Our fourth sermon in our Prodigal Son series at Grace Life helps us to see Jesus’ warning, yet tender call, to the Pharisees who are the proverbial elder sons standing outside the father’s house refusing to come into the party.
The Gospel Call to Pharisees
Luke 15:1-2, 25-32
When we study the Bible as a church and as individual Christians, it’s essential that we examine a passage within its context. When we’ve completed our study of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it’s my hope that we’ll know with full awareness how important the surrounding context is to interpreting God’s Word with precision. Luke’s introduction to the Prodigal Son parable gives us all the context we need to accomplish this.
Luke 15:1-2— Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
The Pharisees and scribes are furious that Jesus is receiving sinners and eating with them! Therefore, the purpose of the Prodigal Son Parable is to give a proper response to their griping. With this emphasis in mind, let’s look again at the fascinating main characters and images Jesus incorporates. These characters and images are illustrations and metaphors that symbolize deeper, spiritual meanings. We shouldn’t go to extremes and try to spiritualize every part of a parable but only the most important ones that push us toward the main point.
1) Father: The father represents God the Father. And Jesus, as the Son of God, came to represent the character and purpose of God the Father (so by extension, Jesus could be said to be the father figure in the story).
2) Younger Son: The younger son represents rebellious sinners like the tax collectors and sinners mentioned in verse 1. By extension, he represents all human sinners because we’ve all rebelled against God our Father.
3) Elder Son: The elder son represents the Pharisees and scribes mentioned in verse 2. They were the religious elite among the Jews that considered themselves moral and righteous. By extension, the elder son represents all human sinners because we’ve all pretended to love God the Father just to make ourselves appear righteous.
4) Robe, Ring, Shoes, and Fattened Calf (vv.22-23): The gifts the father gives to the younger son represent God’s salvation of lost sinners. They are pictures of restoration to a right relation-ship with God and reception into His family. We don’t want to go too far with this, but each gift likely symbolizes various facets of salvation. The robe is a picture of our filthy sin-rags being replaced with Christ’s righteousness. The ring symbolizes our new status as sons and daughters in God’s family. The shoes speak of our new relationship with God in which we now walk with Him. The fattened calf points to God the Father’s sacrifice for us as He slaughtered Jesus on the cross like a calf.
As we’ve concluded, the Pharisees are the self-righteous elder brothers that hate to see undeserving, riff-raff sinners repent and welcomed into God’s family. Therefore, this parable is especially for people like most of us here—we’ve been believers for a while, and it’s easy to slip into a coldhearted attitude toward unbelievers. Let’s put a label on the elder son’s self-righteous attitude. Legal-ism: the belief system that says we can become righteous and earn salvation through our good works.
1. Legalism is based on a slave-master relationship to God (v.29). We see this in the elder son’s three complaints to the father: “ ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I have never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends’ ” (v.29). That’s not how a son who loves his father talks to his father. That’s slave talk. God doesn’t need slaves to serve Him. He’s not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts.17:25).
2. Legalism craves recognition (v.29). The elder son demanded his father acknowledge and appreciate him for his many years of service and obedience. This same craving for recognition is what motivated the Pharisees.
Matthew 23:5a—“They [the Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others. . .”
Craving for attention is still around today. It’s present when you want others to see and hear about all you’re doing for the Lord in the Church, or when you complain that no one is paying you enough attention or is saying “thank you” for your “service”.
3. Legalism harbors disgust toward sinners rather than consistent compassion. You know you’re being an self-righteous jerk when you’re more concerned about the sin of others than your own sin. Our disgust over other people’s sins will manifest itself in bitter words, angry outbursts, gossip, slander, and blame shifting. The reason legalists do these things is they’re trying to earn salvation through good works. They’re trying to make their own sin look tiny by overacting to the sin of others.
Some examples of this that stand out in the Bible include: 1) Adam blaming Eve; 2) Jonah’s anger at God for showing mercy to the Ninevites; and 3) Esau’s frothing anger toward Jacob. The similarities between these Old Testament people and the two prodigal sons is no coincidence. Jesus knows that the Pharisees know the Old Testament inside-out. So, undoubtedly the Pharisees would make the connections, especially with Esau and Jacob.
4. Legalism turns personal convictions into God’s standard for others. The elder son was right to consider the younger son’s sin to be sin, but he was wrong to withhold forgiveness from his younger brother who repentantly and humbly came home to the father. The elder son’s personal conviction was that such sin and sinners were beyond forgiveness and restoration. He then took this personal conviction and called it God’s law.
Too often we too are prone to elevate a personal conviction to equivalent status with God’s Word, and then we feel justified in condemning others for disobedience to our personal conviction. This is where most of the muck hits the fan in the local church. Most disunity will not be directly over core Bible doctrine but how we apply to living it out together, which inevitably will affect core doctrine.
Here are 10 statements that will arise on occasion that can begin as a small ripple but end up a tsunami if we don’t stay grounded in Scripture. Each one usually begins with “I think” or “I believe”.
- “I believe we should sing the old hymns from hymn books.”
- “I believe we should sing new songs projected on a screen.”
- “I believe we should use the King James Bible.”
- “I believe we should boycott Disney movies.”
- “I believe we shouldn’t have body piercings or tattoos.”
- “I believe church members should stay away from alcohol.”
- “I believe we should campaign for Republican candidates.”
- “I believe people should participate in more church activities.”
- “I believe we should have more things for the children.”
The problem with such statements is there is no scriptural basis for any of them. They’re all based on personal opinions, and once you draw a line on personal opinions, you’ll have to draw more lines to keep you farther and farther away from your line. Let me show you what I mean by using three of these same examples again:
1) What most people mean by “old hymns” are hymns written in the 1700-1900s? What about the hymns from 1400-1600s or the centuries before that? Your line can be moved.
2) You want to boycott Disney movies? What about the other major companies that Disney owns—Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, Pixar, ABC, The History Channel, and ESPN? Your line can be moved.
3) You don’t believe in body piercings? Ladies, what about the 1 or 2 holes you have in your ear? Is there a real difference in righteousness between 1 or 2 piercings in the ear versus 1 or 2 in the lip or 5 or 10 scattered around? Your line can be moved.
We all have some personal convictions that we abide by in our walk with the Lord that are not equivalent with God’s Word. And we cannot use any of them as a measure of someone else’s right standing with God. Here is where the wisdom of organizing Christian belief and practice into three categories can be helpful for protecting us from self-righteousness toward other sinners. The three categories are primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrine.
Primary doctrine are those teachings of the Bible in which there is no room for disagreement without departing from Christianity altogether. Examples include: salvation by grace, through faith, in Christ alone apart from works of the law; Jesus is the eternal Son of God, without sin, He died in our place on the cross, and was raised from the dead; Heaven and Hell are for real—repentant believers go to Heaven for eternity and unrepentant unbelievers go to Hell for eternity. Primary doctrine is essential to being a Christian.
Secondary doctrine are those teachings of the Bible rooted in primary doctrine but leaving room for some disagreement among Christians without departing from Christianity. Examples of include: baptism of believers versus baptism of babies; pretribulation return of Jesus versus a posttribulation return; a plurality of pastors versus having a singular pastor. Secondary doctrine is non-essential to salvation.
Tertiary doctrine are those teachings of the Bible that may or may not be rooted in primary and secondary doctrine but are completely open for disagreement because they are non-essential to being a Christian. Examples include: men’s facial hair, length of skirts for women, partaking in secular entertainments, controlled use of alcohol, and eating pork and catfish. How we understand these issues is important, but they’re not essential to salvation itself. The only way these become a salvation issue is if your reason for believing what you believe comes from a prodigal heart: a heart of rebellion or a heart of legalism.
5. Legalism can twist freedom in Christ into a law. Here is where things get interesting. Did you know that being anti-legalistic can itself be a form of legalism? If you get angry at other people because you believe they’re acting like self-righteous hypocrites, then how are your behaviors and attitudes any better than the self-righteous elder brother? Beware of your reaction to sin and sinners being a default anger. God’s grace softens our hearts, and our new default reaction will be compassion.
There’s enough room in God’s family for rebellious younger sons and self-righteous elder sons. The Father runs to the rebels and brings them home; and the Father goes outside the house to the self-righteous and invites them inside! There’s enough gospel for us all. So, who are you begrudging in our church? Won’t you repent of your anger today?