LUKE - CHAPTER 15
Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
2001 James Melough
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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!
“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
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.
“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
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
“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
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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
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.
“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
“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
“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.
“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.
“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
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.
“And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired
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.
“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
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.
“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
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.
“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.
“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.
“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
“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.”
“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
“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.
“And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and
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.
“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
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.
“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!
“And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is
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
“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.