Then Prodigal Son and His Unrepentant Brother

Have you had the experience of seeing something that you pass by all the time and never noticed? It could be a building, or a landscape scene, or perhaps a picture on the wall of your workplace or church. When was the last time you looked at the prints or paintings hanging on the walls of your home? We look at things without really seeing them, like a beautiful sky full of fluffy clouds or birds sitting on a wire. When we pay attention, the things around us speak to us about creation, our world, or even ourselves. Today we will consider the prodigal son’s repentance when he looked around and realized that he was in a pig pen instead of his comfortable father’s home. But even more important is his brother, who was didn’t want to look at the change in his sibling or his father’s joy over his repentance. He was jealous and bitter about the celebration for his wayward but converted brother because he was the “good” one, the elder brother, who probably thought he deserved to be honored above his younger sibling. But he, the older son, had been with his father all along. Jesus taught this parable for the unbelieving Pharisees. They not only didn’t rejoice in the salvation of sinners around them but were bitter and jealous of the attention Jesus was getting in the process. Christians often ask me, a former Jew, how the Jewish people can reject Jesus knowing that he was a Jew? The answer is the same for everyone refuses him, who doesn’t want to look upon him, to receive his offer of redemption. But we who have him, who have been with him, also need to look freshly at Jesus and his offer of sanctification. He invites us to come into his presence, confess our sins, receive forgiveness and rejoice in his gift of ongoing salvation. The unbelieving Pharisees were like the brother of the prodigal son who refused to celebrate and join his repentant brother and father in their joy. Let us not be like them in any way but repent when we falsely presume upon Christ’s grace and mercy without genuinely looking at our stubbornness, independence, and other ungodly lifestyle choices.

Coming to His Senses

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’…And he said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.'” And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘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.” And he arose and came to his father.’” (Luke 15:1-2, 11-20) “No one comes to repentance who does not first come to himself. There is a madness that accompanies sin. The prodigal is blinded. The proliferate is beside himself. Those that turn out of God’s ways are acting foolishly. Every sinner needs to recover his senses. He needs to realize that he was made for better things. The great God omnipotent has a richer life than he has made for himself. God’s aspirations for him are higher than any he can imagine. His only hope of reaching his fullest potential is coming to himself and exercising repentance and faith…The prodigal repented. He got up and went home to his father. He had to go home. He had no other choice. For the prodigal and other sinners like him, there is no repentance without returning home. The prodigal’s father was like our heavenly Father—watching and waiting for the prodigal to come home; ‘he felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him’ (Luke 15:20). As quickly and earnestly as he could, the son wept out his confession… But while the father welcomed the confession and knew how needed and genuine it was, he also knew that a time of celebration had come.” (1)

The Father’s Eager Kiss

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him…[and] said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:21-24) God, our Father, is watching for and embraces the lost elect, rejoicing over them. There is truly no greater joy than the redemption of a lost one, whether 90 years old or a young child convicted of her sin. It is appropriate to have holy joy as heaven celebrates another member of God’s family coming home. This is the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who finds and embrace those who are lost. (See other Luke 15 parables). What a contrast this is to the attitude of the older brother and the unbelieving, legalistic Pharisees. They refused to celebrate and join the repentant and Christ in their joy. 

The Older Brother’s Religion of Duty

We rightly rank our initial repentance as superior to any that follow since we wouldn’t confess at all if we have not had that first God-initiated turning to Christ for salvation. However, our continued repentance is also of great value in overcoming our legalistic tendencies, similar to the tightly held rules of the older brother and the Pharisees. Our old nature would have us revert to rule-following, burdensome religion. “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing…But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'” (Luke 15:25-32) Paul gives us a little glimpse of God’s heart in his letter to the Romans. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” (Romans 9:2-5) “The elder brother would have had another method taken with this younger son: he would have had him soundly whipped with the rod of the law, for his former sins; and sent into the fields along with him to work out his salvation; and not to have a rag put upon him, or a shoe on his foot, or a morsel of bread given him, till he had earned them; but instead of this, to be received and entertained in the manner he was, and so soon, highly provoked him: for he thought such a conduct was unbecoming God, and his moral perfections; and what his brother was undeserving of.” (2)

We Who Are in Christ

The unbelieving Pharisees were like the brother of the prodigal son who refused to celebrate and join his repentant brother and father in their joy. Those who have all the advantages of the Old Covenant should undoubtedly recognize the fulfillment of all God’s promises in Christ. We, who have all the benefits of Christ and his liberating gospel, should certainly appreciate and apply those benefits by confessing and repenting for greater zeal and joy. But when we are confronted with our sin, do we try to beat it out of us, punishing ourselves? Christ would have us reject this false religion that excludes his mercy and grace. “[The true penitent] repents of sin, his spirit rises against it, as one’s blood rises at the sight of him whom he mortally hates…God is never better pleased with us than when we fall out with ourselves for sin.” (3) And, I would add, come to him for forgiveness and the ability to turn away, not only from our sin but from our old religion of trying to repent on our own. When we do that, we are like the younger brother, finding ourselves in a self-made pig pen until we come to our senses—that we belong to Christ, who sanctifies and cleanses us continually by his Spirit. “The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:35-36)

Related Scripture: 1 Kings 8:47-48; Psalm 73:21-22; Zechariah 3:3-5; Matthew 21:28–31; Mark 2:16; John 8:35; Ephesians 2:1-10.


  1. Roberts, Richard Owen, “Repentance: The First Word of the Gospel,” pp. 218-220,  Crossway, 2002.
  2. Gill, John, “John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible,” Luke 15:30
  3. Watson, Thomas, “The Doctrine of Repentance,” p. 93, Banner of Truth Trust, 2016 (1668)

November 18, 2021

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