Chapter 9: Jesus, Two Men, and a Temple
In this chapter, we’ve come to one of the most important considerations yet. What makes it possible for you and me to go vertical and connect with God? How can we know we’re truly in touch with heaven and will someday have the privilege of being with God, in the glory and majesty of his eternal presence? How can we reconnect with heaven? How can we experience what our first parent lost in the Garden of Eden? Is there a way back to a close, personal relationship with our Creator?
What is the answer to these, life’s most significant questions? We have got to find out. We cannot leave it to chance. Eternity hangs in the balance. Yes, there is an answer. It’s found in the ancient New Testament story the Lord Jesus Christ communicated about two men and a temple.
No human who has ever lived has made the claims that Jesus Christ did while he walked this earth. He claimed to be the light of the world, the only One who could illuminate human hearts to eternal truth. He claimed to be the resurrection and the life, the only One who had the power to overcome the finality of death and make eternal life a distinct possibility.
Those claims were and continue to be nothing short of fantastic. What was Jesus really communicating by making such statements? He was claiming to be the only person the world has ever known whose origin did not begin on this planet. Yes, He was born into the world in the very same way every person is ushered into human existence out of the womb. But He made it clear that He predated both his conception and birth. His origin could not be explained in terms of time and space. He was the eternally pre-existent, pre-incarnate Word of God.
The apostle John captured and communicated this most amazing truth, recording for us the very words of Jesus as He spoke of His eternal pre-existence and how He entered time and space to come down to earth. What Christ said in this respect is so simple that we often overlook its profound implications for our lives.
The Lord stressed over and over again while walking on this planet that He was not from this present world. It’s only as we understand why He emphasized this that we will be able to go vertical and reconnect with God. Let’s look now into John’s Gospel and observe firsthand what the Lord Jesus Christ wanted people to know about Him more than anything else.
What the Lord urgently sought to communicate was the message that He had come down from heaven so that men, women, and children could make the ultimate, vertical journey up to heaven. Simply put-He came down so that we could go up. The following excerpts from John’s Gospel show how much Christ emphasized the significance of His coming down to earth:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1,2, emphasis added).
"No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13, emphasis added).
"Then Jesus said to them, 'Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world'” (John 6:32,33, emphasis added).
"I am the bread of life. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall I’ve for the life of the world" (John 6:48,50,51, emphasis added).
"This is the bread which came down from heaven-not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever "(John 6:58, emphasis added).
"And He said to them, 'You are from beneath; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world'” (John 8:23, emphasis added).
"Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me'” (John 8:42, emphasis added).
"I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10, emphasis added).
Understanding why Jesus came down from heaven is the key to knowing how to go vertical and receive eternal life. What we have to understand is that our eternal salvation could not come from any earthbound source. So many people misunderstand this most fundamental and crucial truth. How often have you heard someone say, “Well, if there is a God in heaven, I’m sure when I die God will take a look at my life and conclude that my good deeds outweigh my bad ones and give me two thumbs-up to enter through those pearly gates.”
Others are depending on religious form or rituals to gain entrance into God’s eternal kingdom. Church membership, being baptized as an infant or an adult, reciting specific prayers or partaking of the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table serve as just a few examples of what multitudes believe will ultimately save their souls.
But anything that is of human origin is fatally flawed. Everything that exists on earth has been marred by sin and is subject to the inescapable reality of imperfection. Simply put, nothing earth-side can save us, nothing! Everyone and everything are inexorably bound to sin. Therefore, there is nothing within us or around us in this world that can be utilized to change our sinful state and make us perfectly fit for heaven. Our eternal salvation must and could only come from an otherworldly source - heaven. This is the glorious link between Matthew 1:23 and 1:21: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23, emphasis added). “And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21, emphasis added).
“God with us” equals “salvation from our sins.” What is it that keeps people from believing this simple truth and realizing that they can only have everlasting life by acknowledging Christ paid the entire debt for their sins on Calvary’s cross? In one word - pride. What it comes down to is an insolent refusal to go vertical and a stubborn insistence to remain horizontal. Basically, the average person wants to get to heaven on his or her own terms, not God’s.
Jesus communicated a parable long ago that illustrates this inborn propensity in a very practical way, the parable of “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” It’s one of the most significant parables Jesus communicated while walking this planet. Two men went up to an ancient temple to pray, and when it was all over, one of them, according to Christ’s own words, left heading straight for eternal punishment, and the other one with a guaranteed home in heaven.
What determined their destinies? Let’s unwrap this parable and find out. Jesus outlined the context of the parable in Luke 18:9. “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” Clearly this parable was going to be all about the contrasting human expressions of pride and humility. Next, the Lord presented the two main characters within the story: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10). Why were the Pharisee and the tax collector going up to the temple? Each man was seeking to connect with God.
The Pharisee was, of course, a prominent religious leader of his day. He had a great knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures. This man’s life was religion, big-time. If anyone was qualified to connect with heaven, it surely must be this guy! Well, it turned out he certainly thought so. Listen to his prayer. In fact, read it out loud to yourself: “The Pharisee stood and prayed this with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortions, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess’” (Luke 18:11,12).
I can imagine the Pharisee visualizing God saying, “Bravo,” as he championed all his strengths and pointed out other people’s blatant shortcomings. The reality was, however, his prayer went nowhere – certainly not up into heaven. Jesus captured this in not so subtle ironic manner when He said, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus within himself” (Luke 18:11).
The Pharisee had done nothing more than verbalize a flat-line prayer. His entire prayer was saturated with pride. His worldview was dominated by horizontal realities. He thought he could achieve heaven’s affirmation by acts of human morality and deeds of religious performance. He mistakenly believed salvation started with him and not with heaven. His life exemplified that it is very possible to be zealously religious yet never truly go vertical in one’s life.
Now it’s the tax collector’s turn. How will he approach God? Before answering that question, let’s first take a little historical snapshot of this tax collector. Tax collectors were generally despised within ancient Palestine, primarily because most of them abused the powers given to them by Rome. Remember the story of Zacchaeus and the sycamore tree in Luke 19? He was a prime example of how tax collectors from that time period were characterized by greed and exhortation. One would have concluded, based on his character and reputation, that the tax collector in Jesus’ parable had next to no chance of catching heaven’s attention with his impending prayer.
But the exact opposite proved to be true. “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!’” (Luke 18:13). What an expression of utter brokenness! The tax collector couldn’t even bring himself to walk up the temple steps or raise his eyes heavenward. He was overcome with a heart-wrenching sense of his own sinfulness and felt entirely unworthy to approach God.
What was Jesus’ conclusion to this parable? “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself with be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). The tax collector’s prayer invoked God’s gracious forgiveness, while the Pharisee’s prayer did not. Why?
The answer is found in understanding that only a vertical expression of humility can secure God’s forgiveness and guarantee eternal life. Psalm 51:17 verifies this: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart-These, O God, you will not despise.” Isaiah 57:15 affirms the very same principle: “For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, With him who has a contrite and humble spirit, To revive the spirit of the humble, And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
One more noteworthy passage from the book of Isaiah warrants our attention. Isaiah 66:1,2 constitute two of the most significant verses in the Old Testament. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest? For all those things My hand has made, And all those things exist,” Says the Lord. “But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word’.”
What was the Lord communicating to the Israelites and also to us in these thought-provoking words? This is what we have to understand to be able to answer that question. The Jewish people had a lot of pride in their temple. It was, in fact, the “showpiece” of their faith. The temple in Jerusalem was an awe-inspiring piece of architecture and arguably one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world. However, God was telling His people straight out that He could not be impressed by anything made by human hands. Sure, he allowed King Solomon to build the amazing structure. But He is the Creator of the limitless universe, and the entire earth is but a footstool to His heavenly throne.
So God gives His people a big-time reality check. What catches His divine attention is not a beautiful edifice crafted by human skill and ingenuity but a heart that desperately recognizes its own spiritual poverty, senses its own inescapable depravity, and thus stands in holy terror at the very Word of God.
What’s particularly pertinent about these verses is how one can take Isaiah 66:1,2 and parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and find points of commonality. The Pharisee marched right up to the temple and expected God to be impressed by the religious credentials he had built in his life. He saw his accomplishments as an impressive religious edifice that should most certainly catch God’s attention and invoke His divine favour. God’s response? Not!
The tax collector, on the other hand, fit the model perfectly of one who was poor in spirit, contrite in heart, and trembled at God’s Word. He didn’t endeavour to impress God with anything. The tax collector was “real” about his heart’s one true condition. God’s response? Yes!
As the tax collector approached the temple, he humbly went vertical by starting with God, not himself. He recognized salvation had to come from heaven, not earth. He was likely thinking, “There’s nothing I can bring to the table to impress God, to show Him I deserve His forgiveness and a place in His eternal kingdom. I’m a helpless creature whose only hope is to throw myself at the mercy of God.” Clearly, he recognized there was nothing he could do as a hopelessly sinful earth-side creature to gain entrance into heaven. He knew it was all out of his hands and entirely in God’s hands.
We’ve made salvation (receiving eternal life) much too complex today when it is really so simple. We’ve got to return to the realization that salvation always begins with God and not with us. It means humbly believing that the Son of God came to earth and died for our sins in our place. It means recognizing there’s nothing any one of us can do to earn or merit eternal life. It means calling out to God, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
Have you called out to God this way? If not, do it, sincerely and humbly from your innermost heart, before you read another word of this book. There isn’t anything more important in life than going vertical and reconnecting with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. Make sure of your eternal destiny today, not tomorrow!
Let’s BLT it! Eternal life starts with heaven and ends with heaven. Am I depending on any earth-side reality to secure my salvation?