii, who were the terrorists, who went around with small daggers in their robes. And whenever they could, they would assassinate Romans. They hated the presence of the Romans. The worst thing a Jew could ever do would become a tax collector for Rome. In order to do that, you purchased a franchise, and then you extorted money from your own people, like Zacchaeus did. And in order to get the money out of your people, of course you had to get whatever the government wanted. The government of Rome demanded that you pay. Whatever else you got above that, you kept for yourself. And in order to get people to pay, you surround yourselves with lowlife and thugs and petty criminals who would break people’s arms or legs if they didn’t pay up. And that also collected the group of other lowlifes, prostitutes and other assorted sinners, who are usually connected to the tax collectors.
So these are the two people you have in the story. One of them, the view of the people, is at the pinnacle of religion, morality, honor, dignity, respect, societal acceptance. The other is at the very bottom. And with these two characters in mind, Jesus tells a story. We meet the audience then in verse 9; the analogy starts in verse 10. It’s short but it is packed with tremendously interesting and helpful truth. Look at verse 10. “Two men went up into the temple to pray.” You can’t go any further than that.
What’s going on here? You always went up into the temple because the temple was elevated—up long sets of stairs to get into the temple. “To pray,” really, was an all-encompassing word that involved everything that was done in the morning sacrifice and the evening sacrifice. It was worship; it was prayer; and it was sacrifice. Every day, every weekday other than the Sabbath day, 9 A.M.-3 P.M., morning sacrifice, evening sacrifice—every day, people went up (anabaino), they ascended. So this is typical. The scene would be very familiar to everybody. A whole mass of people; let’s just take an evening instead of a morning for the sake of illustration. It’s evening time; the work day is over; the people begin to ascend the steps to go into the temple area because there will be an evening sacrifice. And with that sacrifice, there will be a time of prayer and a time of praise. They would be going with the crowd. They would be going to experience the sacrifice. They would also receive a priestly blessing by going, nine in the morning and three in the afternoon. (I think I may have said six; three in the afternoon.)
It is on such an occasion that our Lord sets up the picture for us. The primary feature that’s going to take place is the sacrifice of the animal. That is to say there will be an atonement made for sins—the daily service of atonement for the sins of the people in the temple ground. A very elaborate ceremony is described in Numbers chapter 28; you can read it on your own. The burning of incense was also involved, and the burning of incense came after the sacrifice, because once a sacrifice was made, an atonement was achieved symbolically; then incense, which symbolizes the ascending of prayers, symbolizes the fact that now that the atonement has been made, prayers can be begin—access to God is open.
So the faithful came. They watched as the sacrifice was made. The incense was lit and they offered their prayers. They were very much aware every morning, every afternoon, that the only possible access to God was by means of an atoning sacrifice. There is no way to God except through atonement.
And so we meet these two, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector, polar opposites in every sense—the most pious, the most impious, the most respected, the most resented. The Pharisee, so familiar, scrupulous, adhering to the law, fastidious, self-righteous, self-promoting, self-satisfied, purveyor and protector of Judaism, as far as he was concerned, to the degree that he would not allow himself to be sullied by any contact with anybody other than another Pharisee. And on the other hand, the poor, lowly, hated tax collector.
Verse 11, “The Pharisee stood”; just some comment there. That was an acceptable posture for prayer, by the way, but so is every posture. You can find everyone in the Bible. But in Mark 11:25, Jesus even made the comment, “When you stand praying,” which indicates that it was probably a fairly normal posture for prayer, like Hannah, like Solomon, like the leaders in Nehemiah’s day in Nehemiah chapter 9. The assumption here, emphasizing the Pharisee stood, probably leads us to the conclusion that he stood in a prominent place, a place of high visibility near the inner court, near the holy place where the sacrifice was going to be made. He got as close to that place as he could get in order to demonstrate or at least convince the people that he belonged as close to the holy place as you can get, because he is as close to God as one could get. He wants to give the unwashed am ha’aretz who may be milling around up there a good look at a really holy man.
And his prayer is remarkable, as he stands there in a prominent place, no doubt, near—as near to the holy place as one could stand. His prayer was remarkable. It says this, “And was praying this to himself.” What a strange comment. Some suggest that it means inaudibly, that he was praying without saying anything, sort of like Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 who was praying but her lips were moving and she wasn’t able to be heard. But that’s not the way the Pharisees prayed. They prayed in public and they prayed out loud. When it says he was praying this to himself, it is using the phrase “to himself” in a self-congratulatory sense. And this is supported by the fact that in verse 11 and 12 there are five references to him. He is celebrating his righteousness openly, loudly, publicly. This is not a prayer to God; he doesn’t need God. He doesn’t ask God for anything. He doesn’t seek grace, mercy, forgiveness, help. He doesn’t even offer praise to God. His thanks is a mockery. “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people.” What a bizarre statement. Why would you thank God for what you’ve achieved? Unequivocal confession to God of his own worthiness, of his own righteousness.
And just so God, in case He may have overlooked him, can truly appreciate his achievement, he gives God a few comparisons to file in His omniscient mind. “I’m not like other people, swindlers [harpages], robbers, unjust [adikoi], dishonest, cheaters, swindlers, unjust.” And then adulterers (moichoi, “immoral sexual sinners”). I’m not like any of those people.
And then he concludes by saying, “Even like this tax collector who is all of those”—the swindler, dishonest, cheating, robbing, sexual sinner. All those are sins, by the way, associated with the riff-raff and the scum that made up the assemblage of the tax collectors and their associates.
Now frankly, folks, this is what Walter Leifeld calls obnoxious, self-righteousness, isn’t it? It’s disgusting. There’s no prayer here. He’s talking to himself. He wants nothing from God. He just wants everyone to hear how holy he is so that they have the opportunity to compare him in his holiness to an unclean reject. And by the way, the Pharisees were dead-serious about this kind of disdain. They couldn’t even touch, according to the Midrash, they couldn’t even touch the garment of an am ha’aretz without being ceremonially unclean. If going to the temple he brushed against any other than a Pharisee, he would be ceremonially unclean and so his physical isolation is not only a matter of establishing his prominence, but it is a matter of isolating himself so as to protect his holiness. So he has to stand aloof from all the other people gathered around the altar. And by the way, according to the Mishnah—some interesting things in it; Jewish codification of Law—at the time of the incense, when the prayers were being offered after the atonement sacrifice has been made, there were a delegation of Jews, there was a delegation of Jews appointed for the purpose of going through the crowd. And if they found any unclean people, they were to take them to the eastern gate and make them exit. And if we can embellish the story a little bit, the Pharisee who was standing there comparing himself sees a perfect illustration of what he’s not—this tax collector who in his judgment and the judgment of his religion ought to be being ushered out of that holy place and out of his holy presence and through the eastern gate with the rest of the riff-raff.
But he’s not really finished yet with just saying what he’s not. There are a few positive things he would like to affirm publicly before God and everybody who’s listening, and so in verse 12 he says, “I fast twice a week.” Do you know how many fasts in the Old Testament are required? One, just one in preparation for the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:31)—that’s the only required fast in the whole Old Testament. What is this fasting twice a week? You can fast more often if you want. But these legalists had gone way beyond, fasting twice a week. Why did they do that? Ah, they fasted on Monday and Thursday. Why? Because Monday and Thursday were market day and everybody was in town. Perfect time to fast, throw ashes on your head, and look holy and humble.
“Oh by the way,” they said, “Moses went up to Sinai on a Thursday and came down on a Monday.” Like they knew? I’m not making this up. “And they said, ‘These two days are equal-distant from Sabbath as far as possible, at the same time being distant from each other. So they had this typical little convoluted rabbinic design. They put on a show Monday and Thursdays.
He’s not finished. “I pay tithes of all that I get.” I pay tithes of all that I get—tithes of absolutely everything, a tenth. And they did that, you know, with all kinds of fanfare. Remember Jesus talking about the Pharisees coming to give his tithe and having somebody blow a trumpet, Da-da-da-da! Here I go, folks, are you watching? That’s exactly what they did.
A Pharisaic prayer dating from the time of Jesus, translated into English, listen to this: “I thank Thee, Jehovah, my God, that Thou hast assigned my lot with those who sit in the house of learning and not with those who sit at street corners; for I rise early, and they rise early. I rise early to study the words of the Torah and they rise early to attend the things of no importance. I weary myself and they weary themselves. I weary myself and gain thereby; they weary themselves and gain nothing. I run and they run. I run toward the life of the age to come, and they run toward the pit of destruction.” Talk about obnoxious self-righteousness. That was the Pharisees.
But that’s the way it is with anybody who thinks that you can become right with God on your own. If you make any contribution, you will be in a big hurry to give yourself full credit. But, verse 13, “But the tax gatherer, tax collector...” and by the way, this guy is in fact by God’s view exactly opposite what the Pharisee thinks he is, which is another indication there are many in the ministry of Jesus, by which he made it clear that the Pharisees had no real knowledge of God at all.
Let’s meet him. I like him. “The tax collector, standing some distance away” (makrothen, “far away”)—probably in the outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, Court of the Women, way out on the edge, away from the people. Why? Feels dirty, feels unclean, knows he’s hated, knows he’s despised. He’s already been unsynagogued—no tax collector could ever attend a synagogue. And if they knew, he wouldn’t have had access to the temple ground either. He knows he’s apart from the people. He knows he’s a traitor. He knows he is a social pariah—he is a sinner before everyone. He is a sinner before God. He knows he has no right to be in that area. He certainly has no right to be near the holy place or any holy place. He is alienated; he knows it; he feels it profoundly. You see it in his place, far off. Then you see it in his posture. He was unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, that is, toward God. That is a normal Jewish prayer posture, when you’re standing, to lift your hands and to lift your eyes; couldn’t do it, too much shame, too much guilt, too much unworthiness. He was a swindler; he was unjust; he was dishonest; he was immoral; he was a cheat; he was corrupt; he was irreligious; he was a lawbreaker. He knows it; he feels it; he believes it; he acknowledges it. And there isn’t any word out of his mouth to mitigate this. Like he doesn’t say, “Well, I know I’m a tax collector, but I’m better than most, at least I’m here at the temple. Better than most other tax collectors that I know.”
None of that. He feels the full weight of his lawlessness. He feels the full weight of his wretchedness. He feels the full weight of his disobedience and his sin. He feels all the accompanying conviction and remorse. He feels the pain, the fear of deserved judgment. He knows God is his enemy and his judge. His place, his location, says it. His posture says it. And then even his behavior says it.
Go back to the verse again. “He was beating his chest.” Now you just read that and kind of fly on by. You’ve got to know a little about that. A typical posture for prayer among the Jews was to hold their hands up, but another particular posture for Jews was to cross their hands over their chest and to bow their heads. Alfred Edersheim, in his classic Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, demonstrates this posture in Jewish history. “This is the posture the man takes, crossing his hands across the chest with his eyes down, he will not look up.” He does...that being not unusual, extremely unusual...a gesture familiar in Middle Eastern culture; he begins to pound his chest rapidly and repeatedly. This never appears in the Old Testament. You don’t have anybody doing this. It appears twice in the New Testament: once here and once in Luke 23:48 at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Middle Eastern women today do this; watch the news—watch the Palestinian women when they lose a son or a husband; watch the Arab world; watch the Iraqi women and you will see women wailing and pounding their chests. Rarely, however, do men do this. It is never in the Old Testament. It is twice in the New Testament. Both times men are in view.
At the case of the cross, it could have been men and women. Here it is men, so men in both incidents. Kenneth Bailey writes, “Women customarily beat their chests at funerals. Men do not. For men it is a gesture of extreme sorrow and anguish and almost never used. In all of biblical literature we find only these two in Luke. We are told that all the multitude after the crucifixion went home beating their chests. And Kenneth Taylor writes this, “It takes something of the magnitude of Golgotha to evoke this gesture from Middle Eastern men.” And here is something going on in the heart of this man that is of such magnitude that he behaves in a way that men didn’t behave, because it lacked manliness. It was a female gesture to be that sorrowful, that penitent, that remorseful, that broken. It was a sign of weakness. And why his chest? An old Jewish commentary says, and I quote, “Why do the righteous beat upon their hearts as though to say all is there, all is there, the righteous beat the heart because the heart is the source of all evil.” He knows. He’s pounding the very right place to pound and calling attention to the wretchedness of his own heart.
Out of this anguish guilt, out of this shame, out of this unworthiness and humility and fear comes a prayer, a real prayer. Listen to it. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (to hamartolos; definite article, the sinner). God—he’s really talking to God; he’s really praying to God and he’s asking for something that only God can do; he’s asking for forgiveness, reconciliation.
Faith is there. It’s implied. What kind of faith? Believe in God, the true and living God. You believe that God was holy, or he wouldn’t have felt the crushing weight of his own wretched sinfulness. But he also believed that God was forgiving. “Who is a pardoning God like You?” He knew what the prophet said. He understood that God is a forgiving God. He believed in the true and living God. He believed that he needed forgiveness or he was going to perish under the full weight of God’s holy, divine wrath. He needed to be forgiven. He knew it. He knew God was merciful. He knew God was merciful to those who asked. He had a pretty comprehensive faith.
But the English translation here really misses it. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” That just sounds like a generic, doesn’t it? “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”
That’s not really what it says. The Greek here—original is hilasthati moi to hamartolo. The verb hilaskomai means “to propitiate, to make propitiation, to appease.” He’s saying this in this form, “Be propitious toward me. Be propitious toward me.” That is simply a way of saying, “O God, accept this atonement on my behalf. O God, accept satisfaction.” He is pleading with God to accept that sacrifice that had been offered that day in some way as a token by which God could forgive him.
He knew that he couldn’t be forgiven by the blood of bulls and goats. But he also knew full well that he had to have an atonement for his sin, and that only an atonement would propitiate God, satisfy God. This is a term that always connects and relates to the idea of atonement. “O God, may the sacrifice be applied to me.” Not making a general plea for mercy. You have a general plea for mercy, by the way, in chapter 18, verse 38: “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me.” It’s a different Greek phrase all together—eleason me—different verb which means exactly “have mercy on me.” But this one means “make propitiation for me.” He’s saying, “O God, make an atonement for me. O God, be satisfied by some atoning sacrifice.”
Did they know that God was going to provide an atoning sacrifice? Did they know that all of the sacrifices of animals were not that atoning sacrifice, but they looked forward to a sacrifice that was to come? They did if they read Isaiah 53. Listen to verse 11. “By His knowledge, the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many. He will bear their iniquities.” There will be justification for the many. It will be provided by the Righteous One, My Servant—clearly messianic language. And the rest of the familiar words of Isaiah 53 would come to the mind of anyone who knew the Jewish Scripture. “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, our sorrows He carried...He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell on Him, by His scourging we are healed....He was oppressed, He was afflicted, He didn’t open His mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter, a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He didn’t open His mouth....The Lord was pleased to crush him, putting Him to grief; rendering Him as a guilt offering. At the end of 53, “He bore the sin of many.”
The promise of Isaiah 53 was that all the sacrifices did was point toward the coming Servant of Jehovah, the Messiah. His prayer is, “O God, I cannot become righteous on my own; there must be an atonement made for me.” That’s his plea.
The Pharisee would have thought, “Throw that rotten sinner out of here for his outrageous presumption. How dare you ask God to be propitious toward you? How dare you? How dare you outrage His holiness with such a ridiculous plea?”
So the analogy—in verse 14 our Lord brings the application—but first He says this: “I tell you.” I love that. I’m not quoting any rabbis. “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” Gasps everywhere. Shocked horror; they’re stunned. This man went down to his house a self-confessed, rotten, wretched sinner who won’t even look up, who pounds his chest, confessing the depth and breadth of his sin; this man who blasphemes God by even supposing that He should stain God’s holy ears with his ridiculous plea. “This man went down having been made right with God rather than the other?” That’s exactly what Jesus said; He used a perfect-passive participle—“having been justified.”—done, with permanent results; completed condition.
At this point, the legalists would have swallowed their gum if they had any. In one moment, listen to this, in one moment, Jesus pronounces an extreme sinner righteous apart from any works, any merit, any worthiness, any law-keeping, any moral achievement, any religious accomplishment, any ritual or any ceremony. No time lapse, no penance, no routines, no ordinances, no sacraments, no meritorious deeds—nothing; he is instantaneously justified.
How can it be? And we know the answer, because it unfolds in the rest of the New Testament. The very righteousness of God was credited to his account by faith, which included a true repentance.
This is all the sinner can ever do. As I said, there are only two possible ways to be right with God. Either you can do it or you can’t. If you think you can or make any contribution, then grace is no more grace and you’re damned. All the sinner ever does is come acknowledging sin and in faith asking a gracious, loving, forgiving God—“Be propitiated toward me; accept the necessary sacrifice in my place for my sins, O God.” You either rely on yourself or you rely on atonement. We’ve heard a lot about it. We’ve sung it every way you could sing it. You either rely on yourself or you rely on the atonement. And there’s nothing you can ever do that will ever satisfy God or gain your standing with Him, because you can’t be good enough—you have to be perfect. Christ was perfect and the perfect sacrifice and His perfect righteousness is imputed to us.
So the listening crowd that day who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt, that listening crowd that day had to rethink this whole question of how you are made right with God ’cause this has shattered all their understanding. And in the final words of our Lord’s application, He says this at the end of verse 14, so here it is in summary fashion: “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
You seek the path of self-exaltation, self-promotion, self-achievement, you’ll be brought low in judgment. If you seek the path of self-humiliation, you’ll be lifted up to glory. Justification comes only through atonement. The sacrifice which satisfies and propitiates God—a substitute in your place depicted by the animal sacrifices of the past but fulfilled only in the one great sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, who by one offering of Himself perfected forever them that are sanctified.
Now on this side of the cross, an Old Testament conversion isn’t good enough. This is the premiere illustration of an Old Testament conversion in the whole Bible—Old Testament and up to the point of the cross. This is the clearest illustration of what an Old Testament conversion looked like. But on this side of the cross, you’ve got to go beyond just saying, “O God, be propitiated.” You’ve got to come to the place where you say, “I come to Christ who is that propitiating sacrifice.”
Paul’s doctrine of propitiation, John’s doctrine of propitiation, Paul’s doctrine of imputation, substitution, doctrine of justification—all of it founded in the teaching of Jesus; here is the root of all that teaching. Jesus was a preacher of justification by faith in the atoning provision of God. The damned think they’re good. The exalted know they’re evil. The damned believe the Kingdom of God is for those worthy of it. The exalted know the Kingdom is for those who know their unworthy of it. The damned believe eternal life is earned; the exalted know it’s a gift. The damned seek God’s commendation; the exalted seek His forgiveness. Just two ways. But only one saves. Let’s pray.
We feel like we were there that day, Lord, when you told the story—and we should. So vivid; we have to look at our own lives and ask the question, “How is a man-made right with God?” Age-old question. Either I can do it or I can’t. Scripture is clear that I can’t. I confess I can’t. The only way is through repentant, humble faith. We want to be that tax collector, acknowledging ourselves to be extreme sinners. Unless we feel a little embarrassed to do that, we might remember the apostle Paul, who was the Pharisee of Pharisees—the most fastidious of all Pharisees, the most moral, the most religious, the most zealous—and he said of himself, “I am the chief of sinners.” Oh my, Paul went from being that Pharisee to being that humbled, broken, crushed sinner, crying out for mercy and mercy alone and the application of an atoning sacrifice. That’s where we need to be, Lord. And then we need to celebrate it every waking moment of our lives that we have been forgiven—fully, completely, and forever. That’s why we sing and sing and sing and find no end to our songs and shall sing throughout eternity. Thank You for this gift for those who ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This article is also available and sold as a booklet.