Some people think the most important question in life is, “Do you believe in God?” But a more important question is, “What kind of God do you believe in?” There is something worse than being an atheist – it is believing in a false god or having an erroneous concept of God. There are many religions in the world that present many differing pictures of God, so it is easy to be deceived, especially because they all may contain a little kernel of truth. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but actually a broken clock is worse than no clock at all because it gives you misleading information. A person can believe in God, but if he or she has a false conception of God, they are no better off than an atheist.
So, what is God really like? Is He the god of the Muslim terrorists? Is His name Allah? Does He reward murdering terrorists who highjack airplanes and kill innocent people? Does He want all the infidels killed, even if it means strapping a bomb to your body and killing yourself? Is God like the impersonal god of the Deists? Deism teaches god created the world like a watchmaker. He wound it up and started it, but now, he sits by uncaring or unable to get involved in what is happening in lives of individuals. Is He the god of the Hindus? Hinduism teaches there are a number of gods and goddesses, but the greatest god is Brahmin, the impersonal but all pervasive life force in every person. Is He the god of the New-Agers? They teach god is the life force in everything: that’s why they worship trees, crystals, and even themselves. Is that what God is like?
Jesus Christ came to earth to show us exactly who God is and what He is like. In Luke 15:11-24, He tells a story, which paints a portrait of the character and nature of God.
11 Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
This is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but some people prefer to call it the Parable of the Loving Father since the key figure in the parable is the Father. Jesus is teaching that God is like the father in the story.
As I said, it is not enough to believe in God; we must understand the nature of the God that Jesus came to introduce. The wonder and beauty of the character of God is revealed and can been easily seen in this beautiful parable. We learn three important truths about the nature of God from this story:
1. WE WORSHIP A GOD WHO REGRETS OUR REBELLION
In verse 12, the younger son demanded to receive his inheritance. According to Jewish law, a father who had two sons was to leave 2/3 of his estate to his older son and 1/3 to his younger son. So the younger son came to his dad and basically says, “I know you’re going to’ drop dead someday, but I don’t want to wait until then to receive my inheritance–give it to me now.” With those words, Jesus had His audiences’ undivided attention. No son with any respect for his father would make this sort of demand from him. To make matters worse, it was the younger son who was making the demand. What he did was unthinkable!
While the father was wounded by his son’s harsh demand, he granted it anyway. He may have had to take some time to sell some of his land or livestock or liquidate other assets, but he eventually comes up with 1/3 of his net worth and hands it over to the younger son.
Immediately, he takes the money and runs. He walks out of his father’s life and heads for the “far country.” He is a perfect example of a rebellious and disrespectful brat.
Can we identify with the prodigal son who cared more about himself and having fun than his father’s feelings? Who does he represent? Some say he represents an unsaved person, but as we will see, the prodigal son actually represents those of us who are saved and do have a relationship with God.
Clearly, the father in this parable represents God. God is a loving Father who will let you walk away from fellowship with Him if you desire, but it breaks His heart when you do. The father shed many tears over his son’s foolish behavior. The whole time the prodigal son was away, he was still a son, but he had left the presence and favor of his father. Christians can do that too with our heavenly Father. This is a very important principle you must understand: you cannot sever your relationship with God, but you can break your fellowship with Him.
Once you become a Christian, God establishes a love relationship with you. He is your Father and nothing can ever change that. But if you choose to rebel and disobey Him, He will allow it. If you choose to walk out of fellowship with Him, He will let you go. God loves you so much He will never leave you, but He will not force you to stay in fellowship with Him either. So, if you are bound and determined to do something as foolish as walking out on God, He won’t stop you. That’s how some of you have gotten into the mess you’re in right now. He doesn’t coerce obedience and loyalty from you; He wants you to freely love and serve Him.
I was talking to a man a few years ago who at one time was a deeply committed Christian, a servant of Jesus Christ. But he got messed up in sexual sin and committed adultery and ended up leaving his family. He’s miserable today, even bitter toward God. He said, “If what I did was so wrong, why didn’t God stop me?” He was basically blaming God for the consequences of his actions and not taking responsibility for his sin.
God didn’t stop that guy for the same reason He didn’t stop Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit. God didn’t stop him for the same reason He didn’t stop King David from having sex with Bathsheba. God didn’t stop him for the same reason the father in this parable didn’t fling himself across the room and say, “Stop it son, I won’t let you leave!”
That’s not the nature of God. He loves you so much that He will allow you to make your own choices, even though He knows what the consequences will be. Just as the father was grieved because his son walked out, so too, our heavenly Father is grieved when one of His children walks out of fellowship with Him.
Some of you are parents of prodigals. Those of you who have prodigal children or grandchildren know the kind of pain the father feels. You know what it is to have grown children who are alienated from you and it hurts. When they were little you could discipline them with the hope that they would make better choices, but now that they have walked away, you only feel pain.
But God hurts even more. Why? Because the greater the capacity to love, the greater the capacity to be hurt. God’s love is stronger than any human love, and that’s why His pain is greater, too.
2. WE WORSHIP A GOD WHO RUNS TO US WHEN WE RETURN
The prodigal son didn’t fare so well on his own and in the far country. He had fun for a while, but pretty soon he was in bad condition! Verse 13 says, he “squandered his wealth in wild living.” There’s a lot that can be read into those words. With a pocketful of money, he headed straight for the casinos, bars, and strip joints, and blew all of his funds. Before he could turn around, it was all gone.
So, he ends up in a pigpen feeding hogs and he still can’t support himself. The crowd must have become almost nauseous as Jesus described the condition in which the son found himself. The Pharisees would not go near swine, much less feed them. By definition the boy was ceremonially unclean.
But in verse 17, Jesus said he “came to his senses.” He finally reached the point of total desperation. He swallowed his pride and started the long journey back home.
Now, picture the father in Jesus’ parable. His heart is broken when his son leaves. Every day while he is gone, the father thinks of the son and wonders where he is and what he is doing. Each afternoon at sundown he would walk to the edge of his property, stand at his fence, and look down the road that had taken his son away. He was looking, longing, and hoping that one day his son would return.
Then, one afternoon, he sees a bent over figure dragging along the road. As he continues to look, the father realizes it is his son, so he jumps the fence and sprints out to meet him. Verse 20 says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him. He was filled with compassion and he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” In Jewish culture, men wore long robes. In order for a man to run, he had to lift the hem up and hold it high to keep from tripping over it. In doing so, he would bare his legs, which was considered highly undignified. Men of respect never ran; it would have been embarrassing.
But can’t you see this father grabbing handfuls of robe and running toward his son? He didn’t wait for the son to reach him, He ran out to meet the son. He hugged and kissed His rebellious son before the son even said one word. Remember the son had been working with pigs. He looked and smelled awful, not the kind of person you want to hug and kiss! The Father could have said, “Oh, you’re back. Clean yourself up before you come into this house!” But instead, the Father accepted him “just as he was.”
Our heavenly Father will welcome you in the same way–just as you are. Now, this is a revolutionary portrayal of God. Jesus said God will run out to meet us when we decide to return to Him. Some of you may have drifted out of fellowship with God. You may have chosen to sin and walk away from the presence of your heavenly Father. If this is true in your life, you need to know your Father is longing for you to return to Him. If you are a wayward and backslidden child of God, He has a message for you today. With tender words of compassion, He is saying to you: “Once you decide to come home, I will meet you more than halfway.”
Some people think God is a mean ogre who sits on a mysterious throne watching you, just waiting for you to make a mistake, so He can grab you and shake you. But that’s not the God Jesus described. Instead, He is a loving, compassionate Father who deeply cares about you. It is not enough to simply believe in God, we must believe in the God of the Bible.
3. WE WORSHIP A GOD WHO RESTORES US WHEN WE REPENT
When the son finally came to his senses in the pigpen, he rehearsed the speech he was going to give to his dad. In verse 21, he said three things. Two of his statements were right and one of them was wrong. First he said, “I have sinned against heaven.” That was right. All sin is primarily rebellion against God, so he had confessed his sin to God. Second, he confessed to his father. He said, “I have sinned against you.” Right again. One of the hardest things for any of us to say is, “I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” That’s what he was saying.
But look at the third statement. He said, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That may sound good on the surface, but there is a mistake in his thinking. The father refused to entertain the idea his son was anything less than a son. Even when the son was in the far country, the relationship was still intact; it was only the fellowship that was broken. The same is true in your relationship with God. Are you in good fellowship with your Father?
In verse 22 the father commands his servants to bring the best robe, a ring, and sandals for his son. That’s a beautiful picture of how God covers all the filth and dirt of our sin with a robe of righteousness. Sons often wore family rings that had the family seal engraved on it. The son probably left home with a ring, but had pawned it off long ago. So the father put a new ring on his finger symbolizing his full status in the family. Slaves didn’t wear sandals, but sons did. So the father had sandals put on his feet. The Father restored everything the son had lost!
And to top that off, in verse 23 the father commands the fattened calf to be killed. The fact the father had been fattening up a calf makes me think he anticipated the return of his son. Everything the son left looking for, he found back at his father’s house. The father’s love for his wayward son had never changed. And the same is true of our heavenly Father’s love towards his children.
Have you wandered away from your heavenly Father? If so, are you willing to say, “Father I have sinned against You?” Are you willing to return to Him?
In this parable, we see a wonderful picture of what God is like. He is a loving Father who regrets our rebellion, runs to us when we return, and restores us when we repent. He is saying, “I will treat you as if you have never left!”
But I realize there are some of you today who need a different word from this parable. You aren’t the wayward son; instead you feel the pain of the father. Some of you are parents and grandparents who have prodigals in your family. Your son or daughter may be distant from you because of rebellion, a disagreement, a sinful lifestyle, a bad relationship, or they may have just walked out of your life. Whatever the reason, you feel the pain of being out of fellowship with your child or grandchild.
If you are in that condition, I have a word of comfort for you today: (1) God understands your pain. He is the suffering Father in this parable. (2) Don’t jump to rescue your prodigal. The father didn’t go to the slums and try to pull his son out. That would have been tragic. The son had to realize his own mistake. God used his circumstance in the pigpen to bring him to that realization. Some of you have kids in the pigpen right now and you want to run and rescue them. I know it hurts, but they must come to their own point of total desperation before the seek God. You cannot force them to seek God; they must choose Him on their own.
(3) Let them know the door is open. Don’t go to the pigpen, but never slam the door and tell your child they are never welcome back into your home. Let them know you’ll leave the light on for them, whenever they are ready to repent. (4) Receive them when they repent. True fellowship can never be restored until your prodigal child has repented. They may return, but if they don’t repent, the problem is not solved; it is only aggravated.
And the same is true of us if we are prodigal children of our heavenly Father. If you need His forgiveness, He is waiting for you to come to Him. No matter what you’ve done, He will embrace you with open arms.
Let’s celebrate the grace of our Father by singing “Amazing Grace!”