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In Luke 18 the people were given instructions in view of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and Judea. Although the destruction was as certain as Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion, there was always a way to avoid it, if the people would pray and repent.
And so Luke 18:1 begins by saying,
1 Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart [egkakeo, “to grow weary, faint, become discouraged”].
Here we are given the purpose of the parable that follows. It was to encourage them to pray continually without becoming discouraged. The Greek word parabole, translated “parable,” is a compound word, para, “together, friendship,” and ballo, “to throw something over and over, not caring where it hits.” The contents of the parable illustrates the meaning of this word itself, for it is about a woman continually throwing her petition before a worldly judge.
Luke 18:2-5 records this parable,
2 saying, “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God, and did not respect man. 3 And there was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ 4 And for a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, lest by continually coming she wear me out’.”
The judge in this case does not represent God, nor does he represent any righteous judge on earth. Hence, Jesus’ point was NOT to tell us that God was unjust or that He was reluctant to answer prayer.
It is not a parable about persistent prayer to God, as we see in the parable of Luke 11:5-10. The parable in Luke 11 speaks of a friend who pounds persistently on his door at midnight to borrow bread to feed an unexpected visitor.
In contrast, the parable in Luke 18 is about persisting in a petition toward an unrighteous judge. There is a vast difference between a loving friend and a judge who cares nothing for God or man.
And yet there is a similarity as well, because both are about persistent prayer. Perhaps Paul had these parables in mind when he wrote in 1 Thess. 5:17, “pray without ceasing.”
Jesus’ was telling the people that unrighteous judges can be moved by persistence, because they get tired of being bothered. This judge’s motive was purely selfish, but the widow got the justice that she was due. How much more will the righteous Judge give us justice?
Luke 18:6-8 concludes,
6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said.”
In other words, take heed to the words of the unrighteous judge, which are given in the previous verse. The NASB puts a colon at the end of verse 6, as if to say that verses 7 and 8 are the words of the unrighteous judge. But this is clearly not so. Verses 7 and 8 are Jesus’ words about the righteous Judge in heaven:
7 Now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? 8 But I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily….”
The contrast between the unrighteous judge and the righteous Judge is clear. God will answer the prayers of the elect “speedily.” He will not delay and put off their requests, as the unrighteous judge did.
The final statement in this parable is in the last half of verse 8,
8 … However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
This final statement ties back to the original purpose of the parable about persistence. The question really asks if people truly have faith that their prayers to God will obtain justice. Do they pray confidently to a righteous Judge, knowing that their prayer will be heard speedily? Earthly judges may be reluctant to dispense justice to lowly widows, but the Judge of the whole earth will hear every case that His elect bring to His attention.
Jesus’ conclusion also shows that He was speaking of a future time “when the Son of Man comes.” This parable is thus a continuation of the previous discussion in regard to the coming of “the days of the Son of Man” (Luke 17:22). Whereas Jesus had shown first that those days would come with destruction as in the time of Noah and Lot, He then told this parable in order to keep them from being discouraged.
All of this talk about the inevitable destruction of Jerusalem may have caused the disciples to lose heart. So Jesus gave positive instruction to pray without ceasing and believe that the God of heaven is a righteous Judge, so that they would live confidently and know what to do in the difficult time that lay ahead.
The unrighteous judge obviously represents worldly judges in general, but specifically, this parable seems to be about the Roman judges “who did not fear God and did not respect man.” We would not expect Jesus to criticize Roman judges openly, but speaking of them in parables was a safe way to do this.
I believe that Jesus was saying that because the Romans were coming to bring judgment upon Jerusalem, there were two kinds of prayer that should be made. First, as the parable shows, the Judeans ought to petition Rome continually for justice. Because Rome did not fear the true God nor did they respect men’s rights, the Judeans should be as persistent as the widow in the parable.
Secondly, the believers ought to pray persistently to the true Judge of the earth, knowing that God will answer their prayers. Of course, no amount of prayer could prevent the destruction of the city itself, but prayer could certainly spare more lives in that destruction. In particular, prayer would spare the lives of “His elect, who cry to Him day and night” (Luke 18:7).
As it turned out, such prayer was certainly necessary, because the Jerusalem church remained there for many years, leaving only during a lull in the war. We know from history that the church escaped to Pella shortly after the feast of Tabernacles of 66 A.D. They saw how Rome’s 12th Legion was attacked and destroyed by the Jews who were coming to Jerusalem for the feast. Rome would soon send more troops to avenge this massacre. The Christians in Jerusalem then remembered Jesus’ words of warning, and they escaped to Pella before the siege began.
When the Roman replacement army arrived, they first fought to regain control of the Judean countryside before beginning the siege of Jerusalem itself. This took more than a year and a half.
Then the Roman emperor Nero committed suicide in June of 68, and General Vespasian had to wait for a new emperor to be crowned. Nero was succeeded by Galba from June until the following January. Then Otho replaced him from January to April of 69. Vitellius then overthrew him and ruled from April to December of 69.
By this time, the Roman army in Judea became impatient and proclaimed their general to be the emperor. Vespasian thus went to Rome in early 70 A.D. and secured his power, leaving his son Titus in charge of the army. When Vespasian finally sent instructions to Titus, the Roman army surrounded Jerusalem and began the siege at Passover of 70 A.D.
Hence, even if the Christians did not leave Jerusalem immediately (in late 66 or early 67), they would have moved from June of 68 until Passover of 70 A.D. while Vespasian’s troops waited for an emperor to issue new orders. Perhaps the prayers of the elect brought about this opportunity to escape the destruction. Unfortunately, the Judeans in general took to the field of battle, rather than petition the city of Rome that God had raised up to bring judgment upon Jerusalem.
There were two men named James. The first was the disciple named James. The other was Jesus’ brother, James, who did not believe that Jesus was the Christ until His resurrection. As an eyewitness to the resurrection of Christ, James was transformed into a strong believer and came to be known as James the Righteous, or James the Just. His reputation among the people of Jerusalem was enhanced when he took a Nazarite vow, for this allowed him to enter the holy place of the temple, where he prayed daily and interceded for Jerusalem.
When the disciples were scattered in 44 A.D. in Herod’s persecution, this James was installed as the head of the Jerusalem church. Though he was a believer in Christ, he remained in fellowship with the temple and its Old Covenant rituals throughout the rest of his life. James made a valiant attempt to be at peace with the temple and its priesthood, but in 62 A.D., he was martyred in the temple courtyard for declaring Jesus to be the Messiah.
Hegesippus wrote an account of James’ martyrdom in his fifth book, as quoted by fourth-century Bishop Eusebius:
“He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people….”
James’ witness caused many to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Finally, some scribes and Pharisees were angered at His testimony. Eusebius writes,
“So they went up and threw down the Righteous one. Then they said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Righteous,’ and began to stone him, as in spite of his fall he was still alive. But he turned and knelt, uttering the words, ‘I beseech Thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.’ While they pelted him with stones, one of the descendants of Rechab the son of Rachabim—the priestly family to which Jeremiah the prophet bore witness, called out: ‘Stop! What are you doing? The Righteous one is praying for you.’ Then one of them, a fuller, took the club which he used to beat out the clothes, and brought it down on the head of the Righteous one. Such was his martyrdom.” [Ecclesiastical History, II, xxiii]
James seems to have taken Jesus’ words seriously, though we are told only of his prayers on behalf of Jerusalem and the Jews who had rejected Christ. When James the Righteous was martyred in 62 A.D., the last great intercessor for Jerusalem was removed from the scene, thus paving the way for the destruction of the city.
Nonetheless, the church in Jerusalem escaped during the lull in the war, a time of calm which, I believe, was due to the prayers of the elect. Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 was thus fulfilled in the history of the church.