THE REJOICING FATHER

Bible Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-20 

“And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry. Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.” [Luke 15:23-25]

One of the most beautiful pictures in the Bible is of the father rejoicing when his lost son has returned home. He is just so excited and filled with joy. Yesterday I watched an excited Chelsea football captain going wild with delight over playing a draw with Arsenal. That is just about a football match! Imagine how our heavenly Father and all of heaven rejoice with Him over His lost son coming home. Twice in Luke chapter 15 we read that there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repents [verse 7,10].

Many people think of God as a killjoy but He is the very opposite of this. When He holds a party there is eating, merriment, music and dancing. Let’s take closer look at another verse that speaks of this joyful God. In Zephaniah 3:17 we read, “The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.” Here is a God who saves us, rejoices over us, quietens us and sings over us!

What makes God rejoice? In our reading today, we see that it is when His people trust Him [verse 12], live righteously [verse 13], and rejoice in Him [verse 14-15]. Then God delights in them. His is not an emotionless contentment but it bursts forth in joyful, divine celebration.

At the banquet that the father held for his son who came home, there was dancing. Several years ago, my wife and I were ministering at the retreat for our church creative ministries staff in Singapore. A renowned cellist, Gerard le Feuvre was with us and blessed us with his music through the retreat. On the last night, he started to play a particular piece of music and immediately Elaine, a well-known former ballerina, recognised the music and began to dance. She took the hand of Grace and they danced together. It was one of those special moments when the presence of God was so real that you could never forget it. It was almost as though God Himself was dancing with joy in the midst of people who made His heart glad.

Questions:

What is your concept of our heavenly Father? If it has been damaged by an earthly father who was hard, or distant, or unable to express love to you, then would you ask your heavenly Father to heal your heart?

What do you think God’s reaction is when He looks at you? Is He joyful, singing and celebrating?

What can you do today to bring great joy and pleasure to the heart of our heavenly Father?

THE FORGIVING FATHER

Bible Reading: Psalm 103:1-22; Micah 7:18-20

I wonder what the lost son was thinking as he made that long journey home from the far country. Will father reject me or accept me? Will he be angry with me? Such uncertainties would trouble his mind as he travelled home.

Many years ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody told a story about a returning prodigal. Like the son in the parable of Jesus, this boy had left home and lived a wild and rebellious life and, like the lost son in the Bible, he longed to return to the comfort and joy of his childhood home. He too did not know how his father would react to his coming home, and so wrote his father a letter in advance of his return. The train that he would travel on would pass by the end of the garden of the family home and in the garden was a large tree. The son asked his father to put a white handkerchief on the tree as a sign that he was forgiven, and would be welcomed home.

As the train neared the garden, the son could not bear to look, and asked a fellow passenger to tell him if he could see a white handkerchief on the tree.

The passenger excitedly told the lost son to look, and there on the tree was not just a white handkerchief, but instead hundreds of white handkerchiefs. That’s how much our heavenly Father is eager to forgive us!

When Jesus died on the cross He carried all our sins, and as we see our sins laid upon Him, give them to Him and turn away from them, so we are fully forgiven. The basis of forgiveness is that Jesus bore our sins in His body on the cross [1 Peter 2:24].

Forgiveness is an amazing part of the riches of God’s grace to us [Ephesians 1:7]. The devil will try to keep you in bondage by reminding you of your past and present sins, but our heavenly Father both forgives and forgets our sins and will never remind us of them again. If He forgives and forgets, then why should you remember them?

Corrie ten Boom loved Psalm 103. Her favourite word in verse one was the word “all”. He forgives all our sins! When she came to verse 12 she would get so excited and ask how far the east is from the west. She delighted to tell people that you can come to the end of travelling north or south because there are north and south poles, but you never can come to the end of east or west. Corrie also loved Micah 7:19, “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea,” and would say that God then puts up a notice, “No Fishing Here”.

Questions:

What is it that causes people to continually look back at their sin and wrongdoings instead of leaving it at the cross and moving forward in the freedom and forgiveness that God has made available to us?

What is your response to the story of the hundreds of handkerchiefs?

What characteristics of God are found in Psalm 103? Why not write them down and then, together with the Psalmist begin to “Bless the Lord”?

THE WAITING FATHER – PATIENT

Bible Reading: 2 Peter 3:1-18; Psalm 78:35-39

The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think.

No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent“ [2 Peter 3:9]

In Jesus’ parable of the lost son, we not only feel the grief in the father’s heart over his son but also recognise his patience in waiting for him to return.

Paul says that three things abide, faith, hope and love, and that the greatest of these is love [1 Corinthians 13:13]. Perhaps one reason why love is the greatest is because we will not need faith or hope in heaven, because we will have received what we believed and hoped for, but love will be there because God is love [1 John 4:8]. He gives faith and hope but He is love. “Love suffers long and is kind” [1 Cor. 13:4]. The NIV says, “Love is patient. Love is kind”.

Our heavenly father is love and He is patient. Not only does He feel grief when we go astray, but He patiently waits for us to turn to Him. The Bible describes patience as long-suffering, and steadfast [unchanging] love, and in the Old Testament we frequently read that God is “slow to anger” [e.g. Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8]. In the New Testament, Paul speaks about God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience” [Romans 2:4].

We see God’s patience with Moses when he resisted God’s call to deliver His people from Egypt. We see it again in His not giving up on sinful Israel. Even though we resist Him, He still patiently waits for us to turn back to Him, in just the same way as the father waited patiently for his lost son to return.

In our reading today, we see that God does not want anyone to perish in sin. Even though God must judge and destroy the earth, and then create a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells [2 Peter 3:13], He still patiently holds back that judgment and waits for us to turn to Him and be saved. God will not, however, be patient forever. In Genesis 6:3 He said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever.” Judgment must come but He gives us time to turn to Him.

Questions:

Read Isaiah 30:18. Using this and 2 Peter 3:9 why do you think it is that “the day of the Lord” is so slow in coming?

In what ways have you experienced the patience of God?

Why do you think that God is so patient with us and waits for us to return to Him?

THE WAITING FATHER – GRIEVING

Bible Reading: Hosea 14:1-9

One of the most moving pictures of the father of the prodigal son is the way that he watches and waits for his son to return. It wasn’t insignificant that he was watching and saw his son coming home when the son was still a long way off. He was always watching, scanning the horizon and longing for his son. This picture speaks of both grief and patience.

In the same way that the father of the prodigal grieved over and patiently waited for his lost son to return, so our Heavenly Father grieves and patiently waits for lost sinners to come home to Him.

Our Father knows the emotions of both great joy and grief. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He wept when His friend Lazarus died and He saw the sorrow of Martha and Mary, and He wept over Jerusalem. When Jesus asked His disciples who did men say that He was, one of the answers was Jeremiah – known as the weeping prophet. The Bible says that God grieved over Israel’s sin when they wandered in the wilderness [Hebrews 13:10,17]. Paul commands Christians not to grieve the Holy Spirit [Ephesians 4:30]. Yes, God does grieve.

Many years ago, I heard a well-known pastor speaking about grief over sin. His teenage daughter had been very naughty, was telling lies and stealing. He and his wife had tried everything to make her change her ways. They spoke with her, withheld privileges from her, prayed over and punished her, but nothing seemed to work. One morning, before she left for school, her father sat with her and began to weep. In desperation he said to her, “What can we do to help you see the folly of your ways and change?” The daughter couldn’t wait to get home from school and ran straight to her father. “Daddy,” she said, “I am so sorry that I have been so naughty. Please forgive me.” Her father was puzzled at this amazing change of heart that turned out to be permanent and not temporary. When he asked why she had so dramatically and radically, changed her response was, “Daddy, I had never seen you cry over me before!” May our Heavenly Father help us to see the grief that our sin causes Him, as He longs for us to return to Him and repent over the things that break His heart.

Questions:

We sometimes sing a song that says, “Break my heart over the things that break your heart”. What are the things in your life that might be breaking God’s heart?

Read Hosea 14:1-3. What is God pleading with His people to do in this passage?

What does He promise to those who give heed to his words [Hosea 14:4-8]?

What are the pictures of the Christian life that the words “dew” “grow” “roots” “branches” “beauty” and “fragrance” in this passage from Hosea portray?

 

THE RELEASING FATHER

Bible Reading: Psalm 103:1-22

As we have looked at Jesus’ parable of the lost son we cannot help but notice the father of these two sons, and recognising that this parable is not just about the two sons but also about their father. Just as the two sons are representative of the worldly sinner and the religious sinner, both equally lost, so the father represents the Heavenly Father who deeply loves both His sons.

Over the final days of this series, we will take a closer look at the father and see something of the Father heart of God.

We see in this parable the some of the wonderful attributes of our Heavenly Father. He releases His children, patiently waits for them, is generous, rejoicing, and still pleading for the one whose heart is hardened and unchanged. Let’s look at each of these different aspects of the Father’s heart.

He releases His children. Even though it would have been painful for him to see His younger son go off and leave Him, the Father still releases Him. He knows the mess that this boy will make of his life, and that he needs to learn by hard experiences, but also knows that unless He lets him go then He will lose him forever!

For an earthly father who loves his children it is not easy to release them, and I had to learn the importance of releasing our son. My wife and I were living in Singapore when our 23-year-old son old joined us there. I found myself constantly trying to guide him and make sure that he made no mistakes. The pressure that I was putting on him was almost unbearable and he began to distance himself from us. The more he distanced himself from us, the more I telephoned him. I later realised that my inner, sub-conscious motives were actually selfish. As a well-known preacher in Singapore, I was afraid that my son would damage my “good” name. As I released him and stopped trying to control him, he began to flourish. This has enabled him to “come to himself” and find his own way with God and in life. There is a powerful principle operating here – what we release comes back to us, and what we hold tightly we lose!

God is not a controlling Father. He releases us and gives us the freedom to make our own choices. There will be no one in heaven that did not choose to be there. Control is a tool of Satan. Satan builds his kingdom on control and fear, but God’s kingdom is built on release and love.

Questions

In the same way that the Father released His son, is there someone that you love but need to release? Will you ask God to help you to do that?

“God does not impose His will on people.” Do you agree with this statement, and if so why do you agree with it?

AN UNFORGIVING AND JUDGMENTAL SPIRIT

Bible Reading: Matthew 18:21-25

The elder brother was not just angry, bitter, and proud, but also unforgiving and judgmental. He had no forgiveness or care for his younger brother.

There is a remarkable difference between the first two parables in Luke chapter 15, of the lost sheep and lost coin, and then the story of the lost son. In the first two parables, someone went to find what was lost, but nobody went to rescue the lost son. The father knew that he had to release him, but if the elder brother cared about his younger brother then maybe he should have gone looking for him.

Perhaps the elder brother should have said, “Father, my younger brother has been a fool, and now his life is in ruins. But I will go and look for him and bring him home. And if the inheritance is gone, as I expect, I’ll bring him back into the family at my expense”. But instead of grace, the elder brother could only judge his younger brother and refuse to forgive him.

The elder brother may have been obedient and submissive to his father but he himself was in great danger of judgment. Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you [Matthew 7:1-2]. What a challenge! We will be judged by the same measure that we judge others. It is the law of proportionate returns.

The same law of proportionate returns also applies in the case of forgiveness. Jesus said, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” [Matthew 6:14-15]. If we do not forgive others then we ourselves cannot expect to be forgiven.

Instead of judging people because of their lifestyle, let’s instead allow God’s grace to fill us, and His love permeate to others. Paul says it very plainly in when he wrote to the Galatians, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” [Galatians 6:1-3].

Questions

Have you had an elder brother attitude and been judgmental and unforgiving of someone, especially if they have hurt you? Will you ask God to help you and to show you how you can reach out to that person with His love?

What lessons can you learn from our reading today in Matthew 18:21-35 about forgiveness? What happens to the person who does not forgive?

PRIDE

Bible Reading: Luke 18:9-14; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:7-10

We have seen in the elder anger and bitterness, and a joyless compliance to rules without a heart relationship with the father. Another characteristic of this elder brother that shouts from the pages of Scripture is pride!

Listen to the elder brother’s language. He says to his father, “But as soon as this son of yours came…” [Luke 15:30]. “This son of yours!” – He will not even own him as his brother but calls him his father’s son. He feels superior to his brother simply because he has not done the wrong that his brother has done!

This kind of pride is reminiscent of the story Jesus told of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee trusted in himself and in his own righteousness and despised others [verse 9]. He actually thanked God that he was not like this tax collector. The old proverb, “Pride comes before a fall,” is actually Biblically based, “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” [Proverbs 16:18]. In this case, it was the humble tax collector and not the proud Pharisee who was justified before God.

In Jesus’ parable, the elder brother is proud of his own goodness! Competitive comparison is the main way in which elder brother achieves a sense of significance! His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so that he must endlessly prop his sense of righteousness by finding fault in others and putting them down.

This elder brother had never found security in his relationship with his father. For the Christian, it should no longer be a case of “look what I have achieved,” but rather, “Look at what God has achieved for me in Christ”. We will never find true peace until we get to the place where we recognise that there is nothing that we can do to make God love us. Isaiah says that, “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” [Isaiah 64:6]. Our acceptance by God can never be on the basis of our performance but on the basis of His grace. Someone has said that P.O.W. stands not only for a prisoner of war, but also for a performance orientated worker. It is pride that thinks that my performance will win me acceptance with God, and it is pride that finds its identity in comparing itself with other people.

Oswald Chambers rightly said, “Maturity is having nothing left to prove”.

Whilst I try to prove my value, or worth on the basis of what I have achieved, or compare myself with others, then I have never really experienced the fullness of God’s grace.

Questions

What does John say in 1 John 2:15-16 about pride? What does James 4:7-10 say is the cure for pride?

Why do you think that God so opposed to the proud?

What are the normal ways in which pride manifests itself?

A JOYLESS COMPLIANCE TO THE RULES

Bible Reading: John 8:1-12

The elder brother said to his father, “I have always obeyed you” [Luke 15:29]. Another translation reads, “All these years I have been slaving for you.” He had been slaving – it was not a joy to serve his father! The elder son never did anything wrong. His father didn’t contradict him when his son said, “I’ve never disobeyed you”. He always did what his father expected of him but there was no joy – it was a duty and not a delight!

In his book After God’s Own Heart Mike Bickle writes, “This elder brother would have made a good leader in most churches today. He kept all the rules. He tried very hard, yet he never knew what it meant to enjoy his father at the heart level”. The elder brother’s life was a joyless compliance to the rules but our Heavenly Father wants us to know and love Him intimately, and live life in the freedom and flexibility of His Spirit.

A woman caught in the act of adultery was brought to Jesus. The religious leaders challenged Jesus by telling Him what the law said, and asking what He would say. These men were religious and rigid without compassion and totally inflexible. Theirs was a hard obedience to the law. On the other hand, Jesus did not condemn the woman but said simply, “Go and sin no more!”

A couple were coming to church, faithfully serving the Lord and taking communion together. The man had been married previously but his unfaithful wife had left him and their two children for another man. The woman was also married and had two children but her husband had left her and refused to sign divorce papers. Neither of these people were Christians. They met in the pub, got together, and had two more children. So now there are two people living together but not married and with six children. One day they turned up at church, gave their lives to Christ and began to serve Him, and each Sunday took communion together. The six children loved going to the Sunday school.

Then someone found out that they were not married! Gossip quickly spread and someone suggested that they should stop taking communion. Another said that they should sleep in separate rooms – it did not seem to matter that all eight of them lived in a three-bedroomed house! Someone else suggested that they live apart – but there are six children and two of the children are theirs together! People demanded that the church leaders take action. We did! We encouraged them to keep following and serving Jesus, and when it was possible to do so have a quiet and tasteful wedding. This family continued to follow Jesus and the church prospered, but sadly about 30 hard and inflexible “elder brothers” left the church.

Questions

What would you have done if you had to make a decision concerning the unmarried who were couple taking communion in church?

Why do you think that people prefer to live by a legalistic compliance to rules rather than in the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit?

BREAK THE POWER OF BITTERNESS

Bible Reading: James 3:13-18

Yesterday we saw something of the anger and bitterness of the elder brother towards his younger brother. In Hebrews we read, “… looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many became defiled” [Hebrews 12:13]. Bitterness is both divisive and destructive.

Back in the 1960s and based at Cliff College, I was a young home missions evangelist of the Methodist Church. Together with another evangelist, we conducted a three-week mission in a Methodist Church in a town in the West of England. It was hard work, and the people were totally unresponsive to the preaching of the gospel night after night.

On the last day of the mission, the minister of that church shared with us his disappointment at the lack of fruit during the mission. He told us that he longed to see the church united and explained that more than 30 years earlier, two women in the church and fallen out over a minor matter. They were both still in the church but had not spoken to each other for all that time. The people who supported one of the women sat together with her on one side of the church aisle, and those who supported the other women sat on the opposite side of the church. Sadly, it was not just the two women who did not speak to each other but the two groups of people as well. This issue had continued for more than three decades and had not only divided individuals but also divided families. Here was disgrace in the place where love was supposed to be pre-eminent.

We spent the rest of that day in prayer, praying for these two women and these two groups of people and asking God for a breakthrough in the final meeting of the mission. As we sang the closing song in that final meeting, one of the two women responded and knelt at the communion rail. The atmosphere was electric and deeply moving as the other woman came and knelt with her, and they wept and sought forgiveness of one another. Then the supporters of each of the women came and began to confess their wrong, to pray, and to hug one another. It was a breakthrough moment when bitterness, anger and grievance were melted at the foot of the cross, and it was the beginning of a new work of God’s grace in that church. Remember that the opposite of bitterness is sweetness!

Questions: 

Why do you think it takes so long for people to let go of their bitterness and grievances?

What does James 3:13-16 say about bitter envy and self-seeking? What are the characteristics of wisdom from above, stated in James 3:17-18, that are pleasing to God?

If you have anything in your heart against anyone, will you forgive them and seek to be reconciled to them and to be peaceable?

THE ANGRY ELDER BROTHER

Bible Reading: Hebrews 12:12-17

The biggest hindrance to people coming to Jesus are the people in the House of God, who are just as lost as the younger brother but don’t realise it and put other people off! They act in a religious way but they do not portray Jesus or the truth. The people who have contact with them think that this is what Christians are like and get a totally wrong picture of what it means to be a real Christian! Their understanding of God’s Kingdom becomes totally warped.

There was something seriously wrong with the elder brother and it kept him out of the father’s love feast! He was angry, threw a tantrum, and refused to go the feast [Luke 15:28]. He was in the father’s house but just as lost as his younger brother. Over the next few days, we will look more closely at this elder brother and the first thing we see is anger, resentment and bitterness.

In some ways, we might feel sorry for the elder brother. He had always tried to do what was right, was well behaved and had done nothing that would offend or shame his father. He felt that because he has worked so hard, served his father well, and never transgressed his father’s commandments, he should’ve been the one who deserved to be blessed with the fatted calf and a party, and not his wasteful, openly sinful younger brother. His words, “You never gave me a young goat… but you killed a fatted calf for him,” powerfully portray his emotion, anger and jealousy. You could almost hear him spit out the words, “It’s not fair!”

The problem with bitterness and resentment is not just that it is opposite to the nature and character of God, but it is like a spiritual cancer that spreads and affects the whole person and then further spreads and damages other people. Gossip and bitterness are twins. Rarely does bitterness keep its feelings to itself. I can imagine that the elder brother would share his hurt with his close friends who would agree with and support his point of view. Even more dangerous are the advanced stages of bitterness when the heart becomes so hardened that it is unable to recognise the truth or be able to come to repentance. Tomorrow we will look at a practical example of the destructive and divisive nature of bitterness in a church.

Questions:

There is a fine line between righteous anger and ungodly anger. When do you think that line is crossed?

If the elder brother had been a godly man, what do you think his attitude should have been towards his younger brother and the way in which the father had blessed him?

Have you encountered people who are bitter in church and how did you deal with the situation in your own heart?