For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2001 James Melough

15:1.  “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him.”

The publicans were Jews who had taken employment with the Romans as tax collectors.  They were hated by their own people.  Those referred to here as sinners were the lower strata of Jewish society who for the most part did not participate in the religious life of the community.  They were despised by the religious elite.

These hated and despised ones, however, drew near to the Lord to hear His teaching, and their interest was sincere.  They were not seeking to find fault with Him.  His ministry to them was, in fact, the fulfillment of the truth which He Himself had declared symbolically in 14:21.

15:2.  “And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”

What revelations there will be at the judgment seat of Christ!  Those proud religious leaders were not only confident that their positions in the eternal kingdom would be the equivalent of, or better than those they then occupied within the Jewish system, but that these despised ones would be outside that kingdom as they were then outside the pale of Jewish religion.  Their blinded minds never dreamed that the positions would be the reverse of what they imagined.

The Lord’s receiving these sinners, and eating with them, is the foreshadowing of even better eternal realities for all believers. Those who confess themselves sinners, and trust in Christ, will all be received into His home in heaven, and will eat at His table for ever, as He Himself declared, “I am not come to call the righteous (self-righteous), but sinners to repentance,” Mt 9:13.

15:3.  “And he spake this parable unto them, saying,”

He spoke in parables because as He said Himself on another occasion in response to the disciples’ question, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of haven, but unto them it is not given .... because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand,” Mt 13:10-13.  Their blindness, deafness, and lack of understanding were self-induced. They deliberately rejected the truth.

15:4.  “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?”

The man obviously is the Lord Himself, come to seek and to save those who are lost;  but what is less obvious is whether the hundred sheep are believers, the one lost sheep representing a backslidden saint; or whether the ninety-nine are the self-righteous Jews (and Gentiles), and the one lost sheep, the small minority, the confessed sinners - those the Lord was blamed for befriending.   Closer examination discloses that the latter is true.  The ninety-nine were left in the wilderness, not in the sheepfold.  They represent the self-righteous mass of the nation (and all other self-righteous religionists) whose very self-righteousness prevents them from being saved.

The lost sheep, wandering off of its own volition, portrays man, represented by Adam the federal head of the human race, as having also wandered away from God of his own volition.

The toil of the shepherd to find the sheep points to the travail of Christ from His birth till His death on the cross, to make possible the return of lost men and women.

15:5.  “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.”

The shoulder is one of the biblical symbols of strength and security, and here speaks of the strong secure place to which faith brings the repentant sinner.  It is interesting, in fact, to notice that the place Shechem means the shoulder, and it is the first mentioned stopping place of Abraham, the representative man of faith, when he first came into the land of Canaan, the place which represents the spiritual sphere into which the believer is brought at conversion, Ge 12:6.  Abraham’s entering Canaan speaks symbolically of his conversion.

The believer’s eternal security is also assured in the Lord’s own words, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.  My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.  I and my Father are one,” Jn 10:27-30.

It is to be noted also that the sheep was carried home on the shepherd’s shoulder: it didn’t have to take one step on its own, nor are we dependent on our own feeble strength to reach heaven on our own.  The Lord Himself has assumed the responsibility of bringing us safely home to heaven, as it is written, “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever.  Amen,” Jude 24-25.

15:6.  “And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.”

While this joyous homecoming may relate to the rejoicing amongst believers here on earth at the conversion of a sinner, its ultimate application to believers of this present Church age is the Rapture, when the Lord will bring home His once lost sheep, and all heaven will celebrate their arrival in that blessed place.  Its general application, however, is to the saved of all ages.  Who can measure the rejoicing that will be at the  beginning of the Millennium, when believing Israel will be brought home to Palestine; and the believing Gentiles to the blessedness of the remainder of the millennial earth!

15:7.  “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.”

These ninety-nine are identified by the words “which need no repentance.”  They are the self-righteous who refuse to believe that they need to repent, in spite of the fact that Scripture makes it clear that there is no one who doesn’t need to repent, for it is written, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” Ro 3:10.  In their own vain imagination they believe that their own works justify them in God’s sight.  They are “just” in their own estimation, but not in God’s.

In the recovery of the lost sheep the emphasis is upon the work of the good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ; in the finding of the lost coin, it is upon the work of the Holy Spirit; and in the return of the prodigal son, it is upon the part played by the Father in the salvation of a sinner.  All Three are involved in the great work of salvation.

15:8.  “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?”

In the case of the lost sheep the seeker was a shepherd, a man, symbolic portrait of the good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ Who gave His life for the sheep; but here in the case of the lost coin the seeker is a woman who seems to be a type of the Holy Spirit, the candle or lamp representing the written Word which He uses to dispel the spiritual darkness enveloping the unconverted whom He seeks to enlighten, convict, and save.

The nine pieces appear to represent not only the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees, but the self-righteous everywhere.  Silver is the biblical type of redemption, but in the case of the self-righteous it is an imaginary redemption procured by their own good works, but worthless in God’s sight.

The recovered lost coin, like the recovered lost sheep, represents the sinner carefully sought for, convicted, and genuinely converted through the work of the Holy Spirit.

As to why the same truth should be conveyed under two different figures, the reason appears to be that in the case of the seeking shepherd we are being pointed to the work of the Lord Jesus Christ; in the seeking woman, to the work of the Holy Spirit.  Both have a part in the conversion of sinners, for apart from the conviction wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit there can be no genuine conversion.

Unlike the living sheep which wandered away of its own volition, the coin was inanimate and therefore lost through the carelessness of another, and as such is the symbolic announcement of the truth that until conversion, man is spiritually inanimate: he is dead in trespasses and sins, having been brought into that state by the “carelessness” of another, the federal head of the human race, Adam.  It is to be recognized, however, that while men have no choice as to their being born in sin, they do have a choice as to whether to remain in that state of condemnation.  Just as Adam by his own choice brought himself and his descendants into condemnation and death, so may every man, also by his own free-willed choice, remain in that state, or bring himself out of it into a state of justification and life by accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior.

15:9.  “And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbors together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.”

15:10.  “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” 

This continues to represent the joy, not only here on earth amongst believers when a sinner trusts the Savior, but also in heaven.

A practical lesson to be learnt from these two parables is that we who have been sought and found, ought to be willing to expend the same effort in seeking the lost for Christ.

15:11.  “And he said, A certain man had two sons:”

15:12.  “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.”

The father is God; the younger son, those Jews (and Gentiles) who repent and trust in Christ as Savior;  and the older, those Jews (and Gentiles) who cling to the filthy rags of their own self-righteousness, expecting to be justified by good works. 

The “living” represents God’s daily provision for the needs of all men.

15:13.  “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.”

The far country speaks of distance from God; and the departure of the younger son portrays the departure of the Gentiles from the knowledge of God, while the riotous living describes the sinful extravagances in which they waste their lives.

15:14.  “And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.”

As the passage of time brought an end to the son’s riches, so does time bring an end to the ability to enjoy the sinful pleasures of the world, and the individual is left with a vacuum in his life that nothing but Christ can fill.  The famine portrays the inability of earthly things to bring peace and satisfaction to the human heart.  Famine stricken is the fitting description of the world relative to everything spiritual.

15:15.  “And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.”

This citizen or employer seems to represent Satan; and the swine, the lusts of the flesh.  The picture is of one who comes to realize that he has become the bondslave of Satan, and of his own fleshly lust.  To be a swineherd was the ultimate degradation for a Jew.  Trench’s comment on this portion is particularly relevant, “He who begins by using the world as a servant, to minister to his pleasure, ends by reversing the relationship.”

15:16.  “And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him.”

Some writers declare that it isn’t that he would have liked to “fill his belly with the husks...” but that he did in fact eat them greedily.  His destitution is the symbolic declaration of the truth that the “pleasures” of sin quickly lose their ability to satisfy the soul, as one has written:

I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
But, ah, the waters failed;
E’en as I stooped to drink they fled,
And mocked me as I wailed.

The fact that “no man gave unto him,” is the symbolic announcement of the truth that Satan’s world can’t provide for the needs of the soul, nor has it any use for the man who can no longer serve its evil purposes.

15:17.  “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!”

This portrays the prickings of conscience brought about by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and apart from which there can be no salvation.

15:18.  “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.”

Until a man is willing to make this confession he cannot be saved; and tragically it is refusal to acknowledge this that has robbed millions of salvation.  Clinging to church membership, baptism, their imagined self-righ­teousness, etc., they have robbed themselves of eternal life, and chosen hell instead of heaven as their eternal abode.

It is to be noted that he first acknowledged his sin as being against heaven, reminding us that all sin is first against God, no matter who else may be the victim of it.

15:19.  “And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”

Such abnegation must precede conversion, for as long as a man imagines that he has even the vestige of a claim upon God, he cannot be saved.

His desire to be made as a hired servant discloses another erroneous belief held by the many who think that they can do something, some good work, to fit themselves for heaven.  Salvation, however, must be received as God’s gift, as it is written, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast,” Eph 2:8-9.

15:20.  “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.”

His good resolve would have done him no good had he not carried it out.  Apart from execution of his good intention, he would have starved to death in the far country.  Many a man has resolved to be saved before he dies, but procrastination has delayed action until he suddenly finds himself swept into eternity - unsaved!  God warns, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation,” 2 Co 6:2.  Tomorrow may be too late.

The father’s seeing him while he was yet a great way off implies that he had been watching hopefully for the son’s return, reminding us that God longs to see all men saved, as it is written, “The Lord ... is longsuffering to usward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” 2 Pe 3:9.  God’s desire to see all men saved is declared also in the warmth of the welcome that earthly father gave his returned prodigal son.

15:21.  “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.”

This is the language of genuine repentance, apart from which there can be no conversion, and it is to be noted that the sin is acknowledged to have been first “against heaven,” that is, against God.  There is no hint here that the son retained any false notion of self worth.  Such genuine abnegation must mark each man who would be saved.

It is instructive to note that he wasn’t permitted to ask to be made as a hired servant.  Those received by God are received as sons, not servants, for the hired servant represents one who is “earning his wages,” that is, trying to work his way to heaven through church membership, baptism, good works, Bible study, prayer, etc.  Sinners are saved by grace, through faith, not by works.  Of his prepared speech the only part he was permitted to utter was his confession of sin and unworthiness, and that is all that is required of sinners who would be saved.

15:22.  “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:”

That “best robe” represents the righteousness of Christ which clothes every believer the moment he trusts in Him as Savior.

The ring, having neither beginning nor ending, speaks of that which is eternal, and reminds us that every believer is sealed eternally by the Holy Spirit as a son of God.  A believer can never lose his salvation.

As that which separates the foot from the ground, the shoe, or properly sandal, always speaks of separat­ion, and is the symbolic announcement of the truth that the believer is eternally separated or sanctified to God from the condemnation of this doomed sinful world.

15:23.  “And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:”

That slain calf, the center of the feast of celebration, is a picture of Christ.  Our communion with God, our peace, our joy, our satisfaction, all center around the Christ, “Who was delivered for our offenses,” but Who has been “raised again for our justification,” Ro 4:25. 

15:24.  “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.  And they began to be merry.”

This description of the son is the description of every believer, for until he is converted, every man, is spiritually dead “in trespasses and sins,” Eph 2:1; lost, wandering on the broad way that leads to hell and the lake of fire.

Someone has commented that there is no record of the end of that feast, because there will be no end to what it represents - the eternal blessedness of those who trust Christ as Savior.

15:25.  “Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing.”

The elder son represents unbelieving Israel, nor should we miss the significance of its being said that he “was in the field,” for the field in Scripture represents the world.  This assures us that the nation which the elder son represents, in spite of their religion and claim to be God’s people, were in the world instead of the kingdom, as they claimed, and as far away from God as the prodigal had been from his father when he was in the far country. He “drew nigh to the house,” but, “he was angry, and would not go in.”  Religious, but unbelieving Israel also “drew nigh to the house (God’s), but “would not go in.”

15:26,  “And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.”

His ignorance of what was going on in his father’s house pictures the spiritual ignorance of Israel relative to what was going on in the house of the One Whose sons they claimed to be.  Another detail in the symbolic picture declares another truth worth noting.  He had to learn from a servant, one he considered his inferior; and so was it with Israel: those they considered their inferiors possessed more knowledge of God than they.  And so is it in the world today.  Believers, those the world despises, are the only ones on earth who have knowledge of God.

15:27.  “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.”

The words, “thy brother” assure us that the Gentile is as much the object of God’s love as is the Jew.  The one as much as the other is His son through creation.

15:28.  “And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.”

This depicts the jealous anger of the Jew against God for offering salvation also to the Gentiles.  How destructive that anger was!  It deprived the unbelieving Jew of the salvation God had first offered him.

In the father’s coming out to entreat him to come in and share the joy, we have portrayed the love which impelled God to “come out” in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ to entreat Israel to come in to the kingdom and enjoy eternal blessing.

15:29.  “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:”

This declares the proud, complacent self-righteou­sness of the Jew.  He would be justified by his vain attempt to keep the law, failing to see in his spiritual blindness that it was beyond his, or any man’s ability to keep, and that men can only be justified through faith.

The complaint that his father had never given him so much as a kid, betrays the truth that he expected to be recompensed for his service, forgetting that all the father had was eventually to be his by inheritance.  Unbelieving Israel was as ignorant of the extent of God’s love, as was the elder son of the measure of his father’s.

“... that I might make merry with my friends” carries a subtle unpleasant implication: his father wouldn’t be included in the merrymaking.  And so was it with unbelieving Israel.  God was not in all their thoughts, as it is written, “The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts,” Ps 10:4, God Himself declaring, “This people draw near to me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men,” Isa 29:13, the Lord Himself repeating this accusation in Mt 15:8-9.

15:30.  “But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”

He was so occupied with his own self-righteousness that he couldn’t comprehend the love of his father’s heart which embraced both sons.  He would leave love out of the equation, and make legalistic morality the only virtue to which the father was to respond.  The self-righteous religionist similarly stifles Divine love, reducing it to a cold legalistic response to imagined virtue, and thereby excluding all from its beneficence, for there isn’t a righteous man on the face of the earth.  Were it not that God loves the unlovable we must all have perished long ago, but thank God for the assurance that He, “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” Jn 3:16, and the further assurance that, “Christ died for the ungodly,” Ro 5:6, and again, “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” Ro 5:8.

For his prodigal son the father killed the fatted calf, and thus provided a feast at which he and both sons could have rejoiced, but the self-righteous bitter spirit of the elder son marred the joy for all three.  God, through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, has furnished a far more costly feast for Jew and Gentile alike.  What sorrow it must cause Him to see those whom the elder son represents, also refuse to come in and celebrate His grace!

15:31.  “And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.”

This reminds us that Israel, for all her hateful self-righteousness, is still the object of God’s love, and in a soon coming day she will respond to His entreaty, and come in to share in the feast from which her own stubborn heart has for so long excluded her.

15:32.  “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.”

Every believer is represented by the returned prodigal.  Once we too were dead - in trespasses and sins; once we too were lost, but have been found.  And now it is our happy privilege to enjoy the feast which has cost our Father so much to provide, for as the fatted calf was the center of that feast, so is Christ, the One portrayed by that slain calf, the center of the feast to which grace has brought us.  No spiritual mind will fail to see in that feast spread for the returned prodigal, a picture of the Lord’s Supper, that weekly feast being itself the foreshadowing of the reality that awaits us in heaven when faith will give place to sight, and symbols will no longer be needed.

[Luke 16]


     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough