Well, we are in Luke 18 this morning, verses 9-14, the parable that Jesus told about two men who went up to the temple to pray. Jesus chose two very stereotypical characters as main characters in this story, and these two characters are at extreme ends of the social scale, and they illustrate, on the one hand, the damning power of pride which prevents all men from coming to God; and by contrast, Jesus shows the character of all who find true salvation, a salvation that, as we just heard, read from David’s Psalm 51, it’s a character that is a character of humility and contrition, to recognize oneself as an unworthy sinner in desperate need of divine grace.
And that’s what we see in this parable. Follow along as I read Luke 18:9-14. “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. ‘Two men went up to the temple, into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.”
“‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For everyone who hum, who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
As both of these men come up to the temple, they are in the exact same spiritual condition. Both of them are unbelievers, both sinners, both dead in their trespasses and sins. Both lives have offended a holy and righteous God, and therefore both men are wretched before God. Both men are in an abject condition of condemnation before God, and both face the just penalty of an eternity in hell.
The singular difference between them, which we get to see today, is that one humbles himself before God and admits his wretched condition, and he puts all his hope upon the mercy of God; and the other will not. The other will not do that. He counts himself righteous already, and so no need for God. In fact, the sense you get from the Pharisee’s prayer is that God needs him. Power of human pride. The power, the strength of human self-sufficiency, ironically, keeps him from God, doesn’t bring him closer to God; it keeps him from God.
And that is the case with every religion on the face of the earth, throughout all time, throughout all history and into all the future. Every religion except biblical Christianity, except what’s taught here, it’s all of the same sort. Anything that exalts human ability, human sufficiency, human pride, all of it is a damning lie and will bring condemnation.
Now, we would be mistaken, we’d be way off the mark to think that the tax collector was able, on his own ability, to rally for this occasion. We’d be mistaken to think that he was able to muster up enough humility to get salvation from God. He didn’t make himself humble. He didn’t grovel earnestly enough there in the temple courtyard. He didn’t show a sufficient level of contrition to gain God’s mercy. That’s not what’s going on here.
But the Holy Spirit wants us to see in this story, and really, the Spirit only hints at it here in this story; in the next account, as the infants are being brought to Jesus, that really starts to unveil the mystery of divine salvation. In fact, when people ask Jesus in verse 26, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” It’s at the end of the chapter, when Jesus gives sight to a blind man, that the mystery of salvation is made manifest, there, that salvation is from God, of God, and by God.
This tax collector certainly didn’t have anything in him to merit salvation before God. Everything in him was offensive, truly offensive. Infants have no ability to do anything before God. They’re infants. They’re completely dependent and needy. Blind men can’t see on their own. It takes a power outside themselves. What is impossible with man is possible with God. It’s the power of God to open blind eyes. That’s the only power that can save the sinner. The power to overcome the blinding nature of human pride, that is divine power from God and God alone. That is the only way salvation will happen. It’s the only way that any of us can be saved.
And so what the Holy Spirit wants us to see in this story, and again, as I said, it’s only hinted at here, we’ll get to more of that as the chapter unfolds, but what Jesus reveals in this penitent tax collector is that the power of God is at work in his life, and it humbles him to the floor. There is no humility in us apart from the power of God, and therefore no salvation apart from God’s power, apart from God’s saving work.
The setting for the parable that Jesus tells, here, is the temple. We talked about this in more detail last time, but it’s after the morning sacrifice of a lamb that atoned for the sins of the people. And this is at the hour of incense when people come to pray, the incense going up before the Lord. And the smell of that incense, by the way, that incense, if anybody else produced incense according to that incense formula and that incense recipe, anybody else produces it outside of the context of political priesthood, they were to be put to death. So this incense is a special, holy, set-apart incense, a special formula, special ingredients all put together so that the smell of it is only found in this place on the entire earth.
And so that lamb, that atoning-lamb sacrifice, prepares the way for prayer. It prepares the way for communion with God. And so the people come at this hour of incense and pray, and so it’s a corporate setting. Israel’s worship, it’s a public setting when people come, and it’s fitting and appropriate to offer up private prayers before God, and among the people that are praying, some would come to offer prayers of praise to God, pray, praise for who he is, giving thanks for the things that he has done in their life. Others would come to petition God, or to make supplication for others that they love and know, and asking God for mercy in some situation or another, compassion to help meet a particular need.
The proud Pharisee who was the subject of our study last week, he’s a man steeped in religious pride and therefore blinded to his true spiritual condition. He’s condemned before God, and his, his condition is so lamentable and so tragic, not only because he is justly condemned, but because he’s in such a close proximity to the truth, and he never finds it.
He visits that temple all the time, as we said, to parade his own righteousness, so-called, but he’s so close to the truth and yet so far away. He falls short of the grace of God. He fails to receive the benefit of God’s blessing. He’s never forgiven. He’s never set free though he comes week after week, month after month, year after year, thinking himself righteous and others, treating others with contempt.
So close to the truth and yet so very far away, no reconciliation with God, never truly knowing God. He seems to be in love with himself. Seems to be pretty satisfied, loving himself, loving his own sufficiency, loving his own works and his deeds and his separation from all the rest of those sinners. He never knows the joy of loving God truly, never really knows the joy of serving him, obeying him, worshiping him. He’s never to be in union with God, never to be in communion with his creator. And so this is an absolutely, abjectly tragic figure.
And I know I share this concern among all the elders and other pastors that I know, that we would have any in our midst, even one person in our midst, that would be like this Pharisee, who would come to our churches week after week and month after month and year after year, and their heart impervious, seemingly, to all the truth that’s spoken, all the prayers that are prayed and the songs that are sung and the worship that is offered before God. They come and because they are self-satisfied, because they are in love with themselves, they find no room for humility or contrition, and certainly no cause for repenting because they’re fine.
My friend, let that not happen to you. Even if you’ve been a member here at Grace Church for many years, let that not be you. Don’t let pride keep you from coming to find the grace that you truly need. Follow the pattern, not of the Pharisee but of this other sinner in the parable. Join him with the rest of us in acknowledging your sin and confessing your sin and confessing your need for atonement.
This other sinner in the parable, he is the most unlikely of people through whom Jesus wants us to see the grace of God. He wants us to see through this man, who is a reprobate. He is a terrible, terrible sinner, and he wants us to see how it is that this man can be set free, how he can be fully and finely redeemed.
Let’s meet him in verse 13. Well, we’ll start in verse 10, but this is the first point in our outline. Let’s meet, number one in your outline, a penitent publican. A penitent publican. Jesus told of two men who went up to the temple to pray in verse 10, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. And as we noted last week, Jesus’ audience would have seen the Pharisee as a hero, and this publican, the tax collector, telones is the word used there, he is the villain, he is the bad, bad man.
And that’s intentional on Jesus’ part, to, to use this man to illustrate the depth of the reach of the grace of God. So let’s not rob the parable of any of its power by softening the image of tax collectors, because they truly were the vilest of men. Tax collectors in Israel were despised as traitors to their nation. We still think of the, the word Benedict Arnold. We, we go back centuries and realize treach, treachery, being traitorous is a very bad thing. It’s a blight on the character that will never, ever be removed.
We think about some of the spies that have been exposed, especially in the Cold War, spies to Ru, sharing our secrets with Russia, or we think about corporate secrets being shared with China right now. We think of those people as, for the sake of money, they’re selling secrets and selling out our people, we think of them as the very worst of people.
And that’s how these people were in Jesus’ day. They were traitors to the Jewish nation. They were willing to side with the oppressors, the Romans who conquered them, side with pagans, and come in league with Roman oppressors to collect taxes from their own people. So many of them were, they were like Mafia people, but without any honor whatsoever, even loyalty to family. It didn’t matter to them. They were hated and condemned by all.
There were two kinds of taxes, basically, that were collected in Israel: direct and indirect taxes. Direct taxes were like property tax, and they were collected by bona fide Jewish councils. So all that’s acceptable, that’s understood that they’re going to tax property for the sake of the Jewish nation, the good to the Jewish nation. So national council, councils like the Sanhedrin, or local councils that were under the authority of the local synagogues, these represented approved Jewish tax collection. They were the officials that were recognized by the people, and they gathered taxes to benefit in the national interests of Israel. We don’t mind paying taxes for our police force and our fire and our roads and improvements and things like that. We don’t mind paying those taxes. And that’s kind of what these taxes were.
Tax collectors, though, they were doing something else entirely. They didn’t collect any of those direct taxes. They collected what was called indirect taxes, things like toll taxes or customs taxes or duties on goods and trade and commerce. And the taxes that they gathered represented Roman regulation over their economic system and oppression of it to keep Jews down.
They could earn money, sure, but a big chunk of it’s going to go to Rome, and they keep those people suppressed and oppressed. So common people who are just trying to make a living, trying to improve their station, trying to build their family wealth, they always felt that hand of a foreign power digging into their pocket at all times. And they resented it. And they resented those who represented that Roman hand, these tax collectors.
Understandably, the Romans, they shielded their own officials, the Roman officials, from making any direct contact with the Jews in collecting these extra taxes, and they offered this tax collection offering, or this enterprise to private businessmen, Jewish businessmen, and they acted as a buffer between the hand of Rome and the common people. The shrewd move, clever move on part of Rome to entice, using the greed of some of these Jews to benefit their own interests and the interests, their interests against other Jews.
So some of these private Jewish businessmen, they’re willing to take that deal. They’re willing to take that deal. They, they bid to the Romans for the right to collect taxes from their own people, and the highest bidder, as we see in business transactions now, the highest bidder won the contract from the Romans, and they advanced whatever amount of money was required to the Romans. And then they started collecting more money for themselves, not only to pay off what they had advanced to the Romans, but also an additional percentage for themselves as profit.
They had to recoup that money that they had already paid to Rome, and they had to make additional profit for themselves, and so they, being private Jewish businessmen, they didn’t do that themselves. They hired, went out and hired tax collectors. And how did they recruit other Jews to join them in fleecing their own countrymen and making a profit? Well, the owners looked for the same kind of greed that was driving themselves. They looked for enterprising men, but unprincipled men, those who didn’t mind taking advantage of others.
They were men just like themselves, able to see the opportunity for personal gain, and the job that they were hiring for required a certain corruption of character that could be comfortable taking advantage of others, being able to live without a conscience, being able to walk around in public without a conscience, without any shame. So really they looked for men who were kind of like the unjust judge in the previous parable, didn’t fear God and had no shame before people, proud men, shameless sinners.
That’s what tax collectors were. Tax collectors on the street level had to go out and gather whatever amount was required by the tax enterprise that they worked for because there’s payoffs going on up the ladder. But they tacked on for themselves an additional percentage, so some for themselves and also some for the muscle that they had to hire on the streets just in case people refused to pay up.
This extortion business could get pretty expensive. It also, the extortion business, put tax collectors in the company of other seedy sinners, social outcasts, the very dregs of society. Like attracts like, right? So they attracted the worst kinds of people, and they kept company with these people, with thugs and prostitutes, low-lifes, the dregs of society, the worst of society’s outcasts.
And why is that? Because no one else is going to hang with them. No one else is going to, is going to be in their company, they are so despised. They were not popular at all; they were pariahs in society. They were the kind of people who had no sense of shame, no sense of honor, and that enabled them to rob their fellow Jews. And frankly, they didn’t care. They liked the money, and they liked the pleasures that money could buy. They are the basest of sinners.
“Anything that exalts human ability, human sufficiency, human pride, all of it is a damning lie and will bring condemnation.”Travis Allen
Alfred Plummer says, “These tax collectors were detested everywhere because of their oppr, oppressiveness and fraud, and were classed with the vilest of men. Jews especially abhorred them as blood-suckers for a heathen conqueror. For a Jew to enter such a service was the most utter degradation. He was excommunicated. His whole family was disgraced.”
The Pharisee in Jesus’ story, he pointed to the tax collector, when he was praying, he pointed to the tax collector as really the quintessential example that he could think of, of an extortioner, someone who’s in, unjust and an adulterer. And he wasn’t wrong about that. Tax collectors, they even shared the opinion. They knew they were corrupt, and they just shrugged their shoulders. They just didn’t care anymore. They had already passed that point and they weren’t going back.
And that is the character that Jesus uses for this parable: the tax collector, a wretched and despised telones, a man who does not fear God, a man who has no shame before men. And as I said, he does this intentionally. If anyone can illustrate the extent of divine mercy to save wretched sinners, it’s this man. This man can do that. If anyone can show us the intent of God to atone for the sins of all kinds of lost people, his willingness to show mercy to sinners, no matter how far they have fallen, no matter what they have done, this man can show that.
That’s what Jesus shows us. This man comes to the temple to pray, and he’s the very worst of men. He’s the most defiled, most despised. He’s in the throes of deep, deep conviction over his sin. And maybe for you to get the sense that Jesus wants to convey to his own people, here, think about the very worst kind of sinner you can think about in our own society, maybe people who are tracked on Megan’s list, those who are pedophiles and perverts and all the very worst kind of sexual sinners. That seems to be the chief one today.
But like that, we see those who are treacherous, traitors to the nation. We see all kinds of social sins. We see all kinds of injustices perpetrated upon the weak. Just find that sinner that in your own mind is most despised in your mind, maybe a sinner who’s done something personally to you and put him in this story, and you’ll start to get the sense of how these Jews felt about Jesus talking about a tax collector in any favorable terms at all.
This man has come to the temple at the hour of prayer, but we would imagine him as, rather than joining the throng of worshippers who are standing outside the temple gate before the gates open and allow them to come in, he’s not there with them in that crowd, ready to rush in with them as the gates are open. We can imagine this man kind of standing off to the side. He’s concealed in the shadows of an alley in a nearby street within the sight of the gate.
On this day, he’s obviously not out collecting taxes. He’s not sitting in his tax booth. He’s not counting his money. He’s not planning that night’s party or recovering from the one the night before. On this day, greed has no hold on him. Frivolity is far from his mind. His lusts have been exposed for what they are, as devious and deceptive friends that promised him freedom and joy, but have actually turned out to be his masters and jailers in the end. He’s been enslaved. And now he’s coming to realize that.
Jesus portrays the tax collector down in verse 13 as under the power of conviction. Notice what it says there, “‘the tax collector standing far off would not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but he was beating his breast.’” He’s under deep, deep conviction. He’s anxious about the gravity of his spiritual condition before God.
He’s been compelled to come to the temple, to go to the house of God at the hour of prayer and return to this God that he learned about from childhood, the one who wrote the law on his heart, the one of whom his conscience attests, before whom his conscience is convicting him.
So once those temple gates have opened, after all the worshipers pour through the gates and they make their way into the courts for prayer, the tax collector follows along behind them. He avoids the crowd. He finds his way to an isolated spot. As Jesus says in verse 13, he’s “standing far off.” It means he’s standing at a distance. He’s, he can be seen, the Pharisee sees him, he can be seen, but he’s away from everybody else. He’s by himself, and he knows that he stands naked and laid bare before a holy God, and he starts praying.
And as he prays in this holy place, at such close proximity to the Holy of Holies itself, so near to the Ark of the Covenant, there, the place that God has chosen for his name to dwell, his mind is flooded with this long list of sins that he’s committed against this God, so many sins, he can’t even remember them all.
He’s smitten by this awakened conscience that is actively now accusing him and tormenting him and reminding him of the words of righteousness written in God’s law, saying, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Not money, not pleasure, not drink, not sex. “Remember the Sabbath day,” the law says, “to keep it holy.” But this is a day, the Sabbath day is a day he had resented since he couldn’t collect his money on that day. Irritated him. The worship, the throngs of worshippers always irritated him. He can’t go and extort money from a crowd of people going to the House of God to worship.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” His entire life has been a blasphemy against God. “Honor your father and mother.” Well, his chosen career had long ago forsaken any honor. His life was a source of constant shame to his parents, always grieving their hearts and tearing their hearts apart.
“You shall not murder.” Well, his goons have been rough. But had they been too rough? Had they at times, their intimidation methods and extortion, had it ever gone too far? Possibly. “You should not commit adultery.” All that had been a total lifestyle for him: sexual immorality, corruption, moral corruption, impurity. He lived in it. “You shall not steal.” Tax collector: His trade is the essence of theft and robbery and extortion. “You shall not covet.” It’s covetousness that drove him. Covetousness had enslaved his heart and sent him down this path to begin with. Greed had been his original tempter, and it had become his master.
So many people that this man has used and abused, satiating his lust and his greed. So many people he’s taken advantage of and defrauded and stolen from. So many corrupt images in his mind and polluted memories, all of them testifying against him, his conscience accusing him for how deeply he has been immersed in his sin, extorting others, committing acts of unrighteousness, adultery.
He’s not only practiced these sins and participated in them, but he’s planned them. He’s involved others in his sins. He’s defiled everyone else as well as himself, anybody who comes into close contact with him, he is a defiling and a corrupting influence. He’s so ashamed. Jesus said, “‘He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven’” because that’s where the Almighty dwells. That is the place of perfect righteousness, to which he is a complete alien and stranger.
I mean, if flaming seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, Isaiah chapter 6, seraphim, holy and without sin, if they have the good sense to use two of their six wings to cover their faces so that they avert their eyes from gazing on the perfection of divine holiness, well, then, how much more does this man, who is unholiness itself, defiled by his sin, impure and corrupt to the core, how much does he appropriately avert his eyes from heaven?
He knows his sin, feels his corruption. He senses his sin with every fiber of his being. He feels it, and he’s so ashamed. And he knows God sees it too, all of it. He’s there in the posture of prayer, as Edersheim described for us. We heard that last week. His feet are close together, his eyes are downcast. His hands are crossed over his chest. He tries to maintain that posture, stand there reverently, not calling any attention to himself.
And yet, as, try as he might to hold that posture and maintain his composure, he cannot. He, he is struck by how inappropriately he’s acted, and how inappropriate he is, how unfit he is to stand before the Almighty. He’s naked and laid bare under this omniscient gaze bearing down upon him of holy perfection, tearing him into, flaying him open.
He is utterly devoid of righteousness. His life is an offense to this God, and so Jesus describes him standing far off. “‘He wouldn’t even lift his eyes up to heaven, but he beat his breast.’” It’s in imperfect tense, so it portrays continuous action, past time. He is beating his chest repeatedly over and over. Demonstration here of extreme remorse, of intense sorrow.
By the way, why is that such an expression of remorse, to beat the chest? Along with his flowing tears, it would seem his hands simply cannot remain still. His grief is so affecting him that it grips his entire body. The tension of his shame, perhaps even gritting his teeth and clenching his fists, and his hands crossed there in the posture of prayer, start to move, almost like he can’t control it. The only thing you can do is to beat, smite his own chest.
Kenneth Bailey writes about this, says during his ministry in the Middle East, he says “this dramatic gesture is still used in villages all across the Middle East from Iraq to Egypt. The hands are closed into fists and then are struck on the chest in rapid succession, and the gesture is used in times of extreme anguish or intense anger.”
He goes on to explain “the remarkable feature of this particular gesture is the fact that it’s characteristic of women, not men.” Why might that be? Perhaps because women feel less constrained about a public display of emotion than men do. Maybe that’s it. Their emotion wells up, overwhelming any concern for propriety or image protection. They do what seems to fit the moment. They’re not restrained. Men feel more restrained, more pride.
Here, it just shows that this man has no thought about propriety at all. He’s not about keeping up his appearances. He never cared what people think to begin with. But here, then it was for all the wrong reasons because he had no fear of God and no shame before people. But now, once he was shameless before men. Now he’s overcome with this sense of shame, and it’s not before men at all. It’s before God. He’s got only one concern on his mind. How can I find mercy before this God?
Why does he beat his chest? Gustav Stellin, he tells us that the Jews understood the chest to be the home of the heart. Not in a physiological sense, they understood that, but metaphorically, symbolically, the chest is the, is the cage or the protector of the heart inside. And the Midrash asks, “Why does one smite on the heart?” Mourners pound their hearts when something bad occurs or when they confess their sins, or why the heart? Because, explains the Midrash, the heart is the source of their decisions and actions, and everything is there. That is to say, all sin and guilt and also all visitations have their origin there.
That’s the Midrash, but it’s Proverbs 4:23 that tells us, “From the heart flow all the springs of life.” All the issues of life come out of the heart. And in times of sorrow, whether it’s over the tragedy of death or the remorse over sin, those are the times that they come face to face with truth. It’s the truth of Jeremiah 17:9, that “the heart is deceitful above all things desperately sick. Who can know it?” Jesus said, “Out of the heart, come all things, blasphemies, adulteries, murder,” everything. Every bad thought, every every sin that’s committed has its origin in our sin nature and in the heart of an unbeliever.
And so, as Stellin goes on to say, coming on this parable, he says, “Jesus shows, in spite of the conventional nature of this ancient practice, that this was done in ancient times. Beating the breast, here, is a spontaneous expression of direct consciousness of sin, of a desire for grace, the only attitude which can stand before God.” As Joaquin Jeremiah says, “This man smites upon his heart, holy forgetting where he is, overwhelmed by the bitter sense of his distance from God.” It’s true. Jesus has just described what the crowd before him could never have imagined apart from a fictional story. A penitent publican? Yeah, right. A tax collector confessing his sins? Right. Unheard of.
Brings us to a second point for this morning. Number two: a proper petition. A proper petition from this penitent publican. Verse 13: “‘But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”’” If you want a sinner’s prayer to teach others to pray, this is it. I’ve heard a lot of people pray the so-called “Sinner’s Prayer.” I’ve seen it on websites. There’s very little to do with this.
So if you want to teach someone to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer,” go for it, but just make sure you explain it to them. Make sure they understand really what they’re praying. Fill in all the details. Don’t leave it to them to define terms for themselves. You define the terms for them biblically. Help them understand. Inform their prayer.
I can tell you, this man in this context, his prayer was informed, and every single word counted. First, he addresses his pes, petition to God. He recognizes who it is he’s praying to. He’s throwing himself before God. He’s casting himself upon the mercy of God, and he’s clinging, as a Jew, he’s clinging to the promise that’s implied in God’s proclamation of himself, which he made to Moses, Exodus 34:6: “‘The Lord, the Lord, a God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.’”
Oh, this is the God he wants to pray to. And yet, as that proclamation continues in Exodus 34:7, God says he, that he “will by no means clear the guilty.” Okay, so there’s a hangup here. Hold up. He will by no means clear the guilty. He forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. He’s merciful and gracious, but he won’t clear the guilty. “Where does that leave me?” he says. Proverbs 17:15 says, “He, he who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike. Abomination to God.” What’s to become of him?
Second, it’s clear in this petition he confesses himself to be a sinner who is guilty before God, so he’s got the right, he’s got the right attitude. He knows what he is. It’s actually a definite article, there, in the Greek. So it’s not “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” which you’ll find in number of English translations, but it’s actually, “God be merciful to me, the sinner, the sinner.” It’s what’s called the par excellence use of the Greek article, which means this man sees him as the very worst. He is the sinner par excellence. He’s worse than all the others.
Unlike the Pharisee, who prays while looking around the courtyard at all the people who are lower than he, this tax collector can only see himself. He’s not looking around. He sees himself standing all alone before the God with whom he has to do. No other sinner enters into his view, and so he’s not making any comparisons here. He’s not judging anyone else. It’s his own sinful condition that he’s most concerned about. It’s all that occupies his thoughts right now.
And so third, this man makes his petition solely on the basis of divine accomplishment and not human achievement. Every religion in the world, as I said, is a religion of human achievement. There are even many churches that go under the name “Christian” that are religions of human achievement, finding any merit whatsoever in the sinner to make himself acceptable for God, either to gain God’s favor or to maintain God’s favor. Whether your church says Christian on the outside of it or not, that is a religion of human achievement, and it is condemned before God.
This man understands that his only hope is in divine accomplishment, what God does. He’s under no illusion whatsoever, right, that he can merit God’s leniency. So all he can do is plead for God’s mercy. The translation, there, “mercy,” is acceptable. It really does kind of sum up the reason in God’s character for, for providing atonement for sins.
But that said, there is a more accurate way to translate his prayer. It’s not “God, be merciful to me,” but rather “God, make atonement for me, the sinner.” The verb hilaskomai means “to propitiate, propitiate,” and it is the idea of mercy, divine mercy in propitiation, in an atoning sacrifice that covers over the sinner’s sins.
And that is why, that place on the Ark of the Covenant where the two cherubim hovered over, their wings touching in the middle, and as they looked toward the center, beneath them, is what is called the “mercy seat.” It is the symbolic place where atonement happens. The lamb is slayed and burned up on the altar outside of the Holy of Holies. Inside the Holy of Holies, the mercy seat is where propitiation happens.
You say, what’s that? What’s propitiation mean? What’s propitiate? What does that mean? To propitiate simply means to satisfy the wrath of an angry deity by means of an atoning sacrifice, to satisfy the wrath of an angry God by means of an atoning. “Atone” is a word that means “cover,” so a covering-over sacrifice. It’s a very ancient concept, very true and necessary concept, that sins require blood atonement. Hebrews 9:22 says, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”
The righteous character of a just and holy God demands justice for sins. And justice, if we understand justice correctly, it means getting what we deserve. When your kids come to you and say, “Mommy, that’s not fair,” turn that around on them and say, “You want fair? I’ll give you, you want what your deeds deserve?” Justice is getting what we deserve. Justice is getting due reward, due payment for what our sins deserve. So justice means, as the Bible says, “The wages of sin is,” what, “death.” Justice demands that the penalty for sins must be carried out.
Let me tell you, theological liberals hate this word “propitiation.” They refuse to accept the idea that God is an angry deity, that he is angry over sins. They reject the entire concept of a wrathful deity whose anger must be propitiated, whose wrath must be appeased, who must be assuaged by means of sacrifice. They reject that. It’s too rude of a concept for the enlightened mind in the modern world to accept.
Liberals prefer to speak only about the expiation of sins, and the expiation, expiation refers to the removal of sins. They see the concept of propitiation as lacking proper sophistication, as a rather crude depiction of God. Angry deity, indeed! “Can’t talk about that in polite company, be accepted before my friends.” So they update the picture, and they improve God’s image, and they soften the language, and they talk about expiation, removal of sins.
Now don’t misunderstand me here. The Bible does talk about expiation as a true and right concept. It’s a good concept. It is part of the story, but not the whole story, but part of the story of how God treats us and treats our sins. Expiation, it’s thoroughly biblical. It’s a beautiful concept. We read about it in Psalm 103, 103 verse 12. “As far as the east is from the west,” what, “so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” And so that really is a picture, there, of expiation.
But on what basis? How can God do that and still remain just? How can he just remove our sins? Well, he’s God. He can do whatever he wants. He’s all-powerful. Oh yes, he can do whatever he wants as long as it conforms with his perfect, holy character. He cannot violate his own character. So on what basis does he remove our sins? On what basis does he expiate our sins? If Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to God,” how, then, can God expiate our sins? How can God take away sins from us and at the same time maintain his standing as a holy and righteous judge? Righteous judges don’t just ignore sin.
Think about anybody who commits a crime against you or your family and hurts you or takes what belongs to you. And he’s caught, and you go before the judge, and you stand there in court and you listen, and the guy who broke into your house and did awful things and took things and stole things, and he admits it all before the judge, and he says, “But judge, you know, it was just a bad day, just having a bad day. I mean, just tied one on with the boys, you know, and had a meth habit to support and so broke into that house and did awful things and everything, but I’m mostly a pretty good guy. Pay my taxes, pay my bills. Judge, can you let me off?” and the judge says, “Yeah, sure! Yeah, I can see you’re a pretty good guy. We’ll let you off on that.”
Would you say that judge is righteous or unrighteous? Has he violated the terms of his bench? Yeah, absolutely. Has he forfeited any right to be a judge? Absolutely. Does he dispense justice? No. That’s his job. That’s his singular job: Do what the law requires, give that sinner what his deeds deserve. Do justice. We’re seeing, unfortunately, more and more, people in those positions of judicial authority perverting justice. God will never violate justice because justice is a part of his essence. It’s who he is, and his essence is immutable. He never changes. He must, must punish sins and give sins their just reward.
So in Paul’s language, how can God justify the sinner and still remain just, the clue to unlocking that mystery is in the sinner’s prayer itself. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner. God, make atonement for me, provide, provide a propitiatory sacrifice for me, the sinner.” In other words, if I can kind of unpack what he’s saying in kind of common language, he says, “I want to come to you, Lord, to be reconciled to you, but I cannot come and remain alive. I get that. So will you provide an atonement for me? Will you provide a substitution to take my place, to die the death that I deserve?” You say, “He thought all that?” Yeah, he did.
That’s what Jesus wants us to see here, and reflect upon, and expand the thought. What has so possessed this tax collector’s mind is that he could possibly entertain such a far-fetched notion that he could ever find mercy before a just and holy God? I mean, seriously, who does this guy think he is? Well, he thinks he’s a sinner, and he’s the very worst of sinners.
But what this man thinks about himself is one thing, and that’s actually a small thing in the equation. What he thinks about God, that is the real evidence, here, that a miracle has happened before our very eyes. This man has seen himself rightly, he has humbled himself properly, and he has made such a fitting, accurate, highly appropriate petition before God. This man has humbled himself before God because for the first time, he sees God truly, he sees God rightly.
Ever since he’s entered the temple complex, ever since finding a place to stand by himself and pray like all the other worshipers, like this Pharisee, he’s been surrounded, like all of them, by the sights and the smells and the sounds of Israel’s temple worship. His physical senses have been bombarded and overwhelmed with the reminders of sacrifice and the reminders of the lamb offered up to atone for his sins so that he might come before God and pray.
We mentioned last time, seeing what the Pharisee has completely missed, the point of his fasting twice a week. It’s kind of a, predicated upon the Day of Atonement and the one fast that was commanded, that he had to observe in remembering the Day of Atonement. Remember that? Leviticus 16:30, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you.”
The Pharisee didn’t think he needed it. The tax collector, man, he knew he needed it. That’s all he needed. For the first time in his life, by a miracle of regenerating grace from God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, this tax collector has recognized that God may have intended that atonement for him, too. In fact, that atoning sacrifice, the only hope for Israel, was also the only hope for all the individual sinners of Israel, all the extortioners, all the unjust, all the adulterers, and yes, even this tax collector.
Atonement means propitiation. Day of atonement, Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, kippur, the verb kippur means “covering,” “atonement,” and the Greek word that’s used to translate that verb from the Hebrew into the Greek, hilaskomai, to propitiate. So when Moses said in Leviticus 16:30, “Atonement shall be made for you,” the “for you” concept points to imputation, and imputation is for the purpose of substitution.
You say there’s a lot of big words in there. Yeah, that’s true. Let’s unpack them, though. God reckons the sins. This is imputation. Imputation means to impute. It’s an accounting term. It means to reckon to, to account to. So you take the debts out of your debt column, and it’s accounted to the debt column of somebody else. That’s imputation.
God reckons the sins of the guilty sinner from the guilty sinner to the atoning sacrifice, an animal in this case, that takes the place of the sinner, stands in the place of the sinner, that undergoes the death that the sinner deserves. God charges that sinner’s sins to the account of this innocent animal. Did that animal do anything? God punishes the animal so that he can reckon the animal’s innocence, then, to the sinner.
And so, as Moses said in Leviticus 16:30, “You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins because God imputed, reckoned your sins to the animal and the animal’s innocence to you. That animal is your substitute, stands in your place. He takes the penalty, the punishment that you deserve, and you get the life that you don’t deserve.”
So atonement comes, this is what he’s recognizing, here, in his prayer, atonement comes by God propitiating his own wrath, by satisfying his own wrath by the sacrifice of an animal for the guilt of the sinner’s sins. That’s what David sought in Psalm 51, didn’t he? It’s what the publican really quoted in the opening line of the psalm. “Have mercy on me, O God. According to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin.” Man, he wanted to be clean in the worst way. Again, verse 7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
“Whether your church says Christian on the outside of it or not, that is a religion of human achievement, and it is condemned before God.”Travis Allen
It’s what makes the tax collector’s prayer the proper petition because he addressed God, he confessed himself to be a sinner, no, the sinner. He sought his mercy, which can only come through propitiatory sacrifice, which can only come by God imputing his sins and just taking them and putting them on a substitutionary sacrifice. That’s the only way it’s going to happen because God is just, having condemned and punished all those sins, and now he’s free to justify the sinner and still maintain his justice.
So what’s the result of all this? Third point in our outline, number three, a promised propitiation. A promised propitiation. In verse 14, there’s an emphatic proclamation from Jesus. He says, “‘I tell you. I say to you. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. This man went down to his house justified.’” You can also translate that as “not the other.” Shocking to this crowd.
And that’s why he makes the emphatic proclamation right at the beginning: “I tell you.” He follows the pattern he laid out in Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount. “You’ve heard that it was said,” and he’s referring to all the traditions and the teachings of the scribes and the Pharisees that the people had been taught, that they’d learn from childhood all the way up into their adult life.
He says, “You’ve heard that it was said,” and then he says this, “but I say to you,” like, “I’m going to contradict everything that you thought you knew. Stand by. You heard that it was said this, this, and this. I tell you, it’s not like that.” Lego humin, that is, “I’m telling you, and I’m intentionally contradicting what you have been taught. And I know full well that what I’m saying is in complete contradistinction to what you have previously learned, and you must listen to me,” Jesus says.
Same thing here. “I tell you, contrary to everything you know. It’s contrary to everything you’ve inherited, everything you’ve been raised with, all the morals from your upbringing, all the examples before you, all the teaching in the synagogues that you’ve heard. I tell you, contrary even to your expectation and your sense of justice and fairness, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other,” or more to the point, “not the other.”
This is completely radical. These Jews listening to Jesus on this day, this is such a radical departure from everything they thought they had known. It’s totally contrary to their expectations. How can this be? Tax collector, justified; a Pharisee, not? You kidding me? To them, this would almost sound like sacrilege. This would sound like a violation of total propriety, but on the level of a blasphemy.
“This man,” near demonstrative pronoun hoytos, “this,” used earlier by the Pharisee in verse 11 to express his disdain and his contempt for the tax collector, extortioners, unjust adulterers, or like “this man.” It’s almost like he spits as he says, “this man,” the tax collector. And Jesus now uses that same near demonstrative pronoun “this,” and he reverses it, he uses it, hoytos, to affirm the tax collector, that “this man” is the one who’s justified, “this man” is approved by God. “This man” and not the other is declared righteous.
Shocking reversal of fortune for everybody listening to this parable, and upon closer examination, we can see that it is significantly rich with theological meaning. “This man went down to his house justified.” It’s the verb dikaioo, dikaioo, to declare righteous, to justify, to put right with God. Interestingly, this is the place in the gospels, in all four gospels, where this verb is used in this sense, and there is a thread that goes from here right into Pauline theology on justification by faith. This is the only place we can find that in the gospels.
This is such a, a paramount text, so key, so important. It is a watershed text to separate all false religion from the only true religion, one that is by divine accomplishment on the basis of God justifying the sinner, who is guilty, on the basis of God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
The grammatical form is very important here, perfect tense, passive voice. So it’s “having been justified.” So perfect tense refers to what’s been accomplished in the past, results continuing into the present, on into the future. The passive voice means that he didn’t do anything. It’s God’s declaration: “justified.” That’s happened to the man, not because of the man. And that’s why Jesus has used this tax collector. He’s the epitome of sin. He is so far gone, so distant from God, and it shows that all the justification power comes from God and God alone.
That’s the point. Shows that the power of God is the only thing that can overcome sin, and it can overcome all sin, any sin, any sinner’s sin. This is the only hope for any sinner. But listen, the only hope we need. Amen? Why we look, why look to anything else? How can this be for this man, who’s living prior to the cross, right? We know from Hebrews 10:5, says, “It’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
So how can this man be justified prior to the cross? In the teaching of the new, New Testament, we recognize the blood of bulls and goats doesn’t ultimately take away any sins at all. Never did. But they did point to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Those sacrifices offered by Israel in the temple, on the altar, all pointed to Jesus Christ.
And that’s why the regenerated sinner, who truly sees himself for who he is, and sees God for who he is, why, because he’s so good, because he figured it out? No, because God regenerated him. He gave him a new nature so that he could see through the eyes of faith. And he would see, after a while bringing his sacrifice to the temple, he says, “Huh, you know, if this sacrifice could have done for my sin, why would I keep coming? I don’t keep, I keep coming because there’s a future sacrifice that God has yet to reveal for me.”
All of these sacrifices pointed to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “God made him who knew no sin,” 2 Corinthians 5:21, “to be sin on our behalf in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” And so, on the basis of the death that Jesus knew that he would die for the sins of all his people, Jesus declared the divine verdict upon this tax collector in verse 14: Petition granted.
Petition granted. This man has been reconciled to God. God has justified. No man can condemn. He’s been justified by faith. He’s been declared righteous on the basis of what God did, not what he did. This man believed in God’s accomplishment. God chose to look upon the Lamb that was slain, and accept that lamb for this man’s sins. God heard this man’s prayer. He forgave him for all the sins, and this man received what he sought. He got what he asked for in that plea, in that petition, Leviticus 16:30, “Atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you, and you shall be clean before Yahweh from all your sins.”
Just a footnote, here. Alfred Plummer points out that we’re not told that the publican was justified by faith in Christ, okay, but by confession of sin and prayer. And he says that “the point that Jesus is making in the parable is this: one generally recognized as a saint fails in prayer, that’s the Pharisee, while one generally recognized as a sinner succeeds. Why? Because the latter’s prayer is real, the former’s is not. One comes in the spirit of prayer, self-humiliation, and the other in the spirit of pride, self satisfaction.” End quote.
That’s true, but I think it doesn’t go far enough. Why does, why is the tax collector’s prayer considered “real”? What makes it real? What explains his self-humiliation when it is pride that took him into the tax-collecting business to begin with? It’s pride that insulated him from all the stares of the people. It’s pride that strengthened him when everybody rejected him. His pride was his servant at the time, but then it became his master as it kept him enslaved to sin.
What explains the tax collector’s prayer being real, and what explains his spirit of prayer and self-humiliation? That’s true, but what explains it is the grace and mercy of God. A grace or mercy of God that drove him to conviction of sin, that drove him into the temple, that drove him into prayer, that caused him to look upon God’s atoning sacrifice with eyes of faith, that caused him to believe.
But we can’t help but notice the abject failure of pride and the success of true humility and contrition before God. Joaquin Jeremiah says, “God welcomes the despairing, hopeless sinner, and he rejects the self-righteous. He is the God of the despairing.” Isn’t that good news? “He is the God for the broken heart and his mercy is boundless. That is what God is like.” So true.
And so what Jesus is doing in this parable, he’s sending a shot over the bow to provide a very serious warning to all those who trust in themselves, verse 9, all those who think that they are righteous and who treat oth, others with contempt. We need to know that that attitude will not, will never prevail with God. Pride will fail every single time.
And the only way for a channel of communication to be open between the guilty sinner and the holy God, the only path of blessing that flows between heaven and earth, is through a heart of humility. And that humility doesn’t come on our own effort, either. That humility is not for those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and make themselves contrite before God.
You can see a lot of religions of the world trying to do that in self-flagellation and extreme torture of their own bodies, and restricting themselves with certain dieting, and certain observances of days, and they look so holy in their weird outfits and strange, you know, shaving of the head, and all the weird things that they do in all the religions of the world.
It’s not a faux humility, it’s not a put-on humility. It’s one that God generates. It’s one that God does. It’s granted by God’s grace. And that humility comes by faith, and only those who are humble, those who, those will find acceptance before God because God has done it. Only those who are humble truly believe, and only those who believe are truly humble.
“For everyone,” Jesus says, look at the end there, lays down the principle, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Those who humble themselves, and only they, by the way, are able to turn away from the system of salvation by their own works, by what seems so natural to them, the religion of human achievement, of my own merit, only they will find full pardon, true rest, eternal salvation in the grace of God. Only they will rest in divine accomplishment. It’s only for those who are humbled because they believe.
It’s a direct line from what Jesus teaches, here, in this parable, as I said, citing the doctrine of propitiation, citing the doctrine of justification by faith, implying the doctrine of imputation of sin and substitutionary atonement, there’s a direct line from this text to what Paul taught in Romans 3:19 and following.
As we close, I’d like to draw your attention to that text in Romans chapter 3, and I won’t exposit it before you for the sake of time, but I will read some of this for you. In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, we know that Paul introduced his gospel by explaining the doctrine of total depravity, that every human being, without any exception, is a fallen sinner, guilty, condemned before a holy God.
In fact, what Paul wants us to see in Romans chapters 1-3, he wants us to see that we are all the tax collector. Oh, and by the way, we’re all the Pharisee, too. We’re prideful, self-satisfied, self-sufficient, looking down on other people, treating other people with contempt. Sinners. Oh, and by the way, we’re also guilty of all the sins that the debased tax collector’s guilty of. All have sinned in all these ways, and fallen short of the glory of God. Who has not violated every single one of the Ten Commandments? Who among us? Don’t raise your hand. It would be embarrassing.
Paul wants us to see that no singular human achievement, no sustained effort of human achievement has the power to erase one’s sins before a holy God. Like the tax collector, we are left to rely upon and only upon what God has done for us, what he has accomplished for us by sending his Son to do what no one else, and nothing else could do to atone for our sins.
Lambs slain daily at the temple morning and evening reminded Israel every single day of the death that was required to atone for their sins, and it was pictured yearly on the Day of Atonement. That Day of Atonement pointed to the propitiation that Jesus won for all who believe on the cross.
Now look at Romans 3:19-26. “Now we know,” Paul says, “that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it. It’s the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” So what he’s saying, there, is there is a continuity from the law and the prophets all the way to Jesus Christ, and it passes through the prism of this parable, to show the need for imputation of sin, that our sins would be reckoned to a substitutionary sacrifice, and that sacrifice would be killed for the purpose of our atonement, so that we might be forgiven, oh, and by the way, also be counted righteous in the innocence of that sacrifice. And who is that sacrifice? Jesus Christ.
Continuing on: “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” That’s what the sinner, the tax collector, was doing. He’s receiving this propitiatory sacrifice by faith. “This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he passed over former sins,” posing the question to us, is God going to expiate sins without propitiating sins? Is God going to remove sins, violating his holy justice, so that he can be merciful to the sinner?
Oh, no, he is not. This is showing God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance, in his patience, he’d passed over former sins. And why is that? It was to show his righteousness at the present time, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He’s just because every sin receives its just reward, and he is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus, declaring that one not just forgiven of sin, not just erased of his sins, but righteous, positively righteous.
“God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” God imputed our sins to Jesus Christ, killed him, justly condemned the sins, our sins, in him, killing him on the cross. God takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, his act of obedience, and he places that on us, and he treats us with the favor that Jesus Christ merited by his perfect obedience.
That’s the gospel, folks. That’s the gospel. A gracious action of God, which is completed and perfected and fully accomplished in Jesus Christ. It’s an amazing gospel. It’s on offer right now for all those and only those, but all those who believe, humble themselves in believing faith, draw near to God in prayer, and in humility and contrition confess their sins, that they themselves are sinners, and that they repent and believe in the gospel.
I pray that’s you today, my friend, and if it is you, please come talk to me. Talk to one of us. We want to hear what God has done in your life, and listen, that goes for any church member who doesn’t know this gospel. Come and talk to me and let’s get this right right now so that you don’t go on in your life like that blind Pharisee, thinking you’re righteous, treating everybody else with contempt, and find yourself, in the end, condemned.
Father, we do pray that you would be gracious to many, many more. And as you’ve been gracious to all of us who know your salvation, that tax collector’s prayer, that penitent publican, that is us. In fact, that Pharisee is us, too. We see all those sins resident within us in our sin nature and tempting us and enticing us all the time. In fact, before we were Christians, that’s how we lived.
And so, Father, we just asked that you would help us who do know your saving grace remind us of the need for humility before you, that we walk in a humble attitude, and humble before you and meek before men, recognizing that it’s been by your grace and grace alone that we are saved, that we know anything.
Father, if there are those who do not yet know you and your saving grace, please grant them faith now. Regenerate their hearts. Take out the heart of stone, put in a heart of flesh. Give them a new nature, one that can respond to your truth, eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to understand and believe. May you be pleased as they are saved and they, their lips praise your name and their heart gives thanks to you, that you would be pleased to receive more and more glory, all of it redounding to your pardoning grace. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.