Today we're continuing the series on biblical word power. This time, we will seek to use what we have learned about the meaning of some important biblical words so that we can come to grips with a very significant story told by Jesus.
To recap our key biblical definitions:
Righteousness = being in line with a standard.
Righteousness of a defendant = being in line with a legal and/or moral standard.
To justify = to declare that a person is indeed righteous (usually in a forensic context, i.e. a law court).
Atonement = dealing with any obstacle to a relationship, especially between God and human beings.
Two kinds of prayer in the temple
We'll get to Jesus' parable in a moment. But first, let's go back to Solomon, the man who built the temple in Jerusalem about 1,000 years before Jesus. Solomon prayed a very significant prayer at the dedication of the temple (2 Chron 6:14-42; see also 1 Kgs 8:22-53).
Solomon begins by acknowledging that God truly dwells in heaven. Yet God has graciously put his presence in this particular temple, and particularly listens to people who pray in that place (2 Chron 6:18-21).
What kinds of prayers does Solomon envisage will be prayed in the temple?
The first kind of prayer is a prayer for the justification of individuals. The temple acts as God's heavenly law court on earth. At the temple, people can pray to God in heaven and ask for justification. Because God is a righteous judge, he justifies the righteous, and condemns wicked sinners (2 Chron 6:22-23).
The second kind of prayer is a prayer for atonement. The temple is the key place where the obstacles to the relationship between people and God (i.e. the people's sin and God's wrath) are dealt with. When sinful people pray and ask for atonement, God grants atonement. Atonement can take place both for Israel as a whole (2 Chron 6:24-40) and for individuals (e.g. 2 Chron 6:29).
Two men who go up to the temple to pray
Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) is a parable about two men who go up to the temple to pray (v. 10). Clearly, he wants us to remember the two kinds of prayer that Solomon spoke about at the dedication of the temple (see above).
One of the men—the Pharisee—prays a prayer for justification (vv. 10-12). The Pharisee states that he, unlike others, is in line with certain moral and legal standards (vv. 11-12). That is, he states the case for his own righteousness before the heavenly court. Clearly, he is expecting that God in heaven will justify him (i.e. acknowledge that he is indeed righteous).
(NB The word he uses is the technical word for atonement, often used in the temple context in the Old Testament).
Yet there is a surprising twist: the Pharisee, who pleads his case for his own righteousness, is not justified—that is, God does not declare that he is righteous. But the tax collector—the sinner who simply asks for atonement—is justified. The man who is expecting justification on the basis of his righteousness doesn't get it. But the man who asks for atonement receives both atonement and justification before God!
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. (Luke 18:14)
What's happening here? If we look back at the start of the parable, we get a clue. The issue Jesus is dealing with is self-righteousness: Jesus tells the parable to people who are confident that they are righteous on the basis of themselves (v. 9).
The implication is that there is another basis for justification other than our own moral or legal righteousness! Somehow, God, in his heavenly law court, can look at a sinner who has asked for atonement, and declare that this sinner is indeed righteous. But that same God in that same heavenly law court can look at another man who claims to be righteous (i.e. in line with legal and moral standards), and yet not make the declaration that he is righteous at all!
Justification and atonement
What is happening? It is a radical concept. Jesus in this parable brings together the two activities of the temple: justification and atonement. Indeed, Jesus is claiming that justification happens through atonement!
This teaching about justification isn't unique to Jesus. We can see the same idea in other parts of the Bible. For example, in Isaiah's prophecy, the sin-bearing atoning sacrifice of the Servant brings justification to many (Isa 53:11). The Apostle Paul also brings justification and atonement together, claiming that a person is justified because Jesus Christ was presented as an atonement (Rom 3:25-26).
Plumbing the depths
How can this be? How can God declare that a sinner, who is clearly not in line with God's moral standards, is indeed in line with his standards? Next time we'll explore this idea in more depth and see how this question is wonderfully resolved.