It is wonderful to see how God reveals Himself in certain passages of scripture. Nobody could manifest God in thoughts, words and actions like the Lord Jesus Himself. We see that in the parables.
The brightness of God’s glory is too much for man. Consequently, He graciously hides His brightness in the Person of the Son of man. Man rejected Christ, constantly finding fault and carping at things with which he could not agree. This however moved God to show that He really was God, clothing Himself in flesh in the person of Christ and showing His heart to man here. Whilst here He used parables.
In many of them we have the Lord seeking persons in need. We sometimes tell people to seek Christ. Doing that is right in one sense, for it is quite true that ‘He that seeketh findeth’(Luke 11:10), but the Lord never said to people, ‘Come unto me’, until He had first come to them.
So in Luke 15 God tells all the truth. God will be God. In this parable God welcomes the poor prodigal son, making God merry and glad. God would have His own joy in spite of the men’s objections. People object to God’s acting in love, prefering to look on God as a judge, believing in pride that their own righteousness will satisfy God. But God operates in grace, making nothing of man’s righteousness: ‘There is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23).
The Woman caught in Adultery
People like to compare one person’s righteousness with another’s. The scribes and Pharisees criticised the Lord for eating with publicans and sinners. In this they slighted God’s righteousness and magnified their own. In John 8 we find the woman caught in the act of adultery, being brought by the scribes and Pharisees. By the law she would have been justly condemned to be stoned: she was undeniably guilty. Their motive was that He might be obliged to deny either mercy or righteousness. They thought to place Him in an inextricable difficulty (we might say today, a catch-22 situation). If He should let her off, He would break the law of Moses; but should He say, ‘let her be stoned,’ it would not have been grace. How does the Lord act? He says, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’ (John 8:7). Their consciences begin to work, they realised that they were all were sinners. From the eldest to the youngest, all went out: only Jesus was sinless. It was not time for Him to execute the law, for He had not come not to judge, so He concludes, ‘Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more’ (v. 11). That was grace, and nothing but grace.
We have three parables in the chapter. Each teaches us something of God’s love: ‘The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10).
- The first parable is that of the shepherd who sought the sheep that was lost.
- The second, that of the woman who sought the piece of money that was lost.
- The third, the father’s reception of the son who was lost.
The Shepherd with 100 Sheep
The Lord Jesus justifies God in being good to sinners. He appeals to man’s heart. ‘What man of you, having an hundred sheep?’ etc. (v. 4). The sheep is lost and the shepherd goes and finds it; he puts it on his shoulder and brings it home rejoicing. That is like the Great Shepherd of the sheep who would say. “Have I not a right to seek lost sinners? Is it not a right thing for God to mix with publicans and sinners?” This may not suit a moralist, but it suits God.
The Woman and the Coin
In the second parable we have the woman’s painstaking, eagerness to find the lost coin. The woman lights a candle, sweeps the house, not stopping till the piece was found. And then we have the joy when her possession is recovered. ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I had lost’ (v. 9). That is the way of the Lord in love.
The woman is typical of the Holy Spirit. We see grace operating without anything moving in the heart of the sinner: we also see God’s own joy. Man’s pharisaic objection to grace only served to emphasise the energy and activity of God’s love. The piece of money and the sheep could do nothing. The shepherd and the woman alike did all; it was their joy. Worth nothing, in a certain sense, to God’s love the sinner is immensely valuable.
The Prodigal Son
The third parable shows the feelings of the wanderer and the way he was received back. Both the father’s and the prodigal’s hearts are laid open. What was important was not the prodigal’s estimate of the love of the father, but the real manifestation of the father’s heart.
Picture the situation: a man is brought to the utmost degradation – voluntarily eating husks with the swine (and we must remember what swine are to the Jew). Looking at the case in more detail, the rebellious younger son was far happier when leaving home than he was when returning – he was doing his own will. The young man was as great a sinner when walked out of his father’s house, as he was when feeding the swine in the far country. He had chosen to act independently of God – that is sin. He reaped the fruits of his actions, and in one sense, the very consequences of his sin were mercies, because they showed him what his sin was. It is like us: whether we are living in vice or not, we have all turned our back on God.
When he first left the house, he showed where his alienated heart was. He had turned his back on his father and his father’s house, and his face was towards the far country, typically the world. He went there to do his own will. Parents understand that. Our child sins against us and we feel it. But the child does not feel it the same way, if at all. So when we sin against God we do not feel it. We are all like children: “we have turned every one to his own way’ (Isa 53:6)
Having reached the far country, the prodigal went on gaily in his own will for as long as he could, wasting his money in riotous living (See v. 13). Any person from a Christian home, who lives beyond his means looks rich and happy for a time. But if he thinks he is happy, he is so only because he has gotten away from God. His will is unrestrained. But then, after all, he is in the devil’s country, and enslaved to him. Liberty of will is just slavery to the devil.
Hearts are not easy in the world; leave a man for a few hours to himself, and he will soon be in want (young people nowadays would say they were ‘bored’). The prodigal had begun to be in want, but his will was not touched yet. There ‘And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat: and no one gave unto him’ (v. 14-16). There is no giving in the ‘far country’, not even of husks.
Satan sells, and dearly – our souls are the price. You must buy everything. The world’s principle is ‘nothing for nothing’; every gratification has its price. If you sell yourself to the devil, you will get husks: he will never give you anything. If you want to find a giver, you must go to God.
The prodigal awoke and thought, ‘I perish with hunger’; and then he thought of his father’s house – the very place he had been so anxious to get away from at first. ‘He said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.’ (v. 17-19).
He did not know how he would be received, yet he knew there was happiness and love in the father’s house, even extending to the bondmen and hired servants. He also knew that there was plenty of food there, and where he was, he was perishing with hunger. His abject need brought him to value the house. He knew it was a good place, but did not yet know the extent of that goodness – God’s goodness.
He went back to the father’s house without a true knowledge of the heart of the father, who had seen him already while he was a long way off. He had prepared his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants’ (v. 18-19). He measured the father’s love in by the sense of the evil he had done and he thought to get into the place of a servant. Many hearts are in this state, even dictating to the Father what sort of position that would be fit – this is legalism. God can only receive us in grace. Had the father received him at a lower level, he would have been miserable. Having a son in the position of a servant would remind him of the sin that had been committed. The father cannot have sons in his house as servants. He rushed to meet him and did not even give him time to say, ‘Make me as one of thy hired servants’. He confessed his sin, ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son’. When his father is on his neck kissing him, even though all the rags of the far country were still on him, how could he ask to be a hired servant?
The father did not stop to ask him anything. He knew his son had acted very wrongly, but it would have been no use to say, “You have disgraced me and dishonoured my name”. It was not a question of fitness or worthiness on the part of the son – love does not reason that way – the father was acting from himself and for himself. He fell on his neck, because he loved to be there. It is God’s love, not the sinner’s worth, that accounts for the extravagant liberality of his reception.
The servants are called to introduce him into the house fittingly. ‘But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry’ (v. 22-24). God shows His love towards us as wretched sinners, and then clothes us with Christ. He brings us into the house where the servants are, with nothing less than the full honour of sonship. We read about the robe, the ring, the shoes, the fatted calf, and the feast of joy that welcomes the returning prodigal. The father’s mind was that a son of his was worth it all, and that it was worthy of him to give it.
Some might think it humility to desire the servant’s place in the house. But that is only ignorance of the Father. In read in Eph 2:7, ‘That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus’. It would not have been worthy of the Father to leave us as servants. We would have had a constant memorial of our sin, shame, dishonour and degradation, whereas, ‘The worshipper once purged has no more conscience of sins’ (Heb 10:2). Our condition must be worthy of God for us to enjoy now.
This requires faith: faith judges as God judges. We see sin in the light of God’s holiness. But as our sins and iniquities are not remembered any more, we learn grace and what our Father’s heart really is. Faith is the only thing that gives me certainty: reasoning does not. Reasoning may be all quite well for the things of this world; but if God speaks about anything, we believe it by faith. Faith sets to its seal that God is true (See John 3:33).
If I do not believe what God assures me of, I wrong Him. It is a sin not to believe that I am a son – in God’s presence without a spot of sin – through the blood of the Lamb. If it were only my own righteousness, it would be torn like rags, but it is the blood of the Lamb has cleansed every single sin.
The question is, ‘What is God’s estimate of the efficacy of the blood of Jesus?’ If my soul knows the value to God of the blood of the Lamb, I know the extent of His love. It would be an evil thing to doubt that, just as it would have been for the prodigal to say, “I have the rags of the far country on” while his father was kissing him. Like the prodigal, I must be silenced by such grace.
The Elder Brother
It might be said that divine grace sanctions sin. That is the spirit of the elder brother. Grace pleaded with him: ‘He was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him (v. 28). We see the the father’s patient love towards this wretched man who refused to share in the joy. The servants were happy; they say, ‘Thy brother is come, and thy father has killed for him the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound’ (v. 27).
His heart turned sour to the love and grace that God showed to a fellow sinner. He would not go in. The father reasoned with him – ‘It was meet that we should make merry and be glad; for this [not my son, but] thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found’ (v. 32) In vain, he could not enter into the joyful spirit that pereated the house, from the father down to the lowest maid. He remained outside, and had none of the happiness or joy. Despite his outward faithfulness and obedience, he refused his father’s grace: this is man.
Let us each ask ourselves, ‘How can I know God’s heart?” We do not get to know it by looking into our own heart. The God we have to do with is the God who has given His Son for sinners, and if we do not know this, we do not know Him at all. ‘He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?’ (Rom 8:32). Let us not say to God, “Make me as one of thy hired servants”. Let us not put our own value on God’s goodness. Let us not turn back to legalism, and think that it is humility. The only real humility is to forget self in the presence of God. It may be a humbling process; but it is not in thinking evil of self that we are truly humble, it is in forgetting ourselves completely in the manifestation of the love of God and our Father, who is love to us, and blesses us.
May we poor sinners, know through Jesus, God revealed in love!
Based on a paper by John Nelson Darby. For original see Parables of Luke 15