God Seeks Sinners


Sinners, those called “the poor, crippled, blind, and lame” in the parable of the banquet in 14:21, came to hear Jesus.  The Pharisees, those who had excused themselves from the banquet in 14:18, 19, 20, grumbled because Jesus received sinners (15:2). Jesus corrected them by illustrating that he not only receives but seeks and finds and runs to receive sinners.  After Jesus had spoken clearly and soberly about the terms of discipleship, he admonished, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen” (14:35). Accordingly, the “tax collectors and sinners,” gathered round to listen to him. They drew near to hear (14:35). Jesus told three parables about lost things—a sheep, a coin, and a son—giving expanded details in his final illustration.


I. The Lost Sheep 1-7

A. A sheep is lost. He is the only one in a flock of a hundred; only one for which the shepherd cannot account. What does he do? Should he say, “Well, ninety-nine is plenty; let that one go.”

B. The shepherd seeks him until he finds him. He has determined that not one of his sheep will be lost. This is the parabolic equivalent of the propositions that Jesus teaches through the image of sheep and shepherd in John 10:7-30. “I lay down my life for the sheep; . . . there will be one flock and one shepherd. . . . My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.”

C. The shepherd brings home the sheep rejoicing. Joy appears three times in 5-7, for himself, his neighbors, and in heaven. “He joyfully puts it on his shoulder to bring it home.” To find the lost sheep was an experience of great joy to the shepherd. Even so, Jesus “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, while despising its shame” (Romans 12:2).

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,

And yet in love He sought me;

And on his shoulder gently laid,

And home rejoicing brought me.

D. He invites his friends at home to rejoice with him in the recovery of this precious sheep (6). He ushers them in to find a single heart with him, the rejoicing shepherd, in his successful search and rescue. Those who understand the purpose, devotion, and compassion of the shepherd and share a like burden for such helpless beings, will also rejoice when the shepherd shows up carrying the precious cargo. The Pharisees had no sympathy with the saving mission of the Son of God. Their snarling condescension at the sinners around them prohibited any empathetic union with their joy in the kindness of Jesus. They could not see themselves as lost and needy and at the mercy of such sovereign rescue.

E. That is what heaven is like when a sinner repents (7). Only Jesus, the Son of God would know this. The triune God, whose very being constitutes love (1 John 4: 8) and in the eternal overflow of that love claimed sinners in a covenant of redemption (Ephesians 1:3, 4), rejoices in the success of his plan of love. Heavenly residents grasp the infinite dimensions of grace, love, and sacrifice involved in this rescue. But if there is no repentance, there is only perishing (cf. Luke 13:3).


II. The Lost Coin (Verses 8-10).

A. A coin is lost. The woman has 10 drachmas, a day’s wage in each one. The Shepherd had lost one one-hundredth of his flock, but she has lost one-tenth of her sustenance. It represents the pay she would have received for one day’s labor. It is not inconsequential to her.

B. The woman scours the house until it is found. The sure-fire method of covering every inch of floor space is to sweep the whole house. She does it, and with infallible certainty discovers where the coin had fallen. She would not allow one coin, and thus the plans and labor of a day to be lost. Even so, Jesus will lose none of those the Father has given him and for whom he labors in redeeming love. “My food is to do the will of Hm who sent me, and to finish His work. . . . This is the will of Him who sent me, that of all that He has given me I should lose nothing but raise it up at the last day” (John 4:34; 6:39).

C. Her neighbors rejoice with her. In an action of what might seem excessive delight to those who know not the real value of the coin, she invites friends and neighbors to rejoice. This kind of response to a successful search goes beyond the mere conserving of a material good. It brings to a happy conclusion a noble determination of mind. Success means the recovery of the emblem of work done conscientiously and with required skill.

D. That is what heaven is like when a sinner repents (cf. Luke 13:5). The entire place rejoices in the wisdom of the covenantal purpose and the means by which it was successfully executed. Jesus did not spend his time in vain, the pleasure of the Lord prospered in his hand, he had travail of soul and was satisfied (Isaiah 53:10, 11).


III. The Lost Sons

A. The story is about a man and two sons (11). In the former parables, Jesus emphasized only the particular lost object and the purposeful intensity with which the owner pursued finding it. Now Jesus still looks at something lost, but he also looks at two ways of being lost. In the parable, only one of the lost things is truly found.

B. The younger Son – Who is He?

  1. In reality, the younger son represents the condition of all, for “all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned everyone to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus desires to show a contrast in true perception of oneself. Only one came to know who he really was in his sinful distress; the other never learned.
  2. 2. On the one hand, by the younger son, Jesus represents the sinners and outcasts among the Jews, and in light of the emphasis of his teachings, he includes the Samaritans, and the Gentiles (10:33; 14:13, 21-24. Everyone that the Pharisees despised were rolled up into this singularly rebellious, self-centered, sensuous, vagabond who had no qualms about going to a “distant country.”
  3. He squandered an inheritance and became utterly destitute (13-16). He asked for an early distribution of his inheritance so that he could accomplish the goal of happiness and security earlier rather than later. Here is Eve looking toward a promise of being like God and being deceived into forfeiting the eventual goal through disobedience (Genesis 3:4-6).
  • Having an abundance provided by the father, he squandered it with foolish abandon.
  • A famine struck the country, and he had no reserve to support himself.
  • He hired himself out as a feeder of pigs and saw that they were better fed than he was. The Pharisees would have interpreted this as the lowest level of life—in an unclean country, living virtually in the condition of a slave, and caring for unclean animals. In their view of what it meant to have the promise of eternal life, this was a condition from which there was no recovery.
  • No one had compassion on him. Sin has a natural effect of decline, sliding by God’s judgment into more grievous and destructive forms of sin (Romans 1:24, 26, 28; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12).
  1. He returned to his senses and understood the source of survival (17, 18). Remembering the provision that even the servants of his father were given, contrasting that with his utterly impoverished state, he determined to return to the place of stable provision.
  2. He knew that he had forfeited all claim to acceptance. Not only had he dishonored his father, he had rebelled against the mandates of heaven. It was clear to him and he held no sense of entitlement but even knew that his very sonship could be called into question. He was willing to be considered a hired servant. He considered all that had transpired and gained an accurate, sobering, and humble perspective of the truth of his transgressive action. He put words to the reality, showing a rational consideration of how desperately wicked and needy and unworthy he had become.
  3. He returned under those circumstances. He was not strutting home with high expectations but with a knowledge that this journey is his only hope and he could in perfect righteousness be turned away.

C. The Father: Calvin observed, “But there is no doubt that under this image there is depicted the infinite goodness, the incomparable kindness of God, so that not the most atrocious crime need deter us from hoping for pardon.”

  1. He has already freely provided all things. The home is there, and the father wisely had stored provision, even treasures, that will transcend the irregularities and uncertainties of shifting culture.
  2. He permitted the willful ruin of the younger Son. Jesus does not relate any warning, remonstrations, or mandates. He is not indicating that God does not have commandments and standards of holiness but is emphasizing that nothing harsh, unreasonable, irrationally demanding, or oppressively autocratic existed in the father to give any degree of legitimacy to the desire of the son to depart. The cause lay solely in the perversity of the son’s desires.
  3. The father welcomes him back with more elaborate gifts than when he left.
  • He let him depart with abundant provisions and then welcomed him back with an eager compassion. He saw him a long way off, ran to meet him, and threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. Not only was Jesus giving a story about heavenly grace, but he couched it within the greatest depths of human emotion. He knew these things for himself (13:34; Hebrews 2: 11, 17-18) and also knew of the infinite depths of love that prompted his redemptive mission (Ephesians 1:4, 5; John 3:16; 1 John 4: 10).
  • The father interrupted the speech of the son after hearing the first elements of recognition of sin and unworthiness. He immediately began to call for the granting of gifts. There can be no reception into renewed fellowship with the family of God without a turn from one’s rebellion against and disobedience to God. There is no faith apart from repentance and, correlatively, no repentance apart from faith.
  • It is not necessary to press a parable into a parallel spiritual meaning in every element of it. When Jesus interpreted parables, however, he did it in some detail (see Matthew 13). We see in this receptive exuberance of the father a full restoration to sonship. He is clothed with that which he had lost, perhaps a reference to the righteousness of Christ as “the best robe.” He is given a ring signifying his true sonship and his right to all the graces of the Father. He received shoes for his feet with which he may freely explore the father’s boundless estate and go on an embassy for gospel truth (Ephesians 6:14-20).
  • With greater exuberance than with the sheep or the coin, but in the same spirit, this returning son brought about an event of widespread rejoicing (6-7, 9-10).

D. The Older Son – In light of the context, Jesus probably was representing the “Pharisees and scribes” by the older son. The Pharisees and scribes were complaining and grumbling about the company Jesus kept. The older brother could only look at his labor in the father’s house as a kind of slavery for a miserly and ungenerous man (29). He could see no joy in his brother’s return but only point to his ugly transgressions in contrast to the feast begin prepared. He had no desire to enter into the joy and thus betrayed several disturbing spiritual misperceptions.

  1. He lived in the Father’s house and under the benefits of his resourcefulness without realizing the unearned blessings of his position. He has interpreted his privilege of birthright as personal righteousness (Romans 3: 1-3; 4:5; 9:4, 5; 10:2, 3
  2. Has no love for the younger brother, but only resents his return and the acceptance he receives. The father pointed to the obvious error in this thinking when he said, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again” (24) and then “this brother of yours was dead and is alive again” (32). None of those whom God has claimed as his own are anything other than dearly beloved brothers and sisters for the sake of Christ’s death.
  3. He cannot appreciate the winsome graciousness of his Father and thus never really enjoys the blessings set before him. He thinks they are all his by right and personal righteousness and fails to see that he has lived under the influence of unearned blessings all his life.


IV. Jesus’ emphases

A. Jesus reaffirms that he has come to the outcasts. We all are among them. [demonstration of Luke 4:18ff].

B. Jesus is emphasizing the unity of all humanity: all were sheep, all were coins, the two were brothers

  1. We are all alike sinful—“For there is no difference” (Romans 3:22)
  2. All must be converted in the same way—“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision not uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).

C. The Aggressiveness of God in salvation. The Father ran to the returning son and gave him all that qualified him to dwell in his house. So has the Father in perfect consonance with the eternal Son and Holy Spirit compacted in eternity for our salvation and then in time takes every first step in bringing it to consummation (Romans 8: 28-39).

D. This highlights the absolute freeness of salvation from our standpoint. “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

E. In each parable, Jesus emphasized the centrality of the message of repentance—7, 10, 21 (cf. Luke 3:3-9; 13: 1-8).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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