Saturday, May 30, 2015

Are You Like the Prodigal Son or the “Good” Son?

God’s Triune nature as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is illustrated in patterns of threes found throughout Scripture. As we saw last week, Jesus told three parables about the loss of a treasured animal, object or person, and the rejoicing that follows when the lost treasure is found (Luke 15).

The third and most detailed of these salvation parables, often referred to as the Prodigal Son, shows most clearly that to be found, we must first confess that we are lost; we must want to be found; and we must know the person who will find us. Jesus taught this parable not only for the benefit of the sinners who knew they were lost, but also for the Pharisees and scribes who thought they were superior, self-righteous, and in no need of help (v. 2).

The parable has three main characters: a father, his younger son, and his older son (v. 11-12). We can safely assume that the father, like the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was attempting to reach, was a religiously observant Jew The younger son disowned, disrespected, and disgraced his father in three ways.

First, he disowned his father by demanding that he give him his portion of the inheritance (v. 12), which was essentially the same as telling his father that he wished he were already dead. Second, he left Israel and traveled to a pagan nation, thereby disrespecting his father, his heritage, and Jehovah God. Third, he disgraced his family by wasting his fortune on the pleasures of sin (v. 13).

This chain of three events resulted in his extreme poverty, which in turn led to three consequences of his sins. Because there was a great famine in the foreign country, he had to enter into bondage as a slave; he defiled himself by having to feed swine (considered by Jews to be unclean (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8) because of the Mosaic law); and he was about to die from hunger, for no one would give him so much as a corn husk to eat (Luke 15:14-16).

But then, miraculously, a threefold process of salvation began. First, he “came to himself” (v. 17), realizing how far he had fallen. Second, he admitted three things: that he needed his father to save him, that he had sinned against God, and that he was unworthy to be his father’s son (v. 17-19). Third, he reached out to his father in three ways: he was willing to humble himself by being his father’s servant; he journeyed home to his father; and he confessed his sins to the father (v. 18-21).

The parable then illustrates how God seeks out the sinner who takes the first step toward Him! The father had been on the lookout for the son from a great distance, he had compassion the moment he came into view; and he ran to meet him (v. 20). No doubt the scribes and Pharisees gasped in shock when they heard of this behavior, in stark contrast to the typical Jewish patriarch who would maintain his reserve and dignity and wait for the son to fall prostrate at his feet!

Instead, this Father hugged his son’s neck, kissed him, and forgave his sin (v. 20-22). Because of His grace, He answered the son’s prayer far beyond his expectations (Ephesians 3:20), accepting him as His son, writing off his debt (of having squandered part of the family estate), and clothing him with the finest robe, a ring, and shoes (Luke 15:22). He brought forth the fatted calf that was being kept for a special occasion, sacrificed it, and had it prepared for dinner (v. 23).

The Father rejoiced over his son with a great celebration that included not only feasting, but also music and dancing (v. 23-25), because He received him from danger to being safe and sound, from death to life, from being lost to being found (v. 24-27).

But sadly, the tale does not end here, but turns instead to the elder son. John MacArthur refers to this parable as the “Tale of Two Sons,” because the fate of the elder son is as much at stake as that of the prodigal. The elder son was a “good” son, hard-working in the field (v. 25), serving his father for many years, and saying that he never disobeyed any of his father’s commandments (v. 29).

No doubt the scribes and Pharisees listening to this story identified with the elder son, for they worked hard at being “good” Jews, prided themselves on their years of religious works and service (Matthew 23:1-7), and thought they were self-righteous (Matthew 5:20) and able to keep the law perfectly.

Yet Jesus criticized them for following the letter of the law, tithing even the tenth part of their garden herbs, while being far from God in their hearts and lacking judgment (discernment), mercy and faith (Matthew 23:23-29). They had substituted their own traditions for God’s law (Matthew 15:1-10); they did not recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah Who was God’s Son; and they had no true love for God or for one another (Matthew 23:13-15).

So the scribes and Pharisees were correct in identifying with the elder son in the parable, for all were far from the Father’s heart. When he heard of the great celebration over his long-lost brother, the elder son got angry, refused to take part in the feast, and criticized his family -- his brother for wasting the family fortune on prostitutes, and his Father for celebrating the prodigal’s return rather than his own self-righteousness (Luke 15: 28-29).

Perhaps this part of the story pricked the hearts of some of the scribes and Pharisees, if their consciences were not already too seared (1 Timothy 4:2). Did any of them recognize that they were angry with Jesus and His followers, that they had no joy over the salvation of others or the opportunity they had to be saved by trusting Jesus, and that they were judgmental to Jesus and His followers (Matthew 12:2,14,24), when judgment is solely the province of God? (James 5:9; Matthew 7::1-5; Romans 12:19)

But instead of rebuking the elder son, the Father sought him out, begged him to join the party (v. 28), and explained the situation. He told the elder son that he was continually in the presence of the Father and exposed to His love, teachings and blessings; that he was still the rightful heir to all the Father owned; and that it was appropriate to celebrate his brother’s safe return, restoration to the family, and regeneration from spiritual death to life (v. 31-32).

During His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke predominantly to the Jews, so I believe the intended parallel here is to the relationship between God and His chosen nation of Israel. God continually sought out Israel despite her unfaithfulness, begged her to be faithful, and patiently explained the nature of their covenant relationship, as we see throughout the book of Judges and elsewhere, as well as allegorically in the book of Hosea.

Jesus blessed the Jews with His presence during His earthly ministry, promised that He would return as their King even though they rejected Him during His first coming (Mark 15), and found joy even in the shame of the cross (Hebrews 12:2). He knew that His suffering at Calvary would open the gates of Heaven to all, Jews and Gentiles (Matthew 12:18-21), who placed their faith in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way (John 14:6).

This parable therefore speaks to all three classes of mankind: the Jews of Israel, the Gentiles of all other nations, and the Church, representing all, either Jew or Gentile, who receive His freely given gift of salvation by trusting Him (1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32)..

Knowing that the Father in the parable represents the Triune God -- Father, Son, and Spirit – we should ask ourselves whether our relationship to Him is more like that of the younger or the elder son. Do we know, like the prodigal, that we strayed far from God and were doomed to hell (John 3:18); that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9); and that we want the blessings of forgiveness, abundant life, and eternal life (John 3:16) that only He can provide?

If so, we have the living hope (1 Peter 1:3)  that God, in His mercy, love and grace (2 John 1:3) has forgiven us (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; 1 John 1:9), credited us with the perfect righteousness of His Son (Romans 3:22; 4:6,11; 5:17,21) and made us a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17): His children (Romans 8:16-21), His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), and joint heirs with Christ! (Romans 8:17)

But if we are more like the elder son, we must let the Father change our hearts before it is too late (Luke 13:25-28). How many in churches today are like the “good” son, dutifully occupying the pew, tithing, and calling themselves Christian, but having no relationship with, faith in, or love for the Father, His Son, and the brethren?

Trusting in our own good works to get to Heaven will forever separate us from the Father (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). Believing in our own self-righteousness is like filthy rags in His sight (Isaiah 64:6). Instead of joy, peace and love that comes from trusting the Father, we will be consumed by anger, bitterness and hatred. The choice is freely available to all, so may we all open our hearts to Jesus and turn from death to life today!

© 2015 Laurie Collett
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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Three Found Treasures

When I was six, I traveled with my parents to Houston, where we visited Neiman Marcus, a fancy department store. I remember being entranced by so many beautiful shiny things! Sparkling crystal, baubles encrusted with glass jewels, golden plates, and gowns shimmering in sequins and beads all caught my eye.

Before I knew it, I had wandered off from my parents, and they were nowhere to be found! I ran around frantically, calling out for them, but there was no answer. Devastated, I broke into uncontrollable sobbing. A kindly woman approached me and asked what was wrong.

“I’ve lost my parents!” I exclaimed.

“What do they look like?” she asked.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “I’ll know them when I see them.”

All is well that ends well, and my parents were just around the corner, apparently caught up in some treasure hunting of their own. But that was long before the days of children being kidnapped in malls or the need to be paranoid every moment they are out of sight.

Remembering this story made me realize that to be found, three things must happen. We must first realize that we are lost; we must want to be found; and we must recognize the person who will find us.

God is a Triune Being: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that nature is reflected in patterns of threes found throughout His Word. Salvation is the central theme of Scripture, so it is not surprising that Jesus spoke three parables about salvation in which a lost animal, object or person is found (Luke 15).

The chapter opens with Jesus teaching the publicans and sinners, namely those thought by society to be wicked beyond help. But many of them realized their own sorry state, and therefore came near Jesus to hear His words of wisdom, comfort, and healing (v. 1).

This ministry grouping of three is diametrically opposed by a judgmental grouping of three: the Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus for associating with the baser element of society. The religious leaders of that day, who should have been most receptive to Jesus as the Son of God, instead were gossiping about Him, accusing Him of receiving sinners and of defiling Himself by eating with them (v. 2).

Jesus then teaches three parables aimed at the repentant sinners, the religious leaders trusting in their own self-righteousness, and all readers of the Gospel thereafter. Each of these parables has three elements: the lost treasure; those not considered lost; and the One Who finds the lost.

Jesus later describes Himself as the Son of man Who came to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10). In three verses He states that He came to call not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Matthew 9:13; Mark 2:17; Luke 5:32). Until we know that we are lost in our sins to the point of death (Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13); that we have no righteousness of our own (Isaiah 64:6), and that we  need to repent (Acts 3:19; 5:31), we cannot be saved.

The first parable tells of a shepherd whose priorities seem somewhat unusual by worldly standards. He leaves the bulk of his flock – 99 of 100 sheep – to fend for themselves in the wilderness, while he goes looking for one lost sheep until he finds it (Luke 15:3-4). An earthly shepherd who did this would be considered somewhat daft, as he would leave most of his livelihood vulnerable to being eaten by predators, falling down a cliff, or wandering away from the flock.

But thankfully, Jesus is the Good, Great and Chief Shepherd (John 10:11-18; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4) Who is everywhere to save His flock from danger, and Who will never leave nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)

Like sheep, people are also vulnerable to three types of danger. In spiritual terms, these are being devoured by the devil (1 Peter 5:8), falling into temptation because of our sinful flesh (1 Corinthians 10:12), and wandering away when we are lured by worldly pleasures (James 1:14-15; 2 Timothy 4:10), namely the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16).

Sadly, we are unaware of our exposure to these dangers until we are saved, and we can’t be saved until we know we are lost. In the parable, therefore, the Shepherd, Who is Christ Himself (Psalm 23) makes the lost sheep His highest priority, not resting until He can safely place it across His shoulders Luke 15:5).

Praise God that He goes to such great lengths to seek us out once we want to be found (James 4:8; Ezekiel 34:11), to work on our heart, and to save us through His grace! (Ephesians 2 8-9) But He does this only if we come to the end of ourselves (Psalm 40:2), know we can’t make it to Heaven on our own (Habakkuk 3:19), and realize we need the Saviour! (1 Timothy 1:15) Then He saves us by our faith in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way (John 14:6) to Heaven.

Once the lost sheep in the parable is found, there is great rejoicing by the Shepherd, His friends and neighbors (Luke 15:5-6).Jesus explains the parallel to the joy in heaven over one sinner that repents of his sin and knows that he needs the righteousness of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30; Philippians 1:11; 3:9). Those who rely on their own good deeds to get to Heaven far outnumber (in the parable, 99 to 1) those who trust only in the Saviour (Matthew 7:13).

But these “good” people bring little joy to heaven even if they appear to lead moral and just lives on earth (Luke 15:7). Anyone who relies on keeping the law to get to heaven is doomed to failure, because all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and whoever has broken the smallest part of the law is considered guilty of transgressing all of it (James 2:10). Any joy over their “good” deeds is short-lived, for their destiny is eternal separation from God in hell (John 3:18) unless they realize they are lost so they can be born again (John 3:3-8).

In the second parable, Jesus tells of a woman who drops everything she is doing to find one silver coin she has lost from her stash of ten. She lights a candle, sweeps the house, and seeks diligently until she finds the missing treasure (Luke 15:8). I believe this parable gives further clues to God’s loving and thorough process in saving the lost sinner.

God gave us His Word as a light for our path (Psalm 119:105), for saving faith can only come by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Often, part of the process of our realizing how lost, helpless, and needy we are involves God sweeping away the clutter that hinders our dependence on Him. These weights (Hebrews 12:1) may be idols of money, power, health, relationships, and even family, for if these give us too much satisfaction, we may not realize we need God (Matthew 19:24).

Which brings me back to my childhood anecdote – I knew I was lost, I wanted to be found, and I knew whom I was seeking. I had no worries that I would fail to recognize my parents. But when I grew up, I spent much of life feeling miserably lost and wanting to find truth, peace and joy, yet not knowing the only One Who could save me. Like so many, I was a “seeker,” looking for truth in all the wrong idols, philosophies and false teachings (2 Peter 2) until the only Way found me (Acts 17:26-27).

In the parable, there was great rejoicing by the woman who found her lost coin, and by her friends and neighbors, just as there is by the angels in heaven (Luke 15:9-10) every time a lost soul is found! We shall also see this next week in the third parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).

 © 2015 Laurie Collett

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