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Under famine conditions, the prodigal son finally throws off his stupidity and comes to his senses. He realizes that good food is not to be found outside his father’s house (the Kingdom). In the beast systems, all that can be eaten is the little horn’s food (teaching).
Luke 15:20, 21 says,
20 And 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. 21 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.”
The father did not try to seek him out early, but he was eagerly watching for the first sign of his son’s return. It is a lesson in the character of our heavenly Father, who shows no sign of being the stern, aloof judge as many picture Him. This father in the parable did NOT say to his son, “Well, what do you have to say for yourself? Confess to me all of your sins and I will tell you what sort of penance you must do before you can set foot in my house.”
The son’s return itself was a repentance, a change of mind, a newly-found belief that his own way had only brought disaster. As long as the son used his inheritance in a far country, apart from his father’s house, he squandered it on fleshly things. But when he returned, he had lost that youthful confidence in the flesh. He left his father’s house in pride and returned in humility.
In returning, he received abundant grace and love beyond measure. This is yet to be fulfilled in prophecy.
The return of the prodigal had an immediate fulfillment in Jesus’ ministry, as the sinners gathered to hear the word. Jesus treated them as the father had treated the prodigal son. He did not demand that they come to Him with a list of their sins and repent for each of them individually. He did not frighten them away with threats of hellfire and brimstone. He drew them with love and fed them with truth. He instilled in them a ray of hope that perhaps they might still be accepted of their heavenly Father. And as they drew near, they found that their heavenly Father was more anxious to forgive than they were to repent.
So while the scribes and Pharisees, like the elder brother, grumbled over the fact that Jesus had not properly vetted these sinners to make sure that they had truly repented, Jesus looked at their hearts and saw their silent repentance with faith, transformed thinking, and the start of a new way of life in the Father’s house.
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.
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)
Lightfoot continues on page 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 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.
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.
The very act of returning is an act of repentance, for that is the meaning of the term. Prophetically speaking, when the lost House of Israel returns, they will follow the prodigal’s pattern of repentance, as was prophesied in Jer. 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 Lev. 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.
To understand the prophecies of Israel’s return, then, they must be seen as occurring under the headship of Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant, for only by ceasing from one’s hostility toward Jesus Christ can one “return” to the heavenly Father.
Anyone can return to a piece of land. But to “turn” or “return” prophetically, in the Hebrew language, is to turn toward God and to “repent” before Him. True repentance in the sight of God is to turn to Jesus Christ, the God who spoke to Moses and later became Yeshua. 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.
The father gave the returning prodigal not only “the best robe” but also a ring on his hand. Dr. Bullinger calls it a “signet ring,” that is, a ring which was used to imprint soft wax as a signature or to seal a scroll. When Joseph was given authority over Egypt, “Pharaoh took off his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand” (Gen. 41:42). It meant that Joseph had the authority to sign official documents in the name of Pharaoh. The purpose of a signet ring is seen in Esther 8:8,
8 Now you write to the Jews as you see fit, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for a decree which is written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s signet ring may not be revoked.
In a New Covenant context, the children of God pray in the name of Jesus because they carry the signet ring of Christ. They have the authority to sign decrees in the name of King Jesus, knowing that such decrees cannot be revoked without their consent. Of course, in such cases, those children of God must be authorized to make such decrees, for God does not often give signet rings to spiritual babes, lest they should use the ring selfishly and for carnal advantage.
Judah also had a signet ring (Gen. 38:25). No doubt it was passed down from generation to generation to each prince of the tribe holding the scepter of Judah. But when the kings of Judah were about to be judged by God for their rebellion, Jeremiah was instructed to go to the king’s house and prophesy against him (Jer. 22:18). God tells the prophet in Jer. 22:24 and 25,
24 “As I live,” declare the Lord, “even though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were a signet ring on My right hand, yet I would pull you off; 25 and I shall give you over into the hand of those who are seeking your life, yes, into the hand of those whom you dread, even the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and into the hand of the Chaldeans.”
Here the dominion mandate, which had been given to Judah, was represented by God’s signet ring. The king of Judah was supposed to rule the people by the will of God, as if the king were a signet ring on God’s hand. But God then gave the dominion to the king of Babylon. After the Babylonian captivity, God then made Governor Zerubbabel like a signet ring, for we read in Haggai 2:23,
23 “On that day,” declares the Lord of hosts, “I will take you, Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, my sevant,” declares the Lord, “and I will make you like a signet ring, for I have chosen you,” declares the Lord of hosts.
Zerubbabel was the one chosen to lead the captive Judahites back to the old land (Ezra 2:1, 2). In a sense, he represented the company of prodigals who were returning to the Father, and so the prodigals received Zerubbabel as a signet ring.
The father also gave his returning prodigal “sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22). Sandals are part of the spiritual armor of God in Eph. 6:15,
15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace.
The gospel of peace on one’s feet means that one’s walk with God brings peace, rather than violence and physical warfare. The contrast is the same as between the Sword of the Spirit and the physical sword. Carnal warfare kills people; spiritual warfare is designed to bring life.
While in the far country, the prodigal had been shod with carnal shoes, but upon his return to the father, he was given new shoes to signify a new walk and a new way of life.
Luke 15:23 says that the prodigal’s father made a feast, saying, “bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry.” The main purpose of this feast was to celebrate the prodigal’s return. Perhaps one might also see in this the sacrifice of Christ, which made grace and forgiveness of sin possible.
We are now introduced to the older brother in this parable. Up to now, we had not heard of him since the opening statement in verse 11, “a certain man had two sons.” The parable until this point had focused totally upon the younger son. But in Luke 15:25-27 we finally hear of the older brother’s activities:
25 Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things might be. 27 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.”
First, we see that the older brother had not left home in the same way that his younger brother had departed. Both sons were away from home, but the older son was working in the field. He was not present when the prodigal son had returned. Neither did the father send for him. He simply returned at the end of the day from laboring in the field, only to discover then that his brother had returned.
The party was going on without him. He had been forgotten in the joy of celebration. All the attention was going to the foolish son who had returned, instead of to the older son who had never gone into the far country. At first we might have some sympathy for the older brother, because it appeared that he had done all things correctly and had never fallen into open sin and “loose living” as his younger brother had done.
But then we see the older brother’s true character. Though he worked hard, his heart was not right. It is plain that Jesus was identifying the older brother with His critics, the grumbling scribes and Pharisees. Luke 15:28 says,
28 But he became angry, and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began entreating him.
The older son’s refusal to “go in” to the feast is the same as what we have already seen in Jesus’ parable in Luke 14:16-24. In that earlier parable, the main lesson was about priorities, for those who had been invited first claimed to have more important things to do. So the Jews in Jesus’ day had received the first invitation, but when they refused, the house was filled with others who seemed less deserving of such a feast.
In the prodigal son parable, the older brother also refused to attend the feast, but here we are given different reasons. Mostly, he was angry at his father for honoring a repentant sinner more than a righteous worker such as himself. This was, in fact, the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees who grumbled that Jesus would accept into fellowship those who had been excommunicated by the temple as “sinners.”
Yet we see also irony in the picture of the older son’s apparent righteousness. Jesus was careful not to accuse them of having an unrighteous life style. Instead, He took them to task on matters of the heart. They did not have the heart of the Father for whom they were working. They had a religion based upon works, doing acts of righteousness (as seemed good in their understanding of the law), but they did not know God’s heart.
The prodigal represents Joseph first, and by extension all of the “gentiles” with whom the tribes of Israel were associated in their captivity. As “lost sheep,” they were sentenced by the law of tribulation to worship false gods in the lands of their captivity (Deut. 28:64). Judah, however, had not been exiled (yet). Hence, the older brother in the parable had always been at home with his father. And yet he was away from his father as long as he was working in the field. This illustrates how one can be separated from our heavenly Father by our very works that we think are pleasing to Him.
The parable shows clearly that God is more interested in our heart than in our works. If one’s heart is right, his works will be acceptable, but if his heart is not right, his works cannot please God. Heb. 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.”
The older brother’s anger at his father also pictured Judah’s continued hostility toward God, and also to Christ. Such hostility was condemned in the law of tribulation in Lev. 26:40-42, as we have already seen. So when the father entreated the older brother to come to the feast and join the celebration, we read of his response in Luke 15:29 and 30,
29 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 kid, that I might be merry with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him.”
The older son claimed to “have never neglected a command of yours.” But early in Jesus’ ministry, He said in Luke 5:31, 32,
31 … It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Paul, too, speaks of both kinds of righteousness in Phil. 3:9,
9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.
Righteousness that is “derived from the law” is always flawed, because “there is none righteous, not even one” (Psalm 14:3; Rom. 3:10). It is not the law that is flawed, but man himself. Any man who claims—as did the older brother—to have never neglected one of God’s commands simply does not know his own heart, nor does he know the heart of God.
The older son also refused to recognize the prodigal son as his brother, calling him, “this son of yours.” There was an obvious breach between the two (i.e., Israel and Judah) that needed to be healed. In a more local fulfillment, there was a huge breach between the religious leaders and the excommunicated sinners in the land. The religious leaders used the law to punish sinners. If they had known the heart of God, they would have used the law to restore them to fellowship. In the heart of God, the purpose of the law was to correct sinners, not to destroy them.
The father is given the final word in this parable, telling the older brother in Luke 15:31, 32,
31 And he said to him, “My child, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”
Prophetically speaking, the older brother was the nation of Judah in Jesus’ day. Although they had gone to Babylon for seventy years some centuries earlier, they had never been divorced from God, as we see with the House of Israel (Jer. 3:8). Judah’s condition differed from that Israel, in that they remained under a covenant relationship with God. They had continued access to the Scriptures, and if they had truly feasted upon the word, it might have been absolutely true that “all that is mine is yours.” It was available, but as part of the irony, the word had not truly taken root in their hearts at all.
The older brother called the prodigal “this son of yours,” but the father called him “this brother of yours.” The lost House of Israel, having been divorced from God, found themselves as “gentiles” among the nations. From the standpoint of the law, they were classified as the nations, no longer under the covenant, no longer married to God. They were despised by the Judeans, who considered all the nations to be idolaters, dogs, and unclean. The breach was very clear, and Luke’s purpose was to point out Jesus’ teachings that might repair and heal the breaches.
The Judean attitude comes out clearly in the parable of the prodigal son. At the same time, the contrasting attitude of our heavenly Father is set forth. He rejoiced that the son who had been “dead” was now alive, a reference to the prophecy of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:12,
12 Therefore prophesy and say to them, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I will open your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel’.”
The father also rejoiced that his lost son was now found, a reference to the lost sheep of the House of Israel whom the Good Shepherd personally sought and found, as prophesied in Ezekiel 34:11,
11 For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.”
This, of course, ties this parable to the first two parables in the series.