Death and Resurrection to Seek and to Save the Lost

A sermon on Luke 15 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, Resurrection Sunday, 4/16/2006


This last week we have recollected the arrest, condemnation, suffering, crucifixion, and, now, resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, sweat blood as He prayed to God the Father, asking that He might not undergo this trial. He was then mocked, beaten, and whipped. Soldiers spat upon him and pretended to bow down before Him. Chief priests called out to Him to come down from the cross. In the agony of suffering for your sins and mine, He called out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” He died, and was buried.

Why did Jesus go through all that? Why did He suffer?

Remember, He could have stopped the process at any time. As He told Peter, who tried to defend Him with a sword,

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? Matthew 26:53 

But He didn’t make that appeal. Why not?

The Bible gives us many answers to that question. Ultimately, the answer is that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus glorified God as it displayed the His character in a way nothing else could.

But Luke 19:10 gives a somewhat different perspective on the answer to that question:

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

A different perspective – not a different answer. He came to seek and to save the lost because such seeking and saving leads to God’s glory.

This Resurrection Sunday we focus on God as the One who seeks and saves the lost. Our text, Luke 15, is one of the most familiar in the entire Bible. This text sets out particularly clearly the nature of God’s seeking love; many preach from this text on that great theme. This text also clarifies for us the nature of true repentance.

So open your ears. Open your hearts. Behold the character of our great God. And repent, truly, from the heart.

We’ll look at this text under five headings. First, I’ll go through the text briefly, retelling the story and making a few observations. The last four headings are:

The Stories

As the chapter opens, unsavory people are coming to Jesus to hear him. The Pharisees accuse Him of  receiving or welcoming such people. Every other time Luke uses this Greek verb, it connotes some sense of looking forward to an event with joy. Thus, the Pharisees are saying, “He really wants to be around tax collectors and sinners!” They are appalled: They don’t want to be around such people. They might be stained by sin or tempted by sin. Or possibly they fear that they could seem to be condoning sin.

But as we already saw in Luke 5:32, Jesus has said:

“I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

In this chapter he elaborates on that idea through three stories. The first two are very similar. In the first story, a shepherd realizes one of his sheep is lost. He looks for it, finds it, carries it back on his shoulders, and calls his friends to rejoice with him. In the second story, a woman loses one of her ten coins. She too looks for it, finds it, and calls for her friends to rejoice with her.

The third story tells of two sons, both of whom are lost. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. Think, now. What is he implying by this request? He is saying, “I wish you were dead. I don’t care about you; I don’t care about our relationship. In fact, I want to get away from you. All I want is your property.”

The father surprisingly agrees to this hurtful request. The son cashes in the property, and leaves home with plenty in his pockets. He goes far away and lives it up. Eventually he spends all that he has.

Just then, a famine falls on the land, so that food becomes that much more expensive. This presents a problem, since he has no money. So he thinks, “I’ve made a mistake, but I can manage. I’ve wasted my money. But I can work. I’ll earn enough to live on.”

And he does, sort of. He doesn’t die. But he does become destitute. He is worse off than the pigs he feeds. And no one there shows any kindness to him; no one gives him anything.

“Coming to himself,” he realizes that his father is a better employer than his present one. So he thinks, “I’ll switch employers. I can’t be a son to my father – I’ve lost that position. I’ve sinned against him. But I can be a good worker for him! I’ll earn my keep!”

And so he heads home. As he walks, he practices what he will say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But long before he can get home, his father sees him. He runs to him, embraces him, kisses him. The son starts his speech. But the father tells the servant to go quickly and bring a robe, a ring, and shoes for the son. All these will show to everyone around that this boy is welcomed as a son, not as a servant.

Then the father says, “We’re going to have a party!” He explains why in verse 24:

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

The other lost son, the older one, was out working when his brother arrived, so he knows nothing about it. As he comes home, he hears music, so he asks a servant what is going on. The servant informs him of his brother’s return and his father’s response. He is indignant, and refuses to go into the party.

So his father comes out to him, and asks him to come in. The son blows up: “These many years I have served you.” The NIV translates this expression well: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” He goes on to say,         “I’ve never disobeyed you, but you don’t give me anything “You killed fattened calf for him but you don’t even give me a goat!” The fattened calf would be an animal well-fed to provide meat for special occasions. Meat was not an everyday part of the diet.

He also accuses “this son of yours” of wasting money on prostitutes. This may or may not be true, but the older son could not know. Perhaps he’s heard rumors. But he doesn’t have facts.

How does the father respond? First he acknowledges his relationship to his older son: “You are always with me. All I have is yours.” He thus reassures the older son that the inheritance is already divided; all that is left belongs to the older son, not the younger. The younger son is forgiven and restored to status as son, but the older son is not losing anything. He also thereby tells the older son, “All my goats are yours! You don’t have to ask!”

Second, the father explains why he did what he did: “It was fitting to celebrate.” The NIV again is probably better here: “We had to celebrate.” Why? Because “your brother (note: not “my son”) was dead, and is alive. He was lost and is found.”

Those are the stories. What can we learn from them?

God is the Seeker

As we saw in Luke 9:10:

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."

Jesus says then when he goes to spend the night in the home of Zaccheus, a repentant tax collector. 

We see a similar idea back in chapter 6, when Jesus says,

“Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.” (emphasis added)

We are sons of the Most High, we are like Him, when we treat those well who treat us poorly. He is the one who is kind to those who are evil.

How does this theme come out in our stories? Consider in each story who does the seeking:

Who is the seeker? In these three cases, the shepherd, the woman, and the father. Each represents God. God is the seeker.

What about the younger son? Does he seek his father? Or does his father seek him?

The younger son does take some important steps along the way. Let’s consider those steps.

First, he recognizes that his life is at a dead end.  This doesn’t require a great deal of insight when he is longing to eat pig’s food. But nevertheless, this is a vital first step.

Second, he recognizes that he has sinned against God and his father. Not only are his circumstances bad – he realizes that he brought this on himself. He is responsible. And he is sinful. He acknowledges that he therefore deserves nothing from his father. That too is vital.

But that’s all the younger son has done as he returns home. He has gone no further.

Like the younger son, many people stop with those two steps. And to stop there is to stop short of salvation.

We must hate the consequences of sin. We must acknowledge that we have sinned. But that is not salvation. These are necessary steps to true repentance, but they are not sufficient. What more must happen?

We’ll answer that question later. For now, consider what the father does: The father runs out to his son. The father showers grace on Him. The father seeks him. This son was his enemy. This son said, “I wish you were dead.” But the father is kind and loving and forgiving to this wayward son.

The father says, “He was lost, and is found.” Who found him? The son didn’t find himself. As in the first two stories, the father, representing God, seeks and finds his son.

So the sheep, the coin, and the older son are all lost; none of them are seeking in any sense. The younger son takes the first steps of repentance. But he too needs to be found. His father seeks him too, and finds him.

God is the seeker. And He finds those who are His.

The Cost of Saving the Lost

What does it cost the seeker to find the lost?

The shepherd: The shepherd likely notices the missing sheep while they enter the sheepfold in the evening. Knowing the danger facing an isolated sheep at night, he goes out in the twilight, searching far and wide. He then bears the weight of the sheep himself all the way home.

The woman: The woman lights a lamp, sweeps her whole house, and searches diligently (verse 8). She is persistent. And that persistence pays off. She finds her coin.

The father: The father allows the younger son to say, “I wish you were dead.” That is costly. Shakespeare has King Lear say:

“How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!”

But the cost escalates: He waits for the son, looking for him day after day. When he finally sees him, he takes the son’s disgrace on himself in two ways. First, he runs. Remember, at this time running required hitching up your garment. Older men did not run. So he embarrasses himself to get to his son quickly.

Secondly, consider what would have happened to the son had he entered the village destitute, in rags. Neighbors would mock and laugh. “Here is this boy, so sure that he could make his way in the world, so disdainful of his father – now crawling back to Daddy, dressed in rags, thin as a bone.” By going out to him, by dressing him before he enters the village, by entering the village together with him, the father ensures that the mocking – if there is any – will fall on him, not on the son.

So seeking the younger son costs the father time, honor, respectability, and pain.

What about the older son? Once again, the father goes to him when he need not. He listens to this son’s baseless accusations of selfishness. That too was costly.

Ultimately, all this is a picture of what we discussed at the beginning: The pain and suffering that God the Father and God the Son go through to seek and to save the lost. The price was high, both in the stories, and in the life of Christ.

The Joy of Saving the Lost

Joy is at the center of this passage, as even a cursory reading shows. Jesus tells three stories, and all three end in parties! The father says, “We had to celebrate.” Why is celebration necessary? Because that which has been lost is found.

Consider how heavily Jesus emphasizes the joy of seeking and saving the lost:

So Jesus underlines again and again that we seek joy through seeking and saving the lost. The Pharisees were not doing this. They were not celebrating the changed lives that resulted from Jesus’ ministry to sinners. They just looked down their noses at Jesus’ interactions with sinners.

Verse 7 is a puzzle:

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

The point is not that the other 99 are less important than the one that was lost. Indeed, if any of them had been lost, the shepherd would have searched just as diligently. The point is that the lost require special focus. They require special care. Thus, when they are found, there is a special rejoicing.

Or look at it this way: The 99 don’t change their status. The lost one does. That leads to rejoicing.

My friends: How does our mission statement begin? “We exist to spread . . .” Is that your passion? Is that your joy? That’s Jesus’ joy!        Do you share His joy for spreading?

There are other things to rejoice over in addition to repentance of new believers:

But those are not distinct from effective spreading. Each of those should be either an impetus to more spreading or an occasion of spreading. Consider each in turn:

1) The one who loves God more fully and worships Him more fully must desire that others share in that worship. He must spread a passion for God’s supremacy in all things.

2) The disciple who follows Jesus more closely will become more like Him in seeking and saving the lost.

3 and 4) As we work for justice in society and show mercy to individuals, we have the opportunity to speak of our Savior. These must be the occasion for spreading.

God – indeed all of heaven – has great joy in seeking and saving the lost. Is this great joy to you? Or a burden to you? The father says, “We had to celebrate.” Is the saving of the lost what leads to your greatest celebration?

So we’ve considered God as the seeker, the cost of seeking and saving the lost, and the joy of seeking and saving the lost: Finally:

Grace and Merit

We have noted already the first two steps of repentance taken by the younger son: He recognized that his life was at a dead end, and he recognized his sin, acknowledging that he deserved nothing from God or his father. He knows he does not merit the status of his father’s son, but he thinks he could merit the status of a hired hand.

Like the coin and the sheep, the son is lost. Question: As he heads home, does he know he is lost? He knows his situation is horrible. He knows he has sinned. But does he realize that there is nothing he can do to change things? Does he see his desperate need for grace – not employment? I don’t think so.

Instead, his thought process is something like this: “My father is a much better employer than my present employer. I can work for him, and be much better off. I sinned against him; I know I can’t be his son. But I can work! That way I will earn what he pays me.”

Contrast that with thoughts that would display true repentance: “I have sinned against my father. I need to seek his forgiveness, to tell him of my repentance. He is merciful and gracious. I deserve nothing from him. Perhaps in his mercy he will take me back as son. Perhaps in his mercy he would allow me to work for him as a servant. But all I can do is seek his forgiveness, and say, “Father, do to me whatever you see fit.”

That’s true repentance. And the son is not there until the Father runs to meet him.

Do you see how the father’s actions and words lead the son to true repentance? The father says, “This is my son! Everyone: take notice! He is alive! He is found!” This isn’t about merit. It’s about grace.

So the son doesn’t even mention working. For his father showers grace on him. Overwhelmed by grace, he finally sees the great mercy of his father. He also sees his sin in a new light: his blindness to his father’s love and mercy. He now sees himself restored as a son when he deserved to be ignored, to be cast off. That’s true repentance.

Oh, My friends, don’t stop short of true repentance! When we think about ourselves and God, like the son, we need to take two more steps in repentance. After seeing the dead end of our lives, after acknowledging our sin, we have two more steps to take:

Step 3: We must be overwhelmed by God’s grace.

Step 4: Eventually, we must see that even the first two steps are products of God’s grace in our lives.

So the younger son thought he could merit an employer/employee relationship with his father. He was wrong. His father was too gracious for that, and gave him what he did not deserve. What about the older son?

He too does not see his father as gracious, kind, merciful, and loving. He sees his father as his employer who has not given him what he deserves. In that sense, the returning younger son is a step ahead of his brother – compared to his previous employer, he thinks the father will be fair.

But both miss the point. Their father is not their employer! They earn nothing. They merit nothing. What they have, they have by grace!

Think, now: What does the younger son deserve? To be rejected. To have to come back into town scorned and reviled. Perhaps to be given the dirtiest, most menial job on the farm at the lowest pay.

What does the older son deserve? He deserves to be left outside the party to wallow in his self-pity.

But the father seeks them both. He comes to both. He demeans himself before them both. To give them grace, he takes whatever reviling is coming on himself. And he invites them into his joy.

My friends, do you see yourself as earning nothing at all from God? Let this sink in: God owes you nothing! All you have, all you will ever have, you have by His grace.

Imagine that you live to be 90. You have been faithful in many ways. Monetarily, you have given ten, then fifteen, then twenty-five percent of your income to the church. You have served every Sunday. You have hosted events in your house. You have kept the nursery. You have read your Bible every day. You have prayed every day. By human standards, you have lived a righteous life. Now imagine that you have a next door neighbor who also is ninety. This fellow has never set foot inside a church, has never given a penny to a church or any other charitable cause, has spent most every Sunday playing golf, and has lived a self-centered, self-indulgent life. He becomes critically ill. In the hospital someone tells him of Jesus. He repents, believes, and is saved. He dies, and is with Christ forever.

In that case, would you feel even a tinge of self-righteousness? “Well, I’m glad he is now a believer. But, hey, I’ve worked all my life! Look at how much I’ve given! And this guy who’s indulged himself all his life now ends up with Christ just like me!”

God is not your employer! He owes you nothing. All you have is yours by grace. All you have done has been accomplished by His grace. You merit nothing. You have earned nothing.

Conclusion

God is the seeker who has gone to great lengths to save you. He sent His Son to die a horrible death. He placed on Him the penalty for all the sins of all who would believe in Him. And then He raised Him from the dead, showing that the penalty paid was sufficient.

God seeks and saves sinners. He seeks and saves the lost.

Where are you?

If you know you are His son; if you already have been welcomed back to Him:

Seek His heart! Ask for His compassion! And spread a passion for His supremacy. May His joy over the salvation of the lost be your joy.

Where are you?

Are you that lost sheep, running from him, oblivious to your danger? Are you that lost younger son, thinking you can manage your life much better on your own, but in the process destroying your life? Have you reached a dead end?

If you are lost; if you are alienated from God; if you are at a dead end, God is seeking you.

You may look at yourself and see a nobody. You may look at yourself and see a horrible sinner. You may look at yourself and see only the mess you’ve made of your life.

But Jesus came to seek and to save you. Will you repent? See your dead end. Acknowledge your sin. See God as full of grace. Be overwhelmed by that grace. Ask Him for that grace even now. He stands ready to forgive, to welcome, to rejoice over you with loud singing.

He is the Seeker. He sent His Son to die for those just like you. So repent. Turn to Him. And when you do, you will find that He has been seeking you all your life.


This sermon was preached on 4/16/06 at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC. Darrell Bock’s Luke 9:51-24:53 (Baker, 1994) was helpful, particularly on 15:7. John Piper’s four sermons on this passage were also helpful, particularly the one on the older son, http://www.desiringgod.org/library/sermons/95/090395.html . Many years ago I read an article by Kenneth Bailey that helped me think about the timing of the younger son’s repentance. I cannot find the article reference, but a similar analysis of the passage is found in The Cross and the Prodigal (InterVarsity Press, 1973 and 2005). The Shakespeare quote is from King Lear Act 1 scene 4.

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