How Should We Read the Words of Jesus?

The Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14)

Jesus is the greatest preacher of all time. He told stories and preached sermons the whole world needs to hear.

The genius of Jesus is that he often preached one message with two punchlines: If you were confident of your own righteousness, you got law, but if you were not, you got grace.

Consider Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Both men went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself. His prayer was a résumé. He thanked God that he was not like other men and bragged about his fasting and tithing.

But the tax collector stood at a distance and prayed just seven words.

“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Jesus ends the story with a bombshell.

“The tax collector went home justified before God.”

How do you read the words of Jesus?

How does the parable make you feel? Does it fill you with joy or resentment?

Your response to the story is your response to the gospel. If you identify with the sinful tax collector, then this story is good news.

Really? He went home justified?

That’s the scandal of grace right there. God justifies sinners (Rom 4:5).

Search the parable for evidence of the tax collector’s good works or merit, and you’ll find nothing. Grace is for the undeserving. It’s for those without résumés.

But if you are confident of your righteousness, this story is not good news at all.

“Wait a second. I fast. I tithe. I am better than other people. Jesus, what are you saying?”

Jesus doesn’t mince his words. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled” (Luke 18:14).

That’s a hard word for a hard heart. It’s a word that condemns the self-righteous and silences the boastful. It’s a word of law for those who don’t see their need for grace.

Jesus is brilliant at giving each of us exactly what we need.

Hearing God through a humble heart

Another good example comes from the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). Some people love this story, others hate it.

I’ve had people tell me, “I feel bad for the older brother. He worked so hard.”

They say this because they are working hard. They are good and decent and can’t understand why Jesus would throw a party for prodigals and not for them. It troubles them that we are inside whooping it up while they’re outside polishing their résumés.

The story is real. Every one of us is in it and everyone is invited to the party. Grace is for all. But you’re going to have trouble receiving it if you think of your heavenly Father as an employer.

And that’s the point. You’re have to change your mind about God if you are to enjoy his love.

Words mean different things to different people. If you identify with the tax collector or the prodigal, the words of Jesus are packed with radical grace. You’ll read them with praise and thanksgiving and whoops of joy.

But if you identify with the Pharisee or the older brother, his words are unsettling. They are serious words, not fun at all.

How should we read the words of Jesus? With humility and honesty, acknowledging our need for grace.

If you allow them, the words of Jesus will change you. They will strip you of your religion and reveal your Father’s great love.


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47 Comments on How Should We Read the Words of Jesus?

  1. Great topic, Paul! During my many years of church experience — even some Bible school — I have not heard this overall topic addressed. Many teach that the main thing is to “do the words in red.” In contrast I would rather be first grounded in Paul’s epistles because Paul received “the Gospel” directly from the resurrected Jesus. It seems to me, as you suggest, one needs to differentiate the particular audience Jesus was addressing. Is it believers? Disciples? Anyone under the law? The Pharisees? People in general? The 12? The 72? Who?

  2. This is so important. We can go a lifetime serving Jesus, thinking we’re doing what we’re suppose to be doing, and not even realize we don’t really know the heart of Jesus. I did it for half of a lifetime. I was in church whenever the doors were open, and if the doors weren’t open, I was still there working on something. When I fully committed to keeping the law, I discovered it was killing me. Being a law keeper just made Jesus seem like a law giver. That skewed the way I understood the whole Bible. Discovering the true gospel of grace was almost like meeting Jesus for the first time. Truly knowing Jesus… the graceful, loving Jesus, has changed everything. If we truly believe the gospel of grace overcomes sin, there is no reason to continue in law. Law is not the cure for sin, only the abundant grace of Jesus overcomes sin (Rom 5:17, 6:14). The law places the demand on man to produce what he cannot. Grace abundantly supplies in our weaknesses through Jesus. Christianity was never meant to be another religion. Too often we want to give people a principle as the answer to their problem when the answer is always Jesus. The grace of our Lord is exceedingly abundant (1 Tim 1:14). If our theology doesn’t portray a graceful Jesus, it’s manmade or worse. Jesus completed the work and He gets all the glory. Our only part is to believe. Thank you, Paul, for pointing us to Jesus.

    • Sweetheart, the church needs to wake up and start preaching grace period. I see the internet as being more valuable in terms of teaching and preaching than most churches in the UK. So I thank God for Paul who runs this blog and Pastor Joesph Prince, Andrew Wommack, Jimmy Swaggot and other modern day grace movers. The preaching in our church this week was, you need to ask God forgiveness of all your sins. God has abandon you all because your sins had hid his face from you so your alone and it will take years of begging God to be back in his good book. Cuz he is angry with you. I could not believe what I was hearing. My young teenage daughter no longer wants to go to church because he said to her, you must cry out to God like others for mercy, don’t keep silent and I’m thinking, God will make a way. I love the Pastor and the church and I’m praying and I’m trusting God. So yes, our only work is to believe. If JESUS was to be saddened about anything we do, it is that we don;t believe. As Joseph so wonderfully put it. God is waiting for Believers to be Believers.

    • P.S. If you serve in church, you make it possible for everyone else to enjoy and get blessed. I’m only saying there is no amount of serving or law keeping that can make us good enough or righteous. Even if our focus is on being a good person, that is still self focused. Real change only happens in our life when Jesus is our focus. Jesus is our only qualification.  🙂

    • Thanks for sharing LJP!

  3. Wonderfully put as usual. Every religious person should read this and those that are not sure, food for thought.
    The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector use to make me feel so happy cuz I know what I was about before I met Christ lol. I saw love and grace, that’s all I saw.

    I cannot thou imagine anyone hating the parable of the prodigal son. It shows so much mercy and grace and forgiveness I mean, if I met someone that hated that parable, I think I would be so shocked and think they are weird. Coming to think of it thou, the religious would be innit lol. I love the ending; you really have a way with words man. Thank you and thank you for keeping the grace movement moving. We don’t have enough of you.

    God bless

  4. FIFI mentioned the parable of the prodigal son. I believe this parable is the story of all mankind. We were created in God’s image, that is, our identity as God’s sons. Also we were created in His likeness (innocence or righteousness).
    What we lost in the Fall was likeness but in our thinking we also lost our image or identity. Note that in the parable of the prodigal son, the father continued to view the son as his son even though the son now saw himself as merely a servant.

  5. That is a wonderful post. Anything about Jesus and his love and grace is life changing. Again it depends on our standpoint. Listening as a self righteous pharisee or a sinful tax collector, listening as an elder brother or the prodigal son.

  6. It is so nice to have this explanation. But I am confused. It is true that God, in the person of Jesus, gave mercy to sinners. But not always. I am thinking of Annanias and Sapphira in Acts. They sinned one time, and God killed them on the spot. On some level, God’s punishment of sin still exists for the believer.

    • Either the cross is the once and final solution for sin (Heb 9:26), or it isn’t. If it is, God is unjust in judging the same sin twice and he didn’t kill A&S. If it isn’t, then Jesus is not the Savior and you should live in mortal fear. I choose to believe in the finished work of the cross. I choose to believe that what Jesus did was a perfect work that cannot be added to or improved upon. I choose to believe that God condemned ALL sin – including yours, mine, and Ananias and Sapphira’s – in the flesh (ie: in Jesus), just as the Bible declares (Rom 8:3). That’s the good news of the cross.

      • Laura Sande // November 20, 2013 at 6:57 am //

        Thank you for the encouraging words, Paul. I really want to believe I can trust in the finishing work of the cross, because I know I will never be free of sin. On the other hand, stories like that of Annanias and Sapphira put me in a mental dilemma. I can either believe that the atoning sacrifice alone is what saves me–not my ability to ‘not sin’–and ignore this account and others like it in the NT. In doing so, I would be conceding that only certain parts of the NT are valid (that is, the ‘no condemnation for those in Christ’ parts). Or I can take the account of what happened to these two early Christians at face value (i.e., the Bible says they sinned, were rebuked, and they fell dead) and accept that there is something more to the picture of staying right with God. If it is grace and substitutionary sacrifice alone, why would there be so many dire warnings about what happens when we sin? I can ignore those ‘dire’ parts or try to find what is behind curtain number 3: something other than grace alone or punishment alone. It has got to be some balance of the two, or the Bible isn’t completely truthful. The question is, where does the balance lie, and how will we know whether we strike that balance? Thanks for listening, all. It is a real concern of mine, not an attempt to stir the pot.

      • Another approach – rather than selectively reading scripture – is to filter everything you read through the cross. The Bible is not the word of God; Jesus is the word of God. Who he is, what he has said and done are of infinitely greater importance than Dr. Luke’s story-telling or even Paul’s letter-writing. Paul said the scriptures are useful, not infallible. But the word of God (Jesus) endures forever.

      • Paul, you don’t believe in infallibility of scriptures ??

      • I believe in the infallibility of the Word of God (Jesus). I trust Jesus, not the book.

      • mmm, Ok, i don’t get what you are saying. cuz, i believe the entire Bible is God’s Word. It is inspired and accurate and is our perfect guide in all matters of life. You agree with my statement ? please explain in detail cuz im unable to understand what exactly you believe..

      • The Bible itself says Jesus is the Word (John 1). So the only way you can say the Bible the word is if you disagree with the Bible.

        The Bible is not our perfect guide by any stretch. The Bible teaches that money is the answer to everything (Ecc 10:19) and that we should stone our rebellious children (Leviticus somewhere).

        But don’t take my word for it. Put your faith in Jesus who declared that the Holy Spirit is the Guide you and I need (John 16:13). Put your faith in the Lord, not a book.

      • Wrong ! The entire bible was written by men guided/inspired by the infallible holy spirit.

      • MB, Paul doesn’t have to even get emotional about this. He is simply pointing out that the Bible says two different things (Ecc. 10:19 and Leviticus) vs. James and Jesus. in our youth we believe in the magic of having the guys with the degrees do our thinking for us. But Jesus wants you to think for yourself. Is war the hingepoints of the bible…or is the cross? Too difficult? How about this. Is our crosses the hingepoint of the bible…or Jesus taking up our crosses?

        God is good. All the time. Do you trust him?

    • Hi Laura,

      I have no doubt that you are being sincere. I experienced many of the same thoughts and questions. Notice that Ananias is referred to as a certain man, not a certain believer. They were likely non believers who were trying to con the church. Paul also makes a good point that it never actually states that God struck them dead. I promise if you keep listening to grace teachers like Paul Ellis and Joseph Prince, the gospel of grace will change your life, like it did mine. 🙂

      • Hi Laura,

        As LJP said, if you read the Acts of the apostles carefully, it refers to believers as ‘a certain disciple’ and not believers as ‘certain man’. There was a certain man named Anannias and there was a certain disciple named Anannias. The man named Anannias and his wife were non-believers and the disciple named Anannias was the believer sent to pray for Paul to regain his sight.

        Joseph Prince has a sermon on this.


  7. Well into my sobriety, after attending thousands of recovery meetings, I came to understand the twelve steps represented the law. Now the law (the twelve steps law) was good because it made me realize I was an alcoholic. I was staying clean and sober during the years I attended recovery meetings, so the twelve steps/law were good for me. Then I experienced the spiritual awakening that is THE goal of working the twelve steps, and I had the complete physic change that A.A. said I needed to have for me to stay clean and sober. Then the BIG BUT. I experienced a spiritual awakening and found God had the power to keep me clean and sober, BUT ….. I learned I needed to practice the principles of A.A. in all of my daily activities. I was introduced to the twelve traditions of A.A., I was encouraged to attend twelve step studies, I was supposed to serve within my home A.A. group, I was invited to speak at A.A. speaker meetings, and on, and on. The ‘to do’ list was designed to help me with my new way of life. And it did exactly that until the day I found my eyes opened to the A.A. pharisees all around me at every meeting. You see, I studied the history of A.A., and I came to see that the fellowship had changed over the years. For many it had become the religion of A.A. Please don’t misunderstand me, the fellowship of A.A. helped save my mortal life. I am indebted to those good folks who were in the meeting rooms when I arrived. But the reality of the matter was that I had changed, and I didn’t need the twelve step law any more to stay clean and sober. I learned that Jesus died for that when He and my old man were put to death on the cross. So I graduated from A.A. and began life as a new creation recognizing my new identity in Christ. Thank you, Paul Ellis, for the reminder that, whether it’s my home recovery group or my home church, there will always be pharisees. But I now have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God within me, and I have a choice today to participate in dead works or to let Jesus live through me. Grace and peace to you my friend.

  8. Thank you for sharing that. It was an awesome picture of the Father’s love for us. I can’t wait to read the book.

  9. As Paul as said before God has forgiven all sin for all time — except for the sin of rejecting Jesus — and we (as believers) need to live with a righteousness consciousness. Yes, stupid & foolish behavior will always have consequences. Now that I understand the Gospel of Grace I wonder how come the church is so obsessed about sin. Why not be obsessed with God’s Grace? (Obviously if I have misstated Paul’s position somehow I want to be corrected.)

  10. Speaking of Annanias and Sapphira, Paul D. Ellis has been one busy tax collector.
    1995, PhD…

  11. Are you not even a little afraid, Paul? About that millstone and leading little ones astray?…

  12. Michael Jenkins // November 21, 2013 at 5:05 am // Reply

    I really love this website, this just grows fascinates me how you are so radical about grace. There are many people that believe everything Jesus wrote in red is applicable to them. Jesus said many things that were under the law so that he may redeem mankind. It was not until after He died that the new covenant became in existence.

    But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,o redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.{Gal 4:4-5}.

    For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives.{Hebrews 917}.

    Keep spreading the good news!

  13. Fresh bread! The missing link for many. When Jesus speaks, you hear what is in your heart. In Him, you see a reflection of yourself… and it either reveals your need or hardens your heart. The Sermon on the Mount was law and grace, depending on the condition of your heart. Good stuff, Paul!

    And thank you Dan C. for sharing. I’ve never heard AA characterized like that. Good on you!

  14. know brothers and sisters,we just have to be careful not to make grace a list of laws, you know, the 12 step grace program, it seems we gravitate that way

  15. elvie alatraca // November 28, 2013 at 7:15 am // Reply

    nothing can seperate us from the love of GOD

  16. Again great post and great comments Paul! Your explanations clear away so much theological clutter!! I have found your material very useful!

  17. Thanks Paul for this post. I have a question though,what is the source of the information you shared?is it not the Bible?Without the Bible,I believe you will not know God’s grace. So my dear brother,the Bible is the word of God as it represent Jesus.

    • That’s a fair point, Harry. The Bible is the best of books but without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, it’s just a book. It’s the Spirit of grace who turns the lights on and he is quite able to do that without the Bible, as the first-century Christians showed. I do see Jesus in the book. I also see him in the writings of CS Lewis, Victor Hugo, and many others. I see Jesus in the lives of those who abound in love and grace. I am most grateful for the Bible. It is the best book. But I do not depend on it the way I depend on Jesus.

      • I’m sorry but…every relevant thing we know of Jesus comes straight from the Bible. I’m sorry but I was really considering your teaching until I came across this. It disturbs me. It is very dangerous to start rejecting certain scriptures as less important simply because they are not as clear as you would like them to be. Jesus Himself used Scripture, respected Scripture, lived by Scripture, and fulfilled Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:14-17.. According to Psalm 119:105, it is God’s Word that illuminates our path. Also…Victor Hugo was definitely not a believer.

      • I’m not rejecting any scripture. All scripture is useful. My point is simply that we should not idolize the book and that without the revelation of the Holy Spirit the book counts for little.

        Regarding Victor Hugo, I have no idea where he stood with God, but I do know his Les Miserables gives us a far better insight into the transforming power of God’s grace than, say, Ecclesiastes. By saying that I am not putting the Bible down – it is the best of books. I’m saying that the Author is bigger than his book and that he can reveal his love and grace to us in many diverse ways.

      • I slavishly went at the bible for years like it was a powerful textbook for life and getting right with God. Even after all of that I eventually stood on the brink of throwing my bible in the trash, turning my back on Christianity and thinking of God as nothing more than a supreme being, somewhere.
        It was not until I had an encounter with the simple truth that Jesus really did die to make peace between me and the Father that the written words began to have life and power of their own. Yet it is not the ink on paper that gave the power, comprehension and understanding it was being filled with the Holy Spirit and reading through spiritual eyes.
        Paul is not rejecting any scripture just cautioning folks to read them in their proper place, sequence and perspectives. Anyone can take portions of scripture and get them to support a myriad of ungodly ideas. It takes the Holy Spirit to see through the traditions of man and twisting’s of satan to read what God really says.

  18. The book of Ecclesiastes is in my opinion one ot the greatest prophetic books that in very expressive detail explains the futility of life without Jesus.Jesus perfectly answers all questions the book delivers.To read the words of Jesus with this book and even the complete old testament in view is the only way in my opinion to read his words.To read with the position of trying to see from Gods point of view .

  19. I was not raised in Church, and first encountered the Bible through intellectual study in my philosophy and religion program at university. I fell in love with the Bible immediately, and I was an atheist. I didn’t need to ‘believe’ to enjoy the incredible depth of history and wisdom contained in the Bible. Years later I was born again, and the Bible became a ‘different’ book, even though I had studied it for years. The Grace of God through Jesus transformed (and is transforming) the way I see Scripture every day. Simply saying the Bible is ‘inspired’ (irrelevant of which view of inspiration you adhere to) does not change the fact that the individual must still ‘make sense’ of what he reads. No one, I repeat, no one, has ever completed a systematic theology that fits all scripture together neatly like a puzzle. This is why well meaning theologians disagree on so many points. I believe, like Paul, that this is due to the fact that the Bible was never meant to be taken that way. Frankly, the very notion of the Bible fitting like a puzzle is a response to systematic philosophy, and makes an idol out of the intellect. Augustine said: “Lord, I believe, help me to understand.” Not, “Lord, I understand, that’s why I believe.” We need the Holy Spirit to guide us and we need God’s Grace every moment of our life.

  20. It only takes believing what you read ,faith. And then allow God to give you the understanding.Put this way may make it easier, why should God let you understand what you do not believe.If you believe the bible is a difficicult book full of deception , and has been infected by mans input., that may be what you get from it, you get what you believe.It is a bit like the living word there is no person that understands him without first believing.

  21. Paul E. said, “The Bible is the best of books but without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, it’s just a book.” Long before I had an understanding of God’s grace or even trust in the manifestation of Jesus Christ in my life, I sensed truth to Paul’s statement. I was quite unsure about this point of view until I read John 5:39 and 2 Cor 3:4-6 in that illumination.

    Now I understand that the same Holy Spirit that guided the original new covenant believers (who had no “new testament”) still accomplishes His work in the body in much the same way. Thank God for the Bible as a tool!

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