Redemption Stories

Repentance—Not Just for Unconverted Sinners

The word repent and the idea of repentance conjures stereotypical images. Perhaps you imagine someone with a half-crazed look wearing a signboard with the word emblazoned on it— REPENT!

People familiar with the Bible might imagine one of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah or John the Baptizer, whose ministry directly preceded and announced the public ministry of Jesus.

John was not a mainstream kind of person. He wore rough clothing, ate locusts and honey, and lived outside the city limits. If you wanted to hear him, you went to him. He didn't do house calls, and his message was direct and impartial (Matt 3:1-12).

It's time to ditch the stereotypes and misconceptions about repentance.

Strong reactions

Last week I posted Repentance—the Heart of the Matter. I wanted to reframe the concept of repentance in a more biblical sense than what is typically thought or expressed by others.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses. Not all are helpful. Why do the words repent and repentance stir strong reactions? Perhaps the word itself is misunderstood.

This is a follow-up to my previous post but more directed at the value of repentance for Christian believers. The topic of repentance is more typically considered in light of those who are nonbelievers or unconverted—those who are not Christians.

And yet, much of the biblical focus on repentance is directed towards those who believe in God and claim to be His people. The Old Testament is full of examples.

The word repent stirs all sorts of responses—not all are helpful

The meaning of words

Most of the time, we get our understanding of words by how they're used. The words, "Oh, I love you," are understood based on how they're said. It depends on the intent of the speaker—is it spoken with romantic passion or sarcasm? Different intent and tone result in different reactions.

So, it's good to find the original meaning of a word, then understand it within its context. I'll give some biblical examples of this later. But first, some definitions from their Greek origins.

  • Vines Expository Dictionary defines repent (the verb)—to perceive afterwords, and repentance (the noun)—afterthought or change of mind.
  • MR Vincent sheds more light on the subject saying, repentance is the "result of perceiving or observing," or "to think differently after." After what? He points us to what the apostle Paul says in 2 Cor 7:10—Godly sorrow brings repentance....

Repentance is the outcome and action of godly sorrow.

Another perspective

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin. Yes, but why? If repentance is to "think differently after" as MR Vincent puts it, then we ought to consider what precedes this change in thought and behavior.

This understanding, coupled with biblical examples, helps me see repentance as turning to God, which causes us to turn away from sin and our former way of life. I pointed this out last week.

Most often, the idea of repentance is understood as turning away from sin

If you look at the three parables in Luke 15, each focuses on what was lost and found—a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 33). The simple truth of each parable reminds us of the rejoicing in heaven "over one sinner who repents."

In the longer (third) parable, the lost son realizes his situation would be better if he were accepted as a mere servant in his father's household (Luke 15:17-24). The father gives him a very different reception than expected or warranted (see Luke 15:28-32).

God's perspective or our own?

Someone might ask, "Does it really matter? Isn't the idea to change your ways?" This is where our problem lies. We often see repentance as something we need to do.

I've heard many preach and teach this perspective, but is this what we read in the Scriptures? Again, I addressed this in my previous post.

Is repentance based on our own effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace after experiencing God's kindness?

Is repentance our effort to change or a response to God's mercy and grace?

The message of Jesus—Repent!

When Jesus began His public ministry, His message was one of repentance (Matt 4:17). This also was the message John the Baptizer (Matt 3:2, 8). John spoke to the religious and non-religious in a tone that carried a sense of judgment.

Repentance takes place when our mind and actions change after an initial hardness of heart

But when Jesus was confronted with a situation that demanded justice, He showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11). The woman's accusers wanted Jesus to condemn her.

But after Jesus wrote on the ground in front of the men accusing her, they quietly left one by one. Then Jesus said to her— 

“Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11 NKJV)

More examples

Another example of this change of mind after is seen in the parable of the two sons (Matt 21:28-32). This parable illustrates the same mindset of changing the mind and action after the initial response of these two sons to their father.

It also gives insight into how the message of repentance Jesus declared was received by various people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and the Jewish leaders. Those who knew their life was not right with God received it well but the religious leaders rejected His message.

Again, in one of the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus they had abandoned their first love and needed to repent.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5 ESV)
The idea of repentance is a turning back to God as our first love.

A final thought

Repentance is something we all need to practice. It's not just the act of turning away from sin, but turning to God so we may turn from sin. None of us are without sin, no matter how long we've had a personal relationship with God through His grace.

Repentance is something we all need to practice—believers and nonbelievers

In fact, once we have a relationship with Jesus because we experience His forgiveness and the renewal of His Spirit in us (Titus 3:4-7) as we turn to Him in repentance. But believers are to put sin to death, not just turn away from it (Col 3:5). But that's another topic for another time.

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness, not our own effort at goodness. Our own efforts at producing righteousness will meet with repeated failure (Rom 7:15-25). 

But when we turn to God first, He will guide us out of our battle with sin—our selfish nature—(Gal 5:16) and bring transformation from the inside out (2 Cor 3:18).

Repentance is our response to God's kindness and goodness not our effort to be good

I find the need to practice repentance on a daily basis—how about you?

Repentance—the Heart of the Matter

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"You've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jeremiah 2:27 GW). This is what God says to His people through Jeremiah. It's a recurring theme in God's messages through Jeremiah to Judah—the southern kingdom of Israel.

Judah had abandoned the living God for lifeless idols. It wasn't just misplaced worship or foolish religion, it was accompanied with gross immorality and perversion of justice. The behavior of the leaders and people was atrocious. But this wasn't God's main issue.

Although God held His people responsible for their bad behavior, His great lament was how they shunned Him. God spoke through Jeremiah to tell the people they committed two evils. Number one was that they forsook God—the fountain of life-giving water.

My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water. They have also dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jer 2:123 GW)

Repentance isn't about behavior

Repentance is not about behavior, but a renewed relationship. It's a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.

It's not that bad behavior should be ignored or overlooked, but it is secondary. It should change as a result of a changed relationship, not the other way around. When changed behavior is the focus of repentance, God's intent for it is misplaced.

Relationship has always been primary to God. When Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent's temptation, God looked for them because He knew something was wrong. The entire story of redemption began there.

Repentance is a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.

A classic picture of repentance is given in the third of three parables in Luke 15—the Lost Son. The climax is when the lost son returns to his father.

The son's focus is on his own sin, the father looks past the son's sin and filthiness to embrace him and celebrate (Luke 15:11-32).

Forgiveness and restoration

However, we still tend to focus on sin—our own or that of others, and it's lingering effect. That's the picture of the brooding elder son in the parable of Luke 15. We want forgiveness and justice, but often have difficulty accepting forgiveness, or as it's often put, forgiving ourselves

Sadly, when we focus on our own sin or how others have sinned, and the ripple effect of sin—we lose sight of the purpose of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is granted by God to restore our relationship. It's not a means of satisfying His divine justice or wrath against us. Jesus absorbed the penalty of sin upon Himself.

Forgiveness is granted by God to restore relationship not to satisfy divine justice

Righteousness is relational

Of course, things must be made right, but righteousness itself is relational. It's not a theological concept to be understood. Why did the father celebrate the return of his son? Because— 

"My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found" (Luke 15:24 GW).

Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God. As King David requested in his own prayer of repentance, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12).

Repentance is not about "turning over a new leaf," as if making a New Year's resolution. It's about returning to God. There are countless examples of this throughout the Bible.

Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God.

Unfortunately, much well-intentioned teaching and preaching focus on changed behavior as the mark of true repentance.

How about John the Baptist's rebuke at the Jordan River (Matt 3:1-12 GW), you might ask? John spoke of true repentance, not a religious or emotional expression.

Changed behavior is the fruit of genuine repentance, not its essence.

Reconciliation

Redemption is not just forgiveness, it is about reconciliation between God and people. Repentance is returning to God. As God said, "you've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jer 2:27 GW)

God wants people to turn their faces to Him, not their backs. He's not interested in what we can do to make things right because He knows it will fall short and be short-lived.

What repentance is not

Repentance is not remorse, nor emotion, or promises of better behavior. It's a change of heart. A changed heart that leads us back to God, as shown by the lost son in the parable.

Repentance is not behavior modification—"changing our ways" or "making a 180º turn"—on our own, but returning to God—the Father—and receiving His mercy and grace.

Once our relationship is restored—yes, through forgiveness on God's behalf—then true repentance results in a changed life.

Repentance needs to start from the inside—our heart—first. External change—changed behavior—follows our heart change.

When our face is turned to God, our back is turned on sin.

Repentance and redemption

There is no true redemption without genuine repentance. But the essence of repentance is returning to God regardless of any personal cost.

The good news is this—God has covered the cost of failure and sin on the Cross. Our work is to turn our face and trust back to God. Trying to change your behavior on your own is a futile effort and doomed for failure.

There is no true redemption without genuine repentance.

True repentance brings freedom

If you're trying to be a good Christian—stop it! But if you want to turn towards God—go for it!

My wife and I saw the power of repentance and reconciliation in the process of disciplining our young children. First, they needed to realize they did something wrong.

Once it was made clear what they did was wrong, our children's heads dropped and their faces turned sad. They were at a point of repentance.

When a form of correction was applied and a new path of behavior and change of heart was discussed, things were settled and the result was freedom. They were reconciled.

True repentance ought to bring freedom, not brooding or depression.

Going back to the parable in Luke, the father celebrated with the restored son, while the elder son brooded. The elder brother couldn't look past his own expectation of justice and his self-righteousness (Luke 15:28-30).

It's your choice to brood or to rejoice. I prefer joy over whining any day of the week and so does God. How about you?

Back on Track Again—Restoration and Correction

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Every life has its ups and downs, twists and turns, and unexpected changes. How we handle these situations has a lot to do with our character and personality, our upbringing and background, and even our temperament.

One of the wisest men in the world, King Solomon of ancient Israel, concluded—

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl 1:2 NIV)

But he realized—

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens... (Eccl 3:1 NIV)

It's impossible to predict with accuracy what the outcome will be in the events of our life. No one can see that far down the line except God and He keeps us in suspense for our own good.

None of us know for certain how we'll react given a set of circumstances. This is one reason we need redemption. A reconciliation that brings restoration. But God's restoration often includes correction to get us back on track with Him.

An accurate prediction

A recurring problem among the apostles—the 12 specially chosen disciples—was an argument over who was the greatest. This is a universal human argument—who's king of the hill?

But Peter was the point man of the twelve, so Jesus expected more of him.

Jesus knew Judas, one of the twelve, would betray Him and warned all His followers about this. He told Peter that the devil would test him in a great way but he was to "strengthen your brothers" after this took place (Luke 22:31-32).

As typical, Peter protested any thought of weakness in himself and boasted he would never deny the Lord even if all the rest deserted Jesus.

“Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” (Luke 22:33 NIV)

That's you and me. We tend to think of ourselves as the exception to the rule that puts us in the best light.

Then Jesus told Peter something he couldn't imagine happening—

“I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” Luke 22:34 (NIV)

False confidence

Peter's claim turned out to be an empty boast based on false confidence in himself.

As the story unfolds, Jesus is arrested by a mob carrying torches and the once bold disciples ran for their lives. They abandon the one whom they claimed they would follow anywhere no matter the cost.

Peter tries to stay close to where Jesus is held by the Jewish leaders' council but hangs back in an attempt at stealth. His identity is uncovered, first by a servant girl, then by two others who recognize him and his Galilean accent (Luke 22:54-59).

Each time, Peter denies he knows the Lord with increasingly strong words. After the third time, the rooster crows to signal the coming dawn. But for Peter, it's a dark night of the soul.

The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”
And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Luke 22:61-62 NIV)

The Lord's prediction of Peter's three denials pierces his heart with a loving look from Jesus. How far Peter had fallen in his own estimation of himself!

Peter couldn't meet his own expectations, let alone fulfill the Lord's calling on His life.

But all was not lost. And yet, Peter needed to realize his inability to follow the Lord or fulfill His call on Peter's life by his own effort and strength.

Restoration

As mentioned last week, Jesus restored Peter after his three denials by one question repeated three times. The whole story is found in John 21:1-22 and is worth the read.

Here's a condensed version for the sake of a shorter post.

Reversion

Following the Lord's death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to His followers to reaffirm all He taught. He was teaching them to walk by faith, guided by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:2-3).

But things were different now. Jesus was no longer with them in person or so they thought. So, Peter reverted to his livelihood before Jesus called him. He went fishing.

After fishing all night and catching nothing, Jesus appears on the lake shore but they don't realize it's Him. He calls out to them—

“Friends, haven’t you caught any fish?” They answered him, “No, we haven’t.” He told them, “Throw the net out on the right side of the boat, and you’ll catch some.”
So they threw the net out and were unable to pull it in because so many fish were in it. (John 21:5-6 GW)

Just as when Jesus called Peter to follow Him (Luke 5:1-11), a miraculous catch of fish revealed who stood on the shore. Peter responds in his usual impulsive way. He jumps in the water and swims to shore.

Breakfast on the beach

Jesus waits on the shore with fish grilling over burning coals and a loaf of bread. He invites them to eat breakfast and encourages them to add their fish to the grill.

None of the disciples ask Jesus if it's Him. They knew it it was He in their hearts.

Just as when Jesus fed 5000 people, Jesus gave them fish and bread to eat. This was the third time Jesus appeared to them following His resurrection.

All of this sets the table for Jesus to restore Peter but in an expected way.

Do you love Me?

Jesus asks Peter the same question three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than the other disciples do?” (John 21:15-17 GW)

Each time Peter affirms his love for the Lord but he's grieved that the Lord asks Him three times. Each time the Lord gives Peter a strong exhortation—

"Feed my lambs... Take care of my sheep... Feed my sheep!"

Jesus was restoring Peter after the three denials but He also reaffirmed His call on Peter's life.

This happens a lot. God restores and corrects us at the same time.

We want the restoration but the correction hurts our fragile ego. This is proven out in Peter's case as the story continues.

Follow Me!

Once the three-question restoration and correction process is finished, Jesus tells Peter that his life is not going to end as he chooses. But the Lord's admonition is the same as at the beginning—"Follow Me!"

Again, Peter reacts! He looks to his fellow disciple John and wants to know what will happen with his life. But again, Jesus corrects Him. Make that rebukes him—"...what is that to you? You must follow me.”

This last part of the story illustrates our selfish human nature. We want to know how God deals with everyone else when it's different than what the Lord expects of us.

Why does he or she get to do such and such or not have to do the same as me?

This is where following Jesus requires us to commit our lives to Him and Him alone. Following Jesus is a personal commitment to Him, not a set of beliefs to hold or rules for life.

God's restoration connected to correction

In his well-known Psalm 23, David says of the Lord, "He restores my soul" (Ps 23:3). King David, a man after God's own heart, understood the need for correction and restoration.

David experienced God's correction and restoration after his adulterous encounter with Bathsheba. After, he had Bathsheba's husband Uriah murdered. God's correction was connected to God's restoration of David.

God's restoration isn't just a removal of guilt. When Jesus restores us, He enables us to move forward in life by faith to follow Him. He sets things in order in our life as we follow Him by faith.

Jesus is the One who restores us but we need to trust Him to do this and submit to His leadership in our lives.

This includes His correction to get us back on track with His call on our life.

How are things between you and Jesus?

Are you on track with His call on your life to follow Him?


Here's a link to a message I preached related to this post— Back on Track

Back On Track– A story of restoration

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Has your life turned out the way you expected? Probably not. Some life events seem to shove our life off the rails. Then we have to figure out how to get back on track.

Perhaps your dreams of marriage or career didn't quite turn out the way you wanted, so you made adjustments. Many people express a desire to travel but something always seems to get in the way of them doing it. Dreams, ambitions, hopes, expectations all tend to run into road blocks or diversions along the way.

Life is not a straight line! Nor is it a steady trajectory up, although it might seem like a downward spiral at times. Life is full of ups and downs in every facet of life—marriage, family, work, relationships, even plans for vacations or days off.

A logic-defying strategy

Jesus had a strategy for establishing the church but it defied logic. It centered around twelve men He discipled, although one failed to make the cut. Where we see weakness, He saw strength. Even in failure, He saw the opportunity for restoration.

The primary purpose for the Lord Jesus to come, live, die, and rise from the dead was to bring reconciliation and restoration (2 Cor 5:17-21). His resurrection from the dead is a clear illustration of this.

Paul the apostle points this out in Chapter 15 of his first letter to the Corinthian church who were confused about a lot of things. Jesus was the second Adam who brought restoration to all humanity as a life-giving spirit and as the man who came from heaven (1 Cor 15:45-48).

The restoration of Peter

In the last chapter of John's Gospel, Jesus asks Peter the same question three times—"Do you love Me?" Each time Peter answers in the affirmative, Jesus gives him a specific exhortation (John 21:15-19).

This is how Jesus restored Peter after he denied knowing the Lord three times on the night Jesus was betrayed by one of His disciples (Judas) and arrested and condemned to death.

But we need to go back to the beginning to fully understand the significance of this restoration process. There's more to it than reversing Peter's denials. Jesus was setting Peter back on track with his first calling.

The starting point

As we often find in the gospels, when Jesus taught the people pressed in on Him. One of those times Jesus got into the boat of a fisherman named Simon, asked him to push out from the shore while Jesus sat down and taught.

When Jesus finished teaching He asked Peter to launch out into the deeper water and let his nets down to catch some fish. Peter protests at first, "Teacher, we worked hard all night and caught nothing. But if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.”

This discourse between Peter and Jesus became common. The Lord says something, Peter would counter it with his own idea, which brings a correction or sometimes a rebuke by Jesus.

Once the nets are lowered into the deep water they are filled beyond capacity with fish and begin to tear and require Peter's partners to help with the miraculous catch. They fill two boats to the point of sinking with all the fish.

A revelation and a calling

When Peter sees this huge catch he kneels at Jesus' feet and declares, “Leave me, Lord! I’m a sinful person!” The miracle shakes Peter and reveals the nature of this rabbi named Jesus. Peter understood he was in the presence of someone greater than himself.

Everyone else is amazed is amazed by all the fish caught, including Peter's partners, but the miracle had a greater purpose than the excitement it generated.

It was the way Jesus stirred Peter's heart to follow Him. “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will catch people instead of fish.”

Peter, his brother Andrew and partners James and John all left their boats and livelihood to follow Jesus at that time. You can find this story in Luke 5:1-11 (GW).

Peter's confession

As the time drew close for Jesus to fulfill His redemptive mission, He brought His followers to an area above the Galilee region. Caesarea Philippi is a beautiful area for a retreat by the headwaters of the Jordan River.

2 probing questions

While Jesus gathered His disciples together, He asked them what they were hearing about Him—

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matt 16:13 GW)

They told Him some thought Jesus was John the Baptizer back from the dead, possibly Jeremiah or one of the other prophets, even Elijah.

Jesus followed up with a more pointed question—“Who do you say I am?”

Peter immediately blurted out—

"You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt 16:16 GW)

A spiritual revelation

Jesus informs Peter that it wasn't His physical presence or is own intelligence that enabled Peter to know this but through revelation from God the Father.

Jesus replied, “Simon, son of Jonah, you are blessed! No human revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven revealed it to you. (Matt 17:17 GW)

This is a major turning point for His followers. They finally realize who Jesus is and He assures them that His church (followers) will be built on this important confession of truth (Eph 2:20) and they will overcome every obstacle and not be overcome even by the power of hell (Matt 16:18).

[This story is found in Matthew 16:13-18]

On Track

At this point in Peter's life following Jesus is going pretty well. Sure, there are a few bumps along the way and Jesus needs to remind Peter who's in charge, but he seems to be at the top of the class.

Peter evolves into the Lord's point man among the apostles and on track with the call of God for his life. If only it could last.

Tune in next week for the conclusion of Peter's story of restoration. If you can't wait, although I hope you check in next week, here's a link to a message I preached related to this post— Back on Track

Until then—

What seems to be going well at this time in your life?

How have you seen your life get off track at times?

Missing the Point

It's easy to get lost in details and not see the bigger picture or miss the main point of a story or message. It happens more often than not. How often have you done a search on the internet, or wandered around on YouTube or FaceBook and forgotten what you set out to find?

This type of thing happened a lot with Jesus and His teachings. He didn't get lost or miss the point, those who heard Him did. Even when He told parables, those simple stories, they were either misunderstood or those who should understand completely missed the point.

Ironically, in the time of Jesus, it was the educated and religious leaders who most often missed the point of Jesus' teaching and miracles. Funny thing, it's still that way more often than it should be.

Parables and the main point

The parables Jesus told in the Gospels were, for the most part, true-to-life stories intended to teach one simple truth. They're not allegories, although many people try to interpret them as such. They are figurative stories like extended metaphors.

Some are longer than others and appear allegorical, and some are quite short. All have one simple truth or main point. Most of the time this is made clear by the context of the parable—it's cultural and chronological setting.

So we need to understand the parables of Jesus from the original hearer's point of view, as well as how Jesus intended them to be understood.

5 simple keys to understanding parables

  1. Immediate Context— This includes the surrounding Scripture text where the parable is found and its setting, including the cultural and historical context. Here are 3 specific things to look for—
    1. Occasion— understanding the situation of the parable provides insight into why the parable is told.
    2. Setting– this includes the basics of who, what, where, when the parable is told and how it's expressed.
    3. Historical setting– hear the parable through the ears of those who first heard it.
  2. Interpretation— Did Jesus interpret it?
    1. If He did then this is the interpretation! You don't need to make one up or look any further for more interpretation. Look at the context before and/or after the parable text to see if it's interpreted by the Lord.
    2. If it's not interpreted, rely on the context, details in the parable, and look to see if the parable is told in another gospel.
  3. Central Point— This would be the main focus or subject of the parable.
    1. Look for a constant element within the parable. Ex– the seed in the Parable of the Sower.
    2. Seeing the Central Point is key to understanding the one simple truth of the parable.
  4. Major Details— These are the most important parts of the parable that point to the Central Point. They are more important than other minor details that help tell the story.
  5. The Simple Truth— This is the reason why the parable is told. It's the point of the story and is usually indicated by the immediate context (see below for a downloadable guide).

3 linked parables

In Luke Chapter 15, Jesus tells three related parables. Each one focuses on what is lost (the central point). The first one tells of a man who seeks and finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). The second features a woman searching for a lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10).

They are also linked by the setting of the immediate context—

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3 MSG)

All three parables have the same simple truth—rejoicing over a repentant sinner (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 32). The implication is that there is greater rejoicing over the repentant sinner than those who seem to need no repentance (Luke 15:7) and who are not sinners.

But the third parable in the chapter has an extended story with much greater detail than the first two. The target of these parables becomes more apparent as the third story unfolds.

Parable of the lost son

The lost son is the main focus of the parable (Luke 15:11-32) but two other main characters—the father and an elder son—bring the story home, so to speak. 

There's an obvious tension between the religious leaders and many of those who followed and listened to Jesus—the sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Neither one trusted or respected the other but for very different reasons.

This reflects the current tension between what are called the churched and the unchurched and de-churched. Those of us in the church see others as outsiders needing to repent or at least get into church fellowship.

Here's how the story plays out for each of the 3 main characters in the story.

The younger son

This is the primary story (Luke 15:11-21). The younger of two sons asks for his share of the family's inheritance in advance and heads off to a country far away. He quickly wastes his father's wealth living in rebellion to how he was raised.

Things deteriorate quickly when a famine grips the land. The son finally lands a job feeding pigs (an unclean animal under Jewish law) and wishes he could eat the pig's food because he's so destitute.

Here the story turns as he realizes his pitiful situation—

“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! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20a NIV)

The father

The father of these two very different sons is somewhat of an enigma. He willingly gives into the young son who makes a complete mess of his life. When this rebellious failure of a son returns home, he doesn't scold or condemn him but celebrates his return with great fanfare.

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.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 NIV)

For a third time the same simple truth is stated—For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

I love how the father lets his son confess his sin but moves right past it to a celebration! No wonder the son returned home. He knew the nature of his father. He knew how gracious he was! But the other son, well that's the other side of this story.

The elder son

The son who stayed home and worked in the father's field hears the celebration and is puzzled by it, so he calls a servant over to fill him in on what's going on. When he finds out he goes into a sulk and refuses to join the celebration (Luke 15:25-28).

Once again we see the nature of the father who goes out to his oldest son and pleads with him to join them. But this son will have none of it!

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 NIV)

The eldest son was angry, resentful, selfish, self-righteous, stubborn, and defiant towards his gracious and patient father. Obviously, this reflects the attitude of the religious leaders who criticize Jesus for associating with all these sinners (Luke 15:2).

But wait! It sounds an awful lot like you and me.

How often I've found myself angry or resentful and complaining to God about others while God is dealing with my hardened heart. As believers, we are too often more like the elder brother than the younger, and not much like the father. We miss the point of God's gracious nature!

We all have difficulty grasping the enduring mercy and far-reaching grace of God. We like and want God's mercy and grace for ourselves but often think they should be limited when it comes to others. I addressed this somewhat in a previous post.

Personal application

Once we understand a truth we need to apply it in our own life. With parables, once we understand the parable from the point of view of the original hearers then we can look at how it can apply to our life in our present time and culture.

I can relate to the younger son, especially in my younger years. But I can also relate too well to the elder son and more often than I'd like to admit. Who I need to relate to is the father who's just like my Lord Jesus.

I don't always understand how and why God shows such mercy and grace as He does, but I'm thankful for Him doing so. His mercy and grace will always be greater than my sense of justice and righteousness (James 2:13) and I'm glad for that!

Do you have disdain and disgust for some people while denigrating others?

Then it's time to repent and ask God to soften your hardened heart!


Here's a simple guide for understanding and studying parables— Study Guide for Parables


This post is linked to a message I preached along with a couple others that will be posted in the coming weeks. You can find them at– Calvary Chapel Crossville/teachings

The Power of Mercy and Love