I was recently reminded of a sermon I preached many years ago. No one brought it up to me, but rather I was reminded by hearing someone preach something very similar recently. I’ll not cover all the finer points suffice to say that it revolved around the power of prayer and how an unbeliever has no reason to expect God to hear anything they have to say. There were some Old Testament references to abominable prayers of the wicked, and a glance at John 9:31, where the man born blind is defending the authenticity of his miracle by declaring, “Now we know that God does not hear sinners.” No one argued that point with him then, and many people wouldn’t argue it now. But maybe we should.
First of all, the Old Testament does reference instances where God doesn’t honor prayer, as should be obvious. Proverbs 28 considered a man in rebellion against the law of God as having an abominable prayer, and Proverbs 21 says that if a man doesn’t hear the poor, then he himself will not be heard, but these and others have specific conditions, and almost all deal with rebellious, national Israel.
The John 9 instance of the former blind man declaring, “We know that God does not hear sinners,” should be taken with a bit of context and a healthy dose of understanding. The context is that the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of being a sinner, but not in the sense that we define the word. Our understanding of sinner is someone who hasn’t accepted Christ as their savior. But the Jewish understanding of sinner was all non-Jews, and these were incapable of hearing from God because they were outside covenant. Calling Jesus a sinner was an insult in any era, but in that particular one, the denotation was not only that he didn’t know God, but that he wasn’t even part of the family of Abraham.
When the man says that God doesn’t hear sinners, he says it as if it is common knowledge, though there is no specific verse that says as much in the Old Testament. His rebuttal to the Pharisees has more to do with the fact that if Jesus were outside the covenant family, he would have no rights to issue a healing, for God doesn’t owe healing to the Gentiles. As always, there is more theology there than meets the eye.
If the context doesn’t apply, and the man’s verse holds up on its own, then God is limited. He would be incapable of hearing an unbeliever. What happens when the unbeliever seeks salvation by faith? Would that be the exception? Limiting God never seems to be a good idea.
So sinners have no covenant to pray from, but then again, none of us had one to pray from when we became believers. Our faith wasn’t some switch we turned on and suddenly went from not believing to believing. We walked into it, one way or the other. God heard our prayer, and while we didn’t pray from covenant, we prayed our way into one.
We know that God hears sinners when they confess, because whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (Romans 10:13) and Jesus promised not to cast anyone out who came to him (John 6:37). But perhaps a better question than whether or not God can hear sinners, is whether or not sinners can hear God? Or better yet, can they hear from God? We are sure, from the many instances in the Bible that God can reveal himself to anyone, sinners included. But can we take the next step, where God not only reveals himself to an unbeliever, but then uses that unbeliever as a conduit to say something in the world.
The book of Numbers relates the story of Balak and Balaam. Balak is the king of Moab, who sees the arrival of the children of Israel as a nuisance to his land. He has no idea who they are, as he calls them “a people come from Egypt,” which is a reference to the fact that Israel’s reputation as having been delivered from Egypt preceded them. Balak hired a man diviner named Balaam, a Mesopotamian, non-Jewish prophet to put a curse upon Israel as they journeyed through the land. While Balaam’s story has many positive aspects, his reputation doesn’t hold up well into the New Testament. The Torah considered him a “wicked man,” and Peter, Jude and the book of Revelation, concur. And yet, Balaam hears from God. He doesn’t necessarily obey, and it also takes a miraculous, speaking donkey, to ultimately get his attention. While a talking donkey might be normal in the world of Shrek, in the real world, it’s quite an anomaly. Let’s not be too hard on wicked Balaam. I mean, what do we expect? Many believers struggle to do what God says, how much more a non-believer? The point is that Balaam is not a believer, nor a member of covenant, and yet, he heard from God. By the standards of the man born blind, he is a sinner, an alien from the covenant of God, and God seems perfectly capable of hearing from Balaam, and Balaam was certainly capable of hearing from God. Never forget, God is not limited.
In the New Testament we have a different kind of sinner. Saul of Tarsus meets our definition of a sinner more than he meets the Jewish one. He is a Jew. He is under covenant. He has been circumcised, and he honors the commands of Torah. But, by our standards of the definition, he has not met Jesus; he does not believe Jesus was the Messiah, and he most definitely does not believe in the resurrection. In the Christian tradition, Saul is a sinner, and yet, you know the story. On the road to Damascus he encounters the Lord Jesus, recognizes him as the Lord instantly, is blinded to who he used to be, filled with the Spirit and opens his eyes on a whole new world. Saul is gone, Paul is born and Christianity as we know it is only a pen-stroke away.
So textually, God hears the repentant sinner, and never casts him out. God is not limited in his ability to speak to a heathen prophet through either direct means, or highly unusual ones, and he is also not limited in his ability to reveal himself to a man who considers Jesus a blasphemer and an enemy of God. It seems good advice to never put limits on divine grace. God is neither limited in who can hear him or in whom he can speak to. Otherwise, man and his sin would be in a superior position to the voice of God. God is not subservient to sin, though we may be.
This leads us to another question. Can God speak through an unbeliever, into someone’s life? Okay, of course he COULD, but would he? Would he speak promotion or advancement through one unbeliever, perhaps even, to another unbeliever? Is it too much for us to believe that God can do this, or to believe that God has indeed done this?
Let me relate to you a story, if I may.
In the time of the New Testament, Judea was ruled over by the powerful Roman Empire. Stripped of her autonomy, taxed inordinately, the scattered tribes of Israel were simmering under the oppressive rule of one Caesar after the other. The Romans garrisoned an army in Jerusalem and showed consistent favoritism for non-Jewish residents of the region. Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, considered Rome a “kingdom of arrogance,” due to insults exacted by Roman leaders against the Temple in Jerusalem.
Judea declared independence in AD 66, during the twelfth year of the reign of Nero. While the neglect and the taxes were the powder, the spark came when Roman governor Gessius Florus plundered the Temple and took a large sum of silver to cover taxes owed to the Empire. Judea responded by ceasing the daily sacrifices in honor of Rome. They attacked the Roman army garrisoned in Jerusalem and won several quick military campaigns against various relief armies. Nero responded by sending in his top general, Vespasian.
Vespasian was a man’s man, riding into battle on horseback in the midst of his troops. When the 56-year old general took an arrow to the foot in Galilee, he got up, and rallied his troops onward. In command of three Roman legions, Vespasian appointed his 26-year old son Titus to command one of them, and between them, set out to conquer Jerusalem and squelch the rebellion. The armies surrounded the city in the summer of 68.
By early 70, the Romans had breached the first two walls of Jerusalem, but were stopped from penetrating the more heavily fortified third wall. Over the course of 7 months, during which those locked within Jerusalem began fighting one another and burning remaining food supplies, starving out the residents, the Roman legions finally broke through in the summer. It would take until AD 73 to completely crush the rebellion, but the Temple came down on August 30, AD 70. The Romans sacked the city, took the gold and silver vessels from the temple, including the golden candlestick and burned the building to the ground.
Tens of thousands of prisoners were taken by Vespasian and Titus during the long invasion of Galilee. Among them, was a special prize. The rebels had appointed their own leaders during the rebellion. The man they chose to be governor over the providence was Joseph ben Matthias, son of a Jewish priest, and a member of one of Jerusalem’s elite families. Before being sent to Rome to be executed for treason, he somehow got the ear of Vespasian himself. He prophesied that Vespasian would be emperor, and Vespasian freed him from his chains. After the war, he lived in Rome in a palace, became a Roman citizen and changed his name to Flavius Josephus. Josephus authored a detailed history of the Judean revolt and the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the temple. Josephus is the reason that we know that 1.1 million civilians died in Jerusalem during the siege, proportional to its population, the greatest tribulation a land had ever seen before or since. It is from Josephus that we have eye-witness accounts of phenomenon in the skies over Jerusalem, and the foreboding statement of the conquering general Titus that the destruction was so complete, “It appeared that their God was fighting against them.”
If God had not spoken to a rebellious Jew at the edge of the sacking of Jerusalem, and used him to prophecy a truth to the soon Caesar of Rome, we might have no written record of the fall of temple Judaism and the complete destruction of a way of life. We may wonder what Jesus meant when he said, “This generation shall not pass away until these things be fulfilled.” We may wonder if the end of the age is still in our future, rather than in our past.
But thanks to a man who responded to the voice he heard, be it in his head, or his heart, or in the visions of the night, we know what happened. Thank God that our Father has no limitations. He is perfectly capable of relaying to us what he needs us to know when he needs us to know it, and it doesn’t take a perfect vessel in the right place and the right time in order to do it. Can just anyone hear from God? Absolutely. The bigger question is always, what will do with what we hear?
Grace to you.