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When the prodigal son returned to his father, he was humble and repentant. His father saw this and did not need to remind his son of all the mistakes he had made in the past. He was just glad to get back his son, whose disastrous condition and hunger (for the word) had driven him to return home. So Luke 15:22-24 says,
22 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; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” And they began to be merry.
The father’s love toward the prodigal matched Jesus’ love toward the publicans and sinners who had come to Him. To come to Jesus was to return to the One who had sent Him—our heavenly Father. It did not mean that these publicans and sinners (or harlots) were continuing in their sin, for how can we continue in sin that grace may abound? Rather, Jesus’ love removed the bitterness and gave them new hearts, so that the Spirit of God could begin to write His laws within them.
Near and Far
Perhaps one of the Scriptures from which Jesus drew His revelation was from Isaiah 57:17-19. It speaks of God hiding His face from the unjust (vs. 17), but then says,
18 “I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and to his mourners, 19 creating the praise of the lips. Peace, peace to him who is far and to him who is near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.”
Rabbi David long ago commented on this passage, as quoted by Lightfoot:
“In this place the penitent is said to be far off, and the just is to be nigh, according to the ancients: but he that is far off is preferred; whence they say, The penitents are better than the perfectly just.”
(John Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, p. 156)
“As if this obtained amongst them all as a rule or maxim; when indeed the words of Kimchi are these: “He that is far off, that is, he that is far off from Jerusalem, and he that is near, that is, he that is near to Jerusalem. But there is a dispute in the words of our Rabbins about this matter… some of them interpret it otherwise; for they expound him that is afar off as to be understood of the penitent, and him that is near as meaning the just; from whence they teach and say, That the penitent are better than those that are perfectly just.” (Lightfoot, p. 156)
Lightfoot tells us that the Rabbis disagreed on which man was preferred by God.
“Some, indeed, that do so expound it, say, that those that are penitent are to be preferred before those that are the perfectly just, but this was not the common and received opinion of all. Nay, the more general opinion gave so great a preference to perfect righteousness, that repentance was not to be compared with it.” (Lightfoot, p. 156)
It appears that these opinions were already being circulated in Jerusalem and Judea by the time that Jesus uttered His parable. Perhaps he was siding with the minority opinion that God preferred the penitent on the grounds that the “perfectly righteous” (elder brother) did not share the same heart of love as his father. As Jesus said in Luke 7:47, “he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
The fact is that we have all gone afar from God, for Isaiah 53:6 says, “all of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” In other words, everyone is a prodigal son in his own way, even the “elder brother.” The difference is that the prodigal knows he has gone astray, for he is penitent, whereas the elder brother never saw himself as having gone afar from God and therefore found no need to repent.
Hence, the prodigal son parable brings forth perceptions more than reality. We would expect this from a parable, though some have taken the “righteousness” of the elder brother to be actual instead of an ironical statement.
The Robe of Righteousness
When the prodigal returned, his father first gave him a robe—and not just any robe, but “the best robe” (Luke 15:22). This represents the “robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10) which was to be given to Israel upon her restoration. Recall that Jesus quoted Isaiah 61:1, 2 at the start of his ministry (Luke 4:18, 19), showing that He had been sent “to proclaim release to the captives.” The “robe of righteousness” in Isaiah 61:10, which is given to Israel at the end of her captivity, is part of the extended prophecy of the Messiah’s mission.
This robe of righteousness was given to the prodigal son because it was clear that he had repented and had returned to his father. His heartfelt repentance and humility is easily seen in his opening statement to his father. There is no way to assume that his father would have sent him this robe while he was yet feeding the swine.
Repentance is Required
Prophetically speaking, when the lost House of Israel returns, they will follow the prodigal’s pattern of repentance, as was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:6-14.
6 For there shall be a day when watchmen on the hills of Ephraim shall call out, “Arise, and let us go up to Zion [now Sion, the heavenly mountain of God], to the Lord our God.”… 7 Proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O Lord, save [yasha] Thy people, the remnant of Israel.’ 8 Behold, I am bringing them from the north country, and I will gather them from the remote parts of the earth… a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and by supplication I will lead them… For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is My first-born.
It is clear from this prophecy that Israel would return to their heavenly Father with repentance. They say with the prodigal son, “arise, and let us go up to Zion.” They pray, “O Lord, save Thy people,” using the verb yasha, “to save,” which is the root of Jesus’ Hebrew name, Yeshua.
They come from a far country, as does the prodigal, and when they come, they are “weeping” as repentant people. In times past, this passage was understood correctly that Israel would not return until they had repented. But in the past century, with the rise of Zionism, many dropped the requirement that the people repent and call upon Yeshua before returning. Because the tribes of Israel were lost, most assumed that the Jews were the Israelites returning to the old land under the Zionist movement. Surely, many came with great emotion and weeping, for their return met their own hopes and dreams. But almost all of them continued to reject Christ, and therefore, they did not really return to the heavenly Father. In John 14:6 Jesus says,
6 … I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
Acts 4:12 also says,
12 And there is salvation [Yeshua] in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved [yasha].
The mistaken belief that the Jews were Israel made it difficult for men to see that Zionism was only a counterfeit of the real return of Israel to the Father. Up to 1948 Christian teachers everywhere believed that the Jews would repent by the time their nation was established. When that did not happen, they said it would surely happen within 3½ years, by the middle of The Great Tribulation, which (they said) started in 1948 with the Arab war.
When 1952 arrived with still no sign of a massive turn to Jesus Christ, they said it would surely happen at the end of The Tribulation, that is, by 1955. When this failed to occur, they quietly dropped the requirement altogether. If they had understood the difference between Israel and Judah, they might have avoided this mistake. If they had known that prodigal son and the elder brother represented Israel and Judah, they might have been able to interpret prophecy more accurately.
Finally, if they had understood the Law of Tribulation, they would have known the mind of God in this matter. God foretold the requirement by which Israel was to end their exile, saying in Leviticus 26:40-42,
40 If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me [that is, Yeshua], and also in their acting with hostility against Me [Yeshua]— 41 I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.
Israel’s exile to Assyria, as well as Judah’s exile at the hands of Rome, were both to continue until they acknowledged and confessed their hostility to Yeshua with humility. This is the law, from which Jeremiah drew his prophecy. The prophecy came in the context of the New Covenant, which the prophet describes a few verses later in the same chapter. The fulfillment of the prophecies of Israel’s return, then, must be seen in reference to the New Covenant, for only by ceasing one’s hostility toward Jesus Christ can one truly “return” to the heavenly Father.
Anyone can return to a piece of land. But to “turn” or “return” prophetically, in the Hebrew language, is also to turn toward God “repent” before Him. True repentance in the sight of God is to turn to Jesus Christ. There is “salvation” in no other name, for His Hebrew name literally means “salvation,” and hence, every time the Scriptures speak of salvation or of being saved, it prophesies of Yeshua, or Jesus Christ.
Both Israel and Judah rejected Jesus Christ. Israel rejected Him before His incarnation on earth, while Judah rejected Him during His time on earth. Both nations went into exile for the same sin of rejecting Christ. Both went afar off from the Kingdom of God. The only way back is through Christ and the New Covenant. While many individuals have already done so, the national fulfillment of this prophetic “return” is yet future.
To this day, unbelieving Jews as a whole have retained the attitude of the elder brother, rather than that of the prodigal son. The prophesied return of Israel is not found in Zionism, nor even in Christian Zionism, but only in the acceptance of Jesus as the Christ and in the adoption of the New Covenant of which He was the only Mediator.