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In Luke 18 Jesus gave instructions in view of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. First He encouraged them to pray without ceasing in regard to righteous vindication. Then He gave them a second parable about humility and righteous justification. Luke 18:9 says,
9 And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt.
It is curious that these “certain ones” should remain anonymous. It seems that these were following Jesus. Perhaps they were local people—perhaps Pharisees—in a town who came to see Jesus as He was passing on His way to Jerusalem. Whoever they were, Jesus saw them as being self-righteous men who despised those who were not as zealous in their religious works.
10 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. 11 The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”
Jesus was portraying the attitude so prevalent among the Pharisees and many religious leaders of the day, who were proud of their righteousness and believed that they were more acceptable to God than those who were less zealous. Since men imitate the gods that they worship, it is clear that they believed God too despised sinners and commended those zealous in doing an abundance of religious acts.
There was no divine law commanding men to fast twice a week. There was only one day of fasting—the Day of Atonement. Neither was all income taxable, but this man paid tithes “of all that I get.” Jesus probably meant to portray this self-righteous Pharisee as one who went far beyond the requirements of the law and despised all who did not follow him into his yoke of bondage.
But then Jesus also set forth a tax-gatherer to bring contrast to the Pharisee in Luke 18:13,
13 But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful [hilaskomai] to me, the sinner!”
It should be noted, of course, that this tax-gatherer was repentant for whatever sin he may have committed. It was common in those days for a tax-gatherer (publican) to extract more tax than was due and then pocket the difference. Their contract with the Roman government was to extract a certain amount of tax from the people, and the publicans did not have to give the Roman government the excess that they had extracted.
This made publicans wealthy, but they were hated and excommuni-cated from the temple. Jesus never condoned their theft, but classed them as lost sheep, lost coins, and prodigals. When they came to hear His teaching, He welcomed them as the father welcomed his prodigal son.
The publican’s prayer, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” shows repentance. In fact, the Greek word translated “be merciful” is the verb form of the noun hilasmos, which means expiation or atonement. It is therefore directly connected to the Day of Atonement, where sin was forgiven by sprinkling the blood upon the mercy seat. The Greek word for the mercy seat is hilasterion, whose root is hilasmos. It is often translated “propitiation,” which means to appease by penance, as if God was appeasing or was being appeased, but this is inaccurate. Atonement is “covering,” and to atone means “to cover” sin. Expiation is a better synonym for atonement.
In other words, we could say that the repentant sinner was receiving atonement for sin that the high priest offered once a year on the Day of Atonement. Heb. 2:17 says of Christ,
17 Hence, he was obliged to be assimilated to his brethren in all things, so that He might be a merciful and faithful high priest, as to things relating to God, in order to expiate [hilaskomai] the sins of the people. [The Emphatic Diaglott]
We see, then, that Jesus’ parable manifested His own work as the “merciful and faithful high priest,” who came to fulfill the work of the Day of Atonement. Jesus concludes the parable in Luke 18:14,
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
The Day of Atonement was a day of humbling, not a day to show off one’s humility as a pretense of righteousness. As the true high priest, Jesus was telling the people who was truly justified by that which was done on the Day of Atonement.
Later, when we comment on the crucifixion of Christ, we will see how Passover and the Day of Atonement closely relate to each other. The Passover lamb and the goat whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement both speak of the death of Christ but in different ways. Jesus fulfilled both types as well as being the high priest who sprinkled His own blood on the mercy seat in the heavenly temple (Heb. 9:11-14).
The underlying lesson in this parable is that we should approach God with humility, rather than come with a portfolio of righteous deeds that might make us worthy to be in fellowship with God. Whatever righteous deeds we do ought not to be done to gain justification but should spring forth naturally from those who are justified. Too often, however, men are proud of their good works and their religious zeal, thinking that these things make them worthy of God’s justification.
In his early life, the Apostle Paul himself attempted to please God by his zealous works as a Pharisee. After Jesus revealed Himself to him, He went to Arabia, probably to spend time at Mount Sinai to receive a new understanding of law and grace. His later writings, especially in the third chapter of Romans, reflect this revelation, and it is consistent with Jesus’ teachings. Neither Jesus nor Paul cast aside the law, but revealed its proper place in the life of the believer.