Luke, chapter 15, begins with “the parable of the lost sheep.” This parable illustrates how God views those who stumble through life without any knowledge of His true way. The parable was precipitated by an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees. The account goes as follows: “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:1-2). Jesus then answered:

What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth (Luke 15:4-10).

Christ did not disparage the just in this parable. Rather, He shows that there is great cause for rejoicing when a sinner repents. It is God’s desire that all men be just. But being just does not include self-righteousness-the problem of the Pharisees. Jesus criticized their attitude on numerous occasions. They did not care about lost sinners. They only cared about themselves-how great their reputation was in the sight of men. Notice what we read in Luke 18:9-12: “And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.” This example is the epitome of self-righteousness, a far cry from the attitude of Christ who showed that even the angels in heaven rejoice over a repentant sinner.

The parable in Luke 15:4-10 is another realistic example of the same thing. We have all experienced losing something, then finding it again. It is a happy, heartwarming experience. But there is no joy in failing to find the lost item. Likewise, great joy is experienced in heaven and at God’s throne when those lost spiritually are found and when the sinner repents. This is the attitude the just must have, not that of condescending, or disregarding those who have not yet repented.

Notice how James explained this same principle. We read: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19-20). Salvation is a matter of life and death-for all eternity. The angels rejoice because they understand this great goal. They understand the purpose and plan of God.

In His answer to the Pharisees, Jesus really got to the heart and core of the matter. This is found in Luke 15, verses 11-32. It is one of the most important parables in the Bible. Let us notice how it begins: “And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living” (Luke 15:11-13).

This young man wished to exercise his independence. He may have wanted to get away from authority or from his father’s supervision. He demanded his inheritance. He would now be able to “do his own thing.” And what did he do? The Greek text says, “he wasted his property living dissolutely,” or “he wasted his substance to the destroying of himself.” In other words, he brought about his own destruction by misusing his inheritance. Like many people today, he could not appreciate or handle money properly. Then what happened? “And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want” (Luke 15:14). Since his money had been spent, his “friends” no longer had any interest in him. He was destitute and desperate. No one was willing to help. In despair, “. . . he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine” (Luke 15:15).

To the Jews this was the most despicable of occupations. In the Bible swine are regarded as unclean, not suitable for human consumption (Lev. 11:7, Deut. 14:8). Anyone who lives in hog-raising country, or has passed through, knows the kind of smell that is generated on a hog farm. The young man had gone from bad to worse. He had not prepared himself for any emergency, so he was reduced to accepting the lowest occupation available. He was now a flunkey, the low man on the totem pole. “And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him” (Luke 15:16). How much lower could he get? How much more humiliation must he experience to realize his mistake?

Then reality hit him. “And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!” (Luke 15:17). Bible commentators say the expression “came to himself” means he returned to his sanity. This young man, like many of us, had to first experience the realities of life before he could appreciate the benefits he had enjoyed. God allows us all to learn by our mistakes. Circumstances, brought on by poor judgment and ignorance, often pummel us severely. This young man was now coming to realize his foolishness and folly. He was seeing life as it really is, not the way he thought it was, or wanted it to be. For the first time he saw the fruits of his fantasy. He was now learning what the real world is all about. His spirit of self-assurance and independence was now gone. He humbled himself and was willing to do the most menial task his father asked.

“I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before the, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (Luke 15:18-19). For the first time the real teaching and training of his youth, not really grasped at that time, began to sink in. He realized his offence was not only toward his earthly father, but his heavenly Father as well. His spirit was now broken. He did not return with the attitude that as soon as he was on his feet financially, he would go back to his former way of life. Now in a proper frame of mind, he had regained his senses.

In this parable Jesus is illustrating true repentance and humility. The lesson here is that in the relationship the young man had with his physical father, we see a type of the relationship we have with our heavenly Father. It shows God’s attitude toward the sinner who repents, and what the attitude of the sinner should be toward God. How many times have we acted in the same way toward God as this young man? But notice! How did the father react to the humility and repentance of his son?

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry (Luke 15:20-24).

Jesus here is illustrating the kind of compassion and forgiveness God grants when we repent before Him. The parable is really showing man’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with a sinner. When we examine the parable, we can only imagine how the father must have felt. Here he witnessed the abject humility, remorse, and repentance on the part of his son. It is unlikely the father would have responded in the manner he did had he seen arrogance, self-justification, and faultfinding. He would have immediately realized his son had learned nothing. But what he saw was that the son had learned, and learned well. The real lesson here is spiritual. Jesus is illustrating that as sinners we are as spiritually dead as this young man. But by repentance we are brought back to life again. Few of us grasp the great magnificence of God’s compassion and love. The elder brother didn’t. In the parable he was incensed that his father could have been so lenient.

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him (Luke 15:25-28).

God’s forgiveness of the sinner is often much greater than that of man. In the parable, the father had a much greater grasp of the significance of what had happened. He could see that the younger son had turned his life around, that he was like a man resurrected from the dead. The elder brother could only regard the father’s kindness and forgiveness as favoritism. He could not comprehend how such a wastrel could be accepted back into the fold. The parable illustrates not only how God the Father views one who turns his life around, but also shows the unwillingness of the self-righteous to forgive.

The older brother had to learn what was really behind this occasion. So, his father went out and entreated him. “And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf” (Luke 15:29-30).

But, notice the father’s reply: “And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31-32). What the father made plain to the elder brother was this: Not only had his younger brother lost his inheritance, he had virtually lost his life. The older son was heir to all the father had, but even more importantly he had not lost his life. Therefore, there was great cause for rejoicing. The younger son had, for all practical purposes, been brought back from the dead! The parable illustrates how God the Father views one who has repented-one who has been brought back from the brink of spiritual damnation.

Human nature being what it is, it is not difficult to see why so many make the wrong choices in life. The Apostle Paul tells us: “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19). The young man in the parable wasted his substance on riotous living. His elder brother pointed out that the younger brother had spent his inheritance on harlots. The desire and interest in material pleasures and things is what drives most people throughout life. Yet, in the end, one cannot take these things with them. In the long run they do not really satisfy. What did the prophet Isaiah say? “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness” (Isa. 55:2). What is the true delight-the true bread of life? Isaiah says: “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isa. 55:1). Isaiah is talking about the spiritual necessities of life-those things that are absent from the lives of most people.

Many humans seem unable to learn from experience. Their own wickedness fails to correct them. Perhaps Solomon describes it best: “This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Eccl. 9:3). But we should be able to learn from our mistakes. The prophet Jeremiah wrote: “Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord GOD of hosts” (Jer. 2:19). The young man in the parable certainly found this to be true. Like him, many have ruined their lives and are now suffering the bitter results of their own way-a way of life that is contrary to the will of God. The fact is: Some of the consequences of the wrong choices people make can never be erased or undone. But they can be forgiven, as Jesus clearly illustrates in this parable.

The young man in the parable lacked understanding. He had no appreciation of the spiritual laws God has set in motion. He failed to realize that when they are broken, they exact an automatic penalty. As a result he suffered dearly. But notice what the Apostle Paul has to say about God’s kindness and grace when one repents: “Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). Sometimes, when some are given enough rope to hang themselves, and when enough suffering has occurred, they do turn to God in repentance. As the parable demonstrates, God is very willing to forgive and accept such a one into His good graces. The young man acknowledged his sin against both his earthly father and his heavenly Father. As a result he was forgiven. The physical example of the father and the son in this parable illustrates the spiritual relationship we can have with God the Father.

All human beings are guilty of sin in the sight of God (Rom. 3:23). Repentance means to acknowledge that sin, and to turn around and go the other way. We must be realistic about human nature and the tendency not to own up to our faults. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8-10).

We begin by acknowledging our sins, then repenting by changing from the way of life that is contrary to God’s Law. As noted, even the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner repents. Jesus emphasized this more than once: “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). “I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).

Luke, chapter 15, began with the accusation the Pharisees made against Jesus-that He fellowshipped with sinners. Jesus understood His purpose. The Pharisees didn’t. One purpose of Christ was to lead sinners to a deep repentance (Matt. 9:13). The chapter also explains why we should rejoice when sinners repent. The Pharisees could only condemn. They had no room for compassion and forgiveness in their hearts. The elder brother was like the Pharisees. He needed instruction to help him realize that true repentance can be likened to a man rising from the dead. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1-2).

Yes, indeed! “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32).