OUR FATHER: Part 3
Incredible love and standing in His strength.
Incredible love (Luke 15:11-32)
Jesus never pulled His punches and He always called a spade a spade, yet never did so at the expense of loving-kindness. On one occasion tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were flocking to hear what He had to say and the Pharisees and teachers of the law were getting annoyed. They could not understand how it was that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.
In the Ancient Near East, eating a meal with someone was a sign of friendship and acceptance. Therefore, in the eyes of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus really was crossing the boundary line. How could He accept these people?
In their belief, you should not associate with tax collectors or sinners but by doing this they were allowing sin to define a person and were not seeing them as sheep that had gone astray (Luke 15:4).
Whilst God is totally against sin, He is totally for the sinner and this is why Jesus shares the compassion and love of God with the marginalised and ‘I’ve been living my own way’ ones.
Jesus responded to the attitude of the religious leaders by telling them three parables, all of which reveal what their heavenly Father was really like. He reminds them that the Shepherd rejoices when He finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-6) and that heaven rejoices when a sinner comes to repentance.
In the third parable Jesus speaks of His Father’s love and compassion yet again in what many would call the parable of the prodigal son. Instead, it is the parable of a loving father and two lost sons.
In the parable we see a young man asking his father for his share of the inheritance that would one day be due to him. In doing so, his words and actions would be viewed as a particularly strong insult in a community that was very much orientated around family life.
In the parable we do not find the father remonstrating with His son because He knew that in his son’s heart and mind he had already left home long ago; all the decisions we make come from the heart. In one sense the son was present with his father, but in reality he was long gone. His father’s love had always been there for him, yet he was not able to receive the love that any father would want to give to his children. The young man was locked away in the prison of his own thinking.
‘Basically individualism proclaims: “I am self-sufficient. I need not, I ought not, depend on anyone but myself. I am in charge of my life. Who am I? Whatever I make myself to be.
Dr Sire in, ‘Discipleship of the Mind’, page 58.
The son believed that he could use his father’s wealth in a better way than his father did and so he took it and left. We often act the same way when we spend too much time telling God what we think He should do with His resources instead of asking Him to show us how we should be living. Anyone who believes that they can live independently from God is like the prodigal son and no matter how normal their life may seem, they are heading for trouble.
For example, a young man may bunk off of school for weeks at a time and revel in the freedom he thinks he has found. However, later in life there will not be so many job opportunities due to his lack of qualifications. His exercise of freedom during his school years severely limits his ability to earn a living later in life.
Time passes by and due to squandering his money and an unexpected arrival of a famine, the wayward son finds himself doing the unheard of. The son ends up working with pigs (regarded as an unclean animal by Israel) and in doing so probably became the laughing stock of the non-Jewish community.
He is still his father’s son but because of his thinking and actions, he is totally unable to benefit from being a son. He is unable to benefit from his father’s love.
“When you are away from the Lord, a kind of darkness comes over you that makes it hard to see God. Your emotional confusion and your sin hides him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. When you come into the light, you come into alignment with God and you begin to see how he’s been working all the time. It’s good to know that God was there – he was there through all my struggles and all my questions, and he’ll always be there for me.”
C.Cymbala in ‘He’s Been Faithful’, p 72
We can end up in exactly the same position as the younger son when we start forgetting God and assume that everything is still going to be ok. Yet in the younger son taking a job amongst pigs we see something of the state of mind we can all get into when we run into trouble; sheer desperation. As the son struggles with his freedom-crushing situation his mind is drawn back to better days and he begins to come to his senses. I wonder how quickly we talk to God when things go wrong.
The wayward son is still not aware of the full extent of his father’s love but is aware that he has sinned and that a hired hand working for his father was a better position to be in. He begins to think through what he is going to say to his father and starts heading for home. It is then that Jesus develops the story in a way that would surprise his listeners.
Jewish communities were very close-knit groups of people who supported and depended on one-another, and all would have known what the returning son had done to his father, which would also have reflected on their community. The chances are that if this young man had tried to walk through the community, he would have been thrown out.
Jesus knew that this attitude was present in how some of the religious leaders of the day were viewing His fellowship with tax collectors and ‘sinners’ and so He brought an ‘ingredient’ into the parable to remind his listeners of what their heavenly Father was really like.
The returning son had caused nothing but pain and suffering in his father’s heart, yet when his father sees him at a distance he runs out to greet him. He had always loved his son and was always looking out for him and could still recognise the young man despite his loss of weight and bedraggled clothes.
There would have been those who refused to recognise the son as a member of the community due to what he had done, yet the father runs out to greet his son. This would have been a strange spectacle in the minds of those listening to the parable, since a wealthy landowner would never run after anything or anyone; his robes would have flapped around and he would look ridiculous. Yet this father ran to greet his son.
If you or I were servants to the young man’s father I am sure we would be looking on very closely to see how he was going to respond to his wayward son. Surely this wayward son was not going to be allowed back into the community? (a view held by the older brother). The community and local servants could have responded in a very hostile way and probably would have done had it not been for the father. Without the actions of the father, the young boy would have remained in a position that gave no freedom, as well as being at the mercy of a community that would not necessarily have given him freedom of passage as he walked home.
The father ran and embraced his son and all that the son wanted to say about being a servant just melted away in the environment of great love. The father then sent for the best robe in the house (his own) and asked the servants to put a ring on his son’s finger and sandals on his feet. In these actions we see the fruit of his father’s love; the son could walk in freedom and the surrounding community would have to accept this.
As an independent young man living by his own rules, the environment and the unexpected twists and turns of life had ended up dictating to the younger son. He had ended up hungry, working with pigs, and struggling with his thinking. Now, due to amazing grace and mercy, he was back into the environment of his father’s love and could walk in freedom and the authority bestowed on him (symbolised in the robe, ring and sandals). In Genesis we see God clothing Adam and Eve with garments that speak of bestowed authority. In as much as we allow God to touch our lives, we are able to walk in His authority.
As the parable continues to develop we see more and more of the amazing grace, mercy and love of the father. The young man’s father did not grudgingly accept his son back into the fold. Instead we see that he wanted to celebrate the return of a son who was dead but now alive. The father wants the whole community to celebrate with him on the return of his son. Bear in mind that, scripturally speaking, death speaks of separation from covenant whilst life speaks of being in covenant. The tax collectors and ‘sinners’ that Jesus ate with were like the lost son and in coming to earth, Jesus reaches out to greet all who would accept Him; yet there is more to the story.
In the parable there is not one wayward son, but two, although the second wayward son is not as easy to spot. He also represented the Pharisees and teachers of the law who accused Jesus. The second son was the one who appeared to be doing everything right. Yet God does not look at the outward appearance; He looks at the heart (e.g. 1 Sam 16:7, Prov 21:2). This brother had always worked hard, however the real state of his heart is seen when he heard that his father was having a party on the return of his brother. He refused to go down to the gathering and his father came out to see him. This is another unusual part of the story since hosts would never leave a celebration to see someone and in the father’s actions, we see his love yet again.
Despite living at home all the time, the elder son had not grasped the full extent of his father’s love, the love of a man who said, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
In His parable, Jesus reminds us all that God’s love is not based on those around Him and what they do or do not do. Our heavenly Father’s love is rooted in the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8). The parable shows us that God’s love is not quenched by our failure; however our disobedience and failings quench our ability to receive His love.
Through the salvation-creating activity of His Son, our heavenly Father offers us freedom from sin and life in its fullness, yet He cannot give a freedom that we are not willing to receive. At the end of the parable, we see the love of the father in reaching out to the second son, yet we are not told what happens. There is the offer of love and freedom from wrong thinking, but the older son was going to have to take it; it could not be forced on him. In the same way, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had a choice; were they going to accept what Jesus had said and come home or were they going to stay out in the cold?
It can be all too easy to lose sight of God, but God never loses sight of us.
“That God is God means that he is Lord over man’s total existence. This means that there is only one correct human attitude towards him and that is life-long trust and surrender to him of the whole of one’s life. Where this relationship of trust is missing man is no longer in a relationship with the living God, but with an idol.”
Prof Adrio Konig in, Here I Stand p 118
God has dealt with our sin and is willing to break the chains that hold us, the chains put there by our ‘go it alone’ attitudes or words and actions of others. What I need to do is be willing to hand my life over to Him, moment by moment.
“We need to quit living exclusively for the wealth and therefore the power of the here and now consumer society. We need to start living for the wealth and power of an altered state of consciousness, which comes from Him who made us. Our proprioceptive system of the five senses was given to help us get about safely in time and space…But our appreciation, our consciousness of the transcendent, is given us to find our way around matters eternal. Achievement in the world of our five senses is necessary and brings joy. But experience and achievement in the senses of the transcendent brings ecstasy. For the chief purpose of man’s creation is, “to know God and to enjoy him for ever.”
Prof A.E. Wilder-Smith in, The Causes and Cure of the Drug Epidemic, p 156.
Encouraged to stand in His strength
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight — why the bush does not burn up." When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." Exodus 3:1-4
Moses was the strategically positioned hope of Israel who stumbled and fell. He then fled Egypt and lived as a shepherd in the desert for forty years before God encountered him through a burning bush. This encounter was by the One who has supremacy over all life and supported and cared for Moses right from the very beginning. His supremacy over all life can be seen, for example, in how He had Moses brought up in the very household that had decreed the death of all male Hebrew babies. His supremacy is also seen in Jesus who came in the weakness of the flesh yet had authority over darkness at every turn of the page.
Through trying to achieve things in his own strength, Moses ends up as a eighty year old shepherd in the desert by the time God calls him. God is a covenant-keeping God and because of this, He reaches out to Moses and tells him to go into Egypt in order to secure the release of all the Hebrew slaves.
Imagine how Moses must have felt standing in the desert before a burning bush that did not burn and being told to go back to the place of your failure. How would you feel about this? If we are honest, as we look at Moses’ response we can easily identify with how he must have felt. Through feeling totally inadequate and being aware that Egypt was a reminder of his failure, Moses focuses more on who he is than who it is that speaks to Him.
Moses is understandably more than a little anxious and has a few questions of which the following is but one. We look at this question first because the way in which God replies underlines the truth that God is the life-breathing One; the Creator and Master of all life.
"Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'"
In Hebrew, a name often tells you what a person is like. So what sort of picture does “I Am who I Am” paint?
Firstly, ‘I Am who I Am’ reveals that God is the One who continually exists; the eternal One. In the Ancient Near East, to know the name of your god meant that you could call on him, like in some sort of magical incantation, and your god would appear. Yet ‘I Am’ is not like this. He is the eternal One who cannot be contained or controlled in any way. Life is not about who we are and what we can get God to do for us; it is about whose we are, and learning to engage with His plan and thinking. In doing so we are able to stand, no matter the opposition.
Our heavenly Father is the eternal One who is ultimately in control of all things and is the keeper of covenant. A covenant is a deep binding agreement between two parties that involves a real giving of self. God is always the instigator of covenant and ultimately, Jesus fulfils our side of the covenant (Heb 12:24), we being unable to do so due to our sinful nature.
“From the beginning, Yahweh has been a God of covenant…this means that God will remain faithful even though his creatures prove unfaithful. God will not abandon his covenant faithfulness toward what he has made”
J. Niehaus in,’ God at Sinai’, p147.
Secondly, we need to take note of the Hebrew word from which ‘I Am’ comes. This word is ‘Yahweh’ which is from the root ‘hayah’. The picture we gain from ‘hayah’ is of being lifted up; of being raised up. God is the life-breather who raised man from the dust of the ground (Gen 1:27; 2:7).
In Scripture, wherever we read the English word ‘Lord’ in capitals (LORD) we are being told that God is the great “I Am” - the eternal covenant-keeping God who resurrects His people. No matter what we are going through, our heavenly Father is the eternal covenant-keeping God who enables to us to stand no matter what we are facing. This is why David could write, ‘I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; before the ‘god’s I will sing your praises.’ (Psalm 138:1) David is saying, ‘I’m going to praise you with all my heart before all ‘god’s for you are the eternal covenant-keeping God who resurrects and by whose work I can stand.’ God reaches out to Moses through a burning bush and calls him to be involved in His work of redemption; because of God’s grace, mercy and provision, Moses is going to be able to stand in authority and power.
As we look through the scriptures we should be encouraged because our heavenly Father never asks us to do anything for Him in our own strength. He always encourages us to seek His help.
“I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4:13-14 (N.E.T.)
In Moses’ conversation with the One who enables His people to stand, we see a man who did not feel qualified to go about God’s business (Ex 3:11) due, in part, to the painful experiences of the past. In dealing with Moses’ sense of failure, God effectively tells him that what he is to do is not about who Moses was or is, but about God (Ex 3:12, note also 2 Cor 3:1-6, Phil 4) and that changes everything. God was not interested in Moses’ pedigree or achievement; He was interested in Moses’ availability.
Moses wondered who God was and God effectively told him that He was everything Moses needed (Ex 3:14; note also Eph 2:6-8). Moses still came up with excuses and said that he did not feel he was a very good speaker (Ex 4:10). God then replied by saying that He is the One who gave Moses his mouth in the first place! From how God speaks with Moses, we see that He is more than willing to help us overcome our inadequacies and lay hold of His strength. God does not want us to walk alone and we are certainly not called to be hemmed in by our failures of the past or negative things that have happened to us. We are made in His image and despite all that has happened in our lives, He is restoring us to full fellowship with Him.
“…The image of God means first of all, that human beings cannot be closed in on themselves. Human beings who attempt this betray themselves. To be the image of God implies relationality. It is the dynamic that sets the human being in motion toward the totally Other. Hence it means the capacity of relationship; it is the human capacity for God. Human beings are, as a consequence, most profoundly human when they step out of themselves and become capable of addressing God on familiar terms.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger quoted in, Creation and Change, p220 by Dr D. Kelly.
Although Moses tried to counter God’s commission five times, we see amazing grace and mercy in that God speaks to Moses and encourages him to stand in God’s strength and rely on God’s resources alone. We were made for heaven and therefore, we were never made to walk alone.
“When God called out of the burning bush, Moses was full of excuses. Though learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and mighty in word and deed, when called of God he knew his inadequacy…Moses’ life was divided into three periods of forty years. The first forty he thought himself to be somebody. The second forty he found he was nobody. The third forty he found that God could make a somebody out of a nobody. All self-belief was gone. He had tried to deliver Israel by self-effort and failed, and fled. When it was Moses verse Egypt it was poor Moses. When it was God in Moses, it was poor Egypt.
Dr J. Conner in Kingdom Cult of Self p70
Our Father’s hand
“Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.”
In Scripture, the mention of God’s hand (2 Sam 24:14, PS 118:15) and other body parts are descriptions of his nature and character, pointing out what He is like. Therefore, when reading verses such as ‘the arm of the Lord’, we are being told of God’s strength and power to help. When we read of God knowing Moses face to face (Deut 34:10), we are being told that God has turned toward Moses in order to bestow grace and mercy upon a man who could only approach God because of God’s loving-kindness. Our heavenly Father wants to be known and He is the One who will help us to stand firm no matter what we are faced with (Gal 5:1; 1 Peter 5:12).
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.” John 10:27-28
In Jesus, we see God blessing His people through giving them the gift of Himself; this being the fulfilment of God’s desire from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:19-20). He is the One who stoops low (Phil 2:5ff) in order to lift us up. He is the One who seeks to draw us close and enables us to walk in the power of His Spirit and according to His ways (John 17:11-12). No matter what is going on in our lives, our heavenly Father wants to help us to stand in the wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and discernment that is ours through the Holy Spirit and because of the work of Christ.
“It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”
C. S. Lewis in ‘Beyond Personality’ p 63
When we see a woman with an issue of blood being healed (Luke 8:43-48) and restored to her community (‘go in peace’), we see someone who was able to stand as her heavenly Father reached out through His Son, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we see Jesus calling Zacchaeus and going to eat with Him (Luke 19:5), we see the love of our heavenly Father, through whom Zacchaeus was able to throw off the shackles of sin and stand. In the presence of such amazing power and grace, Zacchaeus’ walls tumbled down. He repented (destroying the walls of his existence) and embraced forgiveness from the One who resurrects. In so far as I kneel before Him with an open heart, I am able to stand in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Through the saving work of Christ, we can approach our heavenly Father at all times (Heb 4:16) and receive grace and mercy. We come to the One who does not condemn us (Romans 8:1) and by whose strength we can stand no matter the storms of the past, troubles of the present or whatever difficulty that the future may bring. Be encouraged.
End of part three of four.