God, Be Merciful to Me

This sermon was preached on September 8, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Let’s imagine something for a moment. Imagine you have a job. For some of you, this isn’t all that hard to do. Imagine that your company was recently purchased by a new owner, who has brought in new management. The new management announces that they are going to interview everyone who works for the company. They present this as a “getting-to-know-you” exercise. They schedule interviews with every single employee, including you. At beginning of your interview, they ask you simple questions about you, such as what your role in the company is, how long you’ve worked there, where you went to school, what other kinds of experience you have—that sort of thing. Then they ask you what you do at the company. As they start to ask more specific questions, it dawns on you that they’re not just trying to get to know you. They’re trying to see if they want to continue to employ you. In short, they’re asking you to justify your position with the company. So, you start to give answers that you would give when you interview for a job. You tell them how you work hard, how much experience you have doing your job, how productive you are, how well you get along with your coworkers, and anything else you can think of to convince them that they should keep you on the payroll.

That’s a bit of what “justification” looks like. It means something like an acquittal. Being justified means being viewed as not guilty, as innocent, as in the right, as acceptable. Justification is a big word in Christianity, and we don’t always hear about it in other contexts. But the fact is that we all try to justify ourselves in some way or another. We try to demonstrate that we’re in the right, that we’re good people, that we have the right beliefs and the right behaviors, that we’re people who should be accepted and embraced.

The key question that we all should ask is, How can I be acceptable to God? What sort of justification can I offer to him? We should think along those lines, but there are many people who don’t even realize that we need to be justified in the presence of God. But we do need justification. We need something that makes up for our sin, that reconciles us to God, that shows that we’re acceptable to him, that we’re worthy. What are you relying upon for justification?

Today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see a famous parable that Jesus tells, a story about two people who come to the temple to pray to God. These two people have very different attitudes, and they make two very different speeches. Jesus tells us that only one of them is justified.

Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 18:9–14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 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!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[1]

Luke tells us up front why Jesus tells this story: Jesus has in mind people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” That kind of mindset is opposed to the way of Jesus for two reasons. One, Jesus repeatedly says in different ways that no one is righteous. So, to believe that one is righteous, without sin, not in need of mercy, is to be deceived. Two, those who treat others with contempt fail to see that other people are made in God’s image and likeness. We have no right to act as if we are superior to others, particularly if we realize our own unrighteousness. Jesus probably is addressing this story to the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who were known for their strict adherence to the Hebrew Bible.

The story itself has a setting and two characters. The setting is the temple in Jerusalem. This is where God was worshiped, where sacrifices for sin were offered, and where people prayed. We don’t know if this was one of the twice-daily times of prayer at the temple (at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.) or if the men just happened to go to the temple at the same time to pray individually. The point is that both were going to meet with God.

Then, we are told about the two characters of the story. The first is a Pharisee. There were a few groups of Jewish religious leaders at this time. There was the high priest, as well as the many priests who served at the temple. Then there were two groups of influential Jews. One was the Sadducees, who had more political power but who had unorthodox beliefs. Famously, they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. The other group was the Pharisees, who were lay leaders known for taking the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, very seriously. They were very disciplined in their approach. They tried to apply the whole Bible to all of life in very specific, rigorous ways. The apostle Paul, before becoming a Christian, was a Pharisee, and he had previously boasted of his adherence to the law (Phil. 3:4–6).

But Jesus has criticized the Pharisees repeatedly for being hypocrites, for not seeing their own lack of righteousness, and for using their positions of privilege to earn money. In short, the Pharisees don’t come out looking good in this Gospel.

The Pharisees have grumbled that Jesus would spend time eating and drinking with obviously sinful people. In Luke 5:30–32, we read this:

30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Jesus came to save people from their sin. Sin is a sickness, a rebellion against God but also a powerful, evil force that finds its way into everything we do. The only people who go to a doctor for healing are those who are willing to admit they are sick and need help. The Pharisees still wrestled with sin, but they had lost sight of that fact. They acted as if they were truly righteous and everyone else was not.

We’re told that this Pharisee stood by himself when he prayed. We don’t want to read much into that. There are times when people stand while praying in the Bible (1 Sam. 1:26; 1 Kgs. 8:22). But perhaps he was by himself because he thought he was above everyone else.

At any rate, we are given his prayer. It consists of twenty-eight words in the original Greek. He begins well: “God, I thank you.” It’s good to begin prayers by thanking God. But look what he thanks God for: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He’s basically praying, “God, I thank you that you made me so great. When you made me, you did an excellent job. I’m not like those other sinners. I’m nailing it when it comes to all the religious things.”

The Pharisee thanks God for not making him like sinners. He even is so bold as to point out the tax collector, the other character in this story. “I thank you that I’m not like that poor slob over there.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation for two reasons: one, they often took more than they needed to take. In an era before computers or advanced paperwork, it was easy to tell people they owed more than they actually did. But, perhaps more importantly, tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire. They were Jewish people working for the enemy, the superpower of the day, the occupying force that oppressed Jews. Tax collectors were not only dishonest, but they were traitors. That’s what this Pharisee surely thought.

What the Pharisee is doing is comparing himself to other people. As he thinks about other people, he is evaluating his own moral performance against theirs. By that standard, the Pharisee comes out well. He’s thinking, “I’m not as sinful as them.” He also boasts about his good deeds. He fasted twice a week. Fasting might mean consuming only water and bread (Shepherd of Hermas 5.3.7). The Jews were only commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29; Num. 29:7). They might also fast when mourning or repenting. Pharisees were known to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. They went above and beyond what the law required.

The Pharisee also claims to tithe everything he gets. Israel was supposed to over various tithes of their produce (Num. 18:21–24; Deut. 14:22–27). A tithe literally means a tenth, though if you added Israel’s tithes, they were supposed to give something like 23.3 percent of their crops. Perhaps the Pharisee is saying that he tithes all his income, or perhaps he means that for everything he spends—for all the stuff that he “gets”—he gives ten percent away. At any rate, he’s bragging about how much he gives to the temple.

Though the Pharisee begins by praying to God, the “prayer” is really all about him. He’s the subject: I thank you, I’m not like other men, I fast twice a week, I tithe everything. I, me, mine.

The other character in this story is the tax collector. I’ve already explained their reputation. It was not good. The Pharisees complained that Jesus ate with such sinners (Luke 5:30) and would spend time with them (Luke 15:1–2). Yet this tax collector humbly makes his way to the temple. Given their reputation, it’s not unreasonable to think that tax collectors didn’t go to the temple often, perhaps because they wouldn’t want to go, perhaps because they knew how they would be viewed by others.

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector stands. But he stands at a distance. The Pharisee might have gone right into the courtyard of the temple. This tax collector was standing “far off,” perhaps on just the edge of the temple complex. Though some people prayed while looking up to God (Ps. 123:1; Mark 6:41; 7:34; John 11:41; 17:1), this tax collector can’t do that. He feels unworthy to look directly toward God. He beats his breast, a sign of mourning. And he simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the original Greek, his prayer is only six words (compared with the twenty-eight words of the Pharisee).

Now, I don’t often play the “in the Greek . . .” card, but I will here, because it’s important. The way that the tax collector’s prayer is translated hides a couple of important details. First, he literally says, “God, make atonement for me.” He knows he needs God’s mercy. But the way to get mercy from God is if atonement is made. The Greek word used here is also used in Hebrews 2:17, where we’re told that Jesus made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” To be right in God’s eyes, to be acceptable to God, to be forgiven by him, he needs someone who can make God propitious towards him. In other words, he needs someone who can make God look favorably upon him. This man knows that he has nothing to bring to God that can turn away God’s judgment against his sin. He confesses that he’s a sinner. He doesn’t brag about who he is or what he’s done. He simply knows that he needs atonement for his sin, and he knows that God must be the one to atone for his sin. No amount of good works can make up for the sin that he’s committed.

The other interesting detail that is found in the original Greek text is that this man says, “God, make atonement for me, the sinner.” He doesn’t say “a sinner.” Instead, he says, “the sinner,” using the definite article. Why does that matter? It’s like he’s saying, “I’m not comparing myself to other people. I’m not saying that I’m just another sinner, like everyone else around me. I am the sinner who needs atonement for his sins.” The Pharisee compared himself to others and did so favorably: “I’m better than everyone else.” But this tax collector isn’t comparing. He’s not judging himself by that standard. Instead, he’s judging himself against God’s standard. It’s like when the apostle Paul called himself “the foremost” sinner (1 Tim. 1:15).

These two men couldn’t be any more different in their stature in society and in their attitudes. Yet in verse 14, Jesus provides the twist: the tax collector and not the Pharisee went back home justified. The tax collector found favor in God’s eyes. The Pharisee did not. Jesus gives the reason why: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is like so many of the twists that we see in Jesus’ parables: the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite, was the one who loved his neighbor (Luke 10:25–37); the younger sinful brother came back home and was embraced by his father while the older righteous brother stayed outside (Luke 15:11–32); the rich men went to hades while the poor men went to paradise (Luke 16:19–31).

There are three truths that I want us to see from this parable. The first truth concerns the attitude we should take in approaching God. The tax collector had it right. He humbly approaches God and seeks forgiveness that only God can give. He seeks a solution to his sin that he cannot possibly provide, but that God can. He acknowledges he’s a sinner. He doesn’t compare himself to anyone else. He knows that he stands in need of God’s mercy.

The Pharisee isn’t really praying to God at all. His prayer is really a boast. He compares himself with others and, since he’s relatively obedient to the law, he thinks he’s superior to others. He looks down at “this one,” this tax collector. He brags about all the good things he has done. There’s no awareness that he, too, is a sinner standing in need of atonement. He is justifying himself, assuming that all his good works have put him in the right before God.

The right attitude before God is captured in King David’s famous confession of sin, which we find in Psalm 51. King David had committed adultery, then when he found out the woman was pregnant, he tried to cover up his sin by arranging for her husband to sleep with her. When that didn’t work out, he had the husband killed. (See 2 Samuel 11 for the story). When the prophet Nathan called him out for his sin, David confessed that he had done what was wrong, and he asked God for forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:1–13). Look at Psalm 51:1–4:

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,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

David knew that he had ultimately sinned against God, and that he needed God’s mercy. God would be justified in condemning David, but David appealed to God for mercy. He confessed his sin and he found healing and forgiveness.

Later in the same Psalm, David says (in verse 17):

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

He knew that what God wanted was a sign of repentance, a broken spirit and a contrite heart, a godly remorse over sin. God doesn’t want pride and boasting. He wants people to realize what they have done, and to come to him humbly and in faith.

That is the attitude a sinful person should have before God. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. We have all failed to love God as we should. We have failed to obey his commandments. We have failed to love other people as we should. We have even failed our own moral standards and moral codes. We have done wrong, and God knows it. He would be justified to condemn us. We must seek the atonement that only he gives.

Of course, not everyone realizes this. Just this past week, I happened to catch a bit of a video clip from an interview between Ben Shapiro and Bishop Robert Barron. If you don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, he’s a relatively young man who is a significant conservative figure. He’s a lawyer, an author, a writer, and a host of a very popular podcast. He’s made appearances on CNN and other television channels. He’s also an Orthodox Jew. So, he had this interview with a Catholic bishop, and at one point, Shapiro asks this question: “What’s the Catholic view on who gets into heaven and who doesn’t?” Then, he immediately adds, “I feel like I lead a pretty good life, a very religiously based life in which I try to keep not just the Ten Commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?”[2]

I like Ben Shapiro. I agree with many things that he says. But what he’s doing there is very similar to what the Pharisee does in the parable. He’s claiming that he lives a good life. Actually, Shapiro hedges that a bit to say he lives “a pretty good life.” He claims that he tries to keep the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. (I’m not sure how he keeps all the commandments related to worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem and offering animal sacrifices.) But I doubt that he does well even with the Ten Commandments. Who has not coveted (Exod. 20:17)? Who hasn’t put something before God in their lives (Exod. 20:3)? Who has always loved God with all one’s heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5)? Who has always loved one’s neighbor as one’s self (Lev. 19:18)? Shapiro doesn’t seem to think he has sins that he can’t make up for.

The Bishop says that Shapiro is not “screwed.” He says that the Catholic Church has taught since Vatican II that people other than Christians can be saved if they follow their conscience. Jesus is the privileged path to salvation, and he must be followed, but the Bishop waters down what that means. He says that the atheist who follows his conscience is actually following Christ, though he doesn’t know it.

Then, Shapiro asks the Bishop if Catholicism is faith-based or acts-based. Shapiro acknowledges that Judaism is an acts-based religious, “where it’s all about what you do in this life, and that earns you points in heaven.” The Bishop says that Catholicism is “loved-based,” which is a nice answer. He does say that Catholicism requires faith, but it is perfected by works. He rightly acknowledges that a relationship with God begins with grace, and that it requires a response that includes obedience, but he suggests that human effort contributes to salvation.

Those are two wrong ways of looking at salvation. This leads me to what Jesus didn’t teach clearly in this parable, and this is the second truth that we should know this morning. How is one saved? What is the basis of salvation? If it’s true what the Bible says, that all of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and that even our best acts of righteousness are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6), how can we be saved? The parable makes it clear that we must go to God humbly and ask for mercy. But how does that work?

God is a righteous judge who must punish sin. He promised punishment and exile for sinners. How can God punish sin without destroying all sinners?

God also desires righteous members of his covenant. He demands a righteous people. How can we be declared in the right, innocent, as if we had never sinned but had only done what he wants us to do?

The answer is Jesus. He is the only truly righteous person who has ever walked the face of the earth. He is the God-man, forever the Son of God, yet who added a human nature over two thousand years ago. He alone loved God the Father (and God the Spirit) with his whole being. He alone has never failed to love his neighbor. He alone has obeyed all the commandments.

Yet Jesus died a sinner’s death, bearing the wrath of God when he died on the cross. He was treated like the worst of criminals though he never did anything wrong. He then rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid the penalty for sin in full and to demonstrate that all his people will rise from the grave on day when he comes again in glory. If we trust in him, our sins have already been punished. The apostle wrote to the Colossians that “you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God has made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–15). If we have faith in Jesus, if we trust that he is who the Bible says he is and he has done what the Bible says he has done, our sin is paid for, and we are credited with his righteousness.

This can only be accessed by faith, not works. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:15–16).

Paul makes this abundantly clear in Romans, as well as in Galatians and Philippians and his other letters. In Ephesians, he famously writes,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8–9).

Paul also says that we should do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10), but those good works are not the basis for our salvation. They are not the root of our salvation, but the fruit that naturally comes out of life changed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

If we have a right relationship with Jesus, one marked by trust, love, and obedience, we will know who he is. We might not know everything, but we do need to know some things. Importantly, we will know that he is God. In John 8:24, Jesus told the Jewish religious leaders of his day, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). “I am he” is a reference to the God of the Old Testament. It is how God referred to himself when he first spoke to Moses (Exod. 3:14). It is how God refers to himself in the book of Isaiah (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4).

The Bible pictures salvation as being united to Jesus. The Bible also says that Jesus is our bride. If you are married to someone you will know it, and you will know important things about your spouse. So, if you’re married to Jesus, you’ll know that he’s the Son of God, the world’s only Savior, and the King of kings and Lord of lords. You’ll know that he died on the cross for your sins and that he rose from the grave.

The third truth I want us to think about is that we will stand before God on judgment day. We will have to give an account for what we have done. I don’t know the mechanics of how this will work out. I don’t know that we’ll be given a chance to speak to God and present a case for our justification. But let’s say we will. What will you say to God? Will you say, “God, I deserve to be with you for eternity because I’ve done all these good things. I’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show you all the good things that I’ve done.” Or will you humbly say something like this? “God, I know that you would be right to condemn me. I know that I have failed to love you and to obey you. Have mercy on me, the sinner. Please forgive me. My only hope is your Son, Jesus. I trust that his righteousness and his atonement are enough to save me from sin. My faith is set upon Christ. He is my only hope for salvation.” If that is the posture of your heart, you have faith in Jesus. The good news is that he can save us from any sin we’ve committed. We can be acceptable to God because of Jesus. But we must first acknowledge our sin and humbly seek forgiveness. We must repent, turning away from sin, and turn to our only hope, who is Christ.

Christians, we must not look down at other people as though we were better than them, or more deserving of God’s grace. We must not say, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Democrat,” or, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Republican.” We can’t even say, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.” We must not boast in ourselves, but we must boast in Christ. Paul wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; quoting Jer. 9:24). He then wrote, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oDt8wWQsiA&feature=youtu.be. The relevant portion of the interview begins at about 16:20.

 

God, Be Merciful to Me (Luke 18:9-14)

What is our justification before God? What are we relying upon to make us right with God? Jesus taught this parable to those who trusted in themselves. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 18:9-14 on September 8, 2019.

Cry to Him Day and Night

Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 1, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

When something is wrong, to whom do you appeal? In our house, we have two boys, and they play together well—for the most part. But they can also be rough with each other. And if they play long enough, someone will take another’s toy, or someone will call someone a name, or someone will hurt someone else. Usually, they try to sort out their differences—often with a bit of “street justice.” That is, if tempers flare long enough, one will hit the other. But sometimes, they’ll appeal to a higher authority. They’ll call to one of their parents. “Mom, Simon took my Lego.” “Dad, Caleb called me a name.” In fact, I wish they appealed to a higher authority before they started hitting each other. But, eventually, they will appeal to a higher authority.

We all want to do be able to do that at times. When there’s an injustice, and we don’t see that injustice being righted, we want to call upon someone who can fix the problem. That’s why we have that all powerful line, “Can I speak to your supervisor?” When you’ve reached that point, something isn’t going your way, and so you play the “I want to talk to the boss” card. That’s why we have a Supreme Court. When it seems that the Constitution is being violated, we can appeal to a higher authority, and the Supreme Court is the highest judicial authority in our country.

But what if the Supreme Court gets it wrong? To what higher authority can we appeal? What if there are injustices in other lands, ones to which our nation’s laws don’t apply? To whom do we appeal?

The good news is that there is an ultimate authority, one to whom we can always appeal. And that authority is God. And he stands ready, listening to his children. As someone said Wednesday night at our prayer meeting, “With God, there’s never a busy signal. The line is always open.” There are no waiting lines to talk to God. There’s no admission ticket that we need to pay to speak God. He is the ultimate judge, and we can appeal to him for justice at any time. And God has told us that he will bring about final justice, in his own time. And he calls upon us to pray that his kingdom would come, that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Today, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. Today, we begin chapter 18. Last week, as we looked at the end of chapter 17, we heard Jesus talking about how the kingdom of God is here already, though not in its fullest. It’s already, but not yet. That means that people can come to the King of kings, Jesus, and bow down before him in faith. When people turn away from living as if they are kings, or as if other people are kings, and put their trust in the true King, they can be part of God’s kingdom. Yet look around the world. It doesn’t take much to see that many people don’t live as if God is their king. If God’s kingdom is like this, we may wonder if a better kingdom is coming! So, even though the kingdom of God is present, it’s not completed or perfected here. But Jesus promised that it will come in its fullest one day. So, Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21).[1] But he also said that his disciples would “desire to see on of the days of the Son of Man [that’s a reference to Jesus], and you will not see it” (Luke 17:22). Jesus suggested that things would be difficult for Christians in the in-between times, the time between his first and second appearances on earth.

It’s important to remember that, because what we see at the beginning of chapter 18 should be read in that context. As we wait for Jesus to return, as we long to see “the days of the Son of Man,” we will see injustice. As another day without Jesus returning appears, we may become discouraged. And here, in this passage, Jesus tells us to keep praying for that day of justice.

Without further ado, let’s read today’s passage. Here is Luke 18:1–8:

1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

This passage itself isn’t very difficult to understand, but I did want to remind us of the context. This passage isn’t about prayer in general. It’s certainly not about praying for just anything. It’s about praying for God to make things right.

Luke tells us that Jesus told this parable, this little story, to his disciples so that they should always pray and not lose heart. The story concerns “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.” Earlier in the Gospel, we’re told that the greatest command is to love God with everything we have and also to love our neighbor—our fellow man—as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27). Apparently, this judge didn’t do either of those things. We’re told he was an unrighteous judge. In Israel, judges were supposed to fear God and to care about justice, particularly for those who were vulnerable, people like widows. In fact, there’s a passage in the Old Testament, in 2 Chronicles 19, when one of the kings, Jehoshaphat, appoints judges and he explicitly tells the judges, “Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes” (2 Chron. 19:7). So, we get the sense that this judge was far from an ideal judge.

Yet this judge had power. He had authority. He could correct some injustices. And so we’re told that a widow comes to him. She says, “Give me justice against my adversary.” We don’t know who her adversary is or what injustice she was suffering. It was probably something financial. At that time, widows were particularly vulnerable. A widow, especially one without children, had no men to provide for her and protect her. The injustice might have concerned her late husband’s estate. Women generally were not heirs of an estate. When a man died, his wife could receive financial support from the estate, but she depended on the male heir to do the right thing.[2] Perhaps her adversary here was that heir. We can’t be sure, but it’s as good a guess as any.

So, this woman comes to this judge looking for justice. We get the sense that she came repeatedly to him. At first, the unrighteous judge doesn’t give this woman the time of the day, even though the Old Testament explicitly talks about how Israel should care for widows (Exod. 22:22–24; Deut. 10:17–18; 24:17; 27:19; Pss. 68:5; 146:9; Prov. 15:25; also James 1:27). Yet the widow keeps coming to him, demanding justice. Even though he doesn’t fear God or respect humans, he doesn’t like being bothered by this woman. She is wearing him out with her demands for justice. So, he gives her justice to avoid being bothered any more by her.

Then “the Lord,” Jesus, gives his disciples the point of this story. He says, even an unrighteous judge will grant justice if he’s bothered enough. How much more, then, will the perfect judge give justice to “his elect, who cry to him day and night?” The point is not that God is an unrighteous judge. The point is not that if we bother God enough for what we want, he’ll get sick of hearing our prayers, and to shut us up, he’ll grant our wishes. Jesus is making an argument from the lesser to the greater. If an unrighteous judge will grant justice from bad motives, then the perfect Judge will certainly grant justice to his children.

Jesus says three very important things in verse 7. One, Jesus calls God’s people “elect.” That means they are chosen by God. One of the amazing truths that the Bible teaches is that God has elected certain people to be his people. He has predestined them to be adopted as his children, not because they are so lovable or so good, but simply because he loves them (see Rom. 8:28–30; Eph. 1:3–14). If you’re a Christian, God wanted you even before you existed. He wanted you knowing all the sins that you would commit, all the wrongs that you would do, all the times you have failed to love God and to love others as you should. God knew all these things, and he still chose you. And that should give us confidence that when we pray to God, he will answer. He knows we’re praying—he knows all things. But because we are his chosen children, he will answer.

The second important thing Jesus says in verse 7 is that God’s elect “cry to him day and night.” I don’t think Jesus means that only if we pray to God at literally every moment, then he will listen to us. But we are told in the Bible to pray regularly. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Paul tells Christian to “pray without ceasing.” In Romans 12:12, he says, “be constant in prayer.” In Ephesians 6:18, Paul says that we should be “praying at all times in the Spirit.” In Colossians 4:2, he says, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” As a church, we should be praying regularly, and we have confidence that some Christian somewhere on earth is always praying to God for justice. Individually, we should do this regularly.

The third important thing that Jesus tells us in verse 7 is that God will not delay in granting us justice. He asks a rhetorical question: “Will he delay long over them?” The answer is “no.” However, God will do this on his own timing. God’s answers to our prayers are always perfect. He always answers our prayers, even if the answer is “no.” But we don’t always know how or when he answers our prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” but it comes later than we want or expect. But God’s timing is always right.

In another part of the Bible, in the apostle Peter’s second letter, Peter talks about how some don’t believe that Jesus will come a second time. If you stop and think about it, the claim that Jesus will come again is hard to believe. It’s hard to believe because, first of all, the Christian claim is that Jesus is no mere human, but he’s also the Son of God. He’s the God-man, truly God and truly human. Second of all, we’re told that when he comes again, it will be in power and glory, and he will right every wrong. We’re told that he will remove all evil, all sin, from the world, he will judge everyone that has ever lived, and that he will recreate the world to be a paradise, a perfect place where God dwells with his people in peace and harmony. There will no longer be pain, disease, wars, and death. It’s hard to imagine all of that. And it’s no wonder that people who aren’t Christians would think this is just a fairy tale.

But Peter says it’s not. Jesus will come, but he will come according to God’s timing. Peter writes this:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed (2 Pet. 3:8–10).

The point is that an eternal God has a different time scale than we have. We want things done now. But for God, who always existed, a day is a blink of an eye. A thousand years in our experience are like a day in his. We’re told to be patient and to wait. The reason why Jesus has not returned is because God has given us more time for people to turn from their sins—to repent—and to turn to Jesus in faith. There is a day when Jesus will come, and God knows when that is (Acts 17:31). But if Jesus returned a hundred years ago, none of us would exist, and none of us would ever have the opportunity to be part of God’s kingdom.

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John is given an image of all the people who died for their faith in Jesus. We read this in chapter 6:

10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been (Rev. 6:10–11).

That cry, “How long, O Lord?” appears throughout the Bible. It is a cry for justice. How long, God, until you set things right? How long until Jesus comes to remove all sin from the world, and all sin from our own hearts? How long do we have to live like this? The answer to those questions is, “Not long.” It may seem like an eternity to us, but not to God. God will not delay. His timing is right. Wait for it. In verse 8, Jesus says that God “will give justice . . . speedily” to his people.

But then Jesus turns the tables. He asks his own question. He says that when he, the Son of Man returns, “will he find faith on earth?” We ask that question, “How long?” and Jesus says, “Not long.” But then Jesus asks us what he will find when he returns. Will he find faithful people who are doing what has commanded us to do? Will he find people who are praying day and night for justice? Will he find people who trust that Jesus alone is King, that he alone is our Savior, that he alone is the perfect Judge who will right every wrong? Or will he find us putting our trust in lesser things?

This brings us to an important question that we should ask: What is the point of prayer? Earlier, I said that God is all knowing. God is omniscient. He has always known all true things. It’s not as though when we pray, we tell God anything new. It’s not as if we can say, “God, I have this great idea that you might not have considered yet. Maybe you should try this.” God already knows everything, including the content of our prayers. So, in that sense, we don’t need to pray.

But God has called us to pray. Why is that? It’s not to give him new information, or new plans. It’s not to inform him of our heart’s desire, because he knows that already. Why did God come up with the very concept of prayer? Why are we commanded to pray?

I believe the answer is that prayer keeps us connected to God. Prayer is simply talking to God. We don’t always have to request something of him when we pray. We can praise him. We can tell God we’re thankful for what he’s done for us. We can simply acknowledge who God is. We can think about his attributes and praise him for being almighty, all-knowing, holy, good, just, perfectly wise, and the creator of all things. We can tell God how we’re feeling and we can share with him our joys and sorrows. We can ask God for things. But whatever we say, he already knows it.

So, the real value of prayer is that it helps us focus on God. It’s a means of grace, something that keeps us in the faith and helps us grow in our faith. It’s a reminder of who is on the throne. God is all-powerful; we are not. God is in control; we are not. God is a perfect judge who will determine what is right and what is wrong; we lack the wisdom, the knowledge of all evidence, and the moral character to perfectly judge situations.

Our problem is that we want to be the judge. We want to be the decider, the one in control. To see this, all you need to do is think about how people react to the idea that God is judge. A lot of people are turned off by that idea. I have actually heard some people who claim to be Christians say that God wouldn’t judge anyone. Obviously, they haven’t read the Bible. God is repeatedly called a judge. He’s also a king. And, you might say, he’s the legislative branch, too. He makes the rules, which are a reflection of his moral perfection, his righteousness. He commands us to follow his rules. And he will judge us for how we have done.

And this, believe it or not, is a good thing. One reason it’s good that God is a judge is that it’s a guarantee that all wrongs will be righted. All crimes will be punished. If we didn’t have the assurance that God would do this some day, we would despair. We would look at this world, which has so much injustice, and think that justice is impossible. We would give up. We would become cynical and jaded. Or, we would try to bring about justice ourselves. How often do we see someone get away with a crime? Perhaps we don’t see this in our own lives, but we see it in the news. There are many times where a man rapes or sexually abuses a woman and he gets away with it, or he gets some ridiculously light sentencing. There are times when evil people don’t seem to be punished for their crimes. Hitler is a great example. He committed all kinds of atrocities and the committed suicide, never facing a judge and jury for what he did. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the USSR, is responsible for the deaths of millions of people who starved or who were sent to the Gulag. He died of a brain hemorrhage at age 74. He doesn’t seem to have paid for his abuses. The list could go on and on. If there is no God who judges, these men will never be punished appropriately for what they’ve done. If there’s no God, we may be tempted to seek our own “street justice,” to become vigilantes who take the law into our own hands. And that would go very badly.

But because God is a judge who will punish every crime, we can rest assured that though evil people seem to get away with crimes, no evil will go unpunished by God. He will deal with everyone’s sin. In the end, God will punish every sin, every evil. Nothing escapes his knowledge, and no one will escape his judgment. So, we have the promise that all injustices will be addressed. And that is a good thing.

There’s another good thing about God being a judge. Everything will be evaluated. That means that everything has meaning. This past week, I happened to listen to a few sermons online. That’s not something I actually do very frequently. But I happened to listen to a sermon by Tim Keller, who pastored a church in Manhattan for over twenty-five years. In the sermon, he referenced something he wrote about in his great book, The Reason for God. Keller mentions a play written by Arthur Miller called After the Fall. In that play, there’s a character named Quentin, who looks back over his life. He says that when he was younger, he thought of life as a series of proofs. You try to prove that you’re brave and smart, that you’re a good lover and father, that you’re wise, that your life has meaning. He said he expected that his life would receive some kind of judgment, some kind of verdict. He would be justified or condemned. But then he says this: “I think now my disaster really began when I looked up one day . . . and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench. . . . Which, of course, is another way of saying—despair.”[3] What is he saying? This character apparently is an atheist. He doesn’t believe there’s a cosmic judge. And what he realizes is that if there’s no God, no great judge who gives a verdict, then there’s no evaluation of one’s life. And that means that everything is ultimately meaningless.

Imagine you are in school, and you work very hard to get good grades. You want some validation for the work you’re doing. You want not only to be rewarded with a good grade, but you also want to know that you’re right. You want your work to be recognized. But then, at the end of the semester, the teacher says, “I decided not to give grades.” You would be upset if you worked hard. Now, if you didn’t work at all, you might think you’re getting a good deal. But most people want their work to have meaning. They want their lives to have meaning. That means we need to have our lives evaluated, to be judged. And we certainly want other people to be judged. All of us make moral judgments: “He should have done this; she shouldn’t have done that.” Where do you think that comes from? We’re judgmental because God is a judge. And we need God to be a judge, or else there’s no moral evaluation, and there’s no justice.

We all want God to be a judge—at least a judge of other people’s sins. But God will judge us for our sins, too. Earlier, I said that no one will escape God’s judgment. That’s not correct. There are some who will escape God’s judgment. The only way to escape is to come to Jesus. The fact is that all of us have done wrong. All of us have failed to love God and to love other people. We certainly have failed God’s standards. If we’re honest, we’ve failed to meet our own standards. We know in our hearts that we have done wrong. If we were to stand before God, we would be condemned. He would find us guilty and our crimes would be punished accordingly. And it wouldn’t be pretty. Because we have a tendency to be selfish, we would always live as if we were king. We would always sin. And God can’t have that. He can’t have people in his world destroying everything that he had made good. God will remove sinners from his creation so that he can perfect it. If God didn’t intervene, that means that each of us would be cast into hell.

But there is hope. We can escape condemnation if we find refuge in Jesus. If we turn to him, we will not be condemned. That is because he has already taken the judgment for the sins of his people. He has already paid the penalty for their crimes. Though he lived a perfect life—and he was the only one to do that—he died as a sinner. He bore not only terrible physical pain and suffering, but the wrath of God, something that goes beyond physical pain. This wasn’t an accident. It didn’t happen just because sinful people put Jesus to death, perhaps the greatest act of injustice ever committed. It was because it was God’s plan. It was the Father’s plan. It was the Son’s plan. It was the Spirit’s plan. From before the foundation of the world, the Son of God was destined to become man and die so he could save the elect from sin.

The question for us is, when Jesus comes again, will he find us faithful? Do we truly have faith in Jesus? If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus now. A day of justice is coming. It will be a day of reckoning. If you haven’t put your faith in Jesus, whether you die or he returns in your lifetime, you will stand before him and you will be judged for everything you’ve ever thought, desired, and done. Jesus knows all the evidence. He knows all the ways you have failed. If you are not “in Christ,” you will be condemned. The good news is that Jesus has done everything you need to be rescued from judgment. But you must trust him. I would love to talk with you personally about what this would look like for you.

One mark of faithfulness is prayer. But we don’t pray to manipulate God. The point of this parable is not that if we badger God with personal requests, he’ll give in. It’s not that if I pray every day for money and good health, God will get tired of hearing me, and he’ll say, “Fine, I’ll give you whatever you want, just stop bothering me!” God isn’t like that. Jesus’ point is that if we cry out to our Father for justice, he will answer us positively.

Jesus told us to pray that God’s kingdom would come and that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). We should pray that we would act as if God is our King. We should pray that others would do that also. We should pray continually for God to right wrongs, to fix the injustice that we see around us. God may lead people to do what is just in this life. Injustices like slavery have been addressed, often by Christians. I pray that injustices like abortion, racism, sexual abuse, and other evil practices will come to an end. But all evil will only be ended on that great day when Jesus appears. The apostle Paul has said, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20). So, with Paul, let us pray, “Our Lord, come!” (1 Cor. 16:22).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 709.
  3. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008), 163. The quote originally appears in Arthur Miller, After the Fall (New York: Penguin, 1964, 1992), 3.

 

Cry to Him Day and Night (Luke 18:1-8)

Jesus tells his followers to cry out to God day and night for justice, and God will faithfully grant that justice, at least on the last day. But on that day, will Jesus find that his followers have been faithful? Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 18:1-8 on September 1, 2019.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 17, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Have you ever wanted what someone else has? Of course, you have. At some point in our lives, all of us have probably wanted someone else’s money, house, car, or job, or perhaps their popularity or celebrity. But I’m not thinking of those kinds of things. I’m thinking more about abilities or personalities. Have you ever seen someone do something so well that you thought, “I wish I could do that”? Have you ever met someone who has a certain personality trait and you thought, “I wish I was more like that”? Perhaps the ability is something practical like the ability to cook well, or to fix a car. Perhaps the character trait is something like kindness, or perhaps you wish you were funnier or more intelligent.

A lot of times, when we want something that someone else has, it’s a sin. It’s envy. Or, we might call it coveting. But there are times when we see someone able to do something, and we think, “I want to learn how to that.” That’s not coveting; it’s emulating. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on our motivation. It’s not wrong to see someone who is able to cook a great meal or fix their own car and think, “I would like to learn how to do what they do.” It’s not bad to see someone who acts calmly under pressure, or who treats everyone with grace and kindness and think, “I want to learn to be more like them.”

So, let’s say you know someone who has an ability or a characteristic that you desire to have. What would you do? Perhaps you would try to copy them. But, if you really know that person well, you might simply ask, “Could you teach me how to do that?” Or, you might say, “I’ve noticed that you always act this way, and I really admire that. What’s your secret?”

I imagine that Jesus’ followers had a similar experience. They were around Jesus, the greatest man who ever lived, and they saw how unique he was. He was an incredible teacher. He possessed great power—he could miraculously heal and feed people. He was able to handle stress and pressure without breaking. He never got his feathers ruffled. He was able to answer difficult questions in the most brilliant ways. He was the most spiritually mature person they ever met. He had a remarkable combination of qualities: he was selfless yet self-assured, tender yet tough, humble yet confident. There simply was no one like him.

And Jesus’ disciples must have realized that Jesus often prayed. It’s something that Luke in his Gospel brings up again and again. Jesus prayed when he was baptized, and the Holy Spirit came upon him (Luke 3:21–22). He prayed alone and then people sought after him. The result was that he taught in many synagogues (Luke 4:42–44). Jesus prayed before healing a paralyzed man (Luke 5:16ff.). He prayed before he chose his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12–16). He was praying right before Peter confessed that he is “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:18–20). Jesus went with three of his disciples to pray when he was transfigured, appearing in all his glory (Luke 9:28–29). He urged his disciples to pray that more people would do the work of God and then he prayed to God with joy when his disciples returned successfully from their mission (Luke 10:2, 21–22).

So, prayer was an important part of Jesus’ life, and he often prayed at critical times. I’m sure his disciples noticed that when Jesus prayed, big things happened. Perhaps they connected his power and his abilities to his prayer life. It’s only natural for them to observe Jesus and say, “Hey, how do you do that? What’s your secret?”

And that’s what we see today, as we continue to study the life of Jesus. We’re now in chapter 11 of Luke. We’ll see what Jesus has to say about prayer.

First, let’s read verses 1–4:

1 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”[1]

Once again, Jesus was praying, and when he was done, one of his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray the way that John the Baptist taught his own disciples. We don’t have any record of John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray, but we know he had disciples, and he must have taught them something about that. At any rate, Jesus gives his disciples a model prayer.

What follows is often called “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not an accurate description of the prayer, because it sounds like it’s the prayer that Jesus often prayed. But Jesus wouldn’t need to pray that God would forgive his sins—he never sinned. A better title might be “The Disciples’ Prayer,” because it’s meant to be used by the disciples. But since the old title is so common, I’ll use that.

If you’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, you’ll notice that what appears in Luke is a bit shorter than the traditional version you’re used to. It’s shorter than the version found in Matthew. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus presented it in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, he’s teaching it privately to his disciples. Jesus must have taught the same things in slightly different ways over the course of his ministry. And the differences show us that the prayer is meant to be used as a framework, a skeleton that we fill out with the body of our own words, our own particular petitions. I don’t think Jesus intended for this prayer to be repeated word for word, without thinking, as if it’s some kind of mantra.

Before we look at some of the things Jesus teaches his followers to pray for, I want to note a couple features of the prayer. The first is that it’s a communal prayer. It’s not an individual prayer. The prayer mentions “us” and “our,” not “me” and “my.” This teaches us that we should pray together. Of course, we can and should pray alone. But praying together is important. We do that as a church on Sunday and Wednesday evenings. If you’re coming to those meetings, I would encourage you to do so.

The prayer begins “Father . . .” That’s another important feature of the prayer. Jesus teaches his followers to address God as Father. That’s one of the stunning things about Jesus’ teachings. There were times in the Old Testament when Israelites were referred to as God’s children or son (Deut. 14:1; Ps. 103:13; Hos. 11:1). And there were times in the Old Testament when God was referred to as Father (Isa. 63:16; 64:8). But those times were relatively few. According to David Garland, “The term ‘Father’ for God appears twenty-one times in the Old Testament, while it appears 255 times in the New Testament.”[2] That’s significant given the fact that the Old Testament is about four times as long as the New Testament. What that means is that Jesus taught his followers to know God intimately as their Father. We can come to God as his beloved children and know him as a loving Father. God is not some distant, terrifying being—at least not to those who put their faith in his Son, Jesus.

But because God is Father and can be known intimately doesn’t mean he’s not the transcendent Creator. So, Jesus teaches his followers to ask that God’s name be “hallowed,” or sanctified. God’s name is his identity, and it refers to his reputation. God himself can’t be made more holy, righteous, powerful, or perfect. God cannot improve. He already is perfect. But the prayer asks that God would make himself known for who he is. It asks that people would see that he is holy, that he is great. When we ask that God would be glorified, we’re asking that we and other people would see how great God is.

There’s a point in the Old Testament, in the book of Ezekiel, when God tells the sinful nation of Israel, which has gone into exile because of their idolatry, that he will act to vindicate his reputation. This is what Ezekiel 36:22–23 says:

22 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.

Because of the way Israel acted, they brought God’s shame upon his reputation. They acted as if he was less valuable than their false gods. If they had seen how great God was, they would have lived differently. And they would have let the nations around them know how great their God was. When we live as if God is the greatest being there is, then we make his name “hallowed.”

In a similar way, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come. God has always been King, so there’s a sense in which his kingdom has always been present. To use, once again, a definition that we recently learned, God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.”[3] But since Jesus would have us pray for God’s kingdom to come, it means that it has not come in its fullest yet. Israel often lived as if God were not their King. And today there are many people who live as if God is not King. When Jesus came the first time, he came to establish God’s kingdom. He is the King of kings, and all who turn to him enter into God’s kingdom. They are his people and he is their God. To pray that God’s kingdom would come is to pray that everyone on Earth would bow the knee and worship God and live as if he were their ruler. God is a loving Father, but he’s also a King who must be obeyed. One day, when Jesus returns, the whole world will become God’s kingdom. On that day, it will be said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).

Jesus also teaches his disciples to pray for their daily needs. We are to pray for our “daily bread.” In the ancient world, having enough food to eat each day was no small thing, and it was no guarantee. They couldn’t go to the supermarket and buy that week’s food. Bread needed to be baked on a regular basis. But the prayer isn’t just for bread. It’s a request that God give us what we need each and every day. This implies that this prayer should be prayed daily. We should ask God to glorify himself, for people to enter into God’s kingdom, for Jesus to return, for God to give us everything we need, for God to forgive us our sins, and to protect us—all on a regular basis.

And that leads us to the next petition: forgiveness of sins. Again, this is why this isn’t the prayer that Jesus prayed for himself. Jesus needed no forgiveness because he never sinned. But forgiveness from God is exactly what we need. Luke compares this to being in debt. We owe God love, worship, and obedience. And the fact is that all of us have not loved, worshiped, treasured, and obeyed God—not all the time, and not perfectly. The fact that the first humans sinned means led to a terrible reality: we are separated from God, and God put the world under a partial penalty, or a curse. Instead of living in a garden paradise, we live in a world that is fallen. It’s still beautiful, but it has cracks in it. We can still experience goodness and love, but not perfectly. There is harmony, but there are often discordant notes that interrupt our peace. We’re not at peace with God, not at peace with each other, not at peace with our environment, and we’re not even at peace with ourselves. The only way to be restored to God and to have hope of living in a paradise once again is to seek forgiveness from God.

Forgiveness always comes at a cost. To borrow an illustration from Tim Keller, if you were to damage my property, you would enter into my debt.[4] You would owe me, at the least, the price of repair or replacement of my property. And if I am to forgive you of that debt, I would have to pay the cost. The damage doesn’t go away unless someone pays. So, I can choose to forgive you but then I accept the cost of the damage. In a similar way, for God to forgive us, he can’t simply forget that we’ve done wrong. For our sin to be repaired, someone must pay the price for the damage. And that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to pay the price for our sin, which is a debt so large that we could never repay it. Because he is righteous, he had no debt. Because he’s God, he is infinitely wealthy. He can pay for everyone’s sin. But first, you must come to him and trust that he is the only one who can make us right with God. You must trust him personally. And a good way to do that is to take this prayer that he taught and make it your own. Say it to God, but don’t repeat it as empty words. Adapt it with your own words. And mean it.

The prayer teaches us that we are completely reliant upon God, the way that young children are completely reliant upon their parents. We need God to provide for us. And he does. Every good gift we have comes from God (James 1:17). The Bible teaches us that God gives us the power to work and to earn money (Deut. 8:18). God sustains our lives at every moment. Without God, we wouldn’t exist. And without God’s mercy and grace, we couldn’t be reconciled to him, forgiven of our sins, and adopted as his children.

If we are forgiven, we will forgive others. Jesus makes that clear. If we are not forgiving of those who seek our forgiveness, we must not have experienced God’s forgiveness. If you truly know how awful your sin is, and how amazing it is for God to forgive you, then you can and will extend forgiveness to others, even when it’s hard. For there to be true forgiveness, there must be confession of sin and repentance. If someone comes to us, admitting their wrong and seeking reconciliation, we must forgive. We must be like our Father.

We are also supposed to ask for spiritual protection. We are supposed to ask God that he would not lead us into temptation. We should pray that God would deliver us from sinning. We shouldn’t view God’s forgiveness as a blank check to keep on sinning. We shouldn’t think that just because God pays our debt, we can keep running up a huge bill at his expense. We should desire not to sin. Though God gives us trials, these are meant to refine us. We should pray that we would endure the trials. But our Father knows are weaknesses, and we should ask him to strengthen us, not to overwhelm us with temptation. In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul says, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” We should pray to that end.

So, Jesus teaches us to pray that God would be glorified, that God would provide for our needs, that God would forgive us our sins, and that God would spiritually protect us. This gives us a framework for how to pray.

But Jesus doesn’t just give us that model prayer. Jesus also taught us about why we should go to our Father in heaven. He is a good Father who gives his children good things. To see that, let’s look at the rest of the passage, verses 5–13:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The first part of that paragraph is a bit of a parable. Jesus has us imagine two men living in a village. One has a friend come to him at night. The problem is that this man has no food to give his visiting friend. The friend is probably tired and hungry and, again, there is no way to simply go to the grocery store or call for late night delivery. If the man doesn’t feed his friend, his friend doesn’t eat. More than that, the man would experience shame for being a bad host. So, he goes to his friend in the village at midnight and asks for three loaves of bread. The other man in the village may be bothered. He lives in a one-bedroom house. The first man has interrupted his sleep and is in danger of waking up his children. But even if that man is put out, grumpy, and half asleep, he will give his friend what he needs. The point Jesus is making is that if such people are willing to answer the bold request of their friends, how much more does God the Father give good things to his children.

God is always listening. He never sleeps. He knows all. He can process billions of prayer requests at the same time. And God is not some grumpy man who gives begrudgingly. So, Jesus encourages us to go to God, to ask for what we need. We are to ask God, and what we need will be given to us. We are to seek God, and we will find him. We should knock on the door of his kingdom, and the gates will be opened.

Jesus then gives us another reason to go to our Father in verses 11–13. He asks what kind of human father would give his child a serpent instead of a fish. The serpent might have been a water snake used for bait.[5] We might paraphrase this statement by saying, “What kind of father would give his son a worm when he asked for salmon?” If the child asked for an egg to eat, no father would give him a scorpion. Now, I suppose there are some pretty terrible parents who might give their children something bad when they asked for something good, but most parents wouldn’t do this. Most parents give their children what they need, even if it’s not what their children want. And Jesus’ point is that if humans, with all their sin, manage to give their children what they need, how much more will the perfect Father give his children what they need when they ask him.

We shouldn’t miss the fact that Jesus refers to his followers as “evil.” God doesn’t flatter us. He doesn’t sugar coat things. Even the followers of Jesus have their sins. Christians don’t earn their way to God through good behavior. No one is good enough to be in a right relationship with God. Even the best people are evil because of the power of sin. That’s why all of us need to go to God for forgiveness, and the only path to God is Jesus himself (John 14:6). Jesus does not teach us that we are deserving of God’s good gifts. He teaches us that God gives to those who are undeserving. God even adopts bratty kids into his family and makes them his own children.

So, if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the perfect Father give good gifts to his children. And the chief good gift is the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting that Jesus says that at the end: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” That seems to come out of the blue.

Well, if the mention of the Holy Spirit seems to come out of the blue, it’s because we’re not thinking of asking God for the right things. Remember what Jesus taught us to pray for: God’s glory, God’s kingdom, what we need, forgiveness of sins, and protection from sin and evil. This is what we need to pray for, and the answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit.

Earlier, I quoted a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, where God says that he will act to vindicate his name. These are the verses that immediately follow:

24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (Ezek. 36:24–28).

How does God sanctify his name? How does God vindicate the holiness of his great name? He gives the Holy Spirit to his people. The Holy Spirit causes us to be born again, to see and enter into the kingdom of God by faith (John 3:3–8). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t trust Jesus, we wouldn’t seek forgiveness from God. Without the Holy Spirit, we couldn’t be protected from sin and evil. We may ask God for all kinds of things we want, all kinds of things we think we need. But what we need most is God himself. And God gives himself to those who seek him. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God. God is one being who exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. So, when Jesus says that God will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask, he’s saying that God will give himself. God is the greatest gift. He is what we need, and he can be found and received if we would only ask.

Jesus teaches us today to seek God. Part of our problem is that we don’t seek God for himself. We want things from God, but we don’t want him. You might say that’s the root of sin. Our failure to regard God’s name as “hallow,” or holy, our failure to see that he is greater than his creation, leads us to make created things our gods. We treasure the things of this world more than the “God who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24). This doesn’t mean that we utterly reject God. Instead, we often treat him as a cosmic butler. When we really want something or when we’re in a bind, we may call on God to give us what we want, or to get us out of a jam. But we don’t come to God and seek him above all else. That’s because we’re evil.

Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be able to treasure God above all things. Without the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t be convicted of sin. If you’re here today and you feel that you haven’t been seeking God for who he is, and you’re coming to see that you haven’t loved the Father the way a good, loving child should, then the Holy Spirit is working on you. If you’re in that place, then ask God for forgiveness, seek him with all your heart, knock on the door of his kingdom. He promises to open that door, to accept you as his child, to forgive you of anything bad that you’ve ever done. His love, his goodness, and his grace are infinite. If you want to know how to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.

If you are already a Christian, consider how you normally pray. Are you praying the way that Jesus taught? Do you pray above all that God would be glorified? Do you pray that God would give you what you need, instead of what you want? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for him, your knowledge of him, and your obedience to him? Do you pray that God would help you to grow in your love for others?

If you haven’t prayed for these things, there’s good news: God forgives us, and we can boldly seek forgiveness from him, because Jesus is our great high priest (Heb. 4:14–16).

God always answers prayer, and he always gives us what we need. He doesn’t always give us what we want, or the things that we ask for. Sometimes, his answer is no. Sometimes, we’re asking God for a serpent, and he gives us a fish. But if we ask things of God that line up with his will, we can be sure that he will give us what we need. The apostle John wrote this toward the end of his first letter:

13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him (1 John 5:13–15).

Let us go to our Father in heaven and pray the way his Son taught us.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 471.
  3. Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  4. See the discussion of forgiveness in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 194–200.
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1061 n. 36.

 

One Mediator between God and Men (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 13, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I’m sure we all have people in our lives whose names cause us to go “ugh.” I don’t mean that literally, of course. But when we think about certain people, whether we know them personally or only because they’re famous, we tend to have negative reactions. That seems to be the case when it comes to politicians. Donald Trump could cure cancer tomorrow and some people would still hate him. Barack Obama could have brought about world peace, and others would continue to speak poorly of him. Hilary Clinton lost an election and is no longer in any government office, yet I still see people who claim to be Christians post negative memes about her on Facebook.

If we’re honest, we all have a list of people who we don’t like, people who we think belong in a “basket of deplorables,” people we think we’re better than, people we think are beyond redemption. I don’t think we consciously think this way. But the reality is that we don’t treat people equally, we often forget that everyone is made in God’s image and that no one is beyond being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and condemnation.

Christians, how often have we prayed for politicians we dislike? How often have we prayed that they would come to a true knowledge of God? How often do we pray for our favorite athletes? We may love watching Tom Brady play, but how often do we pray that he would know Jesus? We may hope our doctor can heal us, but we often treat him or her more as an instrument, a thing that exists for us, instead of a soul in need of salvation. The same is true for that neighbor we don’t care for, or that in-law who we might be happy never to see again. Whether we realize it or not, we seem to act as if these people don’t need Jesus. Or, if we realize it, we don’t care to do anything about it.

Throughout history, there have been people who have rather consciously thought that certain types of people could never be right with God. That seems to have been the case almost two thousand years ago in the city of Ephesus, part of modern Turkey and then part of the Roman Empire. In that city, there were people teaching that only some people could be God’s people. It appears they might have thought that only law-abiding Jewish Christians could be God’s people. But since this is not the case, the apostle Paul wrote to his younger associate, Timothy, to tell them that this is not the truth.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. And in today’s passage, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, we’ll see that Paul tells Timothy a few important truths. One, Christians should pray for all people. Two, God desires all people to be saved. Three, there is only one God and one way to God, Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. And, four, Paul was sent by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, which shows that not only Jews could come to know Jesus. All of these points focus on the fact that all people need salvation from the condemnation that comes along with our sin and that Jesus is the only way to be saved. Since condemnation is our biggest problem, and salvation our biggest need, and since there’s only one way to be saved, we should put great emphasis on the gospel in our prayers, our personal lives, and in the life of the church.

Let’s read 1 Timothy 2:1–7, and then I’ll explain those points in more detail.

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.[1]

At this point in the letter, Paul begins to tell Timothy how people in the church should behave. He says that they should pray. He uses various words for prayer—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings—that cover the range of prayer requests. The point is that we should pray on behalf of others. We should plead with God on their behalf. If these people aren’t Christians, they probably aren’t praying for themselves to the one, true God. They certainly aren’t praying for their own salvation. We may be the only ones praying for those people, whoever they are.

Though Paul doesn’t mention this idea here, all Christians are royal priests, priests of the king. The apostle Peter tells Christians, in 1 Peter 2:9–10:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Priests intercede on behalf of others to God. They mediate God’s blessings to others. That’s what Paul has in mind here.

Paul stresses that they should pray for all people: Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, men and women, rich and poor. We should pray even for civic rulers, “kings and all who are in high positions.” We should pray that they would rule wisely and righteously. We should pray that they would fulfill the God-ordained purpose for government. Peter, in 1 Peter 2:13–17, says,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Paul writes about the government in a similar way in Romans 13:1–7. The government has been established by God to punish evil, to provide order. We should pray they do their job.

Keep in mind that the emperor of the Roman Empire at this time was Nero (ruled 54–68). He was, to say the least, a sketchy character. His mother, Agrippina, was from the imperial family of Augustus. It’s rumored that she had an incestuous relationship with her own brother, Caligula, who was emperor (37–41), and whom she plotted to kill. She later married her uncle, Claudius, who was the emperor after Caligula (41–54). It seems that she poisoned Claudius so that her son, Nero, could become the next emperor. Nero had been adopted by Claudius and married Claudius’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, his step-sister. When he had been emperor for five years, he had his mother killed. He cheated on his wife with his mistress, Poppaea, and had his wife banished and then killed. It’s possible that he also killed Poppaea, his second wife, by kicking her in the abdomen when she was pregnant, though we may never know the truth. There were many other sexual misdeeds and murderous intrigues in his life, but he might be best known for blaming a raging fire in Rome, which occurred in 64, on Christians. This is what the historian Suetonius says about Nero’s treatment of Christians:

They were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his garden for this spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by this dreadful illumination. Sometimes they were covered with wax and other combustible materials, after which a sharp stake was put under their chin, to make them stand upright, and they were burnt alive, to give light to the spectators.[2]

This was the “king” that Paul wanted Christians to pray for! Paul surely wrote this letter before the year 64, but he was aware of the emperor’s bad character. He must have known how corrupt kings could be. Yet, still, he asks that Christians pray for these people. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, not just the people we like or agree with (Matt. 5:43–48).

Praying for these people can have many positive results. Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, praying for people who, we don’t naturally like can reduce feelings of hate. Also, God hears our prayers and will act on them to help these people. That’s what John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), a famous preacher around the time of Augustine, said. In one of his sermons, over sixteen hundred years ago, he said this about praying for all people, including kings:

From this, two advantages result. First, hatred towards those who are without is done away; for no one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays: and they again are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious disposition towards us. For nothing is so apt to draw men under teaching, as to love, and be loved. Think what it was for those who persecuted, scourged, banished, and slaughtered the Christians, to hear that those whom they treated so barbarously offered fervent prayers to God for them.[3]

Imagine how different things would be if we were known more for praying for people who are opposed to us.

Paul says here that the purpose of such prayers is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I believe that Paul means that we should pray that these rulers—whether presidents, congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices—would do their job so that there can be peace and order in our time. And if we have prayed for them, we can rest knowing that we have done what is godly.

We shouldn’t just pray for peace so that we can live easier lives. We should pray that there would be peace and righteousness so that the message of Jesus can be freely communicated. Evil regimes have a way of hindering the progress of the gospel. Yes, nothing can stop the word of God from being spread, but when governments make it illegal to own a Bible or to gather together in a church, it’s a lot harder to disciple new Christians or to tell others about Jesus.

If you read the book of Acts, you can see that there were times when even Paul benefitted from the protection of the Roman Empire (Acts 19:23–41; 21:27–36; 23:12–35). Of course, Paul was also imprisoned by the Romans and would eventually die at their hands. But he knew that when the government functioned according to God’s revealed will, things go well for the gospel.

I think Paul wants us to pray for all people because God wants all people to be saved. That’s the second point we see in this passage. What does this mean?

Does God want each and every person to be saved? If that is the case, God certainly has the ability to save each and ever person. He can direct their hearts to believe in Jesus. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” If he can direct the king’s heart where he wills, he can direct our hearts.

Well, it’s possible that Paul means God wants each and every person to be saved, and yet he can’t save each and every person for some good reason.

Some people believe that God can’t save all because he must respect each person’s free will. These people will say that real love cannot be forced, that God must allow us to make the choices. So, free will is more important than the salvation of each and every person.

The problem with this view is that it rests on things that aren’t in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible is there an extended discussion on free will. Are we truly free to make any choice? The Bible does say that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). The fact is that because the power of sin has corrupted the world, our hearts are corrupted as well. If we are left to our own free choices, we would never choose God or love him.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one can come to him for eternal life unless God the Father has drawn that person. And if God the Father has drawn that person to Jesus, that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day, the day of judgment (John 6:44). That means that only those who will receive eternal life are drawn by God to Jesus. Jesus also says that unless one is first born again by the Holy Spirit, that person can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it (John 3:1–8). The only way we can choose to believe in Jesus, love him, and obey him, is if God empowers us. And the one who is empowered will do that.

Others who acknowledge the language of God choosing and predestining people believe that God wants to save everyone but can’t because his plan to save only some, the ones he predestined to salvation, brings him greater glory. While this may be hard to digest, I think there is truth to this.

But this ongoing debate probably isn’t what Paul has in mind.

I think we get confused by the language of “all.” We tend to think it has to mean “absolutely all” or “each and every.” But look at the way “all” is used elsewhere.

In just a moment, in verse 6, we’ll see that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” That means he paid the penalty for sin, he paid the price for our redemption. Yet it can’t mean that Jesus redeemed each and every single person. If that were true, no one would be condemned. No one would go to hell. But the Bible clearly states that there will be some—many, really—who reject Jesus and stand condemned. We don’t revel in that truth. It’s something that should bother us. But it remains the truth.

In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” If God is the Savior of each and every single person, then all would be saved from condemnation. But I think Paul doesn’t mean that. Again, in Titus 2:11, Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” I don’t think Paul means “each and every person is saved.” So, what does Paul mean?

I think Paul means that Jesus is the Savior of all types of people, Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, people of all nations and languages. Sometimes this is expressed as “all without distinction.” Jesus is the world’s only Savior. There is no other. If Paul meant “all without exception,” then you would have to believe in universalism, the idea that every single person will be saved, that no one will remain in hell. We might wish this to be true, but it’s not.

The truth is that God will save whom he wants to save (Rom. 9:15, 18, 19–24). But we don’t know who those people are. We should strive to bring all people to the knowledge of the truth, even if we know that not all people will believe.

That brings us to third point in this passage. Look again at verses 5 and 6: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

There is only one God. Paul is probably making an allusion to the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There is only one God—not a god of the Jews and another god of the Romans and yet another god for Americans. And there is only one way to God, and that is Jesus. He is the only mediator. Here, Paul stresses that Jesus is a man. But Jesus is also God. In Titus 2:13, Paul says that “our blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Jesus is the God-man, the only one who can stand in the gap between God and human beings. Because Jesus has two natures, a divine one and a human one, he can unite both parties.

And that indicates what our problem is. We are separated from God. The reason that is so is because the first human beings rebelled against God. They didn’t trust him. They turned away from God, and the world has been a mess ever since. We are born with hearts that don’t love God the way we should. As a result, we do ungodly things. Our hearts and our actions separate us from God. And the only way back to God is through Jesus.

Paul says that Jesus gave himself as a ransom. The language of “ransom” refers to a price that is paid to bring us freedom. We are in bondage to our sin, enslaved by our desires, and bound in the chains of condemnation. We cannot free ourselves from this position. But Jesus offered his own life to pay the penalty for our sins. God is a righteous judge. He must punish sin and sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. So, he gave his only Son, and his only Son laid down his life for his people. That’s why Jesus says of himself, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice that he said he gave his life as a ransom for “many”—not all.

As a man, Jesus could die for other men. (To be clear, Jesus was a human being who died for other human beings, not just males.) As God, his sacrifice can pay for a vast number of sins and sinners, throughout space and time. The fact that it took the death of the Son of God to pay for our sins shows how problematic sin is, and how our salvation comes at a great cost.

And since there is only one God, there is only one way to receive the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes,

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Rom. 3:29–30).

We are not saved through our own efforts, obedience, or goodness. We can only be right in God’s eyes by trusting in his Son. The same is true for Jews and Gentiles, for Romans and Americans, for emperors and presidents and illegal aliens, for straight and gay, men and women, adults and children. The only way to be made right in God’s eyes is to receive the perfect status of the only sinless man who ever lived, and to trust that this man’s death wiped away our sins.

Since Jesus is the only way to God, we should strive to bring people to a true knowledge of Jesus. That knowledge is more than knowing facts about Jesus. That knowledge is a relationship of trust, love, and obedience. Real faith leads to knowing facts, but it also leads to trusting a person, the God-man Jesus Christ.

Paul could say all of this because God appointed him to be a preacher of the gospel. He was sent to the Gentiles to tell them about Jesus. That’s the fourth point he makes in these verses.

Paul knew he couldn’t reach everyone, but he did what he could so that many souls could be saved. In another letter, 1 Corinthians, he writes this:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19–23).

Paul didn’t sin to reach sinners, but otherwise he set aside his personal preferences in order to reach others. He didn’t let his own culture be an obstacle to reaching others. Though he was Jewish, he wasn’t afraid to break with the old traditions of Judaism in order to reach Gentiles. He didn’t break God’s moral law to do this, but he broke with the way “things were always done” in order to carry out his mission.

I want to close this message by thinking about what all of this means for us. This passage focuses on salvation, and we should, too. That is particularly true of how we think about the church.

When we don’t focus on salvation and the gospel first, we forget that our greatest problem is our sin. We forget that our real need is salvation. And we forget that this is the need of every human being. A church that isn’t focused on the gospel forgets that each and every human being is a sinner in need of a rescue. Instead, we become inward focused, dwelling only on creating a nice church environment in which everyone is “happy” and “comfortable.” We focus on our personal preferences. It’s all talk of “I like this” type of music and “I don’t like that” song or sermon or whatever.

A church that has pushed the gospel to the sidelines might seem very nice and peaceful. It may seem very loving, because no one is stepping on the other person’s toes. But if the gospel isn’t front and center, that peace is superficial. That’s because the only true peace is brought about by Jesus. True peace—reconciliation between God and people, and even between one human being and another—comes only through Jesus. And if we’re not concerned about the souls of the lost, focusing our prayers and our deeds toward their salvation, we’re not loving them at all. We might even say it’s a form of hate.

Imagine this: if you had a person in your life who desperately needed a cure for a disease, and you knew where that person could get that cure and refused to tell that person where to get it, you wouldn’t call that love. You would call it hate. Christians are beggars who know where to get the bread. We should tell others where to get it. We should pray that they would take that gift.

Perhaps we need to realign the way we think of other people. Perhaps we have unconsciously thought of others as being beyond God’s reach. We may have thought, “Oh, that person will never become a Christian.” When we do that, we deny God’s power to save even the worst of sinners. When we do that, we act superior to non-Christians. We may start to think we are Christians because we are better, purer, wiser, or whatever. And when we do that, we fail to see that lost people are God’s image bearers who need a rescue just as much as we did.

If you’re not a Christian, I want to apologize if you’ve run into Christians who act as if they’re better than you. I want to apologize if you’ve never heard the message of Jesus before. And I want you to know that you have a problem. Your life isn’t centering around God. That means it’s centered around something else. Whatever that is—you, your job, your possessions, entertainment, politics, a relationship—that’s your functional god, the object of your worship. But you were made to worship the one, true God. All of us don’t worship him the way we should. We fail to love and honor our Creator, the one who upholds the universe and everything in it at every moment, the source of life and love and goodness and beauty. God is patient with you. He is putting up with your rebellion. But he won’t do that forever. God wants to restore his creation. He can only do that by removing sin from the world. And he will one day. But he will remove all sinners, too, unless their sins have been paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice. And the only way to have your sins paid for by Jesus is to trust him. You need to believe in Jesus, to be united to him by faith. That is the only way to have a relationship with God, to have eternal life. It’s the only way to have true peace. I urge you to follow Jesus. And I want to help you in any way that I can.

But turning back to the church, I must say this: When we as a church don’t focus on salvation, we lose our way. We get caught up in, and hung up on, our little traditions. We think church is about having our way. We fight about silly things. I think that’s why Paul says, in verse 8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The men in Ephesus were fighting because they had lost their way. Again, if we take our focus off of the gospel, we focus on ourselves, our comfort, our personal preferences.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everything in the church should be geared only towards evangelism. The church isn’t just about salvation. We need to teach new believers, equip all believers for ministry, and worship together. We need to encourage and challenge each other, and even discipline people who have gone astray. But if we don’t lead with the gospel, we will drift away from our mission.

And if we don’t focus on the gospel, our worship will suffer. When we are think often of our salvation, we should remain in a state of gratitude. We have been saved by God, through no merit or effort of our own. The fact that God would save anyone at the cost of the death of his Son should lead us to praise God all the more. God’s grace should lead to our thanksgiving.

If Jesus is the only mediator to God, and if he gave his life as a ransom for all kinds of people, and if God wants all kinds of people to be saved, shouldn’t we do what Paul did and what he asked Timothy to do? Shouldn’t we prioritize evangelism? Shouldn’t we forget our personal preferences and become all things to all people? Shouldn’t we pray for lost souls?

May the Lord help us to get back on track and stay there. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 57, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  3. John Chrysostom, “Homily VI,” “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 426.

 

 

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