The Greeks believed God cannot have emotions because, if He did and if we are the cause of His emotions – whether grief, anger, sorrow, love, or dismay – then to that extent we would have power over God and control Him. That may be reasonable as philosophy, but it is not the Bible’s teaching. The Bible says that God grieves over sin and rejoices when a sinner is reclaimed. Jesus makes this explicit in Matthew 18.10-14, saying in the parable of the great shepherd, “He is happier about that one sheep [that is found] than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” The fact is, God rejoices when we repent and return to Him.
In Luke 15 three stories tell about something that was lost. The first is the parable of the lost sheep, the parallel to the story we are studying. The second is a story about a lost coin. The last, which is the best known, is the story of the prodigal son. He too was lost, having squandered his inheritance on wild living. But at last he came to his senses and went back to his father to confess his sin and seek a place as his servant. We think of this as a story chiefly about the son; we even call it the parable of the prodigal son. But it is actually about the father, who represents God. The father was longing for his son, waiting for his return, and when he saw his son coming, the father ran to him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him. Then he said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let us have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Never think that if you go back to God, you will find Him reproachful, angry, distant, or vindictive. Everything God has done is for your salvation, and no one in all the universe will be happier at your repentance than God.
We might suppose, if all we are thinking about is the parable of the prodigal, that the son might not have returned and that the love of the father might have been frustrated. But that is not what Jesus was getting at. In the first two parables in Luke 15 the shepherd finds the lost sheep and the woman finds the lost coin. Jesus is emphasizing God’s joy over recovering whatever had been lost. This is what He means in Matthew too, Jesus says, “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” And, of course, they are not. The Father seeks for them until He finds them and brings them home. God’s pursuit of the lost is effective.
Remember that in Matthew Jesus is teaching the disciples how they are to care for weak believers, the “little ones” who are in view throughout the chapter. He is not teaching that all people will be saved, the doctrine known as universalism. He is teaching about the perseverance of the saints, the belief that not even one of those who has been given to Jesus by God will perish.
It is difficult to imagine how anyone could be made more secure than that. And if you think of being held by two hands – one hand Jesus’ and the other the Father’s – you can remember that God the Father and God the Son still have two hands free to defend you.
Let’s go back to the story of the prodigal son, because one part of it is a picture of what we often wrongly do. It is a contrast to what Jesus was urging when He said, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.”
We are told that when the prodigal son came back, his older brother was not home. He was in the fields. But when he came in, heard the rejoicing, asked what it was about, and was told that the younger son had come back, he refused to go in. The father came out for him, but the son argued, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him” (Lk.15.29-30).
Many find it easy to sympathize with the older son, but the only reason we do is because we often see ourselves in his shoes.
What were the disciples thinking about when Jesus told them about the lost sheep? They had been arguing about which of them should be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. With that in the immediate background, presumably they were thinking of themselves as among the ninety-nine who were still on the hillside and were wondering which of the ninety-nine would be the “top sheep.” As long as they were thinking of such things, they would never be concerned for the one who was lost, and they would never do anything to help find him or her.
Who will be greatest? We should be beginning to understand the answer to that question by now. The greatest believer is the one who is most like the Shepherd, who gave Himself for us. Like little children? Yes. But like the Shepherd too. We are never more like God than when we exert ourselves to help others, and if God rejoices over the one we help to bring home, He is probably rejoicing over what we are doing too.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org