Robert Jeffress - The One Prayer God Always Answers
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to "Pathway to Victory". It's disappointing when a prayer goes unanswered. Sometimes our heavenly Father clearly says, "No". Other times, he tells us to wait, and we don't like either one of those responses. Well, today, we're going to look at a request that God responds to every single time. It's probably not your favorite answer, but you'll soon see why it should be. My message is titled, "The One Prayer God Always Answers," on today's edition of "Pathway to Victory".
You know, in the Bible, God uses the term "righteousness" in two distinct ways. Sometimes, when the Bible talks about "righteousness," it's talking about a "judicial righteousness, our standing before God". To be righteous is to be in a right relationship, a right standing with God. Paul said in Romans 4, verse 5, "But to the one who does not work, but instead believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness". The moment you trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, in the great courtroom of heaven, God pronounces you forgiven, righteous. You are in a right standing with himself. But, other times, the word "righteousness" in the Bible refers to "right acting before God". It's our conduct, our obedience. It's an ethical, not a judicial but an ethical kind of righteousness.
For example, in 1 Peter 3:12, Peter says, "For the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous. And His ears attend to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil". One reason we don't get our prayers answered sometime is we're not acting righteously. We may be in a right relationship with God; we may be forgiven of our sins, but if we don't act righteously, God doesn't hear our prayers. Judicial righteousness. Ethical righteousness. But Jesus said the prerequisite for both of them, both a right standing with God and a right acting before God is to want it. It's to hunger for it. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
My friend and Bible scholar R.T. Kendall tells about a time that he was nine years old, and he was staying one night with his grandmother, and the next day, he had a test at school that he wasn't prepared for, so when he awakened the next morning, he told his grandmother that he wasn't feeling well and didn't feel like going to school. She said, "Okay, well, go back to bed". And he protested and said, "Well, I would like breakfast first". She said, "If you have an appetite, that means there isn't much wrong with you, so you go get dressed for school, and I'll prepare breakfast". We know Jesus is saying the same thing here. Your appetite is a pretty good indication of your spiritual health.
If you're a Christian this morning and you have a hunger, you have a thirst for being more obedient to God, then you're in pretty good spiritual shape. You may not feel like it, but you're on the road to spiritual health. In fact, 2 Peter 1, verse 3, says, "You have everything you need for life and godliness". If you hunger for an ethical righteousness, obedience to God, you're on your way to spiritual health, but if you're not a Christian this morning, if you're just here by accident, perhaps you tuned in to this broadcast by accident, but you have a desire, a hunger to be clean, to be forgiven, to be in a right relationship with God, it's a good indication that you are also on your road to spiritual health.
In fact, if that's true of you this morning, you are only seven words away from a right relationship with God, and today we're going to discover what those seven words are in a familiar parable. Turn to your Bibles into Luke chapter 18, beginning with verse 9, as we look at the one prayer God always promises to answer. Luke chapter 18. Now, this is one of those parables Jesus told that's very easy to interpret because Luke gives us the right interpretation at the beginning of the parable. He tells us the reason Jesus told it. Look at verse 9: "And Jesus also told them this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt".
This parable is directed toward a group of people, specifically the Pharisees, who trusted in themselves. Literally, in the Greek text, it says, "Who, based on themselves, thought they were righteous". They thought God looked on them with favor that they had a judicial righteousness; they were not guilty before God; they also were ethically righteous; they did all the right things, but the reason they believed that was a standard that was based on themselves. You know, today, there's a lot of talk about having self-esteem and that people suffer from a bad self-image, but the truth is the problem with most of us is not that we think too little of ourselves but that we think too much of ourselves.
Dr. David Myers is a psychologist who has written a lot about what he calls the "inflated-self syndrome" in America. He reports that, when the college board surveyed high school seniors, they found that amazingly zero percent of high school seniors thought that they were below average compared to other students. Sixty percent believed they were in the top ten percent in their ability to get along with others, and he concluded that the most common error in people's self-image is not unrealistically low self-esteem but, rather, self-serving pride. It was not an inferiority complex but a superiority complex. That was the group that Jesus was talking to, those who thought they were righteous.
And notice the second phrase he uses: "And they viewed others with contempt". And that's the byproduct of feeling superior. What's the good of being superior if you can't look down on other people, right? And there are actually some people who are proud of their own humility. Whenever I read this parable that Jesus told about the Pharisees, I'm reminded of the third grade Sunday school teacher who, after teaching this lesson to the children, said, "Now, children, let's bow our heads in prayer and thank God that we're not like the Pharisees". There are people who feel that way. The purpose of this parable that Jesus told is very clear in verse 9. This parable is not a parable that teaches us how to pray. It's not a parable that answers the question why God answers some prayers and doesn't answer other prayers. This parable is about how to be righteous, how to be in a right standing with God. And in this parable, we find two very different approaches to God, one that is based on our goodness, our own works, and one that is based on God's grace.
Now, let's look at the two characters, the two players in this parable. Verse 10, Jesus said, "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector". If Jesus were telling the story today, he might say, "Two people went into the church to pray, a preacher and a prostitute". That's the contrast Jesus is trying to give us here. The Pharisee, let's look at him, first of all. Now, today, and this is so important to understand, we think of the "Pharisees" as "the villain". That's not how Jesus's audience thought about Pharisees at all. They were highly revered, respected men. They knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards, and not only that, they were thought to be truly godly people. They had a desire to be godly. Their problem was they had the wrong idea of godliness. They thought that godliness was based on themselves and not the grace of God. Now, notice his prayer. The Bible says, Jesus said, "This Pharisee, when he went to pray, he stood to pray".
Now, a lot of people make a big deal out of that: "Oh, look how proud he is. He stood". There's nothing wrong with standing to pray. In fact, a good Jew would stand to pray. Today, if you go to the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, people stand there and pray and pour out their hearts to God. The problem with this man's prayer was not his posture. It was his attitude, and you see that in the second phrase: "He stood, and he prayed to himself". Ha-hah, isn't that a funny phrase? "He prayed to himself". Now, he probably didn't think he was praying to himself, but you look at the prayer here. It was a prayer of self-congratulations about all he had done.
Look at verses 11 and 12: "The Pharisee stood, praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector over here, standing next to me. I fast twice a week. I pay tithes of all that I get.'" This Pharisee's problem was he had an "I" problem: "I, I, I, I". He was focused on himself. Have you ever noticed people today who try to give a testimony, but they can't help but make themselves the hero of the story? Their testimonies are what one friend of mine call "bragamonies". It's about "me, me, me, me, me". Contrast him to the other character in this story, the tax collector. The tax collector. The Jewish people hated tax collectors for two reasons: First of all, they were helping fund the oppressive Roman government that was occupying their land, but not only that, they were cheating people, taking more than they were supposed to take.
And so this tax collector went up to pray as well. Don't miss the point that this tax collector was just as much under God's judgment as the Pharisee was. They both went to the temple to pray, but notice his prayer in contrast to the Pharisee's: "The tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but instead was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner.'" This is one of the shortest prayers in the Bible, seven words in the English language, six words in the Greek text, and, yet this prayer reveals the two essentials for righteousness, for a right standing with God for God's salvation. First of all, he expresses sorrow for his sin. You hear that in the prayer: "Be merciful to me," "the sinner" is what it actually says in Greek. It's articular. There's an article before the word "sinner". It's not "Be merciful to me, a sinner," just like everybody else in the world. No, "Be merciful to me, the sinner". "I am the chief sinner of all".
By the way, notice his position. He stood some distance away. Away from what? Well, probably away from the altar of sacrifice, representing the presence of God, but he even stood away from the Pharisee. "Oh, I can't be near a holy man. I can't be near to him, and I certainly can't stand near to God". But here's the paradox: By standing far away from God, he was closer to God than the Pharisee. Here's one thing you understand: The more you understand the true holiness of God, the more you understand how sinful you and I really are. A real encounter with the genuine God leads you to understand your own unholiness. Isaiah expressed that.
Remember in Isaiah 6, when he had the vision of God on his throne and the angels flying around the throne? What was Isaiah's response? He fell down, and he said, "Woe to me, for I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips". Or remember when the apostle Peter saw the glorified Lord, in Luke 5:8? He said, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man". Or remember the apostle John in the book of Revelation, there on the island of Patmos, when he saw the vision of the glorified Christ in the state he'll be when he returns one day? What did he do? The Bible says he fell down as a dead man. That's what happens to any sinner who confronts a holy God. You're aware of your need. But an expression of sorrow for your sin isn't enough to be forgiven. It's not enough for salvation.
There's a second ingredient you see in this brief prayer, and that is, he requested God's mercy to cover his sin. He said, "God be merciful to me, the sinner". Now, that word, Greek word translated, "merciful," is not just any word for "mercy". It's a very special word. It's a word that is a form of the word that was used to describe the mercy seat in the temple. Remember, in the temple, the holiest place of all was the holy of holies. It was behind the veil, and only one person could enter into the holy of holy once a year. That was the high priest.
Remember, in the holy of holies, behind the veil, there was the ark of the covenant, and that ark, among other things, contained the two tablets, Moses's tablets with the Ten Commandments. On top of the ark, which was more like a box, there was a lid covered in gold. It was called the mercy seat, and on each end of the mercy seat was the replication of an angel, a cherub, and the cherub, on each end, had outstretched wings. They were thought to protect the holiness of God, and it was believed that the Spirit of God dwelt between the cherubim on that ark of the covenant. And the picture was very clear: It's a picture of God's judgment.
God, a holy God, is looking down on the law, his law, which he gave his people, a law which the Israelites broke every day of every year. It was a picture of the judgment that God's people deserved for the law they had broken, but once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest, after making an atonement for his own sins, would take the blood of an innocent animal, and he would come into the holy of holies in the presence of God, and he would take that blood, and he would sprinkle it on the mercy seat that covered the broken law, and the picture was, as God looked down, he no longer saw the law that had been broken, but he saw the covering, the atoning of that innocent animal.
And, of course, all of that was a picture of what Jesus Christ, our perfect High Priest, would do one day. The high priest, for hundreds of years, would have to come in year after year after year. He would have to, first of all, make an atonement for his own sins. He would come with the blood of an animal, and he had to do it repeatedly. But Jesus Christ is our perfect High Priest, and he's entered not a man-made temple but the true temple, the presence of God, and he approached the temple of God and the throne of God, not with the blood of the animal that was worthless but with his own blood, and he obtained, what? Eternal redemption.
That's what the writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews chapter 9, verses 11 to 12: "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is, not to say of this creation, and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood. He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption". Why do I mention this? Because, when this tax collector said, "Lord, be merciful to me," he was asking for a blood atonement, a covering that would wipe away his sins. He understood he was powerless to forgive himself. He needed the forgiveness that was based on the sacrifice of the true High Priest, Jesus Christ.
You see that even in the way he prayed. James Montgomery Boice points out the simple sentence structure of this prayer. It's a prayer that starts with God and ends with the sinner but has mercy in the middle. It is God's mercy, it is God's grace that connects sinful man to a holy God. "God, be merciful to me, the sinner". Two men with two very different ways to approach God, one who tries to approach God, based on his own righteousness, and one who approaches God, based on God's grace.
Now, if Jesus had stopped right here with a prayer and said, "Now I'm gonna give you a pop quiz, audience. You've heard the story. Which man walked away from the mountain justified, in a right relationship with God"? The audience, without a doubt, would've said, "Why, the Pharisee, of course. The Pharisee is the one who ended up righteous. I mean, look at all of the things he's done: He's tithed. He's fasted. He's not like these adulterers and murderers. He's righteous. Why would that tax collector think a little seven-word prayer suddenly makes everything all right with God"?
Haven't you heard that before? How can people think that praying a prayer of salvation erases all of the bad that they've ever done before? They would've picked the Pharisee for sure, and that's why Jesus turns their expectations upside down in verse 14. He says, "No, I tell you, this man, the tax collector, went to his house justified rather than the other". You know what's interesting to me? I'm sure, when the Pharisee finished his self-congratulatory prayer, I'm sure he felt great.
I'm sure he left the Temple Mount that day, saying, "You know, nothing like some good quality prayer time with the Lord," and I imagined that the tax collector probably left just as miserable as he went, feeling bad and terrible about his sin, but guess what? Your relationship with God isn't based on how you feel about your relationship with God. It's how God views you, how he sees you, how he feels about you, and Jesus said, "I'm telling you, regardless of this tax collector's feelings, he left the mountain that day justified, declared not guilty because his prayer wasn't based on his righteousness. It was based on My mercy". And then Jesus adds this word, these familiar words: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted".
The person who refuses to bow before God and admit his need for forgiveness will, one day, be humbled. One day, he will be shocked to hear from the Lord he thought he served, utter these words: "Depart from me, you worker of iniquity, for I never knew you". On the other hand, the person who bows before God and says, "God, I am a sinner; I am the sinner, and I have no hope except Jesus Christ," a person who humbles himself will, one day, be exalted and will be welcomed into God's kingdom. As A.W. Tozer said, "In ourselves, nothing. In Christ, everything". "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied".