Return of the Rebel

Mar 27, 2017
David R. Reid

Luke 15:11: And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12: 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. 13: 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. 14: And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15: And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16: And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17: 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! 18: I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19: And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. 20: 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.

Read the whole story in Luke 15:11-32.

Have you ever tried to run away? Probably most of us have had the desire, at least, to run away at one time or another. If we could just get away from our duties and responsibilities at home! If we could just leave some of our problems and some of those tense personal relationships. If we could just split from all those “superiors” who are always telling us what to do, and be free to “do our own thing”. Sound familiar?
In a very practical way the story of the runaway son in Luke 15 shows us that running away does not pay. The life of the rebel is never really free. Running away from responsibilities and problems and authority brings only short-lived freedom, and invariably results in more frustration than before (vs13-16). Real freedom only comes when we begin to deal with the root cause of our desire to run away (vs17-18). The root cause of our problem is always related to our relationship with God. We run because we are unwilling to submit to the authority or handle the responsibilities that God has placed in our lives. We run because we refuse to admit that many of our “problems” are not the fault of others, but are the result of our own selfish desires. We must return in repentance and confess our rebellious actions to the Lord (vs20-21). It is the returned and repentant rebel who, paradoxically, finds the freedom and happiness and love he was looking for all along (vs21-24).

21: 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. 22: 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: 23: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

The story goes on (vs25-31) to show that it is not only open rebellious actions which bring unhappiness and frustration and separation. In the older son we see hidden rebellious attitudes. The older son did not run away, but he was a rebel at heart. His open bitterness and bad attitude were but surface symptoms of the restless and rebellious spirit within. There must be repentance of hidden attitudes as well as of obvious actions if we are to know and experience joy and communion with the Father.

There is much more that we can learn from this story of the two sons. Like many of the other parables of our Lord Jesus, the story had a primary application to the people then, but contains valuable spiritual lessons which apply to us today. Notice that the parable was given in the presence of the tax collectors and sinners, as well as the Pharisees and the scribes (vs1-2). The tax collectors and “sinners” openly recognized their short-comings and they gladly heard the Lord. The Pharisees and the scribes, on the other hand, were self righteous, religious people who resented the fact that Jesus was the friend of unclean people like lepers and social outcasts–He even ate with them (v2)!

In Luke 15 the Lord Jesus gave three parables (lost sheep, lost coin, lost son) to show that the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees needed to repent and admit that they were as lost as the “open sinners”. Thus the primary teaching of the story of the two sons was directed at the self-righteous religious leaders. They are pictured in the older son as rebellious (v28), self righteous (v29), jealous (v30), and unthankful for the privileged place in which God had placed the Jewish nation (v31).

In the parable, the runaway son is a picture of the tax collectors and open sinners in the crowd. Tax collectors were Jews who made their living by collecting taxes for Rome. They usually collected more than Rome demanded and pocketed the difference. Thus they were considered extortioners and collaborators with the enemy by their own people. Notice that in no way does the Lord condone their sin. The lost and sinful condition of the tax collectors is pictured as an empty and wasted life far from God (vs13-16). (Nothing could be more repulsive for a Jew than to work for a foreign Gentile, caring for his pigs.) But many of these rebels “came to their senses” (v17) when they heard the message of the Lord Jesus. They willingly acknowledged their unworthiness and repented of their sins (vs18-19). The amazing and wonderful truth that Jesus proclaimed to His listeners is that God does not take back returned rebels reluctantly–He welcomes them with open arms and celebration (vs20-24)!

The cutting edge of the parable, of course, is that the repentant, traitorous tax collectors and the repentant, sinful common people were brought into an intimate and happy relationship with God, while the self righteous and religious scribes and Pharisees of respectable society were “left out in the cold”! The teaching of Jesus was clear and to the point–it is not religion but repentance that matters to God!
The story of the two sons certainly has some things to say to us today. In the description of both sons there is a wealth of teaching. One doesn’t have to look very far today to find the older brother of the story–he can be found in the church! This is the respectable, self-righteous religious person who thinks he or she is chalking up points with God, and that for this, God owes him something. He has never involved himself in drugs or sex sin or robbery or wasted time like some others he is quick to point out and accuse (v30). He is angry and jealous when he finds out that others are actually enjoying a relationship with God (vs25-28). The older brother of today doesn’t really care about his brothers. Notice how he does not say “my brother” in verse 30, but rather he says “your son”. The older brother’s attitude is always, “Let them get what they deserve!” Grace and mercy and love are words which a self-righteous person does not understand. How could he? He has no real love for God–it’s only “What’s in it for me?” that matters. That’s why the older brother in the story stuck around home–for the property, not out of love for the father. Notice that the older son never says “Father” in the story. Notice, also, how he accuses the father of favoritism because he hadn’t given him a party for himself and his friends–he couldn’t care less about a relationship with the father (v29)! The respectable, self-righteous religious person is also a rebel at heart.

In the runaway son we have a picture of ourselves before conversion, running away and rebelling against God. God, our Creator, pictured here as the kind Father, gives us life and other “property” to use intelligently for His glory. Some are given more than others, but no one can say that he hasn’t been given a “share of the estate” (v12). But we live for ourselves and squander the precious time and talents that God has given us (v13). We don’t want to be subject to God. We’d rather “get what’s ours” and enjoy ourselves in our own way in the “far country”–as far away from God as we can get. The far country in verse 13 can be quite close to home–the distance is measured in motives, not miles.
There comes a time in the rebel’s life when the running stops. With the knowledge of emptiness and hunger in our souls comes the realization of how wretched we really are (v14). It is hard to admit that we are not the “big independent spenders” we once thought we were; we are rather living like dirty, smelly pigs (v15)! And the empty “husks” of the far country do not really fill the vacuum within us (v16). There is no real freedom or satisfaction for the soul of man apart from total surrender to God and communion with Him.

As rebels against God, we must realize that we are separated from Him and dying because of our sin (v17); we are also the “lost” and “dead” of verse 24. We must confess, “Oh God, I have sinned” (v18). We must admit that God owes us nothing and that we have no claims on God (v19).
The Lord has been watching and waiting for us all along, and now He actually runs to us and smothers us with affection! What a picture of the love God!
Why is there no reprimand? Why is there no scolding? The Father is so overjoyed (note verse 7 also) that the son never even gets to finish his formal confession (compare verse 21 with verses 18 and 19). The repentant son is given the best robe (this signified a position of honor in those days) and a ring (this was a sign of authority) and sandals. Not only is everything forgiven, but there is complete reconciliation between Father and son. Why? Because it is a picture of God’s tremendous love and unbelievable plan of salvation for us. When sins are completely forgiven and we are brought into a favored position in the family of God–The celebration has just begun (vs23-24)!
Although there are no strings attached for us, it cost God a great price to bring us back into fellowship with Himself–the death of His beloved Son, the Lord Jesus. In John 14:6, Acts 4:12 and 1 Timothy 2:5 we see that the return path of the rebel must be through Jesus Christ. It is through His death for us that our rebellious actions and attitudes are forgiven, our place in God’s family restored, and a never-ending celebration and communion with God begun.

Additional Reading