Heaven Is Full of Sinners
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican
Jesus often taught in parables. One of the shortest yet most profound was the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Bible tells us that Jesus “spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” (Luke 18:9).
The Pharisees were the most influential of all the Jewish religious sects of Jesus’ day. The word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones,” which sums up the basic nature of their beliefs. They were strict legalists who pledged to observe and obey every one of the countless restrictive rules, traditions, and ceremonial laws of Orthodox Judaism. They considered themselves to be the only true followers of God’s Law, and therefore felt that they were much better and holier than anyone else. Thus they separated themselves not only from the non-Jews—whom they absolutely despised and considered “dogs”—but even other Jews.
The publicans were tax collectors for the foreign occupier and ruler of Palestine, Imperial Rome. The Romans would instruct the publicans how much to collect from the people, and then the publicans could charge extra for their own income. So publicans were usually extortioners and were therefore considered traitors and absolutely despised by other Jews.
So when Jesus told this parable, comparing a Pharisee and a publican, He had chosen the two most opposite figures in the Jewish community. The one was considered the best, most righteous, most religious, most godly of men, whereas the other was considered the worst scoundrel imaginable.
Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector [publican].
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”
And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)
Which of these two men did Jesus say was justified before God?—The Pharisee who appeared to be so righteous and holy, and who no doubt felt that he was a very righteous and good man?—Or the tax collector, the sinner, who was despised by others and who apparently even despised himself?—The tax collector who knew he had no goodness of his own and needed God’s mercy.
So often, God’s way of looking at things is very different from ours. He says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Although that publican’s sins were undoubtedly many, because of his honest and humble confession that he was a sinner who needed God’s help, Jesus said this publican was the one who left the Temple justified that day.
In God’s sight, self-righteous pride like this Pharisee manifested is the greatest sin of all—that hypocritical holier-than-thou attitude that causes people to look down on others who they think aren’t as good as they are. When people get this way, others usually find them to be the hardest people to be around—narrow-minded, intolerant, critical, and judgmental.
The Gospels also tell us that when the Pharisees saw Jesus sitting down and eating with publicans and sinners, they were enraged and accused Jesus to His disciples. When Jesus heard that, He said to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Matthew 9:10-13). In other words, “I would rather see you have love and mercy, and not just your dutiful keeping of the Law. I’d rather you’d give love to others than to be so self-righteous and condemning!”
None of us have any goodness of our own. Anything good about us is only the Lord, and His goodness. His Word says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Even the apostle Paul said that there was nothing good in himself (Romans 7:18).
Jesus got so infuriated by the hypocritical, self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees that He told them that they were worse than the drunks and prostitutes, publicans and sinners they despised, and that there was more chance for such sinners to make it to Heaven than there was for them (Matthew 21:31). He even told His own disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20). And the only way to be better than the Pharisees is to have Jesus’ righteousness—salvation, through accepting His pardon for your sins—because the Pharisees were as “good” as anyone could possibly be in the natural.
Jesus so hated the hypocritical pretense of the Pharisees that He denounced them publicly. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25-28).
The thing that made the Pharisees so self-righteous and hypocritical was their pride. They were too proud to confess that they were sinners like everyone else. In fact, they not only couldn’t confess their sins, they couldn’t even see their sins. Therefore they became “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14).
It’s a big relief to honestly admit that we can’t be good or righteous in ourselves. After all, God has said in His Word that nobody is good: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The worst kind of people in the sight of God are those who pretend to be good and look down on everybody else. We just need to be honest and confess, “I’m no good. I’m a sinner. Of course I make mistakes! Anything good about me is only Jesus!”
God’s idea of righteousness is not the supposedly sinless perfectionist, but the pitiful, hopeless, humble sinner who knows he needs God. Those are the ones He came to save.
God’s idea of goodness is godliness—a sinner who knows he needs God and depends on Him for salvation—not the self-made, self-righteous, hypocritical Pharisees who think they can save themselves by their own goodness.
God’s idea of saintliness is a sinner saved by grace, a sinner who has no perfection, no righteousness of his own at all, but is totally dependent on the grace and the love and the mercy of God. Believe it or not, that is the only kind of saints there are!
You cannot save yourself by your own works, your own goodness, your own attempts to keep God’s laws and to love Him, or even your own endeavors to find and follow His truth. You cannot save yourself no matter how good you try to be. There’s nothing you can do to get it except receive it by faith—that’s all! You have to humble yourself and acknowledge that you don’t deserve it, that you’re just a lost sinner, and that there’s no way you can be saved except by the grace of God.
The worst sinners in the world can go to Heaven through faith and God’s forgiveness, and the seemingly best people can go to Hell because of unbelief and unwillingness to confess their need for God. Heaven is full of sinners, saved by grace through faith.
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