Introduction: Whenever we study a passage in the Bible, it’s important to understand it within its context and to interpret it correctly. For example, I’ve heard and read many sermons on the Prodigal Son, but most of them miss the point entirely. The preachers and writers make some good applications of various truths that are touched upon in the parable; but we cannot interpret it correctly unless we understand the main point of the overall passage. The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of three stories that Jesus told in Luke 15, and the key to understanding the whole chapter is found in the first two verses.
Theme (v. 1-2): As Jesus preached, He drew in the riffraff. The dirty, smelly outcasts gathered around Him, people who were generally despised by humanity. The Pharisees and teachers of the law muttered about this, complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Hearing the criticism, Jesus wanted to demonstrate the fact that the Pharisees should have been rejoicing over what they were complaining about. If they truly understood the heart of God, they would be singing praises because lost sinners were being found. To help them see this, Jesus told three stories.
1. The Story of the Lost Sheep (v. 3-7). This timeless story of the “ninety-and-nine” ends with an exhortation to joy because of the lost sheep has been found. “I tell you that in the same way there will be… rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents….” When a lost sinner finds Christ, heaven erupts in praise—and so should we.
2. The Story of the Lost Silver (v. 8-10). Jesus now tells essentially the same story, but about a woman finding a lost coin. Calling her neighbors, she celebrates. “In the same way,” said Jesus, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
3. The Story of the Lost Son (v. 11-31). Jesus now tells essentially the same story, but in very human and tender terms. No longer is the lost object a sheep or a coin; it’s a boy. When he returns home, his father is ecstatic, saying, “This son of mine was…lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate. But Jesus adds an epilogue to the story—the elder brother who was critical when he should have been rejoicing. The story ends with the father upbraiding the older brother, telling him that he, too, should celebrate the fact that his brother was lost and now is found, was dead and now is alive.
Conclusion: There may be many applications and lessons we can learn from these verses, but our Lord had only one primary point to make. We should rejoice when people are saved! I think most of us do rejoice; but we always have to be careful about our attitude. I was in a church a few years ago that was having a problem. They were in a transitional urban neighborhood. Most of the parishioners were driving in. The church hired a children’s pastor who started reaching into the community. And on Wednesday nights neighbor children, who tended to be wild and unruly, overran the church. The church-going parents were unhappy because their children were thrown into this mass of neighborhood kids, some of whom looked like budding gang members. It caused such an uproar that the outreach effort was abandoned.
But let me give you a contrast. One of the most unusual characters I’ve ever read about was a little, wiry coal miner named Billy Bray, of Cornwell, England. Before his conversion in November, 1832, Billy lived a vile life. After finding Christ, he became a flaming evangelist and lay preacher. On a mountain near his home lived a cluster of non-Christian families. Billy, after working underground all day, would emerge from the mines and set out for the mountain, where he visited door-to-door, evangelizing the families. Soon every inhabitant was converted, and a church house was built.
The Church of England sent Rev. W. Haslam to shepherd the families, but when Billy heard the new parson preach, he was upset. Haslam didn’t seem to know the Gospel. Billy felt the pastor wasn’t truly a Christian himself, and he told him so. Haslam was shaken. The next Sunday as he stood to preach, he announced his text, Matthew 22:42: “What think ye of Christ.” As he began delivering his message, he felt himself trusting Christ as Savior. He was converted while preaching his own sermon.
Billy heard of it and came for a visit. When Haslam came to the door, Billy asked, “Converted, kind sir?” The man said, “Yes, thank God, I am.” Billy was so happy, he threw his arms around him, lifted him up, and carried him around the room shouting, “Glory, glory, the parson’s converted! Glory be to God.”
Mrs. Haslam, hearing the commotion, entered the room, and Billy cried, “Be the missis converted?” She replied, “Yes, thank God.” Billy started toward her, but instead of picking her up, he just grinned ear to ear and said, “Oh, I be so happy I can hardly live. Glory! Glory be to God!”
When we hear or see a soul saved, it makes us cry, “Oh, I be so happy I can hardly live. Glory! Glory be to God!”