The Lord's Day Morning
March 20, 2011
“Always Pray. Don't Lose Heart.”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 18. We’re going to be looking at verses 1 to 8. This passage is connected with the passage that we studied last Lord's Day, a passage that dealt with the final judgment and with the kingdom and with the coming of Christ. That discussion last week was directed to the disciples; so is this passage. But it was directed to the disciples in the context of questions from the Pharisees to Jesus about the kingdom, about the judgment, which prompted Him to speak of His own coming and to tell them that their focus on the signs of the coming of the kingdom was misdirected and that there were deeper and greater things that ought to engage their attention as they contemplated the coming of the kingdom, the judgment of God, and His own second coming.
And so in this passage, Jesus’ comments about prayer, though they are universally applicable to Christians, are set in a specific context of discussion about the second coming. And in particular, Jesus is speaking to His disciples about their own attitude and their own posture as they await His coming. And He has words for them about their prayer and about their hope. He's deeply concerned knowing that His disciples are going to face enormous challenges, not only in the days running up to and including His trial and crucifixion, but in the days immediately after. And throughout their own ministries they will be in tribulation, they will be under persecution, they will be oppressed and they will be marginalized. And they will be tempted to lose hope. And He is speaking to them in that context about how He wants them to await His second coming.
So with that in mind, let's look to the Lord in prayer and ask for His help and blessing as we prepare to study this, His Word.
Lord, Your disciples faced many dangers, toils, and snares. And in their tribulation they were sometimes tempted to utter despair, to hopelessness. There are perhaps some here today who know that despair. They love You, they believe the Gospel, they trust the Bible, but all the lights have gone out and the hope, well it feels like it's been extinguished. Thank You that two thousand years before we lived, two thousand years before we faced that darkness, that You were already writing the very word that we needed to hear today. So open our eyes that we might behold wonderful things from Your Word. In Jesus' name we pray, amen.
Hear the Word of God in Luke 18 beginning in verse 1:
“And He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’’ And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to His elect, who cry to Him day and night? Will He delay long over them? I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
It is very possible that in this room today are believers, those who have long heard the Gospel, those who long ago responded to the Gospel in faith, those who have long walked with the Lord, but who are in a situation in life, which may well have been of long duration, which has caused them to lose hope. I don't know what that situation is, but the disciples themselves faced circumstances that would try them sorely and test to the point of refining in the fire the faith that they had in Jesus Christ. And Jesus, because of His concern for them, even as He was addressing His second coming, even as He was addressing the kingdom, even as He was addressing the final judgment, was concerned to prepare them for those trials and those testings when they lost hope.
He is especially concerned to speak to believers about the trial of despair. Listen to what He says – before the parable is even introduced, Luke tells us that the reason that Jesus told this story was, look at verse 1, “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Now Jesus did not waste words. And so He is telling His disciples a story designed to encourage them to continue in prayer and not lose heart because that was a real possibility — that they would not continue in prayer and that they would lose heart. And some of you are there today. You have so lost hope you can't even get the words of prayer out of your mouth. And when you do, it feels like it stops at the ceiling of the room and it goes no further. And you feel as if you've been completely forgotten and you have been cast out on your own and there is no hope in your heart. If that is where you are today, if that is where you have been tempted to be, then Jesus has a word for you in this passage. And it is a grand word. The word is very simple but it is very important — keep praying and don't lose heart.
Now the way that He brings home this message is absolutely stunning. This parable takes my breath away when I look at it. Can you put yourself into the shoes of the Hebrews who would have first heard these words, the Jewish people in the first century who would have heard Jesus teaching this story? And as He prepares to encourage His disciples to keep praying and not lose heart He says, “Well, let Me tell you a story. There was a judge and he did not fear God and he did not respect people.” And immediately the Jewish people who are hearing this story are saying, “Uh oh.” Attorneys, if you are judge-shopping, this is not the judge you want to give your client justice and mercy. This judge does not fear God and does not respect people. And immediately the hearers are saying, “Okay, whoever's going into his courtroom is in trouble.” And this is a story to encourage the disciples to pray and not lose heart? Yes it is.
So He introduces the story of a judge who does not fear God and who does not respect people and then it gets worse. And He says, “And there's a widow.” And immediately everybody thinks, “Uh oh,” because in Jesus’ time a widow is the perfect picture of a person in society without resources and influence. The very last person you would expect to have the resources at hand to get justice would be a widow. And this widow is coming not just to any judge, she's coming to the judge that doesn't fear God and respect people. And everybody who's listening to this story is saying, “This is bad! This is really bad. I don't know what's going to happen to this widow but it's not going to be good because she's coming to the wrong judge and she's in the wrong position. She is marginal, she has few resources, she has little or no influence, and she's coming to a person who doesn't fear God and doesn't respect people.” And low and behold, Jesus tells us that she keeps coming and coming and coming and coming. She will not leave this judge alone and finally he breaks. And he says to himself, “You know, even though I don't fear God and I don't respect people, even though I don't fear God and I don't respect people, this woman is driving me crazy! And just to get her out of her hair so she doesn't wear me out, I'm going to give her justice because I don't want to see her again!”
And then Jesus turns to His disciples and He says, “Hear the message of the story of the unrighteous judge.” And if you’re like me, you’re going, “Okay, I want to hear this message Jesus because I have no idea what the message of this story is. How is this story going to help me to keep praying and not lose heart? I'm all ears Jesus! Explain to me what this story that You have told has by way of encouragement for me in my despair.” And you know what Jesus does? If you look at verses 7 and 8 He does just that. He tells you how this story helps believers who feel hopeless to not lose heart and to keep on praying. And four things in particular Jesus says by way of encouragement to us.
And the first one is this — the first thing that Jesus has to say to us to encourage us not to lose heart is this — your God is not like that unjust judge. Your God is not like that unjust judge. But here's the problem — when you are hopeless, that's how you think about Him. When you are hopeless you think He doesn't care. You think He is just like that unjust judge. And Jesus’ whole point is to say to you in this story, Jesus is saying, “Your God is not like that unjust judge.” Look at how He says it. “Will not God give justice to His elect who cry to Him day and night?” Jesus is painting a contrast. If this judge, for his own selfish reasons, will give this widow justice, will not your God, your loving Heavenly Father, will not He give you justice?
But here's the problem — when you are hopeless, you have a real hard time believing that. And so the first thing that Jesus is teaching in this passage is that God is more willing to hear your prayer than you are to pray it. God is more ready to answer your prayer than you are to ask it. Your God is not like that unjust judge, unconcerned for your wellbeing. Your God is not like that. But when you’re hopeless, when you’re despairing because of the difficulty of the situation that you’re in, you have a hard time believing that. And isn't it fascinating how Jesus paints a picture in the unjust judge of what you think of God when you’re in that hard spot? And then He says to you, “Guess what? Your God is not like that. I know what you’re thinking in your heart. You think He's up on the throne just like that. He's not interested in you. He's overlooked you. He's forgotten about you. But your God is not like that.” You see, the first bit of good news in this passage is that your God is more willing to hear your prayer than you are to pray it. And if you’re a hopeless person then you understand how important that is, because if you've ever lost hope, you know what it is to lose the ability to even pray. And Jesus is saying, “Don't you understand, believer, that your Heavenly Father, He is waiting to be gracious? You just can't see it right now.
But He doesn't stop there. There's another thing that He says. The second thing that He says is there's good news in this story because you’re not like that widow. Not only is it good news that your God is not like that judge, the good news is you’re not like that widow. You’re supposed to be like that widow in her importunance, in her persistence. In fact, she's a picture of persistence in prayer. She was getting no answer and she kept pounding on the door until she got an answer. So Jesus is picturing her positively to us as an example of persistence in prayer. But there is also another important way in which you are not like that widow. You see, you are in a different position than you perceive yourself to be in when you are in despair, believer. When you are without hope and you can't even get a prayer out of your throat, you think you’re in the position of that importunate widow with no resources and no influence, but you’re not.
Do you see how Jesus teaches that in this passage? Look at what He says in verse 7. “Will not God give justice to His elect?” Now, put down all your objections to predestination for just a few moments. Just put them down. Arms down to the side. Don't stand back there and do this (arms crossed) to me. I'm trying to bless you, okay? Jesus is saying, “Don't you realize who you are, believer? Believer, don't you realize who you are? You are not a widow with no resources, you are the beloved of God. He set His love on you from before the foundation of the world. Before you existed He loved you. He loved you so much that He gave His own Son, Jesus, to die in your place and then He not only forgave you your sins, He adopted you into His family and made you a co-inheritor with Jesus Christ. He does not love you less than He loves His own Son! You’re His child! You’re His chosen!” By the way, that's what that doctrine's for — not so you can argue about it, but so when all the lights go out you still know that God loves you. And Jesus says, “Good news, believer. You’re not in the same position that that widow was with an unjust judge. You are a child of the King coming to the King and asking for help. He loves you because He chose you! This unjust judge could have cared less about that widow, but that's not how it is with you, believer. You’re in a different position. You’re chosen. You’re His elect. He has set His love on you from before the foundation of the world and even though you have no hope right now, you feel, nevertheless, you are His beloved.” And so Jesus says not only is God more willing to hear our prayers than we are to pray them, but that we are in a different position than we perceive ourselves to be in. We’re His chosen children.
And then He says another thing. He reminds His disciples that He Himself is coming to set everything right. Where does He do that? Look at what He says beginning in verse 7. “Will not God give justice – ?” “Well when's that going to happen?” you wonder. And then He asks, “Will He delay long over them?” — over the prayers of His people, over the cries of His people asking for justice. “I tell you, He will give justice to them speedily.” When's that going to happen, Jesus? Look at the next phrase. “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes” — pause right there. I know that the sentence keeps on going. We’ll come back to that in just a few minutes. What's Jesus doing? He is equating the full answer of His people's cries for justice in the midst of their hopelessness and despair with His what — His coming. “I am coming and justice is coming with Me,” Jesus says. “Don't you understand that the very purpose of My coming is to set everything right for you, believer?”
Now it's interesting the language that is used. “Will He delay long? He will give justice speedily.” And you say to me, “Well, Ligon, we've been waiting for two thousand years.” Don't think that that question did not occur to first century believers. It did. It's written down in Peter's letters. Do you remember the discussion that Peter has when somebody says, “Well, He still hasn't come back.” And he says, “Do not measure or judge that Lord as you would a man, for with the Lord, a day is as a thousand years.” Jesus is saying, “The Lord has heard your prayers and My coming is the answer to those prayers. And when I come, I will give the justice that you are looking for.” In other words, Jesus, when He first comes, bears injustice so that we don't get what we deserve, so that when He comes again a second time, He brings justice to give us blessings that we don't deserve. He bore injustice so that we didn't get our just desserts and He comes bringing justice so that we will receive blessings that we did not earn. And Jesus is saying to His disciples, “My coming is in answer to your cries to the Father for justice in the midst of your hopelessness and your despair.” There will be some things in this life that are not put right. And Jesus knows that. But for those who trust in Him, everything will one day be put right.
It was Ronnie Crudup, I think, who taught me the saying of the old African American minister: “The Lord may not come when you want Him, but He's always on time.” You know, we have our own timetable and the Lord has His timetable. And the Lord Jesus is saying, “I will take care of everything. No prayer will go unanswered. There will be no ultimate hopelessness for My people, however hard your situation is now. I'm coming to set everything right.”
And leads us right into the last phrase, doesn't it? “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes” – to set everything right — “will He find faith on the earth?” Now this phrase explains to us how this passage connects with the passage that goes before it because Jesus has been talking about preparation for the end times. If you've been driving around Jackson recently, especially out towards the reservoir, you've seen signs popping up that say, “Save the Date: May 21, 2011 — Jesus is Coming.” There's a group following the teaching of Harold Camping. They’re claiming that the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is going to be on May 21, 2011. How do I respond to that? Great! Let's move it up! How about tomorrow? I'm ready now! How do you get ready for His coming? Not, back in chapter 17, by looking for signs, but by trusting and praying.
Here's His question — “When I return, when I come and I bring justice with Me, will I find you praying and trusting? In your trials and your tribulations, when I come, will I find you believing, praying to Me because you trust Me? You see, the way to be ready for the coming of Christ is by faith.” It's important for us to understand that all the encouragement that Jesus gives in this passage are for those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. They’re the only human beings in this world who have no right to be hopeless even though we still struggle with hopelessness. But the reason why we who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ have no right to be hopeless is not because of us, it's because of Him. And that's why the way to get ready is to trust in Him. Faith points you away from yourself, doesn't it? It points you away from yourself to God's Word. It points you away from yourself to God's promise. It points you away from yourself to God's Son.
The reason why we do not despair in this world is not because of us. I am plenty of reason to despair. I can give a thousand reasons to be hopeless from within my own heart. but my hope is in the Lord and He is why I do not despair. And so the way to be ready for His coming is what? To trust and to pray. Or to go right back to the description of Jesus’ task in verse 1. Why did Jesus tell this story? “To the effect that we ought always to pray and not lose heart.” Some of you have lost heart. Even though you trust the Lord, you’re just in a place right now where you've lost heart. Jesus doesn't want you to stay there. The hope that He has purchased for you is extensive and He wants you to use it.
Our Heavenly Father, we need hope, hope enough to go on praying. Grant it to us, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you take out your hymnals and turn with me to number 676. This is a hymn about trusting God in a time of hopelessness and despair. Sing it and think about it as you sing.
Believer in tribulation, believer struggling to hope, hear a blessing from the Lord. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from your Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.