Luke 15

Luke 15 229 380

In the latter part of Luke 14 we saw the Lord’s terms, if I may so say, to the multitude that was following Him. There He laid down that, except a man came to Him hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he could not be His disciple. “And whosoever doth not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Thus first He insists on a thorough break with nature, and next that this shall continue. Hence in His illustrations He sets forth the need of purpose and the danger of undertaking such a business. A man is sure, otherwise, to leave the work undone. And how would it fare if a king with double your forces should come against you? The moral of all this is that man is insufficient, and that God alone can enable a man to quit the world for Christ and to keep following after Christ. The worst of all is to renounce Him after bearing such a name — salt that has lost its savour.

Luke 15:1-2.

Nevertheless His words drew to Him the outcast and degraded, too wretched not to feel and own their need. The tax-gatherers and sinners, instead of bearing a repulse, were coming near, immensely attracted, to hear what they felt to be the truth, and what conscience bowed to, though they had never heard it before. They heard, indeed, that which they could not but perceive levelled the pretensions of proud men. For the Pharisees and scribes had no notion of following Jesus any more than of coming to Him. They deified self in the name of God. It was their own tradition they valued; and if they seemed to make much of the law, it was not because it was of God, but because it was given to their fathers and identified with their system. Their religion was a settled setting up of self — this was their idol. Hence they murmured at the grace of Christ toward the wretched. For the ways of Christ, like His doctrine, levelled all and showed, according to the subsequent language of St. Paul, that there is no difference. No doubt the man who is in quest of his own passions and pleasures will neither go to Christ nor follow after Him: still less will he who has got a religion of his own on which he plumes himself. Grace goes down to the common level of ruin that sin has already made. It addresses man according to the truth; and the truth is that all is lost. And where is the sense of talking of differences if people are lost? How blind to be classifying among those who are cast into perdition! To be there at all is the awful thing — not the shades of distinction in ways or character that may be found among those who are there. The tremendous fact is that, having all equally sinned against God and lost heaven, they are all equally consigned to hell.

But there is that also in the sayings of the Pharisees and scribes which shows that they, too, felt the point of the truth, and what they resented most was grace. For they murmured saying, “This [man] receiveth sinners380a and eateth with them.” Indeed He does; it is His boast. It is the going out of Divine love to receive sinners. And it was His grace as a man that deigned to eat with them. Had He not done so, with whom could He have eaten at all? But in truth, if He deigned to eat with men, He did not choose His company. He had come down and been manifested in the flesh expressly to manifest the grace of God; and, if so, He received sinners and ate with them.

Luke 15:3-7.

Matt. 18:12-14.

The Lord answers in a parable — indeed, in three. But the first of them is that which we will look at now. He puts the case of a man — of themselves — having a hundred sheep. “if he loses one of them, doth he not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness381 and go after that which is lost until he find it?” He appeals to them: not one of them but would go after his lost sheep and seek to recover it. With us, indeed, it is not a question here of our going in quest of Christ, but of the man Christ Jesus, the good Shepherd, going after us — that which was lost. Supposing a man has ninety-nine that did not so urgently call on his energetic efforts, he can leave the sheep that abide in comparative safety. The one that is in danger is that which draws out his love until he finds it. “And having found382 it, he layeth it upon his own shoulders rejoicing.” It is evidently the work of the Lord Jesus that is set forth here. Who can fail to recognize in it the mighty manifestation of Divine love which characterized Jesus? It was He Who came, He Who undertook the labour; it was His to endure the suffering unto death, even the death of the cross; it was He Who found and saves the lost sheep; it is He Who lays it on His shoulders rejoicing. Whose joy can be compared with His? No doubt the sheep does reap the benefit; yet assuredly it was not the sheep that sought the Shepherd, but the Shepherd the sheep. It was not the sheep that clambered on His shoulders, but He that laid it there with His own hand. And who shall pluck it thence? It was all, all His work. It was the sheep that strayed; and, the longer it was left to itself, the farther it got away from the Shepherd. It was the work of the Lord Jesus, then, both to seek and to save.

But further, He has His joy in it, though it goes forth far beyond the object of His care. “And having come to the house, he calleth together the friends and the neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” It is altogether to forget the fullness of love that there is in God and in Christ Jesus our Lord, to suppose that it is merely a question of the sinner’s need to be saved or his joy when he is. There is a far deeper joy; and this is the foundation of all proper worship. In fact, our joy is not the mere sense of our own personal deliverance, but our appreciation of His delight in delivering us, His joy in our salvation. This is communion, and there can be no worship in the Spirit without it. And such seems to be the bearing of what is figuratively set forth in the parable as described at the close. “He calleth together the friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.”

Thus the heart of man that feels the comfort of recovering what belongs to him could apprehend in some measure how God has joy in saving the lost. At any rate, Christ appeals to the one to vindicate the other. “I say unto you, that thus there shall be joy in heaven for one repenting sinner,382a [more] than over ninety and nine righteous, such as have no need of repentance.” But man as such does not rejoice when his fellow turns in sorrow and self-judgment to God. This is not the feeling of the earth where sin and selfishness reign; but assuredly it is the mind of heaven. What joy there is over the repenting sinner! Angels sang at the good news of grace to Israel and to man above all. And so do they rejoice still, as we may fairly gather from the later words of our Lord Jesus. Here it is more general. The manifold wisdom of God in the Church is the continual object and witness to the principalities and powers in heavenly places; the Lord here gives us the assurance that a repentant sinner gives the keynote of joy on high. There are no murmurers there; it is universal delight in love. Is it so with us? Yet we have a new nature not less but more capable of appreciating the joy of grace, not to seek of ourselves, knowing the need of a sinner and the mercy of God’s deliverance in Christ as no angel can.

Remark in the last place that it is joy “for one repenting sinner,” not exactly over his salvation. It is joy over a soul brought to confess its sin and judge itself and vindicate God. We are apt to be more occupied with the deliverance from imminent danger. In short, we are apt to feel for the human side far more than we enter into God’s moral glory or His grace. The joy in heaven is over the repenting sinner.

Luke 15:8-10.

To my mind it is impossible to avoid the conviction that these parables have a root in God Himself as well as a reference to His operations on the heart of man. As we saw that the first is a most clear prefiguration of Christ’s work (the Shepherd being the well-known figure that He Himself adopted to set forth His interest and His grace for those that need Him), so also in the last parable there cannot be a question that the father sets forth God Himself in the relationship that He establishes by grace with the returning prodigal. There is also another sense of that relationship with the elder son, whose self-righteousness was so much the more glaring because of his want of respect and love for such a father, though known, no doubt, on a lower ground.

But if this be so, how can we avoid the conviction that the intermediate parable has a similar connection and that the woman has a propriety and a peculiar fitness, just as much as the shepherd and the father? If, therefore, the shepherd represents the work of the Son of God come as Son of man to seek and to save that which was lost, and if the father shows the relationship in which God reveals Himself to him who is brought back to Him and who learns His love within the house, we cannot doubt that the woman must set forth the ways of God working by His Spirit.” We know that the Spirit now particularly deigns, not only to act in man, but also in the Church, and this may account for the fact of the figure of the woman, a woman being habitually used to set forth the Church of God. However this may be, that in some form or another under the woman is set forth the activity of the Spirit of God cannot be questioned. So we shall find that all the details of the parable fit in with this view.

“Or, what woman having ten drachmas, if she lose one drachma,384 doth not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek carefully till she find it?” Now we find the lost creature is represented, not by a sheep, which, if it has life of a certain sort, has it only to go astray; not by a man, who is at last, after having perverted all that God gave him, brought into intelligent enjoyment of God; but in this parable the lost piece of money is an inanimate thing, and this is most fitted to express what a lost sinner is in the mind of the Spirit of God. He not only slipped aside, though capable of being the object of a new action by grace outside self to find him; but meanwhile the soul is but a dead thing spiritually, with no more power to return than the missing piece of silver. The propriety, therefore, of this coin being used to represent the sinner where there is evidently not the slightest power to go back to God, where it is utterly helpless, where only the Holy Ghost can avail, is manifest. But the woman does not so easily reconcile herself to. the loss of her piece of silver. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and seeks diligently till she finds it. The lamp clearly sets forth the testimony of the Word of God; and this it is particularly in the use of the Spirit of God. The Lord Jesus Himself and God as such are thus spoken of. But it is the Spirit alone who, as we know, brings it home to the heart in conscience or peace, when we are brought to God. The Spirit has the character of agency very peculiarly, and in this agency employs the word. The lamp, therefore, is said here to be lit. But that is not all. The woman sweeps the house and searches diligently till she finds it. There is painstaking love, the removal of obstacles, minute working and searching. Do we not know that this is pre-eminently the part God’s Spirit is wont to take? Do we not remember when truth was powerless to reach us? The Lord Jesus is rather the suffering Saviour; His mighty work assumes that form. The Holy Spirit of God is the active agent in the soul. The Father freely gave according to His infinite love and counsels. Having in Himself the deep enjoyment of love, He would bring others, in spite of their sins, to be righteously without them, in order to make themselves happy in the enjoyment of Himself. But the Spirit of God, just as beautifully, engages Himself in activity of effort and ceaseless painstaking, till the lost thing is found.

“And having found it, she calleth together the friends and neighbours, saying, Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma, which I had lost.” In every case, whether it be the Son, or the Father, or the Holy Ghost, there is communion. We know that our communion is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ; but it cannot be less familiar to the believer that there is the communion of the Holy Ghost. This is what appears to be set forth here at the close of the second parable: the spreading of universal joy among those who enter into the mind of God. “She calleth together the friends and neighbours, saying, Rejoice with me.” Thus on all sides is real delight, every person of the Godhead having His own appropriate place and part in the wonderful work of redemption, but, further, deep Divine joy in the result of redemption. “Thus I say unto you, There is joy before the angels of God for one repenting sinner.” It is not here generally in heaven, but joy in the presence of the angels of God. They enter into it. They may not have the same immediate concern in it, but it is in their presence; and they delight in it ungrudgingly and unjealously without being the parties to derive direct or personal results from it. Their joy is in what God delights in, and hence in what He is to the creatures of God. What a new scene of enjoyment, too — joy among those who had been lost to God, and enemies to God! “There is joy before the angels of God for one repenting sinner.”

Vv 15:11-32.385

We have seen the Lord Jesus in His work set forth by the shepherd, and the more hidden but at the same time the active, painstaking operation of the Spirit of God, no less necessary in order to bring home the work to men in both giving the light to see and also searching them out. Now we have in the third parable the effect produced; for the work is not merely conversion or pardon, and therefore Nothing that is done in this way would suffice unless there was the full bringing of the soul to God and also into fellowship with Him, the new and intimate relationship of a son by grace. This is what the third parable accordingly sets forth. And hence it is no longer a sheep or a piece of money, but a man. It is there that we find intelligence and conscience, and so much the more guilt. Such is man’s case. The first Adam had a certain relationship to God. When he was formed out of the dust, God dealt with him in tender mercy and gave him special advantages in Eden, privileges of every suited sort. But man fell from God, as the prodigal here left his father’s house.

In a general way this is represented by a certain man who had two sons. “And the younger of them said to the father, Father, give to me the share of the property that falleth [to me]. And he divided unto them his living.” There was the point of departure, the first and main step of evil. There is scarce anything in which men are apt more to mistake than in what the true nature of sin consists. They measure sin by themselves instead of by God. Now the desire to have one’s own way at a distance from God is positive sin and the root of all other sin. Sin against man is sure to follow; but sin against God is the mainspring. What more evident denial of Him in works than to prefer one’s own will to His?

The younger son then (which makes the case the more glaring) said to his parent, “Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me.” He wished to go away from his father. Man would be at a distance from God, and this in order to be the more at ease to do what he likes. “And he divided unto them his living.” Man is tried — he is responsible; but, in fact, he is not hindered from having his way, God only keeping the upper hand for the accomplishment of His own gracious purposes. Still, as far as appearances go, God allows a man to do what he pleases. This alone will tell what sin means, what the heart seeks, what man is with all his pretensions, and the worse the more he pretends.

“And after not many days the younger son gathering all together went away into a country a long way off, and there dissipated his property, living in debauchery.” There was eagerness to get away from his father. It was, as far as his will was concerned, a complete abandoning of his father to do his own pleasure. He wished to be so thoroughly at a distance as to act according to his own heart without restraint. There, in a far country, he wastes his substance with riotous living. It is the picture of a man left to himself, doing his own will in this world, with its ruinous consequences for the next as well as this. “But when he had spent all, there arose a violent famine throughout that country, and he began to be in want.” Such, again, is the picture, not only of the active course of sin but of its bitter issues. Sin indulged in brings misery and want. There is a void that nothing can satisfy, and the selfish waste of all means only makes this to be more felt in the end.

So, in the extremity of distress, “he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.” Now we find the sinner’s degradation; for love is not there, but self is. The citizen does not treat him as a fellow-citizen, but as a slave. There is no slavery so deep or degrading as that of our own lusts. He is treated accordingly; and what must this sound to a Jewish ear? He is sent into the fields to feed swine. “And he longed to fill his belly with the husks386 which the swine were eating; and no one gave unto him.” He is reduced to the lowest degree of want and wretchedness; yet no man gives to him. God is the giver, man grudgingly pays his debts, if he pays them: never to God, only half-heartedly to man. But no man gives: so the prodigal found.

Now we begin the work of God’s goodness. He comes to himself, before he comes to God.”387 “And coming to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have abundance of bread and I perish here230 by famine.” It is God giving him the conviction of his state. Hence his feeling is that even those who have the lowest place in his father’s house are well and even amply provided for compared with him.

His mind was made up. “I will rise up and go to my father, and I will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven388 and before thee;231 I am no longer worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” The last words betray the usual legal state. It is one who conceives that God must act according to his condition. This grace never does. He had wronged his father, he had been guilty of folly, excess, and lewdness; and he could not conceive of his father doing more for him at best than putting him in the lowest place before him, if he received him at all. He felt that he deserved humiliation. Had he judged more justly, he would have gathered that he deserved much worse; that the more favoured he was, seeing that he was so guilty, he must be put away — not merely go away, but be put into outer darkness where should be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

But although there was this wrong reasoning, at bottom there was at least a real sense, however feeble, of his sin, and, what was more and better, a real sense of love in God the Father. If he could only see Him, hear Him, be with Him! He rises accordingly and comes to his father, “but while he was yet a long way of, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell upon his neck and covered him with kisses.”

It is not the son who runs; but, even though a long way off, the father saw him. It was the father ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. The son would not have dared to have done so, still less would he have expected his father to do so. But grace always surprises the thoughts of men, and therefore reason can never find it out, but rather denies and opposes and enfeebles it, qualifying it, putting clogs and fetters on it, which only dishonour God, and do not alter the truth, but most surely injure the man. The father, then ran389 and fell on his neck and kissed him. Not a word about his wicked ways! and yet the father it was who had wrought secretly, producing the conviction of his own evil and the yearning after his own presence.

Further, it was the father who deepened all that was of himself in his own soul immensely, now that the prodigal was come to him. It is not true, therefore, that by not putting forward the evil in this case our Lord implied that the father was indifferent to the evil, or that the prodigal son was not to feel his outbreaks or his fleshly nature.389a Surely it should be so much the more, because it was allowed him to judge himself and the past in the light of unspeakable grace. “And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee: I am232 no more worthy to be called thy son.” He cannot say more. It was impossible in the presence of the father to say “Make me as one of thy hired servants.”233390 It was well, as far as it went, to acknowledge that he was no more worthy to be called his son. It was unqualifiedly right to say, “I have sinned against heaven and before thee”; but it would have been still better if he had said not a word about anything of which he could be worthy or unworthy. The sad truth was, that he was worthy of nothing but bonds or death. He deserved to be banished for ever — to be driven out from the presence of his father.

Grace, however, does not give according to what man deserves, but according to Christ. Grace is the outflow of love that is in God, which He feels even towards His enemies. For this reason He sent His Son, and He acts Himself. All must now be of the very best, because it must be in accordance with the grace of God and the gift of Christ. “Bring out234 the best robe, and clothe him in [it], and put a ring on his hand, and sandals on his feet,391 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry.” The younger son had never worn the best robe before; the elder son never did wear the best robe at all. The best robe was kept for the display of grace.

The two sons, therefore (of course, the prodigal before his return), do not represent children of God in the sense of grace, but such as have merely the place of sons of God by nature. Thus Adam is said to be so (Luke 3). All men are spoken of similarly in that sense — even the heathen — in Acts 17:28, as being endowed with a reasonable soul as men, and as having direct personal responsibility to God in presence of His favours and mercy. It is also doctrinally affirmed in “one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:6).

But then, sin has completely separated men from God, as we have seen in this very parable. Grace brings into the nearer and better relationship of “sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:26.) The prodigal only enters this state when he at length comes back to his father, confessing his sins and casting himself upon Divine grace.391a The best robe, the ring on his hand, the shoes on his feet, the fatted calf, all these belong, and belong solely, to the relationship of grace, to him who is born of God by believing in the name of Jesus. It is God magnifying Himself to the lost. “For this my son was dead,”‘ and has come to life, — was lost, and has been found. And they began to be merry.”

It is important to note this common joy. It is not only that there is personal blessing for the heart that is brought back to God, but there is the joy of communion, which takes its rise in and its strength from God, whose joy in love is as much deeper than ours as He above us. Nor is it now only in heaven as we saw before, but there is the effect produced on earth, both individually and also in other hearts; and the great power of it all is, after all, communion with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, which the Holy Ghost sheds abroad — His love shed abroad in the heart, no doubt, but issuing also in communion with one another. “They began to be merry.”

But here we have a farther picture,393 “And his elder son was in the field; and as, coming up, he drew nigh to the house “he heard music and dancing.” The joy of true Christian worship, of living fellowship in grace, is unintelligible to the natural heart. This was what struck repugnantly the ears of the elder son. “And having called one of the servants, he inquired what these things might be.” He could have understood debt, he could have urged right, he could see and pronounce on failure; but he did not scruple to judge God Himself, as we shall see. The servant “said unto him, Thy brother is come, and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and well.” But he became angry, and would not go in. “And235 his father went out and besought394 him.” His heart was outside the home of his father, nor did he breathe the spirit of the love that was being shown to the returned prodigal. He was a stranger to grace, so he had no part in all this joy. He was pursuing his own things. No doubt he was active and intelligent “in the field,” in the world, away from the scene of Divine mercy and spiritual joy.

When, therefore, the servant told him that his brother had come, and of the way the father had received him, he showed his aversion on the spot, and yet more the more he heard what made the others happy. Grace was to him most irksome and even hateful. Doubtless he took the ground of righteousness, though he had none — plenty of talk and theory, but nothing real. His father comes out in the fullness of love and entreats him. “And he, answering, said to his236 father,” with that kind of pious, or rather impious, indignation against Divine love which belongs to and does not shock the natural mind, “Behold, these many years I serve thee [hollow and wretched service!]395 and never have I transgressed a commandment of thine [the unhappy sinner had no sense of sin!] and to me thou hast never given a kid, that I might make merry with my friends.” Thus he was bold enough to judge the father as the self-righteous shrinks not from judging God. To the thought of the unbeliever He is hard and exacting. There is utter blindness as to all the favours of God, total insensibility of heart as well as conscience. “But when this thy son, who has devoured thy living with harlots, is come, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.” There is manifest dislike of grace and its ways. He does not call the prodigal his brother,395a but tauntingly “thy son.” And though it was what the father had given, he calls it “thy living,” in every case putting the worst aspect forward.

Truly the patience of God is as wondrous as His love. Hence the father perseveres: “But he said unto him, Child [for nothing can exceed the tender mercy of the father, even to the unthankful and the evil, the ungrateful and rebellious son],396 thou art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine.” It was just the place of the Jew under the law. But it is the same position that every unconverted man in Christendom takes who is endeavouring to walk after the flesh religiously. It is just so that the natural man in these lands thinks and speaks. And no doubt the Jews had the chief place, and indeed the only place, that God claimed in this earth. All other countries God had given to the children of men, but His land He had reserved for Israel. He had brought them to Himself through redemption of an outward sort and put them under law. The same principle is true of any self-righteous man who is in his way endeavouring to be good and serve God, but insensible to the truth that it is mercy that he wants and delivering grace. “It was right to make merry and rejoice.” Wonderful thought! God Himself delighting in the joy of grace and putting Himself in it along with others. “Truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.”

Notice again, “Because this thy brother was dead and has come to life again, and was lost and has been found.” “Thy brother” is to be observed. God is not in any way disposed to allow the denial of proper relationship. Hence one of the sins that will draw out the last judgments of the Jews is not merely their base ingratitude toward God, but also their hatred of the grace He is showing to the poor Gentiles in their wretchedness and sin. This we find strongly put by the Apostle Paul: “Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost” (1 Thess. 2:16). They cannot endure that others, does of the Gentiles, should hear the Gospel of grace, which their pride of law induced them to despise for themselves.397

229 Cf. “Introductory Lectures,” pp. 339-345.

230 “Here”: so Edd., after BDL, some cursives (1), Syrr. Old Lat. Vulg. Memph. The word is not in APX, etc., nor in most cursives (as 33, 69).

231 Before “I am no longer,” EG, etc., most cursives, Syrr. have “and,” which Edd. omit, after ABDK. etc., 1, Old Lat. Sah. Memph.

232 E, etc., 33, 69, Syrr. have “and I am n. l.,” which Edd. reject, after ABD, etc., Old Lat. Memph.

233 W. H. add these words in brackets: after BD, etc., Syrhcl Aeth,, which Tisch. and Treg., both of whom cite Augustine, followed by Weiss and Blass, reject as interpolation from verse 19. They are supported by AL Δ, etc., Latt. Syrrsin pesch hier. See further, note 390, in Appendix.

234 “Bring out” so APQ and other later uncials, all cursives, Sah. Syrr. Recent Edd. adopt “Quickly b. o.,” as BDLX, Syrsin Old Lat. Goth. Memph. Arm. Aeth. This addition Treg. brackets.

235 “And”: so Edd., after ABDL, etc., 1, 33, Old Lat. Goth. Memph. Arm. E and most of the later uncials, nearly all cursives (69), Syrr. Amiat. and Vulg. have “therefore.”

236 “His”: so Treg., W. H., after ABDG, etc., 69, Syrsin. Tisch.: “the,” after O, Goth. Memph. Arm.