Arm Yourself – Prodigals

August 17, 2009 at 6:30 am | Posted in Christianity | Leave a comment
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There is a large, and growing, class of individuals in the church today (especially in America). This group is known by many and even seems to have their own passage of scripture:

And He said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men. So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24)

These people are commonly known as prodigals, backsliders, or carnal Christians. Whatever you call them, they are people who were saved when they were younger, fell/walked/ran away from God (“got off the path”) and lived in sin for a time, and then came back to the faith. When this parable is preached, it is often directed to this group of people and used to remind them that even when they leave their Father to pursue sin, He is watching and waiting for them everyday, looking for them to come back. If they would just get up out of the muck and mire that their sin has gotten them into, and walk back toward God, He will run to them, love on them, and bring them back with great joy.

I have a problem with this though. The problem comes when I try to reconcile this with other passages of scripture. The biggest discrepancy comes when I try to reconcile this with the book of 1 John. I have been studying the book of 1 John for about 9 weeks now and I have been overwhelmed by just how much I didn’t understand and how wrong I was about some of the things that I was taught as a new Christian. It was a slap in the face to me and I was forced to be brutally honest, but God has done great things in my life and the life of my church because of it. It was also a refreshing change from what is commonly preached in many churches across the country. The biggest problem between the parable and 1 John comes in identifying the younger son. Scripture says that the younger son left on a journey to a distant country and wasted his inheritance on riotous living. It is later said that some of this money was spent on prostitutes as well. It is obvious that the young man was living in (practicing) sin. 1 John 3:8 says that the one who practices sin is of the devil. If the young man in the parable was practicing sin, and the one who practices sin is of the devil, how could he represent a Christian who falls away from the faith?

John goes on to say (in verse 10) that the children of God and the children of the devil are OBVIOUS! He says that those who do not practice righteousness, or love their brother, are not of God. He also says that the one who sins doesn’t know Him and has never seen Him (3:6). He says that those who know Him keep His commandments (2:3-4) and that they walk in the same manner that He walked (2:6). This presents a dilemma then. We have two passages of scripture that contradict each other. Either the book of 1 John is wrong or the parable that Jesus Himself spoke in Luke 15 is wrong. But, if they are both scripture, and all scripture is God-breathed, and God doesn’t lie then what’s going on here? Being a Christian, I know that God doesn’t lie. I also know that the Word does not contradict itself, so I know that the common interpretation of at least one of these passages of scripture is incorrect. Being the simple, straightforward man that I am, when I read 1 John, it seems pretty clear. John says that if you do certain things (practice sin, don’t keep the commandments, do not love your brother, etc.) you are of the devil. That seems really hard to misinterpret. 1 John was written to John’s “little children” to combat Gnosticism. It lays out in black and white how you can know if someone is a true Christian or not. For John, it was obvious who was who and there was no gray area. This means that I have to look at the parable and see if there is another interpretation that makes better sense of the parable and doesn’t contradict what I’ve seen in 1 John. When I look at the parable, I have to understand that when Jesus told a parable, it was an illustration used to point out (usually) one major truth.

There is one thing that is often overlooked by those who preach on the “prodigal” son – context. The context of the passage is the key to understanding the purpose of the parable. Let’s look at the context of the passage:

Now all the tax collectors and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. Both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1-10)

This short passage of scripture contains a lot of information that will help us to understand the parable of the “prodigal” son. The very first verse is important. Jesus had been followed by crowds of people and verse one of chapter fifteen says that He was surrounded by tax collectors and sinners. To the pious, self-righteous Jews these were the lowest of the low. Tax collectors were Jews who were collecting taxes from their fellow Jews for the Roman Empire. This was treasonous to many people. Sinners were just as bad and the Pharisees looked down on them. It was so bad that the Pharisees considered anyone who spent time with either group unclean. There is something special about this group though. Verse one says that the surrounded Jesus so that they could listen to Him. When the scribes and Pharisees saw this, they grumbled because Jesus received them; and a Rabbi was not supposed to do that. Jesus hears them grumbling and immediately responds with a parable. He tells them about a shepherd who has 100 sheep and loses one. The man leaves the 99 sheep in a safe place and goes to look for the one that is lost. When it is found, He brings it back to the flock and rejoices, even calling to his neighbors to join in the celebration. Jesus then tells the Pharisees that, “in the same way there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need repentance”. There is something interesting about this though. The Bible says that there is no one who is righteous (Ps. 14, Romans 3:10). This means that everyone needs repentance. When I’ve heard this part preached, it is always a comparison between sinners and Christians. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, it is a comparison between two types of sinners, one who recognizes that they are a sinner and 99 who think that they don’t need to repent because they are already righteous. Jesus immediately goes into another parable. He tells them about a woman who has ten silver coins, each worth a day’s wages. She loses one and sweeps her house clean and carefully searches to find the coin. When she does find it, she rejoices and calls her neighbors to rejoice with her. Again, Jesus tells the Pharisees that, “there will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents”. He then tells them the parable of the “prodigal” son.

The problem is that when many are preaching the parable, they stop at verse 24. It is the only part that deals with “prodigals” and that is their focus. But, by doing this, they leave out a very important part of the context that helps make the point of the parable evident:

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'” (Luke 15:25-32)

The elder son is angry with the father for blessing a son that he sees as a wretched, sinful man. Meanwhile, the elder son says that he’s never once disobeyed his father’s command. Now, come on. Would someone believe that anyone other than Jesus Himself would obey his or her parents completely? I didn’t think so. The elder son sees no reason for all of the celebration. He’s upset that his brother is getting all of the celebration and attention, even though his brother has come home and is saved. His father says that they had to celebrate because his brother was dead and has begun to live; was lost and has been found.

With the proper context, there is no contradiction. Jesus is surrounded by sinners. The Pharisees grumble about them and Jesus immediately tells them three parables about lost things being found and the joy that results in heaven. In the third, the elder son claims to have never disobeyed a command of the father and has always been there. He complains about the lost son being found. This is exactly what the Pharisees were doing with those surrounding Jesus. They complained about those who were lost, while proclaiming their heritage, devotion, and personal piety regarding God and His Law. Some may still not see how this shows there are no such things as prodigals. The younger son was living a lifestyle of sin. According to 1 John 3:8, those who do that are not saved – they are lost. Not only that, the word that Jesus uses for son when talking about the younger man is huios. While this word can mean son/daughter/descendant, it can also mean one of a class of people. The word that is used for the elder son is teknon. This word only means son/daughter/descendant. If they were the same, why would Jesus use two different words?

In a general sense, we are all God’s children because He made us. This makes each of us one of a special class of things. But, those who obey Him and have been saved are His sons and daughters. This brings about an interesting thought about the doctrine of “once saved, always saved” (OSAS). Many who believe in OSAS use this parable for support. I don’t believe this parable supports OSAS. But, I do believe in OSAS. I believe that if someone is truly saved, they will never fall away. How could they? What could the world offer them that could come close to what Jesus has given them? This takes us back to 1 John. There is often some confusion about 1 John in regards to sin. The first chapter says that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. It says if we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar. In the third chapter, it says that the one who practices sin is of the devil and that no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. In chapter 2 however, it says that if any man sins, we have an Advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous. But, how can Jesus be our Advocate with the Father if we are of the devil? Confused yet?

All of the confusion disappears with a little of knowledge of verb tenses. In Greek, the verb tenses tell you a lot about the verb that isn’t always translated into English. It is an emphasis on the kind of action taking place and not the time of the action. For example, 1 John 3:6 says that no one who abides in Him sins. The verbs abide and sins both have the same tense attached to them. In this case they are both using the perfect tense. The Greek perfect tense denotes a continuous action. So, the verse could say: No one who continuously abides in Him continuously sins. No one who continuously sins has seen Him or knows Him. Continuing with verse 8 we see that the one who practices sin is of the devil. Again, the verb “practices sin” is in the perfect tense. So it could read: the one who continuously sins is of the devil; for the devil has continuously sinned from the beginning. We can contrast that with 1 John 2:1:

And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

The word “sins” in this verse is in the Greek aorist tense. This tense describes an action that happens at one point in time. In other words, if anyone sins, at one point in time, we have an Advocate… According to scripture, there is no such thing as a backslider, prodigal, or carnal Christian. Either you’re saved or you’re not. If you “got saved” when you were young and fell away or are still falling away from the faith, you were never saved to begin with! This may be difficult to deal with but it’s what scripture says. To truly be saved, you must repent of your sins (apologize for them and turn from them) and put your trust in Christ alone to save you. If you will do this, then you can know without a shadow of a doubt you’ll go to heaven when you die. God will make you a new creature and all your sins will become detestable to you. It is the most amazing thing that could ever happen to someone and it’s available to you right now…

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