Pursuing the Humility of the Gospel: Part 4

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Do You Live Like You Have NO Righteousness of Your Own?

I can tell you from personal experience that humbly and honestly dealing with your self-righteousness is a brutal thing.  It has this strange way of puffing up the inside of your soul with hot air, forming a sweet, candy-coated shell of self-defensiveness in the name of righteousness and love for God.  It tastes so "godly" on the outside, but inside it is rank, putrid smelling hot air.  The prayer of the Publican, or the tax collector, Jesus talked about in Luke 18:9 and following is both convicting and challenging.  There are two things to be learned about this man's prayer in this verse.  

(If you haven't already, you will want to review Part 3 on the historical-cultural background of the publicani in order to build a foundation for understanding what we're about to discover next.)

First, the publican was the opposite of the person described in Luke 18:9.

Based on the lifestyle and business practices of the publicani, it is no wonder that the Rabbis viewed them as no different from robbers and pimps, murderers and prostitutes. Basically, Jesus picked one of the most hated persons in one of the most hated groups of people who paid to be a part of one of the most hated governmental systems. 

This guy in Jesus' story was a rotten, thieving, dreg of society...and he knew it.  The publican did not trust in himself. He put no confidence in himself. He knew there was nothing worthy about his life, nothing worth trying to present to God. Whether he was there because it was one of the only ways he could afford to provide for his family, or because he was genuinely a wretched, greedy guy who would step on anyone to make a buck, if there were any thoughts that he was innocent or not guilty…if there were any thoughts that he was in conformity to God’s will…if there was even a single thought that he was right with God, he had completely trashed them. 

There is no sign whatsoever of any confidence in himself or anything that he had done. There is no attention at all put on himself by either Jesus, or Luke the author, or the publican himself. There is no self-defense, no defensiveness, no blameshifting, no excuse-making, no rationalization. This is clear evidence that he had come to completely understand himself the way God does, and he viewed himself as God did – unrighteous,unworthy, guilty, vile and helpless. 

Here is the way Jesus depicted this fact about him. He contrasted it with the Pharisee’s prayer. As we work through his prayer, the implications in each point are far-reaching and will undoubtedly convict you. But as they convict you, I guarantee they will also bring such a swell of encouragement to your heartas none that you have felt in a long time. 

Second, look at the humble prayer life of the publican.

There are three things you will NOT want to miss about this man's prayer.

1.  He stood at a distance (v. 13).

He knew that the activity going on in and around the temple area was a holy activity. He knew he was not holy and so he stood at a distance. Listen to one theologian’s description of this.
“He is so deeply under the impression of his utter unworthiness before Godthat he remains standing far from the holier parts of the temple and does noteven venture to raise his eyes” (Geldenhuys, Luke, p. 451). 
But I want you to notice in passing, that the knowledge of his lack of holiness and the guilt associated with it was not so great that it prevented him from coming to the temple at all!  That's so crucial!  For he could have felt so overwhelmed by his condition that he would not have even done the first and most simple thing which was to draw near to God!  Instead, he did in fact come to the temple to pray, as Jesus says in verse 10. He simply stood at a distance from the temple. 

Application:  Friend, there is a powerful implication in this you and I.  Our sin, our lack of holiness, our unrighteousness, our wickedness and sinfulness is never so great that we cannot at least come to the very edge of God’s presence.  God would have welcomed the tax collector closer.  He is a God of mercy and grace and forgiveness.  After all, the very activity going on the temple was sacrifices – sacrifices for sin!  He could have presented a sacrifice for his sins. But he did not.  I would venture to say, then, that he had probably cheated so many people out of so much money, having sinned so much time and again, that he was so overcome with a sense of guilt that he knew he’d better no tdare come too close.  So there is this balance then between coming to a God who welcomes us with forgiveness and yet a God who is so holy and righteous that we dare not come too close. 

2.  He wouldn't lift his eyes to heaven (v. 13).

Worshipers usually lifted their closed eyes to God. But here was a man who was so convinced of his unworthiness and unrighteousness that he would notso much as even lift his face toward heaven. There is great shame implied here. You will no doubt remember events in your childhood when you committed an act so shameful that when you were confronted by your parents you simply hung your head while you answered them. 

This Publican was hanging his head in shame over his life. He was ashamed of his sins and ashamed of himself. The recurring thoughts of those he had harmed financially and probably in many other ways, allflooded his mind such that his voice was shaking and his lip quivering uncontrollably, his jaw muscles tightening to attempt to control himself on the very edge of an emotional breakdown.  He was praying with all his might while trying to hold back to flood of tears waiting to burst forth. 

Application: Have you been gripped by this glimpse yet?  Do you feel about your sin what God feels? Or are you still caught up in comparing what you do wrong to what others do wrong? Are you still saying to yourself that youare not as bad as so-and-so who may come to your mind right now? I’m telling you that this glimpse has got to grab every person for it is the surest sign that regeneration has either taken place or that it is about to happen. 

If you feel like you are beginning to catch this glimpse of yourself, there is no need to fall into despondency. The Publican did not! He at least came to the temple to pray, though he stood at a distance from it. And here he at least prays to God, though he doesn’t lift his eyes to heaven. He was ashamed of his sins but not ashamed to pray. Why? Because he knew that he would obtain mercy from God just by asking for it! He would obtain just as much mercy from God as those who were inside the Temple offering sacrifices for their sin.  What prevents us then from doing the same? Again, there is no sin too great that God cannot forgive. Be shamed because of your sins, but be not ashamed to ask God for mercy as this Publican did! 

3.  He beat his chest begging for mercy (v. 13).

And look at how he asks for it. He is seen here beating his chest while praying to God. This means he is begging God. Beating the chest in Hebrew times was a sign of despair. He was self-accusing on the verge of despair. This isn’t some bowing of the head and saying of a prayer with no emotion ,no affections, no vigor, no sorrow and no despair as we are used to praying today. 

This man knew what was in his heart and his condition caused him great despair. So he did not hold it in, because he had already gone that route and it only made him more wretched and miserable. No, he opened the doors of his heart, the heart God already saw as naked and bare, knowing everything else this man had done wrong which he himself had not even thought of yet. God knew it all.  The Publican knew this.  So he opened his heart to God and let the despair out. 

And out it came as this man who was ripped to pieces inside over his wickedness, began beating his chest on the outside. This wasn’t some manufactured motion he was making as if that was the thing to do during those days. Certainly some did it without any real meaning within at all. Much like so many raise their hands to God while singing worship songs. No, this publican simply displayed his despair in a culturally normal motion, yet with genuine emotion.  Again, this is despair here, not mere sorrow. He is at the end of his rope. He has nowhere else to turn and wishes to turn nowhere else again. 

Application: Have you ever been here before? Have you ever experienced despair before? I know exactly what that feels like, and I’ve seen it expressed in others. There is nothing like it. There is this feeling of being trapped, and the knowledge that you are out of answers with no solutions in your pocket. The walls are closing in and you know you are about to be crushed. You’ve come up out of the water as many times as you can andyou know that you’re about to go under again, except this time it is your last. 

After years of walking with Jesus and helping others do so, I believe that this is what God brings most, if not all, His children through at some point in their lives to bring them to Him. It may not be a crisis moment. It doesn’t appear to be such a moment for this Publican. But in the very least it will be a deep emotional breach of the walls of the heart, and out pouring of the most intense and painful sorrow you’ve ever felt before. 

This is God breaking you. This is God showing you who you are without Him, probably for the first time. I want to encourage you not to be afraid of this kind of thing. Many Christians today have been trained to be emotionless. Yet the very thing that marks this Publican is emotion. He is not afraid to let his heart break wide open before God. He is not afraid because he doesn’t care what others think. And caring what others think is the mark of Pharisaism, isn’t it? 

In the next post, we'll discover what it is the publican actually prays, and find ourselves in the midst of that prayer.

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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